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Book Reviews

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Meet Mary, a cheeky 12-year-old Dubliner. She’s annoyed that her best friend Ava has moved away. She’s annoyed that her brothers Dommo and Killer laugh at nothing and mostly she’s annoyed that her mother, Scarlett, speaks in exclamation marks! Mary is also deeply annoyed and very sad that her grandmother, Emer, is dying in hospital. However, Mary’s outlook changes dramatically when she meets Tansey – the ghost of her great grandmother. Tansey needs Mary’s help to give a dying woman one last, glorious adventure.

 

Although it deals with the very serious subject of saying goodbye to life, this book manages to be whimsical funny and warm-hearted whilst bringing a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye at the same time. Roddy Doyle, rightly regarded as one of the great writers of our time, has written a small miracle of a book.

Freedom by Catherine Johnson

This is an eye-opener of a book. Set in 1783, the tale follows Nathaniel who is a black slave to a rich family, the Barratts, in Jamaica. He works hard on the Barratt’s plantation but he lives in fear of being whipped or having part of his foot cut off so that he can’t run away. He has been separated from his mother and sister and only has Thomas, an old man who he helps to look after the gardens, to talk to. Then, one day, Nathaniel’s life changes when he is told by the family that he is to accompany them on a trip to London. They wish to give pineapples as a gift (there wouldn’t have been many at all in London at this time) and, because of his knowledge of gardening, he is chosen to look after the plants on the long voyage. Whilst on the ship, Nathaniel finds out more about slavery and its consequences and, when he arrives in London, he has only one thing on his mind – freedom.

 

If you aren’t aware that people used to be kept as slaves, you will be surprised and shocked at the treatment that Nathaniel receives and the nastiness that one human can project onto another. This is only a short story, so the action keeps moving and holds the reader’s interest. As well as being a good read, there is also a history lesson to give cause for reflection.

The White Horse of Zennor and other stories by Michael Morpurgo
Short stories are often considered 'easy reads'. That is simply not the case, especially in this book of five short stories all set in Cornwall. The stories have the feel of a traditional tale but the characters are much more modern. Each story has an element of Cornish myth, such as ghosts or 'knockers' (you'll have to read the book to find out what they are). In each tale, there is something for the characters to learn, often by doing things the hard way.
 
This is very enjoyable book. The references to traditional myths makes it seem like a familiar read but all of the stories are original. Some of the themes are quite challenging, especially 'Gone to Sea' which is about a boy who feels rejected by his family. The standout story is 'The Giant's Necklace', an absolutely superb tale with a brilliant twist, although the White Horse of Zennor, for its themes of love and the blessing of a second chance, is a close runner-up. If you enjoy traditional tales with a few surprises, then this is a book that you should read.

I was there…Step back into the Battle of Hastings 1066 by Jim Eldridge

Its 1066 and Edwin, a 12 year old knight in training, longs to join his father in battle.  The story begins at the battle of Stamford Bridge and the defeat of the Viking hoards led by Harald Hardrada. What follows is a lively history of the period told from a young man’s point of view.  Edwin’s friend Osric longs to be a monk, to read, learn, and find out about the world beyond England.  Edwin’s father has a decision to make – does he let Edwin fight?  King Harold thinks Edwin would make a great spy. England faces an uncertain future. Will anyone actually survive the battle?

 

The author claims you will be able able to imagine you were actually there, this may be an extravagant claim.  However, the book is a vivid first person account of a turbulent time in England’s history and well worth a read.

The Song From Somewhere Else by A.F. Harold
Frank (short for Francesca) is not a happy girl. Her cat has gone missing and she is persistently being bullied by Neil Noble and his gang of followers. He targets Frank and makes her life a misery. One day, after a nasty encounter, she is rescued by Nick Underbridge. However, Frank is not as grateful as you'd expect because Nick doesn't have any friends. He's smells, he's big and everyone thinks he's weird. Frank, for reasons you'll discover, ends up at Nick's house and she is completely mesmerised by some music that she hears. She can't rest until she finds out what the music is and where it's coming from. The story then takes a twist and a turn and reveals a surprise that takes this contemporary story into the realms of fantasy and science fiction.
 
This is a really good book because of the twist in the middle of the tale. It's interesting because Frank is a bit of an enigma. As the reader, it is difficult to understand why she sometimes thinks the way that she does. She also has conversations with her stomach (literally her gut feeling). The illustrations and the way the text is presented enhance the reading experience. You do have to concentrate as it's a bit unusual towards the end. Ultimately, this is a book about not judging a book by its cover and the characters definitely change as a result of learning this lesson.

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Omar is a twelve-year-old boy who lives in Syria. He doesn’t particularly enjoy school. Instead, he dreams of earning lots of money when he’s older by becoming a successful businessman. However, his hopes for the future are shattered when an incident at the local school leads to his home city of Bosra becoming a danger zone. In Syria, the people are oppressed and are not allowed to speak out against the government. But a group of students do, so the tanks roll into town, meaning Omar and his family have to flee to safety. It emerges that Omar’s brother, Musa, has been involved in causing trouble with the government. Musa has cerebral palsy and, as a result, he is often underestimated. But Omar knows that his clever brother is in trouble and, although he fears for him, he does support and help in order to protect him. The story follows Omar’s family and their need to escape from war torn place to war torn place, relying on family members to help them until there’s no-one left to turn to. Then, they are forced to become refugees and live in a refugee camp.

 

This is a very modern story which reflects real life. The terror under which Omar’s family live is described really well, especially the fear felt by his parents. The issues raised can sometimes be difficult to read as it involves families being separated, children being shot and characters being in distress. However, it is well worth a read to appreciate just what refugees have to go through.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is a twelve-year-old boy but he is a criminal mastermind. His family have been involved in criminal activity for generations and Artemis, after the disappearance of his father, has become the head of the organisation. This book gets off to a fast-start. Artemis, accompanied by his servant / friend, Butler, has the job of obtaining The Book of the People. This is a book of fairies, written in a secret code that no-one has ever been able to translate. Once Artemis has the book, he creates a computer program to crack the code and find out about fairies. He then makes it his mission to use the fairies to procure as much gold as possible.

 

This book is a real mix of text types. It is predominantly sci-fi with a mixture of fantasy and adventure thrown in for good measure. There are familiar fantasy / traditional characters, such as fairies, trolls and dwarfs, but the introduction of technology brings them up-to-date. This is an interesting story because the lines between good v evil are blurred. It’s unusual for the main character in a book to be a ‘baddie’. However, is Artemis Fowl all bad? That’s for you to decide.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

August Pullman seems like your average 10 year old boy. He likes playing X-Box, riding his bike and eating lots and lots of ice cream, except there's something different about him. August was born with a facial disfigurement. He knows that people are always going to stare and his face, he knows there are going to be double takes in the street and he knows that people are going to want to ask questions. But the most important thing about August is he doesn't let that affect him. After all, isn't it good to be different when everybody else is the same?

 

One of the main things I loved about the book was August's attitude towards life: his ability to cope, to be genuinely happy and make a comedy out of his situation is amazing for anyone to read. August faced many mixed reactions when starting secondary school; there were lots of supportive people and an equal number of not so supportive people but he never let that stop him. Like anybody, August had good days and not so good days. I also love how the story was told from different perspectives of the different children in August's class; you could see how the other children perceived his disfigurement, and some never mentioned the issue and others have burning questions which they are not sure how to ask.

I would highly recommend this book to both children and adults. It is called Wonder because it makes you wonder – if you were him, or them how would you behave?

Clockwork by Philip Pullman

Set in the northern European town of ‘Glockenheim’ in the ‘old days’, this is a spine-chilling story with a strong moral message. Fritz, the writer, tells a tale to cheer up Karl, the apprentice clockmaker. However, before he can think of an ending the story begins to come true. When Sir Ironsoul, the relentless clockwork devil, is unleashed by the evil Dr. Kalmenius, only Gretl, the innkeeper’s fearless daughter, can save the prince with the mechanical heart and maybe the soul of the reckless storyteller.  

In the author’s signature style, the characters all get their just desserts leaving the reader uneasy and disturbed. This is one of my very favourite books; I love its sinister undertones and its restless energy. Pick it up, but be warned, you will struggle to put it down.

Sherlock Holmes – Baker Street Boys: The Case of the Disappearing Detective by Anthony Read

This book is what used to be called ‘a right rollicking yarn’.  It features, Wiggins, Shiner, Beaver, Sparrow, Queenie and Gertie – The Baker Street Boys of the title - although they’re not all boys - a group of street children employed by Sherlock Holmes as irregulars.  They are his eyes and ears in the murky underworld of Victorian London and are often one step ahead of the great detective.  In this story, It’s Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the boys are engaged to keep watch on a sinister American.   Holmes’s arch enemy, Professor Moriarty, returns with a fiendish plot to blow up the Queen at Windsor Station. The great detective goes missing and it’s up to Wiggins and the ‘boys’ to save the day. 

 

This is a fast paced story full of typically Victorian characters. If you’ve never heard of Sherlock Holmes it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book and it’s one of a series so there are plenty more adventures to get your teeth into.  The game is afoot. Enjoy it!   

 

The Boy at the Back of The Class by Onjali Q Rauf

This book is up to date and relevant. It tells the story of a Syrian refugee who comes to school in London. Through the eyes of the other pupils we learn his life story. His class mates learn how to communicate and understand his life and how different it is to theirs in so many different ways. We see how bullying is dealt with and listen to different adult viewpoints about refugees. It will make you think and consider life from a different perspective. As his friends work out how to help they find themselves in a bit of trouble. The more you read, the more you’ll find out, and the more it will make you understand what it happening in the world today. I would highly recommend this book as a good read but also an insight into the lives of millions of refugee children across the world.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet a man who wants to buy a house in England. Jonathan is a solicitor and is dealing with the sale and legal documents involved in buying the house. The man he is meeting is Count Dracula. When Jonathan tells people he is staying at Castle Dracula, they seem frightened. One of them gives him a crucifix to wear. Whilst he stays at Dracula’s house, Jonathan often feels uncomfortable, as though things are happening which make him unsafe. The stay almost costs him his life. The narrative then switches to Whitby, where Lucy, the recently engaged friend of Jonathan’s wife Mina, starts to become ill very quickly. She is losing blood, which can’t be explained, until Professor Van Helsing notices two small marks on her neck. The rest of the story describes the hunt for Dracula in a bid to destroy him once and for all.

 

Dracula is a classic horror story. This version is a simplified story for children, but it still retains its creepiness. As the reader, it is often the case that you know more than the characters and I found myself wanting to shout to them ‘She a v…” Well, you’ll just have to wait and see! The book is a good read and a real page-turner. The characters are characters you can root for, especially Mina, who is incredibly brave. There are scenes involving graveyards, coffins, large red-eyed beasts and blood, so it can be a bit gruesome. If you are someone who likes a safe-scare, this is the book for you.

Tales of King Arthur retold by Felicity Brooks

King Arthur is a legendary English hero. This story introduces the reader to some of his more famous exploits. We learn how Arthur comes to be king and how he finds Excalibur. The main focus is Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There are tales of heroism, out-smarting the enemy, loyalty and betrayal. All of the classic characters are here: Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Mordred, Lancelot and Merlin. My favourite chapter is ‘The Enchanted Ship’ as it’s about how Arthur is tricked into doing something terrible to his friend.

 

The story is simply told but is fast-paced as each chapter is a different adventure. The King Arthur story has many different versions and I think that this book does a good job of highlighting the key events associated with Arthur. Sometimes, I would have liked a little more detail during some of the battles, but, overall, this was an enjoyable, quick read and a good introduction to the legend.

The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson

Andrea, who is known as Andy in the story, is a tall, awkward ten-year-old whose parents have recently divorced. Her dad wants Andy to live with him. Her mum wants Andy to live with her! She’s torn between the two of them and longs to return to their old life at Mulberry Cottage. She ends up living one week with mum followed by one with dad – hence the suitcase as she is constantly packing. Her mother remarries Bill (the baboon) who has three children of his own. She despises the youngest “little ratbag” Katie, a girl her own age – well, five days older. Her father remarries Carrie who has twins Zen and Crystal and is expecting dad's new baby. Andy doesn't mind Carrie and her children but she still wishes she could have her dad to herself. Andy becomes disinterested at school. Her results dip and she loses touch with her best friend, Aileen. Her only friend is her spotted Sylvanian Families rabbit, Radish. By the end of the book, via a secret garden, a mishap with Radish, running away from home and some surrogate grandparents, Andy has a new best friend and has come to terms with her new life.

 

This is a bittersweet book in Jacqueline Wilson’s familiar contemporary style.  It fairly races along and the characters are well developed.  The suitcase is a metaphor for the baggage of life and only once Andie has dealt with this can she move on. I enjoyed this book and would heartily recommend it to all.   

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter hasn’t had the happiest childhood. He was orphaned as a baby and raised by his aunt and uncle who don’t really like him. His bedroom is a cupboard under the stairs. However, Harry’s life changes forever on his eleventh birthday when he finds out that he is really a wizard. To his delight, he is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to learn how to use magic. He makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, learns how to play quidditch and gets into all sorts of mischief. There are broomsticks, spells, feasts, a baby dragon and a giant game of chess! As he becomes more integrated into the world of magic, Harry also learns that not everyone is good. When events take a dark turn, it is up to Harry and his friends to save the day. A key message of this story is how love and friendship are important and can almost provide a magic of their own. It also tells us that we all have it within us to be brave.

 

This first book in the series sets the scene and introduces us to the wizarding world and its various characters. So much happens in every chapter. The descriptions written by J.K. Rowling are fantastic and really help you to view the story in your mind’s eye. I cannot speak highly enough of this book. The Harry Potter series are, in my opinion, the best children’s books ever written. They can make you laugh out loud and cry your eyes out! You might have seen the films: they are great, but are nowhere near as good as the books. If you’re up for a challenge – because they are a tricky read – then give the book a go. You're in for a real treat!

 

Please note: It is important to read the series in the right order.

Young Sherlock: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

This is one of the best children’s books I have read for a long time. It is fast-paced, there’s a mystery to solve and it is quite exciting at times. Sherlock Holmes attends a boarding school but, one summer, he is unable to return home for the holidays so he is sent to stay with his uncle and aunt whom he’s never met. They live on a large country estate which gives Sherlock plenty of opportunity for investigation. He meets a boy called Matty and, together, they become involved in solving a mystery. Two bodies are found covered in boils and sores, leading people to think there may be a plague. However, a mysterious cloud is seen leaving the bodies shortly after their death. Who or what is causing it? Sherlock sets out to find out.

 

This is a great story. The Victorian setting makes it very atmospheric. Something happens in every chapter that moves the plot forward and there are plenty of ‘red herrings’ to lead the reader astray. We see how Sherlock Holmes goes from being a clever, curious boy into the beginnings of the great detective he will become. This book is a challenging read as such a lot happens but it’s well worth the time spent on it. Death Cloud is the first in the Young Sherlock series.

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

When the story starts, Maia has been living in a school in London for two years since the death of her parents. One day, she receives news that a distant relative has been traced and that she is to live with them – in Brazil! Maia starts by researching the River Amazon, which she discovers is known as ‘The River Sea’ and realises that where she going is very different from what she has known. The story follows her journey to another part of the world and her feelings as she tries to settle with the Carter family. In Brazil, she meets new friends who will need her help and will lead her on new adventures.

 

This is a really interesting book as it challenges the viewpoint that family, or ‘blood’ are always the right thing for us. Maia, and the friends she meets, haven’t always had a happy time with family and we, the reader learn that it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, family can still influence our lives in many ways. It’s not the sort of exciting book where something happens in every chapter, rather it is a plot that develops over several chapters and really hooks you in.

Midnight Library: Voices by Nick Shadow

This is a collection of three shortish stories. They all have an element of horror and mystery. Each story is different, but there is a common theme running through them all – voices. In the first story, a girl called Kate hears voices whilst in a graveyard that seem to be telling her about future events. In the second, Justin seems to be plagued by a pair of trainers that can think for themselves. The third story is about a boy who experiences something very unusual after an argument with a neighbour about an orchard.

 

The three-books-in-one format works really well in this book. The stories are long enough to provide a detailed plot but are short enough to be able to read them fairly quickly. This book is a good read, although it is a little creepy at times. Probably best not to read it just before you go to bed! If you enjoy reading it, it is the first of several Midnight Library books to choose from. The books do not have to be read in any kind of order.

The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

This is the first book in The Roman Mysteries series. The story follows Flavia Gemina, a girl who lives in Roman times. She likes to solve mysteries. Each chapter contains a mini-adventure that all lead to Flavia solving a problem of who is killing dogs and for what reason.

 

If you like history or mystery, then then this is a great book for you. There is a glossary of Roman terms in the back to help you to understand the story. There is also one of our favourite things at the front…a map! This means you can follow the story through the different locations and it might help you to solve the mystery before Flavia!

If you are a dog-lover or you don’t like blood and gore, this probably isn’t the book for you as it can be a bit gruesome at times!

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first book in the Alex Rider series. Alex’s life is turned upside-down after the death of his adoptive uncle, who has been like a father to him. He is suddenly thrown into a world of spies, mysteries, secret identities and adventure. Alex is recruited my MI6 to investigate a man, Herod Sayle, who has created a computer called Stormbreaker. Sayle wants to give a computer to every secondary school in the country but is this act of generosity everything it seems?

 

This is a fast-moving book. Something exciting happens in every chapter and, as the reader, you really root for Alex and want him to succeed in the environment in which he has reluctantly found himself. The book is very much in the James Bond genre, so if you like mystery and adventure, then this book is for you.

Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

This is the first book in The Famous Five series. Julian, Dick and Anne travel to the coast to meet their cousin Georgina. However, Georgina – who likes to be known as George – certainly does not want to meet them! George is unfriendly and only wants to spend time with her dog, Timmy, and visit ‘her’ island – Kirrin Island. However, a storm reveals a secret that leads the Five on a hunt for treasure – will they find it?

 

The Famous Five series is a stalwart of children’s literature. This book was written 75 years ago and reflects a time when children had a lot more freedom and certainly no electronic devices to help them. The Famous Five have to rely on teamwork, intelligence and courage to meet their challenges. If you like adventure stories, then this is a great book for you – and there are also twenty more books! The story is well-paced and the setting of an island on a rugged coastline make it interesting.

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