#MG Review: The Billow Maiden by James Dixon

Postcard shows cover artwork by Tamsin Rosewell, due to be published in July 2022 by Guppy Books

 The Billow Maiden is the debut MG novel from James Dixon, due to be published by Guppy books in July 2022. It is a beautifully and sensitively crafted tale, exploring the plight of a tween whose mother suffers serious ill-health, related against a backdrop of Norse legend and sea-faring island life. The story takes place on a remote Scottish island which is not named in the book, however, the sense of place is rendered so perfectly by the author that I found the images redolent of my own visits to Orkney. 

At the centre of the story is Ailsa, who we discover has grown up with a mother who suffers from a recurring illness. Her support network are her Uncle Nod, his wife Bertha and their dog Moxie. In the opening chapter, Uncle Nod responds to Ailsa’s anguished telephone call by driving to collect the pair from their city home and taking them to stay at the cottage he shares with Aunt Bertha on a windswept Scottish island. The reader is uncertain for most of the book about the nature of the mother’s illness, but the unquestioning support, love and care that both Ailsa and her mother receive is movingly portrayed. Uncle Nod and Aunt Bertha are people of few words, but they never stop trying to help Nod’s sister recover her spirits, whilst simultaneously trying to shield Ailsa from their fears for her mother’s health. They never once complain about the extra burden placed on them but demonstrate tender, open-hearted, family love.

Wishing to escape her feelings of helplessness about her mother’s condition, Ailsa spends much of her time tramping across the island, exploring the cliffs and beaches, always accompanied by her faithful companion Moxie. It is Moxie who leads her into a hidden cave pulsating with sadness, cut into the cliff face in which she discovers the billow maiden of the title. The descriptions of her early encounters with Hefring will send a ripple of fear down your spine and there is great poignancy in her yearning to help this forgotten individual. Along with a new found friend, Camilla, who happens to be the daughter of the island’s most feared and unpopular inhabitant, Ailsa embarks on a quest to save one broken individual and in doing so, gains an understanding of the plight of her mother.

The story transmits a powerful sense of the hopelessness and despair that some people experience, alongside a reverence for the life force of the natural world and the healing power and sense of purpose that can be found in nature. The juxtaposition of mental well-being set against Norse legend makes for a moving narrative which engenders a real feeling of empathy for people who lose agency over their actions. An extraordinary story about caring, family bonds and healing, which I would highly recommend to Year 6 and Key Stage 3 readers, classrooms and school libraries. 

I am most grateful to Guppy Books and Liz Scott for supplying me with a proof copy in return for my honest opinion.

#MGReview: The Lost Girl King by Catherine Doyle

To be published in September 2022 by Bloomsbury

If you like your stories steeped in mythology, infused with a unique sense of place and written in the language which transports you to another realm, then add The Lost Girl King to your summer shopping list! The latest standalone MG novel from Catherine Doyle is due for publication in July 2022 and if you want a summer holiday to remember, then join Amy and Liam for the trip of a lifetime.

Catherine Doyle’s love for the Atlantic Coast of Ireland is apparent from the opening page, as sassy Amy and her older, bookish brother Liam arrive at Gran’s yellow house, situated where Connemara runs into the Atlantic. With very little preamble, the reader is plunged into adventure from the moment that the two children follow a unique white hawk through a backwards flowing waterfall. As in her previous four MG stories, the author writes with a delicate lyricism that lifts the reader and places them in a familiar setting infused with fantasy, so vividly imagined that you can feel the wind on your face, the icy water stinging your skin and sense the gaze of spying eyes as the protagonists enter a new realm. They have passed through the veil between worlds and have stepped into to the legendary “land of the young”,  Tir na nÓg!

They enter a glen where the height of the trees outstrips anything they have experienced before. But when adventurous Amy climbs high enough to break through the canopy, she sees a terrifying sight; the sun is tethered to the landscape by a creaking, straining chain. As she begins her descent, the forest glade fills with hideous-smelling, headless horsemen who make off with Liam before she can get to the ground to defend him. Amy begins to realise the rotting, desolate state that has befallen Tir na nÓg, and as she embarks on her quest to rescue her brother, in the company of the Fianna warriors, she slowly discovers the story of Tarlock, the evil mage who has cursed the kingdom.

The tale unfolds with Irish mythology running through the adventure, revealing a strata of ancient gods, legendary weapons, mythical creatures, rivalries and magical powers turned to the preservation of an evil power. From the moment of Liam’s capture the story takes on the dual perspectives of the siblings, each showing their own brand of courage. Amy is a feisty, impetuous heroine, completely unafraid to speak up for herself and follow her heart as she strives to rescue her brother. She quickly forms strong alliances with other young characters, Jonah and Torrin, and gains the respect of battle-scarred older characters with her straight talking, common sense and powers of persuasion. Liam exhibits a steely resolve, despite being terrified and displays kindness and chivalrous bravery on encountering the lost girl king. They both embody the words of Niall, one of the Fianna warriors who says:

Courage is rooted in the soul, no matter what you look like on the outside. 

p189

This story is written with such verve and feeling that I was compelled to read it in an afternoon. First and foremost it is a perfectly crafted quest, with characters that demand your attention and admiration and a plot that keeps you enthralled throughout. The juxtaposition of myth and modern tweens in a battle for supremacy over a mystical land, lends an air of modern fable to this story of children’s wisdom and courage rescuing a world from exploitation and decay. We can only hope that there are sufficient young people with the same clear-eyed sense of the beauty of our world to stand up and make the adults see sense. As Torrin tells her father,

We can’t change the past Dad, but we can change the future.

p231

I think that Catherine Doyle is one of the finest writers of the current generation and I absolutely recommend The Lost Girl King to anyone of 10+ when it is published in September 2022.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for allowing me access to an e-ARC in advance of publication.

If you haven’t already done so, do get hold of Catherine Doyle’s Storm Keeper trilogy whilst you await publication of this book. You can read my reviews of the latter two here: The Storm Keeper’s Island, The Lost Tide Warriors and The Storm Keepers’ Battle.

#MG Review: The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson

Cover art by Paul Kellam, published by Puffin Books, May 2022

A thrilling contemporary mystery wrapped around a real-life legal injustice, The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson is a fantastic new MG novel, as powerful as it is gripping.

We are introduced to the three main protagonists as they decide to form a club based on the principles of doing good deeds to earn badges, having been inspired by the example of Josephine Holloway. This club is known as The Copseys, because Josephine, Wesley and Margot all live in Copsey Close, a cul-de-sac close to an abandoned car factory, known locally as the Chicane and its adjoining wasteland, the Outback. Author, Sharna Jackson, is a brilliant creator of characters, building a picture of three authentic Year 6 children as she captures their personalities through pinpoint facsimile of suburban tween dialogue. Josephine is the ideas person, and from the first page we know that she is a girl who wants to get things done:

Do you know what I dislike most in the world? The wasting of time. Mine specifically.

Chapter 1

Margot has recently moved to Copsey Close following her parents’ divorce and Wesley has been Josephine’s neighbour and friend for as long as they can remember. At first there is a palpable tension between affluent Margot, who is constantly capturing conversations and scenarios in her notebook, ready for use when she becomes a writer, and Wesley who bears the weight of being the male support to his mother and three younger siblings. Wesley thinks that Margot is a spy and that she looks down on him, saying to Josephine:

She’s a snob and she thinks I’m budget.

However, as the plot unfolds, each child faces up to their own fears and insecurities, forging stronger bonds with each other and significant adults as they learn that doing the right thing means so much more than earning another badge. And what a plot! The reader is driven through the story by whip-smart dialogue, snappy sentences and short chapters, each named after a Copsey badge.

When Josephine observes lights on the top floor of the derelict factory late one night, she is determined that The Copseys should earn their investigating and camping badges by spending the night in the Outback and tracking down the source of the lights. She will have to lie to her loving parents, a task which does not come naturally despite her resentment about the imminent arrival of a young sibling. Margot has no difficulties in sneaking out at night as her lawyer father appears to be too committed to his high flying career to spend much time at home with her. Wesley is reluctant on two fronts, he suspects that the factory might be haunted and he is embarrassed about his lack of upmarket camping equipment. After being persuaded to join the expedition, he discovers more than he bargained for and connects with his inner confidence, as the owners of the lights are revealed.

I really don’t want to reveal any more plot details as this is such a unique story that I do not wish to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of it. I genuinely could not have predicted the direction in which the plot was going to turn, and the incorporation of a serious social and racial injustice into the story arc is handled expertly and organically without ever becoming didactic. I utterly applaud Sharna Jackson for engaging readers, young and old, with a compelling and captivating narrative which delivers such a powerful message, prompting us all to look beyond our privilege and ally ourselves with those who need a voice. At the end of the book there is a short summary of the real-life background to the story, which will no doubt prove helpful to classroom discussions of the novel.

I have no hesitation in recommending The Good Turn to readers of 11+ and I think it will be an essential addition to primary and secondary school libraries.

I am most grateful to Puffin Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an e-ARC of The Good Turn in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Escape Room by Christopher Edge, illustrated by David Dean

Cover illustration by David Dean, published by Nosy Crow 2022

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Christopher Edge

Illustrator: David Dean

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

We need you to find the answer.

page 11

This book in three words: intelligent ~ optimistic ~ innovative

I have had Escape Room on my reading radar since reading glowing early reviews and finally picked it up at the weekend to be ready for a #PrimarySchoolBookclubDiscussion at the end of March. After waiting weeks to make a start I demolished it in one sitting!

Many books are labelled “unputdownable” but this one held me rapt from beginning to end. It is narrated through the voice of eleven-year-old Ami, who has been awarded a trip to the ultimate escape room game by her father, and her breathless recount of the game takes the reader on a non-stop, heart-racing adventure. On arriving at the futuristic glass building which houses The Escape, Ami encounters four other children who will be her team mates for the game: Adjoa, Oscar, Ibrahim and Min. As the game progresses through increasingly complex and life-threatening levels of difficulty each individual’s unique talents come to the fore, although throughout the plot it seems that Ami possesses the super-intelligence to solve most problems. Will the combined talents of the team be sufficient for them to find The Answer?

I am not going to reveal any more details of the plot for fear of ruining the enjoyment of anyone who hasn’t read Escape Room yet. It is not just a thrill-ride of a read; author Christopher Edge has explored questions of our very existence on planet Earth in the most innovative way, highlighting the environmental questions that preoccupy many young readers through the metaphor of a game which requires intelligence, bravery and teamwork in a fight for survival. There is an excellent plot twist at the end and a hopeful and moving conclusion. At just under two hundred pages of relentless action, Escape Room is a book which will enthral anyone of 10+. Highly recommended!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Anna Fargher

Illustrator: Sam Usher

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019

Favourite sentence: 

Without mistakes, your life will never know adventure

As I was listening to the audiobook, I’m afraid that I do not know the page number, but this quote leap out at me as I listened.

This book in three words: Bravery – Loyalty – Resistance

I like to use the #MGTakesOnThursday meme to review books which are not newly published, but, for various reasons, I missed reviewing when they were new to the shelves. This week I am opting to review a book that has been on my radar to read since seeing it highly praised by many bloggers I admire, including Mary who created the #MGTakesOnThursday meme. I’ve had a mini reading slump due to the workload of the day job and working on my professional chartership, so took the opportunity to listen to the audiobook of The Umbrella Mouse when I spotted it on the marvellous BorrowBox app from my local library. The plight of Pip Hanway, the eponymous heroine, completely resonated with the current dreadful situation unfolding in Ukraine and I am sure that many school librarians and teachers of children aged 10 – 13 will be using this story to help young people understand and empathise with those who have lost homes and family due to war.

Pip’s life of comfort, living inside a historic umbrella in the Bloomsbury-based store of James Smith & Sons is shattered by a doodle-bug bomb, which leaves her homeless and orphaned. The only thing she has left to cling onto is the Hanway Umbrella, the first umbrella to have been used in England, and she decides that she must return this artefact to the Umbrella Museum in Gignese, Italy. Quite a task for a small mouse kitten in wartime! She persuades Dickin, a search and rescue dog to help her in this quest. After some hair-raising narrow escapes in the underground pipelines of London, Dickin introduces her to representatives of Churchill’s Secret Animal Army and she overhears a plan to send a coded message to animals working for the resistance effort in France. The impetuous mouse finds a way of using this plan to make her way across the English channel, during which time she puts her own life and that of a German rat, Hans, in peril.

Although Pip is the main character in the story, I have to admit that my favourite was Hans. I loved his story arc as a German rat who had at first been enticed by the Goliath rats working for the Nazis, and who had subsequently turned his back on them after seeing their wicked deeds and escaped to join the resistance in France. This portrayal of redemption and his noble bravery throughout the story are likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads this book. I was also impressed at the change in Pip’s character; at the outset her goals are to protect her history and heritage by returning the Hanway umbrella to its rightful place in the Umbrella Museum and to seek the last surviving members of her family in Gignese. However, her adventures, camaraderie and narrow escapes with the heroes of the resistance have an impact on her outlook and we see her mature and encompass their attitudes and values as the story progresses.

The author Anna Fargher has very cleverly anthropomorphised the story of the resistance fighters in WWII so that brutal facts of war can be presented at the right level for a middle grade readership. The admirable qualities of duty, loyalty and courage in the face of extreme adversity as well as betrayal from a saboteur, are brilliantly portrayed in her animal characters; the plot unfolds at a rapid pace; and the tension builds so impressively that I was tempted to speed up the playback on the audiobook! I must mention one final touch that made me fall in love with this book: very early in the story a teenage girl comes into the umbrella shop to buy a birthday present for her father and I was delighted that my assumption that she was based on Judith Kerr was confirmed in the author’s notes at the end of the story. I thought that this was an utterly lovely touch in a hugely impressive WWII story. I highly recommend The Umbrella Mouse for all readers of 10+.

At the current time, when we are again witnessing the dreadful plight of refugees fleeing across Europe, I will once again recommend When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to everyone of 10+.

Science Week Review: Beetles for Breakfast by Madeleine Finlay and Jisu Choi

Cover art by Jisu Choi, published by Flying Eye Books 2021

To mark this year’s #ScienceWeek I thought I would write a long-overdue review of this feast for the brain: Beetles for Breakfast, written by Madeleine Finlay, illustrated by Jisu Choi and published at the end of 2021 by Flying Eye Books. This exploration of the application of biological technology to our planet’s future was first brought to my attention in a review written by Anne Thompson, published on her blog A Library Lady which prompted me to order a copy.

This fabulous book is packed with facts and possibilities, encouraging young readers to consider everyday situations and the application of biological sciences to make life on earth sustainable in the future. The science is so compelling that although the book has been written at a level accessible to primary school children, it has engaged a teen studying biology at A level and this health librarian who studied biological sciences many years previously! The short panels of text explain the scientific principles in clear, straightforward language and specific scientific vocabulary is presented in bold font and defined in a glossary. Thus children gain valuable knowledge without being bamboozled by jargon.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book, each chapter takes on a familiar location, for example: At School, At the Beach, On the Farm and has an explainer spread, followed by spreads which delve into the future technologies which could be applied to each topic in increasing depth. The ecological problems that we currently face are explained with great clarity, and creative solutions that have been investigated or postulated by scientists are explored. Every page is fully illustrated in the quirky, retro style of Jisu Choi and there are so many details on every spread that children are likely to return to this book very often to spot new details in every chapter. I would like to congratulate the designer because the text is absolutely readable on every panel of every page, which I have not always found to be the case in highly-coloured non-fiction books.

The opening chapter which discusses the “beetles for breakfast” concept is absolutely fascinating in its examination of future sustainable food sources. I can imagine this topic along with many others (including the many prospective uses of poo) proving to be utterly compelling for curious young minds. Hopefully some young readers will contribute their energies and skills to making the ideas in the “future thinking” chapter at the end of the book become a reality.

Beetles for Breakfast definitely needs to be in every primary school library and Key Stage 2 classroom and not just for Science Week!

MG Fiction Review: Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll

When you pick up an Emma Carroll novel, you know what to expect. Feisty heroines, unlikely friendships and breath-taking adventure, set in a perfectly rendered historical timescape and written at precisely the right level to engage, educate and entertain middle grade readers. I am happy to report that Escape to the River Sea, her latest novel due in June 2022, will not disappoint her legions of loyal fans. In fact, it is likely to have even more upper Key Stage 2 children flocking to it like tropical moths to torchlight. This quest which takes its main protagonist from a bleak, run-down manor in the West Country to the exotic dangers and delights of the Amazon rainforest will appeal to all children of 9+. Having followed Emma’s career since meeting her nearly 10 years ago on her debut book tour, I am delighted that she has shown the confidence to write this book in her own unique style, rather than trying to produce a pastiche of Journey to the River Sea, the book which inspired it. For fans of that classic work, you will find links to the original characters, location and birthplace of the author, but Escape to the River Sea can be read and enjoyed on its own merit, as a standalone novel. 

This story centres around Rosa Sweetman, a child who has been serially displaced in her first twelve years. As a kindertransport child she arrived in England, from Vienna, only to find that her sponsor was too ill to collect her and was subsequently rescued by an elderly gentleman from a London station. She has spent the war years at the dilapidated West Country mansion house owned by Sir Clovis and Lady Prue, surrounded by the girls from an evacuated London school and the animals from the local zoo. The return to peacetime has rendered Rosa’s life lonely and empty, leaving her yearning for news of her mother and older sister who were supposed to follow her from Vienna. The school girls have returned to their city homes and on the day that the zoo owners arrive to reclaim their animals and the black Jaguar, Opal, escapes to the nearby moors, Rosa’s predicament seems more hopeless than ever. With the zoo owner demanding compensation from Sir Clovis, Rosa is torn between guilt at her carelessness and joy at seeing the majestic beast run free.

The arrival of a young female scientist, Dr Yara Fielding, is the catalyst which sparks a chance to escape her loneliness and open new horizons of discovery. After a shared exploration of Yara’s grandfather’s writings in the library and the discovery of his notebook detailing his expeditions to track down the mapinguary or giant sloth, Rosa accompanies Yara to her family home in Manaus to become reborn in the company of a found family who reside in a home named Renascida. 

As the adventure unfolds in the steamy jungle setting, Rosa learns that not all monsters are eight feet tall with fearsome claws and teeth, and begins to understand the fate that might have befallen her family. She faces her fears, forms relationships based on respect, shared responsibility and courage with twins Vita and  Enzo and their cousin Orinti, and realises the power of hope in propelling life forward. 

I am sure that Escape to the River Sea is going to be a huge hit in primary school classrooms and libraries. Children will be swept along by the thrill and spirit of adventure, the exotic location and the exploits of the child protagonists. Teachers are likely to find so many topic links from this narrative too, from the ecological themes of land exploitation in both the UK and the Amazon basin; the geography of South America; the study of rivers; the ethics of keeping animals in captivity; or the fate of child refugees whether during WWII or in the present time. A shoutout must also be made to the stunning cover artwork by Katie Hickey which in my opinion will make the hardback version of this book a hugely desirable addition to bookshelves everywhere. I have only read the electronic ARC, thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books, but I will certainly want to add the hardback to my own Emma Carroll collection when it becomes available in June 2022.

Review: Aftershocks by Anne Fine

I have read, or listened to my children reading, many of Anne Fine’s books over the past 20 years, so I was fully aware of her prowess as a creator of absorbing and thoughtful stories. I am certain that Aftershocks, due for publication on 10th February 2022, will only add to her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of fiction for young people. This story deals primarily with grief, and Anne Fine has crafted a story which is gripping, atmospheric, deeply moving and full of wisdom which, at the moment they need it, could be a comforting and enlightening read for anyone of 10 years and above. It is often through fiction that individuals recognise their own or others’ deepest emotions and the publication of Aftershocks could not be better timed, given the dreadful individual and collective loss of lives experienced in the past two years.

The story is set in the fictional Federation, a land quite recognisable in its similarities to our own, with familiar technology and societal structure and is told as a first person narrative by Louie, a boy in his early teens dealing with the loss of his older brother, Toby, and parental separation. When a mix-up in his parents’ diaries results in him accompanying his engineer father to inspect a water pumping station in the remote Endlands, his family’s microcosm of grief becomes absorbed into a far larger trauma. The pumping station lies inland of a high ridge which separates it from the coastal community of the Endlands, populated by a minority group who have been broken and conquered by The Federation years earlier. In the middle of their first night at the industrial building, Louie and the engineering team are lucky to escape with their lives as an earth-splitting earthquake completely destroys the complex. Far worse is to befall the Endlanders, as a tidal wave wreaks destruction on their community. This scenario is brilliantly envisioned from Louie’s mind’s eye as he and the engineers hear the roar of destruction taking place on the far side of the ridge, which protects them from the in-rushing currents.

Events are portrayed with such immediacy and lucidity by Louie’s narrative that the story is utterly gripping and pulls the reader through all of the emotions felt by the protagonist and the characters surrounding him. The aftermath of a community’s collective loss and grief opens up an analysis of his own and his parents’ different ways of dealing with Toby’s sudden death under the wheels of a tearaway teenage driver. Such is the quality of the narrative that we are able to see the protagonists experiencing different stages or manifestations of grief without ever losing the pace and flow of the absorbing story. Thus we feel the mother’s visceral anger, Louie’s aching loneliness and the father’s denial and immersion into work to distract him from his thoughts. So loss and its aftermath have caused a breakup in the family and this is then brilliantly interwoven into the macroscopic bereavement of an entire community.

In creating the Endlanders as an imagined group with a unique set of beliefs, the author is able to examine collective rituals and different understandings of ghosts and lost souls. Louie’s Dad has remained on the coast with engineers and volunteers to help rebuild the infrastructure and Louie rejoins him during his school holiday. There have been reports on the internet of ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the bereft survivors of the tsunami and it doesn’t take long before Louie encounters his first ghost, a young boy drenched in muddy water, leaving a trail of wet footprints before vanishing. The sense of a haunted landscape, crowded with lost souls is vividly rendered and there are scenes set at the pumping station ruins which sent shivers down my spine. As Louie begins to learn of the tradition of Malouy, the necessity of the bereaved to repeatedly tell the story of their lost loved ones to appease their unsettled spirits he finds the courage to talk to his father about the loss of Toby. There are some incredibly moving passages as the logical, scientific, engineer who has always had the ability to fix things, begins to understand that the more spiritual beliefs of others which he had previously dismissed as irrational, are in fact worthy of respect. Further, as Louie completes his understanding of the haunted community he is driven to an ultimate act of courage.

I am astounded by the power of this book. The imagery of loss as an earthquake, shattering all that had been complete and alive; the aftershocks of grief in all its forms; and the tsunami as a flood of emotions and tears which can be as devastating as the initial shock are all perfectly realised. Anne Fine’s writing style is very straightforward but packs a huge emotional punch, so perfectly does she express the inner lives of her characters and highlight the extreme difficulty experienced by some people of talking about bereavement. There is much wisdom packed into this dramatic work of fiction which could open up discussion, and I highly recommend it to all secondary school librarians and Year 6 classroom libraries as well as to anyone working their way through the loss of a loved one. I am certain that this will be a book that I recommend repeatedly in the years to come.

I am most grateful to the publishers Old Barn Books and to publicist Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of Aftershocks in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Villains in Venice by Katherine Woodfine

Image design by @marysimms72 and used with permission, cover image by Karl James Mountford

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Katherine Woodfine

Illustrator: Karl James Mountford

Publisher: Egmont (now Farshore)

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

I read this book on my Kindle, where page 11 is an illustration showing the front page of a fictional newspaper, The Daily Picture, with the headline: GREAT BRITAIN IN PERIL!

This book in three words: Elegant Pre-WWI Espionage

Over the Christmas break I tried to make a dent in the ridiculously large number of books which I have bought over the past 18 months and due to part-time studying or starting a new job, have just not had the time to read! One such is this third book in the Taylor and Rose Secret Agents series. Villains in Venice, a historical espionage story, is set in 1912, three months after the previous mission, Secrets in St Petersburg ended. It starts with a classic “dead letter drop” scene in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, setting up another perfectly plotted story in this excellent and elegant middle grade spy series.

Sophie Taylor and Lilian Rose are back in London and on the surface working at their ladies’ detective agency based in Sinclair’s Department Store on Piccadilly. However, their equilibrium has been thrown by the disappearance of Joe, of whom nothing has been seen but his bloodstained cap, found in an East End alley after he pursued a lead in their hunt for a mole inside the secret service! Lil, who was becoming romantically attached to Joe before his disappearance, is steadfast in her belief that he is alive and that their priority should be to find him. Sophie however, is convinced that the secret society known as the Fraternitas Draconum are behind many of the unsettling events taking place around Europe as well as Joe’s disappearance, and is determined to play her part for the Secret Service Bureau and disrupt their plans to spark a war. When the Bureau chief asks her to go on an undercover mission to Venice, loyalties are put to the test. She embarks on her mission without Lil, but accompanied by two art student friends to provide her cover, and the adventure commences.

This is a thoroughly satisfying mystery, combining classic spy tropes and wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the wintry, mysterious, disorienting atmosphere of Venice during Carnivale. The evocation of a city and its inhabitants all cloaked in secrets is perfectly rendered by Katherine Woodfine’s precise prose. She builds a level of tension that will send shivers down readers’ spines as reliably as a February plunge in the Grand Canal! I loved the way that she wove the historical emblems and traditions of Venice into the fictional lore of the evil Fraternitas Draconum and played out this latest cat-and-mouse episode in the otherworldly locations on the Venetian lagoon. Once again her key characters display bravery, companionship and a sense of duty and even when their friendships become strained the reader can empathise with all viewpoints.

A pacy spy mystery, peopled with interesting characters, Villains in Venice will delight confident readers of 10+ who are looking for intrigue, intelligence and immersive storytelling. The quality of the Taylor and Rose stories continues to be of the highest order and I am looking forward to travelling onto New York for the next instalment!

If you haven’t read the previous stories in this series, I suggest that you start with The Sinclair’s Mysteries, then move on to Peril in Paris and Spies in St Petersburg which precede this adventure.

MG Book Review: Sabotage on the Solar Express by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

Cover image by Elisa Paganelli, published by Macmillan Children’s Books 17th February 2022

If you are looking for  a middle-grade adventure to make your pulse race and time appear to stand still, then look no further than Sabotage on the Solar Express! The vivid writing style of dual authors M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman, combined with the almost graphic novel-like images by Elisa Paganelli, make this, the fifth Adventures on Trains Mystery, the most cinematic of the series so far. The clever choice of chapter titles only adds to the filmic credentials of this story.

For those who have not read any of the previous books, they centre around Harrison, known as Hal, a boy blessed with fantastic observational and drawing skills and his Uncle Nat, a famous travel writer, as they embark on a series of fabulous rail journeys. You could read this book independently of the others, however characters reappear from the second book Kidnap on the California Comet and I think you would find most enjoyment if you read the entire series in order.

This outing takes the uncle and nephew partnership “down under” to the deep Mars-red landscape of the Australian Outback. They have been invited by billionaire August Reza to join the inaugural journey of the Solar Express, the locomotive which has won Reza’s competition to design an environmentally friendly train for the future.

Hal and Uncle Nat are amazed to discover that the designer of the winning locomotive is actually a 14 year old boy, Boaz, who lives with his indigenous, First Nations family on a farmstead just outside Alice Springs. On visiting him in his workshop he explains the technology that he has designed, which uses solar energy to drive his regenerative hydrogen powered fuel cells and explains how his passion for environmentalism stems from his belief in the sanctity of the land. He is guided throughout the story by the Aboriginal belief that,

“We don’t own the land. The land owns us.“

Aboriginal belief

Boarding his futuristic locomotive for the journey from Alice Springs to Darwin are an entertaining cast of characters including Reza’s teenage daughter Marianne, a ruthless and ambitious politician, a shipping tycoon, a couple of competition winners, a retired locomotive driver, members of Boaz’s family, a PR executive and a film crew. Ominously, the chief engineer of the project is found to be missing shortly after the journey begins. This puts paid to Hal’s dream of an uneventful journey where he can for once just enjoy the unique landscape, sketching the harsh but beautiful desert and enjoying the experience of travelling in luxurious conditions. He soon realises that he should have taken the suspicions of Marianne seriously when she alerted him to the mysterious stranger posing as a hotel employee, who delivered a valuable model of Stephenson’s rocket to her father‘s hotel room the previous evening. From the moment that the eponymous sabotage of the computer controlled driving system is discovered,  the book hurtles the reader on a thrill ride during which the dramatic attention cranks up by the chapter, leaving you clinging to the sides of your chair whilst your eyes race over the pages faster than a runaway train.

This is an absolute corker of an adventure story and once you have regained your breath and calmed your heart rate it also provides interesting themes to ponder. Obviously the environmental theme is much to the fore and I thought that looking at it through the lens of First Nations people’s beliefs was a fascinating way of providing young readers with a way to explore the issues of industrialisation and exploitation of the world’s resources. Secondly, female empowerment is beautifully highlighted here, through the characters of Marianne and Michelle. At the start of the story we are reminded of Hal’s discomfort with Marianne who he finds overbearing and some would describe as bossy. However, as the sabotage threatens disaster to her father’s plans and the billionaire tech giant begins to fall apart, his teenage daughter displays the true leadership required to deal with a crisis. Similarly, Michelle’s desire to use her physics degree to join the engineering rather than the PR side of Reza Enterprises is only taken seriously once she proves her credentials in the absence of chief engineer Francisco Silva. There are positive messages for children about trusting in your own abilities and not being swayed by the opinions of others.

I highly recommend Sabotage on the Solar Express as an independent read for anyone of 9+, as a class reader or as a bedtime story; although teachers, librarians, parents and carers should be prepared for cries of “one more chapter”!

I am most grateful to Macmillan Children’s Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of this book prior to publication on 17 February 2022.