THE BLACK LOTUS by Kieran Fanning

Eoin Colfer is a pretty big deal in the children’s book world (Artemis Fowl, WARP etc) and so when Moontrug saw his comments on Kieran Fanning’s debut for 8+ years (‘A powerful new voice in children’s fiction. I loved this book’) she knew she had to do some investigating…

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Ghost, Cormac and Kate are junior recruits of The Black Lotus, a training school for ninjas. But when the Moon Sword – a source of unimaginable power – is stolen by an evil Samurai Warrior, the three are forced to battle through sixteenth century Japan and present-day New York to stop him from destroying the city.

The book opens with Ghost’s recruit into The Black Lotus. Fanning conjures up both the smart apartments and frenetic favelas of Rio De Janeiro and they provide the perfect backdrop for a fast-paced opening scene. Ghost’s super-power is excitingly evoked and the arrival of a one-eyed man at the end of the chapter ensures the plot is full of intrigue. Moontrug particularly liked the way Ghost wasn’t a straight-up wonder kid – his past is full of secrets and sadness (‘a favela kid: tough, strong and full of secrets’) – and Fanning evokes his sense of loss with real heart. In fact, all of Fanning’s characters have depth and quirks and children will love the friendships that lie at the core of the story – they reminded Moontrug of the kids in Andy Mulligan’s novel, Trash. Recruited from an Ireland run by deadly Kyatapira, Cormac runs faster than any kid he encounters (faster than the bullies who are set on beating him up) – and is both a loyal friend to Ghost and a flirty side-kick to Kate. And Kate’s ability to talk to animals provides some top quality humour to the plot (along with Ghost who has learnt English phrases incorrectly from a guide book) – and she adds a fabulous dash of ‘girl power’ to the trio.

There are helicopters, BX-12 Kestrel planes, black orb portals, underground headquarters, ejecting capsules and glass bombs. But perhaps coolest of all are the shinobi shozoku – ninja suits made ‘from millions of tiny mirrored beads. Each bead is weighted and reacts to the earth’s gravitational pull. Regardless of the wearer’s position, the mirrored surface of each bead faces sideways or downwards, but never upwards. Therefore, the suit always reflects the environments around it, never the sky. It will camouflage you anywhere.’ Kids will love imagining which gadgets they’d use and they’ll also enjoy the memorable sayings scattered throughout the story: ‘sometimes the best place to hide is perched on your enemy’s eyelashes.’

Fanning transports the reader back to sixteenth-century Japan seemlessly and Moontrug loved the descriptions of ‘glowing paper lanterns’ that ‘bobbed on the evening breeze’ and skies stained ‘a grapefruit pink’ – an atmospheric setting for warriors and legendary Samurai swords. And the finale in New York is breathlessly exciting – while Cormac’s up on the top of a skyscraper, Kate is advancing on an elephant… The Black Lotus is a fantastic, energetic book – the adventure is huge and the friendships have heart – and Moontrug is excited to see what Fanning has in store for his readers next…

 

THE SNOW SISTER by Emma Carroll

There are a few authors Moontrug keeps an eye on. Not in a creepy, stalky way – she doesn’t follow them down streets in a swishy black cloak – more in a I MUST ABSOLUTELY, DEFINITELY BUY THEIR NEXT BOOK kind of way. And Emma Carroll is one of these authors. Moontrug loved her previous books, Frost Hollow Hall, The Girl Who Walked On Air and In Darkling Wood and was excited to see she has a shorter book, a novella, out in time for Christmas – cue The Snow Sister, illustrated by Julian de Narvaez.

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Pearl was putting the finishing touches to a person made out of snow. And that person, with coal for eyes and a turnip for a nose, was now wearing Pearl’s sister’s best shawl. It’s Christmas Eve, and Pearl Granger is making a snow sister. It won’t bring her real sister back. But a snow sister is better than no sister. Then a mysterious letter arrives, with a surprise that will stir the heart of Pearl’s family. Will Christmas ever be the same again?

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Few authors write historical fiction as well as Carroll – there is something gloriously authentic about her dialogue and her settings are completely convincing. Within the first few pages of The Snow Sister, the reader is transported to a Victorian village bustling with carts and crowds, a fir tree decked with lights in the town square and stalls brimming with spiced cider and hot pies. But set against the smells, sights and colour of Christmas, Pearl’s life seems very grey and lonely. Her family is struggling to scrape enough money together to survive and the grief of losing Pearl’s sister has hit them all hard. But with the arrival of winter, everything changes.

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Carroll captures the universal yearning for snow – the excitement of creating snowmen (or snow sisters), the possibility of mysterious letters and a world made new and good: ‘the snow still made everything seem better, like a clean sheet over an old mattress.’

A strange letter gives Pearl hope that perhaps life will get better for her family but when the snow falls harder, her father doesn’t return from Bath and Pearl gets caught stealing, things get even worse. On the run from the police, Pearl finds herself whisked into Mrs Lockwood’s fancy home (Moontrug loved the humour on page 52). Pearl glimpses the luxury of wealth – cream-coloured stone, sugared plums and egg tarts – but Carroll weaves a much richer message into the story here. And in amongst the sumptuous puddings and shining carriages, Pearl watches the snow falling softly around her and she realises what actually matters at Christmas. The Snow Sister is a gorgeously evocative novella, boasting stunning illustrations from Julian de Naravaez and the warmth and wisdom of an Eva Ibbotson story.

THE BOOK OF LEARNING by E. R. Murray

Even from the cover, Moontrug could tell she was going to enjoy E.R. Murray’s The Book Of Learning: a rat, tangled roses and a girl and a boy doing a wheelie on a motorbike. All the signs of an exciting adventure…

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After the death of her beloved grandpa, Ebony Smart’s world is turned upside down. Sent to Dublin to live with an adult she didn’t know existed, she soon discovers what her new home, 23 Mercury Lane, is full of secrets. Learning that she is part of an ancient order of people who have the power to reincarnate, Ebony quickly discovers that a terrible evil threatens their existence. With just her pet rat, Winston, and a mysterious book to help her, she must figure out why her people are disappearing and how to save their souls, and her own, before time runs out…

Murray creates a heartfelt opening as Ebony struggles to come to terms with the death of her grandpa. The sights and smells of her home in Oddley Cove are wonderfully evoked (fishing trips, cigar tobacco lingering in the air, hidden rocks and an old man’s tales of how you can ‘learn to read’ the sea) and Ebony is established as a wilful and exciting protagonist right from Chapter 1: ‘Ebony Smart had other ideas.’ Moontrug loved her bond with the animals in her home and how she felt quite sure George and Cassandra, her goats, could take care of her better than the mysterious Judge Ambrose who arrives to take her away. But her closest bond is with the brilliantly named Winston, Ebony’s glorious pet rat. Moontrug liked how Winston wasn’t just a sidekick to Ebony’s adventures; he was right there in the midst of them, helping Ebony unravel the secrets behind her past…

Murray introduces Ebony’s Aunt Ruby with flair and originality, a far more exciting character than at first meets the eye. With jumpsuits, inventions and a voice ‘like corn popping in a tin pan’ Aunt Ruby is a feisty and apparently trustworthy guardian – but her house is full of secrets: relatives who aren’t who they seem and magical books locked inside studies. The Book of Learning is filled with strange codes, ghostly messages and cryptic clues and kids will love trying to crack them with Ebony. Murray keeps the reader guessing right through the book about which characters are really on Ebony’s side and the sense of menace at the heart of the plot will send shivers down reader’s spines: bedroom windows opening of their own accord at night, secret passageways beneath kitchen sinks, terrors lying hidden in the basement, figures lurking in the shadows…

Ebony’s friendship with the enigmatic Zach is brilliantly evoked and in amongst the action – forbidden trips to a library and midnight adventures in the park – there are moments of real heart between the two. Murray perfectly captures the wildness of rural Ireland (‘waves smashed up and over the pier, sending silt and seaweed flying,’ ‘wind howled like lost sea-ghosts’) and this provides an exciting platform for the book’s final action to unfold upon. The sense of magic surrounding gateways to other worlds is a joy to read – combine an amulet with a pure heart at moonlight and the gateway will open – and readers will be eagerly awaiting the next instalment when they finish reading this book.