Circus adventures, sizzling science and galactic snacks - book reviews

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl
Skycircus by Peter Bunzl
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The nights are getting darker but the selection of wonderful books for children this autumn is guaranteed to put a spring in everyone’s step.

Red-hot author Peter Bunzl is back with a new chapter in his thrilling Cogheart series, comedian Dara Ó Briain reveals the wonders of science, Han sandwiches are on the menu in a tasty Star Wars cookbook, and yetis are on the guest list at the magical Nothing to See Here Hotel.

Age 9 plus:

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl

Author and BAFTA award-winning animator Peter Bunzl is on a roll with his outstanding Cogheart novels.

The powerful Victorian steampunk thriller series, which has included Cogheart and Moonlocket, moves into top gear in this soaraway new adventure set in a spellbinding dark and atmospheric Victorian landscape full of strange inventions, amazing automata, scintillating science and dastardly plots.

The hallmark of these stories – featuring an extraordinary cast of humans and mechanimals – is Bunzl’s magical mix of pulsating action, gripping mystery, heart-stopping danger and some mind-boggling fantasy.

And Skycircus plunges us straight back into the perilous lives of inventor’s daughter Lily Hartman, the girl with a clockwork heart, her cantankerous pet mechanical fox Malkin, and her best friend Robert, the orphaned son of the local clockmaker.

When Lily receives a package containing a mysterious invitation to Slimwood’s Stupendous Travelling Sky Circus and a red notebook that once belonged to her dead mother, she is sure that it could answer questions that have burned in her heart for years.

But the package also contains a cryptic message that indicates the writer knows her greatest secret, and that knowledge could place her in great danger but, lured by the promise of seeing and meeting Angelique Airhart, the circus’s amazing winged hybrid flying girl, Lily is determined to go.

She persuades Robert and Malkin to come along for the ride but little does she know that she is about to lead her friends into a sinister trap in which they will find themselves caught up in the most perilous adventure of their lives.

The seeds of the sensational Cogheart series grew from a non-fiction book called Living Dolls by Gaby Wood, a popular history of automatons, and Bunzl used these fictional Frankenstein-style tales of early androids – full of lies, mysteries and what-ifs – as the key to building Lily and Robert’s world.

And these remarkable, atmospheric stories have become standout modern classics… exhilarating epics as Bunzl, a lyrical and visionary writer, creates a truly remarkable and intricately detailed world peopled by humans, mechanicals, hybrids, heroes and villains.

Skycircus takes readers to an even higher level with a mesmerising and imaginative adventure that delivers wall-to-wall thrills as well as exploring a fragile society deliberately torn apart by suspicion, exploitation and an over-weaning lust for power.

There is real emotion here and a thoughtful meditation on contemporary society but most of all this is a rip-roaring adventure that grips from first page to last.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Secret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes by Dara Ó Briain

Wake up and walk through a day of amazing discoveries with Dara Ó Briain, the popular comedian who is on a mission to tell youngsters about the wonders of science.

Secret Science is Ó Briain’s second hilarious book for curious kids and it’s a thrilling and revealing exploration of all the extraordinary things that happen during what you might think is just boring, normal everyday life.

Ó Briain loves the unusual, the quirky and the absurd and in this entertaining science outing he shows youngsters the invisible and important things that make our normal lives happen, whether that’s ‘exploding fish, farting cows or angry electrons making your breakfast.’

There is so much extraordinary science going on right from the minute you wake up to when you go to sleep, and actually while you’re asleep too, he reveals. It’s is a non-stop everywhere, everything adventure with some incredibly cool stuff going on, too.

You’ve got your incredible brain, he says, which has worked out how to read words and make playing a video game feel as exciting as real life, you’ve got aeroplanes that can somehow get from the ground into the sky with all those people and their luggage on board, you’ve got electricity and artificial intelligence and GPS and buses coming in threes (that’s science too).

Discover how your brain is just waiting for a tiger to eat you, how sunlight from many millions of years ago is driving you to school and how eating chocolate while holding your nose is the greatest scientific experiment of all time.

Written with Ó Briain’s inimitable style and humour, fabulously illustrated by Dan Bramall’s two-tone artwork, and bulging with molecules, sound waves, hormones, bacteria, and electrons, this is an all-action, eye-popping journey through 24 hours of extraordinary science.

(Scholastic, hardback, £12.99)

Age 9 plus:

Poems to Live Your Life By by Chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell

When you combine beautiful poetry with rich, emotive illustrations, the result can only be breathtaking.

Award-winning illustrator, political cartoonist and former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell brings his considerable artistic talents, a lifelong love of poetry, and even a funny, poignant poem about childhood penned by his own hand, to this thoughtful and lovingly curated anthology.

From musings, youth, family and love to imaginings, nature, war and endings, these are poems from the past and present, classic and contemporary, which reflect Riddell’s own life journey, and cover the span from birth to death and everything in between.

Each of the forty-six poems in this magnificent collection is exquisitely illustrated with Riddell’s intricate, detailed and supremely expressive black and white illustrations which bring energy, power and added meaning and insight to the inspirational words on the page.

Classic verses from William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, W. B. Yeats and Christina Rossetti sit alongside poems from Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Carol Ann Duffy, Neil Gaiman and Roger McGough. And there are a few surprise inclusions along the way as Riddell has also chosen some of his favourite song lyrics to help engage young people with poetry in another form.

From the rage of Wilfred Owen’s famous war poem Dulce et Decorum Est and the lazy, hazy ethereal beauty of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale to the forlorn longing of Nick Cave’s Love Letter and the family affection resplendent in Seamus Heaney’s Digging, these are poems to impress and inspire a new generation of poetry lovers.

The anthology is a clever and compelling celebration of the power of poetry to give meaning to the ordinary, the moving and the celebratory. And Riddell hopes his illustrations will enhance the experience of the reader. When he illustrates poems, he aims to be akin to a performance poet, guiding the reader to the rhythms and tones of the poem, and to the parts that elicit our emotions.

The perfect gift for poetry lovers of any age, and a thing of beauty to be savoured and treasured.

(Macmillan Children’s Books, hardback, £10.99)

Age 9 plus:

Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge

Enjoy creepy mystery, exhilarating fun and spine-tingling chills in the second book of Jan Eldredge’s Southern-flavoured, super spooky middle grade series.

Pitched as Goth Girl meets Ghostbusters, the adventures of Evangeline Clement, a young haunt huntress apprentice who lives in the beautiful Louisiana bayou wetlands, are filled with magical monsters, beastly banshees and rotten Johnny revenants.

First book in this exciting series was Evangeline of The Bayou which introduced us to Evangeline and her extraordinary Gran whose mission is to teach the girl the skills of monster hunting which have been inherited from their long line of female ancestors.

Evangeline spends her days learning the ways of folk magic from her witch grandmother but what she really enjoys is using her powers to fight the evil creatures of the night alongside her animal familiars.

When Evangeline and her Gran – known locally as the swamp witches – are called to a creepy old mansion, where a bayou banshee is causing a real catawampus, they discover an unusual case, and an enemy unlike any of the terrifying monsters Evangeline has faced before.

And what’s more, the trainee witch will uncover a secret about her own family that will shake her to the tips of her silver-toed boots.

Eldredge’s enchanting, action-packed adventure is filled with all the evocative atmosphere of the bayou as she delivers a story of loyalty, determination, the bonds of family and friendship, and finding the courage to face your fears.

Thrills, spills and lots of chills!

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

Bunny vs Monkey 5: Destructo by Jamie Smart

Hold on to your hats and watch out for trouble… Bunny and Monkey are back for their fifth frantic adventure, and chaos is guaranteed in their helter-skelter, hilarious world!

The Phoenix Presents series, published by David Fickling Books in partnership with The Phoenix comic, is going from strength to strength and much of that success is due to the genius of the extraordinarily talented illustrator Jamie Smart whose ingenious comic-strip Bunny vs Monkey books are causing giant laughter waves.

Book Five sees the arch rivals battling Desctructo, the new baddie in the woods and the scariest ever. But where has Monkey gone? And that’s not all! The mega-genius inventor Skunky has decided he is going to do what Monkey has been failing at for so long… take over the woods himself. And what’s more, he has got his inventions to help him… like the octo-bosh and the pig cannon. But first, he needs an Evil Team and his first recruit is Monkey. Can Bunny’s gang save the woods?

Outrageously comical and ingeniously addictive, these manic, high-energy stories were just made for fidgety readers who like their books to come with plenty of comic-strip pictures and loads of laughs.

Madcap antics for a new generation of action kids!

(David Fickling Books, paperback, £8.99)

Age 7 plus:

Rivers by Peter Goes

Water – which covers over an incredible 70 per cent of our planet – is the life source of people, animals and the land itself.

As well as the vast oceans, there are rivers, both large and small, whose tributaries reach to the far corners of the planet. Whether meandering or carving powerfully through the landscape, they determine our way of being in the world, presenting pathways for explorers and obstacles for armies.

We rely on them as sources of drinking water, for fishing, for irrigating our fields and we harness the power of flowing water to drive machines that generate power. Understanding rivers helps us to also understand history and the people who lived alongside them for centuries.

In a breathtaking journey along the most important rivers in the world, Belgian author and illustrator Peter Goes takes us from the Nile to the Amazon, the Mekong Delta to the Mississippi, the Murray and the Waikato.

Rivers is the follow-up to the best-selling Timeline which sold over 25,000 copies. Each double-page spread of this giant-size book presents a major river through which it tells the story of the people and the land.

Packed with beautiful large-format, full-colour infographics and maps, this amazing river ride is a beautiful gift for adults, a lively reference book for children, and a teaching tool in classrooms. Each map and illustration is full of fascinating facts about nature, culture and history, with major events and historical figures featured alongside favourite stories and icons.

Absorbing, playful and highly informative, Goes’ imaginative exploration of the world’s waterways is an innovative and exciting lesson on how we live, how rivers helped to create history, and their role in making us who we are today.

Sail away on a river of fascinating facts!

(Gecko Press, hardback, £16.99)

Age 6 plus:

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yeti! by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton

Welcome back to the hilarious hotel where bed and board means you’ll never be… bored!

The Nothing to See Here Hotel is full of magical creatures, a place where weird is normal for fun-loving troll boy Frankie Banister and his truly extraordinary parents, and where laughter is assured from the moment you check in.

This number one destination is the creation of top comedy team, inventive author Steven Butler and illustrator extraordinaire Steven Lenton, who bring to life a cast of the wackiest characters imaginable for rip-roaring adventures.

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yeti! is the second book in this five-star series which features a hotel hosting everything from trolls, goblins and harpies to witches, puddle-nymphs and bogrunts, and their outrageous antics.

Frankie’s story began when his great-great-great-grandad Abraham Banister fell madly in love with troll girl Regurgita Glump (she’s still alive because trolls live hundreds of years!) and they married in the sewers under Brighton high street.

Fast forward a hundred years and here is Frankie… his dad Bargeous is a Halfling, his mum Rani is completely human, and Frankie is a quarterling (his pointy ears and copper-coloured eyes are the only outward signs of his troll blood).

Their hotel is the best secret holiday destination for magical creatures in the whole of England, which makes for the strangest guest list. And having just saved the hotel from a goblin prince, Frankie and the guests are looking forward to enjoying themselves and celebrating the summer holiday of Trogmanay.

But when a snow storm blows in (complete with Yeti family), and a number of mysterious guests arrive, something sinister seems to be taking over the hotel… and celebrating becomes the last thing on anyone’s mind!

Expect room service with a difference as you book in at a wonderfully imagined and magical world in which humour, adventure and the totally bizarre are the order of the day.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

The Star Wars Cookbook: Han Sandwiches and Other Galactic Snacks by Lara Starr and Angie Cao

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… sandwiches were made in the shape of Wookiee heroes and star ships!

If you are looking for a Christmas gift that is a cut above, check out this cheeky slice of tasty Star Wars fun. Simply bite into sandwiches shaped like the legendary Chewbacca and the Corellian light freighter Millennium Falcon, and then feel the force!

Yes, your sandwich game really will be taken to the next level with this super box set that comes with quirky sandwich cutters, a full-colour cookbook with 30 recipes, and tips for cooking with children of all ages.

Create sandwich-inspired recipes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner and dessert, all inspired by iconic Han Solo and Chewbacca-themed scenes from across the Star Wars saga as well as from Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Recipes include the hilariously named Carbonite Cakes, Hyperspace Energy Sandwiches, Quesogreedoos, Sabacc Slices, Scruffy-Looking Nerf Burgers and Millenni-yums.

From sandwiches to side dishes and desserts, these easy-to-make, irresistible recipes feature iconic scenes from across the saga. Angie Cao’s photographs featuring Star Wars figurines re-create epic moments from the films and serve up an extra helping of humour.

Fun and practical, this inspirational Star Wars set will soon have kids helping round the kitchen to the refrain of Darth Vader’s immortal line ‘I was but the learner; now I am the master.’

(Chronicle Books, box edition, £19.99)

Age 6 plus:

Jack Dash and the Great Custard Cake-Off by Sophie Plowden and Judy Brown

If you had a magic quill pen that made drawings real, what would you draw?

Part-time teacher and author Sophie Plowden, along with illustrator Judy Brown, draw their own magical talents together for the third book in the brilliantly funny and anarchic Jack Dash series which delivers fun, laughter, and thrills and spills in bucket loads.

Jack Dash and his family live in the suburban town of Curtly Ambrose. He once thought the place was dull until everything changed when he found a feather inside a book, a magic feather that makes whatever he draws come to life!

In his latest madcap escapade, Jack’s mum is taking part in the town’s Cake-Off Competition and is now battling against the unbeaten champion, Dr Spleen. But something smells burnt… Of course, Jack, his pet penguin Pablo, and ginger-headed, crackpot neighbour Coco McBean can’t keep away from trouble, causing more chaos than they would have ever imagined. Oh, and expect to find a herd of hairy yaks!

The adorable love-hate relationship between Jack and Coco continues unabated in this sparkling new adventure full of crazy characters, hilarious mishaps, and a crusty, curmudgeonly old man called Lord Crumble.

The perfect read for your own little mischief-makers!

(Catnip Publishing, paperback, £5.99)

Age 6 plus:

Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

Ninety years ago English writer and illustrator Joyce Lankester Brisley published the first book in what would be a classic series celebrating the warmth, fun and friendship of growing up in the countryside.

And to mark the landmark anniversary of the much-loved Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories, Macmillan Children’s Books has put together this high-quality new gift edition featuring a ribbon marker and, for the first time, the author’s original illustrations in full-colour.

Joyce Lankester Brisley was born at Bexhill-on-Sea in 1896 and studied at the Lambeth School of Art. Her first stories about Milly-Molly-Mandy were printed in 1925 in the Christian Science Monitor, and a collection first appeared in book form in 1928.

She continued to write and illustrate her Milly-Molly-Mandy for the rest of her life as well as designing book jackets, posters and illustrating the work of other authors. She died in 1978.

The stories of Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends have charmed and delighted generations of children. Milly-Molly-Mandy lives in ‘a nice white cottage with a thatched roof’ in a tiny village in the heart of the countryside where life is full of everyday adventures. Whether she is minding the village shop or going blackberry picking, you are sure to have fun when Milly-Molly-Mandy and her pals little-friend-Susan and Billy Blunt are around.

The nostalgic charm, gentleness and simplicity of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories have stood the test of time and a new generation cannot help but fall in love with the spirit of adventure and the warm evocation of family life that are so central to this ordinary little girl’s life.

Perfect for reading aloud, these thirteen stories will bring back happy memories for parents and grandparents, and introduce younger readers to a very ordinary but very special little girl!

(Macmillan Children’s Books, hardback, £9.99)

Age 6 plus:

Al’s Awesome Science: Blast-off! by Jane Clarke and James Brown

Science isn’t just fascinating… it’s positively awesome!

Join a pair of madcap, science-mad twins in this inventive and entertaining children’s fiction series which makes learning an adventure full of knockabout fun and comes from Five Quills, a small independent publisher with big ideas on books for younger readers.

Five Quills is on a mission to fill its books with lively illustrations and carefully written stories, making them perfect for reading aloud and sharing with both new and experienced readers.

Al’s Awesome Experiments is written by Jane Clarke, the talented author of over 80 books for young children who has mastered the science of fun-filled storytelling, while James Brown’s charismatic black and white illustrations add extra comedy and energy to this inspirational series.

Be prepared to laugh out loud but also share a few poignant moments as twins Al and Lottie continue their quest to make a time travel machine so they can go back in time to meet their Great Grandpa Boffin, and their father who died a few years ago, leaving their mum sad.

The energetic twins are always one step away from trouble… eight-year-old Al is fascinated by science. He spends his time experimenting to test his theories and create his favourite inventions while his twin sister Lottie is crazy about biology, geology and the natural world. Their antics often have unexpected – and very messy – consequences!

And in this third all-action story, it’s the twins’ birthday and Al and his friends are experimenting to find out how to blast off that elusive time machine into outer space. The trouble is that his experiments with balloons, marshmallow catapults and bottle rockets are very messy! And when some extra baking powder accidentally spills on to the cake, it has some unexpected gassy consequences… and trouble is brewing with Al’s nosy neighbours.

Al is an inspirational young scientist who never gives up and curious kids will love trying out their own experiments at the back of the book.

Al’s Awesome Science is ideal for children who are becoming confident readers and ready to move on to chapter books. With step-by-step experiments to try at home, all taken from Al’s own notebook, this is an entertaining and accessible introduction to scientific principles.

The science of having fun!

(Five Quills, paperback, £6.99)

Age 5 plus:

Inside The Villains by Clotilde Perrin

If you looked inside some of the fairy tale world’s most notorious villains what would you see there?

French illustrator Clotilde Perrin lets her imagination run wild in this extraordinary, super-sized pop-up book which reveals the secrets of three legendary baddies… the giant, the wolf and the witch, dangerous characters who are the anti-heroes of so many fairy tales.

Through a series of interactive flaps, children can see right inside them, discover the diabolical thoughts inside their heads, what hides behind their ears, under their clothes, in their pockets, and even the victims of their last meals (now comfortably settled inside their stomachs!).

Inside The Villains sold 10,000 copies in three months on its release in France and Italy and is now available in English for the first time. The book comes from Gecko Press, a lively independent publisher of ‘curiously good’ children’s books based in Wellington, New Zealand, which prides itself on championing eclectic stories, rich in language and illustration and with a strong ‘heart factor.’

And this entertaining book is certainly full of exciting innovation with its ingenious fold-out pages revealing all the personal secrets of each villain, and amusing personality cards which show their strengths and weaknesses, favourite pastimes, physical characteristics, their best meal and, of course, their favourite books.

Open up the giant’s jacket to find a pocketful of knives and a sack full of his treasure, open up the wolf’s tummy to find poor grandma and find the kitten hidden in the witch’s little handbag. And if the wolf bites your fingers while you are reading, you can always pull his tail!

Tug on the strings and levers, lift the flaps, and take a close look at some of the removable items hidden inside the characters’ clothing as you get to know the villains better than you had ever imagined possible.

Funny, inventive and truly original, this is a thrilling journey of discovery for readers of all ages…

(Gecko Press, hardback, £16.99)

Age 5 plus:

There’s a Yeti in the Playground! by Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart’s vivid imagination moves into its extraordinary overdrive for a madcap, snow-filled adventure inspired by last winter’s super-icy Beast from the East cold spell.

There are giggles galore and lashings of laughs in this winter escapade, the latest in the much-loved Baby Aliens books which are the perfect choice for youngsters becoming confident readers, and a guaranteed winner for reading aloud to groups or school classes.

Teacher-cum-author Butchart and illustrator Thomas Flintham’s fun-filled Baby Aliens series blends anarchy and adventure with important life messages. Using her ‘insider’ knowledge of schools, she delivers all-action, knockabout, child-friendly stories which can’t fail to tickle the funny bones of young readers.

So get ready to laugh your socks off as Izzy and friends get very excited when the snow starts falling fast as it could mean that they will all be sent home early to play. But the snow doesn’t stop and the school stays open… with them inside!

Now the school dinner van is stuck in the snow and they are convinced they will either starve or be poisoned by out-of-date beans. Things get worse when they discover the scary office ladies have gone home and there are weird noises in the playground.

What’s that big footprint in the snow... oh no, now they know for sure. There’s a giant yeti in the playground… it’s hungry and it’s out to get them.

Blue Peter Award winners Butchart and Flintham can’t put a (snowy!) footprint wrong in this brilliantly entertaining series. Expect comedy capers full of mischief and mayhem, and a dizzying, dazzling gallery of Flintham’s high-energy black-and-white illustrations, as Izzy’s intrepid gang get to grips with some truly abominable antics.

Seriously – and scarily – funny!

(Nosy Crow, paperback, £6.99)

Age 2 plus:

I Am Bat by Morag Hood

Cherry picking your picture books this autumn could bear fruit with this perfectly batty tale from the super talented Morag Hood.

It seems everyone is a suspect (even the reader!) in this clever, comical adventure which stars a quirky, adorably petulant and over-protective bat trying to hunt down a thief.

I am Bat, I like cherries, I do not like mornings. Do not steal my cherries. Bat’s cherries keep going missing. One by one, the precious red cherries are whisked away by mischievous animal tricksters behind Bat’s back. Bat tries to catch the culprit and rescue those poor cherries, but her attempts are fruitless. Will the cherries ever be restored to their rightful owner?

This bold, colourful and very funny book, stunningly printed with eye-poppingly bright pantone inks is destined to be an instant winner with children and adults alike. Grown-ups and children will love the surreal depictions of everyday settings and situations, often with hilarious results.

Quirky, colourful and joyously entertaining, all the family will be smiling when they share story time with Bat!

(Two Hoots, paperback, £6.99)