‘The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard’ – Julia Lee

Moontrug has spent most of August ‘discovering’ things: the Fairy Pools on Skye, hidden waterfalls at Smoo Cave, seal colonies off Dunvegan Castle. And so it seemed only fitting to read Julia Lee’s latest 8-12s book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, while doing all of this exploring… Having got to know Less-STAH, theatrical Whitby and the ‘all-seeing’ Gully in The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, Moontrug was excited to learn Lee had more adventures in store for these characters in her next book…

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Gully Potchard never meant to cause any trouble. He’s just a ordinary sort of boy… at least that’s what he thinks. But when an old acquaintance comes knocking, it isn’t long before Gully is tangled up in a mess of mischief and skulduggery. Cats and dogs go astray, a child is kidnapped, and ransom notes are delivered to the wrong people! But as a storm rages and a fire blazes, Gully discovers that he has an extraordinary skill that might just make him an unlikely hero after all…

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The book opens with a punch as bully Nathan Boldree pressures Gully into his ‘scheme.’ Nathan is brilliantly described: ‘his face was as impassive as a slab of raw beefsteak’ and makes an impressive driving force of evil against the wonderfully likeable Gully. Throw in the odious Randolph (Moontrug could have punched him when he set fire to Darwin’s Origin of Species and ranted about how Agnes was an ‘insult to girlhood’), and it’s a proper cast of dislikable gents. On the other hand, Gully’s extended family are a jumble of fabulously named, mildly bonkers characters: ‘All the Marvel children were named after the places where they were born; it was dear Aunt Hetty’s way of keeping track.’ From Dorchester Barnicott who sits ‘slack as a landslipped mountain’ to the gorgeously clumsy Leicester, Lee has created a Dickensian cast of characters, brimming with colour and life. 

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Alongside Gully’s roller-coaster of ransom notes and kidnapped dogs, you have Agnes’ story. Bullied by her brother and confined indoors by her mother, she finally breaks away to discover the world around her and the wonderful people inside it. Like Impey, Gully’s cousin, who is UTTERLY fabulous and hilariously funny. When Mrs Leaf fortells her future and says: ‘You are a loving and beloved child. Countless adventures lie ahead, wonderful journeys, and great success’, it is only fitting that Impey replies with a nod ‘as if that was only to be expected.’ And she is, without doubt, the best mad Ophelia Moontrug has ever seen: ‘Impey rolled her eyes back in her head. She let out a gurgle, then a groan. The groan sounded too much like pain…She turned the groan into a parrot shriek.’ The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard is a fabulous story, bursting with exciting and original characters AND a cracking plot – well worth a read…

‘Tiger Moth’ by Suzi Moore

You’ve gotta love a catchy book title. A little bit of alliteration (The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth), perhaps a spot of intrigue (The Black North), maybe even some humour (Pants Are Everything, when you’re definitely not a nudist). And it was the title of Suzi Moore’s latest book for 9+ years that caught Moontrug’s attention first: Tiger Moth. In seconds, it had conjured up images of fighter planes, butterflies, a powerful tiger charging through the jungle, a tiny, fragile moth fluttering in the moonlight… And the way Moore integrates ‘Tiger Moth’ into the story is totally gorgeous.

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Ever since Alice was adopted, Culver Manor, with its overgrown garden has been the one place she feels safe. Then Alice’s parents tell her they’re having a baby and her world turns upside down. Will they loved their real baby more than her? Meanwhile, Zack has everything he could want. A loving family, lots of friends and a brilliant dog for a best friend. But when tragedy strikes, Zack is ripped from the life he loves and forced to move with his mum to a tiny cottage by the sea. Then Zack meets Alice, and together they realise that when life seems less than perfect, a new friend might be all you need to find your way home.

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Alice is a wonderful character and from the opening lines of the book you’re drawn right inside her head: ‘I’m not like you. I’m not like everyone else. I wasn’t born. I was chosen.’ Alice is small, and as she sees it, seemingly insignificant – but her energy and bravery dance all over the page. Her feelings at the arrival of her baby sister are brilliantly evoked, as is her sense of curiosity and adventure as she discovers Culver Cove. Moontrug loved the way she isn’t interested in moping around on an iPad inside but is hunting down old maps and discovering secret doors… And her ‘funny animal walks’ are awesome – Moontrug is planning to try out the ‘chicken shark’ this week.  Zack is similarly great – very funny (like when he talks about Otter’s ‘world-famous stink-bomb farts’ and keeps eating Alice’s picnic lunches) but his anger and sorrow at losing his father is also painstakingly real. In fact, Moontrug cried when Zack finally let his grief clatter down. The setting is so alive you can almost smell the rush of salty air and see the seals slope from the rocks into the glittering sea. Culver Cove is exactly the kind of place the Famous Five would have explored: full of possibility and secrets. The moonlit swim is awesome and Moontrug is already planning one next week on the Isle of Skye, up in Scotland. Tiger Moth is a gorgeous book which perfectly captures both the sense of loss and alienation that all too often creeps into life, but also the thirst for adventure and friendship that drives childhood forward.

 

‘The Black North’ by Nigel McDowell

When Moontrug saw this book cover she knew it was exactly the kind of story she’d love: two silhouetted children on a path of moonlight leading to a remote castle, surrounded by magical creatures. And within pages of reading, Moontrug was completely enthralled by the story…

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Storm clouds are gathering on the Divided Isle. Oona Kavanagh’s home has escaped the worst of the ravages of war, but now the Invaders from the ruined Black North are threatening. When Oona’s twin brother, Morris, is kidnapped, Oona is forced on a journey to the furthest reaches of the country to rescue him. With rumours of the Echoes – a mysterious blight creeping across the land – and Briar-Witches and Invaders at her heels, can Oona save her brother before the South turns as Black as the North?

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Oona is an ABSOLUTELY brilliant character – as fierce and as feisty as Lyra from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – and when she summons the last of her strength to prove to the boys of the Cause that she deserves to be listened to, Moontrug wanted to leap up and cheer her on: ‘I’ve been to Innislone! I’ve been to the Hollow Mountains you’re talking about! I’ve seen the Giants in the Melancholy Mountains and I’ve ridden a Whereabouts Wolf! I’ve seen Muddgloggs! … I did all that, not you!’

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The setting is as eerie as they come (‘it was the prompt arrival of a funeral coach; pulled by a silent stallion, driven by a figure of shadow, and summoned by the promise of death’) and full of wonderfully inventive creatures. The Briar-Witches who skulk beneath the ground then burst up to snatch children away are totally terrifying: ‘Oona was snatched by the ankles and pulled down into the earth all the way to the waist… the screaming from beneath didn’t stop… the Briar-Witches racing underground, sending cracks across the walls.’ And when Moontrug read about Oona tearing across the lands on the back of a Whereabouts wolf, she wanted to climb on too and bound off into the unknown. McDowell’s imagination is awesomely huge: ‘…out of the dark loped something large: a creature flecked with filth and reeking of the wild, that Oona thought might’ve been born with a coat coloured somewhere between grey-white and moon but had been stained with so much, marred by long travel through the Black.’

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The sense of danger driving the story on is relentless – and impressively done. The Faceless is a creature Moontrug hopes never to meet: ‘The figure had no face, wore only grey-white blankness for an expression, like a grubby pages awaiting scrawl.’ And the plot is full of unexpected twists and moments of real, real sadness which McDowell’s writes beautifully: ‘she felt she was shedding small pieces, losing little and little more of herself along the way. Thought by the time she reached that small scrap of dark there’d be nothing of Oona Kavanagh left at all.’

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McDowell is an Irish author and his heritage enriches his story, both in the original way the book is written (less confident readers may struggle with it though) and in its awesome names: Ballyboglin, Merrigut, Kavanagh… The Black North is a FANTASTIC read for 9+ years, so good in fact that it’s earned a place on Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower. All that’s left to say is that tonight Moontrug will be dreaming of riding on the back of a Whereabouts wolf and tomorrow she will be counting down the days for McDowell’s next book.