Hello everybody! Today, I’m sharing my last review post of 2021 with you, and they’re all middle grade fantasy/speculative books, although by absolute coincidence, several of them are also Christmassy or wintry. I was delighted by how many of these I adored, since it means we’re ending my review year on a real high (although I’ll be sharing reviews of some other 2021 reads in January too, of other things I read over the festive period). Onto the post!
Sisters of the Lost Marsh by Lucy Strange (recieved a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review)
I have read and loved all of Lucy Strange’s books up to this one, so it was no surprise when I picked this up as part of a buddy read and ended up finishing early because I was so hooked I couldn’t put it down! It’s the story of Willa, who lives on the marshes with her five sisters, cruel and superstitious Dadder and wonderfully wise Grammy. It follows her as she must go on a journey to find her eldest sister Grace, who disappears after she is betrothed to the town’s richest man in exchange for a horse, and is believed to have become a dancer for the Full Moon Fayre. I think Willa is an incredible heroine, in true Lucy Strange fashion: she is kind and brave and so protective of the people that she loves she often puts them ahead of her own welfare. I also loved the focus on sisterhood and women coming together, and I think that was especially evident in the supporting cast of Willa’s sisters and her grandmother, who were all so strong and capable in their own ways, but my favourites were Grammy and her littlest sister Darcy, who her father believes will kill them all because of the curse of six daughters superstition he lives his life by. The setting is so atmospheric and Lucy really brought it alive, and I love the mystical, speculative magic throughout; something this always excels at in her writing. The discussion of the treatment of women throughout history was so beautifully handled, and there is a scene in here that made me sob! I have no idea when Lucy’s next book is out or what it’s going to be, but I will absolutely be reading it whenever I can.
Wishyouwas by Alexandra Page and illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee (recieved a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review)
A few people told me before I read this that I’d absolutely love it, and because my bookish pals know me well, they were 100% accurate. This is the story of Penny, who meets an unusual little animal named Wishyouwas in the post office her uncle is in charge of while she is staying with him just before Christmas, and her discovery of the world of Sorters that Wishyouwas is part of. Penny is so compassionate and wonderful and I loved how much she wanted to care for the Sorters when she realised they were under threat, and Wishyouwas very quickly became one of my favourite ever animal characters of all time; he is the sweetest and the cutest and his relationship with his Dear Penny made my heart sing. The worldbuilding is so clever and fun, and I especially adored the naming system the Sorters have (they all have names that you’d find on letters or postcards or packages or in post offices!), and I can’t tell you how much I hope to return to this world, whether with these characters or new ones as the focus of the narrative. I cried so much because I got so ridiculously attached to these characters and was so worried about them all, and yet it just had this lovely cosy feel to it that made me feel like everything would be okay in the end, even during the stressful bits. If you’re a fan of the film the Rescuers and/or The One Hundred and One Dalmatians (book or film!), you absolutely need to read this because it felt like a cross between the two of these with it’s own extra little dash of magic and heart. I need more MG from Alexandra Page as soon as she can possibly write it, basically!
Secrets of the Last Merfolk by Lindsay Littleson
I’ve been reading Lindsay Littleson for years now, I think since the year her debut came out actually, and I’ve really enjoyed everything by her so far, so I wasn’t surprised at all that I had a great time reading this as well. It’s a dual narrative following Finn, who is having trouble adjusting to his new family set up after his parents got divorced and found new partners, and Sage, whose mums are both dedicated environmentalists who move around constantly to support different campaigns. Together, they discover that the merfolk of legends really do exist, and they’re in terrible danger that only Finn and Sage can save them from. I really liked both main characters- they’re both distinct enough that you can distinguish between their chapters easily, and they both have a lot going on, all of which is very sensitively and thoroughly discussed. The fantasy side of things was also wonderful; I’m adamant that we need more MG merfolk books because there just aren’t enough for my liking, and I really liked that this onstage draws from mythology and folk tales to create a really interesting world and narrative. The Titanic Detective Agency has been on my TBR for absolutely ages, so I’m hoping to finally read it at some point next year, and of course I’m really looking forward to picking up the Rewilders once it’s out as well!
Fledgling by Lucy Hope
I mean this in the nicest, most complimentary way possible, so please don’t take this as me meaning the opposite, but this is one of the most unusual and oddest books I’ve ever read, just because of how unique the plot is. It’s about a girl named Cassie who finds a cherub in her bedroom after a storm, and the battle she ends up in, defending her home from the sinister Sturmfalken with the help of her friend Raphael. I thought Cassie was a brilliant heroine; she lives with a mother who is very selfish and self-absorbed and a father who loves her but is rather strange and preoccupied with his profession of taxidermy, and also her severely ill grandmother. So she’s dealing with an awful lot on basically all fronts, and she still tries to hard to be a good daughter and a good friend, and her love of her big, strange house is something else I really loved about her. Raphael’s story arc is fascinating, as is the whole exploration of why the cherub is there, and I think the speculative/horror/mysterious kind of vibe this had kept me utterly hooked throughout. And I don’t want to say too much, but I thought Crunch and Grind were SUCH amazing characters! I actually didn’t see the kind of big twist that happens coming at all so I really appreciated that, and I think the ending balanced the hope and sadness of what happens really well. I will definitely be picking up whatever Lucy writes next!
Beyond the Mountains by Francesca Gibbons and illustrated by Chris Riddell
I recieved the first book in this series as a birthday gift from a friend last year and devoured it either just before or just after New Year, so I was very excited to finally pick up this second book in the series. It sees sisters Imogen and Marie travel back through the door in the tree to the fantasy world they discovered in book, only this time they’re accompanied by an unwelcome person from their lives in the real world, and things very quickly go awry when Marie is kidnapped. If you’ve read book one, you won’t be shocked to hear that Anneshka is behind this, and I think I’m going to start this off by talking about her because she is honestly one of my favourite villains I’ve ever read. I love when a villain is a kind of blend of evilness and really funny at the same time, and Anneshka is just one of the best examples of this I’ve ever seen. There is one particular line she says in this book where she is interrogating Marie about England that made me literally snort with laughter. I’m also very fond perfectly imperfect heroine Imogen, who is willing to go to any length to get her sister back, King Miro is so lovely and brave, and it was very interesting indeed to see some more of Mark this time round. The new additions of Perla and her pet Konya were also great, and Zuby the skret also has a decent sized chunk of my heart because he’s such a sweetie!! I also really appreciated the discussion of mental health in here, which felt very realistic despite the issues these characters are facing being more fantastical. While this is a very lengthy book, and I was a wee bit intimidated by how big it is, once I got started I just flew through it because I was having such a phenomenal time being back in Yaroslav with these characters (as well as the new ones!) and after the sensational cliffhanger at the end, I’m very excited for the final book in the trilogy to be released. I kind of thought it was going g in that direction but I wasn’t sure if it was too dark for MG and I was still UTTERLY shook.
Explorers at Pirate Island by Alex Bell and illustrated by Tomislav Tomić (recieved a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review)
I have been a HUGE fan of the Explorers series since the month the very first one was released, so it won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s been around since I started this blog that I just fell in love with this too! It follows the crew of the Blowfish- Ursula, Jai, Genie and Max- who are pretty much the only members of the Ocean Squid Explorers’ Club not trapped in one of the Collector’s globes, thus meaning they are pretty much the only ones who can stop her carrying out her nefarious plans. I already liked the crew of the Blowfish but I definitely grew much more attached to them in this book, and I think there were a few things that specifically contributed to that: the exploration of Ursula being part human and part mermaid, the struggle both she and Genie have with friendship and how to navigate friendship when it’s so new to them, a very heroic thing Jai does that would be a spoiler to tell you about and Max’s desperation to save his sister Jada. And as the characters are my favourite part of this series, especially as it contributes so much to how cosy these books feel despite the action being pretty high stakes. I LOVED the new addition Percie a whole lot and I really want her to reappear in another book, I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting Julian and I full on wept over the characters from the first trilogy all appearing. Especially my darling Beanie!!! I’m surprised my heart didn’t actually burst getting to see them all again. I have a few more I am unbelievably excited for what I’m assuming is the concluding book of this story arc, but I also desperately hope that there will be trilogies for all of the other Explorers Clubs we’ve only met in passing so far, because I don’t think I will ever tire of exploring new parts of the incredible world Alex Bell has created.
Peanut Jones and the Illustrated City by Rob Biddulph
In a nice little bit of almost-symmetry, this was my birthday gift this year from the same friend who gave me the Shadow Moth last year, and it’s such a beautiful book to look at that it’s definitely a very special present. I actually think that is the key point of my review: this has been both written and illustrated in colour by Rob Biddulph, who has written many famous picture books, and it’s just stunning to look at, as well as a great story to read. It draws inspiration from his personal life, from his famous post-it note drawings he put in his youngest daughter’s lunchboxes, as the story follows Peanut Jones, whose dad did the exact same thing for her up until the point where he mysteriously vanished. Around a year after this, she finds an incredible magical pencil that allows her to enter th Illustrated City, a world inspired by drawings and paintings and all forms of art. Peanut is a great heroine, Rockwell is a fun and often amusing sidekick, but my very favourite character of the main trio was definitely Little-Bit. I don’t know many five year olds, but I’d put good money on her being one of the absolute smartest around, and her little dry comments that chapters ended on sometimes were a delight. The world that has been created is also fascinating and I love that it celebrates the importance of the arts and freedom of creative expression, and some of the people who populate it are equally wonderful (my personal favourite was Jonathan Higginbottom!). The epilogue left things on a very intriguing note, so I look forward to picking up the next book at some point after it’s released next autumn.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
I read the first book in this series back in the spring, I believe in either March or April, and I thought it was fantastic so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the sequel ever since. The series follows Maya, who has just discovered that she is a Godling (the child of Elegguà, the Guardian of the Veil, in fact!), anc this book sees her venture back into the Dark to try and save her father’s soul before he dies. She is accompanied by her phenomenal friends Frankie and Eli, who are so supportive of Maya but who also have their own issues and worries and stuff to deal with, which makes them very interesting by themself. They also team up with a disillusioned darkbringer this time around, which I found a really interesting addition and I still can’t decide whether or not he can be trusted, but I’m hoping he can be because I really like his personality and I think Maya’s crush on him is utterly adorable!! In addition to the Dark, they also visit a new location in this book, which I had such an amazing time learning about, and as with the first book, I found it fascinating to learn more about the orishas and West African mythology. I’m assuming based on the ending that this is a trilogy, mostly because I honestly don’t know if I’d cope if it wasn’t as there are some very intriguing loose threads left dangling, and I will be picking up a copy as soon as possible if I’m correct. These are very much Percy Jackson kind of vibes, but they’re probably my favourite books of that type I’ve ever read because I feel like they’re totally their own thing and very charming in their own right as well.
The Chime Seekers by Ross Montgomery
The Midnight Guardians snuck in at the end of 2020 and snagged a place as one of my favourite books of the year, and I had a feeling the Chime Seekers would do the same, which is why I wanted to pick it up for this post. It didn’t let me down! It’s the story of Yanni, who must venture into the faerie realm to save his baby sister Ari, after she is abducted by a very powerful faerie, who will only give her back if Yanni wins a very difficult treasure hunt. The only people he has to help him in his quest are his cousin Amy, and the extremely displeased changeling left in Ari’s place. The Midnight Guardians made me cry a LOT, and while I’m very excited to reread it and cry buckets again, I was very grateful that this one was more on the spooky, trying to scare you side of things because I don’t know if I could handle that amount of crying at this late stage in the year!! A few parts definitely gave the creeps, and I think that’s mostly down to how gleefully nasty the villain is, I kind of loved him. Also I don’t know if this make⅝s me a bad person, because Ross has talked a lot about how he wanted to make Yanni unlikeable on social media, but I lowkey adored him? He’s not always the nicest person but I honestly really felt for him and on the whole, I think he has a really kind heart and decent moral compass. Amy is a queen, though, and I’m not even just saying that because we share a name! I just loved how unapologetically geeky she was and that she didn’t take any rubbish from Yanni or anyone else, and I loved too many of the characters in the faerie realm to even name them all! The humour is absolutely on point as well, I laughed so much reading this! I am honestly such a fan of everything I’ve read from this author, and I can’t wait to pick up his next book (probably in the last stretch of 2022, if I keep that tradition going!).
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read any of these, or are they on your TBR? What middle grade fantasy have you enjoyed recently? I’m always up for more recommendations! Come chat to me in the comments!