The Faraway Truth- Janae Marks

Written by Janae Marks, Cover by Rachael Dean
Published by Chicken House

Zoe has just celebrated her 12th birthday and arrives home to find a letter addressed to her from a nearby prison. This is a first and she is unsure how to react. The letter is from her biological father, a man convicted of murder, someone she has never heard from or met before.

Deciding to write back, Zoe begins to correspond with Marcus, getting to know him, asking questions and finding common ground. Keeping it a secret from her mum and step dad, she shares the letters with her grandma. Zoe, and best friend Trevor, decide to do some sleuthing about the case and learn a few hard truths about the justice system and how black men are sometimes regarded by the law.

Believing Marcus to be innocent, she allows herself to get too involved and it becomes troublesome for her and Trevor. If only she could get her mum to listen to her, to allow her to have a relationship with her Dad and to believe in his innocence. After a heartfelt conversation with her family , Zoe can only hope for change and a chance to meet her Dad.

I was completely hooked on Zoe’s story and impressed that she had the courage to look into her father’s case, contact those who wronged him and to stand up for what she believed in. Heart-felt moments brought tears to my eyes and the injustices forced me to think hard about prejudices in our world.

A true sense of family shines through this book alongside hope, friendship and courage. Incredibly well written, the pages almost flew out of my hand. I was reading so intently and quickly to learn more, to see the truth and to feel the love!

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell

Written by Zillah Bethell, Cover Illustrations by Saara Söderlund
Published by Usborne

This is an incredible book, one that will grip your heart and not let go. The journey of two young girls becomes intertwined as they meet, share their stories and learn that “the living should put the living above the dead”.

Blue Wing has lost her parents in a tragic shark attack as they were trying to protect and save her. She has never forgiven Xok, the shark for this attack and vows to kill him someday. Maple is new to the island and is grieving for her mother, recently passed away. It seems unlikely these two will become friends as they both carry so much anger and hurt in their hearts.

Over time, they begin to open up, share stories and become closer. Siringen, Blue Wing’s guardian, urges her to take care of Maple and help her heal. Perhaps knowing this will have a positive effect on her own emotions. As an elder in the village, Siringen is wise and trustworthy.

Siringen is the village shark caller, previously there to catch and kill them for food, but now just as a tradition. Blue Wing is desperate for Siringen to pass along these traditions to her, however, with so much anger in her heart, he refuses. Not to mention that girls cannot be shark callers, only men can have this role in the village.

Maple’s father has brought her to the island believing he is studying the coral reefs, but he is harbouring a secret and it threatens to tear them apart. With the guidance and honesty of Blue Wing, the girls work together to hunt for a mystery, and to try to find a way to get through to Maple’s father.

With both girls and their guardians as the main characters, there is a parallel. They all at times become leaders, offer guidance and love, or need to be told the truth, no matter how hard it may be to hear. The grown ups learn as much from their daughters as they in turn teach.

With a hundred pages to go and a determination to see what was going to happen, I sat down. I was transported back to the island, the sea and the friendship. I could not have foreseen the outpouring of emotion that was to come. Sometimes you read a book and it is a blow to the solar plexus….I was breathless, surprised, emotional.

This book will stay with me for a long time and I urge you to read this….brilliantly descriptive, both in setting and characters. Ingeniously interwoven and striking the right balance between tradition and modernity in Papua New Guinea.

Even the letter to the readers written by Zillah Bethell, is beautiful and full of the messages that come across in the narrative. No spoilers but I wonder if others will feel the same expanse of emotions as I did throughout the book.

The Unstoppable Letty Pegg by Iszi Lawrence

Reading this on International Women’s Day was very apt. Women fighting for the vote is a huge part of our history and a giant step towards women being treated with respect and equality.

Lettuce Pegg lives with her father, a policeman, and her mother who is a suffragette. Their worlds are about to collide and Letty will find herself in the middle.

The London protests are heating up and getting more violent so Letty’s dad books them a weekend away to protect them from danger. However, Letty and her mother both travel back for the march. Sadly, both Letty and her mother get injured during their escape. Letty watches as a small woman defends herself and protects Letty. This is Letty’s first introduction to to Jiu Jitsu, and she learns, amazed, how other suffragettes are using these skills to protect themselves.

Training with a group of ladies at the dojo, Letty acts as a messenger for them as they reach out to Letty’s mother. Feeling as though her family is being torn apart, Letty must come to terms with her parents separation, and issues at school with her teacher. Training in Jiu Jitsu has given Letty some new priorities and courage. She is making new friends and using her new skills to protect herself and her family.

I adored Letty Pegg and thoroughly enjoyed a story set in the time of suffragettes and their plight. A fascinating story of bravery, friendship and the importance of family. This is a brilliant book! Highly recommended!

The Positivity of Jungledrop by Abi Elphinstone

Jungledrop is one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2020 and proof copies are like gold dust! I admit to feeling over the moon with the arrival of this glorious green book!

Written by Abi Elphinstone, Publishing May 2020 by Simon & Schuster

As I was reading this, I was struck by the over reaching messages of positivity throughout the whole story. So what follows is not so much a review but a look at some of my favourite phrases and how they fit into the story. I promise to avoid spoilers for those waiting to read Jungledrop!

I created my list of page numbers where a positive message appeared, thinking if I could find 10 great ones, it would be the perfect amount for my idea. However, while reading my list grew and I ended up with well over 20 favourites. These quotes caught me and made me think and feel deeply about the twins, the plight of Jungledrop and the relationship to our world. Let’s dive in!

“Children are remarkably bendy creatures, especially when they are thrust head first into an adventure. Just when you think you’ve got the measure of them, they twist and turn and end up surprising you altogether.” Meet Fox and Fibber Petty-Squabble (brilliant names!), twins and enemies, their parents set to rule the business world. Fox and Fibber become the unlikely duo travelling to Jungledrop. Our expectations on them are low at the beginning…will they surprise us?

“The Unmapped Kingdoms have chosen you and, when magic sets its sights on someone, it’s remarkably hard to wriggle free”. Welcome back Casper Tock, as we watch him warn Fox and Fibber about Morg. I love that Casper is brought back into the fray! Fox and Fibber believe he is just a strange old man but we know that magic chooses the heroes in the Unmapped Chronicles.

“This is the problem with letting children into your workplace: they start teaching you to hope all over again”. On their quest and adventure, help is found in unlikely places. An old apothecary, Doogie Herbalsneeze, is at his lowest, being unable to save his wife several years before. Isolating himself away, he only finds hope with the arrival of the twins. He offers them some ideas and potions to take on their journey.

“…quests are more easily won and foes more likely beaten when you have someone by your side”. Fox and Fibber are the ultimate competitors, not trusting each other or sharing their emotions with each other. As they journey, their barriers begin to come down, and the Lofty Husks know that this journey is more than just about Morg. Ever knowing creatures, The Lofty Husks , take the form of panthers in Jungledrop.

“A heart full of faith and kindness is a rare and powerful thing”. It is indeed a powerful thing, and as a reader, we know that those with the truest hearts will have the most success in the battle against Morg. Fox and Fibber both need to change what they hold in their hearts, towards each other and towards their world in general. This might be my favourite to share widely with children in all my schools- have faith and be kind. Something we all need more of at this time of uncertainty.

“The biggest mistake grown-ups make, whether they’re people or magical beasts, is thinking that tears must be hidden”. It wouldn’t be an adventure into Morg’s dangerous world without losses to grieve. “Crying over the loss of a friend shows the strength…”. For those who lose in the book, I admit to crying alongside them.

“You underestimate what you and your brother are made of, girl” and “nothing is more powerful than a child in possession of a plan”. We are nearing some big action scenes in this incredible adventure. No spoilers so I will just leave this one here for your own speculation!

As the adventure becomes more dangerous, Fox and Fibber, nearing the lair of Morg, have changed completely, sometimes in surprising ways. “if you are strong enough to pull down a wall around your heart, you can fight with the strength of a warrior”. A bold statement as the twins near the end of their journey through Jungledrop!

“…there are ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, purely because they’re kind.” Amazing messages with a huge focus on kindness is perfect for the children and adults who will delve into Jungledrop, Everdark and Rumblestar and never want to leave!

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, as I have dozens of other wonderful quotes to share with readers, is this…one that comes across in all of Abi’s books. “…the most astonishing creatures of all are, in fact, children. Because what they lack in size, they make up for in spirit”. The heroes and heroines of The Unmapped Chronicles are the unlikely ones with brilliant names, children who are fearful, untrusting or unsure of their own abilities. Learning about themselves on their journey leads to courage, confidence and love towards the end of their time in Everdark, Rumblestar or Jungledrop.

I have complete adoration for this series. Imaginative, full of wisdom and wit and messages to inspire children onwards in our world.

Abi- this is another triumph and I can’t wait for more from The Unmapped Chronicles!

Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum

I was completely enthralled by this story of Sarah and Ivy. Pacy, tense and fascinating.

Written by Kirsty Applebaum
Publishing April 2020 by Nosy Crow

Initially, Sarah doesn’t like Ivy although Ivy tries to be the “perfect friend”. Ivy is trained to be kind, not harm or bully and to have fun! Ivy is one of 144 Troofriend Mark IV androids that parents are buying for their children. I found this to be a fascinating look at what might happen if technology advances too quickly.

I was glued to the story of Ivy and the development of human actions and emotions within her. Her consistent error reports sent to Jenson & Jenson seem to be indicative of the changes the television reporters are announcing. Sarah’s parents are becoming increasingly alarmed at reports of androids harming children and becoming more human.

As the reader, the tension is palpable as we can see what Ivy is thinking and doing, understand the worry of Sarah’s parents yet want Sarah to make friends and be happy. All three elements are brought together seamlessly and in a book that will challenge your thoughts.

At times, I wondered whether this would take a very dark turn and felt worried for Sarah. Learning more about Ivy, I started to feel sorry for her and worry about her future with the family.

This is an epic book and one I could not stop reading although my heart was in my throat, fear was curling around me and I felt at times too worried to turn the page. However, I had to know what happens next and I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The Threads of Magic by Alison Croggon

Written by Alison Croggon, Published by Walker Books

Clarel is a town where magic is forbidden. Witches have been erased from the town and all magic is deemed dark and unnecessary. Pip and his sister El, live day to day, with little to eat and basic beds. Pip steals to keep them alive.

Pickpocketing a man one night, Pip hopes for gold or money to buy the next meal. What he finds is a trinket box and the contents within spook both Pip and El. Not realising the danger they are in, Pip sells the box but keeps the contents hidden.

A dangerous and deadly chain of reactions is set in motion and Pip is now being chased by assassins set by the Cardinal of the City. The dried out heart, found within the box, is actually an ancient spell. The owner of the heart is a young Prince from Clarel’s history, killed for a spectre to take over his body. The prince wants revenge and Pip is his vessel.

Pip, El, friend Oni and her mother Amina, are in terrible danger and must work together to overcome the evil now haunting the city. Commoners revolt against the monarchy, creepy and dangerous spectres have plans to take over the bodies of those around them and there is a hidden coven of witches active underground.

Full of an intensifying race against time to save Pip, El and the city of Clarel from the evil Cardinal, this book will keep you on your toes. I love the character of Pip, although forced to steal to survive, has a kind heart and only wishes to protect his sister from the dangers of the world. Oni and her mother Amina are witches with tremendous secrets and abilities which work to save Pip and El several times.

A brilliant book, one of my top picks for 2020!

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler

Written by Jenni Spangler, Illustrations by Chris Mould
Publishing by Simon and Schuster April 2020.

“From a tiny glass box on a shelf, a girl began to appear pouring out like liquid and becoming solid before Leander’s eyes”.

What an enticing quote from an intriguing debut novel. Leander, our main character, is an orphan- constantly chased out of home and bakeries. Thieving seems his only option for survival until he meets Madame Pinchbeck. To the reader, she is a delightfully devious villain but to cold, hungry Leander, she is a life line. She offers food, warmth and a sense of belonging- all of which has been missing since his mother passed away.

Heeding an initial warning from a strange girl, Leander runs from Pinchbeck. When he returns a second time, the warning comes too late and Leander is trapped. The explanation that follows from the girl, Charlotte, and another boy, Felix is unbelievable and Leander feels they are tricking him.

What has actually happened is that Madame Pinchbeck now owns and controls Leander and uses the children to further her career as a swindling medium for the upper classes. Character links, special bonds and an unwavering commitment to free themselves becomes an incredible, dangerous and time constrained adventure.

Pinchbeck is the ultimate Victorian baddie- evil, twisted and thieving. Perfect for this tale!

The initial quote on the proof copy draws the reader in, and it is an essential part of Leander’s new life. Charlotte and Felix must teach Leander to enter and exit his vessel. They each have one item that is so special to them, they become attached to it. Pinchbeck can control them but they must learn to use it as well.

All three children are on a mission of their own and only together can they break the spell holding them to their item and Madame Pinchbeck.

Fast paced, magical and adventurous, danger lurking in the darkness and a villainous stealer of children- can the children escape?

I was incredibly lucky to borrow this from a bookish friend and look forward to seeing this finished book with illustrations by the talented Chris Mould.