Book Reviews

Riches Galore: New Titles Spring 2016

In 2016 I will be posting regular reviews of children's books and YA novels right here. I'll do a mixture of stand alone reviews and round ups and I'll cover as many titles as I can. I like star systems myself, so I'll be awarding each title between 1 and 5 stars. I'll also be posting some reviews from my friends at Dubray Books and other friends in the children's book tribe. So stay tuned. And do let me know what you think or if there are any children's books that have particularly impressed you.

So far in 2016 it’s been a strong spring, with some stand out titles published for all ages.

Book of the Season

knights of the borrowed
knights of the borrowed

It has to be Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Penguin/Random House) by Dave Rudden. Believe the hype (and there has been a lot). This is a cracking middle grade (age 8 to 12) fantasy-adventure with some genuinely creepy scenes.

The book opens in an old fashioned orphanage called Crosscarper which ‘slouched against the mountainside like it had been dropped there’. Orphan, Denizen Hardwick is whisked away by an aunt he’s never heard of, let alone met. When he reaches Dublin he’s in for a shock. His aunt is head of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Denizen is about to find out how just terrifying the world can be when Darkness seeps through the cracks.

Rudden’s writing is suburb. Every sentence is carefully crafted and it’s not often I stop to wonder at the language in a fantasy-adventure novel. On a long drive ‘the road looped round the shoulders of the mountain like a tailor’s measuring tape.’ A woman is ‘tall and thin, with a spine curved like an old coat hanger.’

The female characters are strong and realistic, and you’ll fall in love with the naïve, brave bookworm, Denizen. A joy to read, it’s a must for all readers of 9+, adults most definitely included. (***** 5 stars)

Other strong titles for YA (Young Adults)

Plain Jane by Kim Hood (O’Brien Press)

plain jane
plain jane

I loved Kim Hood’s previous novel, Finding a Voice and this one is even better. Jane’s sister has cancer and Jane has simply become ‘Emma’s sister’ in the small village in Canada where they live. She loves her sister, but she’s tired of what the illness has done to their family.

A complex and highly realistic character, Jane is beautifully drawn and although she’s not always easy to like, the reader walks in her shoes and grows to care about her deeply.

Hood is a gifted writer, and the themes she chooses to tackle – in this book, sisterhood, cancer and teen mental illness - are deeply personal and always fascinating and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (**** 4 stars) Look out for my full review in The Irish Independent

Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)

A storming novel dealing with child abuse and its aftermath. Sullivan has a very distinctive, individual writing voice and her writing reminds me of a bird on a wire, delicately balanced with inner strength and the power to soar at any moment.


Not an easy book to read at times, but so worth seeking out.

Along with Louise O’Neill and Kim Hood, Sullivan is one of our most talented and interesting YA writers. A true artist.

Early Readers and Middle Grade novels - age 8 to 12 - to come soon!

Picture Books

Blocks by Irene Dickson (Nosy Crow)

blocks picture book
blocks picture book

A picture book debut, this is a clever and beautifully designed book about a young girl and boy and their favourite blocks. Ruby has red blocks. Benji has blue blocks. What happens when Benji steals one of Ruby’s blocks? Can they learn to share and play together?

The simple yet clever concept, strong writing and eye catching illustrations combine to make this a real winner. Dickson’s colour palette – an attractive warm orange-red, marine blue and Kelly green - is carefully chosen and very pleasing to the eye. Her images are thoughtfully placed on the page and her use of fluid, thick dark brown outlines is unusual and works perfectly. (*** 3 stars)

Bravo Nosy Crow for discovering this exciting new picture book talent.

Tiger in a Tutu by Fabi Santiago (Orchard)

tiger in a tutu
tiger in a tutu

Wonderfully expressive illustrations, gloriously coloured in rose, teal and sunflower yellow make this a real treat to pour over. And the story’s cracking too – the tale of Max, a Parisian tiger with big dreams. Max wants to be a ballerina and when he meets a young girl called Celeste who also loves to dance, his dreams may just come true. (*** 3 stars)

Where are You, Blue Kangaroo? By Emma Chichester Clark (HarperCollins)

It’s great to see new editions of this modern classic. Lily loves Blue Kangaroo but she’s not always very careful with him. But one day she learns her lesson…

Lively illustrations in glorious, happy colours, this is well worth revisiting. (*** 3 stars)

New imprint Two Hoots (Pan Macmillan) has launched with 3 picture books, 1 debut and 2 by established picture book makers.

The debut is the most interesting. Little Red by Bethan Woollvin is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, but this Little Red is not taking the wolf’s nonsense lying down. The illustrations are highly distinctive, and the colours are so rich they seem to dig deep into the paper. Wolllvin won the Macmillan Prize for Illustration in 2014 and it’s not hard to see why – her work is bold and confident and will thrill young eyes. I can’t wait to see her next book. (**** 4 stars)

A spread from Little Red
A spread from Little Red

Tidy by Emily Gravett is an interesting piece of work. Best known for her award winning picture books, Monkey and Me and Wolves, this book looks and sounds very different. It’s written in rhyme for a start and the illustrations are carefully coloured and the edges of the characters look highly finished, unlike Gravett’s usual lively, sketchy pencil lines. The whole book is a little too clean and polished – from the carefully constructed text to the rather flat illustrations. I’ve always liked the chaos and slightly anarchy in Gravett’s previous books. Wolves is inspired (a 5 star choice).

However parents who enjoy reading Julia Donaldson’s picture books to their children will no doubt love it. (** 2 stars)

The final book from Two Hoots is There is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith, best known for (with John Scieszka) The Stinky  Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. It’s not so much a story as a series of lists. A boy leaves his tribe of kids (young goats) and finds a colony of penguins, a smack of jellyfish, a pod of whales, an unkindness of ravens and so on until he finds his real tribe, a group of actual children.

tribe of kids
tribe of kids

The illustrations look timeless - there is a solidity and grace to them - and the colour palette of greens, browns and teals is attractive. It’s playful, fun and beautifully produced, with glittering gold foil on the cover.  (*** 3 stars)

Congratulations to Two Hoots on their launch. I wish them all the best with their new list.

I also enjoyed Dave’s Cave by Preston-Gannon (Nosy Crow), a book full of humour and fun. Written in ‘cave man language’ it tells the story of Dave who is tired of his old cave and goes in search of a new one.

The illustrations are stylish and distinctive. Interestingly Dave’s hair is teal – it seems to be the picture book colour du jour. (*** 3 stars)

I’ll Wait, Mr Panda by Steve Anthony (Hodder) sees the return of Mr Panda. This time he’s making a surprise, but will any of the animals wait to see what it is? Some of the best page turns of any recent picture book, this is a fun book to share with young readers over and over again. (**** 4 stars)

lets see ireland
lets see ireland

And finally, an attractive, quirky new Irish picture book by Sarah Bowie called Let’s See Ireland (O’Brien Press) which I’ll review properly soon. I loved it. **** (4 stars) 

More Than This and Other Brilliant New YA Books

Over the last few weeks I’ve finally had a chance to catch up on some reading. There’s a bumper crop of children’s and YA novels out now and in the autumn to satisfy all kinds of readers. Here is a whistle stop tour of some of them. I’ve scored them out of ten. 1/ More Than This by Patrick Ness (out 5th September Walker Books, £12.99)

More Than This
More Than This

In a word – WOW. This book is something really special. It’s long – almost 500 pages – but once I got stuck in I couldn’t stop. It’s YA science fiction at its ground breaking best. One of the most original books I’ve read in years, it’s simply mind blowing.

In the opening chapter Seth drowns and wakes up in the suburban English town where he grew up. As he begins to explore his surroundings slowly things start to make sense.

Wickedly clever, utterly convincing, this book is brilliant, don’t miss it.


2/ Have a Little Faith by Candy Harper (Simon and Schuster £6.99)

Written in diary format, this book for young teens is nothing ground breaking but the main character, Faith is feisty and fun. There’s lots of clever use of language and the usual teen angst. A good read for Louise Rennison or Anna Carey fans.


after iris
after iris

3/ After Iris by Natasha Farrant (Faber)

I loved this book. Bluebell and her family are all trying to get on with their lives after Bluebell’s twin sister, Iris’ death. But life is never easy in this crazy, emotional household. There are pet rats who drive cars, a lovely male au pair from Eastern Europe, a cute but damaged boy, film scripts and more in this brilliant, multi-layered book about families, loss and love. Do read it!


4/ Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Simon and Schuster £6.99)

A wonderful American YA novel with definite echoes of John Green. After an accident which has left popular jock Ezra Faulkner scarred and unable to walk without a stick, he finds new friends in the debate team. But what happens when his old friends (and girlfriend) claim him back? Will he walk or will he stick by his new friends?


rebecca rocks
rebecca rocks

5/ My review of Rebecca Rocks by Anna Carey (O’Brien e7.99) will be in the Irish Independent soon and here is a sneak preview:

Inspired by Carey’s days as a singer in the band El Diablo, Rebecca Rocks is set in a summer music camp and the writer’s hands-on experience shines through in this charming, uplifting story. Fourteen-year-old Dubliner, Rebecca has a mother who writes embarrassing romantic sagas, a father who fancies himself as a musical theatre star and an annoying older sister, Rachel who is always teasing her.

Rebecca’s band, Hey Dollface, decide to attend a summer music camp where they come up against the Crack Parrots and their lead singer, Charlie. Charlie likes to embarrass girls by showing them porn on his mobile phone and picks on boys who look different by calling them ‘gay’. But when he pushes things too far, Rebecca and her friends learn that sometimes you have to stand up for other people and fight back.

Carey doesn’t shy away from dealing with highly topical issues such as bullying, sexuality and internet porn. She never preaches and deals with her subjects in an honest, straight-forward manner. Being a novel, there is of course a happy ending but it’s not a conventional one. The friendship between Rebecca and her band mates is loyal and genuine and although they do worry about having a boy (or in Cass’s case a girl) friend, their love lives do not define them. At the end of the book Rebecca is alone yet happy, which is unusual for a young adult book, yet this works perfectly with the theme of the novel – acceptance.

For the full review, see the Irish Independent next Saturday (or the following one).


I also read Wormwood by Katherine Farmer (Little Island) an urban fantasy adventure for teens set in Ireland 6/10; One Moment by Kristina McBride (Usborne) a solid but predictable American YA novel about friendship and betrayal 5/10; Split Second by Sophie McKenzie (Simon and Schuster), a fast-paced book set in the future about the aftermath of a bomb in London. 6/10

This month’s to read pile includes new books by Meg Rosoff, John Boyne, Judi Curtin, Anthony Horowitz and Siobhan Parkinson. I can’t wait!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX