Step aside, Casper. These ghosts ain’t friendly…

Moontrug is afraid of some really strange things: sheep that look at her weirdly; having cold toes; adding up… But recently she felt shivers prickle down her spine for a just cause – because there’s a book out there that lots of 9-12-year-olds (Moontrug’s mental age) are finding verrrrrrrry scary: Emily Diamand’s Ways To See A Ghost. Her debut children’s book, Flood Child, won the Times Chicken House Competition in 2008 (a must read for those wanting raiders, knife-throwing, seacats and a feisty heroine) and now she’s back with a new thriller series.

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Isis is the daughter of a fake psychic. But unlike her mum, Isis really can see ghosts. When a terrifying creature escapes from the dark places that even spirits fear to go, Isis realises that it puts everyone she cares about, living or dead, in grave danger. Will her powers be enough to protect them all? And will Gray, son of a UFO-fanatic lay aside everything his father has told him to trust in the horrifying things Isis can see?

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The story is narrated by Gray and Isis, and right from the first two chapters Diamand surprises and unnerves the reader. Gray’s apparently carefree retelling of an evening UFO-spotting with his father is punctuated by the last, truly eerie sentence of Chapter 1. And likewise, Isis appears to be recounting an evening with her fraudster clairvoyant mother – but again, the last line of Chapter 2 cuts through with sinister precision. It’s a good start… Diamand’s writing is powerful, perhaps most notably so in her descriptions of ghosts. I mean, proper goosebumps shivered down Moontrug’s arms when Mandeville first appeared: ‘As Isis watched, a tall, elderly man built himself in front of her. Smelling like old, feathery-edged books, or the woolly dust balls under her bed. He was wearing the faded memory of a velvet jacket, and on his head was the neat shape of a fez, a long tassel hanging down from the top. Only his eyes glowed. Blue, like back-lit sapphires.’ But alongside Mandeville Diamand creates literature’s most adorable ghost (again, step aside Casper…). Moontrug won’t ruin it by naming her but she says gorgeous things like: ‘I runned on the table… They dint see me. Even when I show my tummy, like this.’

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The plot is action-packed and Diamand’s descriptions of the frightening things stirring from ‘the dark places that even spirits fear to go’ are truly terrifying: ‘Ravelling its wings into tattery swirls, dribbling into the ground, its eyes stared out of the night-blackened grass, then fading.’ It’s up to Gray (fantastic to read about a mixed race protagonist by the way – something Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, is keen to push) and Isis to sort this out, partly because they have bucket loads of courage, partly because their parents are totally useless and can’t be relied upon to solve anything. Even by the end of the book Moontrug felt neither Cally nor Gil had done anything to redeem themselves – they’re up there with the Wormwoods and the Dursleys. Total poop parents.

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So there are two things you’re going to need when reading this book: courage (for the uber scary ghost bits – you’ll think differently about sudden draughts in the room and patches of colder air after reading this) and an energy bar (for the moment you finish the book) – because the ending is so brilliantly dramatic it’ll leave you gasping for breath. Get ready for some otherworldly twists and turns…

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Authors don’t write books alone. Step 1: hello clever agent…

So it turns out writing a book isn’t that straightforward. I think I had it in my head that an author writes the book alone in a candlelit room and then, weeks later, the publisher (like some kind of stork carrying a bundle Dumbo-style) delivers it to all of the bookshops. Yeah, that doesn’t happen… For one, the whole serene candlelit room thing does not exist. Sure, there are some occasions where you get a whole day at home just to write (cue the Zen music and scented candle) but often, I’m scribbling down ideas in the car (like now) or typing up edits on the train.

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And as for the idea that an author writes the book ‘alone’ – that the book is their creation only – I don’t really believe that happens either. I mean, you give it your best shot as an author: you find that idea, you research like mad, you think like mad, you write like mad and you try like absolute MAD. But even after all of that, there are things you don’t realise about the manuscript – chapters that lack pace, characters that are underdeveloped, words you repeat again and again without noticing. And the eagle-eyed person who notices that kind of stuff, who helps bring your book to life even before you send it to your publisher to read? Your agent (love that word – makes me feel like some kind of insanely clever spy). And luckily for me, I have a pug-loving edit-extraordinaire from DHH Literary Agency, Hannah Sheppard, on my side.

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Even before I signed my book deal with Simon & Schuster, Hannah was at work on the manuscript: developing the motivations behind Skull’s actions; thinking of ways to bring Moll and Siddy to the forefront of the action; making sure my writing was as tight as possible. And when my editor at Simon & Schuster, Jane, mentioned I should up the pace in the middle of the manuscript before meeting with her to discuss detailed edits, I knew I’d bring Hannah in on it all. I worked away on the manuscript then set up a meeting with her for a second opinion on the changes I’d made. After scoffing a sandwich in a side street in Piccadilly before our meeting (classy: I was running late from a creative writing class), we sat down and talked.

IMG_36765th View Bar in Waterstones, Piccadilly, where I love writing and met Hannah last week

 

‘It’s great,’ Hannah said, ‘but…’ Suddenly I wished I’d ordered a pint of gin instead of cup of mint tea. ‘But I thought you were simply upping the pace. You appear to have turned Gryff [that’s Moll’s wildcat] into Lassie.’ Long pause. A glance around for the waitress. Where’s the blinking gin? Hannah and I talked and talked and talked and everything she said made sense – only I’d been so ‘involved’ in the manuscript I hadn’t been able to see it before. I thought I’d been developing Gryff’s character when often I’d been making him too ‘tame’, too ‘unreal’ – and it was suddenly so obvious. Armed then with invaluable nuggets of bookiness, I’m now back with my manuscript, polishing it up before sending it to my editor, Jane.

BlVh2mvCUAArF8dClever combinations of just 26 letters can fill a book with magic

 

And through writing and re-writing every day, I’m getting closer and closer to what I want Oracle Bones to be. Tomorrow I’m sending the (de-Lassified) manuscript off to Jane and really excitingly we get to have our first editorial debrief – sounds grown up but I know for a fact that Jane likes singing Enchanted songs with Simon & Schuster pals so I’m not too scared (and besides, I sang Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ standing on the kitchen table with my sister last week – it sounded like this – so I reckon the meeting should be just fine). All I need to do in the meantime is concentrate on my edits – and try my absolute hardest not to let Gryff morph into some exaggerated version of Scooby Doo.

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In an iridescent sparkle of frosted light he appeared, a huge white bear…

Up until last week, Moontrug thought she only had space in her heart for three bears: the gloriously greedy Winnie the Pooh, the wonderfully fierce Iorek Byrnison and, of course, her ever-faithful Spencer Bear. And then alone came Jackie Morris’ book, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and with it, a very different bear: ‘In an iridescent sparkle of frosted light he appeared, a huge white bear, shifting and shimmering into solid form. Frost stars clung to his thick pelt. He shook himself and they danced around him like an echo of the Northern Lights.’

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Having been bowled over by the magic of Jackie Morris’ Snow Leopard recently (read the review here), Moontrug couldn’t wait to start reading East of the Sun, West of the Moon. And from the very first pages, Morris’ magic stirs, conjuring with it the very essence of story-telling, of fairytales spun from northern lands. East of the Sun, West of the Moon tells the story of a magical bear who arrives one morning on the doorstep of a young girl’s house. And from the moment she sees him, she knows the bear has come for her. ‘How many times had she dreamt of him, of riding his back, sleeping, wrapped safe in his paws, walking beside him? … Now he was here, as if spelled from her dreams.’ It is the beginning of an extraordinary  journey for the girl. First to the bear’s secret palace in the faraway mountains, where she is treated so courteously, but where she experiences the bear’s unfathomable sadness, and a deep mystery. As the bear’s secret unravels, another journey unfolds… a long and desperate journey, that takes the girl to the homes of the four Winds and beyond, to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

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The illustrations are staggeringly beautiful and evocative and the words themselves seem imbued with a sort of elemental power, a magic born when Time first dawned or Earth began to turn. Indeed the bear is both magical, a wild being from a mysterious, faraway land, and absolutely real. His tears are ‘frozen diamonds’ and he moves ‘like a shimmer, like a whisper.’ But what makes him so engaging is the promise he makes to the young girl: ‘I could wait a thousand years and not forget you. I would travel to the ends of the earth to find you.’

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And there’s another thing that won Moontrug over about this secretive bear. He can fly. And in Moontrug’s best dreams she is flying through the night on the wings of an eagle or on the back of a snow leopard. And Morris does ‘flying’ beautifully. The words themselves seem to float off in the page into the pearly sky of stars: ‘Then they were flying across the night sky on a silver bridge of stars, and her heart and soul lifted for the joy and beauty of it all. High in the sky, the bone-white moon shone down on the girl, the bear and the sea of cloud.’

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Though Morris draws on an old fairytale, there is a difference in her telling. When the reader thinks her story is going in one direction, actually it is moving in quite another. Just as the woman tells Berneen: ‘Be careful what you wish for. Seldom when our wishes come true, do we find that we have what we truly desired. Wishes have ways of twisting themselves, or turning unexpected corners.’ Which is why, alongside the bear, we have the wind: wild, fierce and free.

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Morris describes the immense power and unpredictability of the wind and yet there is a tenderness at its core: ‘She had often dreamed of flying, but now she moved across the face of the earth in the arms of the East Wind. At the head of the wind there was a place of great stillness. She looked down, and below it seemed that the earth turned for her and her alone.’ East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a story of bravery and love, of growing up and letting go – as relevant for grown ups as it is for children. And though the wind may blow, the Troll Queen may roar and the bear may weep, there is a stillness at its heart, and books like that, amidst the rush and chaos of our busy lives, deserve a look in. Especially this one.

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Kester saved the animals. Can he save the humans too?

So I’ve been missing someone recently. Not a person exactly, but a character. An animal in fact – possibly the most fumbly-brained, accidentally hilarious animal any author has created: Piers Torday’s white pigeon. Last seen in his bestselling The Last Wild (and what an impact he made there) – I heard that the sequel, The Dark Wild, was out and there was a chance the white pigeon may be making another appearance.

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Twelve-year-old Kester Jaynes thought he had rescued the last wild animals in the land. He thought his adventure was over. He was wrong. Below the sparkling city of Premium, deep underground, Kester finds more survivors: a menacing white dog, a cohort of foxes, an interfering starling, and the world’s most miserable rat. A dark wild hiding from the deadly virus that destroyed their friends; a dark wild with a plan to rise up against their human enemies. Together with his loyal friend Polly and a brave gang of child outlaws, Kester must find a way to stop them before it’s too late. Kester Jaynes saved the animals. Can he save the humans, too?

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Right from the start, the story packs pace: Polly is hiding secrets, a helicopter is circling and there is a strange whispering in the drain. And so Kester and his loyal wild are thrown headlong into another adventure. But what’s so brilliant about this book is that the story matters. Really matters. Because what would our world look like without animals? What would it look like without humans? The reader is on tenterhooks at the end of each chapter: will Kestrel and his wild be enough against the dark wild, against the cullers, against Captain Skuldiss and Selwyn Stone?

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The story has an Animals of Farthing Wood / Watership Down feel, partly because the characters Torday creates are wonderfully real, each with a unique voice. The gorgeously boastful but brave wolf cub: ‘I know I am the best at scaring off giant metal birds ever,’ the brilliantly stupid Skulker: ‘I mean… what he said basically,’ the sycophantic starling: ‘I think you’ve orchestrated this really, really well. The whole charges thing, building up the drama…’ and of course, the white pigeon: ‘You will be completely forgotten, don’t worry.’

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And Torday’s villains are properly frightening. In fact Skuldiss, ‘like a spider with a white human face,’ is so creepy Moontrug couldn’t read him before bed (he’s as creepy as The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Selwyn Stone, with his ghastly hobby, sends shivers down your spine. But set against them you have a pack of friends who won’t be beaten, despite the odds stacked against them: ‘And as if he has been listening to the dream as well, the damp orange insect in the palm of my hand begins to stir, muttering something inaudible to himself. While the stag and the cub watch back, I tuck him safely into my inside pocket, hidden from the storm. Then, frozen, soaking and tired, without another word, we turn away from the arcade back along the flooded river road and march forward together.’

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Kester’s is a story that champions bravery and friendship where ‘the smallest things, the things you never thought would make the grade, the things it’s so easy to ignore because they were there every day’ turn out to make the difference between winning and losing. The Dark Wild is a fantastic adventure for 8-12 years. And did I mention the insecure rat and the dog with golden teeth? No? Then you’d better get reading…

 

The day I met the real BFG…

Let’s take a look at Roald Dahl’s giants: The Fleshlumpeater, The Bonecruncher, The Manhugger, The Childchewer, The Meatdripper, The Gizzardgulper, The Maidmasher, The Bloodbottler and The Butcher Boy. GULP. Oh, and the BFG – slightly less of a gulp. It was to my relief then, that I realised I was not going to be chomped by the Childchewer or munched by the Maidmasher, but rather entertained by the BFG himself. Well, alright, not exactly the BFG but near enough. At 6ft 7inches in height and previous winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, say hello to the brilliantly talented Philip Ardagh.

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At the Oxford Literary Festival, Ardagh was speaking with Nicolette Jones, children’s editor of The Sunday Times, in an event on ALL THINGS DAHL. Do talks get any better than that? Ardagh kicked off the event by mentioning he can fit the entire contents of a pencil case into his beard (and once, a whole selection of plastic butterfly clips). The tone of the talk was set: we had Mr Twit’s beard and the BFGs height brilliantly combined in one person… One more admin note before the event got under way: Ardagh was keen to let us all know that despite his beard’s ‘centre parting’, ‘it is in fact ONE beard, not two.’ A lover of Roald Dahl’s books now, Ardagh admits he came to them late in life: ‘I only started reading Roald Dahl as an adult. I was employed as a library assistant in Lewisham (I didn’t have a university degree but I was the only person who could reach the top book shelf) and while there a boy asked me: “Now that Roald Dahl is dead, who will write his books?” It got me thinking…’

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Ardagh and Jones captivated the audience with their Roald Dahl knowledge. Jones let us in on the BFG’s sartorial habits: ‘Quentin Blake originally drew the BFG wearing an apron and wellies but when Dahl sent Blake his own sandals the BFG switched for those!’ Jones also revealed that Willy Wonka wears a bow tie on TV but doesn’t in the book. I guess you can’t blame the chocolatier for wanting to dress up on screen… Jones’ favourite Dahl book is in fact one of Moontrug’s favourites: Danny The Champion of the World. And Moontrug had the pleasure of meeting the Romany gypsy who painted Roald Dahl’s wagon – the one he kept at the bottom of his garden, which was then wheeled out to Leicester Square for the premiere of Danny The Champion of the World. Here’s the letter Dahl’s daughter, Tessa, wrote to my Romany pal to thank him for painting it so beautifully:

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Whilst Jones was a mine of Roald Dahl facts, Ardagh was like one of Dahl’s funniest characters stomping round the room, causing explosions of laughter every few seconds. Why? Because Ardagh is one of those people who cast a sort of authory-spell on an audience, a bit like Andy Stanton did last time I was at Oxford Literary Festival. When it was question time Ardagh marched up to one boy to take a question (admittedly the boy was sitting at the back of the theatre, in the middle of the row, up a very steep flight of stairs) and when Ardagh got there, he simply said: ‘I have completely forgotten why I am here.’ To a young girl, Ardagh announced, ‘I’ll take two and a half words of your question.’ The little girl stammered out: ‘When did yo – ‘ and Ardagh sauntered off. Moontrug’s longing to know what the rest of that question was. Maybe: ‘When did you realise you were in fact the real BFG?’

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The icing on the cake for this Roald Dahl bonanza was having the ACTUAL Matilda from the Royal Shakespeare Company perform her very last song for us. Cue child genius, Christina Fray. Possibly the most mesmerising thing Moontrug has seen for a long, long time. Thankfully there’s lots of Roald Dahl around at the moment – the unspeakably AMAZING Matilda musical in London and the treasure trove that is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire. I’ve already seen Matilda three times on stage (planning another visit soon though) – so maybe it’s time for a visit to the museum. And I’m not just going because their website has enticed me with the recipe for Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight… Promise. 

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On meeting my favourite illustrator EVER… Chris Riddell

So I hear Charlie Bucket was pretty stoked when he found his golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Well, Moontrug found her own golden ticket recently. Granted, she didn’t find it inside a chocolate bar (she found it on the Oxford Literary Festival website) but she was just as excited as Charlie Bucket. Having grown up getting lost in the amazingness of Chris Riddell’s illustrations, Moontrug finally got a ticket to hear him speak. BOOM.

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The best-selling illustrator of the Edge Chronicles and author of the award-winning Goth Girl, Chris Riddell, grew up in Bristol. His Dad was a vicar and while he delivered loooooooong sermons about peace on earth and loving thy neighbour, Riddell spent the sermon doodling knights chopping each other’s head off and sketching dragons hatching from eggs. And even then he was ‘selling’ his work: to 103-year-old Mrs Stock who would give him wine gums in return for his drawings. Ever since, Riddell said he felt he ‘needed’ to draw.

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Before fledgling dragons emerging from eggs and Banderbears charging through the Deepwoods, Riddell learnt to draw naked people with tutor Raymond Briggs (uber cool author who wrote and illustrated The Snowman), or, as Riddell described it, ‘in Bath I encountered the horror of naked people.’ And then came his meetings with publishers. Riddell got out his sketchbooks, expecting publishers to leap up and hand him a story to match them but they simply said: ‘So where’s your story?’ Riddell admits he panicked. ‘I had no story. As far as I was concerned, nothing interesting had EVER happened to me. I went home that night and racked my brain. I thought back to being a child and realised that the thing that had frightened me the most was the thought that something dreadful was hiding under my bed at night. So I wrote that story, except I turned the things under my bed into gorgeous creatures, to give the story a twist.’

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Riddell’s most recent book, Goth Girl, has been an absolute hit (see here for Moontrug’s review) and Riddell spoke about the characters with us: ‘Lord Goth was based on Lord Bryon – a sort of Gothic version of Harry Styles: “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and Ghastly Gorm’s landscape gardener is based on the wonderfully named Capability Brown. I’d love it if I’d been given a name like that – Inscrutability Riddell!’ Or Probability Moontrug? Oh, and as an aside, Riddell also mentioned that Lance Armstrong should be made to do the Tour de France on one of Ghastly Gorm Hall’s hobby horses. Too right.

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We asked Riddell where he dreamt up his incredible creatures and stories and, like Roald Dahl, he writes at the bottom of his garden: ‘You see, Roald Dahl only had a shed,’ he jokes, ‘I have a converted coach house.’ There Riddell starts with a landscape, a map, and during the course of his books he lets his characters explore the map, and his stories unfold. GENIUS. So what can we expect from Riddell’s next book? Well…. All I can say is, step aside Great British Bake Off. Riddell’s filling Ghastly Gorm Hall with celebrity cooks and French gourmet vampires. The Ghastly Gorm Bake Off is on – and Moontrug’s tummy is already rumbling…

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The world’s funniest raven? Edgar from ‘Flood & Fang’

Moontrug’s a big fan of feathery chaps in books (Hedwig in Harry Potter, Kes in A Kestrel for a Knave, the white pigeon in The Last Wild), but recently Moontrug came across a feathered friend who totally topped the list: Edgar the raven, the self-appointed Guardian of the Otherhands, in Marcus Sedgwick’s Flood and Fang (the first in his 8-12 years Raven Mysteries series). Edgar becomes alarmed when a nasty looking black tail slinks under the rhubarb, kitchen maids go missing and the castle begins to flood. It’s up to him to raise the alarm and rescue the Otherhands from their impending doom…

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There is no-one better to tell this story than Edgar, an ageing raven with a craving for respect and attention, but who almost always ends up being misunderstood. He is both brilliantly funny: ‘I hurtled back to earth with a determination to save them all… The monkey, however, could go to hell’ and hopelessly self-obsessed: ‘Forlornly, I fluttered to the floor and began to stalk off down the corridor, striking, I felt, a posture of noble pain.’ Sedgwick captures Edgar’s strivings for recognition in fantastically funny episodes – it’s as much a story about a castle under threat as it is about a raven with a desire to be noticed: ‘I made quite a sight, I dare say…’, ‘flying backwards. That took some wing power, I can tell you,’ ‘ I soared pretty majestically back into the air,’ and ‘after about five minutes my neck really began to ache, and I decided not to die there after all.’

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The plot is a corker (think Gothic castle, mysterious flooding, a fanged beast and disappearing servants…) but what Sedgwick does best is set up a truly excellent cast of characters for his series. Take the gorgeously glum Solstice whose poetry is a powerful antidote to insomnia and her most renowned piece is entitled ‘Why Aren’t I Dead?’ She’s a fab companion for Edgar and the two converse amiably in a series of gasps and FUTHORKs. Moontrug also had a lot of time for the aptly-named Cudweed, Solstice’s younger, fatter brother who is ‘fantastically, extraordinarily, amazingly, award-winningly scared, all the time.’ And Edgar’s dislike of Cudweed’s malicious monkey, Fellah, is hilarious. I mean, even Cudweed agrees that ‘nobody likes a sticky monkey.’

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And Lord Valevine, head of Otherhand Castle, and inventor of life’s necessities (self-boiling oil, the square wheel, the invisible arrow and, um, sneezing) is fabulously and fantastically dense. Not surprising then that he can’t even remember the name of his gardner. Was it Spatchcock? Satchelpants? Sludgepig? Flood and Fang boasts a rich cast of original characters and a devilishly exciting plot – a must read series for 8-12 years that’s perching, like Edgar would be, up in Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower.