• Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A new world of magic: ‘A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth’ by Francesca Gibbons

    Lately I have noticed a whole crop of new children’s authors writing terrific fantasy stories for younger and middle grade readers; many with young female protagonists who drive the action. Francesca Gibbons is one such author. The Shadow Moth is her debut, the first in A Clock of Stars trilogy.

    Imogen and her younger sister Marie argue and bicker like most siblings, and Imogen has a temper (and a tendency towards impulsive action which can sometimes get her into trouble.) When the two girls follow a strange moth through a door in a tree, they fall into a magical world where adventures – and dangers – await.

    They meet strange creatures, fierce monsters, a lonely prince with a soon-to-be wicked stepmother, a giant, forest people and a king. Finding their way back home is harder than they think and they must rescue the prince and confront the monster king at the top of the mountain before they can return.

    There is the Clock of Stars which shows the future at every hour, and a mountain and forests that are sick and dying because the mountain has lost its heart – the fabled Sertze Hora stone:

    ‘The Sertza Hora is a living thing: the mountain’s beating heart. It puts leaves on the trees and clean water in the rivers. And, since you humans decided to rip the heart from the body, we’ve all been bleeding to death.’

    The Shadow Moth p358

    The gentle environmental theme is accompanied by a poke at other concerns: Imogen’s ‘worry creatures’ that keep her awake at night; Prince Miro’s loneliness in a castle without friends; learning to accept difference in others. None of this is didactic and it’s all wrapped up in a roller coaster ride through a world full of magic, danger and, for Imogen and Marie, a chance to learn to appreciate the home, Mum and Grandma they left behind.

    The black and white illustrations by Chris Riddell help the amazing characters come to life.

    Youngsters who enjoy books like the Nevermoor series, Havoc! or Starfell will love the fast paced magic of this new offering for kids.

    A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 7 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    New YA (young adult) novel about a very different French revolution: ‘Court of Miracles’ by Kester Grant

    The first in a new trilogy by British-Mauritian author Kester Grant, The Court of Miracles is a complex, action-filled story of what might have happened had the French Revolution failed. A large cast of characters, many of them re-imagined versions of Victor Hugo’s creations from Les Misérables, includes the protagonist Eponine (‘Nina’). At the opening of the story, Nina is a frightened child but she develops courage, quick wits and skill in order to survive in early nineteenth century Paris.

    This is no City of Lights, but a far darker and more dangerous city. Nina’s older sister Azelma is sold by their father Thenardier to the Master of Flesh (the head of a sex-slave and prostitution ring as hideous as it sounds). Before she is taken, Azlema instructs her sister:

    Be useful, be smart, and stay one step ahead of everyone. Be brave even when you’re afraid. Remember that everyone is afraid.

    The Court of Miracles p14

    What follows is a series of exploits as Nina struggles to survive, while also trying to rescue Azelma and a youngster, Cosette (‘Ettie’). Ettie is a beautiful, naive girl towards whom Nina feels a protective love. All three girls join the Wretched – those who survive in the poverty-stricken streets, invisible to royalty, the nobility and the wealthy. As Nina sees it:

    After the revolution failed, the city was carved into two parts. Half of Paris is rigid, boxtree-lined avenues haunted by the aristocracy. The other half is a murky jungle of crime and misery.

    The Court of Miracles p70

    The lives of the Wretched who inhabit that shadowy Paris are governed by the Miracle Court, made up of nine Guilds: the Guild of Thieves (to which Nina is pledged), the Guilds of Flesh, Assassins, Smugglers, Beggars, Dreamers, Mercenaries, Chance and Letters. The Guilds are akin to the trade and craft guilds of the mediaeval period, but they operate via criminal activities and with a complicated code of law and behaviour which members must follow. The Guilds, their Masters and Lords are brought to vivid life and there is a helpful summary of the main characters and activities of each at the front of the book, which I referred to often. Perhaps the best explanation of this underground world is this:

    We all come to the Miracle Court as equals. The Court recognises no race, no religion, no marriage or tie of blood. The Wretched have only one Father, their Guild Lord; one family, their Guild; and one Law.

    The Court of Miracles p134

    There are some surprising twists and revelations which kept me turning the pages, leading to Nina’s understanding that ‘sometimes we must pay a terrible price to protect the things we love.’ p379

    Readers who like a fast-paced story will enjoy this novel. There is also plenty to love for fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and the characters from Les Misérables in its various forms. It’s a vivid re-imagining of a dramatic time and place.

    The Court of Miracles is published by Harper Voyager (an imprint of Harper Collins) in June 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend

    ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

    LothianBooks 2017

    This is the first in the Nevermoor series of YA/children’s author, Australian Jessica Townsend. It has won many awards and commendations, including: Winner, Dymocks Book of the Year 2018, QBD Children’s Book of the Year 2018, Book of the Year for Younger Children, ABIA 2018, Indie Books Awards 2018, Aurealis Awards 2017, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (UK) 2018, a CBCA Notable Book.

    I don’t read a lot in the fantasy genre nowadays, but this book was recommended to me by a friend. It is a rollicking tale of magic, centred around the adventures of young Morrigan Crow, who lives an unloved life in a drab and predictable town. Marked at birth as a ‘cursed child’ along with others born on Eventide, held to be an unlucky day, Morrigan is blamed for all the misfortunes of others, and doomed to die on Eventide when she turns eleven.

    Enter Jupiter North, her mysterious rescuer, who whisks Morrigan away from the threat of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and brings her to the magical city of Nevermoor. Here Morrigan is ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion, which magically changes the shapes of its rooms and fittings, and she learns that she must pass a series of trials if she is to be allowed to remain…

    I liked several things about this book. One is the humour that imbues every chapter. Despite some scenes that are a bit scary, even younger readers will appreciate the insouciance of Jupiter, the mild cynicism of his nephew Jack, the daredevil nature of Morrigan’s new friend Hawthorn, and especially, the sarcasm and bossiness of Fenestra, the giant Magnificat in charge of hotel housekeeping.

    Another is of course, the magic. Occasionally reminiscent of the brilliant world building to be found in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, Nevermoor’s magic is nonetheless unique, surprising and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    Morrigan is an endearing protagonist. Smart and brave but full of self- doubt and uncertainty, she yearns for friendship and belonging, both of which she finds in Nevermoor. There are plenty of heart-warming moments, along with the magic and quirky humour.

    And speaking of heart, a real theme of the novel is exactly that. There is a strong element of exploration of what it means to belong. Because Morrigan has not yet successfully completed the trials which will allow her to remain in Nevermoor, she is dogged by the City’s police force for being a ‘filthy illegal’. Inspector Flintlock berates Jupiter North for not handing Morrigan over for immediate deportation: reminders of the decidedly unmagical and unsympathetic scenes being played out in real life, all over our globe. So, while Nevermoor is a fantasy novel, it manages to hold within it messages to us all about caring, humanity and belonging.