Darwin’s Dragon by Lindsay Galvin and Gordy Wright

Since the bicentenary of his birth in 1809 there has been a great deal written about the naturalist Charles Darwin.  Many of the books focus on his major work “On the Origin of Species”, or they are biographies which cover his whole life.  this new book by Lindsay Galvin takes a slightly different tack and covers the period of his time on HMS Beagle from 1831-36.  Darwin himself is not even the main character in the story, that honour goes to the young cabin boy Syms Covington, who in real life was promoted to become Darwin’s assistant during the five year voyage.

The story mainly takes place in the Galapagos Islands, a place that still seems somewhat magical, even today, but in those days it was virtually unknown and full of new and fascinating wildlife.  When returning from an expedition to an island, Darwin and Syms are caught in a storm and Syms is thrown overboard from the small dingy they are in.  When he wakes up he is on a strange island, with no ship in sight.There is an active volcano that threatens Syms, but he is aided by a small lizard that he names Farthing and before long he finds himself running for his life as he experiences something that should not exist outside of myths and legends, a real dragon and it is not happy.  Syms eventually escapes from the island and the many dangers he has faced and is picked up, together with Farthing and some eggs he has collected,  by the Beagle and the voyage continues.  The second part of the story is about what happens when the eggs hatch and a group of lizards are returned to England, where they are handed over to a young Queen Victoria.  What eventually becomes obvious to Syms is that they are actually young dragons and they go through the same sort of metamorphosis that creatures such as butterflies and frogs go through.  The conditions that they are kept in is not suitable and Syms wants to release them, but the Queen will not agree, even though one of the young dies in captivity.  We definitely start cheering when our young hero manages to release the dragons and we hope that they survive.  In order to escape the wrath of the Queen, Darwin helps his young assistant to travel to Australia, where he settles and has a family.  The final section of the story is set twenty five years later when Syms takes his young daughter on a trip to the Galapagos.  She has been brought up on the stories her father tells of his adventures, but does not believe them, until she is suddenly presented with a huge dragon, that greets her father; Farthing has not forgotten the friend that set him free.  We then have the final image of all the other dragons flying free in the sky above their island.

This is a stunning mix of true story with a hint of the mythical.  It is full of action and adventure but it also has additional layers that make us think about the way that we treat creatures.  In the book, Darwin and other naturalists see the animals as subjects for experimentation and investigation.  Whilst they are frustrated when something happens to the creatures, it is just an inconvenience and there is little sense that they have any empathy for the animals they have captured.  Luckily Darwin seems to have altered his views somewhat as he grew older and Lindsay Galvin has quoted him as saying “All animals feel wonder and may exhibit curiosity” and also “There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery”, both taken from “The Descent of Man” .  This story can be read at several different levels and I particularly like all the information at the back of the book, which will encourage young people to read more about the period and the discoveries that were being made.  the discussion with the author gives a brilliant insight into how she created the book and what caught her interest at the very beginning.  The illustrations are a lovely addition and blend extremely well, but it is the actual cover and the inside covers which are a real ‘Tour de Force’; they are absolutely stunning and make this a very special addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

 

I have to say that this makes a really stunning start to 2021 and I just hope that all the others books this year manage to meet this very high standard.  As always ‘Chicken House’ has found yet another winner; I look forward to reading more by this author.

The Author Lindsay Galvin

“Lindsay was lucky enough to be raised in a house of stories, music, and love of the sea. She left part of her heart underwater after living and working in Thailand where she spent hundreds of blissful hours scuba diving. Forced now to surface for breath, she lives in sight of the chillier Sussex sea with her husband and two sons. When she is not writing, she can be found reading, running or practicing yoga. She has a degree in English Language and Literature, is fascinated by psychology and the natural world, and teaches Science. Lindsay hadn’t written creatively since childhood until the idea for her debut novel The Secret Deep splashed into her mind, and she now she’s hooked.”  from Chicken House website, with thanks.

Highfire by Eoin Colfer

This review is something of a departure for me.  Firstly it is about an adult novel and secondly the post is just about this one title.

Eoin Colfer has been a favourite author of mine since I first came across Artemis Fowl in the early years of this millennium; has really been nearly twenty years?  His work is always quirky, whacky and full of laugh out loud humour, I think he invented the concept of ‘fart flaps’ for dwarfs and his imagination takes him to places that we can only dream of, but of course he then takes us along for the ride with these amazing stories.

Although he has written two other adult novels this is the first that I have read and it is definitely a change from any of the other works I have read.  rather than being set in Ireland this story is firmly embedded in the bayou lands of Louisiana and although the nearest I have been is the Florida Everglades, there is a real sense of place; so that you can really feel the heat and humidity  that the characters are having to live in.

The story itself  has a small cast but the two central ‘heroes’ are unusual to say the least.  Squib is a young teenager who spends his life trying to avoid trouble and school, whilst making money doing errands for those who live in the bayou.  What he doesn’t  expect is that one of his clients turns out to be a cable TV, flash dance loving dragon called Vern (that’s short for Wyvern).  At that moment it is time to suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow.  Of course this is not going to be the end of the story; enter the villain of the piece,  the sadistic sociopath of a sheriff called Regence Hooke who has his eyes on Squib’s mother and also is more than willing to get involved in bending the law to suit himself.When Hooke finds out about Vern the $$$ signs appear before his eyes and life gets extremely dangerous for anyone who gets in his way.

Given that this book is full of very strong language as well as a lot of blood and guts I didn’t think that I would like it, after all I am now in possession of a bus pass!  However I really loved it, so thank you Eoin Colfer for expanding my horizons and reminding me that you need to give a book a chance; this was definitely worth the read.  I found myself chuckling over some of the very subtle humour that the author has brought to this story; the references to Peter Pan which you can see with the name ‘Hooke’ as well as the Louisiana alligators which fill in nicely for a Crocodile are a joy.  However I think it is Vern who has definitely stolen my heart.  This is someone who has lived for a very long time, seen all other members of his family and species killed by humans,  has become a creature of legend and yet still manages to have a sense of humour and a desire to enjoy his life.

Eoin Colfer has given us a wonderful story of hope and friendship that overcomes the mutual distrust of some of the characters.  There is a wonderful sense of community despite the truly awful machinations of the sheriff and a sense of neighbours who are willing to share and help each other in the ups and downs of every day life.  Definitely a five star rating for this title.

Some Spring Gems

It has been a while since I wrote about some of the latest middle grade fiction that have appeared recently.  There has been a continued interest in all things crime related as well as mythical beasts, alternate worlds and of course witches.  In fact we have all been spoilt for choice, with not just some brilliant new books, but also continuing adventures from some of our favourite authors of the moment

 

Nosy Crow, 9781788000260

“Dragon in the Library” by Louie Stowell, illustrated by David Ortu.  Well anything about a library is going to get me interested and this is no exception.  When Kit and her friend visit the local library to get hold of a book by his favourite author something strange happens.  Kit starts reading an information book and suddenly finds herself transported into the pages of the book; the librarian Faith Braithwaite see all of this and brings Kit back, they then try and find out why this happened.  It turns out that Faith is a wizard and the library and some of the books in it act as portals to travel to other magical libraries, but best of all Kit and her friends find out that there is a dragon called Draca sleeping under the building.  When an unscrupulous developer Hadrian Salt tries to buy the library they will all have to find some way to thwart his plans and save the library and the dragon.  This is a really great story and I hope that there will be more, so that we can follow Kit and her friends as they get more involved with wizards.

Kelpies, 9781782505556

“Guardians of the Wild Unicorns” by Lindsay Littleson is a fantastic story from Scotland and is published by the wonderful Kelpies.  Lewis and Rhona are on a school trip staying in the highlands, far away from their homes in Glasgow, when Lewis sees what appear to be unicorns he thinks he is imagining things, but what if they are real?  The two friends find themselves trying to save these wild unicorns from people who see them as a way to make money, but they find that the task is not as easy as they hope.  The unicorns in this book are not at all like the glittery and colourful ones you find in younger age books; these are wild ones in the same sense that those in Harry Potter are and it brings an added fascination and sense of reality to the theme of the story.  Behind all of this we have the stories of two young people who are each coping with major issues at home and are not telling anyone, but by the end of the story they have realized that sharing problems can have a positive effect.

Piccadilly, 9781848127616

“Potkin and Stubbs” by Sophie Green, illustrated by K.J.Mountford, is a crime thriller but with a decided difference.  Lil has always wanted to be a reporter and because she lives in a city where schools have been closed and her mother is out at work, she has opportunities to follow her ambitions.  One evening she sees a young boy at the bus station cafe and offers to buy him a drink because he looks cold and hungry, however the truth is much stranger than that; Nedly is a ghost and Lil decides to try and discover where he had lived and how he died.  The story gets darker and more dangerous as they get closer to the truth and they find that there are citywide crimes that need to be resolved.  This is a fantastic story for those who love crime stories, with that little added twist of the supernatural.

Stripes, 9781788950220

“The Star-spun Web” by Sinead O’Hart and illustrated by Sara Mulvanney, is a magical tale of parallel worlds that should not connect, but where someone has created a machine to travel between them.  Tessa suddenly arrived on the doorsteps of an orphanage as a baby, but  there were some strange circumstances, such as the snow on her blanket, even though it was not winter.  The story picks up when she is twelve and is claimed by a man purporting to be a relative.  What happens next is strange, as she sees a boy through a mirror in the summerhouse and eventually  she is able to transfer to this alternative world.  It is still a version of the city of Dublin, but  one where there is a war and it seems that someone wants to bring bombers through the gateway in order to conquer her own peaceful version of the city and country.  Sinead O’Hart has a wonderful imagination and has created a group of characters full of caring and friendship on the one hand and some dastardly villains on the other hand.  It is a story that leaves you with a great big smile at the end.

Scholastic, 9781407191553

“Wildspark” by Vashti Hardy (illustrations by George Ermos and Jamie Gregory) is one of those books that you know will leave an impression and you will probably want to read again.  It is set in a world where the spirits of those who have died are able to be transferred into the bodies of animals.  It is also a world where robots are used to do a lot of the work and being mechanically talented is a real skill.  Prue lives on her parent’s farm and is a great engineer, but she has one ambition and that is to try and find the ghost of her brother and have him brought back to this second life.  When she is chosen (or rather her dead brother is) to become an apprentice in the main city of Medlock, she thinks that her opportunity has come.  This is a beautifully written story about what it is to be human, the love of family and the way we use technology and I really recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy, steampunk or books of extraordinary imagination.

Quercus, 9781786540782

“A girl called Justice” by Elly Griffiths is definitely one for those who love books by Robin Stevens, Laura Wood, Katherine Woodfine and Fleur Hitchcock among others.  After the death of her mother, Justice  (because her father is a criminal barrister) is sent to boarding school and soon finds an opportunity to use her super sleuthing skills.  One of the school maids has gone missing and Justice suspects foul play.  As she gradually settles into the strange world of a girls’ boarding school and makes friends, she also investigates the mysterious goings on and whether they have any links to a death from the past.  This was a great read for those who love this mix of school and crime and I can’t wait for further adventures from this absolutely ‘spiffing’ heroine.

Nosy Crow, 9781788004503

“No Ballet Shoes in Syria” by Catherine Bruton.  This is an amazing, heart breaking and yet very hopeful story of Aya, a young refugee from Syria and her mother and young brother.  The main part of the story deals with their struggle to be allowed to remain in the UK and the hope that one day they will find Aya’s father, who was feared drowned as the crossed from Turkey to Greece.  The other part of the story is about her love of ballet and the people she meets in a ballet class at the centre where they go to meet the case worker helping them.  We are given parallels between Aya and the ballet teacher Miss Helena, who had come to England on one of the last Kinder transport trains  and there is a lesson to be learnt about honouring those we have lost by achieving the potential that they believed we have.  There is so much hope in this book but it is laced with much sorrow and I really suggest you have a box of tissues at the ready; also don’t read it on the bus or train!

Macmillan, 9781509874217

“Kat Wolfe takes the Case” by Lauren St John, illustrate by Daniel Deamo is the second story about young Kat and her friend Harper as they are caught up in more adventures on the Jurassic coast where they live.  When a dinosaur is found by Harper’s father and his team (they are paleontologists), it leads to theft and possible smuggling by a gang trying to find “Dragons’ teeth” which are supposed to cure those suffering from incurable diseases.  Once again Kat needs the help of her grandfather (the Minister of Defence) and begins to know him better as a person.  This is a great story that mixes geology, animals, mystery and also friendship and family.  It is an ideal story for some adventure and crime fighting.

“Malamander” by Thomas Taylor is a tale of mystery and monsters set in a world similar to ours, but with some major differences.  Young Herbert Lemon works at the Grand Nautilus Hotel as a ‘Lost and Founder’, but he did not expect that he would be asked to find two people who had disappeared 12 years before.  Their daughter, Violet Parma thinks that it is linked to a monster called the Malamander that is said to inhabit the wreck of an old vessel in the bay.  This is a fabulously creepy yet funny book with amazing characters (and that is just their names) and a bookshop that every town should want.  I look forward to further adventures from this intrepid pair of children.

Simon & Schuster, 9781471178733

“Sea-ing is Believing” by Steven Butler and Steve Lenton, is the next episode in the goings on at yet another weird and wonderful seaside hotel; only this time the hotel is for non-human guests and I don’t mean it is a pet hotel.  This hotel caters for yetis, mermaids, and other such unusual clients.  In this adventure Frankie’s great grandfather reappears as a ghost during the celebration of his 175th birthday.  However something is not quite right and it is up to Frankie and a cast of incredible friends to save the hotel and all of those in it.  As always these two Steves have produced a hilarious and very quirky story that will have everyone in stitches and longing for more of the same

OUP, 9780192771605

“The last spell-breather” by Julie Pike takes us to a place where magic still happens and spells are created and then breathed over the recipient.  Rayne is the daughter of a spell breather, who protects their village from an undefined plague that has ravaged the country.  When her mother disappears it is up to Rayne to keep everyone safe, but unfortunately she is not very good at spells and the results leave her running for her life.  Her aim is to go to the city where her mother trained as a spell breather in the hope that she will find her mother and reverse the problems that she has created.  Along the way she meets several new friends, but not all of them are what they seem and there is also a dark and sinister villain who brought the original disaster to the country.  This is a beautifully conceived story with a frustrating young heroine who battles to do the best for everyone, but because she doesn’t always know the full facts, she gets things wrong.  It really is a lesson in communication, listening, trusting people and the importance of family and friends.

Barrington Stoke, 9781781128558

“The Disconnect” by Keren David is a new story from Barrington Stoke and is aimed squarely at the young teen reader, especially those who are attached to their smart phones.  Esther’s year group at school have been asked to do without their phones for six weeks and the winners will each get £1000 and the opportunity to be on a panel looking at the use of social media.  Many of the young people decide not to take part, many fall at some point during the trial but Esther and her friends are determined to win.  This is a fascinating look at how people depend on social media and what it means to be cut off from it.  It is also about fake news and making sure that we understand the consequences of believing anything we read without checking.  This is altogether a very timely book from one of our top authors for young adults.

Andersen Press, 9781781783448043

“The Bolds go Wild” by Julian Clary and David Roberts.  Once again we join our wonderful family of urban hyenas in Surbiton; however this time they get a surprise visit from Fred’s mother Imamu and she is very definitely a WILD hyena.  Whilst the children, Bobby and Betty are delighted by the visit they nearly give away the family secret when they are seen by their headmistress, with their tails showing below their clothes.  However all is not lost, as Mrs Dobson, the head, has her own secret; she has a son who wants to become a chimpanzee.  So the next thing is for the Bolds to help him achieve his ambition and then get him and Imamu back to Africa.  You can always guarantee that there will be zany goings on with this family, but beneath it all there is a real sense of caring about letting people and creatures find their own place in the world.

I do hope that you will find something here that you will enjoy.  We really are so lucky that there are some splendid books being published for this middle grade range and many of them deal with some quite serious subjects but in a very understated way, so that the reader is carried by the story line, rather than feeling they are being lectured.  This is just the start of a much bigger selection that I hope to bring to you in the next month or so.  Happy reading!