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What a majestic conjuration of Middle Grade magic this is – think Alice in Wonderland in a dazzling theatrical setting. The year is 1870 and Celeste is a lowly orphan who runs errands in a Royal Opera House. She wakes one day haunted by a dream in which an enigmatic emerald suited-man spoke ominously of her involvement in a game called the Reckoning. Celeste recalls a shipwreck from the dream too and then, back in what appears to be real life, the opera house’s huge galleon-shaped crystal chandelier splinters into a thousand pieces and everyone thinks Celeste is someone else. The opening in which she cascades into the story world is as exhilaratingly bewildering as Alice’s entry to Wonderland: “Down she falls. Oh, how the world has tumbled.” Why does everyone think she’s a gifted dancer called Maria? Why can’t everyone see her? And so an intricate, suspenseful tale of identity plays out as Celeste struggles to untangle the truth, with dreadfully high stakes. Gardner’s cast of larger-than-life characters is vibrantly drawn, and special mention must be made of vindictive diva Madame Sabina and her awful daughter, and Celeste’s ally Viggo. But the true star of this production is - of course – Celeste, whose resolve is adeptly expressed through the thoughts of the mysterious man in the emerald suit: “Seldom has he met a child with strength enough to move on to the final part of the game.” This is a dream of a book for confident readers who relish fiction that ignites their imaginations and delight in flexing their cerebral muscles.
Flamingo Boy is vintage Michael Morpurgo, just the kind of story he tells so brilliantly. Eighteen-year old Vincent is ‘following the bend in the road’, letting life take him where it will, and finds himself in the wild and beautiful landscape of the Camargue. There he meets Kezia and Renzo and, as they nurse him through a fever, hears their life stories. Vincent hangs on every word and readers will too as Kezia describes the events that brought her and Renzo together, and the threats and dangers their families faced during the war. It’s a story of love, loss, renewal and reconciliation, vividly told and touching on important issues that matter to every one of us. Inspired by his own grandson, who is autistic, Renzo, the boy with a special connection to nature and animals, is one of Morpurgo’s most striking and vital characters.
A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month October 2019 | Emma Carroll brings her own Somerset countryside vividly to life in this enthralling tale and you can even detect the West Country tones of her spirited young heroine, Fortune Spicer, as you read. Fair Maidens Lane, where she lives, is a successful hamlet running well, despite an absence of men. But as the story opens a matriarch is arrested. An atmosphere of suspicion is spreading across the land from King James’ obsession with witches and unscrupulous men are using this as a weapon for financial gain. Sent away by her mother, disguised as a boy for her own protection, Fortune ends up as a servant at Barrow Hall only to find a master even more against witches than the king, but also happy to exploit the opportunity to raise funds for a terrible new trade in human beings. When the natural disaster overtakes them all, Fortune survives, but must fight torture and a trial for witchcraft to prove she is not to blame for the flood. The claustrophobic atmosphere of male oppression, corruption and real menace is wonderfully well done, and Fortune is a redoubtable heroine learning to have faith in herself and to seek her own destiny. As with all her novels this author wears her research lightly but provides a genuine learning experience and a genuine feeling for the period and for the characters she brings so memorably to life. .......................... Emma Carroll brings her own Somerset countryside vividly to life in this enthralling tale and you can even detect the West Country tones of her spirited young heroine, Fortune Spicer, as you read. Fair Maidens Lane, where she lives, is a successful hamlet running well, despite an absence of men. But as the story opens a matriarch is arrested. An atmosphere of suspicion is spreading across the land from King James’ obsession with witches and unscrupulous men are using this as a weapon for financial gain. Sent away by her mother, disguised as a boy for her own protection, Fortune ends up as a servant at Barrow Hall only to find a master even more against witches than the king, but also happy to exploit the opportunity to raise funds for a terrible new trade in human beings. When the natural disaster overtakes them all, Fortune survives, but must fight torture and a trial for witchcraft to prove she is not to blame for the flood. The claustrophobic atmosphere of male oppression, corruption and real menace is wonderfully well done, and Fortune is a redoubtable heroine learning to have faith in herself and to seek her own destiny. As with all her novels this author wears her research lightly but provides a genuine learning experience and a genuine feeling for the period and for the characters she brings so memorably to life. Joy Court
Carnegie winner Ruta Sepetys seems to specialise in illuminating forgotten or unknown aspects of history. The Spanish Civil War may be widely known but Spain lived under Franco until 1975. Rather like post-Apartheid South Africa there was a reconciliation movement that did not pursue retribution for the human rights abuses and crimes of the dictatorship. But this outstanding, impeccably researched novel seeks to shine a light on those crimes. In a fascinating afterword she tells us that studies estimate over 300,000 babies were stolen from their Republican parents. This is indeed a story to shock and horrify but its power comes from the characters and the very human stories she tells. We get different perspectives from different viewpoints and voices, but very cleverly our main guide is an outsider looking in just as the reader does. Daniel is an American boy visiting Spain as his father negotiates a lucrative deal. America’s complicit dealings with the Franco regime are also under the spotlight here. Daniel aspires to be a photojournalist and he naively wants to find the real Spain. He finds fear and suspicion, makes friends and falls in love but tragedy strikes, and he must leave. The full sinister picture is only revealed many years later. This is a book which absolutely demonstrates the power of a story to reveal truth and to develop real understanding and empathy. Perfectly pitched, evocative and utterly enthralling.
A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month September 2019 | | Sally Nicholls has a rare ability to tell a story from the past by making it both of its time and also accessible for today’s readers. Her characters are always credible people facing up to the great challenges of the day while her details of the period make her settings authentic too. Here, she takes a moment in history when the world was completely changed because of the number of people who died: 1349, the year of the Black Death. Thirteen year old Isobel tells her story, shying away from no details as she describes what she sees as the Plague strikes her family and the whole tight knit community of the Yorkshire village where she lives. Sally Nicholls pulls no punches in her telling of this dramatic story.
Christina is sent to stay with her terrifying uncle and her cousins at Flambards, a rambling house in the country where riding and hunting are the most prized activities. Everything about the countryside - and her relatives - is new to Christina but she soon finds she loves riding. And, in different ways, she begins to love her cousins. The first volume in a hugely romantic trilogy.
Set in the 1930s and inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, this thrilling feast of coming-of-age edginess is giddy with the glamour of freethinking artists, and tingles with romantic tension. Constrained by her life in England, aspiring natural historian Bea constantly battles her parents’ attempts to marry her off: “As far as my parents are concerned, daughters aren’t a terribly useful asset. I’m not supposed to go out in the world and actually do things.” But being “too big, too loud, too clever – too much”, Bea has her own ideas about her future, which she’s able to embrace when she’s sent to stay with her wealthy uncle in Italy and discovers with glee that “things at Villa di Stelle might not be so respectable after all.” Among the villa’s vibrant collective of artists is handsome painter Ben, and sparks fly between he and Bea from the off. A lighthearted challenge sees them set out to enjoy a summer romance without falling in love, until events at a decadent party to invoke rain turn out to be explosive in more ways than one. As the heavens crack open, fireworks fly between Ben and Bea and their lives will never be the same again. Alongside Bea’s awakening of body and heart, she also realises that she cannot return to her previous life. She wants what the artists’ have: an “all-consuming passion for their work...a purpose, a vocation.” With the conflict between her free-spirited nature and societal constraints exacerbated by her Italian experiences, with the world now opened up to her, the gateway cannot be closed. The author’s Great Gatsby-esque A Sky Painted Gold was a 2018 favourite of mine, and this is every bit as bathed in coming-of-age hope and a sense of being on the brink of something special.
Jacqueline Wilson’s historical novels tell vivid, enthralling stories about young girls in testing situations, and Rose Rivers is classic Wilson. Rose is the daughter of a wealthy family – her father is a respected artist, though their wealth comes from her mother, or rather her grandfather, a mill owner. Rose loves to sketch, a great way of getting her father’s attention, but is frustrated by the restrictions on her life, and her mother’s expectations for her. The family has a large staff, and it’s the arrival of two new servants that provides the catalyst for change in Rose’s life. They are a new ‘nurse’ for Rose’s sister Beth, who has challenging learning disabilities; and our old friend Clover Moon, who becomes a real and valuable friend to Rose. The Victorian setting is very well described, but the real issues are timeless: friendship, family, finding your independence.
June 2019 Book of the Month, A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month June 2019 | The opportunities the suffragette movement offered for bright girls like Daisy, the twelve year old star of this exciting and award-winning story, is brilliantly capture in a book that is full of bustle and energy and danger. Growing up in cramped conditions in the East End of London Daisy’s life is hard. When she’s not at school where she is always in trouble for being too smart, she helps her mum with her younger sister and baby twin brothers. But Daisy has always had dreams of a brighter future: she knows that when she grows up she wants to become a nurse like the great Florence Nightingale. But Daisy is watching her own mother have little chance of doing what she really wants so what chance will she have since she is just a girl? When Daisy meets the suffragettes everything changes. It is scary to think what she would have to give up but Daisy is prepared to do anything to enjoy the new kind of freedom they are offering. Barbara Mitchelhill is skilfully at bringing this important and fascinating moment to life.
A fast-paced read packed with historical detail In the Shadow of Heroes is a clever blend of intrigue, politics, crime, history and a bit of fantasy. Set in Rome at the time of Emperor Nero, it weaves some Greek mythology – the tale of the Golden Fleece – into the world of the Roman elite. When unexpected visitors turn up at Tullus’s house one night, his slave Cadmus, an educated boy slave who was taken in by Tullus after having been abandoned as a baby, knows that something dangerous is afoot. The visitors bring a box with something that is clearly very desirable in it. What can it be? When Tullus disappears and Cadman is given a message by a slave who was formerly a British princess he set off on a trail to find out what is going on. The plot is twisty and inventive ensuring that the reader remains enthralled through out.
Brothers Marcus and Julian Sedgewick last worked together on the Kate Greenaway shortlisted graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills and here they are blessed by the artistic talents of the award winning Alexis Deacon to co-create a story wonderfully told through the interplay of poetry, prose and pictures. Set in London as the V2 rocket bombs wreak havoc and destruction where the intense childhood relationship of the poet and older brother Ellis and the younger artist brother Harry has foundered on Harry’s anti-war and anti- family stance since their father runs a munitions firm. Ellis is home from the front and Harry is desperate for a reconciliation and to share his masterwork Warriors in the Machine- inspired by his nights fighting fires and his nightmarish visions of future wars. After Harry leaves the pub the bomb falls, Harry wakes in hospital with a serious head wound and Ellis apparently lost in the blast. In a state of semi delirium, the lines between reality, his vision of the future and the myth of Orpheus blur. His quest to find and rescue his brother, accompanied by a Jewish refugee girl desperate to be reunited with the parents she has lost, mirrors Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld. This is a powerful, lyrical anti-war fable inspired and given depth and authenticity by the fact that Marcus and Julian’s own father was a Quaker and a Conscientious Objector in WW2. While a fascinating reworking of the myth this depiction of war will speak to young people concerned about the times in which we live and humanities seemingly eternal warmongering.
May 2019 Debut of the Month | Bombs, ruthless enemies, a channel crossing in the dark, minefields – young Pip has to negotiate all these dangers in the course of this exciting, beautifully written wartime adventure story. It would be challenge enough for anyone, but Pip is a mouse, newly orphaned and homeless too. Fortunately, though she’s small, she’s very, very brave and nothing will stop her in her quest to deliver the umbrella that’s been her home back to the museum in Italy where her mother grew up. Along the way, she joins Churchill’s secret animal army and fights with the Allied forces. It’s testament to the quality of Anna Fargher’s writing that readers will believe in Pip one hundred per cent. The wartime background is vivid and completely convincing and Pip and her animal comrades are beguiling characters. Original adventure from an exciting new author.
Gripping and lyrical, this is a multi-layered novel with a strong historical background of the witch hunting that took place during the English Civil War crossed with a story of the fairy world and the different kind of magic that is inherent in nature. Both are based on a confusion of half truths which are spun into greater certainties that can carry great risks and penalties. Nell, the child at the centre of it all, lives her life in fear and tells her story capturing the wonder and danger of it all.