#MGTakesOnThursday: The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Kaja Kajfež

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover art by Kaja Kajfež, published by Barrington Stoke

Author: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Kaja Kajfež

Publisher: Barrington Stoke

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Who’d hit their brother so hard as to break his leg, eh?”

This book in three words: Friendship – Prescience – Upheaval

A new book from “the Queen of Historical fiction” Emma Carroll is always worth celebrating and I was delighted to find that one of my favourite authors had been commissioned to write for dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. Readers who have followed my blog will know that I am passionate about books that encourage dyslexic readers. I was first introduced to the publisher Barrington Stoke by a marvellous specialist dyslexia tutor who worked with one of my own children many years ago. I am so pleased that they now publish books by highly regarded children’s authors so that dyslexic children can benefit from reading the wonderful fiction that these authors produce; not feel any sense of stigma that they are reading “different” books; and be given a gateway to perhaps tackling longer books or possibly listening to audiobooks by the best writers for children.

This novella is set in the summer of 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War and although not a first person narrative, it is very much told from the point of view of Fran, daughter to the head gardener of a fine country property named Longbarrow House, owned by Mrs Walker. Emma Carroll has the extraordinary ability to capture the essence of her protagonist’s personalities in a few lines of dialogue and you soon realise that Fran is a curious mixture of no-nonsense, hardworking, emotionally-intelligent working class child who has an imaginative side which is open to the possibility of ghostly occurrences. She feels inferior to the noisy, fussy, rich grandchildren who arrive from their boarding schools for the summer holidays preferring to keep out of their way and avoid the teasing of the young twins and the superior attitude of Leo, the eldest.

However, when Leo’s leg is badly broken by a cricket bat and Fran finds herself assigned to be his companion for the summer, an unlikely friendship and some supernatural manifestations develop. The illustrations by Kaja Kajfež throughout the book not only give readers a chance to pause but also add to the spooky atmosphere.

Despite writing a short book, which gives less confident readers the optimum chance to finish it and feel the accompanying sense of achievement, Emma Carroll has crafted a perfect treasure of a story. The tension mounts throughout the narrative as Fran and Leo investigate the archaeological landscape whilst rumours of impending war swirl in the background. The depicted change in normal social relationships predicts the upheaval and change about to be inflicted on the norms of society by the declaration of war with Germany. I would highly recommend this story to all readers of 9+ and for those who are discovering Emma Carroll for the first time and perhaps want to try something slightly more challenging next, I would suggest Skychasers, The Snow Sister, her book of short stories When We Were Warriors before moving onto Letters from the Lighthouse, Secrets of A Sun King and my all-time favourite Strange Star.

Finally, I would just like to give a shoutout to The Rocketship Bookshop from whom I was able to purchase a signed copy of this book. It is so vital that we bookworms do our best to support independent bookshops to help them survive in these uncertain times. I usually try to buy books from an independent bookshop in my own town, but as my daughter owns all of Emma’s books in signed format I was desperate to continue adding to her collection. Not only did this lovely bookseller supply me with the perfect copy, they also wrapped it beautifully as you can see from the picture above! (I am not an affiliate of this bookshop, I just want to give praise where it is due.)

#MGTakesOnThursday: Murder on the Safari Star written by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover image by Elisa Paganelli, published by Macmillan Children’s Books on 4th February 2021

Authors: M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

Illustrator: Elisa Paganelli

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Would you like us to arrange a crime for you to solve on board?”

This book in three words: Safari – Murder – Family

Murder on the Safari Star is about to steam onto the shelves of your local bookseller or library so get hold of a copy and book your ticket for the adventure of a lifetime. 

This is the third in the Adventures on Trains series from the writing partnership of MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman; I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all three and this is my favourite so far! The combination of the stunning southern African setting, the nods to Agatha Christie plots and the astounding artwork throughout the book all added to my immersion in the adventure and enjoyment of this book.

For those of you who haven’t read The Highland Falcon Thief or Kidnap on the California Comet, the series features Nathaniel Bradshaw (Uncle Nat) a widely respected travel writer and his nephew Harrison (Hal) who has an incredible talent for art, swiftly capturing scenes in his ever-present sketchbook, which help him analyse his observations and detect crimes.

This time around Uncle Nat has invited Hal to accompany him on a journey from Pretoria in South Africa to the Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Hal gets to see the wildlife that he was hoping to sketch, some of it at rather closer quarters than he anticipated…and once more finds himself unweaving a web of intrigue.

Before the journey even begins Hal spies a suspicious exchange of money between railway owner Luther Ackerman and a stranger, and from that moment the reader is caught up in Hal’s mission to spot clues and inconsistencies in his interactions with the glorious cast of fellow travellers. These include tweedy, novellist Beryl Brash, handsome actor Patrice Mbatha, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist Portia Ramaboa, a devoted Japanese couple Dr and Mrs Sasaki,  a retired South African police detective Erik Lovejoy and a super-rich American family. When the deeply unpopular, brash, bullying billionaire Mervyn Crosby is found dead in his luxury cabin, everyone falls under suspicion and Hal discovers that murder is not the only crime aboard his latest train journey.

I am a huge fan of mystery novels and this series has swiftly become one of my favourites. Hal is such a likeable character, he is shy and quiet but his remarkable observation skills and talent for art help him organise his thoughts and spot details missed by adults. The books brilliantly incorporate Hal’s sketches, with the actual artwork being expertly rendered by awesome illustrator Elisa Paganelli. Whenever Hal sets off on a journey he makes friends who become allies in his crime-solving activities, in this case it is Winston Tsotsobe and his cute yellow mongoose Chipo, he has joined the train with his mother Liana, a zoologist and safari guide. As children are swept along in the adventure they just can’t help absorbing knowledge of geography, the natural world and conservation which I consider to be a great way to learn. There is also an interesting theme of “family” in this story and the way that families shape us and our behaviour which I think could lead to some interesting discussions with upper Key Stage 2 children. 

While we are once again stuck at home I highly recommend taking a journey aboard the Safari Star to anyone of 8+.

I am most grateful to publisher Macmillan Children’s Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to the eARC of Murder on the Safari Star, the book will be published on 4th February 2021.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Closest Thing To Flying written by Gill Lewis

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

One of the many reasons that I love this meme created by Mary Rees is that it presents the opportunity to revisit great books published in previous years, which can so easily be overlooked as blogs generally focus on new releases. This week I am looking at a book first published in 2019, which presents a perfect combination of historical fiction and present day refugee story, The Closest Thing to Flying.

Cover image by Paola Escobar, published by OUP Children’s Books

Author: Gill Lewis

Illustrator: Paola Escobar

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ The ink had bled into the cloth, but Semira could read the words, The Feather Diaries.”

This book in three words: Courage – Kindness – Empowerment

This beautifully written novel combines the story of Henrietta the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy feather merchant in Victorian London with the modern day experience of Semira, a twelve year-old refugee from Eritrea as she tries to find a better life for herself and her mother in London. Such is the skill of Gill Lewis, that she has crafted a powerful and deeply moving story which has remained with me long after first reading it.

The tale opens with Semira impulsively buying an old-fashioned hat, along with its accompanying hatbox, from a London street market when the bird ornamenting the hat elicits a deep-seated memory. Closer inspection of her purchase back “home” in the single room she shares with her mother in a house run by Robel, a people-trafficker, reveals the bird to be a real stuffed specimen and the discovery of the diary written by Henrietta Waterman in the 1890s, referred to in the quote from page 11 above.

Hen’s diary unfurls a story of escape from the confines of Victorian society’s expectations of female behaviour as Hen is taken under the wing of her rebellious Aunt Katherine (Kitty) and becomes involved in the women’s suffrage movement and the foundation of the RSPB. Her realisation of the horrors inflicted by her father as he exploits wildlife for profit reveal the provenance of the Abyssinian lovebird on the hat, and her courage in breaking with etiquette in order to ride a bicycle both help to embolden Semira.

Meanwhile, Semira has to face another new school and the continued agony of seeing her noble mother isolated and controlled by Robel. This aspect of the story is written very sensitively so that children of 10+ can understand what it must feel like to go without food, not be allowed access to the internet and have your life completely controlled by someone, without the details ever becoming too overwhelming for this age group. Older readers will be able to infer much more, such is the perfection of the writing.

The school setting provides some lovely additional characters. Holly and Chloe, on the surface the sort of “cool” girls that Semira would usually avoid, are the two buddies who show her the ropes and develop into kind friends, and Patrick who is bullied for being different and is a fellow lunchtime “library refugee”. As the friendship with Patrick develops and the recognition that he and his mother had to flee from the imprisonment of domestic abuse (again handled very sensitively), an escape route beckons for Semira and her mother.

I love the structure of the story with chapters alternating between Semira’s struggles in modern day London and extracts from Henrietta’s diary, which emboldens Semira to take action against her predicament. Throughout, the motif of the caged bird, plucked from its homeland and exploited by greedy capitalists is used to great effect, as is cycling as a metaphor for flying free from the shackles in which some people are trapped.

I think this is one of the finest examples of a story which is both an incredibly satisfying and enjoyable read as well as providing so many lessons in empathy without ever seeming sanctimonious. It places you in the shoes of others for a short time and helps you understand the hardships they suffer and also demonstrates how the recognition of the suffering of others followed by kindness and mentoring, can make such a huge difference to individual lives. This is certainly a book which should be available in every school or upper KS2 classroom library.

Numeric Non-fiction: Counting on Katherine and The Language of the Universe

I realise that I don’t review enough non-fiction titles on my blog, so this is something I aim to remedy during 2021. I am starting with two very different but exceptionally enjoyable books which bring the beauty of maths to the attention of primary school-aged children.

Counting on Katherine written by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Cover image by Dow Phumiruk, published by Macmillan Children’s Books

This inspiring, authorised biography is perfectly suited to a primary school readership as it recounts the story of Katherine Johnson; a pioneer in mathematics, in the space program and in showing that women and black women deserved to be treated equally to men.

It starts with Katherine’s childhood, where her burning desire for knowledge was matched by her outstanding intellect. The support of her family is made clear as her father worked night and day to be able to afford to move his family to a town which had a high school for black students. It is so important for children today to understand the struggles for racial equality that previous generations had to face to ensure that everyone is given a fair chance in society.

As Katherine’s career progressed from maths teacher, to “human computer” at NASA, to being the mathematician who precisely calculated the trajectories of space-ship flight paths, this book highlights her constant refrain of “Count on me!”

I love that the author chooses to highlight Katherine Johnson’s diligence, determination and the satisfaction she found in complex mathematics. Her contributions to the space programme were so incredibly inspirational but the author points out that Katherine herself always insisted that she did not deserve attention as it was always a team effort. The text throughout the book is always easy to understand and is wonderfully illustrated on every page by Dow Phumiruk; the artwork really does bring the mathematics to life and wonderfully highlights Katherine Johnson’s commitment to her work.

This is a wonderful addition to any school’s library collection, providing inspiration for young mathematicians and scientists as well as representing the role of black women in the space program, which until recently had not been given the acknowledgement that these incredible STEM pioneers deserved.

The Language of the Universe written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia

Cover image by Ximo Abadia, published by Big Picture Press

This big format book sets out to highlight the beauty of mathematics and its universal nature, from being the language that everyone can understand no matter what their nationality, to its application to everything we know on our planet and beyond. It is divided into four sections: maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space and technology. The text is presented in short blocks, making use of different fonts and sizes to emphasise key words and always written in language that is easy to understand. The illustrations on brightly coloured backgrounds do a brilliant job of aiding the understanding of the mathematical concepts being described.

I highly recommend this book to all home, classroom and school libraries to help children understand the practical applications of maths and the examples of its manifestations in the natural world. For example, I love the way that the usefulness of prime numbers is explained in relation to their occurrence in the life-cycle of cicadas and their use in cryptography for online security.

As well as describing mathematical phenomena, this book also highlights some of the outstanding mathematicians who have made observations and constructed formulae and mathematical laws throughout history. It ends with pointing out the current and future developments in which maths will play a crucial role, thus inspiring a future generation of mathematical thinkers. It truly is an engrossing, enjoyable and informative volume which will reward readers with an enhanced understanding of the elegance and application of maths. I spent an afternoon studying it and could easily have spend much longer if I’d had time, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone of age 8+.

Review: Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap written by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Scott Brown.

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Press

That’s A Wrap! is the final instalment of the Dragon Detective series by Gareth P Jones, and appropriately, for a series which has continually conjured images of old black-and-white detective movies, the action plays out in Hollywood. This book is so cleverly written that it can be enjoyed as a standalone mystery surrounding a stolen film reel, a search for dragon treasure and a battle for supremacy, but also perfectly wraps up the centuries-old conflict between factions of dragonkind which has featured in the previous three stories. Many of the human and dragon characters from previous books make welcome reappearances to fulfil their destinies. My advice would be to read the entire four book series in order; you will be royally entertained.

The action opens with billionaire Brant Buchanan preparing a deadly trap for our Dragon Detective hero, Dirk Dilly, in LA. Meanwhile, back in London our human heroine, Holly Bigsby, is practically under house arrest as her stepmother (former politician and employee of Brant) punishes her for the chaos and embarrassment she caused at the end of Dragon Detective Sky High! Dirk is staking out a warehouse formerly used by evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin’s Kinghorn henchmen when he learns that a new dragon organisation, the One-Worlders, have set up as rivals to Vainclaw’s Kinghorns with the same mission of waging war on humanity!

When Holly’s stepmother is summoned by her employer to join him in LA, Holly and her best friend Archie find themselves staying in a luxurious mansion next door to Holly’s former dorm-mate from Dragon Detective School’s Out! Petal Moses. She is at her prima-donna best, starring in the film of her less-than-riveting life story. Her guardian, whilst her mother is away recording another hit album, is none other than music teacher, Miss Gilfeather, a woman with an awesome repertoire of sarcastic put-downs. Other characters and subplots reappear from Dragon Detective School’s Out! and Dragon Detective Catnapped! as the action heats up in LA.

As in all three previous books, the dialogue crackles with wit as dry as the Joshua Tree National Park. Here we meet desert dragons Kitelsky and Putz, whose fighting antics have attracted the attention of more than one camera lens over the years that they have been staging their desert rumbles!

I don’t want to give away any spoilers of this tightly plotted adventure but I can say that Gareth P Jones has done an awesome job of tying up all the strands from the series into a perfectly satisfying final denouement. The loyal friendship portrayed between Holly and Archie is entirely authentic and the deep connection between Holly and Dirk is so heartwarming that you never question the possibility of a dragon going about his business from a London flat. One of my favourite characters throughout the series has been Dirk’s landlady Mrs Klingerflim and I am overjoyed that she steps out into the spotlight in this final instalment.

Overall, I highly recommend Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap! to anyone of 9+ who likes their detective mysteries served with a huge side order of quirky humour and I hope you enjoy the entire series as much as I have.

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris, Publicity Manager at Little Tiger Press for my review copy of this book.

Review: Everdark written by Abi Elphinstone – Dyslexia-friendly format

Cover image by Carrie May, published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

As the mother of a dyslexic child and having met many dyslexic children throughout my employment in a primary school, I fully appreciate the value of being able to show children positive role models as well as books which are enjoyable for them to read. In this newly formatted edition of Everdark we have one of the most brilliantly imaginative current children’s authors, Abi Elphinstone who is dyslexic, creating a marvellous dyslexic character, presented in an easy-to-read format. Add to that her own inspirational note at the end of the book encouraging children to believe that they are capable of extraordinary things and you realise that this is a volume you will want to offer to every dyslexic child of your acquaintance.

When I first read Everdark in its original World Book Day format I was overjoyed to find in the character of Smudge, a protagonist who used her dyslexic strengths to battle the evil harpy Morg who threatened the existence of the Unmapped Kingdoms, but was concerned that the tiny format and print would make the book inaccessible to the very readership who would benefit most from this empowering story. My original review can be read here: Everdark by Abi Elphinstone.

I am not going to review the story again but I stated at the end of my original review:

“I would like to make a plea to the publishers to please, please, please re-print this book with a bigger font, ideally open dyslexic, so that it can be easily read by an audience for whom its message will be immensely inspiring.”

You can therefore imagine my delight when I read that Simon & Schuster UK would be publishing a new edition of Everdark in a dyslexia-friendly format, and I was equally thrilled to be sent a review copy.

Although dyslexia presents in many different ways, visual stress is common in many who share this learning difference and books which reduce the stress of reading by using clear fonts, larger text, increased spacing and off-white pages are greatly valued by those who wish to encourage all youngsters to discover enjoyment of books. Additionally, what is good for dyslexic children is good for all children, and there will be many children who perhaps have not yet become voracious readers, who will find that the clear layout of this edition makes the process of reading as splendid as the immersion in a brilliantly imagined adventure.

Many children who have been enraptured by the subsequent stories in the Unmapped Chronicles series, Rumblestar and Jungledrop might have missed the original edition of Everdark, so when this second edition becomes available on 7th January 2021, I urge you to buy copies for your home, classroom or school libraries – it could be the spark that turns a dormant reader into a bookworm and opens their eyes to a world of possibilities.

I am most grateful to Eve Wersocki Morris, Publicity Manager at Simon & Schuster UK for providing me with a review copy of this new edition of Everdark. You can be assured that I will be purchasing multiple copies of this book to give to young relatives.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Lost Child’s Quest by James Haddell

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

This week, I am featuring a brilliant debut by James Haddell, which I found waiting on my doormat when I returned home from the final day of this most peculiar Autumn term; the perfect start to a school holiday.

Cover image by Clair Lansley, published by Emira Press

Author: James Haddell

Illustrator: Clair Lansley (Cover)

Publisher: Emira Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Tia felt as though the air in her lungs had turned to ice.”

This book in three words: History – Identity – Family

When I read the glowing reviews for this debut novel by James Haddell, written by many of my favourite children’s books bloggers, I immediately placed an order and was delighted to have the book delivered in time for the Christmas holidays.

The story of ten-year-old orphan Tia Hemyke, found on the doorstep of an orphanage with thirteen treasures inside her crib, totally captivated me. This is a story about identity and family and belonging wrapped in an exciting historical quest with such skill that it will keep middle grade readers enthralled as they absorb historical detail and deeper truths.

You are plunged headfirst into Tia’s quest as a mysterious stranger, Mr Silverman, arrives at the children’s home claiming to be a friend of her late father but obviously determined to claim the silver pendant she has worn throughout her life. After a heart-racing pursuit and escape Tia thinks she has escaped his sinister intentions when she is adopted by the Trevelyan family and goes to live with them in a unique community of historians and archaeologists.

The setting of her new home at Stormhaven Castle, a small peninsula on the coast, with its ancient castle keep, small hamlet, progressive school and whitewashed cottages is beautifully rendered and utterly magical. I am sure that I will not be the only reader who would love to spend time there! As Tia gets to know her adoptive family and adjusts to having an irrepressible older sister, Meghan, and a new best friend in Pasco, she learns to trust and to share her secrets with people who can help her in searching for her own history. In the words of Mrs Trevelyan:

“Our understanding of who we are depends on our understanding of where we have come from.”

Tia’s unusual silver pendant appears to have some sort of power within the ancient castle and when she reveals the twelve accompanying silver discs to her parents, an investigation into the Arthurian legend of The Thirteen Treasures leads the children into a magical unlocking of long buried mysteries.

I highly recommend this book to anyone of 9+ as, first and foremost, an exciting and entertaining historical mystery. On a deeper level there is so much to reflect on about the meaning of family and the value of kindness and love. As a whole class shared story it lends itself perfectly to the study of Anglo-Saxons in the primary school history curriculum especially as author James Haddell has included some incredibly thoughtful activities related to each chapter at the end of the book. An awesome debut and I am hoping that a second story will follow soon!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Advent Review – Frost Castle Adventure by Fleur Hitchcock

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover image by Tom Clohosy Cole, published by Nosy Crow

This week, I am featuring the fourth book in the Clifftoppers adventure series, The Frost Castle Adventure, which seems highly appropriate for this time of year.

Author: Fleur Hitchcock

Illustrator: Tom Clohosy Cole (Cover) and R.S. McKay (map)

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ It’s just that the weather’s much worse than it was at home and ten, when I came over the hill, I lost control and you saw what happened…”

This is the moment when the Clifftopper children meet actress Martha Darcy-Court in the middle of a snowy field!

This book in three words: Snowy – Winter – Mystery

This is the fourth book in which we join cousins Aiden, Chloe, Ava and Josh as they spend part of their school holidays staying with their grandparents at Clifftoppers Farm. They have arrived in the period between Christmas and New Year and are looking forward to a week filled with snowball fights, sledging and hot chocolates. However, their first afternoon together outside in the snow almost ends in tragedy when an out-of-control car smashes through a hedge and comes close to colliding with Chloe.

The driver is a young and very famous actress, who has travelled down to Frost Castle as a favour to an old family friend, where she will act in the annual New Year performance. The children find themselves roped in as stagehands and embroiled in a mystery revolving around an inherited pendant, which may or may not be cursed and the castle’s resident ghost Anne, Lady of Frost Castle who is rumoured to appear only at New Year! In a classic closed house scenario, with the snow storm closing in, the tension piles up higher than the drifting snow as the cousins race through secret corridors and spiral staircases in pursuit of a jewel thief.

This book, along with the rest of the series is a perfect read for anyone of 8+ searching for a fast-paced story to read independently. It is the perfect length to give newly confident readers the important sense that they can complete a book alone as they will be driven along by the short chapters, relatable child protagonists and desire to unravel the mystery.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Advent Review – Winter Magic Anthology edited by Abi Elphinstone

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

This week, I am featuring an anthology of winter-themed stories curated by one of my favourite MG authors and featuring many of the writers whose books I have reviewed here during the last two years.

Cover image by

Curator: Abi Elphinstone

Illustrator: Thomas Flintham

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“It felt real, just as the cobblestones and the snowflakes did.”

This is from a story entitled A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll.

This book in three words: Snowy – Magical – Winter

This book contains eleven short stories by some of the most magnificent writers of children’s fiction. The first story is written by the Queen of Historical Fiction, Emma Carroll and features a magical time-slip adventure as Maya finds herself transported back in time to a Frost Fair whilst sitting in a taxi held up by a snowy traffic jam on London Bridge. She tracks down the mystery which has been perplexing her beloved grandmother in a heart-stoppingly thrilling chase across the icy river. In the course of the adventure Maya finds a deep family connection and saves her grandmother from the misery of a regimented care home.

This collection really does contain something to suit every taste, from unexpected adventures on a school skiing holiday; to magical fantasies set in snow-filled landscapes; strange events set in motion by an avalanche on a remote Scottish road; an elegant and delightful ballet story set in St Petersburg at the premiere of The Nutcracker ballet and poetry. All are filled with messages of hope and love and depending on my mood, my favourite changes each time I dip into this wonderful selection.

This is the fourth December during which I have had the pleasure to read Winter Magic and I look forward to returning to it for many years to come. I hope that you too find a story to enjoy from this enchanting anthology.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren: Waves of Mystery by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.
Cover image by Beatriz Castro, published by New Frontier Publishing UK

This week, as we shiver in our northern-hemisphere open-doored classrooms, I thought we could all escape down under to the sunny, seaside town of Higgity Harbour, where the surf’s up and mystery lurks below the surface! Just look at that glorious, sunshine-yellow cover illustrated by Beatriz Castro and imagine the sound of the waves hitting the shore.

Author: Helen Castles 

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“I’ve got a funny feeling and my funny feelings are rarely wrong.”

This book in three words: Sunny – Surfing – Mystery

This is the second mystery for Scoop McLaren, the editor of her own online newspaper, Click! and, along with best friend Evie Andrews a formidable problem-solving detective. Her instincts for suspicious behaviour are aroused by a series of events befalling surfing ace Fletcher Stein as he prepares for the semi-final of the Monster Wave Supreme Grommet Title on Higgity Harbour’s Five Mile Beach.

As Scoop and Evie launch their investigation they are confronted by the uber-competitive parents of Fletch’s rivals, sabotage attempts, shady competition judges, sinister strangers hanging around the normally peaceful coastal town…and even the long-forgotten curse of a pirate who used to ply his trade along the coast! The plot moves along at a great pace, peppered with text messages and secret coded communications between the two young detectives. The supporting cast of characters throw plenty of red-herrings into the story and the quaint small town, suffused with a sense of nostalgia, is almost a character in its own right.

One of the aspects of the Scoop McLaren books that I have enjoyed most as an adult is the very positive portrayal of father-daughter relationships by author Helen Castles, I think this is quite rare amongst the many MG books that I have read. Scoop’s mum lives in Spain where she trains animals to appear in movies, so Scoop lives with her dad, Ted McLaren who edits the town’s traditional newspaper and clearly acts as a wonderful role model and mentor to his daughter. Evie’s dad is the town policeman, and his love for his daughter is palpable, especially as the plot takes a perilous turn.

I am sure that young readers will enjoy the action-packed mystery, picking up some surfing terminology and inspiration ready for the next time they are able to hit the beaches. If publication had not been delayed by Covid-19, Waves of Mystery would have been my perfect summertime read, but as it arrives on our shores with the chilly north wind I suggest snuggling up on the sofa with it and dreaming of next summer! Highly recommended for boys and girls of 8+.

Do also read the first book in the series, reviewed here: Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me a review copy of this ray of sunshine!