Tag Archives: children’s books

MG Review: The Boy, The Bird and The Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker, Matilda Woods, (Scholastic, May 2017)

Today I’m part of the blog tour for this dazzling debut.

Genres in the mix: magical realism, fairy tale

Age target: MG (9-12)

Story basics: (from press release) Alberto lives alone in the town of Allora, where fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like jewels. He is a coffin maker, spending his quiet,solitary days creating the final resting places of Allora’s people. That is until the day a mysterious boy and his magical bird arrive – fleeing from danger and in search of a safe haven…

Tito is wary, fearful and suspicious of kindness, but as the winter days grow colder and darker, Alberto’s home grows warmer and brighter. Can Tito and his bird be sheltered from the town’s prying eyes and the shadows of their past?

A magical story of life and death and of how hope can burn bright in a place touched by sadness.

The emotional ride: a beautiful read, which pulled at my heartstrings in several places. Although it doesn’t shy away from death (the coffin maker switches job to coffin maker in the first prologue-like chapter when his wife and children die!), as the tone is very fairy-tale like, child readers will handle it well, I feel – there’s plenty of death and drama in Grimm, after all, even our fairly sanitised versions.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: this would make a lovely class read, with plenty of chances for ‘what should they do?’ type discussions (so SMSC opps) as well as the chance to unpick and explore the fairy tale style and allusions (but see Minerva Reads’ post on this tour for more detail on that topic – she’s already covered it so well).

Narrative style: as mentioned already, the style is very much that of a fairy tale. It’s lyrical and gentle and feels like a fairy tale world, in which anything is possible. The tone allows for some heavy themes to be tackled without heavy-handedness.

Main characters: the two human characters mentioned in the title are brilliantly drawn and it is easy to empathise with both. Child readers are bound to warm to Alberto, and to want Tito to trust him (as did I). Tito’s reticence is palpable, and although it is quite a while before the reason for it is revealed, it is always credible.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker is out now in the UK from Scholastic, who provided me with a review copy.

@ScholasticUK     @Matildawrites

The tour continues tomorrow at The Reader’s Corner

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Hearthfire HayDays: our trip to Hay

My beautiful picture

During this half term week, my younger daughter and I went to the Hay festival for a couple of days. It was our first time at Hay and we had a great time. Please forgive my amateurish photos…

2016-06-02 07.29.37We were very excited, despite the very early start (although breakfast on the train was a small compensation) – this is us on our first train, one bus ride down, about 7.30am.

The first event we attended was the YA Book Prize announcement. I had read several of the shortlist and was not envious of the judges’ task in choosing between them. I do think it’s great that the shortlist is so varied, though and truly representative of a great range of current YA possibilities. It would make a fab 2016-06-02 14.20.17starting point for anyone unsure of what to read. I was also cheered to see several of the shortlist in the top sellers for the Hay bookshop for that day, so the readings and the introductions to the books clearly whetted audience appetites. Hooray for YA!

We also attended three panel events to learn about the various books and gain writing tips from the experts. My daughter arrived back home with her new Hay notebook thoroughly christened with enthusiastic diagrams and plans for a new story, so this was very successful indeed. Here are some key tips and titbits:

DSCF0777Writing Mysteries (Lyn Gardner, Frances Hardinge, Katherine Woodfine, chaired by Emma Carroll)

Key ingredients include a high body count (according to Lyn), great characters (Katherine) and secrets and lies (Frances). Setting children’s mysteries in the past (as all books discussed in this session are) may be more effective because modern children have far less physical freedom from parents and easy access to mobile phones and google. It’s also easier in the past to have amateur detectives that can compete with the police as the police now have forensics, helicopters etc which puts them at an enormous advantage compared to the curious and observant child. I was also really interested in Katherine’s comment that using an historical setting provides distance which perhaps allows them to write about crime for children more freely than if they were writing contemporary-set stories.

My beautiful picture

Writing about Danger (Abi Elphinstone and Emma Carroll)

Emma and Abi agreed that danger was a necessary ingredient to avoid a ‘saggy’ plot (who wants a boring story?), and also – interestingly – agreed that it isn’t always necessary for characters to overcome all dangers. Perhaps it would also be boring if they solved everything every time? Emma pointed out that both of them write about ordinary children, not superheroes or characters with powers, so they need to fail sometimes or not quite achieveDSCF0798 what they’re trying to, and Abi stressed that it’s what they learn in the attempt that counts and she drew links to real-life examples of heroic deeds. In this session, Emma and Abi talked about authors’ fears: DSCF0805whether they might be reflected in some of the things characters face, but also the fears they have as authors – such as rejection and bad reviews. We got to hear about (and even see examples of) their planning methods – Abi showed us a map she drew of the Shadow Keeper plot and a graph of ‘danger spikes’ for the mysterious Book 3.

DSCF0810Writing about Families and Secrets (Jenny Valentine, Hayley Long, Annabel Pitcher, chaired by Daniel Hahn)

The big revelation here for me was that none of the three writers seemed to be ‘plotters’. Daniel’s first question was about knowing where things were going to go from the start and the consensus seemed to be that they didn’t. Jenny doesn’t always know where it’s going to go when she starts; Hayley usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but did with Sophie Someone, as she was inspired by a news story; Annabel’s Silence is Goldfish opens with the revelation, so she did know the big secret from the start, but she said the story spools out from there. Much of the discussion was then about how the specific secrets in these particular books are revealed/kept hidden as necessary and dealt with by the characters. I was interested in Hayley Long’s comments about the language/code invented by Sophie to deal with her inability to talk directly about what had happened to her, and how that linked to Annabel’s use of silence as a weapon/tool also.

As well as all this bookish loveliness, we went to the Spiegel Circus at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, also in Hay, which was fabulous (but I have no shareable pictures, because the lighting was too dramatic for my poor little camera). It was a human-only circus, for those of us concerned about such things, and we saw aerial acts on ribbons and ropes, acrobats, jugglers, a unicyclist, dancers – it was really impressive.

pillow tent

My beautiful picture


 All in all, we had a great time at Hay and would highly recommend it if you have the chance to go. We stayed overnight in a fab pre-pitched tent with Pillow, which was a My beautiful picturerelatively easy option for arrival by public transport, but full-on camping is definitely a possibility if you can drive there/carry kit easily and need to stay.

March’s Reading Log

It’s time for the monthly round-up! These posts help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

Mar reads

The Sin Eater’s DaughterMelinda Salisbury, Scholastic, 2015, YA fantasy

Loved this well-crafted fantasy focusing on Twylla, taken from her family as the incarnation of the Gods’ daughter, Daunen Embodied. She can kill by touch with the poison that seeps out of her skin, yet miraculously leaves her unharmed. A great start to a new trilogy, with a satisfying conclusion to this phase of the story.

Crow Moon, Anna McKerrow, Quercus, 2015, YA fantasy

A brilliant read that I lapped up quickly and now have to wait a year for the sequel to. Set in the Greenworld, a pagan haven version of contemporary Cornwall and Devon, the novel focuses on a crisis for protagonist Danny, never really much of a believer in the pagan ways. Another trilogy-opener which concludes the initial story well. Definitely recommended for fantasy and/or dystopia fans.

Starring Kitty, Keris Stainton, Catnip, 2014, MG contemporary

Gorgeous MG/younger YA romance focusing on Kitty’s difficulties balancing friendship and first (same-sex) love against the backdrop of a film competition. This is the first in a series, each of which will focus on a different friend in the group – a great concept for exploring the contemporary world in detail. It’s also a brilliantly-executed example of how to ‘do’ diversity with great, relatable stories. Spotlight on Sunny, the second in the series is also out now and once my youngest has finished with it, I’ll be grabbing that too!

Jessica’s Ghost, Andrew Norriss, David Fickling, 2015, MG contemporary

This book really surprised me. Billed as a MG  ‘friendship’ novel, it tackles mental health issues and raises the idea of suicide without alienating or frightening the target age group. I’ll be astonished if this isn’t on prize shortlists next year but please don’t be put off by the ‘worthiness’ I’m implying here.  most importantly, I really enjoyed it – it’s a great read.

Marly’s Ghost, David Levithan, Egmont, 2015, YA contemporary

This Valentine-themed reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol makes a fabulous read. I loved the fidelity to the original in many small details, rendered with a hefty dose of creativity and originality. My reading of it was definitely enhanced by knowledge of the Dickens, but I’m sure it would still be a greatly satisfying contemporary read without that.

How to Fly with Broken Wings, Jane Elmore, Hodder Children’s, 2015, MG contemporary

I greatly enjoyed this gentle contemporary about finding out who you are and what matters, set on a London housing estate during a series of riots. Dual narration from the points of view of Willem, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sasha, whose boyfriend bullies Willem. Definitely recommended for around 9+.

The Testimony of the Hanged Man, Ann Granger, Headline, 2015, adult crime

This is the fifth in the series, but the first I’d read. I had no trouble following it and am definitely interested in reading more in the series. It’s great to read a Victorian London-set mystery with dual narration from the Police Inspector MC and also his wife, who does her own investigation. A relatively gentle crime and a mystery to enjoy.

Nightbird, Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2015, MG fantasy

I’d loved other Hoffman novels (for adults) which I’d read and found this both really true to form – focused on families, identities within families, and magic – and beautifully rendered for the younger age group. A great read for 9+ fans of contemporary stories with a touch of magic.

Bomb, Sarah Mussi, Hodder Children’s, 2015, YA thriller

I enjoyed this pacey thriller with relentless danger and breathless narrative style. It’s absolutely recognisably Sarah Mussi – if you liked Siege and/or Riot, you’ll like this too. If you haven’t tried her before, read her for a high action, high stakes political thriller.

True Face, Siobhan Curham, 2015, Faber and Faber, YA self-help

I haven’t read a self-help book for teens before but am thoroughly impressed with this one. Focused on living an authentic life and ignoring unhelpful and potentially damaging media messages, this book leads teen readers through a series of exercises to rediscover their own interests and feelings, and to bring their own desires to the forefront of their lives. I’m definitely recommending this empowering read to girls of 13+.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

UKYA/UKMG titles: The Sin Eater’s Daughter, Crow Moon, Starring Kitty, Jessica’s Ghost, How to Fly with Broken Wings, Bomb

own book: The Sin Eater’s Daughter, Crow Moon, Starring Kitty

TBR-escapee: Testimony of the Hanged Man

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: The Sky Is Everywhere, Jessica’s Ghost

eligible for British Books Challenge: Jessica’s Ghost

eligible for Dive Into Diversity ChallengeJessica’s Ghost (representation of mental health)

Plans for next month

To review more! March has been very busy for me and, although I’ve managed to tuck away a good few reads, this hasn’t translated into many reviews – yet. This is something I definitely plan to remedy in April.

UKMG Review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostLight of touch and yet rich in depth, this novel explores issues from fitting in to depression and even suicide through a perfectly pitched story for the 9-12 audience.

Goodreads summary:

Francis has never had a friend like Jessica before. She’s the first person he’s ever met who can make him feel completely himself. Jessica has never had a friend like Francis before. Not just because he’s someone to laugh with every day – but because he’s the first person who has ever been able to see her …Jessica’s Ghost is a funny, moving and beautiful book by a master storyteller, about the power of friendship to shine a warm light into dark places.

I really enjoyed this and would absolutely recommend it to children in the target age range. The story and the characters are charming and quirky; I loved Francis particularly but they are all really well realised. It’s the best kind of ‘misfits’ book, and perfect for this age group when kids are busily sorting out whether and where they fit with their peers. Without being didactic or dogmatic, the book has a clear message of self-acceptance which will be valuable for many children to absorb.

In terms of the ‘darker’ content, I am so impressed with how this is handled: it didn’t feel inappropriate, heavy or awkward at all and I would have no hesitation sharing this book with children regardless of their existing understanding of depression and suicide. Sometimes a book featuring issues is clearly intended for those already in the know, while others may be most suitable for those on the outside of an issue. In this case, I think neither is true and would happily use it to introduce the topic, or recommend it to a child who I knew to be struggling.

Overall, I hope it’s clear that I definitely recommend this one! If you want to hear more about it, Andrew Norriss will be here at the hearthfire on Friday answering some interview questions, so do check back.

Jessica’s Ghost is out now from David Fickling Books. I am grateful to have received a review copy.

February’s Reading Log

It’s time for the monthly round-up! These posts help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

Despite February being a fabulously bookish month for me (I went to two brilliant events: the launch of Arsenic for Tea and the first UKYA Extravaganza), I did less well than in January with 7 books completed and many of my personal challenge aims missed (although I did read both British Books and Diverse Books).

Oh well, better luck next month!

Feb reads

Arsenic for TeaRobin Stevens, Random House Children’s, 2015, 9+ historical mystery

Set in the 1930s, this is a classic Country House Murder Mystery for kids. It’s the second in the Wells and Wong series which started with Murder Most Unladylike. I cannot recommend this highly enough – both for kids and for adult fans of boarding school series and/or kids’ crime. A triumph of diverse representation as well as a brilliantly conceived mystery.

Close Your Pretty Eyes, Sally Nicholls, Scholastic, 2013, YA contemporary with chiller/thriller elements

I really enjoyed this: clever first person narrative, heartbreaking in places, great is-it-or-isn’t-it haunting plot. Hard to classify, or to sum up briefly. If a damaged narrator (she’s 11 and on her 16th home…) and a vengeful ghost appeals at all, definitely pick it up.

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan,  Piccadilly Press, 2013, YA contemporary

A quirky read that grew on me fairly rapidly: by the end I was definitely rooting for Olivia and the bizarre group of people she had surrounded herself with. The story of a teenage genius who loses both parents in a car accident, this is also about family and community an identity. Worth sticking with.

The Dead Men Stood Together, Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, 2013, YA chiller/horror

Fabulously inventive re-imagining of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I believe would be a brilliantly enjoyable tale even if you didn’t know the original. Reading it from a position of being familiar with the story, however, it is impossible not to admire how Priestley has filled in the gaps and made it a solid YA horror/chiller for today.

All The Truth That’s In Me, Julie Berry, Templar, 2013, YA historical

I remember seeing a lot of hype about this one and was disappointed when it came to reading it myself. I found the narration quite disorienting (it’s like a letter directly addressed to another character) but the mystery of what has happened to the central character – she was kidnapped and returned around two years later with her tongue cut out – is intriguing enough to carry it.

The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson, Walker, 2010, YA contemporary

This book is just lovely, which is an odd thing to say about a book that focuses on grief and mourning, I know, but it is also about love and forgiveness and families – and poetry. It’s also extraordinarily well-done. I loved Lennie’s poems shared within the pages and also the quirkiness of her family. Highly recommended for those who love a convincingly emotional YA novel.

Bird, Crystal Chan, Tamarind, 2014, YA contemporary

This is a great read in terms of diversity, focusing as it does on a Jamaican-Mexican-American family and particularly discussing clashes in the beliefs and traditions of those different cultures. It does so very well, and is another heartbreaking family story. I definitely enjoyed its dreamy and lyrical qualities and would recommend it for 12+ readers.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

I did so much less well this month in terms of challenges! No TBR-reduction, no personal challenge met and no own (as in neither review nor for school) books read. Oops!

UKYA/UKMG titles: Arsenic for Tea, Close Your Pretty Eyes, The Dead Men Stood Together.

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff, The Weight of Souls,

eligible for British Books Challenge: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff,

eligible for Dive Into Diversity Challenge: Arsenic for Tea (narrator is from Hong Kong)

Plans for next month

To prioritise my challenges (which, remember, I did set for myself, after all!)

To read some of the books I picked up at the fabulous UKYA Extravaganza.

UK younger reader review: Squishy McFluff, the Invisible Cat by Pip Jones

squishyThis little rhyming book is a delight. Sure to hold the attention of pre-schoolers with its fantastic line, gentle humour and quirky illustrations, it would also be a good choice for early readers, who would be supported by the rhyme and illustrations.

Here are my initial thoughts on finishing:

Loved this delightful story, told entirely in rhyme, which is a hilarious and well-told tale in the tradition of stories where younger kids can vicariously enjoy the characters’ naughtiness. The story is complemented perfectly by Ella Okstad’s lovely illustrations. Strongly recommended for older picture book fans and kids who are just starting to read for themselves.

There is now a second book in this series, focused on a supermarket sweep and a third book is out soon, featuring Mad Nana Dot. I would definitely recommend these as they will appeal to a wide range of children in terms of interests (naughtiness, pets, imaginary friends) and reading ability, as it works very well as a read aloud but feels like a ‘big’ book as it is in chapters and is longer than a picture book.

Squishy McFluff, the invisible cat and Squishy McFluff: Supermarket Sweep! are out now from Faber, from whom I gladly received a review copy of the first.

Bookish Adventures: Arsenic for Tea launch in Cambridge

arsenic for tea propsMy youngest daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon yesterday in Cambridge for the launch of Robin Steven’s marvellous middle-grade mystery, Arsenic for Tea.

We enjoyed reading time on the train (and my daughter was excited that there was a refreshments trolley, like Harry Potter – although there were no chocolate frogs at all!).

The launch itself was great. Look at the lovely spread! We were particularly impressed by Daisy’s birthday cake and the Poirot-moustache cup cakes, not to mention the lovely props table next to the Reading Throne 🙂

Robin read the tea scene from her book and then she cut the cake and we all dug in. (Nobody was injured).

arsenic for tea launch

My daughter really enjoyed the detective quiz and ‘how to plan a Wells and Wong mystery’ sheet provided and she is beyond thrilled with her signed books (and with her moustachioed photograph with Robin!). I have to say, having read both books in their kindle forms, it is quite exciting to be able to see the gorgeous maps in print – they really are a lovely additional touch.


UKMG Review: Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens

arsenic for teaThis book is brilliant! I loved this at least as much as I loved the first in the series, Murder Most Unladylike. This series is shaping up to be a great read for 9-12 kids, but also a wonderfully nostalgic treat for adult readers who enjoyed school stories like Blyton’s or the Chalet School books.

Goodreads Summary:

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t really about Daisy at all. Naturally, Daisy is furious.

Then one of their party falls seriously, mysteriously ill – and everything points to poison.

With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem – and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy looks suspicious, the Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth . . . no matter the consequences.

The plot of Arsenic for Tea is skilfully worked. Even as an adult and a lifetime murder mystery reader, I failed to correctly guess whodunit – I’m choosing to see that as evidence of Robin Steven’s skill and not anything else 🙂 As with the first novel, I changed my mind a couple of times as she led me merrily down the wrong corridor entirely.

Characterisation is also excellent: everyone loves Hazel and Daisy and it is great to see a realistic friendship for this age group without constant high drama and hurtfulness – yes, that is a reality sometimes, but not always. Hazel’s status as ‘other’ (she’s Chinese) allows her to make fabulous insights into English society of the 1930s, as well as strike a chord with child readers and demonstrate how diversity in children’s books can be done really well in a genre story without becoming the dreaded ‘issue book’. In no way is the story ‘about’ Hazel’s foreignness, but it definitely adds an edge and raises questions of its own for MG readers to think about at a safe distance (this IS the 1930s, after all!)

As an adult who grew up on Blyton’s school stories, the whole language and routines of boarding school life (bunbreak, brick, prep) are an absolute delight to me. There is something gloriously nostalgic and comforting about these stories, although they are entirely contemporary in many ways (some of the plot details I am sure would never have been broached by Blyton and there is the positive attitude to diversity, of course).

first class murderI love that this book takes us out of Deepdean, the girls’ school, and instead creates a classic country house mystery by sending Hazel to spend the holidays with Daisy at Fallingford. (I’m also excited that the next is called First Class Murder and features a train on the cover – I think Robin Stevens is working her way through cosy mystery tropes!!) Incidentally, while I’m telling you about things I’m excited about: my youngest and I are going to the launch of Arsenic for Tea in Cambridge Waterstones tomorrow. If I can remember to take pictures and not just fangirl, I’ll share more about that on Sunday.

All in all, I hope it’s clear that I am absolutely recommending this one to everyone from about 9 upwards. It’s also Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February, so very easy to get hold of (check out the Pinterest board of displays that Robin Stevens has collected, as many Waterstones branches have gone all out for this one!)

Arsenic for Tea is out now from Random House Children’s Books. I am very grateful to have been allowed a review copy via NetGalley.

January’s Reading Log

I thought I’d start doing monthly round-up posts, to help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also to give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

jan 2015 reads

Rose Under Fire Elizabeth Wein, Egmont (Electric Monkey), 2014, YA historical

Set in 1944-5, this is the tale of a young woman transport pilot.  Beautifully written, direct and unsentimental, I’ve been recommending this at school for Holocaust Memorial Day.

The Ultimate Truth (Travis Delaney Investigates #1) Kevin Brooks, Macmillan Children’s, 2014, 11+ action adventure

A great read; really enjoyed it. Lots of plausible action (well, as plausible as spy/crime thrillers can be! – but I mean that this didn’t feel wrong for the age of the protagonist), together with solid early-teen territory of identity/family issues.

Heroes Robert Cormier, Pearson (Longman), 1998, YA historical

A reread for teaching purposes, and one I did enjoy (again). I’m glad I chose this novel for my class, as it deals with complex ideas and issues without the language being particularly showy or hard to access. The first person memoir-style narration is probably what helps this the most.

Why We Took the Car Wolfgang Herrndorf, Andersen, 2014, YA contemporary

I enjoyed this very voicey road-trip story featuring an unlikely friendship and a truly crazy, twisted story line. At times, however, I found the voice and far-fetched nature of it all got a bit much for me. I think fans of boy-focused, somewhat silly stories would love it.

The Bubble-Wrap Boy Phil Earle, Puffin, 2014, YA contemporary

Fabulous and surprising, this book was both funnier and twistier than I expected, while being just as tender and sweet as anticipated. A very quick read which I was keen to keep returning to.

The Last Leaves Falling Sarah Benwell, Random House, 2015, YA contemporary

Emotional and fulfilling read. Great to read about a different culture (the book is set in Japan) and to learn more about the experience of someone with ALS. Ultimately, it’s about friendship, family and courage. This was my review for both the British Books and Dive into Diversity challenges this month.

Looking at the Stars Jo Cotterill, Random House, 2014, YA contemporary

Moving and often challenging read about a young girl and her family struggling under a totalitarian state. I appreciated the invented and non-specific setting, as I feel it made the presentation of oppression purer.

The Liar’s Chair Rebecca Whitney, Macmillan, 2015, adult crime

Original and tense psychological thriller peopled with a thoroughly unpleasant cast. A really compelling read, and a grippingly accurate portrayal of emotional abuse.

Picture Me Gone Meg Rosoff, Penguin, 2013, YA contemporary

I didn’t really like this gentle mystery combined with a road trip story – I found the lack of speech punctuation completely distracting and the main character unconvincing. I know that some feel the lack of quotation marks makes it more stream of consciousness, so if you’re not as much of a punctuation pedant as I am, you may well enjoy it. The portrayal of relationships, especially familial, is a strength.

Buffalo Soldier Tanya Landman, Walker, 2014, YA historical

Fabulous voice used to convey some hard-hitting and emotional material: the tale of Charlotte, a slave who, when freed in the Civil War, disguises herself as a boy/man and joins the US Army. I knew very little about the history presented here and am very glad to have read it. Brilliantly written, often moving but never sentimental or manipulative.

Now You See Me Emma Haughton, Usborne, 2014, YA thriller

Well-executed thriller which I was compelled to keep reading. Some brilliant characterisations (I especially loved little Alice, who has Down’s Syndrome) and plenty of tension and twists.

Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat Pip Jones, Faber & Faber, 2014, children’s animal/family

This delightful story, told entirely in rhyme, is a hilarious and well-told tale in the tradition of stories where younger kids can vicariously enjoy the characters’ naughtiness. The story is complemented perfectly by Ella Okstad’s lovely illustrations. Strongly recommended for older picture book fans and kids who are just starting to read for themselves.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

UKYA/UKMG titles: Rose Under Fire, The Ultimate Truth, The Bubble-Wrap Boy, The Last Leaves Falling, Looking at the Stars, Picture Me Gone, Now You See Me

All YA this month, but I’m planning to kick February off with an exciting UKMG…

own book: Now You See Me

TBR-escapee: Squishy McFluff

12 personal challenges: Buffalo Soldier (book set in a place or time I haven’t read about before)

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: Station Eleven, The Last Leaves Falling, The Fearless, The Witch of Salt and Storm

Mini reviews: Chasing Stars, Crushed, Witch Hunt

eligible for British Books Challenge: The Last Leaves Falling, (note that The Fearless is also a British Book but I read it before January so it doesn’t count for the challenge)

eligible for Dive Into Diversity Challenge: The Last Leaves Falling (Japanese setting, MC has ALS)

Plans for next month

February is looking very exciting for books: I’m attending Robin Stevens’ launch of Arsenic for Tea (the follow-up to Murder Most Unladylike) on the 7th and UKYA Extravaganza in Birmingham on the 28th. 35 UKYA authors!! I’m also participating in the blog tour to celebrate this event and will be hosting Alan Gibbons here at the Hearthfire on the 22nd.

In terms of my reading, I plan to kick February off with Arsenic for Tea and I also need to read some fantasy. It’s one of top 3 genres, yet I didn’t read any this month!

Reading is… #1: Reading is a comfy blanket

Welcome to my new series! Reading is… where I’ll explore the reading experience, along with some recommendations for books that fit that particular category for me.

Today’s topic is how reading is like a comfy, cosy blanket, or something warming and comforting. One of the many reasons we read is for the comfort of the familiar. How often has your enjoyment of a book been enhanced by its relation to your uniqueness? Whether it’s a familiar place, experience or interest, books with that personal link never fail to make a connection.

Familiar places

sea books

I grew up in East Anglia, living on the coast for several childhood years, and on the Norfolk Broads for my mid-late teens. This makes books set in this region, or with similar characteristics, comfy and familiar to me.

That’s definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed Kendall Kulper’s The Witch of Salt and Storm so much recently – although this is very much an insular, island fishing community and I grew up in a touristy seaside town, the sounds and smells of the sea were so brilliantly evoked as to feel homely. I’m also familiar with a fair bit of fishing community tradition in the way of shanties and ballads, having spent a considerable amount of time in folk pubs in my youth and many of those old tunes came back to me as I read.

Familiarity with the setting was also a factor in my enjoyment of The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. Set in North Norfolk and making great use of a fictionalised salt marsh landscape, this crime series opener felt wonderfully bleak and unforgiving.

Familiar experiences

Teentalk recommends

speech recs 2










I teach English – mostly Language – to teens, including things like how conversation works and how language varies around the UK (and world) and between different age groups. This makes me particularly aware of how teens speak, both from being surrounded by teens most days and from teaching them to actively  analyse their own and others’ speech patterns. So, as I have blogged before, I am especially fond of UKYA and UKMG books which evoke this speech well. I have highlighted the keen skills of James Dawson, Keris Stainton and Keren David at this before, but would now add recommendations on this count for Zoe Marriott’s marvellous trilogy opening with The Night Itself; Ruth Warburton’s A Witch in Winter series and Non Pratt’s Trouble.

Familiar specialist knowledge

folklore fantasy






One of my interests is folklore, ranging from fairy and folk tales to beliefs in fae creatures and moon lore. I have loved many fantasy novels for their use of these elements, but recent particular folklore-focused reads have been Liz de Jager’s Banished, Katy Moran’s Hidden series and Katherine Langrish’s West of the Moon, which in quite different ways centre on the traditional notions of fae creatures as a threat. While the Banished series is a sharp urban fantasy, with occasional forays into the fae realm, the Hidden series has a more ethereal quality, feeling more timeless and less contemporary. West of the Moon is aimed at a younger audience (the others are both YA) and is set clearly in the past, in a time when belief in trolls was part of everday life.

So, these are some of the books that have evoked a comfy blanket feel for me (some despite their less-than-comfy subject matter!) due to familiar elements within them. I suppose the other large category of comfy books would be those that are repeatedly re-read. I tend not to do that, although I have read through the Harry Potter series more than once and have revisited some childhood favourites with my own children.

Of course, as well as reading to see the familiar, we also read to seek out the Other, and that will be the topic of my next Reading Is… post. What gives a book that comfy blanket quality for you?