I took part in How To Train Your Gavin’s Believathon between the 11th and the 24th of May. If you haven’t heard of Believathon, you can learn more about this readathon here, but it’s basically a celebration of all things middle grade. Middle grade is a genre I’ve always meant to read more of, so I was beyond excited to have an excuse to prioritise it for a couple of weeks.
I’m going to take you on our Believathon journey and share my thoughts of each of the books we read. We completed all eleven prompts – just, we finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with about half an hour to go – so I’ll tell you which book we read to journey to each location and fulfill each of the prompts Gavin created.
Ready? It’s time to Journey to the Stronghold!
The Poacher’s Pocket Inn: A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison – 5 stars
Our Believathon journey started at The Poacher’s Pocket Inn, where we had to read the first book in a series to progress on to the next location. For this I chose the book which inspired the prompt, Michelle Harrison’s A Pinch of Magic.
A Pinch of Magic is the first book in a middle grade trilogy following the Widdershins sisters: Betty, Fliss and Charlie. Betty has always dreamed of leaving Crowstone, the island where they live, but when she and Charlie attempt to sneak off to the fair for some Halloween fun they discover some pretty shocking family secrets.
First they learn that their family have three magical heirlooms which have been passed down through the generations, which seems pretty sweet… Until they learn that there is also a family curse, and if they leave Crowstone they will be dead by the next sunset. Ouch.
Using their magical artefacts and a prisoner named Colton who claims he knows how the answers, the Widdershins sisters attempt to solve the mystery of the curse only to end up with a race against time on their hands. Can they end the family curse, or will they all be dead by sunset?
There are so many things I loved about this story. Each of the sisters has such a distinctive personality that it is impossible to get them mixed up, but they all bring something to the plot: there’s no way that this story would work if just one of the sisters was trying to end the curse.
I also thought Colton was a really fun character who added a great dynamic to the cast. If this was YA there probably would have ended up being a focus on romance, but instead we get to watch a friendship develop between him and each of the Widdershins sisters, who aren’t sure whether to trust him to start with (due to the fact of him being a prisoner and all).
I wasn’t expecting A Pinch of Magic to be so dark, but there are a fair amount of deaths discussed in this story – one of the perils of a family curse I suppose! That aspect made me love the story even more though, and I can totally understand why I’ve seen so many adult readers and reviewers absolutely raving about this series.
My actual rating for A Pinch of Magic is probably closer to a 4.5, but I couldn’t resist rounding up this magical story as I enjoyed it far more than I thought I was going to. The ending is really clever, and I didn’t see the solution coming at all. You do need to suspend your disbelief a little bit, though, so don’t try to look at it logically – it is a magical story, after all!
Yellow Brick Road: Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz – 4 stars
The next stop on our Believathon journey was the Yellow Brick Road, for which we had to read a book we’d been meaning to read years ago. Torn between Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and Stormbreaker we ended up going for the latter, as my mum has been bullying me to read these books for at least ten years.
Stormbreaker is the first book in the Alex Rider series. After Alex’s uncle dies and things don’t quite add up he decides to investigate his death and discovers he was actually an MI6 agent, and they hire Alex to finish the case his uncle started.
Again, this was more of a 3.5 star, as it is quite cheesy (all of the bad guys are foreigners; Alex has been studying kung fu for years and yet still has a training montage showing how useless he is) but it is utterly entertaining. I think this book took me maybe three hours to read from cover to cover, because it’s high octane from the very first page.
Stormbreaker is definitely not the best book I’ve ever read, but I can certainly see why these books are so popular, particularly amongst young boys. I’m already looking forward to seeing what Alex gets up to next!
Baba Yaga’s House: Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo – 4 stars
After travelling down the Yellow Brick Road it was time for a brief stay at Baba Yaga’s House, where we had to read a book featuring a family relationship.
Dreaming the Bear follows a girl called Darcy who gets seriously ill after he parents move to Yellowstone. She ends up befriending a bear who is also ill – suffering from an infected gunshot wound – and does everything she can to help her, bringing food to the cave which she is trapped in.
Despite the fact that this is under 200 pages it is an absolute tearjerker. Definitely make sure to keep tissues nearby, because you’ll almost certainly need them: books don’t make me cry very often, but I was welling up a couple of times while reading this one.
Dreaming the Bear is written in a very interesting style. The book jumps from Darcy’s perspective to the bear’s perspective which isn’t that unexpected, but Darcy also disassociates at points so not only does the viewpoint change but it also switches from first to third person quite freely which is an unorthodox choice. I did find it hard to get into the story at the beginning, but by the halfway point I was absolutely flying through: once you can get your head around the way that the style is jumping around it’s a very quick read.
The Wonderfalls: Wonder by R.J. Palacio – 5 stars
The next stop was The Wonderfalls, for which we had to read a book featuring a disability. We decided to pick up the book which inspired the prompt, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which also would have worked well for the Yellow Brick Road because I’ve been meaning to read this for donkey’s years.
Wonder tells the story of a boy called August, who is attending school for the first time in fifth grade. August has a facial abnormality so his parents have homeschooled him until now, but after visiting the school and seeing the potential Auggie decides to give it a go.
As I just said, I don’t often cry at books. That being said, I had to put Wonder down twice because I was crying too hard to continue. This is an absolutely heartbreaking book, but it’s also hopeful and inspiring. It destroys your faith in humanity but it goes a long way towards restoring it before the end of the book.
Wonder is brilliant because it is honest. As well as following Auggie himself we get the viewpoints of a couple of the other people in his life. The way that they think about August can be horrible, particularly in the case of Via, August’s sister. R.J. Palacio gives all of her characters depth and it makes the story feel very authentic: Via has sacrificed a lot because of Auggie and is slightly begrudging about that fact, while Will wants to be friends with August but knows it isn’t cool so says mean things about him to try to fit in with the popular crowd. Those scenarios are both painfully realistic, and nothing is sugarcoated in this story.
Although Wonder follows a 10-year-old boy, this is a story which will appeal to readers of all ages. I’m so glad that I decided to wait to read Wonder, because I don’t know if it would have had such an emotional impact on me if I’d read it before becoming a parent myself. I have gotten far soppier in the past two years!
This is a hard read, but I highly recommend it. The film adaptation came out in 2017 so if you’ve seen it please let me know if you’d recommend it: we don’t have much time to watch films, but this is one I’m really interested in seeing if it’s done well!
100 Acre Wood: Zom-B by Darren Shan – 3 stars
After the beauty of The Wonderfalls, it was time for a ramble through 100 Acre Wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see Winnie-the-Pooh, but we did spot a book with a yellow cover: Zom-B by Darren Shan!
Zom-B follows B, who we get to know through a bunch of high school drama before a zombie invasion breaks out and everything is flipped on its head.
Zom-B is more of a 2.5 star than a 3 star because I didn’t think it was bad, I just thought it was forgettable. This reads more like an extended prologue than the first book in a series. The zombies themselves only appear just after the halfway mark, and the cliffhanger ending means that the rest of the series is going to go in a completely different direction and this book isn’t necessary.
There’s a shocking reveal which I didn’t see coming which makes you look at the first half of the book in a completely different light which was fun and increased my enjoyment a lot, but a chapter later something happens – I’m not going to go into spoilers – but the way that it played out was very flimsy and unconvincing.
My main complaint about Zom-B is that the cast of characters is too large. This is obviously so that the zombies can kill people off left, right and centre when they (eventually) appear, but none of B’s friends are three-dimensional enough to make you care when they get slaughtered. In fact I was cheering the zombies on, because it meant I had less people to try to keep track of! It would have been far more effective if Darren Shan had written five fully crafted characters for the zombies to kill, rather than a group so numerous that I had forgotten about half of them before they’d even been killed off.
That being said, Darren Shan wrote B’s father really well. He’s a racist and seems to be part of a political group similar to Britain First, and even though he is absolutely deplorable he is the most realistic character we meet.
I will be picking up the next book in the series to see which direction Shan takes the rest of the series in, but this was nowhere near as good as I had expected. At least it was super short, and the version I read had illustrations throughout which made things a bit more interesting.
The Deepwoods: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 4 stars
Wandering from 100 Acre Wood into The Deepwoods, we found that we’d somehow stepped through a hole in time and found ourselves in the past. The only way to get back to our time was to read a book published before 2000, so we decided to begin our reread of the Harry Potter series.
If you’re new here, you won’t know this about me, but I’ve only ever read the first three books in the Harry Potter series. I keep trying finish them but it just doesn’t happen, so this is actually the fourth time I’ve read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I feel as though I took it in better this time, so I’ve actually dropped my rating from 5 stars down to 4 because I’ve finally been able to put my finger on why I am not a fan of the ending.
I’m assuming that you’ve all read Harry Potter so I’m going to get a bit spoilery here. If you haven’t, please continue on your Believathon journey and meet me at the Mermaid’s Lagoon!
At the end of the book, Harry Potter discovers that Professor Quirrell is working with Voldemort, harbouring his soul and helping him regain the powers he mysteriously lost when he came up against baby Harry. Harry blacks out, waking up in the infirmary a few days later and missing a chunk of the action, which Dumbledore kindly fills in for us.
Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of the ‘protagonist blacks out’ trope, but it has taken me this long to figure out why it doesn’t work in this situation. Earlier in the book, someone – cough QUIRRELL cough – enchants Harry Potter’s broomstick while he’s playing Quidditch, and he almost falls to his death. We leave our protagonist with his Bucking Bronco broom and pop down to the spectator’s stands, where his friends Ron and Hermione are trying to save him.
Now, my question is this: if J.K. Rowling isn’t opposed to moving between characters then why don’t we move to Dumbledore’s perspective when Harry blacks out? By having Harry black out the reader misses out on one of the most compelling parts of the story, and we get cheated out of a lot of tension and drama.
It’s a small complaint, but it feels like a very lazy way to finish off a book which – up until that point – can’t easily be improved.
I still enjoyed the rest of the story – Hogwarts is great, the world is well-crafted, the dry humour throughout had me giggling and I was genuinely surprised that I didn’t remember how funny parts of this book can be – but I didn’t feel the same love that I’ve felt for it in the past. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older or just because I’m a more critical reader, but it’s making me nervous about how I’m going to feel towards the rest of the series.
We also read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets during our Believathon journey, but you’ll just have to keep reading to see our thoughts on that…
Mermaid’s Lagoon: The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar – 4 stars
After making our way back to this timeline, we found ourselves in the Mermaid’s Lagoon, where we had to read a book featuring a female bond. What better way to celebrate women than by taking a trip on The Ship of Shadows, a pirate ship with a crew of only women and girls!
The Ship of Shadows tells the story of a girl called Aleja who finds herself inadvertently joining the crew of a notorious pirate ship. Despite always wanting to go on an adventure, Aleja feels guilty for leaving her family behind, but she has no choice but to help the gang on their mission to Morocco if she wants to get back home. Searching for fragments of a legendary map, Aleja and the crew must use all of their wits and wiles to figure out the clues left behind by the previous captain of the ship while escaping the clutches of a band of pirate hunters.
Aleja is constantly told that girls can’t go on adventures, so I loved the fact that she showed everyone by joining one of the most infamous pirate crews on the seven seas (even if it does happen accidentally!). This is the kind of book I would have absolutely loved reading when I was younger, and when my daughter is a bit older I’m definitely going to be recommending it to her. The lore behind the ship itself is very intriguing – people believe that the shadows are ghosts, but they’re actually the imprints of past members of the crew which are sticking around to help out – while the riddles and mysteries were very intelligently crafted.
I’m seriously hoping that this is going to be the first book in a series (the map is split into a few pieces, after all!) because I adored every member of this crew and would happily go on a few more adventures with them. My favourite member of the gang has to be Frances, who is totally cake-obsessed (I can relate). However, I think the best thing about The Ship of Shadows is that there’s really good representation throughout: multiple members of the crew have lost limbs, there’s a f/f relationship, and there are people from all different backgrounds, which is totally authentic considering a pirate ship would pick up crew members from all around the globe!
The Ship of Shadows isn’t out until July 9th, so I’m really grateful that I was able to read this early via NetGalley. Make sure you grab a copy yourself when it comes out: who can resist badass lady pirates?!
The Brolly Rail: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend – 5 stars
To travel between Mermaid’s Lagoon and Orion Found, it was time to hop on The Brolly Rail and read a book featuring transportation. As we borrowed Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow – the book which inspired this prompt – from the library a couple of days before lockdown, it was the perfect time to start this magical middle grade series.
Nevermoor has been described as for fans of Harry Potter, but I’d say it’s actually better.
Morrigan Crow is a cursed child. Bad things happen around her. Every month her father is forced to pay people back for the property damage and lost business Morrigan has caused, while Morrigan herself has to write letters apologising to everyone who feels as though they’ve been wronged by her. Her whole life, Morrigan has known that she will die on her 12th birthday… But when Eventide, the fateful night of her death, is brought forward a year, Morrigan’s life seems as though it will be cut even shorter.
Enter Jupiter North, who whisks her off to the world of Nevermoor to take part in the Wundrous Society trials. If Morrigan can pass the trials, she will become a member of society and be allowed to stay in Nevermoor forever. If she fails, she’ll have to return home to certain death at the hands of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow. High stakes, right?!
For a middle grade book this is rather chunky, coming it at almost 500 pages, so I thought it was going to take a few days for us to get through. I couldn’t have been more wrong: we read three quarters of the book in one sitting, because it’s absolutely impossible to put down.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I loved Nevermoor so much, but amongst other things this book contains: a handful of interesting trials, a Magnificat, found family, an umbrella transportation system, a Big Bad, the constant threat of deportation, friendship in unexpected places, and a chandelier which grows itself. Add that all together and combine it with one tenacious little girl who has a far tougher life than she has deserved, and you’ve got the makings of one of the best middle grade books I’ve ever read.
The world is so well-crafted, and I’m already eager to dive back in and read the sequel. With the third book being published in August, now is the perfect time to join Morrigan Crow on her adventures if you haven’t already.
Orion Found: The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge – 3 stars
Hopping off the Brolly Rail, we found ourselves in the out-of-this-world land of Orion Found. To get back to our Believathon journey we had to read a book related to space, and for this one we read The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, which was featured in Gavin’s Believathon recommendations video and just happened to be one we already owned.
Starting this review off with a disclaimer: I’m not sure I’m smart enough to really understand this book, so I’m not really surprised that I didn’t enjoy it all that much.
The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day tells two stories in one, which is impressive considering it’s just over 150 pages. When we first meet Maisie she wakes up on her birthday to an empty house. Heading downstairs and looking for her parents, she opens the front door to discover nothing. Through the window she can see the neighbour’s houses and the front lawn, but when the door is open there is nothing but blackness. Blackness which begins rapidly devouring Maisie’s house.
Then Maisie wakes up. She goes downstairs and begins celebrating her birthday with her family. You think it was all a dream, until the next chapter throws us back with Maisie, who is in turmoil and desperately trying to work out what is happening.
There is a huge twist in this book and I don’t want to ruin it, so I’m not going to get too specific in this review, but I can tell you that this story might have been the longest 150 pages I’ve ever read. I thought we were going to be able to fly through it in less than an hour, but basically every time we switched between the Maisies I found myself feeling distracted and restless, and I couldn’t stop putting it down and doing other things. This might be because I don’t have a very scientific brain and psychics is one of the most exhausting subjects – not only am I not very scientific, but my spatial awareness is little-to-none – so if I’d known how much of this book would focus on Maisie’s love of the sciences I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
It’s very intelligent, and if I’d read it when I was younger I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but it just went completely over my head.
That being said, I loved seeing a female middle grade character who was so interested in science! Perhaps if I had read this at a younger age it might have sparked more interest for the subject, and it’s definitely good to encourage young girls to develop a passion for STEM.
I did think the ending let the book down a little bit – it dampened what was a powerfully impactful story – but I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.
Black Ice Bridge: Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell – 5 stars
Coming back down to Make-Believathon, we found ourselves rapidly approaching the Black Ice Bridge. We could see the Book-Keeper’s Stronghold in the distance and we knew that the end was in sight, but the Black Ice Bridge was quite rickety and unstable. To give ourselves the courage to cross it we had to read a book featuring an adventure or an expedition, and for that we chose Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell.
Wonderscape was on my radar after Gavin gave it a gushing five star review a couple of months ago, so I was beyond grateful to be accepted to read and review Wonderscape via NetGalley.
This is a book which starts off with a literal bang. Arthur is on his way to school when his neighbour’s garden gnomes start exploding. He and fellow students Ren and Cecily call the police, but while waiting for them to arrive they hear a dog in distress barking in the house. Knowing that the house has been abandoned for a few years, the trio go in to save the dog, and moments later find themselves upon a research vessel with none other than Sir Isaac Newton!
It turns out that Arthur, Ren and Cecily have been transported to the 25th Century, right into a game called Wonderscape. This in-reality adventure game uses the latest in technology to allow its users to travel to different realms, completing tasks and challenges to win the honour of meeting famous figures from throughout history.
Isaac Newton has some bad news for them, though. Due to timey-wimey constraints, if they don’t make it back home within 48 hours there’s a good chance that the universe will erase their existence. Desperate to avoid becoming puddles of goo, the three classmates race against time to work out how to escape the Wonderscape before time runs out.
The best word to describe Wonderscape is propulsive. This story is non-stop action and the tension doesn’t let up for a second. Jennifer Bell cleverly never lets the reader forget about the time bomb ticking in the background, with Arthur regularly updating us on how much time is left causing your heart to beat just that little bit faster with each chapter that passes.
I thought the concept of the Wonderscape was so clever, and if it was a game which actually existed I’d be addicted to it! At points I was getting some Ready Player One vibes – it has certainly put me in the mood to re-read that story – so if you’re a fan of Ernest Cline’s debut but would like to try branching out into reading middle grade then this is a great place to start. (Or vice versa! If you read Wonderscape but are looking for something a bit more grown up, Ready Player One is awesome).
Parts of Wonderscape also gave me Marvel movie vibes. You think you know what the story is, but then another plot is revealed and the stakes get even higher. We read the second half of Wonderscape in one sitting for that exact reason: when you realise there’s more to the story than just getting the three main characters home safely, you need to know how it’s going to end.
My favourite thing about Wonderscape was probably Cloud the dog, who isn’t just a dog… But I’ll let you find out what’s special about Cloud when you pick up this book!
Wonderscape is published on June 4th, so you only have a few days before you’ll be able to read this story yourself.
The Book-Keeper’s Stronghold: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 3 stars
We made it to the end of our Believathon journey, but there was a huge snake blocking the entrance to the Book-Keeper’s Stronghold! To vanquish it we had to read it a sequel, so we decided upon Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as I mentioned earlier.
Giving this book just three stars is probably the most unpopular rating I’ll ever post on this blog. It’s pretty sacrilegious to rate any of the Harry Potter books less than 5 stars, so claiming that one is middle-of-the-road is not going to go down well…
Again, assuming that you’ve read Harry Potter – because who hasn’t?! – I’m going to get a bit spoilery and not bother describing the plot. If you’re in the minority of people who haven’t picked this one up yet, please keep scrolling!
There were things I enjoyed about this book – the flying car, Aragog, and the delightfully loopy Gilderoy Lockhart – but it was all kind of overshadowed by J.K. Rowling’s recent behaviour (this article discusses something which happened AFTER I finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but Rowling’s repeated transphobic behaviour isn’t something which seems as though it’ll be going away any time soon).
When you’ve got male characters being treated with disdain and talked about derogatorily for going into the girls bathroom it could just be brushed off as boys being boys – wah wah, girls have cooties don’t get anywhere near them! – but knowing about Rowling’s feelings towards trans people gives it really uncomfortable connotations. It doesn’t just happen once, either, it’s a conversation which pops up multiple times throughout the book and every time I physically winced.
This would have been a four star book, matching its predecessor, but I just can’t condone that kind of attitude. However, I also can’t rate this any lower, because it is a popular classic children’s book for a reason: the character development is authentic, the mystery is intriguing and there are even some subtle NSFW jokes to entertain the adults and go right over the children’s heads, as the best children’s cartoons always manage to achieve. It’s conflicting and frustrating, and one of the reasons I think the saying should be changed from ‘don’t meet your heroes’ to ‘don’t let your heroes have social media accounts’.
I’m still going to carry on reading the Harry Potter series, but I’m definitely feeling more and more apprehensive. It’s extremely hard to separate an author’s beliefs and actions from their work – if you can manage it, power to you, but it’s something I struggle with – and I can’t help but critically view their releases in relation to that.
We did vlog our Believathon journey, too, so if you’re interested in watching those they are over on my BookTube channel.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Gavin for creating Believathon and being such a champion of middle grade books. He’s certainly helped reignite the spark of my love for middle grade, and I’m looking forward to continuing on with some of these series over the next few months (and taking part in Believathon III: The Mystery of the Missing Maleficarum, in November!).
My hands are about to fall off from all of this reviewing, so I’m off or a nap. See you tomorrow for my stop on the blog tour for Again Again by E. Lockhart!