The Acrobats of Agra by Robin Scott-Elliot

Beatrice, known as Bea, finds herself in India and living with her Aunt, Uncle and cousin.  She has grown up living with her grannie in Scotland, after her parents had died in India, but as the latter got older she was no longer as able to care for Bea and the family packed Bea off to Aunt Constance.  Unfortunately the year is 1857 and the city of Agra and the surrounding region are fast becoming the centre of a rebellion by the Indian troops.  Bea and her relatives had just attended a performance of the Circus and but within days life has changed as the city of Agra finds itself under siege.  Bea finds herself caught up in events and together with Jacques (an acrobat from the circus) and an Indian servant called Pingali manages to escape from the city and head for the hills, in an attempt to find her younger brother George.  He had travelled to India with their parents and was sent to live with another aunt after their deaths.  The dangers that this group face, both from the rebels and from army deserters brings them into huge danger and makes them very aware that you cannot judge people by their ethnicity or background.  The epilogue at the end rounds off the story and we get an insight into how lives have changed over the three years since the rebellion.

Literature has long been fascinated by the Indian continent but although there are many adult novels written about the history and events, there are fewer written from a child’s point of view.  Even those are often about a person travelling from India to the UK and the differences that they find.  We can start with titles such as the “Secret Garden”  but we are now seeing an increase in books that give us a much better perspective of the country’s history as well as allowing us to share in the lives of a huge range of people.  Bea is a very strong and feisty character who did not want to travel to India, but is determined to be re-united with her brother whatever it takes.  She is the total antithesis of a Victorian young lady, having been brought up in Scotland and allowed to have freedom of movement and thought.  The strictures of life within the Raj are frustrating and you get the feel that the European women live in a constant form of social straitjacket.  Life in Britain was itself full of social restrictions, but this was only amplified in the confined communities that they found themselves in as part of the Empire.  We also get an insight into the total lack of cultural and religious understanding that the British had for the population that they were ruling; the rebellion was caused by the supposed use of pork and beef fat to coat rifle shells, which was insulting and against the beliefs of both Muslim and Hindu communities.  It  is to be hoped that the world has changed for the better, but I do wonder if there are still people with no empathy and understanding of those around them; however that is a question that should be a large area of discussion within schools.  Above all this is a thrilling adventure story that pits the central characters against all kinds of dangers, but they come together and even take on board the saying “All for one, and one for all” from the “Three Musketeers”.  It is a story that is very exciting but which will also make you think about what happened and why.

 

Robin Scott-Elliot has been a sports journalist for 25 years with the BBC, ITV, Sunday
Times, Independent and the ‘i’, covering every sport you can think of and a few you
probably can’t. In 2012 he covered the London Paralympics as the Independent’s
Paralympic Correspondent. He threw that all away to move home to Scotland and
write. He lives on the west coast with his wife and two children. His first book for
children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways, was published in 2019.

The Hungry Ghost by H.S.Norup

When Freja moves to Singapore, to live with her father and his new family for a year, she could not imagine the mysterious and frightening occurrences that will change her life.  The move was caused by the breakdown in her mother’s mental health, but Freja feels guilty for not being able to stay with her.  The world that she discovers in Singapore is very different from her home in Denmark and she finds it difficult to adapt to life with her step-mother Clementine and her two year-old twin half-brothers.  Freja arrives in her new home during the month of the “Hungry ghosts”, a festival celebrated in Buddhist Chinese and Vietnamese cultures;  where local residents leave food and other offerings at the graves of their ancestors to appease them and prevent evil spirits gaining access to our world.  On the evening of her arrival Freja sees a young girl, dressed in white, in the garden but no one seems to know where she comes from.  As the story progresses we learn that the girl is called Ling and that she is a ghost who cannot settle until she remembers what happened to her family.  How Freja and her new school friends help solve the mystery makes for a fascinating story and we discover that it was not just Ling who had hidden away some painful memories.

This is a beautifully told story with characters that are full of energy, but who are often suffering a lot of hidden pain.  The world of Singapore is brought to life and we are aware of just how much of a multi-cultural place it is.  All of the friends that Freja makes come from different parts of the world and their parents are often from separate countries; just like Freja, whose mother is Danish but her father is English and her step-mother is Anglo-Chinese.  The festival of the “Hungry Ghosts” puts me in mind of the Mexican Day of the Dead, but there is a slightly darker aspect to the commemoration as there is a strong need to prevent the ‘hungry ghosts’ (who may have committed a wrong doing in their life) from coming back to this world and wreaking havoc on their descendants.  The multiple layers of the story that are gradually revealed remind us of the inequalities of our colonial past and the heartache that this could cause for many of the people involved.  This is at times heart wrenching as Freja peels back hidden secrets and finally understands her links to Ling and Singapore.

 

Author bio:

H. S. Norup is the author of The Hungry Ghost and The Missing Barbegazi—a Sunday Times Book of the Year in 2018. Originally from Denmark, she has lived in six different countries and now resides in Switzerland with her husband and two teenage sons. She has a Master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and sixteen years’ experience in corporate marketing strategy and communications. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time outdoors either skiing, hiking, walking, golfing or taking photos.

Thank you to the author for the author information and the photograph that she has made available on her website https://www.hsnorup.com/

 

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads by Laura Ellen Anderson

Amelia Fang is the wonderful vampire heroine of this series of books and I was so sad to hear that this is going to be the last of her adventures in Nocturnia.  I am consoling myself with the thought that ‘maybe’ in the future she might have adventures elsewhere;  after all it is just down to the phrasing of the information.  Amelia has a fantastic group of friends comprising of  Florence, who is a Yeti, Grimaldi, a reaper and Tangine, who is a vampire prince and not forgetting squashy, her pet pumpkin.  We have followed this team as they have lots of exciting and often funny adventures with their respective families and communities.

In this latest story we are introduced to Vincent, Amelia’s baby brother!  Anyone who has had children, or who has had younger siblings will probably have some idea of what this means. At the beginning of the story Amelia is looking forward to attending Grimaldi’s birthday party but when her parents go down with Frankenflu she ends up having to take Vincent with her and things go downhill after that.  Eventually the friends take Vincent for a walk to keep him quiet, which seems to work, until he disappears from his pram.  They track him to  a swampy area which leads to the ‘Pond Beyond’, where toads go when they are squished; so of course they have to follow him.  What follows is a great adventure as they meet new friends and find the missing Vincent.  The problem is that there is supposedly no way back to their world, so how are they going to get home?  You will have to read the story to find out if they succeed.

This series of stories with its lovable yet very quirky main characters has been a great hit with younger readers.  In this particular tale we have a very strong theme about being yourself and also loving people despite some of the things that can irritate us.  Both Amelia and some of the characters she meets in the Pond Beyond realize that the love they have for family member and friends transcends the  issues they face, such as snot, dirty nappies, tears and just being clumsy.  This is something that we as adults have learnt to realize, but for young children it is part of the learning process.We have been given a fabulous finale to this series, but I might just have to read them all over again.

Thank you to Egmont for a copy of the book and also for the image and information about the author.

 

About the Author
When she’s not trying to take over the
world or fighting sock-stealing
monsters, Laura Ellen Anderson is a
professional children’s book author and
illustrator, with an increasing addiction to
coffee.
She spends every waking hour creating
and drawing, and would quite like to live
on the moon when humans finally make it
possible. Laura is the official illustrator of
the 2020 Summer Reading Scheme and is
also the creator of EVIL EMPEROR
PENGUIN and illustrator of WITCH WARS,
THE FAMOUS FIVE, Terry Pratchett’s
TIFFANY ACHING novels as well as many
other children’s books. AMELIA FANG is
her first series as author-illustrator.
You can follow her on @Lillustrator

Emily Knight: I am … Becoming by A Bello

This is an exciting and action packed series of books about a young girl called Emily Knight.  The title that we are
celebrating is actually the third book, of what I think is going to be a quartet; at least that is the impression I get from the end of the book.  I would however suggest that starting with the first title and working your way through is probably a very sensible option.  The complex plot and relationships mean that you need to understand the background and it is book one that gives you this information.

The series is set in a modern world; but it is one made up of ‘Mundanes’, who are people like us and the ‘Warriors’ who appear to have an assortment of special powers and act as protectors to the ordinary population.  Emily is the daughter of the most famous warrior, Thomas Knight, who had defeated the renegade warrior called Neci in a past battle.  She does not want to be the centre of attention and feels the pressure on her to be like her father and elder brother, Lox, both of whom have cult star status; having been star players in the seriously tough game called Dojo.  In books one and two  Emily’s brother is missing and her father is on a hunt to try and find him, leaving Emily at home with foster parents and friends.  By the start of book three the family have been reunited, but there are still many tensions and there is a move towards a war as Neci becomes more powerful and builds an army of followers.

This is definitely a series for those who love the idea of friendship groups involved in battling evil.  There are real echoes of other popular series from the past, but as always it is what the author does with the basic outline that is important. A Bello has produced something that although familiar in many ways has its own distinct story and characters.  Although we know that Neci is cast as the villain of the piece, I find myself wanting to know more about her back story.  We are told how she discovers her powers and develops her hatred of the warriors, but I feel there is more to the story and I hope that we will learn more about her motivation in the final story.  Emily herself  has all the anxieties and uncertainties of someone in their teens.  She feels the burden of leadership that is being placed on her and does not think that she can live up to the expectations.  She is also going through the normal ups and downs of adolescence and dealing with her attraction to two of the male students at her school.   With the reappearance of her father and brother she has to learn to cope with their personalities and to make them understand that she is an individual in hr own right.

It is good to see a series where there is a strong female central character and particularly one who is a person of colour.  There has been a lot of emphasis on diversity in literature this year, but this author has been writing such stories for several years and we can see from her author profile she is someone who is heavily involved in broadening the range of people and stories in children’s publishing.  I am delighted to have had the opportunity of reading these books and I look forward to the next title, when hopefully we will see the  finale of this exciting series

 

The Author

A. Bello is the award-winning author of the bestselling fantasy
series Emily Knight I am. . . and Emily Knight I am. . .
Awakened, which was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie
Medal 2019, Winner of London’s Big Read 2019, finalist for
A. Bello first began writing the Emily Knight saga at aged
12 with the intention of filling the gaping hole in children’s
fiction for an inspirational, strong, black female, young
protagonist.
A. Bello won the London Book Fair’s Trailblazer Award
2018. She is the founder of The Lil’ Author School, co-founder
of The Author School, Hashtag Press, Hashtag BLAK, The
Diverse Book Awards and ink!
Find out more at www.a-bello.com
Follow A. Bello on Twitter: @ABelloWrites
Instagram: @abiolabello @emilyknightiam
Facebook.com/EmilyKnightIAM
Facebook.com/A.BelloAuthor

 

The Tigers in the Tower by Julia Golding

This wonderful story is set in the early part of the 19th century, 1830 to be precise; at a time when Britain was at the centre of an ever growing  empire.  This story highlights the many changes that society was going through; moving away from the excesses of the Georgian period and into a time of exploration, science and a greater understanding of the natural world.

It is the really heart wrenching story of a young girl coming to terms with a new country, the loss of parents and caring for the animals in her charge.  Sahira Clive, is the daughter of an English father and India mother, both of whom died on the journey from India, so that it is left to Sahira to deliver two tigers to the Tower of London menagerie.  However as a twelve year old girl in a foreign land she finds herself at the mercy of the adults around her and is sent to an orphanage in the East End, having been told that her father’s  wealthy family do not wish to acknowledge her.  Sahira finds her life still entwined with the two tigers, Rama and Sita, as they have problems settling into their new quarters.  However she finds that as an outsider she is subject to bullying and verbal abuse as a minimum.  Whilst helping out at the menagerie she comes into contact with young Bobby Peel, the son of the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel and through him she discovers a young cousin and the rest of her family.

The author has produced a wonderful story that combines brilliant story telling, strong characters and a real sense of history.  Not only are the historical facts accurate but they give us a true sense of the deep poverty that existed in the country at this time, alongside immense wealth, as well as the way the poor were treated as being almost less that human.  This is a really multi-layered story in which we see themes around racism, class, women’s rights (or rather the lack of), animal welfare and law and order all playing a part.  Not only is this a tremendous adventure story but it has a wonderfully strong central character in Sahira; she is determined to do her best for the animals in her charge and increase the understanding of how we should look after the animals around us.  She is also a person who has to fight against  various forms of prejudice and make people accept her for the amazing character that she is.

Julia Golding has been writing books for young people for the last 15 plus years and I have been enjoying them since the beginning.  She is best known for two of her series; firstly there is the Companions series which mixes Greek mythology with magic in the modern world, then we have the ‘Cat Royal’ series which follow the adventures of a young girl in 18th century London and beyond. She has also written for younger teens  and I particularly enjoyed the ‘Dragonfly’ series.  Julia has led a fascinating life having worked in the Civil Service in the UK and in Poland.  She then undertook a PhD in English about the ‘English Romantic Period’ at Oxford before becoming a lobbyist for Oxfam.  She now writes full time and I am delighted to say that she still lives in Oxford (my home city) with her family.

The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith

I am so excited that this fabulous book is now out in the wild and that it can be read by everyone; something that I would definitely recommend.  So without any holdups here is the story.

Kip Bramley thinks that he is just an ordinary boy, with few friends and prone to being bullied at school; mainly because of his habit of doodling what his father calls ‘squirls’ because they are between squiggles and swirls.  He lives with his father as his mother is in a home, due to an accident where she was hit by lightning and his sister disappeared.  Then one day Kit is presented with an puzzling invitation, by a drone of all things and he finds himself at a school like no other.  Quicksmiths College of Strange Energy is like nothing that Kit has ever seen.  The teachers bear no resemblance to those in his previous school and are full of magic, quirkiness and an often odd sense of humour; the school itself is a mix of science and magic, which really appeals to our hero.  Kit quickly makes friends with his roommate Albert and their mentors Leela and Timmi.  Things start to get very interesting when the school is read a 400 year old letter from the founder of the school, Eartha Quicksmith.  She has left a challenge for the whole school to find and solve 10 riddles in 10 days; otherwise the world could face disaster.  Of course Kit and his friends are determined to win the challenge, in the hope that it will help him find a cure for his mother, but they find themselves facing an unknown enemy who is determined to beat everyone to the prize; Eartha Quicksmith’s  ‘Ark of Ideas’ and maybe even the legendary ‘Aeon Light’.

Flying Squirrel, by Creazilla

I particularly love some of the additional characters that we find acting as support in this story but the star has to be Pinky, Kit’s very laid back pet, who turns out to be a flying squirrel.  We also have the Mowl, a fascinating little creature, with a mix of feathers and fur which had been created in a freak electromagnetic accident by Leela.  These animal friends act as fantastic support for the adventures that the four children find themselves caught up in and bring an element of humour to the proceedings.

This story is an absolutely roller coaster of a ride, not least because of the skimmis, which appear to be like the hover-boards from ‘Back to the Future 2’ and also the existence of wormholes that act as short cuts enable movement between places, but almost instantly. The four friends are very different but they form a close team as they search through the clues and try and discover who  their unknown  competitor is.  The school setting has definite echoes of some of our favourite children’s adventures; from Hogwarts  to Deepdean  but it brings a twist that is all its own.  This is absolutely a story for those who love their science mixed with a healthy dose of magic.  I am really looking forward to the next adventure for this group of young heroes, it is bound to be amazing.  Over all this story is a total delight.

Loris Owen live in Kent but was born in Bolton and also spent time living in Zimbabwe.  She first started writing ideas for children’s stories in 2015 and this is the first of her stories to be published.  Firefly Press are a brilliant small press in South Wales and have developed a real reputation for producing some fabulous books by people such as Eloise Williams, Horatio Clare, Shoo Rayner and Catherine Fisher.  I have been a fan of theirs for several years and I am delighted to see them go from strength to strength.  Thank you so much for the review copy and giving me the chance to share my enthusiasm for this fantastic story.

The Midnight Howl by Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder

I first met up with Emily, the very characterful heroine of this series, in the story of The Midnight Hour.  This introduced Emily, and us, to a world that she had not known existed, but which her parents were heavily involved in. Yes, we have parents who have been keeping secrets (quite big ones as well) from their daughter; obviously it was intended to keep her out of harm’s way, but things didn’t quite work out.  Anyway Emily managed to save the Midnight Hour from certain destruction,  and discovered that she was part Pooka (a shapeshifter from Celtic mythology).  Life should have gone back to normal, but for Emily that does not appear to be an option.

In the Midnight Howl we are taken back to this magical version of London, that has been frozen in time since 1859.  Emily is allowed to go there with her father (a postman in this magical realm) in order to practice her shape changing abilities, but she is banned from contacting any members of her mother’s family, because her mother was banished from the clan years ago.  Unfortunately Emily discovers that things are not well and that magic is creeping out of the Hour, because someone is bringing in goods from the real world.  The adventure that follows sees Emily re-united with her friend Officer-in-training Tarkus as well as the magical force called the Library (representing Literature) as they try and prevent the total destruction of the Midnight Hour and all of its inhabitants.

What an absolutely brilliant follow-up to a really exciting story.  Emily is one of those characters that you really hope will succeed, but at the same time she makes you want to bang your head against a wall.  She really wants to do what her parents tell her, but somehow the world and circumstances get in the way.  I think a fair description of Emily would be to say that she is feisty, very quirky and her temper has something of a short fuse.  Perhaps my favourite character is her pet hedgehog called Hoggins, who doesn’t speak (naturally) but does have a way of commenting on the action around him.  If you go to Laura Trinder’s website you will find some great downloads, including creating your own Hoggins https://www.lauratrinder.co.uk/downloads

This team have produced a wonderfully subversive and funny adventure that provides just enough darkness to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  I am really looking forward to some further escapades with this delightful cast of characters.

 

 

The Bear, the Piano and Little Bear’s Concert

This totally glorious picture book brings the story of bear and the piano full circle.  After being a tremendous success pianist for several years, Hector Bear finds that he is gradually playing to smaller audiences and he is no longer as popular as at the beginning.  Eventually he decides to retire and returns to the forest, where he settles down and eventually is blessed by the birth of Little Bear.  She is a lively and inquisitive cub and one day she comes across something she has never seen before; it is Hector’s piano and he ends up telling her the story of his early life.  Little Bear sees how unhappy he is and decides to write to Hugo (Bear’s old companion) and invite him to the forest.  What happens next will have you almost in tears, with a renewed faith in the essential goodness of people, but also about the ability of music to profoundly change people’s lives.

The illustrations for this story are totally stunning and provide so much for us to take in.  I particularly love the scene when Hector decides to give up his music.  The way he leaves the stage is full of sorrow and pain and when we look into the auditorium and see the audience it is very emotional; some people are talking to each other and one person is sound asleep.  As always David Litchfield has produced the most amazing settings for the story and the use of colour brings everything vividly to life.  There are the very obvious contrasts between the brilliant images full of colour and light which reflect the joy of playing music and the darkness of some of the pages, where Hector is feeling depressed and uncertain about his music.  This is a book that will keep the young reader totally fascinated and absorbed by the depth and complexity of the images that they are exploring.

We were first introduced to Hector in the first of this trilogy,when he discovered his love of the piano and we have followed him through the ups and downs of being a musician.  I can’t believe that this was 5 years ago and that it was David Litchfield’s first picture book.  It went on to win the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for best illustrated book and the rest, as they say, is history; he has produced several wonderful titles apart from those about the Bear, but this set are still my favourites.  Whilst the text is quite limited, it makes all the words count and the images are truly magical.

Thank you to Frances Lincoln Books and Netgalley for giving me access to this title; it has been a total delight.

The Story of Babushka

As a child I had a set of Russian wooden dolls, which were fitted one inside the other.  I had no idea about their  names or what their origins were; I just knew the were fascinating to play with and seemed very exotic, coming from so far away.  I now know that they are called matryoshka or babushka dolls.  The former title implies the mother character and I suppose this is shown by the outer figure protecting those inside; the latter name is linked to the idea of the Russian grandmother and the very recognizable headscarf that is worn by older generations of Russian women.  However the folk tale about Babushka  is about an elderly lady who spends all of her time cooking and looking after her house, but who one day is visited by three kings who are following a star, in order to find a new king.  She declines to go with them because she wants to clean the house and find gifts for the child.  By the time she follows them they have disappeared and she begins a journey to try and find the child they were searching for.  On her travels she gives away many of the gifts to small children who are in need although she never finds the three king because they have gone back to their own lands and the child has gone into exile in Egypt.

This new story by Catherine Flores brings a whole added dimension to the folk tale.  It blends the element  of the dolls along with the idea of sharing gift with people.  In this version we have the five interlocked dolls, each of which has their own special character; they are Antonia, who represents beauty, Loretta who shows wealth, Paula who is multi-talented, Viola who represents wisdom and finally Mary, whilst she is the smallest she represents love and compassion, something to be prized.  One after another they are tempted away to in order to fully use their talent, until finally it is only Mary who is left.  Gradually she realizes that something is missing from her life and she sets out to discover what that might be.  On her travels she meets her ‘sisters’, all of whom have been taken advantage of by those they tried to help.  The story eventually sees the sisters reunited and back in the their forest home, together with their friends.

This is such a beautiful tale about the importance of love and caring for those around us.  It also shows us that many of the things that are prized in our modern world are not necessarily vital to our well being.  There are several underlying messages that would be good for people to take on board and which would be a brilliant basis for discussion in a school environment.  The illustrator Ana Beatriz Marques has produced a wonderful group of characters; whilst they retain the look and spirit of the matryoshka dolls, they are all very individual and reflect the qualities of each of the five ‘sisters’.  The illustrations really take us in to the world of the dolls and we can understand the world that the author has created.

 

The author, Catherine Flores is from Switzerland, but now lives on the beautiful island of Madeira with her partner and their small son.  This is her first book for children and the whole process has been very much her project; however I am sure that we will be hearing more from her in the future.  She has worked with a digital concept and design company to produce the book, as well as a linked website https://thestoryofbabushka.com/.

Thank you Catherine for letting me part of this blog tour for Babushka.

Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue by Anna Fargher and Sam Usher

The second and final book in this sequence is being published in July and will be eagerly awaited by the many fans who loved the first story.  It was originally due for publication in April, but the pandemic has meant that there has been a delay, as with so many other books this year.  The adventures of Umbrella Mouse are the first books that the author has published and they are a stunning success.  Anna’s imagination is glorious, but it is also grounded in the reality of what is actually achievable for the individual creatures, so we never have a sense of being outside the realms of possibility.  The illustrations by Sam Usher are truly delightful, as you would expect from such an accomplished illustrator.  I particularly love his series about a young boy and his grandfather and would definitely recommend “Snow” and his new title “Wild“.  Not only has he produced the cover illustration for  Anna’s book but he has also  given us some  really strong images to link with the text throughout the book.

I came across the first book when the proof copy was available at a conference I was attending, probably in late 2018 or early 2019.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved it and especially the young mouse Pip Hanway who is the heroine of both stories.  At the beginning of the sequence she is living on the premises of a well known umbrella maker in London, but then one day the shop is bombed and the owners killed; Pip has no where to go as her parents are dead, so she decides to follow an old family story about a museum in Italy, where the ancient umbrella she owns was originally from.  As she starts her journey she meets up with a group of animals that support humans in the fight against the Nazi enemy; they are called Noah’s Ark and they agree to help her with her quest.  Most of the action takes place in France, where Pip is instrumental in foiling a plot by German troops and their animal supporters.

The second story sees the delightful ‘Umbrella Mouse and her friends in the French animal resistance recovering from their battle against the Nazis and linking up with the group in the local area.  Unfortunately the German animals, led by a renegade dove called Lucia, are still trying to kill Pip; making the band of friends decide to try and get to Paris, to help in freeing the city.  Their adventures put them in great peril and they lose some of their comrades on the way, but their determination and sense of loyalty is what sees them get through.

This is a wonderful story of friendship and of courage and I am sure it reflects the feelings of the millions of humans that went through the trauma of the Second World War.  The author has allowed the animals to experience the dangers that real people faced during this and other conflicts, but because it at a slight distance from us, it is easier for the audience to cope with.  However we all understand the feelings when loved ones are lost and when something positive and uplifting happens to the central characters .  This is a heartwarming story at so many levels and is perfect for the older middle grade.  Whilst it is an animal story it does not shy away from describing the dangers and tribulations that were faced by ordinary people during this period of history and is very suitable for reading to children who are studying the war.

I am not giving the game away about the ending, but I will tell you that there is a very fitting ending and that we are left with a sense of hope for the future.  This really is highly recommended reading