The Last Spell Breather

Julie Pike

Oxford University Press

Cover illustration by Dinara Mirtalipova

Synopsis: Enter the unique world of the Spell Breathers! Spell Breathing does not come naturally to Rayne – she loathes the hours of practice, the stacks of scrolls, and the snapping mud grotesques that cover her mother’s precious spell book. When she holds the spell book over a fire, it is only meant as an empty threat – until she feels the grotesque’s tiny teeth biting into her finger and lets go. In one clumsy move, her mother’s spells are broken, her village is plunged into danger, and an incredible adventure begins . . .

Noah says: The Last Spell Breather is a magical book involving a brave and clumsy girl named Rayne and a daring and kind boy named Tom.

In a world where monsters exist, Rayne and her village are safe behind a magical barrier. Rayne is an apprentice spell breather, her mam insists on going to the Great Library leaving Rayne all alone. Rayne tries to learn more and when she picks up the spell book everything goes wrong. She has to find her mam to fix the mess.

I really enjoyed the book – I felt like I was inside it because the way Julie Pike described the scenes; this book is incredible! I recommend it for readers who like A Darkness of Dragons (SA Patrick), Podkin One Ear (Kieran Larwood) and The Maker of Monsters (Lorainne Gregory).

Daddy says: There is a huge amount to admire in The Last Spell Breather. The story itself is beautifully written and constructed, the characters and creatures are brilliant (even the evil ones!), and the little details succeed in building an entirely convincing fantasy world. It’s a captivating read for adults and children not least because of the unique take on how magic works via spell breathing and spell writing.

Rayne is a relatable heroine and readers are sure to will her on to a successful conclusion despite her self-doubt. Frank (the fox seen on the cover) is a curious guide and you’re never quite sure if he can be trusted. The fish-monsters (yes you read that correctly) and grotesques made me squirm and the world of the Citadel, Great Library and Scriptorium is gloriously realised.

This is fabulous stuff from Julie Pike and The Last Spell Breather is up there with the best Middle-Grade fiction published this year. Enchanting!

To buy yourself a copy of The Last Spell Breather, visit your local independent bookshop, or buy online. You can read an exclusive blog post from Julie here.

Peril en Pointe

Helen Lipscombe

Chicken House

Peril en Pointe follows Millicent Kydd as she accepts an invitation to join the Swan House Ballet School. Six months earlier Milly messed up in the performance of her life on the same night that her mother disappeared, so the invitation comes as a bit of a surprise! It turns out however, that Swan House is no ordinary ballet school; it’s a school for spies… So alongside lessons in the perfect plié and grand jeté, there’s espionage and codebreaking too.

There’s a bitter rivalry between Millie and Willow Perkins, ‘friends’ since they were very young, but Willow is jealous, holds grudges and seems to be sabotaging Millie’s attempts to make a good impression at Swan House. Could Willow be an insider who knows more about the whereabouts of Millie’s Mum? Or maybe one of the ensemble cast of school staff, students or visiting competitors could be double-bluffing? There is certainly enough of them to provide interest and intrigue and they all do their bit to cloud the narrative and throw the reader off the scent.

Milly is a likeable and very real protagonist – she struggles to deal with the disappearance of her mother, her new surroundings and new friendships – yet she is determined, honest and ambitious. She may not be the best ballerina in the block but she is determined that she is the one to lead the mission to find her mother. It’s a heartfelt and raw tribute to the bond between mother and daughter.

Neath debut author Helen Lipscombe, has created a fresh and engaging thriller that will keep you engrossed and ‘en pointe’ up to the dramatic final curtain. The writing is confident and assured and keeps you guessing to the end. Comparisons will no doubt be made to Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series, but the Swan House Ballet School Mystery is lighter in touch, and suited to a slightly younger audience who enjoy the boarding school antics of Malory Towers combined with a splash of James Bond gadgets. And ballet.

As Helen revealed in a recent Q and A, Swan House Ballet School Mysteries will return for another episode next year. Follow Helen on Twitter. Buy yourself a copy of Peril en Pointe by Helen Lipscombe from Hive or from your local bookshop. We received a free copy of Peril en Pointe in return for this honest review.

Hummingbird

Nicola Davies / Jane Ray

Walker Books (hardback 32 pages)

This gorgeous book is a collaboration between the amazing zoologist and nature-lover Nicola Davies and superb artist Jane Ray. These award-winning creatives have combined to make the most beautiful and informative picture book.

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is one of over 300 different kinds of hummingbird which has the most epic migration journey. They have a flight range of around 1800 miles between Mexico and Central America to the East of the USA each spring. This seems even more magnificent when you consider that the bird weighs less than an American nickel.

Nicola Davies’ familiar non-fiction fiction tells the story of the hummingbird’s journey from the viewpoint of a granny and granddaughter, and compares the journey to that of the young girl travelling on a plane to her parents in New York. Scientific facts about the hummingbirds are written alongside the story so you learn as the story progresses. Nutrition, feeding, nesting, sleeping and physical characteristics are all covered. A small section at the back gives further detail about these amazing birds.

Jane Ray’s illustrations are absolutely incredible and each spread is a riot of colour. The detail on the birds, flowers and blossom in particular is incredible, and we especially like the pieces of map built in to the mountains. The endpapers are also stunning!

This book is beautiful, informative and colourful; it’s a triumph for both author and illustrator as it feeds the eye and the mind and leaves both fully satisfied.

We bought this copy of Hummingbird ourselves. You can find out more about Nicola Davies at her website or you could follow her on Twitter. You can also visit illustrator Jane Ray’s website or follow her on Twitter too.

If you’d like to buy a copy, why not visit your local independent bookshop or buy online.

ABC of Opera: The Academy of Barmy Composers

Baroque

Mark Llewelyn Evans and Karl Davies

Graffeg

Here is a unique book, the first in a series, that aims to tell the story of baroque music to a new, young (8+) audience. It’s an eye-catching and engaging volume and educational too. Further books on classical, romantic and modern music styles will follow.

The books have been put together by Mark Llewelyn Evans, himself an opera star with a successful career and wealth of experience with Welsh National Opera and other UK-wide companies. Mark is the creative director of ABC of Opera; an organisation offering educational workshops around the country (more info here). Established landscape artist Karl Davies has ventured into the world of illustration and has brought the words to life with incredibly sparky artwork in this colourful and vibrant book.

Mark Llewelyn Evans says: ‘I was 14 when I saw my first opera and was blown away by the whole experience. To this day opera still captivates me, and I wanted to introduce the next generation to this incredible art form in a unique way – one that would not only engage them with the beautiful music but also with the genius composers who created this world. I wanted each composer to come alive, step out of the book and into the hearts of the children. With 97% of the children we have met through the ABC of Opera workshops asking to meet the composers, we knew it was time to open the doors to The Academy of Barmy Composers.’

With Karl Davies, Mark has created a storybook that takes us back in time to learn factual information about the baroque period and its composers. Jack and Megan find a forgotten trunk in an old music hall which takes them back to 1597. They meet the inventor of opera, Professor Peri, who introduces them to the likes of Monteverdi, Handel and Purcell. The narrative text, in many ways, makes this an accessible book to a wide audience. Little footnotes and wry nuggets of explanation adorn the pages making it great fun. There follows some extremely informative pages at the back of the book where fact-seekers will revel in learning about other baroque composers, baroque instruments, operatic voices and more!

Opera is defined as a story set to music and this thrilling history of baroque music is aptly wrapped in a story that will delight and educate in equal measure. We can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

The Secret Dragon

Ed Clarke

Puffin

The Secret Dragon is a wonderful story set on the South Wales coast, inspired by visits to the beaches of the Vale of Glamorgan. Ed Clarke lives in London but the story evolved as he visited his parents.

Mari Jones, inspired by her father, is a young fossil hunter and aspiring scientist. She makes a remarkable discovery on the beach one day – a tiny gwiber or wyvern hatches from the rock. Mari’s mother is tolerant of her passion for paleontology but is far from encouraging and so Mari feels unable to share her revelatory discovery. But can she keep the secret to herself? She wants to honour her father’s memory with ‘Gweeb’ and so begins to study it carefully, putting together her findings before ‘going public’. However, the secret is hard to keep, especially as the dragon is full of mischief and keeps escaping.

This is a great adventure story full of humour and heart. Mari, an isolated and quirky individual, is forced to learn the value of friendship and family. She’s a great character – resourceful, headstrong and determined – even when things are against her. Ed Clarke’s narrative is enchanting and absorbing with more than a touch of danger and there are plenty of life lessons along the way.

The Secret Dragon is recommended for readers 8+, but there is plenty to keep older readers engrossed and engaged throughout.

We received a free copy of The Secret Dragon from Puffin in exchange for this honest review. You can find out more about Ed Clarke at his website or you could follow him on Twitter.

The cover of The Secret Dragon was illustrated by Ben Mantle. If you’d like to buy a copy, why not visit your local independent bookshop or buy online.

Ceri & Deri

Build a Birdhouse / The Treasure Map

Max Low

Graffeg

“Ceri is a cat, and Deri is a dog. Ceri has stripes and Deri has spots. They live in a small town near a big hill and they do everything together. They are best friends.”

So begins each of the four Ceri and Deri books by Max Low – an opening reminiscent of the comforting familiarity of Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola series. Across the four books, Max, a graduate of Hereford School of Art, ensures that friendship and fun is at the heart of the duo’s adventures. The latest two titles have just been published by Graffeg and they are beautifully produced.

There is an immediacy and vibrancy to Max’s illustrations that radiates so much joy and youthful energy I want to hang the pages on every wall in the house. It’s fresh and fun and I love the way Max plays with shape and line and limits his palette to shades of the same colours. He makes some bold choices too – a favourite page has to be the illustration of the sea in The Treasure Map.

https://twitter.com/bookwormswales/status/1124655984348102661

The stories have an educational edge too – not that these are text books, but reading these books with young children will support their understanding of directions (Treasure Map), time (No Time for Clocks), counting, sharing and design. The emphasis, though, is most definitely on fun.

In The Treasure Map, the two friends follow directions in search of pirate treasure, helped along the way by their companions. In Build a Birdhouse, we see Max at his imaginative and creative best as Ceri and Deri design a perfect (read: wacky and wonderfully weird) house for a homeless bird. It’s in this book that Max hits on a universal truth: “No one actually uses dining rooms do they? So let’s fill it full of balloons!”

Playful, engaging and full of humour, the Ceri and Deri books are fabulous picture books made for sharing. Max Low is an extremely talented illustrator and we can’t wait to see what comes next – which is another book, ‘My Friends’ due to be published by Otter Barry in July!

Photograph from Max’s Instagram

To buy the Ceri and Deri books, visit Graffeg’s website. You can follow Max on Twitter.

Helping Hedgehog Home

Celestine and the Hare

Graffeg

Helping Hedgehog Home is the ninth book in this wonderful series of tales about the felted creatures undertaking simple acts of kindness. In this installment, Hedgehog is locked out of her home when a fence is erected. In an attempt to make a return, she builds a hot-air balloon to sail over the garden obstacle. Unfortunately, she crash lands into Grandpa Burdock’s domain who then tries to ‘help her home’.

All of Celestine’s books overflow with kindness, but this one is extra special. I think it has something to do with the character of Grandpa Burdock – he is keen, talkative, enthusiastic and ever so lovable. Hedgehog is fed (freshly baked bramble biscuits and a cup of tea!) and taken care of while Grandpa thinks of ways to overcome the fence. Karin Celestine has a wicked sense of fun and mischief – seen in the inventive drawings of Grandpa’s suggestions. Hedgehog is naturally concerned when she hears of the ‘hedgehogapult’. Thankfully, Granny Burdock returns at the right moment with a far more sensible solution for returning Hedgehog to her home.

Helping Hedgehog Home made us giggle; it made us fall in love with Grandpa Burdock; it encourages us to show warmth and kindness to neighbours; it tells us of the importance of taking time to sit and stare; and, thanks to the informative pages at the back, taught us some groovy facts about hedgehogs.

Helping Hedgehog Home was enjoyed by the whole family and we were delighted to meet Karin at a workshop as part of the Cardiff Kids Literature Festival a few weeks ago. She kindly gave us some time to ask her some questions. We began by asking about the name ‘Celestine and the Hare’:

“Celestine was my great grandmother – I come from a line of strong Swedish women – Karin is my mother and her mother was also Karin, and her mother was Celestine. I have a bust of Celestine in my studio, which I inherited from my mum, and she’s always looked over me as a matriarch – reminding me of the line of strong, adventurous and very creative women. I was looking for a name for my business so Celestine appealed and I also like hares – they are magical and I particularly love the mythology associated with women shape-shifting into hares. I’d also made a hare which sits next to Celestine and it was as simple as that – Celestine and the hare.”

Karin also uses a pen name (we’re not quite sure what her real name is!), which came about by mistake. She explains, “I had been dithering over what to call myself and I went to an event where they had mistakenly made a name badge for me saying ‘Karin Celestine’ and I thought ‘That’s quite nice!’

The Karin Celestine books came about after Karin had been making the felt animals and selling them, but as she was making the characters she gave them backstories and invented silly narratives. “I did a calendar and cards for Graffeg and they asked if I had considered writing a story. I was also encouraged by Jackie (Morris) to have a go. It was strange because I had never been encouraged in school to write – in fact I was told I couldn’t write and was the worst at crafts! So I wrote ‘Paper Boat for Panda’ and cried as I submitted it.”

Whilst the felted creatures get up to all sorts of hijinks and tomfoolery (especially in the films and photos Karin shares on social media), the books turned out with added empathy, “I have a huge thing about kindness – it is so important; kindness and mischief – that’s my strapline and the books turned out gentler. And because I’d been a teacher there are messages – I’ve slipped things in that I know children need to hear.”

Nine books on, and Karin brings us her new story about Hedgehog. She told us, “There is more humour in this one, but still with an ecological message.”

“A lot of the environmental issues in the news can be too big and too frightening for young children – as a child you can feel completely helpless to do anything about it. I remember the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign from when I was younger, and short of buying a membership to the World Wildlife Fund there was nothing I could do – and for me, that’s not very positive. I want everybody to feel they are able to do something to help.”

In the back of all of Karin’s books there are some craft activities, many with an ecological theme – building bug houses, weaving, making suncatchers. “We should all be back garden eco warriors – the activities are something that any child can do and feel good about. They then grow up thinking they can make a difference.”

Making a difference is exactly what Karin’s books inspire through the actions of Grandpa, Grandma, Bert, Bertram, Emily, Small, Panda, King Norty, Baby Weasus and all the tribe. Kindness and mischief and making a difference.

To buy copies of Karin’s books with personalised dedications, visit her website where you can find lots of other information and activities. Huge thanks to Karin for giving her time so generously and thank you to Graffeg for the copy of Helping Hedgehog Home, given in return for an honest review.

For more Weasel Wednesday and Choklit stealing, follow Karin on Twitter or Facebook.

The Storm Child

The Storm Child

Gill Lewis

Oxford

The Storm Child by Gill Lewis has been shortlisted for the Tir na nOg Award 2019. The retelling is part of the ‘Treetops Greatest Stories’ series produced by Oxford as part of its reading scheme. Aimed at Year 5 children, The Storm Child is one of 35 stories designed to extend children’s reading experiences and introduce them to some classic storytellers and the joy of fiction.

It’s fair to say then that the Tir na nOg Award will bring this book to the attention of a wider audience. And it really does deserve your attention. It focusses on the Welsh legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, an ancient kingdom between Bardsey Island and Ramsey Island, protected from the rising tides by a sea wall. In this story, the fisher-folk are threatened by a “seven raven” gale and when the warnings of the Wall Guard go unheeded it’s up to the storm child to save the kingdom.

Gill Lewis is a glorious storyteller and The Storm Child is skillful, entertaining and fast-paced. The tale of forgotten kingdoms, forbidden love, banished princesses, betrayal and heroic escapes has a fairy-tale quality mixed in with the feel of a legend and morality tale.

This version of the story is different to the most popular versions we know – in those versions the sluice gates are neglected by either Mererid or the drunken Prince Setheillion. In Gill Lewis’ story, Mererid is the heroine; a girl of unknown parentage who, as a baby, was rescued from the seas during a torrential storm by Angelos the Wall Guard. The Storm Child senses that the kingdom’s defences are about to be breached, but will the king take heed?

“The wind snuffed out the candles and the music stopped as people turned to stare at the Storm Child standing in the open doorway, seven ravens circling in the air above her. Behind her, jagged bolts of lightning tore the blackened sky.” Illustration by James Gifford

Interestingly, Cantre’r Gwaelod has inspired many shortlisted titles in the Tir na n-Og Award’s history, including winners A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond (1977), The Silver Tree by Susan Cooper (1978) and Cities in the Sea by Siân Lewis and Jackie Morris (1997). Will 2019 bring another winner? Either way, The Storm Child is a great story that celebrates the rich heritage of Welsh folklore. This is a beautifully produced and skillfully crafted retelling, with illustrations by James Gifford adding real atmosphere. We’d really love to see Gill take on a host of other Welsh legends and produce a volume of tales – that would make for a fabulous book. For now, this one is a complete pleasure.

Storm Hound

Storm Hound

Claire Fayers

Macmillan

Storm Hound is Claire Fayers’ fourth novel following two award-winning books in The Accidental Pirates series and last year’s riveting Mirror Magic. A Hound from Odin’s Hunt has fallen to Earth as he seemingly couldn’t keep up with the pack. The thunderous skies break open and the beast lands on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. On falling to the realm of humans he transforms from a wild beast to a small puppy and is taken in by Jessica Price, her brother Ben and their father.

The torrential weather causes Jess to name the puppy Storm and he immediately gets the attention of several suspicious characters who sense his magic. The three professors display dubious demeanours and have questionable motives for being “seconded” to Jessica’s new school. Meanwhile her new friend David’s behaviour is often shrouded in mystery, especially when he’s around his peculiar Aunt. For the sake of Storm, Jess has to work out who she can trust.

Storm Hound is fast-paced and highly engaging – the narrative is driven and satisfying. There is a lot of humour in the book, derived from the relationship between man and dog (and who is the boss); with the interplay between cat and dog, and sheep and dog giving much cause for the giggles. There’s no humour amongst dogs though – Storm may be little but when he gets angry his shadow suggests his true status – and other dogs are in no doubt of his power.

Mount Skirrid

The book is indebted to Welsh mythology and legend with Claire putting her own spin on the Hounds of Annwn and borrowing Welsh enchantress Ceridwen and her son Morfran for her characters. The whole book is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape too with the story unfolding in the shadow of Mount Skirrid – an oddly profiled Black Mountain allegedly flattened by the foot of the devil.

Whilst the book is full of Claire’s trademark magic, enchantments and fantasy, Storm Hound stands out because it is the most human story Claire has told. Jess’ parents have just split up and she is having to deal with a move away from her established friends – a new house, neighbourhood and school. She has to look after her younger brother in this transition and cope with being away from her mother. Despite the downpours and tempest in the weather, the largest storm is reserved for her internal struggle. There are many parallels throughout the book between the puppy and Jessica: the puppy does not belong; he finds it hard to communicate; he worries that he cannot protect. Huge credit to Claire for including these realities, and credence also for not trying to resolve them all (sorry – slight spoiler!).

For us (the book has been enjoyed by Mummy, Daddy and Noah), this is Claire’s most accomplished book yet. It’s funny and fast-paced and the layers of subtext allow for a wide age range to enjoy. This perfect Storm comes highly recommended.

Thank you to Macmillan for sending us a proof copy of Storm Hound in exchange for a review. Storm Hound is available now from your local bookshop or direct from Macmillan. You can visit Claire’s website here or follow her on Twitter.

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.