Gaslight by Eloise Williams

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It isn’t every book that wins the whippet seal of approval, you know.

” My mother disappeared on the sixth of September, 1894.

I was found at the docks in Cardiff, lying like a gutted fish at the water’s edge.”

And so starts an intriguing prologue that leads us into Nansi Howell’s life.

Nansi

In chapter one, we find Nansi five years older and in the dubious “care” of Sid who runs a theatre along with other less salubrious ventures. Under Sid’s control, she has learned to take on other identities as both an actor and a thief. Still, Nansi is determined to hold on to her hopes and dreams doing what she can to uncover any clues as to where her mother might be.

Then the arrival of two new theatre acts have an impact on Nansi’s life that means things will never be the same again. Readers aged nine years plus will thrill at being plunged into Eloise Williams’ tale of Victorian Cardiff. Nansi is a character to take to the heart and one who children will find a great empathy for. Gaslight is full of surprises and as good an adventure as you could possibly want and as I’ve come to expect from Firefly Press who consistently publish amazing children’s literature. And look at that cover! Isn’t it just beautiful?

Gaslight

I’ve been looking forward to reading Gaslight for a long time and now I’ve finished it the one thing that strikes me as amazing is the amount of heart and drama Eloise Williams has created in less than 200 pages.  There’s huge depth of story and as I read, I felt like Gaslight functioned as an ink and paper time machine, with surroundings as real as you would wish for. This is exactly what makes me want to share it in class: to see the response from children to not only a cracking adventure plot, but also to the wider picture of Nansi’s life. I fully anticipate mass gasping and holding of breath and hands raised with questions that just can’t wait. I’m pretty convinced Gaslight is one of those books that keeps kids glued even after the home-time bell has rung. I’m looking forward to finding out!

Gaslight: a vivid and breath-taking piece of story-telling brilliance.


Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

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“A high metallic strike made me jump. But it was only the living room clock. It struck twelve, and the last stroke faded away.

And as it faded away, the wind stopped whistling in the chimney. The water stopped gurgling in the pipes. The breeze stopped rustling in the trees. 

I had never known such silence. It was as though the world was holding its breath.”

Christmas Eve, the air just before it snows, getting ready to go out somewhere special. Things that hold a sense of delicious anticipation that make the main event even better. Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters has this from the very start;  a tantalising piece of children’s historical fiction that gives me this exact same feeling. And being surrounded with such a compelling combination of anticipation and action, it’s wonderfully easy to get caught up.

We join Evie as she goes to stay with godmother Anna while her mum’s on honeymoon. Thrown into the unknown setting of Anna’s flat in an old converted manor house, Evie begins to pick up on the history around her and learns about the tragic Sophia Fane: a previous inhabitant who left an intriguing inscription on the window of Evie’s room.

Later that night as the clock strikes twelve, Evie finds herself invited into the past- specifically to 1814 and Sophia’s time. She has a role to play in Sophia’s fate, but even in the past time marches forward. Will Evie manage to help Sophia and still get back to her own time or will she remain trapped in the past?

Evie’s Ghost is a beauty of a book that will have young readers and listeners on the edge of their seats asking for the next chapter. Teachers looking for a riveting class reader will appreciate this and will love the way Helen Peters creates drama and empathy, especially around Evie’s perceptions of the past and the people she meets. There are differences to consider throughout and the author strikes a sensitive balance between noting advantages of the modern world and suggesting sacrifices made for it.

There is enormous value beyond the pages of Evie’s Ghost, especially for Upper Key Stage Two classes looking to study the past in a really meaningful way. Use it to create great drama opportunities in relation to the story, then take it further and encourage children to find their own inner Evie to explore their own slice of local history outside of the classroom and away from the internet.

Evie’s Ghost: perceptive, inspiring, absorbing, and a must for fans of historical fiction.

 


The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

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” I stared into the dark mass of trees ahead, and my imagination ambushed me with nightmarish creatures- slavering wolves, whispering tree-demons, long-fingered witches… Every part of me was alive with fear now- my fingers, my skin, my lungs…

And then a sudden, desperate shriek pierced the night like a needle.

I froze. An owl? But it sounded almost human…

I turned back to look at the house- and stifled a scream.”

Hope House

It’s 1919 and twelve year old Henrietta Abbott (Henry) and her family have just moved to Hope House. Her brother Robert’s recent death has caused deep grief for all that knew him and through Henry we see the repercussions. Mama becomes ill, Father leaves indefinitely to work abroad but Henry remains with baby sister ‘Piglet’ in the care of Nanny Jane and Mrs Berry the cook. Mama’s getting no better and Henry has a bad feeling about Doctor Hardy, who seems to have a plan all of his own in regards to her remaining family…

Nightingale Wood

As she watches and listens, Henry begins to unveil the secrets of Nightingale Wood and Hope House- but sometimes your mind can play tricks on you. Is she seeing shadows of the past or things as they really are? Prepare for a storytelling masterpiece. The quote I’ve included above illustrates this perfectly: for writing to take you into the woods at night then reveal that the home you’ve come from is the source of the fear you’ve been expecting is a brilliant way of playing with narration. As for Henry, she’s a delight. A strong spirit with the ability to learn from her own  misconceptions. A heroic soul.

Everything you’ve heard about The Secret of Nightingale Wood is true: it’s completely as wonderful as they say it is. Suitable for readers aged nine years plus but I’d recommend it equally to adults as children, I have to say. I enjoyed the intertextuality throughout the story, and the relationship Lucy Strange creates between The Secret of Nightingale Wood and children’s books that Henry would have enjoyed at the time. Young independent readers will have the extra pleasure of being able to explore Henry’s favourite writers as she mentions them in the text. I think this is just wonderful- what a way to continue getting to know a character!

Utterly Gorgeous!

This is historical fiction with a pinch of psychological thriller, enticing and captivating. I was torn between greedily rushing to discover the outcome and taking my time over some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve read in ever such a long time. It was a good problem to have! The Secret of Nightingale Wood is an utterly gorgeous book.


Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

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cogheart done

” Another harpoon smashed through Dragonfly’s hull, and whirring saw blades cut through the steel ribs, ripping cracks in the ships tin chest. In a jagged screech, the cracks were wrenched into a doorway, and two silhouetted figures appeared. Their silver eyes glinted in the light. The thinner of the figures raised a stick with a skull handle, then John felt a blinding shaft of pain, and everything went black…”

Breath-Taking

When Lily’s father John Hartman disappears following a terrible crash in his airship, it quickly becomes clear that not all those around her have her best interests at heart. John, a famous inventor, has it seems attracted the attention of some very unsavoury people who are closing in on her, hellbent on finding something of her dad’s- but what?

Lily is plunged into a completely different world. Thank goodness she has new friend Robert, son of the local clockmaker, and also dear Malkin, a mechanical fox made for her by her father, there by her side in this breath-taking and original adventure.

Thrilling

Cogheart, suitable for children of ten years plus, is a steam-powered triumph, an ingenious and fresh take on adventuring in Victorian England. Readers should get ready for danger and imminent peril in a world of automatons and airships. Think Christmas Day Doctor Who special, only much, much better, as Bunzl’s beautiful writing is as soulful as it is thrilling. I must admit to experiencing the full emotional rollercoaster here, and along with some fairly hefty breath holding, I might have got something in my eye once or twice whilst reading…

Fantastic New Voice

Both heroes and villains make Cogheart a really special book. The villains, especially Roach and Mould, are every bit as terrifying as you’d want them to be. Lily is easy to root for: brave, spirited and happily very much a young girl. Robert, I love. He’s so human and normal, completely real and every bit a hero. Malkin: well he’s a mechanical fox. This is an addition of great glory that leaves me wondering why children’s literature hasn’t given us one of these sooner? For this Peter Bunzl, I thank you enormously.

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl introduces a fantastic new voice for children’s literature, up there with M.G Leonard’s Beetle Boy and joining other great story tellers such as Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. Check it out now and love it forever.


Chilling at Easter with Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

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Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

frost

 

So While the Sun Shines Outside and the Days Grow Long, What Have I Been Up To?

Having recently read a lot of books for teenagers (thank you Carnegie), I wanted to return to my favourite age group- the one I teach and quite possibly the one I relate to the most in all things bookish- 9 to 12 year olds. When I talk books with my class, the one thing they say they long to get their teeth into is ‘something scary’. I’ve generally struggled with making recommendations along these lines: Cliff McNish’s Breathe seems to go down pretty well with my more advanced readers for instance, but beyond this I find myself reaching back in time to books like The Children of Green Knowe  or find myself mentioning Coraline which is frightening in all the wrong ways (button eyes, think needles, shudder), whereas what I’d like to do is recommend something fresh and new. And so here I am, writing about Children’s Historical Fiction. Okay, hardly modern, but this is a pretty new book and for its focus audience it delivers the required shivers.

What Better Time for a Wintry Ghost Story?

Frost Hollow Hall fits the ‘something scary’ criteria the ten year old readers I know are looking for. It’s based in the Victorian era and which primary aged children haven’t studied this as a topic? Not many, making it a familiar friend to some but also a good indicator as to whether this is the book for you. Personally, it seems to me the Victorian staples of gas lamp light and imagined hard times make it an ideal choice of setting.

The characters are likeable and agreeably imperfect- Tilly is great, a bit feisty, not afraid of climbing through windows into strange rooms in the dead of night, which is of course exactly the right attitude to have! Frost Hollow Hall itself is part Thornfield Hall, part Manderley with a bit of the gothic promise of Northanger Abbey. The grounds are unsurprisingly snow covered and come fully equipped with graveyard, spooky ice house and Frozen Lake of Doom- perfect.

Tilly Higgins is a single minded young lady, let down by each member of her family in different ways and living a somewhat mapped out life of working as a means to live frugally. When she has a fearsome brush with death, we rush along with her to embrace something extraordinary away from the humdrum of her every day life. Fate brings her to Frost Hollow Hall with its agitated spirits and hidden past. From there it’s up to Tilly and her good friend Will to uncover the secrets of the hall and solve the mystery connected to the death ten years hence of Kit Barrington, son and heir. Exciting!

Exciting?

Yes, for the kids it’s definitely exciting. It provides a neat story with different views into Tilly’s life- her role in the family, her friendships, her dreams and her adventures. It also finishes as the pages end, rather than rolling into a set up for ‘book two’ in the series. There is no book two. I really approve of this. As much as I love a trilogy, it’s good to read a traditional beginning/ middle/ end book, feel satisfied and move on to something new. I liked the ‘Jane Eyre’ feeling the book gave me, on an introductory level. In true teacherly spirit, Emma Carroll (a secondary school English teacher) doesn’t just provide a good read but also introduces her readers to a whole genre. For kids who enjoy this book, it’s wonderful to think of the wealth of literature they have in front of them for future years, sigh…

And For the Adults?

Erm, it works to an extent, but isn’t this to be expected? It’s a rare children’s book that effortlessly crosses the generations. I was gripped most of the way through, but failed to understand some character development, especially with Tilly’s mother. I also became increasingly dissatisfied with the visitations from Kit in Tilly’s dreams. I liked the idea of it, but I wanted to get to know the ghostly Kit a little more than I was allowed to. He’s an intriguing character but for me remained two dimensional- I can understand this though, what with him being dead and all, I just wanted more insight and if you’ve got to level criticism, surely wanting to know more about characters is kind of a good thing really?

Something that maybe wasn’t so good was how the clichés stepped up towards the end of the book, with some threads ending a bit on the cheesy side. But I’m looking at this after a billion years of reading this genre, which puts me in a jaded position compared to the bright-eyed bunny rabbits for whom it’s aimed and who won’t find it twee in the slightest. But remember, it does wrap up neatly, if not in an entirely satisfying way for absolutely everyone. And how many ways can you end a Victorian Spookfest? Three? Happy ending, unhappy ending, big spooky house burns down? That’s all I can think of. (The house doesn’t burn down. The rest is up to you.)

A debut from an author to watch out for. The ending dropped it to a…

GGG- Gogogo- I’m not emotional but I liked it.

…but my guess is the kids will know better and would grade it higher.