#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.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books UK

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: Thomas Taylor

Illustrator: Cover – George Ermos, internal – Thomas Taylor

Publisher: Walker Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Do you remember your first Ghastly Night?

p11

This book in three words: Thrilling Shadowy Mystery

This is the third adventure in the Eerie-on-Sea mysteries, and like the two previous books it will take your breathe away as you race through the pages. Thomas Taylor’s storytelling definitely has that sprinkling of magic that compels the reader to “drop everything and read” … and not let go of the book until it is finished. I love the fact that each new book in this series adds another layer to the hinterland of folklore associated with the tourist-free, winter months of the storm-lashed holiday resort.

It is All Hallows’ Eve, which in Eerie-on-Sea, the sinister seaside town steeped in mysterious secrets, is known as Ghastly Night. Long term residents Dr Thalassi and Mrs Fossil usually perform an idiosyncratic re-enactment of the legend of Mayor Bigley, The Puppet Master and the Shadowghast, but this year a troupe of professional magicians have rolled into town to perform the story in the town’s crumbling theatre which clings to the end of the pier. Unsettlingly, the glamorous magician Caliastra claims to have knowledge of Herbert Lemon’s background and might be offering him the chance of a new life outside the Lost-and-Foundery of The Grand Nautilus Hotel.

With best friend Violet Parma casting doubts on the veracity of Caliastra’s claims; the mysterious disappearance of Jenny Hanniver, Vi’s guardian and the owner of The Book Dispensary; and glimpses of the Shadowghast in the misty alleyways, this story plunges readers into The Netherways beneath the town in search of answers. Herbie and Vi agree that:

A problem shared isn’t a problem at all. It’s an adventure.

p46

Join the two young protagonists, along with talking cat Erwin and clockwork companion Clermit on this thrilling adventure to reveal the truth amongst the shadows and uncover the real Puppet Master. This is genuinely one of those books that will appeal to all readers of 8/9+ to either read independently, or enjoy as a class or bedtime story, for the pure thrill of a supremely entertaining mystery story.

You can read my reviews of the first two books in the series, Malamander and Gargantis. Whilst it is not necessary to read all three books in order, I would suggest that it will increase your enjoyment of the series to do so. The fourth book, Festergrim, is due for publication in September 2022 and a short extract is available at the end of Shadowghast.

MG Fiction Review: The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M. Howell

Cover image by Rachel Corcoran, to be published by Usborne 31st March 2022

A story that starts with a scene at The British Museum, one of my favourite places to visit, was always likely to be a hit with me, and this is a beautifully written middle grade adventure from one of the best current authors of children’s historical fiction. Set in 1948, it provides children with an insight into the post-war period of hardship and rationing, within the context of a gripping page-turner.

When Ruth Goodspeed and her mother, Harriett, embark on an archaeological investigation at a remote farm set in the bleak landscape of The Fens, little do they realise that they will not just be scraping away layers of earth covering ancient artefacts; family and personal secrets and mysteries will also be laid bare. Mirroring the meticulously patient art of the archaeologists, the author slowly brushes away at the surface of her characters, gradually revealing the emotions, anxieties and pain buried deep within. The characters that emerge are so believable, with flaws and mis-steps combined with good intentions that you just can’t help rooting for them. 

A.M. Howell’s writing style is wonderful in its ability to lure you in and propel you through the story. You rapidly lose yourself in the mystery, making it very difficult to put the book down or cease to think about the characters and their plight even when you have to break away and return to everyday reality! She conjures the flat, mist covered, dank, ditch drilled Fen landscape with its sudden explosions of birdlife magnificently. I love the image of this landscape providing farseeing horizontal viewpoints for those who wish to spy on their neighbours as well as a vertical view down to our history, buried and preserved in the damp earth. The comparisons between life in the bombed out ruins of cities such as London and Norwich and the hardships of rural life during and immediately after the Second World War are sympathetically portrayed through Ruth’s reflections on her experiences and the tales that she hears from farmer’s son Joe. The realisation that similarities can be found in what initially appear to be drastically different circumstances are thoughtfully uncovered, increasing that empathy that children can develop through reading great literature.

The story is perfectly pitched to entertain a middle-grade readership of 9+, featuring a race against time to uncover buried treasure, save a family’s livelihood and home, and unravel hidden mysteries. The evolving friendship between Ruth and Joe after a resentful beginning is developed believably and the mutual support between two children adapting to different family circumstances is portrayed with great positivity. I can also imagine this book being a valuable addition to primary school classrooms with its factually-based portrayal of the post WWII years, the actual hiding away of national treasures from the great museums during the War, as well as the way that ancient historical finds are handled and investigated to shed light on our past. At the end of the story the author provides factual details on some of the real treasure hoards that provided inspiration for this book. I understand that publishers Usborne will be providing additional online resources to accompany publication of this book.

I am most grateful to Usborne and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of The Secrets of the Treasure Keepers in advance of publication.

If you want to read more of A.M. Howell’s magnificent MG Historical Fiction, I highly recommend The House of One Hundred Clocks

#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Smuggler’s Secret by Annabelle Sami

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, published by Little Tiger Press 3rd February 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: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

The History Club Outing to Chesil Bay – Conducted by Ms Loretta Talbot – Your child/ren is/are cordially invited to a historical exploration of beautiful Chesil Bay.

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

In her fourth mystery adventure Agent Zaiba once again finds herself with a puzzle to solve, an investigative team to manage and a race against the clock to complete her mission! This illustrated fiction series, pitched at a readership of 8+ goes from strength to strength, with Zaiba growing in confidence and the members of her Snow Leopard Detective Agency increasingly providing the collaborative support she needs for her sleuthing endeavours. 

One of the reasons that I love this series is the way that Annabelle Sami has portrayed inclusivity so naturally throughout the stories. Zaiba is part of a blended and very loving family. Her own mother died whilst on a mission for The Snow Leopard Detective Agency when Zaiba was very young; Zaiba remains very close to her Aunt Fouzia who continues to run the detective agency in Karachi and feels a close bond to her mother through the annotated ‘Eden Lockett’ mysteries that she has inherited. However, there is no doubting the warm, loving relationships between stepmother Jessica, half-brother Ali and Dad, Hassan who all play significant roles in all the stories. Additionally, on the theme of inclusivity, I think this is the first middle grade story that I have read where a character is referred to using the pronouns they/their/them. 

Zaiba is determined, patient, methodical and above all kind, demonstrated in the way she welcomes cousin Mariam who has caused much upset in previous volumes, into the junior Snow Leopard team. In return, Mariam proves to be a logical and confident detective. Once again best friend Poppy’s flair for fashion and drama plays a key role in the investigation, as does Ali’s quick-thinking intelligence. There is enough introductory detail in the story that you can read this as a standalone without having to have read the prior books, although I suspect that young readers will want to read the entire series.

All the young detectives have joined the after-school history club and are excited to be taken on a weekend expedition to Chesil Bay. They are to visit an old sunken shipwreck and see the ancient and valuable artefact that has been found within, which is to be displayed in the local museum before being returned to its rightful home in India. Zaiba’s detective instincts are finely tuned and even before they arrive at Chesil Bay she is suspicious of an old gentleman travelling on their train! The setting of Chesil Bay, with its historical tales of smuggling and ancient caves with rumoured secret passages is the perfect location for this ‘closed room’ style mystery which reaches a crescendo during an amateur dramatic re-enactment of the smuggler’s story. I also enjoyed learning a little more about Zaiba’s mum’s story, which is revealed by a character from her past who makes an appearance.

The author has cleverly blended Zaiba’s school history investigation of TheEast India Company with the ancient artefact from Assam, incorporating themes such as slavery and the necessity to return cultural artefacts to their rightful owners. This is woven through a tale packed with twists and turns, plenty of humour and illustrated throughout by Daniela Sosa. It is pitched at just the right level, in both style and content, for children of 8+ who are ready to read independently but still appreciate images to enhance comprehension and to create natural pauses in the text. 

As a bonus at the end of the story, you get an extract from ‘The Cottage on the Cliff’ by Eden Lockett, which Zaiba has been reading throughout the school trip. Additionally there is a brief history of smuggling and a template so that readers can create their own Scrapbook of Legends in the style of the one that Aunt Fouzia has compiled. 

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press and NetGalley for allowing me early access to an electronic proof prior to publication on 3rd February 2022.

If you enjoy this book, you might wish to check out the others in the series: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds, Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot and Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House.

Non-Fiction Review: Breaking News by Nick Sheridan

To be published by Simon & Schuster on 23rd December 2021

This super-readable exploration of the “News” will appeal to all aspiring journalists and young consumers of information alike. Although humorously written, Nick Sheridan’s guide to the world of journalism covers a range of important topics such as how to check the veracity of facts, the ethics of posting consumer generated news content and how to determine whether a story is newsworthy.

The book is divided into short chapters, each wittily illustrated and utilising a range of fonts and shout-outs to highlight key points. As you would expect from a successful journalist, Nick Sheridan’s writing is thoroughly engaging, he presents information concisely and in language that KS2 and KS3 readers will relate to and be entertained by. In fact, I can envisage so many ways in which this book could be used in schools. From History lessons, to Careers Guidance by way of Literacy ( journalistic writing) and Digital Literacy; there is content here that teachers could very easily incorporate into lessons and that children could read to expand their knowledge.

I really liked the author’s use of practical examples which encourage his audience to interact with the book rather than just being a passive consumer of the information he presents. Hopefully they will then put these skills into use when reading “news” items, especially on social media but even within the mainstream media to check for bias and misinformation or fake news. If this generation of children and young people can be educated to see through media manipulation and bias, hopefully they can make decisions based on facts rather than falsehoods. 

If you want to know the difference between top lines and headlines, the meaning of MoJo and UCG, how to write a news item using the inverted pyramid or some sensible advice about how to deal with online trolls, you will find the answers in Breaking News. There is a useful glossary at the end of the book and web addresses for a list of excellent fact – checking sites. I would recommend that all primary and secondary schools purchase this useful and engaging book for their libraries and classrooms.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for early access to an electronic copy prior to publication on 23rd December 2021.

Let’s Get Festive! Blog Tour: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

Image created by Erin Hamilton

This December I am delighted to be one of Santa’s little book bloggers, bringing you reviews of a selection of great books to put you in the festive spirit. Each day one blogger will present you with a seasonal favourite which we hope you might enjoy reading during the holiday season!

I love pretty much everything about Christmas and have read a vast range of Christmas books over the years, so it was quite a struggle to select just one! However, one of my favourite genres to read on a cold winter evening, tucked up by the fire as the weather does its best to send shivers down the spine, is detective fiction, particularly from the golden age writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Therefore my choice for this blog tour is Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens.

This is the fifth book in Robin Stevens’ brilliant series of Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries and combines an intriguing plot with a wonderfully atmospheric Cambridge setting and my favourite festival, Christmas. It really is a perfect example of detective fiction for a confident reader of 9/10+ to enjoy independently, or for adults and children to share during the Christmas holidays.

Set in the few days running up to Christmas 1935, the story begins with the Honourable Daisy Wells and her best friend Hazel Wong (The Detective Society) travelling to Cambridge to spend their school holiday visiting Daisy’s older brother, Bertie. From the very outset this book grabbed my interest because on the train journey Daisy is reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers which would have been newly published at the time and which is one of my favourites! In echoes of that classic work, Daisy and Hazel are to stay at a fictional women-only college, in this case, St Lucy’s, where Daisy’s Great Aunt Eustacia is a mathematics don. Additionally, they team up their detective investigations with their friends Alexander Arcady and George Mukherjee, known as The Junior Pinkertons; although Daisy is aggrieved that simply because she is a girl, she cannot access some colleges in order to carry out all the investigations herself.

Her brother Bertie is at the fictional Maudlin College where he has become friends with twins, Chummy and Donald. The elder twin, Donald, is due to inherit his family’s vast wealth on his 21st birthday on Christmas Day. According to Bertie, Chummy has always been the dominant brother and is furious that he will inherit nothing and is trying to persuade his brother to let him have a say in how the money will be spent. Bertie also tells the girls about the unkind pranks that Chummy plays on Donald as well as some details about a series of accidents that have befallen Donald recently. Alexander and George have heard similar stories from George’s older brother Harold, and a note left for Daisy and Hazel by their former Head Girl warns them that Bertie is mixing with the wrong crowd. The four junior detectives decide that a plot is afoot and a tense investigation to try to avert a tragedy unfolds.

There is something so satisfying about reading a beautifully structured detective mystery, trying to sift the clues from the red herrings and solve the puzzles before the fictional sleuths. Robin Stevens gives us not only a tremendous plot, but continues to develop Daisy and Hazel’s characters, places you in the heart of an ancient university and weaves feminist themes into the story too. The archways, lanes, steep college stairwells and walled gardens of Cambridge become spookily atmospheric in the deep winter nights:

it felt as though the shadows had real weight to them here, or perhaps it was only that the streets were all so narrow, and the walls so very high.

page 42

Hazel is experiencing the painful emotions of first love, flustered and embarrassed every time she talks to Alexander and mortified that he seems to only have eyes for Daisy. Meanwhile, Daisy has met her intellectual match in George, the first person who is able to see through her charm offensive to the deep intelligence that she has hidden from everyone but Hazel.

The racist attitudes of the historical period are explored as are the prejudices against women in the intellectual environment and wealth inequalities. The contrast in fortune between the male college, Maudlin, and the female college, St Lucy’s, is perfectly outlined in the descriptions of the food on offer at each. When the girls are invited to supper at Maudlin they are treated to a feast of roast beef, whilst at St Lucy’s supper comes from a tin! As in all the MMU books, food, and especially bunbreak is taken extremely seriously and the descriptions of the warmth and bustle of the festively decorated Fitzbillies tea rooms bring moments of Christmas cheer to the story, as Chelsea buns and steaming cocoa are consumed whilst theories and clues are discussed. As an aside, if you ever find yourself in Cambridge, you really must try the sticky buns from Fitzbillies! Daisy and Hazel’s friendship and loyalty to each other shines through every page and the importance of finding a “family” who love and respect you for what you are is a key thread.

In summary, if you want to exercise your intelligence whilst enjoying a thrilling work of historical detective fiction then this is my recommendation for your December reading list. Do check out all the other stops on the blog tour for a fabulously wide range of other recommendations.

If you are interested in the other MMU books, you can read my series review here and my review of the final book Death Sets Sail here.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Review: Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton

Cover image by Steven Lenton, published by Macmillan, 2021

I have been a huge fan of Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing since discovering Millions and reading it aloud as a bedtime story almost 20 years ago. His children’s stories are as appealing and enjoyable for the adults who might read them aloud as they are for the children who listen to them, or read them independently. He is an entertainer, who hooks you from page one and sets you down gently at the final page where you might think “that was fun” and rush off to play football or you might start to think about the clever way that he has wrapped a modern dilemma in a coating of humour and warmth and passed on some of his gentle brand of wisdom in the process.

Noah’s Gold is told in the form of (unposted) letters home from eleven-year-old Noah, who has inadvertently stowed away in the luggage compartment of the minibus taking his older sister Eve on a school geography trip. The irony of geography teacher Mr Merriman missing the intended destination of the Orinoco Wonder Warehouse “the internet with a roof on” because he has put too much faith in the SatNav is just the start of a series of mishaps associated with modern technology which power the story. The drama and humour increases with every epistle, as the group of children stranded on an uninhabited island after their minibus plunges off a cliff and their teacher vanishes, face a series of challenges whilst learning to live without modern technology. Noah blames himself for breaking the internet and his attempts to find the location of the re-set button for the submarine transatlantic internet cable, whilst convincing the older children that they are on an island treasure hunt, take readers on a joyful journey of discovery.

I am not going to describe any more of the plot because I don’t want to ruin a moment of your enjoyment of the way in which this narrative unfolds. I adored the way that the children’s characters are revealed. They each have their unique personality traits but are fully rounded and believable in their conversation and actions. Noah is small in stature but huge-hearted, always fair and determined to do the right thing. Eve is an individual who exudes inner confidence and natural leadership. Her persuasiveness can be overwhelming at times but when family duty calls, she proves herself to be the big sister that everyone would want in a time of crisis. School Council representative Lola, who wears the school first aid kit like a badge of honour, takes on the responsible adult role. Ryland, the screen-obsessed gamer appears to be rather self-entitled at first but grows into a team player as he realises the value of real friendship compared to his online “tribe”. Dario with his scientific approach to everything likes to establish the “fun fact” in every encounter whilst Ada exhibits awe and wonder, seeing the magic in everything she observes on the island of AranOr.

As the children adjust to life without the internet and are no longer distracted by their screens, they all begin to observe and appreciate the natural beauty of the island. They work together and learn to communicate and collaborate. In one particularly touching scene they all use the old-fashioned handset in the island telephone box to “talk” to their families in order to share their worries. As well as communication, the importance of sharing food runs through the story, from Noah’s realisation at the start that the sandwiches he has made for Eve might be a danger to a nut-allergy sufferer to his knack of cooking up a feast for six famished children from scavenged tins and wild food; a skill honed by his family’s reliance on food banks. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s use of child-friendly food imagery adds another layer of delicious insight into Noah’s character, so at one point he finds himself “perched on a tiny rock the size of a Colin the Caterpillar chocolate cake” and describes the front end of the wrecked minibus as “concertinaed like a melted Viennetta”.

I loved absolutely everything about this book; the way the plot unfolded, the children’s characters, the villains, the humour, the illustrations by Steven Lenton, the strong sense of family and the discovery by a group of children, from a school named in honour of St Anthony of Padua, of the most valuable treasures in life. I highly recommend for anyone of 9+, to be enjoyed at home, in school or public libraries and in the classroom. Noah’s Gold is without doubt one of my favourite books published during 2021.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Star by Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies

Image created by Mary Simms, book cover illustration by Britta Teckentrup, published by Little Tiger Press

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: Holly Webb

Illustrator: cover Britta Teckentrup, internal Jo Anne Davies

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

If it doesn’t start before you go to bed tonight, you will wake up to a white world tomorrow, I’m certain.

Baba talking about expected snowfall, on p11

This book in three words: Tiger – Snow – Determination

This book contains all the elements of a perfect tale to enrapture a middle grade readership; bravery, determination and adventure in a wintry landscape with a sprinkling of magic and huge downfalls of snow! The black and white illustrations throughout give children at the younger end of the MG readership a chance to linger over details and contribute to the satisfaction of independent reading.

Anna is staying the night at her Russian grandmother’s (Baba’s) flat in London, excitedly anticipating the snowfall that the heavy clouds have been promising all afternoon. When her Baba promises Anna that she will wake to a snowy landscape, Anna does not realise quite how different her world will look in the morning!

Shortly before going to bed she watches a news report about a tiger on the loose, close to where her cousins live in Russia. She falls asleep clutching a small wooden tiger which her uncle has carved for Baba and when she awakes the following morning, she has magically inhabited the body of her cousin Annushka and shares breakfast with her cousins, aunt and uncle in their snowbound Russian house! The talk of the village is the sighting of a tiger which seems to have strayed towards the human settlement from the neighbouring forest. Children are warned to stick close together on their way to and from school, but during a game Anna/Annushka is separated from her cousins and has a close encounter with the tiger, which she realises is a young and frightened, underfed cub.

The sensation of locking eyes with a scared, wild, creature makes Anna determined to help it, despite the sensible and kind wisdom presented by her father about the dangers of feeding a wild predator. Can she rely on his advice to wait for the people from the wildlife sanctuary to come and take the apparently orphaned cub away for re-wilding, or will she need to act to prevent the village hunters or even poachers seal the cub’s fate? You will have to read this exciting, heart-warming adventure, set in a frozen, snow-covered landscape to find out. Holly Webb has an incredible talent for weaving beautiful stories around animals and pitching them with the perfect level of peril and tension for young MG readers. I highly recommend Star for animal-loving children of 8+.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for my review copy of Star in exchange for my honest opinion.

If you enjoy this story and wish to read another wintry, sparkling and magical adventure by Holly Webb, why not try Frost, a time-slip adventure set in London?