Nisha’s War by Dan Smith

For someone who watched the full series of ‘Tenko’ as a young person, this subject matter brings back many memories.  For those who are far too young to have watched the original programmes, Tenko is the story of the fall of Singapore and the imprisonment of women and children by the Japanese; the name tenko means “roll-call” in Japanese.  It caused quite a stir at the time, because of its portrayal of the prison camps, the  social class system and the racism towards non-European prisoners.  The war in the far-east has received far less attention than the war in Europe, or even the final assault on the main Japanese islands.  This conflict in Malaya and Burma has been considered “the forgotten war” and yet the suffering is almost beyond comprehension; both for the European middle classes and especially for the general population of these countries.  This is a period that deserves to be remembered and the people appreciated for what they suffered.

The story begins in 1942 when Nisha and her mother arrive at grandmother’s island home in the north east of England; they are fleeing their horrific experiences during the fall of Singapore to the Japanese.  Nisha’s mother suffers an attack of malaria and her life hangs in the balance.  Nisha is desperately worried about her mother, but also about her missing father, when she meets a mysterious boy in the garden.  No one else seems to know the boy and we gradually realize that he is a ghost, who is linked to the old tree that he sits under. He offers to help her mother and father, if Nisha will find three ‘truths’ in the house.   How she tries to do this (without knowing what they are) and how she solves some long-standing mysteries makes for an exciting and yet heart-rending story.

This is an absolutely stand out story with wonderful characters and a magical and yet truly believable story.  Nisha is such a strong yet vulnerable character, who has been through many traumas.  She has a mixed heritage family, with an English father and an Indian mother, and  although her father’s job has shielded her from racial discrimination, she finds that in England many of the people are far more wary and even hostile. The story is told with two separate ‘voices’, both of them showing the different aspects of Nisha’s life.   We have the contrast between the main narrative, set in an England still beset by German raids, rationing and a sense of exhaustion with the war;  then we have  the journal that Nisha keeps (of what happened in Singapore), which really highlights the trauma that she has suffered and her very close escape from death by drowning.  There are many twists and turns along the way and we see how she is haunted by her experiences, but gradually she is able to find her place in her new community and build a relationship with her very formidable grandmother.

This is proving to be one of my highlights of the year, so far.  It is a story that lingers in the mind and makes you appreciate the challenges that previous generations faced, and that people in many countries are still facing.  I hope that this will help young people understand the past and hopefully want to find out more about less well known conflicts.  This story has ‘award nomination’ written all over it and I am sure it will appear in some lists over the coming year or so.

The Author

I first came across Dan’s work when I was asked to review a book of his called “Big Game”, which was a great read.  It is safe to say that the author has gone from strength to strength.

“Growing up, Dan Smith led three lives. In one he survived the day-to-day humdrum of boarding school, while in another he travelled the world, finding adventure in the padi fields of Asia and the jungles of Brazil. But the third life he lived in a world of his own, making up stories . . . Which is where some people say he still lives most of the time.

Dan writes for both children and adults”

Aarti and the Blue Gods by Jasbinder Bilan and Margaux Carpentier

This is the latest book from yet another fantastic graduate of the Bath Spa course on Writing for Young People.  It is Jasbinder Bilan’s third book and this time she takes us to a remote Scottish Island, which is hiding a secret.  Aarti has lived on the island for most of her life and can remember little else.  She is looked after by her ‘Aunt’ and life is extremely hard.  they are totally self sufficient, living off the vegetables they grow, the eggs from their hens and anything they can find on the island; the only friend that Aarti has is a fox that she calls Chand, although she doesn’t know where the name comes from..  However, as she grows older, Aarti begins to wonder if she is being told the truth about what happened to her parents and whether they are really dead.  There is also the mystery of a locked room that she is not allowed to enter, but when it is left unlocked one day, she goes in and discovers an old stuffed toy that brings back some long-lost memories.  One of the few things that Aarti has is a collection of stories about Hindu deities, hence the reference in the title to blue Gods; although why she has this is a mystery.

Unfortunately life takes a horrendous turn, when Aunt is killed as she tries to collect some sea bird eggs from the cliffs and Aarti is left totally on her own.  To begin with she thinks she can manage, but then her supplies are ruined by rain and she realizes that a young girl cannot live by herself.  Just as she is beginning to give up all hope, she finds a young boy floating in the sea and manages to save him.  Euan is a young Scottish boy and talks to Aarti about his family and whether they will be able to leave the island and get back to more inhabited land.  This raises the question of whether there is a boat on the island.  Aarti has never seen one, but they realize that Auntie would have needed some means to get her and Aarti to the island in the first place.  After lots of exploration they are finally successful in finding a small boat hidden away in a cave and eventually manage to bring it around to the small harbour.  The pair manage to escape from the island and head in what they think is the general direction of other islands and the mainland.  Thankfully the boat is rescued during a storm and the youngsters saved; however, that is when things take a very strange turn, because Euan is nowhere to be found and none of the rescuers had seen him on the boat.  What happens next totally changes Aarti’s life and  helps explain so much of her past, but it is her discoveries about Euan that will probably have the most profound impact on her future.

This is one of those books that keeps growing in its impact on the reader.  When you start thinking of the stresses of living in that environment and then the questions about family and lack of communication, it really does make you understand just how bleak the whole way of life would be.  This is definitely a five star read, for a whole host of reasons and I have become a great fan of Jasbinder’s work.  we also have a fabulous cover and inside  which draws together the two mythologies that are represented in the book.  Hopefully it will encourage the young readers to explore these and see how different cultures share connections.

His Royal Hopeless by Chloe Perrin and George Ermos

Every now and again you get someone who is the ‘black sheep’ of the family.  But in this story we have the opposite happening.  Young Robbie is the heir to the Sinistevil’s dynasty and whilst he tries very hard to live up to his mother’s expectations, it is obvious that he will never fit (both literally and metaphorically), into his dead brother  Brutus’s shoes.  The family are the most evil rulers that you can imagine, with a love of killing, looting and pillaging.  At the age of 12 years they are made to pledge their heart to a  jewelled sceptre, which re-enforces their desire for evil.  Nothing gets in their way and there is no such thing as family love or loyalty.  The problem is that Robbie really does not fit into this world.  He thinks he is evil, but in fact he is a real softy and even has a local peasant girl, Layla, as his friend.  When Robbie discovers that he has an artificial heart, after his mother had the real one removed when he was a baby, he decides to go and retrieve the real one, so that he can take the oath to the sceptre.  What follows is a funny and yet sad look at someone who is desperate for love and affection, but who cannot see the reality of the family that he is growing up in.  Thankfully there are people who want to help Robbie be the good person he is meant to be, although they have their own challenges in life.

What an absolutely magical story this is. I can’t imagine that anyone will not love Robbie despite the fact that he needs a bit of ‘backbone’.  However, with the strong-willed Layla and loyal servant Devon, he is able to overcome many dangers and eventually realizes that he does not want to be evil and much prefers being an ordinary person.  I think it is possible to come to the conclusion that we are not just the character we inherit from our family.  We definitely see that Robbie has an innate goodness that even his horrible mother cannot destroy.  There are so many instances where we wonder about the meaning of family; the Sinistevils take the meaning of ‘dysfunctional’ and then raise it by several notches.  Some of the other characters prove that money plays no part in the way that family love can work and are excellent role models for young Robbie to follow.  If you want a story of a lovable character, with the added ‘attraction’ of a really vile villain (hiss, boo!)  then this really is the book for you.  It is full of laughter, adventure and even the possibility of redemption at the end of the book.

 

“CHLOË PERRIN is a North Walian writer who currently lives in West London studying Creative Writing at Brunel University.

They love to feed crows, prefers Halloween to Christmas and was frequently told off as a child for reading in class. Chloë has previously worked as a youth worker, drama tutor and professional storyteller, having always believed that the best way to teach anyone anything is through a story.

HIS ROYAL HOPELESS was longlisted for the 2019 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize and is their debut novel.”  Chicken House website.

HIS ROYAL HOPELESS by Chloë Perrin is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)
Find out more at chickenhousebooks.com

Screenshot 2021-08-02 at 12.11.47.png

The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy by Richard Pickard and Maxine Lee-Mackie

I know that I am biased about this, because they are based in my part of the world, but anything published by the fabulous Chicken House is going to get my attention.  This title was even more noteworthy because it was the inaugural Chairman’s Choice prize winner at the 2019 Times/Chicken House competition.  Added to this is the totally original concept that we find in this heartwarming story, it is a real must-read for this summer.

Marina lives in the fishing port of Merlington, where there are probably more fish shops that anything else; unfortunately Marina really dislikes fish, but particularly since her beloved father (a fisherman) went missing 6 years before.  Life in the town appears  boring, so Marina resorts to storytelling to liven things up; unfortunately she can’t seem to limit the scope of her tales and it ends up with her being called a ‘liar’ by one of her classmates.  When she discovers  a mysterious young boy, with claws for hands and hair made of tentacles, no one believes her; not until the boy is found asleep on the beach the following day.  What follows is a quest to discover where the boy, called William, comes from and whether there is any link to her missing father.  There are are mysteries and a very evil villain, who is hiding in plain sight.

The first thing that came to mind when I started reading this story was that Marina was a little bit like ‘the boy that cried wolf’.  She was so in love with telling stories that she did not know when to stop and the consequences threatened to ruin her life in the town.  We all love stories, after all that is why we read books, but it is about recognizing  fact from fiction and also knowing how our stories will impact on our listeners.  This is a lesson that Marina has to learn and we are lucky to be able to follow her on this journey of discovery.  This is also a story about the importance of family and friends; as Marina needs the support of her mother and close friends to overcome the disbelievers and find the answers to her questions.

This is a fabulous book for middle grade children.  It is full of adventure and some amazing characters, especially Marina and William.  Not only will you want to visit Merlington for the various fish dishes, but you might even give Japanese ‘Sashima’ a try.  You will have to read the book to discover these delicacies if you don’t already know what they are!

******************************************************************

I am delighted to say that Richard Pickard has agreed to provide a guest blog about this book and I know you will enjoy it as much as I did.

 

MY WRITING SPACE

A short walk from Westbourne village, where you’ll find a gorgeous bookstore and the best fish and chips in the world, there is a small path that punches a shapely hole through a thick wall of hedging… This is the doorway to Alum Chine – a steep-sided valley that guides you down through the cliffs and toward a Bournemouth beach hut, where much of The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy was written.

Spending most of my time in London, where space is a premium and my own desk is the stuff of dreams, I find myself writing wherever I can – on trains, in cafés (pre-pandemic) and on my bed propped up by pillows. But my favourite place, where I’ve found much of my inspiration, has always been the beach hut.

The walk down Alum Chine is the perfect way to find the right headspace – the scent of damp pine needles filling your nose as a canopy of trees obscures the sunlight. Further along the pathway, a black iron fence shielding its steepest edge, a weathered bridge comes into view – the teal green paint flaking as it stretches across the deepest section of woodland. We call this ‘Summer’s Bridge’, a place to remember my dad’s beautiful border collie who was possibly the only being to love Alum Chine quite as much me.

The journey to the beach hut is punctured with memories such as these at every step. From the small hole at the base of a now-felled tree (my Granny Pat taught us this was the Dorset home of Winnie-the-Pooh), to the secret archways and snug stone staircases that twist through the undergrowth and lead up to unknowable places. An army of invisible birds call out through the trees which cover the steep banks at the mouth of the Chine, which we’d run down at full pelt and still would if it weren’t for the tightly packed vegetation that has claimed the slopes over the years.

Once the deep blue of the English Channel appears on the horizon, the most eager person calls out: “I saw the sea first!” and the sunlight breaks through at last. Sand mingles with a row of wild poppies as you pass the sprawling playground which felt so impressive at 3ft tall, and the newest beach huts rise from the promenade where an old stone amphitheatre once circled our childhood paddling pool.

Past the cloisters and three huts down you’ll find it. The place where my story took shape. A small, terraced cabin facing out onto the golden sand of Bournemouth’s prize-winning beach. Here I would sit, come rain or shine, in a squidgy deck chair with my leatherbound notebook from Portobello market and a thick mug of tea – which I’d brew on the small gas hob inside.

After the death of my beloved Granny Pat, this spring was sadly our last with the beach hut. But for more than thirty years it was the scene of so many happy moments. Eating bacon sandwiches on the morning of my dad’s wedding. The long evenings sat drinking a beer with my boyfriend Rob. The countless childhood summers spent visiting Granny Pat and Grandad, and of course, those happy days writing my novel. So, now that I’m drafting a second story for Chicken House, I’ll need to make do with a towel on the sand and a large thermos of tea. I’ll pack an umbrella, in case of weather-related disaster, plus extra jumpers in those colder months and a pack of biscuits to munch on after emerging from the sea to write…

Which actually, when I think about it, sounds like a pretty great alternative.

THE PECULIAR TALE OF THE TENTACLE BOY is out now, priced £6.99. Read chapter 1 on the Chicken House website!

 

Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traore

Chicken House, 9781913322366

Over the last few years we have started to see more stories for young people that feature not just diverse characters, but also a diverse setting.  This story is set in the author’s home country of Nigeria and gives us an insight into the the challenging contrasts between different ways of life.  Over many years I have had several friends from Nigeria; they included girls in my class at school and then three or four friends who attended library school in Manchester and were looking forward to contributing to the development of library services in the country.  However this book really brings the country to life provides a wonderful sense of the balance that is being sought between different aspects of culture.

Simi finds herself being sent to live with her grandmother for the summer, whilst her mother is in England for a work training course.  Simi is a thoroughly modern girl who lives in the buzzing metropolis of Lagos, so it comes as quite a shock to find herself in a small rural village, without computers or mobile phone coverage.  She then discovers that her grandmother is central to the village structure and acts as the healer and wise woman for the local community.  Whilst out, exploring the local area, Simi finds herself drawn to a small lake which the local people avoid as they say many children have disappeared there over the years.  What follows next seems like a dream to Simi; she is drawn down into the lake and discovers a land beneath the water, even seeing two children talking, however she is then raised out of the lake and left on its edge; so is there magic at work here?  The rest of the story follows Simi as she tries to make sense of what is going on, and also how she tries to discover why there is so much bad feelings between her mother and grandmother.  By the end of the book we have found old secrets uncovered, old wounds healed and a sense that a new positive future is possible for all the people of the area.

I absolutely loved this story as it shows the conflict that so many young (and not so young) people feel about the many changes that we are constantly seeing in our lives. Although this is set in Nigeria, it is a scenario that could take place in many other countries, as tradition and the modern world try to work together and maintain the sense of belonging that is so important in most of our lives.  It also reminds us that the modern world does not always provide answers to what we see and feel.

Efua Traore

Efua Traoré is a Nigerian-German author who grew up in a small town in Nigeria. For as long as she can remember, her head was filled with little stories, but it was not until much later that she began to write them down.

Apart from Nigeria, she has also lived in France and Germany and she writes in English and in German. If she had her way, she would travel much more and write every single day.

Efua won the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa with her short story ‘True Happiness’ and she is a literature grant holder of the Munich Literaturreferat. Children of the Quicksands is her debut novel which won the Times / Chicken House Prize in 2019.

She lives in Munich with her husband and three daughters.

Photo credit belongs to Boubacar Traoré (if not, please let me know and I will update the credit).

Antigua de Fortune of the High Seas by Anna Rainbow and Oli Hyatt

This is the second book about Pirates that I have had the pleasure of reading in the last few months.  this one is aimed at a slightly older audience, age 8 years and above and definitely makes it onto the reading list for “Talk like a Pirate” day.

Tiggy (short for Antigua) wants to lead a life of adventure and perhaps even be a pirate.  She wants to spend time down by the harbour with her friends Marina and Felipe, but unfortunately, she is a young lady and has to wear long dresses and even attend her first dance at the Governor’s Ball.

During the celebrations to commemorate the freeing of the town’s boys, based around  a legend about the ‘Pirate King’ who had taken all the boys and turned them into Sea Golems in the distant past, history seems to repeat itself.   A band of sinister pirates and a giant squid, attack the island and make off with all of the young boys, including Tiggy’s younger brother; she and her friends decide to try and free the captives.  Mysterious mental messages from a mermaid and the fact that Tiggy’s friend Marina is the daughter of a Selkie helps them in their quest.    Importantly,  how can this threat be defeated?

Although there is no real location for the island on which they live, the authors have very strongly given the setting a feel of the Caribbean, but with strong links to Spain, with the use of Madre and Padre  as well as some of the characters’ names.  They have created a world that we can associate with, but which has magical elements that weave a wonderful  and complex place.  You can absolutely feel the heat and hear the sounds of the busy Caribbean Port, together with the rich diversity of characters that are found there.

This is a roller coaster of a story in which the Swash has never before been so Buckled!  It is a fantastic story for the KS2 reader and gives the opportunity to explore themes such as identity, belonging, family, as well as folk tales and legends.  There are wonderfully strong characters, so that this book will appeal to both girls and boys.  It is also a great starting point for some very creative art and writing.  I definitely hope that we will see some more adventures for Antigua and her friends.  Thank you to Anna for this short post that she has given, sharing the background to the Selkie theme that is so important in the book.

 

An introduction to Selkies

By Anna Rainbow

One of the oceanic myths of particular interest to Oli and me was that of the selkie. Unlike the better known mermaid, who is permanently a human with a fish tail, the selkie is a shapeshifter, most commonly a woman who can exist as a seal in water, and then upon shedding her seal skin, change into a human form on land.

A main theme of our book was trying to reconnect landlubbers with the ocean, and promoting the synergy between land and sea, so the selkie seemed to encapsulate this theme perfectly — a person (or a seal) who could live in and enjoy both environments. Someone who values both habitats equally is far less likely to dump plastics in the waves and destroy marine life with pollution.

But it wasn’t just this that fascinated us, it was the dark feminist twist on the tale, something we weren’t aware of before we started our research. A common tale about Selkies is that should a man steal her selkie skin, he can make her his bride. Perhaps symbolic of the power, the identity and freedom, taken from women when they become a wife, especially in the olden days. Or perhaps even deeper, the power taken from women they are born into a patriarchal society.

It was therefore important to us that the Selkies in our story were strong women who kept hold of their seal skins. It is no coincidence that Gabriella, a well known Selkie and Mother to Antigua’s best friend, Marina, is a single Mother who has kept her powers. On the flip side, woman generally don’t give their power away, it is stolen by men, so it was equally important that the men in our book did not steal our Selkie’s skin.

That is not to say that all men steal women’s power, of course not, but Antigua de Fortune of the High Seas is a feminist book, with a strong female lead who rescues all the boys of her island, and we wanted this reflected in our mythology too. It was important to us that we invented a world where Selkies keep hold of their own skin, and men don’t attempt to steal it.

ANTIGUA DE FORTUNE OF THE HIGH SEAS by Anna Rainbow and Oli Hyatt is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

 

About Oli Hyatt & Anna Rainbow
ANNA RAINBOW grew up and still lives in North East England and works as a Clinical Psychologist with people with disabilities. Anna loves music and has always been in various choirs, singing quartets, bands, and orchestras. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition which led to Chicken House publishing The Fandom, her series for young adults (as Anna Day) – it sold in 24 territories and was optioned for TV development by Fox. This is her debut middle-grade novel.  Find out more at annadaybooks.com and follow her on twitter @annadayauthor

OLI HYATT is based in Kings Sutton and is the co-founder of BAFTA award-winning animation studio Blue Zoo. He is also the Director of Alphablocks Limited, the company behind the popular CBeebies phonics shows, Alphablocks and Numberblocks. He is also the chair of Animation UK and was awarded an MBE for his services to the animation industry. This is Oli’s debut novel. Follow Oli on twitter @HyattOli

Antigua de Fortune of the High Seas is Oli and Anna’s first co-authored book together.

City of Rust by Gemma Fowler and Karl James Mountford

I have been a fan of science fiction since my teens, when I discovered authors such as John Christopher, with his Tripods trilogy.  Working as a library assistant when I left school gave me the opportunity to explore a whole range of genres and publishers and for Sci-Fi the lead publisher was definitely Gollancz (with their iconic bright yellow covers).  It as unfortunate that for many people the subject became less popular as we faced the reality of moving into space and the area of fantasy seems to become the replacement genre. Luckily there has been a move back towards Sci-Fi at all age ranges.

Chicken House, 97890655436

The story is set in a future world where humanity has found that the only way to deal with the amount of metal rubbish is to send it in to orbit around the earth, where it joins the space debris accumulated from satellites and rockets.  The heroine is Railey, a young girl who lives with her grandmother and has ambitions to be a champion drone racer, with the help of her bio-robotic gecko called Atti.  Things have been getting more difficult as her engineer/inventor grandmother begins to suffer memory loss and making a living is even more difficult.  When Railey is chased by a bounty hunter and thinks that her gran has been killed, she has to make a run for it; finding herself rescued by the members of a space junk vessel.  As they uncover a plot to  crash a huge ‘trash bomb’ into the earth, their loyalties are tested and they find themselves questioning the world that they live in.

The world that Gemma Fowler has created is one that has been completely overwhelmed by the amount of metal that has been discarded and it has become a dystopian place of those that have (and live in Glass City) and those that have not and live in places such as Boxville, named from the shipping containers which provide homes.  There is a real sense that we should be treating this as a window into our future if we do not do something to change the disposable world that we live in.  Scarily we have had news within the last week or so about a rocket crashing into the Indian ocean; very much a case of life imitating art!  There are elements in the plot that take me back to some of my favourite films, with the drone racing being very familiar to those who love the Star Wars series.  However this is a totally original take on the society that we live in.  There have been several books in the past that are situated in rubbish tips and but this goes several stages further and shows us as destroying the space that surrounds us.

There are some fascinating characters who are trying to find their way in this terrible world, but I think that my favourite has to be Atti, the gecko.  He is a mix of real animal ,but with the addition of bionic improvements, and he actually talks; above all he has a really positive attitude that you can’t help but love.  The ending of this story resolved the danger that the young people have faced, but we are left with the slightly open ending, which allows us to hope that we will have further adventures as they start their lives as ‘Junkers’, cleaning up the space around them.

 

Gemma Fowler

photographybytarik-GemmaFowler-Headshot-002.jpg

photo is on her website https://www.gemmarfowler.com/about

How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg by Emma Shevah and Kirsti Beautyman

I am delighted to say that this is one of a growing number of books that focuses on the world we live in and how we interact with the nature that surrounds us.  There has been an ever growing number of information books and television programmes that focus on the environment and it is so good to see so many young people becoming involved in raising the awareness of the situation.  This book provides a wonderful mix of adventure, nature and also the difficulties that people can have if they are perceived as being ‘different’ in any way.

Chicken House, 9781910655474

Nathaniel has grown up being looked after by his grandmother (although he attends a boarding school during term time).  When his grandmother dies, he was going to spend the holidays with his aunt and uncle, but then his mother, who has just returned from living in India decides that she wants to have him stay with her at the old family home at Southwold in Suffolk He finds living in such a chaotic surrounding a challenge and is on the verge of wanting to leave and go to the familiar surroundings of his other family.  A chance meeting a young girl called Ivy, who thinks she can communicate with animals of all kinds, gives him something to focus on; their common interest in the environment also helps both of them cope with a variety of issues. However, there is a secret from the past that is about to re-surface and the two Eco-warriors will have their work cut out to find a solution.
This is a beautiful story of two children who have had many issues in their lives. Nathaniel has Asperger’s syndrome and struggles to connect with others, while Ivy is living with very supportive foster parents but has undergone abusive treatment from her real father, who even sent her Thai mother back to Thailand. This moving tale shows how these two eventually begin to work together despite the major difference in the way that they interact with others. It also shows how they can connect with the adults in their lives, when the adults take the time to help them. It is a superb read for all children, whether they are aware of environmental issues or not.  I gradually became more engrossed by these seemingly eccentric characters and I would love to follow some more of their adventures; in fact I get the hint that there might be another real adventure in the offing.  Thank you Emma Shevah for such a fantastic read.

 

Emma Shevah is Thai and Irish and was born and raised in London. She is the author

Emma Shevah

of four Middle Grade novels published by Chicken House:Dream on AmberDara Palmer’s Major Drama (optioned by the BBC), and What Lexie Did and How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg, and an early reader for BloomsburyHello Baby Mo! She has lived and travelled in many countries but now lives in Brighton with half of her four children. She is Head of Year at Roedean, where she teaches English and gazes at the sea, wishing she was in it.  (Chicken House Books)

Vi SPY: Licence to Chill by Maz Evans and Jez Tuya

When you see the name Maz Evans on the cover of a book, you know that it is going to be a brilliant, exciting and extremely funny story.  The author has been thrilling us with her first series “Who Let the Gods Out” and I am sure that I was not the only person suffering from withdrawal symptoms when that series finished.  I need not have worried because she has come back with a complete ‘humdinger’ of a plot and a feisty and completely awesome heroine called Valentine Day (yes, really).

The plot introduces us to Valentine who wants to be a spy and follow in the footsteps of her mother, even though the latter denies that she has ever been an agent.  Her father is dead, according to her mum and it looks as if she is about to marry Vi’s teacher, Mr Sprout; providing Vi with  step-brother called Russell!  However at the wedding there is a problem, when the registrar turns out to be Vi’s father in disguise and he is also the world’s second most wanted super villain, his name is Robert Ford, aka Sir Charge (honest).  The plot begins to thicken as someone called Umbra wants to steal a mind control device in order to help them take over the world (you can almost hear the evil laugh can’t you?) and Vi is determined to stop them.  the problem is how will she achieve this and who can she trust to help her.  The world seems to be full of villains, recovering villains, spies and robowars aficionados. Vi also discovers that not only is her mum a retired spy but so is her grandmother and several generations before that; so it is no wonder that she has this need to investigate things. The plot moves at a tremendous pace and it really does need you to hang on to your hat as the action moves forward.

I think by now you will have been able to see the beautiful way that Maz Evans strews her plot with puns and jokes; so that if you are not laughing, you will probably be groaning.  However, despite all of this humour there is also the underlying look at more serious issues that we have come to know from the author’s previous work.  Both Vi and Russell are from families where the parents are no longer together and they are having to try and come to terms with the changes.  We also see that Russell in particular is subject to bullying at school; partially because his dad is a teacher but mainly because he is something of a science geek and is totally into robowars and has entered his robot ‘Agadoo’ for the Blitzbot competition.  This is a glorious story with the ability to make us all smile and laugh out loud in this difficult time.  I am so looking forward to reading more adventures with Vi and her new sidekick Russell.

 

Maz Evans Biog:

Still unsure how it happened, Maz Evans is apparently the author of the bestselling WHO LET THE GODS OUT? series, which has sold to 19 countries worldwide and has received over 20 award nominations, including the Carnegie Medal, Branford Boase, Books Are My Bag and Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Year. She narrates the audiobooks for the series and her acclaimed live events have featured at Hay, Imagine, Edinburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Bestival, Wilderness and countless literary festivals and primary schools around the UK.

Maz has contributed to RETURN TO WONDERLAND, THE BOOK OF HOPES and SWALLOWED BY A WHALE and her children’s poetry has been published in Caterpillar magazine. Her career began as a TV journalist, writing for The Daily Telegraph and TV Times magazine and she still regularly broadcasts her views on anything from politics to parenthood on BBC Radio 2 and the bus.

As a scriptwriter, her original musical H. R. HAITCH (with composer Luke Bateman) was produced at the Union Theatre, London in 2018. She has previously had shows produced at the Actors’ Church Covent Garden, Southend Palace Theatre and Bryanston Arts Centre and she was awarded places in the Holby City and Casualty BBC Shadow schemes.

As a songwriter, Maz won the Iris Theatre songwriting award three years in succession (with Luke Bateman) and her cabaret songs are regularly performed in the West End and beyond. As an author, she has won the hearts of thousands of children and as a nuclear physicist, she has frankly been completely rubbish.

Morgana Mage in the Robotic Age by Amy Bond

What a really great concept for a story.  The heroine, Morgana is a witch and lives in a world that has divided into the magical community and the non-magic; the latter have become a highly technical society and robots are used in order to do all of the more menial tasks in life.  The main problem is the absolute dislike that the two societies have for each other, it really is a case of “Ne’er the twain shall meet”.  The only reason that the magical community visits the city is to get supplies from the small magical community, who live in the ‘undercity’ and are looked down on by the non-magic.  Morgana is definitely different and has a fascination for robots; her magical abilities are nearly non-existent and she really wants to go to school.  When her father takes her on one of his trip to the city she is delighted and together with her friend Esther she makes several secret visits to the metropolis.  A turning point comes when school inspectors arrive in the village and she demands that she be allowed to attend school, something unheard of in the past.  The consequences not only put her at odds with her community, but it also puts her life at risk, when she and her new friend Jonathan find that robots have been changed and are ready to take over the world.

Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics were first written down in 1942 in a short story called “Runaround” and state:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

We are now living in a world where robots and specifically Artificial Intelligence are getting closer to having independent thought, something that this book actually addresses as we discover the importance of empathy, understanding and balance, both in the human and in the hi-tech world.  This book is full of so many issues that the young characters have to come to terms with, but we realise that the adults are the ones who really need to change their views; they need to be more flexible in the way they treat those with different beliefs.  It really is a message that needs to be passed on in as many ways as possible, particularly at the moment.

Although the underlying messages are quite serious there is still room for a lot of action and adventure and I am sure that everyone will love ‘kitty’ the robotic kitten that Morgana finds and repairs and which becomes her version of a ‘familiar’.  Overall this book is an absolute joy with its amazing mix of lifestyles.  It will open children to the possibility of creating their own world where just about anything is possible, but where actions have consequences.  What a stunning way to start the New Year!  On top of all this, the author is a Librarian, I am so happy!!

 

My Journey to Publication by Amy Bond

I had started books before, but abandoned them not far into the story. One I had finished, but once I had gotten to the end of the first draft, I wasn’t sure what to do with the mess of words and tangle of plot. The first draft of Morgana Mage in the Robotic Age wasn’t any neater, but perhaps I saw more potential, or had just learnt more discipline in the intervening years. I began to rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it until, at last, I could see some hope for it.

This hope was dashed, repeatedly, once I began to submit it to agents. There were a couple of manuscript requests among the rejection, which momentarily raised expectations, only to be brought down again. Some of their kind advice did help me finesse my work some more. All the time I had been keeping an eye out on the opening of the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition. I had followed it the past couple of years as I tinkered away on my book. It seemed such a magical prospect, that you could send in your work and come away with a book deal from such a renowned publisher. Though I wasn’t feeling too optimistic at the time I entered, I reminded myself to be proud to have even got so far as to have something book shaped enough to submit.

It was coming to the end of the day in the office when I got the call to say I had made the longlist. It genuinely felt like a dream. I missed the call to say I had made the shortlist, but given the embarrassing squealing and dancing around my bedroom that took place listening to the voicemail, I am glad I wasn’t actually on the phone to Barry Cunningham, Chicken House’s Publisher. The announcement day in London is still a bit of a blur in my head, and while I didn’t come away with the book deal, I had some solid feedback from the judges and a new confidence in my writing. I got back to work.

Chicken House had kindly said that I could send them on any improved manuscript, so I did. I didn’t really think much would come of it, but no harm would come of it at least, and maybe some more feedback. I had to read the publication offer email several times before I let myself get too excited. Perhaps I had misunderstood. But no, I was going to have my book published.

A lot more work and writing, doubt and belief have followed this. A COVID-19 induced delay pushed the reality further into the distance. But it is really happening. I have held my own book, and it was just as amazing a moment as I had anticipated. The only thing more wonderful is to imagine it in the hands of children soon.

MORGANA MAGE IN THE ROBOTIC AGE by Amy Bond is out now, priced £6.99. Follow Amy on Twitter: @amylouisebond