The Closest Thing to Flying

Gill Lewis

Oxford University Press

Two girls, a century apart. Together they’ll find freedom.

Gill Lewis’ new novel is a compelling and powerful story that moved me to tears. The empathetic writing and emotive narrative is delivered with conviction by a writer of rare quality. It’s a wonderful story that manages to encompass so much, leaving you slightly dazed.

The story centres on Semira, a young refugee from Eritrea. There is little in the story about her journey to London; instead, the focus is on her struggle, several years since her arrival, to escape the clutches of the man who brought her to the UK. He is manipulative and overpowering, forcing Semira’s mum to work to earn him money; denying them food, stability and the freedom they have sought. Robel is an ugly piece of work.

He is furious when Semira buys an old hat on a market stall for a few pounds. She is attracted by a memory triggered by the small bird mounted on the brim. Semira discovers the diary of a Victorian girl and a connection is made that spans the century. Now look again at the cover of the book, and the amazing artwork of Paola Escobar – there is a symmetry to these girls’ lives – their stories seem to be reflections of each other as they find inspiration in a kindred spirit. They are linked by the hat, by their experiences and by their motivations and desires.

Hen’s lifestyle is a complete contrast to Semira – she is the daughter of a well-heeled businessman and his wife (who keeps the social diary). But this lifestyle, like Semira’s, is stifling and Hen finds hope and ambition in her Aunt Katherine. Dealing with votes for women and animal rights, the overarching theme of the novel is finding your place, knowing your worth, and having the freedom to be yourself.

Gill says, “The Closest Thing to Flying is a story about friendship and loyalty and standing up for others, and is set against a backdrop of women’s rights. Henrietta’s story made me question how far we have come since Victorian times. Women still face discrimination in many aspects of life. I wanted to write a story about the empowerment of women and celebrate those people, both female and male, who help to make it happen. I wanted Henrietta to reach through time to a modern girl and share her story. I needed to connect the two girls across a whole century, and find something that could link them both.

That something became a bird. A small green bird. All the way, from the Horn of Africa.”

Gill writes with such intensity that you can often hear her voice and feel her passion for these subjects. The Closest Thing to Flying is most definitely from the heart. Stunning.

Thank you to OUP for sending us a copy of The Closest Thing to Flying in exchange for a review. The Closest Thing to Flying is available now from your local bookshop or direct from OUP. You can visit Gill’s website here or follow her on Twitter.

Anticipated Reads of 2019

January

We’ve already had a number of exciting releases to devour in 2019. The Colour of Happy by Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar (Hodder) is a beautiful exploration of feelings for young children – allowing them to interpret and acknowledge their own emotions and develop empathy for others.
The Girls (Caterpillar), by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie is a celebration of individuality and friendship. It follows the journey of four girls who meet under an apple tree and they form a bond that lasts a lifetime. The girls grow and follow their individual paths but know that they always have the love and friendship to share the good times and get them through the bad.
Meet The Pirates and Meet The Greeks by James Davies (Big Picture Press) are superb non-fiction hardbacks that everyone needs. Filled with hi-res humour these are perfect for any age and should be in every school library in the land.

February

Three MG novels of real quality are on offer this month. The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell (Usborne) gets a paperback release. It deserves your attention as it’s one of the most inventive books we’ve read recently. Suzie is a bold heroine seeking justice as she traverses the Impossible Places on a train piloted by trolls. We’d say it’s best suited to ages 8 to 11. Buy it, you won’t regret it.
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis (OUP) manages to cover so much ground with an incredible deftness. Topics covered include refugees, votes for women and the ethical treatment of animals, making this book a feast for the mind (and a treasure-trove for teachers’ planning). It’s highly emotive, engaging and intelligently written – but then if you’ve read any of Gill’s other books, you’d be expecting that.
We’ve just received our copy of Storm Hound, the new novel from Claire Fayers (Macmillan) that has already received a collection of favourable first reviews. We’re looking forward to reading this funny and fast-paced story of the mythical young bloodhound who falls to earth. Claire does magical adventure extremely well so we can’t wait to get stuck in.

March

The Wonder of Trees is published in March. Non-fiction expert Nicola Davies explores the extraordinary diversity of trees and forests with illustrations by Lorna Scobie (Hodder). This is the same duo who produced The Variety of Life last year, a gorgeous large-format celebration of biodiversity that we often goggle at for hours at a time.
We are very excited about Lubna and Pebble, written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus (OUP). A picture book addressing the refugee crisis, it follows the story of Lubna who’s best friend is a pebble she finds on the beach when she arrives in the night. It’s a story that celebrates the human spirit, hope and friendship. We know that Daniel Egneus is a quality illustrator – and the images promise to be both sensitive and skillful.
Walker is a new story from Shoo Rayner (Firefly) about a boy who can talk to dogs. Shoo’s well-loved firefly trilogy about Dragons came to a close in 2017, and we’re excited to read this new story aimed at 8-10 year olds.

April

Several Welsh picture book authors seem to have found a happy home with Little Tiger – and there are two being published in April.
We’re very lucky to have seen an early proof of Stefano the Squid, by Wendy Meddour and Duncan Beedie (Little Tiger). The illustrations are top-notch – bold and bright underwater scenes compliment Wendy’s funny and sensitive text about finding the heroic in the ordinary. Stefano lacks confidence in his own appearance – the other creatures seem far more interesting, colourful, amazing even. When disaster strikes, Stefano steps into the limelight.
The One Stop Story Shop by Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal (Little Tiger) is a fun frolic through the magical world of storytelling. We don’t have much more information about this one at the moment, but it’s another quality pairing with a great track record.
Graffeg have a number of books scheduled for release in April – the brilliant country tales series from Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher continues with Mountain Lamb (Graffeg); Ceri and Deri Build a Birdhouse in Max Low’s third installment of the vibrant duo’s adventures; and Helping Hedgehog Home, by Celestine and the Hare (Graffeg) is the 9th little book with a big heart featuring the Tribe. Grandpa Burdock and Granny Dandelion must help Hedgehog get home when a new fence traps her outside the garden.
The Sea House (Firefly) written by newsreader Lucy Owen has an intriguing and striking premise. Grieving nine-year old Coral cries so much, she fills her house with tears and wakes to find a magical underwater world. This fantasy story has a focus on the magic of being able to swim through your own house. Rebecca Harry’s illustrations (her 40th book!) make this a fantasy story with a big heart that will appeal to children aged 5+.
A Little House in a Big Place (Kids Can Press) by Alison Acheson is illustrated by French-born, Aberystwyth-based Valeriane Leblond. A nominee for last year’s Tir na-nOg Award with Tudur Dylan Jones, Valeriane’s images are compassionate, soulful and beautiful. The ‘big place’ in the title is the prairie, where a little girl stands in a window waving to the engineer on a passing train. Canadian author Alison Acheson has written a deceptively simple book which deals with growing up and what may lie beyond our own familiar surroundings.

May

Another exciting pairing of author and illustrator will be seen with the release of Hummingbird (Walker) by Nicola Davies and Jane Ray. This promises to be a spellbinding nature book. These tiny birds travel huge distances (from wintertime in Mexico to a spring nesting as far north as Alaska and Canada) and this book follow’s one bird’s migration. Jane Ray is a talented and distinctive illustrator, regularly shortlisted for major prizes – a worthy partner for the incredible Nicola Davies.

June

The hysterical Fables from the Stables get a new addition in Hayley the Hairy Horse, by Gavin Puckett and Tor Freeman (Faber & Faber). These rhyming tales are perfect for the 5 – 7 year olds who are after a chapter book of their own. We’ve loved every edition so far, and can’t wait for more.

July

Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal release their second book of the year with Little Tiger entitled Sneaky Beak, a warning fable about materialism.
Ant Clancy Games Detective is new from Ruth Morgan (Firefly). Her last novel Alien Rain was nominated for the Tir na-nOg and was a sophisticated, well-crafted, compelling story, so we’re naturally including this new story in our ‘ones to watch’. Race-Chase is the new virtual reality game that everyone’s playing but gamers are starting to get hurt. Could the problem identified by the game’s creators turn out to be something deadlier? Ant Clancy and his friends set out to investigate.
Ariki and the Island of Wonders is the follow-up to last year’s Ariki and the Giant Shark by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear (Walker). We loved this informative fiction – with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and the geography of the pacific island featured – but it’s the feisty heroine who will get young readers hooked. It’s well-suited to 8 to 10 year olds, but the joy of nature will not be lost on any age.

And in the second half of the year…

There’s a lot more to come from the authors and illustrators of Wales in the second half of the year. News of the following publications is floating our boat at the moment:

Every Child a Song, Nicola Davies & Marc Martin; The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury); Max Low publishes a book with Otter Barry; a second Grace-Ella story is due from Sharon Marie-Jones (Firefly); a third (and final?) Aubrey book from Horatio Clare (Firefly); there may be a new book from Wendy White, and new books from Dan Anthony and Ruth Morgan will be published with Gomer; a follow up to Through the Eyes of Me by Jon Robinson (Graffeg); Teach Your Cat Welsh and Find the Dragon from Lolfa; and a new Max the Detective book from Sarah Todd Taylor (Nosy Crow).

Meet The… (Pirates and Ancient Greeks)

James Davies

Big Picture Press
Review written by Daddy Worm

These two hardback non-fiction releases follow in the footsteps of Meet The Ancient Romans and Meet The Ancient Egyptians. In our house these books are beloved by 6 year old Kit and Mum and Dad too. The same should be true in the rest of the world as they have wide appeal.

Contents of Ancient Greeks

Funny, engaging and stylish, their primary aim is surely to entertain and inform. But this is no fuddy-duddy school textbook – James Davies brings new life to well-worn topics, and finds quirky extras to amuse, shock and surprise (Kit’s favourite part of Ancient Egyptians is the mummification of pets!) The factual information is delivered concisely and backed up with the most amazing illustrations. So in Meet The Pirates, we learn who they were, where they came from, parts of the ship, how they navigated and so on. In Ancient Greeks, we are taken through the buildings, the myths, education, art, games and more – both volumes stretch to around 64 pages.

The illustrations (I said they were amazing), add humour and humanity to each page – so we get Homer writing an epic blog; pirates claiming “This looks nothing like the brochure”; Athens’ Got Talent; parrots squawking “Who’s a pretty boy then?” to pirates on a catwalk; Alexander the Great sticking Post-It notes all over the countries of a map claiming ‘Mine’; oh, and some cat references (follow James on Twitter for updates on his own cat, Audrey). Sometimes the humour is hysterically childish, sometimes it makes you laugh out loud, but it will always bring a smile to your face, no matter how old you are.

Within the books we particularly enjoyed the cartoon retellings of historical sagas. Here James really excels with a traditional-looking cartoon format for Pandora’s Box (Ancient Greeks) or The Strange Case of Alexander Selkirk (Pirates). We’d love to see James get the opportunity to work on a comic or graphic novel.

Endpapers of Meet The… Ancient Greeks

We should also mention the design of this series which has been very well-considered. Olivia Cook and Marty Cleary get the credit at the front of the books – James has designed his own font, and it’s clear that the whole book, from endpapers to maps, timelines, subheadings and page edges, have been thought about in great detail.

Page edges with design showing subtitles

Perfect for all ages; from inquisitive 5 year olds, fact-seeking 8 year olds, eager 12 year olds, unashamed 43 year olds and older – we can’t live without these books at the moment, and don’t think you should have to either.

James Davies is from Wales, now living in Bristol. You can see more of his bold, graphic style at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

The Meet The… series is published by Big Picture Press and can be bought from your local independent bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Firefly Review 2018

Firefly Press was launched in Cardiff in 2013. Spearheaded by publisher Penny Thomas and a team of editors, writers and enthusiasts, they develop around 10 books a year. At the time of launch, Janet Thomas, editor, was quoted as saying, “We aim to publish the best in storytelling, writing and design for a Welsh, UK and world market. Our stories may be funny, scary, magical, shocking, thrilling, sad or happy, but always aim to entertain and inspire.” (The Bookseller, 21 May 2013)

Anyone who’s read a Firefly-published book in 2018 would probably concur that those aims have been met, with aplomb. For us, it’s fabulous that Firefly publish books for children only, as this allows for an intensely focussed approach on successfully selling the authors and design. We’re really pleased that the design of the books receives due attention – with Firefly, you really can judge the book by its cover – and from what we’ve seen of the 2019 releases, this is going to continue, and rightly so.

We’ll draw your attention to a number of 2018 Firefly books here – not all by Welsh authors, but all deserving of universal recognition. (Writing in italics is directly from press information.)

Thrilling Series for Mature Readers

Two compelling Firefly trilogies came to a close in 2018 – both to be appreciated by readers of middle-grade, young adult and adult fiction. The Heart of Mars is the conclusion of a sci-fi thriller centered on protagonist Lora. After trekking the Martian deserts and battling against many dangers, Lora and Peter bravely set off to find the Ancient Heart of Mars and rescue Ma and Hannah. This acclaimed, inventive book delights its readers with scares and surprises – a brilliantly written fight for survival.

The Territory: Truth also grips the attention with its dystopian plotline and powerful characterisations. The year is 2059. Noa lives in what’s left of a Britain where flooding means land is scarce. Everyone must sit an exam at 15: if you pass you can stay in the Territory, if you fail you must go to the Wetlands. Will Noa, Jack and Raf be able to defeat the wall and the authorities and finally uncover the truth?

Critically acclaimed and award-winning, Sarah Govett has succeeded in delivering an accomplished, distinctive and contemporary series.

Middle Grade Masterpieces

Eloise Williams may well be regarded as one of Wales’ heavy-hitters, in terms of literary punch. 2017’s Gaslight struck a chord with readers all over the country keen on historical fiction, and it was ideal for teachers looking for something gritty and realistic to use in their Victorian planning. Since then, Eloise has received Literature Wales support, been one of the Hay Festival Writers at Work, had a nomination for the Tir na-nOg Award and been in the Western Mail! Seaglass, therefore, was always highly anticipated and does not disappoint.

It does, however, surprise. Seaglass stands out amongst the crop of 2018’s MG crowd as it is an eerie ghost story. Chilling, atmospheric, and cleverly focussed on building mood. Totally absorbing characters and wild, windy landscapes had us wholly gripped. Lark is brilliantly realistic and relatable; a strong yet complex heroine determined to resolve a serious family drama. And that means facing the supernatural. A totally captivating and satisfying read!

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher may well be the jewel in the crown for Firefly. The nomination for the Blue Peter Award is surely the start of many shortlistings. There’s not a lot left to be said about this book, which has been met with praise from all quarters.

As an established writer from Wales, Catherine Fisher has always been held dear in the hearts of so many – even before her days as Young People’s Laureate. Her books for children have always tended to be best enjoyed by those of secondary age, but with Clockwork Crow she has reached a younger audience with a sophisticated narrative and sparkling prose. Catherine Fisher sits comfortably alongside Kiran Millwood-Hargrave and Abi Elphinstone as an essential author for 8-12 year olds.

For a full review of the book, click here.

Fart Gags and Funnybones

Firefly also sees the importance of making us giggle – whether it’s the quirky humour of Dog Town or Jennifer Killick’s Alex Sparrow series, they are serious about good quality humour. Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury is a highly entertaining read, thoroughly enjoyed by Noah last year. Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He’s also a human lie detector. Can he control his unexpectedly smelly superpowers and save his friends? In this second book of the series (the third is coming soon), Alex and Jess’s  turbulent friendship continues as they aim to solve a mystery centered on an animal sanctuary. Cue warmth and wisdom as well as wit in this pacey gem.

Originally published in Latvian, Dog Town is a heart-warming novel about Jacob Bird, who is fighting to save a run-down area of Riga from developers, with the help of the district’s very own gang of talking dogs. The book won The Annual Latvian Literature Prize for The Best Children’s Book 2014. Latvian National Radio has created a radio play version, and it is also currently being made into an animation film. Readers will approve of the excellent translation which retains a quirkiness and charm that delights and engages.

Like Furry Fury, Dog Town contains serious themes – friendship and community – showing that comedy is a great vehicle for encouraging thought and empathy.

You may have seen some of Firefly’s announcements about upcoming books in 2019. It continues to be an exciting time and we will be taking a look at our most anticipated reads in 2019 over the next few weeks. In the meantime, there’s plenty to enjoy from Firefly – all can be purchased directly through their website.

Gomer Review 2018

Gomer Press is the largest independent publisher in Wales and one of the oldest. Established in 1892 and still owned by the same family, it focusses on books with a distinctive Welsh identity and publishes books for adults and children in both languages.

We’ll focus on the books for children released during 2018 in English:

Three Tales by Cynan Jones (£5.99)

Award-winning and respected writer for adults, Cynan Jones turns his hand to three folk tales or fables for children.

Inspiring discussion, ideal for school assemblies or in-class debates, Malachy Doyle exclaims these are “treats of the imagination for child and adult alike.”

Mamgu’s Campervan, Wendy White; Helen Flook (£5.99)

Wendy White is a real favourite of Nina’s. Her previous volumes, Welsh Cakes and Custard and St. David’s Day is Cancelled are both adored in our house.

Mamgu’s Campervan is a short volume following the adventures of Betsi Wynn and Mamgu around a castle.

Mamgu and Betsi Wyn get the camper van out of hibernation but it doesn’t seem to be working properly! They finally get it going and take it out for a spin. This is a heartwarming adventure story that children in Year 2 and Year 3 will love.

Nina says “I really liked all the Welsh words that Wendy White used – castell, diolch, da iawn, Ych a fi! – it gave the book a definite Welsh feel! I also loved the pictures: Helen Flook’s illustrations made the story come to life – the colourful front cover is especially good.”

This book comes highly recommended and we are looking forward to more from Wendy White soon.

The Last Big One, Dan Anthony (£8.99)

The Last Big One is an emotive and gritty story for older readers from trusted and accomplished author, Dan Anthony.

It follows the story of Clint, a teenager whose life seems to go from bad to worse – a school expulsion, a mother grieving, feelings of guilt and injustice and not belonging. He runs away to Parchman Farm.

Here he has to find himself and learn who to trust. Daddy Worm thought this was a brilliant book from a talented writer.

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle, Phil Okwedy (£5.99)

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle weaves together six Welsh tales to tell the story of how Wil cheats death and finds true love – but not before losing his fortune twice. Interwoven is the story of Al Capone’s Welsh right-hand man, Murray the Hump. The story takes us from Wales to London and the USA, mixing the real lives of cattle drovers with fantastical fairy elements.

Bananabeeyumio by Laura Sheldon (£6.99)

Bananabeeyumio is a bit of a mouthful – and maybe that’s how it’s meant to be, as here is a story about a secret recipe for a secret sweet treat. Take a bite of bananabeeyumio and you suddenly become able to jump to Olympic standards. But here’s the rub: bananabeeyumio must remain a secret – only to be known by the residents of Cwmbach.

However, one day 11 year old Charlie is spotted by a talent scout for a sports academy and is unable to reveal the real reason for his extreme jumping abilities. The story follows Charlie as he is heralded as the “next big thing” in junior athletics. Clearly things don’t go to plan and there are lessons to be learned about being honest, trustworthy and respecting the hard work of others. Should keeping a secret get you into so much hot water?

Well, the secret is in danger of being revealed several times during the book, as there are more twists and turns in this story than there are on the roads to Cwmbach. An engaging and well-written tale.

The Inn of Waking Shadows, Karla Brading (£6.99)


Emlyn has always stood out at school, and living at the Skirrid Inn doesn’t help. Other kids live with siblings or pets – but Emlyn shares his home with ghosts! Or so they say.

Emlyn doesn’t believe the stories that his home is the most haunted inn in Wales – that is, until he rings a servant’s bell and accidentally summons Fanny Price. Fanny’s presence disturbs some of the Inn’s angrier residents – namely ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries, a much older and more powerful ghost who is determined to add Fanny to his collection of feeble spirits.

With flesh-and-blood bullies making his school life miserable, and a ghostly one making his home life down right dangerous, will Emlyn be strong enough to help Fanny move on? And if he does… will he have lost his only friend?

The Lonely Bwbach, Graham Howells (£5.99)

This short tale tells of a little creature from Welsh folklore – the bwbach, a little hobgoblin who would live with a family and care for the home, doing chores in return for a bowl of cream.

The bwbach in this tale has been left alone for years in the house as it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Ultimately the cottage was dismantled brick by brick and the bwbach is left distraught.

All is not lost however has he learns that his house has been relocated to St Ffagans and it is his duty to protect it so he sets off on a quest…

An unusual and absorbing tale with great illustrations.

Juliet Jones and the Ginger Pig, Sue Reardon-Smith (£5.99)

Aberteg is a little village in the west of Wales, tucked between the hills and the sea. If you were to go there yourself, you might see Mansel Roberts going up the mountain to look for owls. You could bump into the Bevan twins or come across Mostyn, watching a pair of otters in the river. And if you stayed by the sea, you may see Sian and Juliet playing rounders on the beach. You might even catch a glimpse of Dabby Davies.

In these stories are eight children for you to meet. All of them are different, but all of them are just a little bit like you, too. They will help you learn why friendship is special, how good it is to believe in yourself, and why you must always, always be kind.

All of these titles are available to purchase direct from Gomer online. We are extremely grateful to them for providing review copies of many of these books and would like to thank them for their continued support.

Christmas Books of 2018

In this post, we take a look at our pick of essential Christmas books, all by authors of Wales.

The Newborn Child (Otter-Barry Books) tells the story of a child born to change the world. A special child; a baby born of a first-time mother. Jackie Morris’ detailed, thoughtful and glorious artwork accompanies her own tender poetry. The focus on the innocence and fragility of a newborn and the pure love and adoration of a mother, make this a book for life, not just for Christmas.

The Dog That Saved Christmas (Barrington Stoke) is Nicola Davies’ newly published book telling the story of someone who dislikes the festive season. There are plenty who feel uncomfortable, anxious or lonely at Christmas and this dyslexia-friendly tale shines a light and will help to develop empathy amongst its readers. Brilliantly illustrated by Mike Byrne, the titular dog comes to the rescue, making Christmas a more bearable, even loving time. (See our full reviews of this book).

There are more dogs in Sam Hay and Loretta Schauer’s A Very Corgi Christmas picture book (Simon & Schuster). And what gorgeous corgis they are! Belle keeps getting under everyone’s feet at Buckingham Palace so she sneaks out to explore the bright lights of the city. She’s given a fabulous guided tour by Pip, experiencing the various highs of London life. A simply wonderful story with irresistible illustrations make this an absolute delight (with a super cute ending).

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is one of the best read-alouds ever – Daddy Worm loves channelling Richard Burton and getting his tongue around the sing-song phrases and Thomasisms. Full of humour, dry and profound as the narrator reminisces on Christmases past, this classic short vignette is evergreen. Our own version (Puffin Books) contains the evocative illustrations of Edward Ardizzone which we cannot do without.

Santa’s Greatest Gift (Gwasg Gomer), was nominated for this year’s Tir na-nOg Award and is an excellent picture book about Gwydion who ends up helping Santa to deliver presents. However, Santa has forgotten Gwydion’s present so has to think on the spot! This is a real favourite in our house particularly due to the beautiful illustrations of Valériane Leblond. Tudur Dylan Jones rhyming verse is engaging and fast moving.

The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel (Little Tiger) is a new offering from Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal. It’s a big, bold and bright picture book with real heart. Frog arrives at Bear’s house thinking he’s in for the time of his life at the amazing Christmas Extravaganza Hotel – but he’s not the best map reader and has taken more than a few wrong turns. Bear, being a kind and compassionate soul, doesn’t want Frog to be disappointed at Christmas time so tries to equal the promises of the glossy brochure. Here’s a book that shows there is awe and wonder in simple pleasures and that spending time together can bring fulfilment and joy.

The Clockwork Crow (Firefly Press) is destined to win yet more awards for Catherine Fisher and is a highly satisfying read by an extremely talented writer. A victorian Christmas in Wales promises to be everything Seren dreamed of, but there’s more to Plas-y-Fran than meets the eye. The Mid-Wales manor house has a gateway to the underworld which Seren must explore (with the flying, talking Clockwork Crow) if she is to solve the mystery of the missing Tomos. Enchanting, riveting, accomplished and highly enjoyable middle grade fiction.

Y Lolfa Review 2018

Y Lolfa celebrated 50 years in publishing in 2017. The Tal-y-bont-based company publishes books in English and Welsh for adults and children. Their 2018 releases are dominated by sports biographies by the likes of headline-makers Geraint Thomas and referee Nigel Owens. We’ll now take a look at Y Lolfa’s 2018 books in English for children, and there are some gems here:

Little Honey Bee by Caryl Lewis; Valériane Leblond (£5.99)

This is a tale of hope and healing, about looking forward to a brighter and warmer future.

Elsi is left to the care of her grandmother who tends her broken heart with patience, kindness and understanding.

When Grandmother shows a collection of beehives at the bottom of the garden, Elsi’s curiosity is awakened and so too, a  desire and interest that sparks her into being.

Accompanied by the compassionate and beautiful illustrations of Valériane Leblond, Caryl Lewis’ story is educational too, as Grandmother teaches Elsi the names of the flowers.

Originally written in Welsh, Caryl’s own translation encourages children to take notice of their surroundings and to appreciate what matters.

Echoing the sentiments of The Lost Words (Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane), Caryl explained, “I wrote the book partly to teach children about the seasons and the names of things in the countryside around them, words like foxgloves, bluebells, catkins. Children don’t get to learn the names of trees and flowers these days.”

This is reiterated by Valériane, “It’s so important to be aware of what’s around us, and children as well as adults should know and understand more about nature and its relationship with everything.”

Moonbeam’s Arctic Adventure, David Morgan Williams, Molly Holborn; Maria Moss (£5.99)

This hardback sees established author David Morgan Williams collaborate with his granddaughter Molly Holborn on a picture book with an essential environmental message. It features two bottle-nosed dolphins, Moonbeam and Sunbeam from Cardigan Bay who answer the distress signals from other creatures.

On their journey to the Northern ice caps, they meet a variety of species – and David and Molly take the opportunity to educate young readers on arctic terns, fin whales, polar bears and others.

Molly said “My grandfather and I have a mutual concern for endangered species and global warming. We wrote this book for young children to make them aware of the issues. Hopefully, by raising awareness, they can help prevent drastic environmental changes.”

Ultimately, the book is about doing what you can to make a difference, as Moonbeam and Sunbeam exert themselves to support and help others.

Teach Your Dog Welsh, Anne Cakebread (£4.99)

Here is a colourful, cleverly-designed book for Welsh learners – which works equally well for children and adults. We should know, as soon as it arrived, the Worms were using it to command our Tedi to Sit, Come, Stay and Fetch.

Each double page has a dynamic illustration on one side with the English and Welsh command on the other, together with a phonetic pronunciation guide.

The inspiration for the book came to Anne Cakebread when she rehomed Frieda, a rescue whippet. Frieda previous owner spoke Welsh to her, so Anne realised she would only respond to Welsh commands. Anne found the process of speaking Welsh to her dog helped her overcome her nerves about speaking Welsh aloud and recognised that her Welsh was improving.

Largely, the phrases are universal and are useful in many situations – lots about the weather and time of day – we’ve certainly had hours of fun and I can say that pronunciations are improving.

This would make a great stocking filler for Christmas!

When Ravens Screamed Over Blood, Williams Vaughan (£4.99)

When Ravens Screamed Over Blood, a novella for teenagers has its foundations in the magic and violence of the Welsh Mabinogion. As the author explains, “One of the main characters, The Prince, was inspired by a character and certain magical events in the ancient Welsh tales of the Mabinogion. The story also draws upon Irish mythology. The title is taken from a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen, one of the icons of Welsh literature.”

The novella deals with issues such as sexuality, the joys of love and dealing with conflict. We have not read the book yet but it has garnered high praise from Phil Carradice for its lyrical quality and for handling some complex issues carefully and delicately.

All of these titles are available to purchase direct from Y Lolfa online. We are extremely grateful to them for providing review copies and would especially like to thank them for supporting our Little Honey Bee giveaway. (See Twitter)

Author Q and A: Peter Bell

We are delighted to be part of The Train to Impossible Places blog tour and so pleased that Peter was able to answer our questions. The Train to Impossible Places was highly anticipated by the Worms and instantly cemented itself into Noah’s favourite books when he read it a few months back. It is a great story and, as Noah’s review implies, everything you could possibly want from a book – a thrilling fast-paced adventure with quirks that twist and reshape the fantasy genre. Read Noah’s review here. Now over to Peter…

What are you reading at the moment?

Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard – tense, brutal and moving. I really can’t wait to see what Matt does next. I’m also working my way through the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which are tremendous fun. He’s coming to Cardiff in November, and I want to be up to date before he gets here.

What are your favourite children’s books?

Too many to list here, but off the top of my head:

Pretty much the whole Roald Dahl cannon, especially The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved them when I was young, and my son is now a big fan too. He dressed as a Vermicious Knid for World Book Day last year!

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy. Such a great and accessible fantasy series – the Harry Potter of its day. It’s so good to know it’s still going strong.

Murder Mystery is a genre that’s largely passed me by, but I’ve absolutely loved the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens. She re-purposes all the tropes so cleverly, while keeping the stories grounded in character. I look forward to reading the new one.

The Accidental Pirates books by Claire Fayers are everything fantasy adventure stories should be – inventive, exciting and funny. Her most recent books, Mirror Magic and Stormhound are equally good, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an end to the Pirates trilogy one day.

And finally, anything with Diana Wynne Jones’s name on the cover!

Where and when do you write?

I mostly write in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school. I’ve got a small study at the back of the house, and I’ll get a few hours done there before lunch, with maybe another hour or so in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. My favourite mornings are the ones when Claire Fayers and I meet up at a local coffee shop and sit in silence for two and a half hours, typing away. They serve coffee in pint mugs, which endears the place to me greatly, and they’ve got to know us so well that they know our orders off by heart. 

We know that The Train To Impossible Places began as a bedtime story for your children. Is the finished version much different? What didn’t make the final cut?

Pretty much everything that was in the bedtime story ended up in the book, albeit in a much more polished form. The only thing that didn’t survive the jump was a flying visit to a supermarket, so the crew of the train could stock up on bananas. Every other change I made was adding material, rather than taking away – the whole sub plot of Captain Neoma, the observatory and Lord Meridian grew out of the editing process. The finished book is almost 15,000 words longer than my first draft.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I try to make their names reflect their nature or status in some way. So the Lady Crepuscula comes from the word “crepuscular”, which is an adjective describing anything to do with twilight. Her opposite number, Lord Meridian, takes his name from the point at which the sun is at its highest, suggesting enlightenment. He is a librarian, after all!

Some names, like Fletch and Wilmot, just came to me out of the blue and I’ve no idea why. But they stuck immediately.

We think the book has hints of The Magic Faraway Tree. What else has influenced the storyline?

Thank you for saying so! The Magic Faraway Tree books are the very first stories I remember from my childhood, and they’ve shaped all my reading ever since, so I guess it’s inevitable that there would be a dose of that in my writing.

I drew pretty heavily on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but only in terms of tone – I like to think that Suzy and the trolls would feel at home making deliveries to Ankh Morpork. Because each of the Impossible Places is different, I can effectively make each one a genre – or at least a collection of genre tropes – unto itself. So the Obsidian Tower has strong echoes of Tolkien, while the Topaz Narrows are every pirate adventure story you’ve ever read.

Are we right in thinking you’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that if they ever ask me, I wouldn’t refuse.

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A sense of place is always important, especially if your characters are travelling from place to place, as mine are. I want the reader to get excited about exploring these strange new worlds, so I always try and include a few details to help ground them. Trollville is probably the most fully-realised world in the book, as we spend quite a bit of time there (and we’ll see even more of it in the sequel!) Its post-industrial feel is definitely informed by my childhood in south Wales. It was everywhere – in the architecture and the street layouts, in the art and in the chimneys of the Llanwern Steelworks, which was still active at the time. And you never had to go far to meet a retired miner.

Our school caretaker was an old man who had gone down the pits at the age of 11. I remember one day he showed our class his missing fingers and recounted each of the accidents that had claimed them. He was the basis of the Old Guard – the retired Posties who spend their time comparing tales of daring and disaster.

The Train To Impossible Places is the first in a series, called A Cursed Delivery. What is the appeal in writing a number of books rather than a single story?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be given the chance to tell more stories with these characters. It’s allowed me to think of new directions to take them in, and new and interesting parts of the Impossible Places to explore. It’s also allowed me to become a full time professional writer for the first time in my life, which is a childhood dream come true.

The finished hardback is delightfully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Should we judge your book by its cover and how important was it for you to have some internal illustration?

You should definitely judge the book by BOTH its covers, because they’re gorgeous. My favourite is the hidden cover underneath the dust jacket – my editors at Usborne presented me with a framed print of it at the launch party, and it’s now got pride of place in my study. 

Usborne made the decision very early on to include interior illustrations, and I was very happy to go along with the plan – I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a few illustrations with their text if given the chance. And Flavia’s work is just gorgeous. I love her expressionist style, and she’s absolutely nailed the characters.

What question have we forgotten to ask you?

You haven’t asked me who the best Doctor Who is. And the correct answer is: all of them. Although Sylvester McCoy is the best of the best.

 

There have been some really excellent blog posts as part of this tour. Why not check out some of the other hosts?

The Clockwork Crow

The Clockwork Crow

Catherine Fisher

Firefly Press

Catherine Fisher is an author of great talent who’s skillful writing draws praise for its ability to entrance the reader with its atmospheric prose. Often mysterious, sometimes dark, continually gripping, the publication of a new Catherine Fisher novel is always something to look forward to. Since hearing of the book deal last year, and revealing the cover to The Clockwork Crow in May, we have been guessing what lay beyond the gorgeous colours of the jacket.

We’re pleased to say it doesn’t disappoint! Whilst The Clockwork Crow is lighter than Catherine’s other books – it’s aimed at the blossoming 9-12 MG market – it is no less thrilling. It’s actually a perfect introduction to our national treasure for this age group. Noah (aged 11) loved the book and is already seeking out other books to devour. He calls it a “banger” – borrowed from the description of a fresh new song, unbelievably awesome and destined to become a popular, well-loved hit.

The story follows Seren, an orphan girl dreaming of a beautiful home and a loving, happy family. As she waits in the train station a nervous stranger asks her to guard a mysterious package. He doesn’t return and Seren feels compelled to take the package with her to Plas y Fran, the large manor house belonging to her new guardians, Captain Jones and Lady Mair. However, when she arrives, the grand house is shrouded in mystery – all furniture covered, minimal (and seemingly unfriendly) staff, and no sign of the loving family she was hoping for. A cold, bare residence brings her back down to earth with a bump and her dreams are shattered. The young boy she had wanted to befriend and play with has gone, and in time Seren learns that Tomos has been missing for a year and a day and the house is in mourning.

With the aid of the eponymous talking, walking, humorously irritable Clockwork Crow (who very nearly steals the show), Seren sets out to solve the mystery and put things right. In doing so, we learn that she is a determined and gutsy heroine, not afraid to stand up to the grown-ups, nor afraid to put her own security and future happiness at risk.

The world described by Catherine is beautifully wintry – filled with snow and stars, it sparkles like an ice-capped marvel. Featuring a cast of endearing characters, it reminded me of a wonderfully warm and entertaining Christmas period drama for all the family. Drawing on Welsh folklore, the story is magical and fantastic and such a great read. It’s got to be one of THE books of 2018.

Whilst reading and digesting, one constantly feels that this is a book that entertains and inspires in bucketloads.

We’re delighted that Catherine Fisher has revealed there will be a follow-up to The Clockwork Crow. We’re also thrilled that she recently answered the Worms’ questions in a Q and A.

 

Thank you to Firefly Press for the copy of Clockwork Crow, given in exchange for this review. Note that the cover has been designed by Anne Glenn. If you’d like to visit Catherine Fisher’s website, click here. If you want to follow her on Twitter, click here. If you want to buy The Clockwork Crow from Firefly, click here. That’s enough clicking.

 

Author Q and A: Catherine Fisher

The Clockwork Crow is Catherine Fisher’s latest novel – a beautifully crafted enchanted wintry tale for children. Catherine is an acclaimed author and poet of over 30 books and we are delighted that she took the time to answer our questions.

Born in Newport, she graduated from the University of Wales and has worked in education, archaeology and broadcasting. She has been shortlisted for numerous prizes and awards including the Smarties Prize (The Conjuror’s Game), the Whitbread Prize (The Oracle) and the Tir-na-nOg Award (The Candle Man / Corbenic).

What are you reading at the moment?

I always read a few books at once. At the moment it’s an odd mixture – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel,  The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien, and Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography!

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

I was about 11, and started with poems, at first in school and then at home. I had a whole notebook full of them. I only decided to write a novel when I was about 19 or 20.

Where and when do you write?

I try to write every morning between 9 and 1. I have room with a desk looking onto the garden, and that’s my usual place, though the good thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Sometimes the names just come,like Seren in the Clockwork Crow, or Finn and Claudia in Incarceron. Other times I have to make a list and choose. I’m always looking at names on TV programmes or in books for ideas. I have a names page in a notebook with a few saved up for future books, if I can find the characters to suit them.  

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

Alan Garner’s fantasies, Tolkien, Robert Holdstock’s weird tales, Arthur Machen, who I have always found a great writer. Also a million fairy tales and myths and legends,Norse and Welsh and Irish and Greek.  In terms of poetry, Keats,Yeats, David Jones and George Mackay Brown.

A lot of your writing is set in Wales. How important is a sense of place to your books? 

In some books like Darkhenge or Crown of Acorns, very important because the story rises out of the landscape and history of that place. In Corbenic I used real places in Wales to set a very strange tale. I think Wales is an amazing place and full of untold stories.

The Tir na n-Og Award celebrates books with authentic Welsh backgrounds. You won the award in 1995 and have been nominated twice more. How does it feel to be recognised with literary awards?

It’s always a great honour and encouragement. But I know that many, many really good books are overlooked, so I try not to get down if I am not nominated. It doesn’t mean the book is any less good.

The book is published with Firefly Press, an independent Welsh publisher who we love. How did this come about?

I have been aware of Firefly since they started and they are doing such a great job for Welsh children’s fiction. I wanted to write a Christmas book and suggested the idea to Penny Thomas, who was very keen to publish it. I was very happy to write it for them.

What inspired The Clockwork Crow?

Christmas, the idea of a Crow you could put together from pieces, lots of snow and ice. I wrote the book last winter and as I was working it kept on snowing outside my window, so I think the snowglobe has a real magic!

Was it difficult / fun / strange to give a voice to the Crow?

Not difficult but great fun. He had to be tetchy and bossy and yet quite likeable underneath. And vain,of course.

The Clockwork Crow is a tale “of snow and stars”. Are you a fan of wintry weather?

I have memories of when I was very small and there were really bitterly cold winters when everything froze. I love snow and the dark starry skies, and Northern, arctic stories. The Snow Queen is one of my favourite books.

The new book is written for 9-12 year olds (though Daddy Worm really really enjoyed it!). You also have poetry and YA writing on the go. How do you approach writing for different age groups?

Each is different and arrives differently. Poetry is much more intense and every word has to be tested. Young Adult and children’s books differ in the age of the hero/ine and the complexity of the story.  

Noah (aged 11) has just finished The Clockwork Crow tonight. He’s not read anything else by you. Which books of yours would you suggest he reads next?

I hope he enjoyed it! Maybe a book called The Glass Tower; Three doors to the Otherworld, which contains 3 of my early stories. Or even The Relic Master, the first of a set. Or maybe The Obsidian Mirror.

Is it fair to ask you to name the favourite book you’ve written?

Corbenic. I’m not sure why but I like that character and his story a lot.

What’s next for Catherine Fisher?

I have a new poetry book out with Seren Books in April called The Bramble King, which I am very excited about. And I am working on the sequel to the Clockwork Crow, so look out for more of Seren, Tomos and the Crow.

 

Many many thanks to Catherine for answering our questions and thanks to Firefly Press for organising. You can learn more about Catherine by visiting her website. To order The Clockwork Crow, visit Firefly’s website.