Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell #1) by Dominique Valente

Starfell 1Title: Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell #1)

Author: Dominique Valente

Genre: Fantasu

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 2nd May 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The first book in the most spellbinding children’s fantasy series of the year, now in paperback, with beautiful black-and-white inside illustrations by Sarah Warburton. Perfect for fans of Cressida Cowell and Nevermoor.

Willow Moss, the youngest and least powerful sister in a family of witches, has a magical ability for finding lost things – like keys, or socks, or spectacles. Useful, but not exactly exciting…

Then the most powerful witch in the world of Starfell turns up at Willow’s door and asks for her help. A whole day – last Tuesday to be precise – has gone missing. Completely. And without it the whole universe could unravel.

Now Willow holds the fate of Starfell in her rather unremarkable hands… Can she save the day – by finding the lost one?

Step into Starfell, a world crackling with warmth, wit and magic, perfect for readers aged 8–12. Book 2 coming in April 2020!

~*~

Willow Moss is supposed to have magic like her sisters, but she’s not as powerful as the rest of her family. However, she does have a magical talent that is probably more precious than any other gift. She can find things.

One day Moreg Vaine, Starfell’s most powerful witch asks for Willow’s help to find Tuesday – an entire day from the preceding week has disappeared and without it, Starfell could meet a very dark fate that nobody wants to experience.

Willow’s journey takes her across the land of Starfell, accompanied by a rather irate kobold named Oswin, who berates her and offers advice throughout the novel. Willow’s journey is not easy though, and she must face many dangers, including the Brothers of Wol who do not like witches or anything that goes against what they believe in – reminiscent of the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is this conflict that drives the novel, and Willow is a character who will grow and learn across the series. At the same time, she will prove that she can do the things that everyone says she can’t do or shouldn’t do. Yet only Willow can find the missing Tuesday and set the world right and ensure that she still has a family and place to live at the end of her journey.

Girls being front and centre in books is taking off, and these days, they are occupying a myriad of role and personalities to appeal to all readers – they’re not just stereotypes or strong female characters who occupy a specific time and place in their story. Here, we have characters like Willow who are reluctant and unsure of what to do, they’ve been told things that are not true and are forced to confront these memories  and through doing this, they grow and learn that they are more than what everyone has been telling them they are.

Middle grade is an age group that is gaining a lot of traction, and this book is aimed at readers aged eight and older – and I think will appeal to readers of all genders. It is a wonderful book, and a really good start to a series that I am very keen to follow as each book is released. This is one of those books I picked up on a whim, because the story looked interesting, and I think it is one that many will enjoy regardless of age, and one that will be fun to read out loud as well.

Friday Barnes: Under Suspicion by R.A. Spratt

friday barnes 2Title: Friday Barnes: Under Suspicion
Author: R.A. Spratt
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Published: 7th May 2019/1st January 2015
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Price: $15.99
Synopsis: Who knew boarding school could be this perilous!
When Friday Barnes cracked the case of Highcrest Academy’s mysterious swamp-yeti, the last thing she expected was to be placed under arrest. Now with the law on her back and Ian Wainscott in her face, Friday is not so sure boarding school was the smartest choice. From a missing or not-so-missing calculator to the appearance of strange holes in the school field, she is up to her pork-pie hat in crimes – and she swears not all of them are hers. There’s also new boy Christopher, who has taken quite a shine to Friday, to contend with.
Can Friday navigate the dangerous grounds of Highcrest Academy and decipher a decades-old mystery without getting caught in an unexpected love triangle?
~*~

Picking up soon after book one with Friday arrested by the police, this book ventures further into the crimes and investigations surrounding Highcrest, and the lengths students and teachers will go to so they can hide secrets and get their way. Friday befriends a vagrant, Malcolm, whose presence in the novel brings a whole new mystery to the table as Friday grapples with Ian Wainscott and new student, Christopher – though is Christopher really who he says he s, and why all of a sudden do the police have such an interest in Highcrest Academy? Friday must look into a missing calculator, strange holes appearing all over campus, and teachers who behave unlike any other teachers, and constantly being sent to the Headmaster’s office. All in all, Friday’s time at Hillcrest is getting very interesting.

I’ve now got up to book six of this series to read out of eight – and will be aiming to work my way through them all as the weeks and months go on. Friday is a great character, and she really shines in this book, proving that she will never change, and nor will her friend, Melly. They are perfect for each other, and this new genre of detective novels for kids just keeps getting better and better.

AWW2020As Friday evolves as a character, though whilst not giving up the essence of who she is, she is becoming an integral part of the school as she uncovers all sorts of crimes and indiscretions around the school. Each character within the school is unique, and each teacher has their own interesting way of teaching – like Mrs Cannon, the English teacher, who allows time to get away from her while the students read so she can hunt for a new job or do the crossword.

The stories have an excellent blend of complexity and simplicity – whereby Friday’s knowledge is clear, yet she explains it in ways that the reader and her fellow characters can understand, in stark contrast to her parents who are often referred to throughout the book. Friday seems to have all kinds of connections to help her solve the crimes of the school, and what I love most about this is that they seem to go unquestioned, and the teachers are a mix of letting her get away with it, being frustrated with her or not really caring at times, which makes it lots of fun to read.

This is a series that I feel gets better with each book, as new layers are uncovered, and new mysteries are introduced. Each book has a cliffhanger ending, so I would recommend reading these in order so the story flow makes sense. With the next four at the ready to read, I am sorted for now, and look forward to reading them and getting books seven and eight.

Books and Bites Book Bingo: A Book with a door on the cover: The Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valour by Ally Carter

books and bites game card

For my eleventh square, I chose a book with a door on the cover. This was always going to be a challenge, and the book I chose for a book published over 100 years ago – The Secret Garden – would also have been good for this square. However, I realised I had to use – or wanted to use – a different book for each square as much as possible.

I interpreted a door as a gate as well, and that’s why I chose The Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valour by Ally Carter. There is a gate in the foreground of the cover, with the house and its door in the background behind the kids.

Winterborne 1

I reviewed this for Hachette on the 3rd of March, and thought it was a great introduction to a new series – with a slow build towards the climatic conclusion that inevitably leads into a second book – with several threads that were worked through the book left seeking more answers beyond what April finds out in the book.  As readers, we only know what April knows, and this draws us further into the mystery, and the lives of the orphans and their world, and what is to come. I cannot wait to find out what happens next.

 

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

pepperharrowTitle: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

Author: Natasha Pulley

Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Gothic Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Published: 17th March 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 512

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Step back into the enchanting world of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This extraordinary sequel takes readers to Japan, where time, destiny and love collide to electrifying effect

‘A Japan that never was, a future lost, ghosts that are not dead, random numbers, clairvoyant samurai … not even a partial list of ingredients can do justice to this wonderful cake of a book. A lovely blending of steam punk ether science, Japanese historical figures, and a time-defying thriller’ ROBIN HOBB

For Thaniel Steepleton, an unexpected posting to Tokyo can’t come at a better moment. The London fog has made him ill and doctor’s orders are to get out.

His brief is strange: the staff at the British Legation have been seeing ghosts, and his first task is to find out what’s going on. But staying with his closest friend Keita Mori in Yokohama, Thaniel starts to experience ghostly happenings himself. For reasons he won’t say, Mori is frightened. Then he vanishes.

Meanwhile, something strange is happening in a frozen labour camp in northern Japan. Takiko Pepperharrow, an old friend of Mori’s, must investigate.

As ghosts appear across Tokyo and the weather turns bizarrely electrical, Thaniel grows convinced that it all has something to do with Mori’s disappearance – and that Mori might be in far more trouble than any of them first thought.

~*~

In 2015, readers were introduced to Natasha Pulley, Mori and Thaniel Steepleton in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Five years later, they’re returning in the Lost Future of Pepperharrow which sees Thaniel and Mori headed to Japan with their daughter, Six, as they seek to improve Thaniel’s health during a new posting for the British Legation in Tokyo to investigate ghosts, and strange goings on at a labour camp that bring them into contact with someone from Mori’s past – Takiko Pepperharrow.

The story moves between the past – up to ten years – particularly when dealing with Takiko, and 1888/1889 – the present in the novel, and how Mori and Thaniel navigate the mysteries and ghosts of Tokyo. In doing so, Thaniel finds himself falling into an unknown world, and when Mori disappears, and nobody knows where he is nor if he is still alive. It is an intricate plot that moves back and forth over a decade in Tokyo and Japan, highlighting issues of religion, the place of foreigners in Japan and the role of ghosts and clockwork as a common thread across both books. Denser than the first book, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow continues the story in surprising and eloquent ways.

Some aspects are most definitely historical – the Japanese Education Minister, Arinori Mori’s assassination and at least one of the prisons, whilst the rest might be based on history but has become a fantastical thing of its own, and borrows from history in order to create the world these characters populate and live in. The story is complex, immense and exceptionally told with rich detail where needed, and is immersive for time and place – making each aspect feel as though you were really there in the book with Thaniel – both when he was with Mori and whilst he was searching for him through Japan.

Each setting evoked a sense of being there – from the foggy streets of London, to the ships that sail across oceans and all the sights, sounds and sensations of Tokyo – both confronting and intriguing as seen through the eyes of Thaniel and his uncertainty as he investigates the ghosts, come together to create a story filled with so many different elements, some seem so small, it can be hard to define them easily, and with hints of magical realism, this is not a straight-forward historical fiction. It is much more layered and multi-faceted than that. It has so many layers that there were times I re-read a section – just to see if I had picked everything up, only to discover that some things had merely been hinted at in a very clever way that made sense towards the end. It maintained the balance of revealing things in the right place, and dropping little hints, and also, maintained the balance of good description and storytelling – neither was overdone. For each of these aspects – all books are going to be different in what they do and why – and when these elements as well as character, plot and setting combine, they create a story like this one that is clever and unique.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and hope that fans of Natasha’s first two books will as well.

Books and Bites Book Bingo – A book with bad reviews: Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan

books and bites game card

In my tenth post for Books and Bites Book Bingo, I chose to mark off the square for a book with bad reviews. This was always going to be a subjective square – as all books are going to have good and bad reviews, so any book could really fit in here.

dark prophecy

Usually, the more popular books are more likely to have bad reviews, and this could be for many reasons – from simplistic writing, to the way the author handles the plot or issues of representation. Last year I was sent book four in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan – after the publication date and decided I had better read the first three first. For this category, I read Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy.

I’ve read the first two, and this is one of those series that will always have bad reviews for a variety of reasons – and sometimes, these will be a very individual reason, and might not make sense. From people feeling it is too much of one thing, or too little of another, or they simply do not like the way the Greek mythology has been dealt with, the bad reviews can be expansive, they can be brief and they might even be reviews that miss the point of the book – perhaps a commonality amongst bad reviews.

I’m getting a good pace going through this challenge – some squares have books planned in my mind, and some I’m letting fall as they come, so that lets some of the stress off me to find things all the time. With my aim to post at least once a fortnight, hopefully I will fill the card by the end of the year, but will probably post as often as possible at some point.

Phoenix (Firewatcher Chronicles #2) by Kelly Gardiner

phoenix-coverTitle: Phoenix (Firewatcher Chronicles #2)
Author: Kelly Gardiner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic
Published: 1st February 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Price: $14.99
Synopsis: May 1941.
The German bombing campaign is reaching its fiery climax, and Christopher and the firewatchers battle against the flames and huge bombs through the worst night of the Blitz.
Christopher tries to go back to 1666; to find his new friends and learn more about the power of his phoenix ring.
Instead, he finds himself in a deserted city, overlooking a smaller, older river port town known as Lundenwic, where the Anglo-Saxon community faces an invasion by the dreaded Vikings.
Christopher must discover why the ring has brought him here, and how to get back to his own time. But there are Viking ships on the Thames, and their warriors threaten to burn the city and conquer the whole of England.
~*~

As the Blitz rages on, and Christopher’s father arrives home, injured and discharged, London will never be the same. As the war rages on and his mother volunteers to help fight fires instead of watching for the bombers, Christopher finds himself mourning friends and neighbours, in between attending school, watching for bombs and looking for treasures with his friends by the Thames. During one of these hunts, Christopher finds a pendant with Thor’s Hammer, that transports him back to the ninth century, where Vikings are threatening to invade the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic. Whilst here, he encounters the Vikings, a girl named Elda and is thrust back and forth between their conflict, and German destruction of London. Christopher can’t stop the German bombs coming but he can find a way to stop the Vikings attacking an empty town.

As the novel moves back and forth between 1941 and at least a thousand years in the past, and hints at London’s history, and the layers of history that lie beneath the streets of modern London are hinted at in an accessible and exciting way for young readers, aged eight and older. Aimed at middle grade readers, it combines history, time travel, action, mystery and adventure, the second book in this trilogy alludes to what came before, and the role fire has played many times in shaping London and its history.

AWW2020I waited a long time for this book to come out, and I ordered it into my local bookstore and waited for it to arrive – and managed to read it within two days.
This is a trilogy worth reading – filled to the brim with amazing diverse characters – with disabilities, who aren’t white and the women in history – the Vikings, and Elda, Molly and Christopher’s mother and teacher – who are exceptional in many ways and do not fit the supposed gender norms or expectations of their times, or what history assumes they did. I loved this aspect of the book, and the hints at history we don’t know about – it opens it up for readers and leads them – hopefully – to researching it further. Because, how can we know what is out there if we don’t look and if there isn’t anything like this fabulous series to guide us? It certainly led me to looking up Saxon women, Lundenwic and Vikings – leading me down many research rabbit holes whilst writing this review.

This is one of my favourite middle grade trilogies – we have some fantastic authors in Australia writing for all age groups, and we should be supporting them as often as we can, if not all the time. When a novel like this combines history and time travel, and adventure, it makes history fun for kids, and can introduce concepts, ideas and knowledge that they may not get elsewhere or that become facts that are picked up because they are there. At the same time, this novel confronts ideas about gender and race in the 1940s, but briefly and is shown to illustrate that these ideas existed, but that they can be challenged and people can change their perceptions and attitudes, and prove that history is more complex than previously thought and even more complex than the way we are taught at school.

This is another reason these historical fiction novels when learning about history – they introduce a new side to history that is hidden in a variety of ways, and doing so through fiction makes it exciting and relatable. With the third book out later this year, I can’t wait to see how this trilogy ends.

Books and Bites Bingo Short story collection – Radio National Fictions (various short stories on ABC Listen app

books and bites game card

I don’t read that many short story collections – nor do I listen to audiobooks. The former is simply because they don’t often cross my path, and the latter because I know I’d never be able to focus on that much audio. I’m better with short bursts like podcasts, so when I discovered Radio National Fictions podcast, I knew it would perfectly fit not only any short story categories, but the audiobook category in another challenge I had thought I would never fill. I have devoured the first six, short stories in what is called the Oz Gothic category, where each I felt left a little to the imagination and had some open endings where anything could have happened after the story ended. As each week has a different short story, written and told by a different author or presenter, they will vary in themes, and once they finish the Oz Gothic theme, I wonder what will be next, as there are many areas to be explored with genre and theme or as a sole aspect of narrative.

radio national fictions

As each is only half an hour long, I find my attention does not wander as it would with a novel length audiobook, and so, they are perfect to listen to while I work. They are engaging and though they are brief, they evoke a sense of needing to know what happens almost as soon as it starts. Of course, there are probably going to be some stories I listen to more closely than others, or find more engaging but that happens in all areas of literature and why having a diverse range of books out there in a diverse range of formats allows us to engage with reading in a way that works for us.