Posted by: janesandell | May 19, 2017

Cute Cats, Cruel Cats, Crazy Cats

I love cats and over the years I’ve reviewed lots of books in which they star.  Here are just a few of my favourites.

It’s summertime and Ava is enjoying the seaside. But with Squishy McFluff in tow there always seems to be something that can go wrong.  Whether digging a hole, buying an ice-cream or chasing invisible fish, nothing goes quite to plan for the inseparable twosome.  And then Squishy goes missing.  Pip Jones and Ella Okstad return with another funny adventure starring the little girl and her invisible cat in the early chapter book Seaside Rescue!

In This is NOT a Cat! by David Larochelle and Mike Wohnoutka the first lesson at mouse school is how to recognise danger.  And danger, of course, means cats.  It’s a simple story but clever and very funny with a double twist in the tail!  The text is repetitive, ideal for encouraging small children to join in, and the illustrations are strong and dynamic.  I especially love the expressive faces of the three pupils.  Much of the plot is told pictorially and repeated readings will only enhance the enjoyment.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, one little girl thinks.  When a cat turns up on her doorstep and makes it clear he’s there to stay, she is quite pleased.  But she struggles to find a name for him.  Finally, however, the right one presents itself. I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat by Simon Philip and Ella Bailey is a simple and warm story told in words and augmented by cute pictures in gentle pastel shades.  The dynamic characters jump off the page and into the imagination.

The Lost Kitten  is a charming and engaging picture book by LEE and Komako Sakai. Hina and her mother are surprised when a cat appears on their doorstep and seems to be asking them to take care of her tiny kitten.  But they take on the task.  When her mother goes to buy some cat food, Hina is left in charge of the kitten.  An adventure and a fright ensue for both but all ends well and Hina is finally able to name the new kitten.  The delightful illustrations perfectly capture the emotion of this gentle and delightful tale.

Stanley the Amazing Knitting Cat  by Emily MacKenzie is crazy and quirky and colourful and fun. Mice are safe around Stanley and he doesn’t care about dozing in the sunshine.  Stanley loves to knit.  All his friends are dressed in his handiwork and stay warm thanks to him.  But when he runs out of wool before an important competition he is forced into desperate measures.  With its cute animals, bright woollens and happy ending, this is a joyful story about friendship and loyalty.

The Cat, the Mouse and the Runaway Train is a rollicking, rolling adventure of suspicion and friendship. Peter Bently’s resonantly rhyming tale is of Carruthers, the mouse-chasing station cat who rules the roost, petted by the stationmaster.  But when Carruthers’ tail gets stuck in the rail as a runaway train approaches, who will save the day?  Steve Cox’s illustrations are full of colour and vitality as they capture the drama of the story.  Brilliant for reading aloud, this is a book to be shared again and again.

Of all TS Eliot’s Practical Cats, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat  is my favourite.  From ‘the whisper down the line…when the Night Mail’s ready to depart’ the rhythm, rhyme, pace and story of the poem draw the reader in to Skimbleshanks’ domain.  Arthur Robins brings the word pictures to life with his spirited, dynamic illustrations (even if he is a little confused about which way is east).  Those who have read the earlier poems in this series will be delighted to spot Macavity and Mr Mistoffelees on board, heading for ‘the northern part of the northern hemisphere’.  I first met Skimbleshanks as a seven-year-old at Troqueer Primary School in Dumfries and loved the poem so much that at one point I could recite the whole thing.  But Skimble is significant for another reason too: for the first time I felt the excitement of reading (albeit very fleetingly) of a place I knew.

Posted by: janesandell | May 17, 2017

Wave by Paul Dowswell

Following the highly successful Eleven Eleven, Paul Dowswell returns to the First World War with Wave, a novel set on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Compelling and brutal, it is the story of the (imaginary) Hastings Pals and specifically of brothers Charlie and Eddie.  In the midst of the chaos of that notorious day the Pals’ home community is shattered.  The brothers’ lives are both changed and the repercussions of the summer morning echo down the years.  Paul Dowswell’s unflinching writing and eye for detail make this a gripping and haunting read.

This novel was commissioned and published by Barrington Stoke which specialises in books for young people who struggle with reading, particularly because of dyslexia.  I say that not to suggest anything other than that this is a book for any teenager.  And I’d whole-heartedly recommend it.

Posted by: janesandell | May 17, 2017

Hill of the Angels by Sue Mayfield

Religious intolerance, radicalisation, violence and flight: a story of our times you might think. But Hill of the Angels  by Sue Mayfield is set centuries back during the English Civil War.  Full of complicated relationships, family feuds and deeply held beliefs, the novel is told alternately by Grace and Abigail, friends who unwillingly find themselves on opposing sides by association.

Sue Mayfield is a superb storyteller with a gift for creating characters with strong voices. Hill of the Angels is a welcome addition to her all too small collection of novels.  I only wish that she’d write more fiction for teenagers.  I discovered her through I Carried You on Eagle’s Wings, a book that stayed with me for a long time.  And then, many many years later, Voices was one of the longlisted titles for the Carnegie Medal when I was a judge.  It’s a very different book but I loved it just as much – for its strong characters and for the clever way the plot twines round a production of The Tempest.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I have never grown out of my delight at reading books set in places I know so when I realised that Frank Cottrell Boyce had set his latest book in Dumfries I was ridiculously excited.  In fact I felt it necessary to share my excitement with Catherine at Macmillan Children’s Books!  As a very former pupil of Troqueer Primary I was delighted to find myself reading about my old haunts but wherever you’re from you’ll enjoy walking those streets with Prez, Sputnik and their friends.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is whimsical, heart-wrenching and hilarious. Prez is a boy whose life has been turned upside down causing him to retreat into silence.  When his grandfather is taken ill, Prez is sent to live with a family on a farm for the summer and in their care he begins to relax.  But when Sputnik erupts into his life everything changes.  For the better?  Well, eventually.  Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books are always enjoyable and this one, set in and around Dumfries, is no exception.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Murder Mystery

I tend to say, if asked, that I don’t like crime fiction.  It’s certainly true that I can’t read explicit violence or about lots of blood and anguish.  However, I do like the mystery element of these books.  I enjoy the unfolding discoveries of the detectives (professional or otherwise) and trying to understand the workings of the characters’ minds.  So I was delighted to come across some murder mysteries for younger readers and thought I’d share a couple of them with you.

Travelling home by bus one day, Maya takes a photo of the Christmas lights as she passes but inadvertently catches something else. Suddenly she is under police protection and living in the remote Welsh mountains with her distracted aunt and surly cousin.  Is she really in danger as the police think?  And is being cut off by snow a blessing or a curse? Murder in Midwinter is a taut and exciting thriller.  Fleur Hitchcock beautifully captures Maya’s sense of unreality and fear as she untangles family relationships along with the mystery.  This is just one of Fleur Hitchcock’s novels for Nosy Crow and the others are well worth reading too.

Puffin has already established an excellent series and Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong return for another unladylike murder mystery in Mistletoe and Murder.  The school friends are spending Christmas in Cambridge with Daisy’s brother and great-aunt.  Before they’ve even settled in they are faced with puzzling and unsettling events.  And when a fatal accident occurs in Maudlin College the girls suspect that it might have been planned.  Determined to prove that it was, in fact, murder the girls reluctantly accept the help of fellow Cambridge visitors, George and Alexander.  Nancy Drew meets the Chalet School in this clever crime novel set in the 1930s.  Robin Stevens’ period detail, strong characters and meticulous plotting come together in a satisfying story.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Steve Antony and the Queen

Her Majesty, the Queen returns in a red and green triumph by Steve Antony. It’s Christmas Eve and the Queen is still trying to decide what to buy for some of her great-grandchildren.  Although some of the most famous stores in the land are at her disposal she just doesn’t know what to get.  Fortunately Santa Claus is on hand to help and he whisks her off around the world to search for gifts.  Full of elves, reindeer and quirky details to spot The Queen’s Present is a welcome and worthy addition to this picture book series published by Hodder.  The other books are The Queen’s Handbag and The Queen’s Hat and they are just as much fun.

Posted by: janesandell | May 16, 2017

Some New Looks at Old Ideas

I came quite late to picture books as a professional but now that I’m there I can’t get enough of the best of them.  Here are three that are standing out for me currently.

Many years ago I had a much-treasured copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  I love the beautiful underground world where the sisters danced in secret away from the confines of the palace, and the little hint of mystery.  This new version by Alison Jay and published by Templar is gorgeous.  Her crackle-glazed style with sumptuous colours and dynamic characters draws the reader in to the princesses’ private world.  I particularly like the forest and lake scenes which contrast so well with the lighted ballroom.  This is just as much a treasure as my well-loved and read older copy.

Princess Eliza is clever, busy, kind and lonely. She needs a friend but few people make it to her snow-bound kingdom.  One day she ventures out alone into the forest where, instead of the bears she’d expected to meet, she finds a reindeer who carries her off to meet his friends.  Told in verse, this is a joyful story with sly allusions to other fairy tales, and the illustrations bring to life a Nordic winter.  In The Princess and the Christmas Rescue from Nosy Crow, Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton have created a modern take on an age-old story of friendship.

Cinderella: an art deco fairy tale published by Pavilion is a retelling of the well-known story by Lynn Roberts-Maloney illustrated by David Roberts. The text gives the tale a gentler feel and makes the stepmother and stepsisters less horrific but still self-centred, demanding and dismissive of Cinderella.  The illustrations set the story very firmly in the 1930s and are full of art deco style from the hairstyles to the shoes and the pictures on the walls.  The attention to detail makes this a fabulous book to view and the tightly-written story is laced with an undercurrent of dry humour.


Posted by: janesandell | May 15, 2017

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Here’s another excellent book from another superb storyteller.

With no time to consult the books in the library, prepare a plan or collect provisions, Princess Anya is forced to start off on a dangerous, perhaps deadly, quest with only Ardent, one of the royal dogs, for company and support. As their journey progresses, the nature of the quest develops and grows until finally Anya accepts that only she can prevent a takeover by a group of wicked sorcerers. Frogkisser! is an exciting and entertaining modern twist on traditional fairytales by that master of storytelling Garth Nix.

Posted by: janesandell | May 15, 2017

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop

Every so often a book slides across my desk and into my heart.  This, from Scholastic, was one such.  It’s funny and emotional and full of the power of words.

When the Jones family wins the Montgomery Book Emporium in a raffle, it seems too good to be true. And, of course, it is!  What at first seemed like a thing of wonder turns out to be anything but.  However, with the help of a ferocious kitten and her own powers of observation, young Property saves the day. The Bookshop Girl  by Sylvia Bishop is a cleverly funny romp ideal for reading aloud or for confident readers to enjoy alone.

Posted by: janesandell | May 15, 2017

Until We Win by Linda Newbery

There are few things I look forward to more than a new novel by Linda Newbery or a novel set around the campaign for women’s suffrage so I was pretty excited to receive this.  However, I was beyond excited when I read the dedication!

Until We Win is Lizzy’s story, set in the run-up to the First World War but detailing a different conflict. The fight for the right to vote for women is at its height with the Suffragettes, led by the redoubtable Emmeline Pankhurst, prepared to do and risk anything to win.  By chance Lizzy meets Julia and Elsie and is drawn into the campaign.  Linda Newbery has a wonderful ability to get under the skin of her characters and she demonstrates that here.  This may be a short novel but it is engrossing and compelling.

Until We Win is a short novel.  It was commissioned by Barrington Stoke the superb Edinburgh publishing house that specialises in books for young people with reading difficulties.  They only commission the best contemporary authors to write for them and their production values are as high as you could wish.  I am always delighted when a book from them arrives on my desk.  You can find them online at


« Newer Posts - Older Posts »