Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 4 stars

Having read, and adored, Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, I went looking for more works by her and found this children’s novel available in my local library. It’s very different in style and tone to Witches, fitting much more into standard portal fantasy territory, albeit with the added twist that the girl who goes through the portal, the eponymous Kiki Kallira, has fairly crippling anxiety.

At the start of the book, Kiki is out with her friend Emily and Emily’s sister and friends to the fair. A chance remark makes her realise that she can’t remember if she locked her front door on the way out, which leads her immediately to a worst case scenario (burglars have broken in and killed her mum) and she can’t stop until she leaves her friend and goes home to check. This is a strong opening, showing us just how baked in Kiki’s anxiety is, and that it’s not your everyday worrying, but something deeper. Later, Kiki finds a world that she’d drawn in her notebook coming to life and she has to go in to stop the demon who she created to terrorise it, helped only by a group of rebel kids.

Kiki has to deal with all the traditional problems that a portal fantasy protagonist has, and with her anxiety on top of that, for extra fun. There was a twist towards that end that I should probably have seen coming, but I was having too much fun with the plot to be self-aware enough of what was going on.

I don’t read much children’s fiction, but I found this very readable, with extra points for an Indian protagonist and Hindu mythology folded into the plot as well. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, and even as a middle aged man, I found Kiki well-realised and easy to relate to. I’ll be looking out for the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444963441
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Year of publication: 2021

Mary Poppins

By P.L. Travers

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve wanted to read this for a while now, and after finding that the version that the library had was an abridged version decided to just buy a copy. It’s an odd book, the nanny of the book is a very different Mary Poppins to the one portrayed by Julie Andrews. She’s crabid, cross and vain, always stopping to admire her reflection in shop windows. She doesn’t come across as someone that her charges could love at all. I honestly don’t know what a child of today would make of Mary.

As well as the stories familiar from the Disney film, we also see Mary take the children to a creepy sweet shop; they encounter a reverse zoo, where the animals admire the humans in cages; and they encounter a star who comes down from the sky to go Christmas shopping for her sisters.

I can see why Travers might not have liked the Disney film, given how different the character of Mary is to her own creation, and it’s been interesting to read the original. It might have stuck with me if I’d read it at a more formative age, but coming to it as an adult, it’s just an interesting historical footnote.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006753971
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1998

Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 4 stars

After watching the film Isle of Dogs recently, a friend recommended that I watch Fantastic Mr Fox, also by Wes Anderson. I did so, having not read the book since I was a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, so I went back to the source material.

The book is very slight (I read it in half an hour, over lunch) but as much fun as I remember. Mr Fox feeds his family by stealing from the villainous farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. They eventually have enough of this and try to dig him out and this is the story of how he and his family cleverly fight back. The farmers are delightfully awful, and Mr Fox is, indeed, fantastic. Not classic Dahl, but enjoyable fun nonetheless.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140326710
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 1988

Redwall (Redwall, #1)

By Brian Jacques

Rating: 3 stars

This is one that I remember being very fond of when I was young, but had no real memories of the story beyond that. Revisiting it, it took a while to warm up to it, but once the evil Cluny and his horde turns up, it starts getting exciting fast. A couple of points that caught my attention, reading it with a 21st century adult eye. Firstly, I had completely forgotten how violent it is! There’s lots of battles, and people (animals) die by swords and arrows, but then you also get cauldrons of boiling water poured on some, death by snakebite and plummeting from the top of the Abbey tower for others. Secondly, the love interest is literally handed to the warrior at the end as a reward. And I was slightly uncomfortable with the “savage” Sparra (sparrow) tribe’s speech being made out like TV “Red Indians” from the 1930s or 40s.

The Guosim (Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower) are an odd bunch too. The author seems to be using them to mock the left (in the “People’s Front of Judea” sort of way that Monty Python’s Life of Brian did), and at one point, the hero loses his temper at them and their democracy and asserts that if they’re not with him, they’re against him. Er…

But it’s also a tale of bravery, friendship and loyalty. Of banding together for a greater cause. And of pouring boiling water down tunnels full of rats.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099512004
Publisher: Red Fox
Year of publication: 1987

The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rating: 4 stars

This was a firm favourite as a child and whatever fondness I have for nature, I think I can, to some degree, thank it for. I feared that returning to it as an adult, it might not stand up, but, despite the flaws that I see now, it retains all the charm that I remember, and I finished it with a smile on my face.

The flaws definitely need discussed: its attitude to colonised peoples is patronising at best; it’s a good thing I’ve got a fairly strong product-of-its-time filter, trained in my youth on Golden Age science fiction stories. It has a remote, rose-tinted view of “virtuous” poverty, with Mrs Sowerby and her dozen children painted as healthy and happy, despite always being hungry and crammed into a tiny cottage while a hundred-room mansion lies mostly empty. And there’s a lot more child neglect than I remember, with the early chapters showing how both her parents had no interest in Mary, leaving her upbringing to the servants. That’s also mirrored in Colin, the “young rajah” of Misselthwaite and the relationship between those two children is the heart of the book.

There’s also, as I mentioned, a true love of nature here, and especially the Yorkshire countryside. The turning of the seasons, the joy of planting and tending and growing are all major themes, the growing plants of spring mirroring the growing children who begin to unfurl and grow healthily in when planted in the outdoors of England.

Despite flaws seen through 21st century adult eyes, this remains a delight to read, making me wish I could just roam the moors for days on end, with Dickon as my guide.

Book details

ISBN: 9781855345041
Publisher: Geddes & Grosset Ltd
Year of publication: 1990

Hilda and the Mountain King (Hilda, #6)

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 5 stars

After having escaped from the troll mountain at the end of the last book, Hilda wakes up back inside the mountain, to find herself in the body of a troll, with the troll baby having replaced her. Despite her wish to be free, she really does love her mum and wants to go back home, so when a large troll trapped in a cave behind a wall of bells says he can help her, she agrees without stopping to think who trapped him there or why? Meanwhile, her mother is searching for her lost daughter non-stop, and when Hilda and her mother both put their minds to the same thing, the world had better watch out!

This was a lot of fun. It was another story of mother-daughter love and what a mother will do for her child, whether that’s Hilda’s mum, the troll mum or, er, the other mum, with a side dose of mutual respect for others as well. It’s packed with adventure, (mild) peril and the humour that the Hilda books are known for. Not where you should start with the Hilda books, but very definitely a great place to end the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838740528

Hilda and the Stone Forest

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 4 stars

The penultimate Hilda graphic novel kicks off with a chase after a walking piece of turf with an elf home on its back, followed by a montage showing the young adventurer enjoying all that Trolberg’s weird and wonderful magic scene has to offer. And then it all comes crashing down as she takes one too many risks and gets grounded. Now a book about Hilda cooped up in her room would be quite dull, so it’s not long before Hilda, and her mum, get pulled through a magic portal and end up somewhere unknown but surrounded by trolls. What follows is a story of adventure, trust and running away from trolls. Lots of running away from trolls.

Like the other graphic novels, this focusses pretty much exclusively on Hilda and her family, with the other characters from the TV show (primarily David and Frida) getting very little to do, except in the montage, where we see them getting up to Shenanigans. This makes the world a little narrower, but allows us to focus on the title character, which is always fun.

Having Hilda’s mother around makes for a different dynamic too, as the two end up worrying about each other and trying to keep each other safe. And, in the end, strengthening their relationship. It’s a great story, even if it does end on a cliffhanger! The art remains adorable and suits the story perfectly. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171713

The World of Poo (Discworld, #39.5)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 3 stars

A pleasant little book that’s much more interesting (and less scatological) than I feared it might be, given its subject. It’s got lots of small nods to other Discworld books, and its humour is gentle. An adult can read it in probably not more than an hour or so.

I kept expecting there to be some of Pratchett’s trademark sharpness and thoughtfulness, but it’s really not that kind of book. It really is just about a boy who’s visiting Ankh-Morpork and wants to collect all sorts of poo for his collection and the gentle adventures that he has, with help from his (very understanding!) grand-mama. En route, you learn about the history of toilets and the people who collected waste and what sorts of things get done with it.

The illustrations are lovely and fit the style very well. It’s a great book to give to a child (probably a boy) of just the right age, who can be entertained and learn a thing or two without realising it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857521217
Publisher: Doubleday
Year of publication: 2012

Hilda and the Black Hound

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 5 stars

In another delightful slice of whimsy, this time Hilda befriends Tontu, a house spirit who’s down on his luck and she has to find out what’s causing havoc in the town of Trolberg and if it’s related to the sightings of the mysterious creature stalking the streets.

This volume does have David and Frida from the animated TV series in it, but more in passing than as characters in their own right, which is a bit of a shame, but that does allow the spotlight to remain on our favourite blue-haired adventurer herself. With her trademark sense of adventure, and moral compass pointing firmly at ‘kindness’, Hilda is a wonderful character and Pearson tells a delightful and heart-warming tale. Sure to delight children of all ages (including this forty-something).

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171072
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2017

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain #5)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 4 stars

The last book of the Prydain Chronicles seems to go full circle. With The Book of Three I complained that it all felt a bit Tolkien-light. This also feels in many ways like The Lord of the Rings, but in a different way. We have the confrontation with the Dark Lord, the end of the days of magic and the passing into the West the Summer Country of the great heroes.

Prince Gwydion was ambushed and the magic sword Dyrnwyn taken from him. The companions of old must now gather their forces and ready themselves for the final battle against the Death Lord.

Taran is now unrecognisable from the lad who wanted nothing more than to go adventuring at the start of The Book of Three. He’s grown and tempered and now has to return to the friends he made in the previous book to raise an army to assault Arawn. The death toll of named characters is pretty high, with several not making it to the final chapters. We also get closure for characters who appeared previously – the former giant, Glew; the steward Magg; and the witch-queen Achren. Some get redemption, some get a noble death and some get what’s coming to them.

The final chapters are the most Lord of the Rings-like to me, as everyone suddenly packs up and leaves for the Summer Country, which I’m not sure has been mentioned before, or if it was, then only in passing several books ago. That sort of came from nowhere, unlike LotR, where it was foreshadowed from very early on. It does sort of fit with the style of story being told, so I’m willing to let it go.

In the end, I think that this was a satisfying conclusion to Taran’s story. We finally get to find out why The Book of Three is called that; Princess Eilonwy finally gets to be active and take part in things; and Dallben gets to show off some of his magic. A bittersweet but appropriate end to a series that started off wobbly but which has improved throughout.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006714996
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1979

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