April was one of the most enjoyable months of reading I’ve had for a while – Salt to the Sea and Goodnight, Boy were highlights, as was Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. So much to enjoy.
34. S.E. Durrant – Running on Empty
A heart-warming story about AJ, an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his parents, both of whom have learning difficulties. The three of them are struggling to adjust to life without recently-deceased Grandad, a man who helped, supported and guided them.
The family begin to spiral into debt, and AJ’s passion for running dwindles when he realises his trainers no longer fit and he can not afford new ones.
AJ’s narration is honest, showing his confusion and sadness now that Grandad is absent, and for me the story has a message of the redemptive nature of sport, particularly with regards to mental health.
35. Ruta Sepetys – Salt to the Sea
This was stunning. Harrowing, difficult, even graphic at times – but stunning.
Four people cross paths in the midst of World War II. Emilia is a fifteen year old Polish girl, desperately trying to remain out of the grasp of the Nazis; Joana is a Lithuanian nurse repatriated by Hitler’s Germany; Florian is a mystery to begin with – is he a soldier on the run?; and then there is Alfred.
Alfred is pathetic. His imagined letters home portray him as an essential part of the Nazi’s operations when he is really a small man with a small mind. He comes across the other three characters as he helps them board the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Florian grows and grows throughout the story, his secret revealed early on. He falls for Joana, a nurse full of heart and wisdom, who in turn goes to Emilia’s aid as her circumstances come to light.
On top of this, there are other wonderful characters, such as the shoe poet, Klaus and Ingrid, and many others beside. The stories interweave perfectly and add subtle layers to each character.
I loved it. Due to some of the graphic nature of the content, particularly in Emilia’s story, it would not be suitable for primary but would be a great book to study at KS3 and beyond.
36. Kate Saunders – The Land of Neverendings
A lovely story about what I initially thought would be a dark subject.
Emily and her family are grieving the loss of Emily’s sister, Holly. Emily is naturally finding things hard, and, when she thinks she sees and hears her toys talking to her, assumes she is dreaming or losing her marbles.
Fortunately, Emily’s neighbour (Ruth) sees something similar – she lost her son when he was young – and together the two of them start to explore how and why this could be happening. More and more toys begin to talk and it appears that the magic of imagination is leaking into the real world.
Toys past and present bring comfort to Emily, Ruth and others. The story shows us the power of imagination, love and memory. This resonated with me: grief can affect us all but talking about those we’ve lost is important, and the characters here were strong. Ruth was a kindly, encouraging neighbour, Mum and Dad were trusting and loving, and even Emily’s wantaway friend Maze shows the importance of a lasting friendship.
A strong story of escapism, dealing with grief and friendship.
37. Christopher Edge – The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day
Maisie is an academically gifted girl celebrating her tenth birthday – a party is being planned and she is looking forward to starting work on cold fusion.
The chapters alternate between what we perceive to be Maisie’s real world and some sort of alternative universe, a place where dark matter is swallowing everything around Maisie.
The chapters continue to go back and forth between Maisie’s reality and ‘other’ world, and then you’re hit with the truth – the final few chapters are brilliant. Sit down for them.
Maisie is a terrific character, intelligent, curious and proud of it. The book’s themes are obviously based in science fiction, somehow being both educational and intense at the same time, but it has a huge heart too. Wonderful stuff.
38. Lissa Evans – Wed Wabbit
Originally read in January, but I forgot to blog it.
When Fidge’s younger sister, Minnie, is hospitalised after an accident, she is packed off to her cousin’s house with little more than a bag of Minnie’s belongings.
After a storm hits, Fidge and Graham wake to find themselves inside the world of the Wimbley Woos, characters from one of Minnie’s favourite books. Wimbley Land is ruled by Minnie’s favourite toy, Red Rabbit – pronounced Wed Wabbit due to Minnie’s inability to pronounce her R’s.
What follows is an adventure of silliness, daring and confronting fears as Fidge and Graham have to plot Wed Wabbit’s downfall.
Lots of silly jokes, some fairly annoying rhymes and an adventurous land of make-believe.
39. Nikki Sheeran – Goodnight, Boy
I feel as though I’m being spoilt at the moment – this was another stunner.
The narrative comes from JC as we see his conversations, both real and imagined, with his dog, Boy. JC and Boy are big living in a kennel, trapped by ‘him’, who we find out much more about as JC tells Boy his story.
We learn about JC’s misfortune and maltreatment in his early life, separated from his family as part of a people-trafficking gang; we find out about his illness and recovery as earthquakes hit his home country; and we learn about his journey that brought him to his current predicament.
Such an original and engaging style here, and I loved JC’s wide-eyed innocence and faith in both Boy and Melanie.
40. Neil Gaiman – Odd and the Frost Giants
A short, simple and entertaining story about Odd, a Viking boy, who leaves home and chances upon three talking animals. He ventures to help them return to their normal state.
Drawing on Norse mythology and with some humorous exchanges, this would be great for Y3+.
41. Maz Evans – Beyond the Odyssey
Another rip-roaring adventure as Elliot sets off to find the potion of Panacea, a cure for all illnesses and what he sees as the only help he can get for his mum.
Back in the real world, Patricia’s claws are sinking further into the Hooper home, Boil finally sees the back of Elliot, and Dave, the father recently released from prison, is not quite singing from the same hymn sheet as his family.
I really enjoyed Circe’s spiel on school life (yes, there are too many forms), and if Virgo’s speech to the council isn’t a comment on today’s government letting the majority down, then I don’t know what is…or I might be reading too much into things.
I have to admit, WLTGO was a slow burner for me, but now, especially after a beautifully written final chapter, I can’t wait for the fourth instalment.
42. Lauren Wolk – Beyond the Bright Sea
A beautifully constructed coming-of-age tale about Crow, a girl whose past catches up with her.
Crow was born on Penikese, an island for lepers, and while she has been accepted and loved by a wonderful father figure in Osh, and maternally by Miss Maggie, islanders still recoil when they see her.
However, she believes that she was saved from Penikese, and that she has family – and when Osh presents her with a faded letter full of clues and hints about her parents, Crow begins a relentless treasure hunt.
The only problem is, she’s not the only one.
The relationships between Crow, Osh and Miss Maggie are wonderful, showing love and compassion and care for one another for what they’ve done and for who they are, and this is a message that resonates throughout the book. There are moments of tension, high-octane action, but each scene is filled with a love and an honesty on Crow’s part that is a pleasure to read.
43. Morris Gleitzman – Then
Felix continues his escape from and evasion of the Nazis, aided by his newly adopted sister Zelda.
The two are taken in by Genia, a pig farmer whose husband is away fighting for the Nazis, and change their names in order to fit in. However, the threat of the Nazis is close by: the Hitler Youth are ever-present and Felix upsets one of them by stealing a book from his shop.
Felix is not as naive as he was in Once, and is much more aware of the atrocities that are happening. His own personal torment about what to do for the best continues to the very end of the book – an ending which is a punch in the guts.
No detail is spared here, from hanging to mass graves, all seen through the innocent eyes of a ten year old.
44. Morris Gleitzman – Now
Flash forward seventy years, and Felix is a retired surgeon living in Australia. He is caring for his granddaughter, Zelda, while her parents are away.
Zelda loves her grandad and is inspired by him so much that she wants to be a surgeon too. However, she is bullied by a group of girls who think she is making up stories about Felix’s survival and his career.
When a bush-fire rages out of control, Felix has to confront his demons and rely on them to save himself and Zelda.
I liked the departure from World War II, as this story instead explores the lasting after-effects, as well as thinking about what is truly valuable in life.
45. Morris Gleitzman – After
The fourth in the series sees us go back to Felix as a child, hidden and protected by Gabriek.
Felix joins the partisans as they try to overthrow the Nazis, and on the way develops his skills in medical care that we learned of in Now.
Twists and turns abound and a heart-wrenching final few chapters.
46. Morris Gleitzman – Soon
The fifth in the series follows Felix and Gabriek after the war, a stark reminder that once war ends, hardship does not.
Gabriek has descended into near-alcoholism, while Felix’s days consist of getting his hands on what he can and avoiding the wrath of the local gangs.
He doesn’t do this for long.
Soon, he finds himself with more responsibility than he bargained for, befriending Anya, a tough street-wise girl who is under the care of Dr Lipzyk, a man whose past comes to light late in the book.
As with the other books in this series, lots of heartbreak, desolation and hardship, but, for the first time, a bit of hope.
47. Morris Gleitzman – Maybe
Here we follow Felix as he is offered the chance of a new start in Australia – without Gabriek and Anya.
During his flight, he finds he has a surprise passenger, but his arrival in Oz is fraught with difficulty, and Felix finds himself placed in Australia’s answer to Camp Green Lake.
Friendship and determination are the recurring themes here – Felix is not sure what freedom really is and his survival instincts from the war are always at the forefront of his thinking.
The first book in the series with a happy ending, and with the promise of one more to come.
48. Natasha Farrant – The Children of Castle Rock
An enjoyable caper set on the Scottish coast, a love letter from Natasha Farrant to her former stomping ground.
Alice has been packed off to boarding school to start a new life, where she quickly makes friends with Fergus, a mischief-maker, and Jesse, a do-gooder. Events conspire to cause the three of them to team up for the Great Orienteering Challenge, which is the same time as Alice receives a mysterious letter from her absent father.
Against Jesse’s better judgment, Alice and Fergus decide to meet Alice’s Dad as per the letter’s instructions – but why are they being chased?
Lots of humour, wry observations on why parents are sometimes rubbish, and perfectly-placed asterisked swearing. I really enjoyed Farrant’s nods and winks to the camera as she guides the reader through the story, and the action made me long for the times when children could just play outside and explore. There’s so much to be learned.