The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, paperback novel, 370 pages, published by Hot Key Books in 2018.

Jude is a mortal in the Faerie world, raised by Madoc, war chief to the High King, along with her sisters, Taryn and Vivi. Of the three, only Vivi is Fey, the birth daughter of Madoc. Her younger sisters are both mortal, but parentless, thanks to Madoc’s wrath. However, Madoc treats them as his own, raising them among the Fey gentry. This does not sit well with many of the Fey nobles, as they prefer their mortals to be their slaves, rather than their equals. Political change is in the air, and Jude finds herself caught up in the power struggle to be the next High King.

I found it took a little while for me to really get into this story, but once it got going I really enjoyed it. At first it seemed to be a story of some cruel teenage Fey tormenting the only mortals in their school class. While the feud was escalating and I was impressed by Jude’s determination to continue to defy Prince Cardan, I was much happier once there was spying, stealing, and murder plots, treachery and treason! It became much more exciting, and I could hardly put it down. It seemed there was no end to the Fey’s capacity for inflicting pain and humiliation on others for amusement, nor did they reserve this behaviour only for their enemies. A truly interesting and terrifying group. This did make for much action within a fast-paced, exciting story.

I found most of the characters dislikable in many ways. There is much to dislike about Cardan; he is arrogant, mean, vindictive, evilly cunning… the list really could go on, and his noble friends are almost as despicable. There isn’t much going for the other princes either. As for Madoc, he is a true general of war, delighting in bloodshed and strategy. Yet, strangely, Madoc was a character that I could connect with; he was ‘bad’ in many ways, but he owned his decisions, and he was absolutely loyal to his family. Taryn annoyed me with her too timid attitude and her disloyalty to Jude, while Oriana was a bit too distant, and kind of awkward with the girls. And Jude. What can I say about Jude? Well, I really wanted to like her, but she does not make it easy. Her determination and bravery are commendable, and she cares deeply for her family, even loving Madoc despite all he has done. Yet, she is kind of abrasive and prickly, with streaks of a cruelty and fondness for power that could undo her. There weren’t really ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in this story.

The Cruel Prince is most suitable for middle to upper high school students, given the level of violence throughout the book. And it is only the first in a new series, so there will be more bloodshed to be had in Faerie shortly. Yay!

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Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice by Natasha Farrant

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Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice by Natasha Farrant, paperback novel, 352 pages, published by Chicken House in 2016.

Lydia is the youngest of the five Bennet sisters, living in rural England in the early 1800s. Their family is of the landed gentry, though not exceedingly wealthy. It was expected that girls would be demure, modest, controlled, and accomplished in a number of artistic or creative pursuits. Lydia is none of these things, and she makes no excuses. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is portrayed as frivolous, silly, and selfish, but there is always another side to any story, and this is Lydia’s.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite novels. I know the story well, and have previously enjoyed other spin-off stories, so I was looking forward to reading this re-imagining of Lydia’s plight. I liked the story itself, and the way it was presented. It was cleverly built around the plot of the original story, with some new and exciting characters, bringing Lydia’s trip to Brighton alive.

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice is told through diary entries and letters, revealing Lydia’s innermost thoughts and feelings. She is a multi-faceted character who exhibits a certain persona to the world, but in her diary she is laid bare. Lydia is aware of how her sisters and parents view her behaviour, and even plays off these expectations to get what she wants. The restraints that society has placed upon her feel too constrictive and she must push the boundaries in order to retain her own self.

The author has built on the characters from the original story, transforming them into more complex beings. Lydia is portrayed in a more positive light in this story, still silly and impulsive, but we are privy to some of the reasoning behind her actions. I found her to be a much more likeable character. Even Wickham is slightly improved here!

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice could be read as a stand alone novel. However, I think that knowing the background of Pride and Prejudice allowed me to enjoy the story more thoroughly. I think of this story as complementary to the original, providing previously missing pieces to the puzzle that is Lydia and what occurred in Brighton. Of course, this is only one version of what may have happened, but that is the joy of fiction.

Suitable for upper primary and high school students, though if one were to read Pride and Prejudice first, probably later high school would be most appropriate.

 

 

 

Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling

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Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling, novel, 325 pages, published by Chicken House in 2017.

It is 1577 in England; Queen Elizabeth sits upon the throne, Mary Queen of Scots is imprisoned for treason, London is filled with filthy streets and dubious characters, and witch-hunting is an active sport. In the little hamlet of Fordham, Alyce’s life is upturned when the hideous Mr Hopkins and his off-sider Caxton come to accuse her mother of witchcraft. Alyce is able to escape, but the witch finders are on her tail as she makes her way to London to deliver a letter to a man her mother said would help her. Her journey is not an easy one, but one that she does not have to make alone once she befriends a young actor, Solomon. As her powers swell uncontrollably, and the witch finders continue to hunt her, she can’t help but wonder, what is so important about her?

This was an interesting historical fiction, embellished with real witches capable of far more than healing herbs and mysterious incantations. I expected witchcraft, but not the historical aspect of the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart; I found this spin on history rather intriguing. The whole story was quite immersing, and flowed smoothly with good pace. It was a bit dark, with black magic and necromancy at play, with some violence and death, but that only added to the appeal. I did think that Alyce’s emerging power should have been more thoroughly explored.

I enjoyed falling into sixteenth century London, though I am glad I don’t have to live there! The description of the streets was so detailed, I could almost smell the stench of the markets, the foulness of unwashed bodies, and the murkiness of the Thames. It was not an appealing mix, but the sights of the Tower, the rickety shops and houses, the city gates, and the countryside beyond were much more enticing. The clothing and behaviour of the people matched the setting and time well, completing the scene expertly.

I connected more with Solomon than Alyce, despite feeling great sadness and pity for her situation. Solomon’s situation wasn’t a bunch of daffodils either, but he was less hardened by his experiences than Alyce seemed to be. I liked his amiable nature, and his occasional awkwardness; he was a good friend to Alyce before he even knew her well. Alyce was strong and determined, and sometimes wilful. They made a good pair. Many of the other characters were interesting too, though they were not as developed as Alyce and Solomon. I’m afraid that Caxton may visit my nightmares some nights… what a horrible beast.

Witchborn is suitable for upper primary and high school students. It is a good read for anyone who enjoys magic, witches and historical fantasy.

 

Youpine: a new way to review

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I was recently introduced to a new website called Youpine, which I think is pretty neat.

Youpine is a review platform with a twist! Instead of giving a star rating, or writing a review, Youpine allows you to rate books and movies using sentiments, or emotive words, such as exciting, heartbreaking, awful, dark. You can leave up to eight sentiments per title, providing others with a concise description of that item. Whilst adding sentiments to each title, Youpine will also make suggestions of similar words to those you have entered. In the screenshot below, I have described The Hunger Games as fantastic, and Youpine has provided me with synonyms that might also suit the book. I like this feature, as it prompts me to think about words that might be better to describe what I’m feeling.

It is possible to search by title, sentiment or consensus on Youpine. So if you’re feeling like a romantic novel, a funny movie, or a book that has an upbeat tone, you can search for suggestions based on that.

Right now, Youpine is in its infancy, and it needs more people to join (it’s free!) and begin describing books. The more people adding their sentiments, the better the site will be, and the more accurate the sentiments and consensus for each title will become. Once Youpine gets greater numbers describing books, I think it will be quite a good resource for readers and movie lovers looking for suggestions and recommendations.

Apart from the need for more members, the site’s biggest downfall is how the titles are sourced. Most books I have searched for so far have not been in the Youpine database, probably because a lot of them are from smaller or independent publishers, and are not available through the source Youpine are currently using. Hopefully they will be able to source more titles soon. I would also really like to see an option for adding titles to Youpine by members (and authors promoting their books) to help fill the gaps.

Youpine will only get better with more people using it, so hop on over to Youpine and have a look for yourself! Please let me know your thoughts about this new platform in the comments.

 

The Masterpiecers by Olivia Wildenstein

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The Masterpiecers by Olivia Wildenstein, e-book, 646 pages, published in 2016.

Nineteen year-old, artistic quilter, Ivy has scored a heavily fought for spot on the reality TV show, The Masterpiecers, where eight contestants battle against each other in various art-related tasks. The prize, one hundred thousand dollars, but more importantly, automatic entry to The Masterpiecers art school. For Ivy, this is an incredible opportunity, but she must leave behind her twin sister, Aster, to attend the competition in New York. Aster is in gaol after killing a man with her car, claiming it was self-defense, but not everything in her story adds up.

The story is told from the alternating views of the twins; Ivy as she arrives in New York and begins to compete on the show, and Aster, from the gaol, where she has been granted special privileges to watch her sister’s show. I am not a big fan of reality TV, so the premise of this book was a little hard for me to get on board with. I was nonplussed for the first section of the story, and dismayed by the first task the contestants had to complete; it was more torture than performance art. At that point I was actually thinking of giving the book up as not being my thing. However, it greatly improved from there. As the girls’ stories began to unfold, and discrepancies became obvious, the story became much more intriguing, and soon I was flying through the book to see what else would happen. There were a lot of questions that I wanted answers for, which spurred me on to keep reading.

The plot was quite complicated, with twists and mysteries, which made it interesting and exciting. It was also well written, and the characters were vividly described. However, I found the setting a little vexatious. I don’t much care for reality TV, nor do I follow the lives of celebrities, so I was a little out of my comfort zone. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about the preparations, hair, makeup and manipulations that go on behind the scenes of that sort of show! Everyone seemed so vapid, just concerned with playing an angle and getting ahead no matter the cost to others. So the majority of the characters were rather dislikable.

I did like the twins, though Ivy and Aster were very different people. Ivy was talented, ambitious and organised, though I found her a little cold. Aster was less sophisticated, yet completely dedicated to Ivy. She worked two jobs to support them, while Ivy worked on her quilts. And while I think Ivy did love Aster, she didn’t seem to trust her. I think they had quite a complicated relationship, especially when it came to their mother. I’ve still got plenty of questions!

The Masterpiecers is the first book in the Masterful series. This explains why I still have so many questions, but I’m undecided as to whether I will read the second book. I really liked the fast pace, the subterfuge, the conflict, the mystery; these elements combined to make a great story, I’m just not sure that I liked the characters enough to continue the series.

The Masterpiecers is suitable for middle to upper high school students and beyond.

 

*I received this book as a digital copy from the author, who asked me for an honest review of this book. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

Loretta’s Pet Caterpillar by Lois Wickstrom

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Loretta’s Pet Caterpillar by Lois Wickstrom and illustrated by Francie Mion, picture e-book, 38 pages, published by Look Under Rocks/Gripper Products in 2017.

Loretta watches the masses of butterflies in the milkweed meadow near her home. When she goes to investigate, she finds tiny eggs stuck to the underside of the leaves. Over the following weeks, Loretta watches as an egg hatches, and a caterpillar grows, readying itself to become a butterfly.

Loretta’s Pet Caterpillar is a wonderful blend of fact and fiction. The story follows Loretta as she witnesses the life-cycle of a caterpillar from egg through to Monarch Butterfly. The process is interesting, and has been well explained and illustrated throughout the story. I laughed when Loretta taped the leaf back to the plant! And I liked the way that the possible predators of the caterpillar were introduced.

There is further information about the annual Monarch butterfly migration, how to obtain milkweed seeds and how to determine the sex of Monarch butterflies. This extra section was quite interesting and informative.

Loretta’s Pet Caterpillar is a lovely way to introduce children to the butterfly lifecycle, and is suitable for primary aged children.

 

*I received this book as a digital copy from the author, who asked me for an honest review of this book. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

Where is Heaven Anyway? by Dunnett Albert

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Where is Heaven Anyway? A Hattie the Hummingbird Story by Dunnett Albert and illustrated by Catherine Wilder, picture e-book, 16 pages, published by Henley Publishing in 2016.

Little Hattie the Hummingbird is sad because her friend Auggie the Frog has gone away. Hattie’s mum helps her to understand that Auggie has gone to heaven, but that he will still be with Hattie, in the world around her, in her heart and in her dreams.

Where is Heaven Anyway? is a lovely rhyming story that explains the concept of heaven using language and ideas appropriate for a younger audience. It is heartwarming and tender, reminding us that our loved ones will always be in our hearts and memories, even when they can no longer be with us physically. This book is a great way to start a conversation about death and what happens afterwards, so I recommend reading it with the child/children to help them understand (and to answer their questions!).

Where is Heaven Anyway? contains truly beautiful watercolour illustrations. They are full of colour and life, yet retain a softness that suits the gentle nature of the story.

Where is Heaven Anyway? is suitable for primary school children.

 

*I received this book as a digital copy from the author, who asked me for an honest review of this book. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

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TwoSpells by Mark Morrison

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TwoSpells by Mark Morrison, e-book, 574 pages, published in 2018.

Twins, Sarah and Jon have travelled to Wales to spend the summer with their maternal grandparents, whom they have only met once before. They’ve barely landed in Wales when they begin to encounter some odd things; was that a werewolf they hit on the road? Things only get stranger at their grandparents’ farm, where there’s a creepy handy-man with a wooden leg, a magical book, and Sarah is sure those garden gnomes waved to her. They are giving a swift introduction to the magical world, learning much about themselves, and how they fit into that world, along the way. Sarah and Jon are excited to enter the ancient castle, TwoSpells, which is actually an humungous magical library, where one can enter the books and view the story from within. It also acts as a refuge for magical folk, where the “regulars” cannot go. Unfortunately the library is experiencing some rather frightening disturbances, and an illness is also affecting the magical populace. Sarah and Jon must help to save the library and all those who are sick.

This book is Awesome! TwoSpells had me hooked from the first chapter; that’s where the action started, and it just kept coming. It was a rollercoaster ride of magical creatures, book characters and a villain intent on controlling not just the world, but all worlds and realities. I could hardly put it down, I just had to read the next chapter, and then the next!

The battle at the library was wonderfully told. It was detailed and energetic; the highlight of the story. The diversity of creatures, magical, historical and mythical that emerged during the battle was incredible. Many of them were terrifying, but all came to life, rampaging about, creating a swirling mess of the library. I love the idea of being able to enter books, but the possibility of unleashing something big and dangerous was somewhat alarming!

All of the characters were strongly developed and described. I really felt like I got to know Sarah and Jon, and their grandparents. Grandpa was such a funny old man, but completely loveable. His relationship with Grandma was lovely, and I enjoyed their interactions. Their banter, and Grandpa’s propensity for “nicking” stuff, made me laugh. I loved when he fooled the security system at the exit of TwoSpells. Grandma standing up to the Golems was also quite funny.

I liked Sarah better than Jon; he was a bit too happy about slaying dragons and swinging swords. I preferred Sarah’s more cautious approach to their new-found magical identities. She was more likely to think before acting, and was very compassionate towards others, even those that were very different to her. I liked the relationship she began to form with Liam, one of the Junior Guardians at TwoSpells. While Liam, and his brother, Seth, were more minor characters, they were both very likeable.

The handy-man at the farm, Clyde, was an interesting character; he seemed pretty shifty, but also had kindness behind his exterior grumpiness. He had a strange back-story, and I’m still wondering what happened to his dog. I liked his gruffness, in the same way that I liked the abruptness of the Golems. Though the Golems were all made the same, the ones in charge of security about Sarah and Jon, were developing their own personalities nicely.

TwoSpells ended with many of my questions unanswered, and the fate of several characters unknown. I really hope that means there will be a follow-up book! I want to know about so many things! There are still lots of connections to be fulfilled, and I feel that there must be another great adventure coming.

TwoSpells is suitable for upper primary and high school students. I recommend it for fans of fantasy and action. Read it, it’s fantastic!

 

*I received this book as a digital book from the author, who asked me for an honest review of this book. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

Blackbird, Blackbird, What Do You Do? by Kate McLelland

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Blackbird, Blackbird, What Do You Do? by Kate McLelland, hardback picture book, published by Hodder’s Children’s Books in 2016.

Pip is a little blackbird who sets out to discover what it is that blackbirds do. He visits with different birds, trying out the things they are good at until he finds something he is good at.

I rather liked this picture book about finding oneself. Pip met a lot of other birds on his journey, learning a little about each one. All of the birds were interesting and good at various things. I liked that Pip attempted each thing enthusiastically, such as digging a nest, waddling and pecking at seeds, even if he wasn’t very good at it. And he kept trying, despite disappointments. Perseverance and the willingness to try new things are great qualities to encourage in our children, and Blackbird, Blackbird, What Do You Do? demonstrates this nicely for younger children.

The illustrations are very appealing. All of the birds were beautiful and so expressive; I especially liked the owl. And Pip was pretty cute!

My pre-schoolers enjoyed reading this book with me. I was happy that the text was decently sized, making it easier for my boys to try reading it themselves too (beginner readers).

Blackbird, Blackbird, What Do You Do? is suitable for early childhood, pre-school and lower primary school children. It is a nice book to read aloud.

 

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

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The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley, hardback novel, 218 pages, published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2010.

When Michael’s mother dies, his future is placed into the hands of a distant and unknown guardian, Sir Stephen. Along with his sister, Sir Stephen lives in a large house, Hawton Mere, stood by itself in the middle of some marshes, far from everything and everyone. Michael is invited to stay with them over the Christmas period, which he is very reluctant to do. Upon his arrival it is immediately apparent that there is something not quite right in the house, and that Sir Stephen is also rather odd and foreboding.

The Dead of Winter is a ghost story in the tradition of gothic fiction from Victorian times. It contained similar elements to a few other ghostly mysteries I have read. In particular, the bleak, wintry landscape of the boggy marshes surrounding Hawton Mere reminded me of the novel The Woman in Black, though The Dead of Winter is aimed at a younger audience.

I found this to be an average read, with solid writing and strong characters. The plot was easy to follow, but wasn’t as scary as I expected, and I had a fair idea of what was happening at the house well before it was revealed. Maybe I’m just getting older and harder to scare! Still, it was entertainment for a couple of nights, and I did genuinely feel for Michael. He was an appealing character, as was Jerwood, Hodges and Mrs Guston. The description of Sir Stephen was well done, easily conjuring the image of a nerve-wracked man, old before his time.

The Dead of Winter is suitable for upper primary and high school students.