Mistletoe and Murder : Robin Stevens

Mistletoe and Murder (Wells and Wong, #5)Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long term readers of my reviews will know that I adore what Robin Stevens writes. The Wells and Wong series are that delightful thing: a series which continues to get better with every book published. And that’s not easy; series are hard works. As are colons. And semi-colons. I am incoherent. These books make me scatty, because I love them and I can’t write coherently about love, I don’t think, not when it’s like this. Not when it’s so perfectly formed and delivered and utterly good.

To be precise: the fifth book in the series sees Daisy and Hazel visit Cambridge over Christmas. Shenanigans occur and, naturally, the girls become involved. But this time they’re not alone; a rival detective agency is on the scene and challenging Wells and Wong’s competence. Will they solve the case? Will their rivals take the glory? Will there be buns? (Of COURSE there will be buns).

The more I read of this series, the more I realise that we are privileged readers today. We get to witness series like this where the titles get better each and every time. And to say that involves a caveat that these were not poor books to begin with. There is not one of this series that I have not been prostrate with love for, that I have not rated five stars. But better is always possible, and Stevens is doing it. She’s doing it so well and I am jealous of her skill and I love it and I adore it. Mistletoe and Murder has a complexity to it that both speaks back to the books which have been, but also looks forward to the books which are yet to come. Relationships, same-sex, mixed-sex; racism, conscious, unconscious; gender-bias, sexism; give these books to people who question the relevance of children’s literature in contemporary society. Give them two copies because once they’ve read it, they will want to share it with the next person they’ve come across and realise that they can’t let their copy go.

There’s not much else to say here other than this series is wonderful and Mistletoe and Murder sparks with a delicious and beautiful complexity and I love it, I love what these books are, I love that they exist, that they are.

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Shify McGify and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky SchoolShifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School by Tracey Corderoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The thing about Nosy Crow books is that they, fairly uniformly, have a really high standard of design. It’s almost an unimportant skill, this, because when we read a book, we read a book and we don’t really grade it on how it looks. At least, we don’t do that consciously.

But here’s the thing: when we read,we don’t just read the words. We read everything about it : the colour, the feel, the weight of the paper, the typography,the design, and we don’t realise it, but we do and this sort of stuff matters. It matters because we get signals about the quality of the text inside, and how that has been treated by the publishers. Each book should feel important when it gets published. Each book should matter, because it’s done so well to get to that point. Being published is big, it’s important, and a good looking book sings of that moment.

And Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School is such a delightful song of a book. It contains three stories in which Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam get into cake based mishaps and solve mysteries. What makes this book work is its awareness of the paragraph break.

Like this.

(I have always wanted to do that ever since I saw a wonderful book review in Private Eye which did the best paragraph break I have ever seen. Forgive me!)

Almost every page begs to be read a little bit further on and that all centres around the wonderful use of structure in this book. Each paragraph is so very well put together that it delivers a coherent, neat point before leading the reader on. It’s delightfully done and one that speaks of a deep consideration for the needs of the reader. The Spooky School is a book that cares about the reader but also wants to ease them through it. I like that. Care. From the outside to in.

Lenton’s illustrations are delivered in a vibrant limited palette of oranges and whites. It’s a nice thematic restriction for a book with a spooky content and it works well with Lenton’s skill. He doesn’t drown the pages in work but rather lets a strong element of each image stand out, and yet when the text calls for a more detailed illustration, revels in a clean busy line. Does that last note make sense? Imagine a busy pedestrian crossing at the road in the middle of a busy city, a thousand people on the street, traffic lights, noise and cars. Now imagine that the traffic lights aren’t working. Now imagine that they do. That’s the difference, right there. Lenton knows how to work his page and tease out the edges of Corderoy’s sparky, friendly prose.

My thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy.

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There May Be A Castle : Piers Torday

There May Be a CastleThere May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect there may be awards in this book’s future. It is a bath-go-cold sort of book; a wheeling, soaring skim through a car journey that goes very wrong and then into somewhere else. Somewhere other. And it’s in this other place that young Mouse has just woken up. His mother isn’t here. Neither are his sisters. It’s just Mouse, a sarcastic talking horse and a sheep that says baa.

And Mouse knows exactly what to do in such fantastical, quest-beginning, sort of circumstances : he is to find the castle. He is to be the hero.

It’s hard to talk about this nuanced, rich book without spoiling elements of it so forgive me if I generalise occasionally. I will try not to, but I want to tell you about how perfect There May Be A Castle is and I want to sort of tell it whilst I’m still lost in it. This is a book that I don’t want to step back from. I think Torday’s getting better – and he was wonderful beforehand. There May Be A Castle feels stronger, somehow, more potent (and again, I say this with the caveat of how wonderful Torday’s other work is). It’s a book that is almost palpable with intent – and freedom. It revels in its space. It knows its space. It is a space of fantasy and of otherness, but also of bravery. Both Mouse and his sister face quests of their own, quests that rely intensely on bravery and being able to take control of the apparently uncontrollable.

I love this book. I love the strength of the protagonists. I love how confident it feels, how potent and powerful it is, and I love it and hate it and love it for the way it made me weep at the ending. I love how it smashes fairytales firmly into the present and makes them into something wonderfully profound and awful and brilliant and gorgeous. It is layered and rich and wonderful and I love it, I love it.

There May Be A Castle is due out on October 6th. I would mark the date.

My thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

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Are we there yet? : Dan Santat

Are We There Yet?Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather extraordinary about Santat’s latest picture  book which investigates the imaginative potential of the road trip. Road trips are boring, really, unless you’re doing something. And if you are, then you’re not in the car. You’re eating something or photographing or racing your siblings to be the first to the last toilet this side of midnight. But sooner or later, that ends, and you’re back in the car, and there’s another three hundred hours to be worked through before you get to where you’re going.

Time. It’s a hard concept for adults to grasp, let alone very young children, and Santat wisely stays away from rigid facts and figures. Instead Are we there yet? embraces the dream-edge of time, space and indeed, of the very parameters of book itself.

It’s Grandma’s birthday, and, as the road trip continues and boredom sets in, the book flips –  quite literally – and another narrative spills out on the upside-down pages. It’s a narrative of adventure; still, rich scenes torn from time and set against the plaintive backdrop of the family in the car and “I’m bored” emanating from the back seat.Minutes begin to feel like hours. Hours feel like days ( “I feel sick”), and as days become months we slide back through history and the car becomes a participant in a jousting tournament or forced to walk the plank off a pirate ship. The tumultuous culmination of this journey sees the car and its inhabitants come face to face with a T-Rex. This encounter flips the book once more and suddenly we’re in the future where a robot takes your picture and replies in QR coded speech bubbles. Which work. Perfectly. Seriously, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen QR codes do something awesome. You scan these speech bubbles with a QR code reader and a little panel pops up with a ‘translation’ of what the robot is saying. God, I love this book.

You might be gathering that Are We There Yet? is quite a special book. It is. It works damn hard, and a lot of that wouldn’t actually work without the various elements that constitute it working. An awful sentence, yep, but what I’m trying to say is that there are moments when you can throw everything at something and have none of it work. Kind of like this paragraph. Anyway. You need to be able to handle fancy elements and Santat does and can. It’s outstanding work. It made me shriek with joy, this book, and stare at it in wonder because he brings something quite contemporary, new  and quite delicious to the format. And he does it well. It would be so easy to do this badly, it really would.

One of the clever things about Santat’s work is that he brings the reader with him. Give me all the fanciness in the world, but if you forget about the reader then none of that’s worth a thing. Santat positions the reader central to the work and one of the smart ways in which he does that is his handling of text and captions. The below spread is the first ‘flip’ scene; look at the top left of the caption and then trace it round the page (note that white line which takes you with it, and lets you know that it’s okay) and look, in particular, at the point of that final box of the line. IMG_20160916_150431667.jpg

It’s these final boxes – these caption bubbles? my terminology escapes me – that tells me that Santat is good. Because whatever way you turn the book, these points on the boxes lead you towards the page turn and hold you safe throughout the rest of the book.

IMG_20160916_150512216.jpg

The next page of the book? Turn left. And oh, the delicious, time-shift of such a gesture in a book built on reading left to right. Santat, I salute you.

IMG_20160916_150501784.jpg

The next page of the book? You got it. Turn left. Keep reading. No man left behind.

This is such a wonderful, smart and brilliantly constructed book. Like I said, it’s spectacular.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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Hilda and the Stone Forest : Luke Pearson

Hilda and the Stone ForestHilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dynamism. Dynamics. They’re abstract concepts and yet, when I come to Hilda and the Stone Forest, they’re incredibly relevant. This latest episode in the rather lovely Hilda series is a book that thrives on movement and dynamic, swift lines and panels. There’s a sense of irresistible pace around it; this book is going places, and Hilda is so delightfully determined and wonderful that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Pearson’s book is good, wildly distinct stuff and it reminds me that I haven’t read enough Hilda.

But back to that idea of dynamics. It’s quite easy for a lot of readers to enter a phase of being intimidated and thus withdraw from books. Big books. Tightly worded books. Worthy books. Old people books. Children’s literature is a wonderful space to navigate but it’s also incredibly complicated to navigate. Hang around in a bookshop sometime or a library and watch the amount of children who choose without the help of a parent or guardian. A lot of that is clearly understandable and welcome from a host of perspectives, but what it does is change the nature of literacy into something that is shared. The child becomes part of a pact of reading with the adult and the text, and sometimes one of those elements will give and the walls will come crashing down. I can’t tell you anything more heartbreaking than a child telling me that they are a bad reader.

Books that use pace effectively address this. Books that use movement, and space, and time so very well are to be treasured. Hilda and The Stone Forest is a book that is full of direction. The edges, in particular, are perfect. Sometimes an image goes all the way to the page edge, providing a link between that page and the next, whilst another page will be constructed of a series of panels, all of which are reaching forward in the book. Structure. Pace. Movement. This is a story of adventure and being brave (and, sidebar, it involves one of the best mother I’ve seen for a while), and I loved it. Pearson’s work wants to be read, and it wants you to come along with it for the ride. This is generous, exuberant, lovely work – and the ending is perfect.

My thanks to Flying Eye Books for the review copy.

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The Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope : Joe Todd-Stanton

The Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden RopeThe Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope by Joe Todd Stanton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the golden foiling on the front cover, to that rich and thick paper used throughout, Arthur and the Golden Rope is an absolutely beautiful book. I was very thrilled to receive a review copy of it from Flying Eye Books. I have been looking for more books like this; mythic adventures, well told, Arthur And the Golden Rope gave me exactly what I was hoping for. It is a fabulous statement of a book.

The book begins with us being welcomed to the Brownstone family vault. The vault is full of treasures but the most treasured is “this humble collection of books”. These books retell the adventures of the Brownstone ancestors, from Eleanor Brownstone’s discovery of the Crystal Kingdom through to Eric Brownstone’s battle with the hundred-headed snake King of Tuckernuck Island. Arthur and The Golden Rope is the story of the first adventurous Brownstone: “Arthur, the unlikeliest of heroes.”

Arthur’s adventure begins in a small Icelandic town and comes to encompass many of the mythic heroes and figures from Norse mythology. Arthur himself is delightful; independent, brave, charming, and he steps up to save his town when all seems lost.

I tweeted some images from this book because it’s an intensely beautiful book. Todd-Stanton’s art is rich; it’s layered and scratchy and thick with detail. It’s big, too, there are some double page spreads here that sing with detail. The library spread in particular is delightful; Arthur is researching and shown in various poses around the library, and every inch of the pages sing of movement and of thought and effort. Arthur opens a book with teeth. He almost falls off a ladder. Swords impale books into the wall. A spell creeps out of a left open book. It is beautiful, and smart work.

Textually, the big thing to note about Arthur And The Golden Rope is the great orality of the tale. It’s broken up into a series of small paragraphs, some a just sentence long, and Todd-Stanton never loses sight of the conceit at the heart of this story. This is a story being told to us; and the pacing is perfect. And I adored that, really, because (and excuse me whilst I get all technical) but such orality speaks back to the great heritage of these stories. Stories of mythic and magic are made to be spoken and orated, and Arthur and The Golden Rope gets that. This is a story to be performed and shared, but it’s also one that is quite able to step back and let the artwork speak when it needs . This is such a clever, balanced, brilliant book.

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My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord : David Solomons

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord (My Brother is a Superhero, #2)My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord by David Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s very hard to do funny in the world of children’s and young adult literature. It’s even harder to do funny that doesn’t shift over to being cruel. Louise Rennison was the queen at this, balancing her delicious and hysterical prose with a genuine love for the world. My Gym Teacher is An Alien Overlord, the second book in the My Brother is A Superhero (these titles!) series, reminds me a lot of Rennison at her best. Though it’s written for a younger audience, My Gym Teacher has that similar sense of heart. It revels in its space and it’s bright, swift and deeply, genuinely, funny.

Luke’s brother, Zack, has superpowers. Luke’s friend, Lara, has superpowers (and a gift for delicious malapropisms). Luke has resentment and a side order of ‘knowing exactly what is happening with the aliens about to invade Earth but nobody is listening to him let alone all the people with superpowers itis’. It is the second in a series and several of the references will definitely make more sense if you’ve read its predecessor, My Brother Is A Superhero. This shouldn’t be too much of a trial though as both books are a deep delight to read.

There’s a thing about children’s books in that quite often they have to appeal to both child and adult; books don’t arrive in children’s hands like magic. They have to get there and in that process get past a whole host of gatekeepers. I’m one of them. You’re another, that lady’s nan is one, that guy down the road is another. What Solomons does, in his deeply satisfying and packed with in-joke prose, is that he ticks all the boxes necessary to open those gates without neglecting the quality of what he’s writing. It’s a difficult road to travel. You don’t write for children whilst writing for adults. But – this series is rapidly developing into something that’s for everyone regardless of age or literary leanings. And that’s a great, great gift.

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