Review: Agent Zaiba Investigates by Annabelle Sami

Agent Zaiba

“The best agent is cool, calm and oozes charm”

Zaiba has one huge ambition – to become a world class detective! She doesn’t go anywhere, even to her adored older cousin Samirah’s (Sam’s) Mehndi party, without her trusty copy of Eden Lockett’s Detective Handbook.

She has inherited the handbook, along with a collection of fictional Eden Lockett crime novels from her late mother, and the comforting sight of her “ammi’s” handwritten margin notes makes her feel close to the mother who disappeared when she was very young.

However, this is not a story that dwells on sadness. Zaiba has a loving stepmother, Jessica, and an adorable, super-smart half-brother, Ali. as well as her caring Dad, Hassan. Along with her best friend Poppy, they are staying at The Royal Star Hotel for an enormous family gathering to celebrate the Mehndi party of Sam and Tanvir. The details of British-Pakistani culture woven throughout this story are one of its utter joys, I am sure that they will be greatly enjoyed by children who recognise themselves and their families in the main protagonists and also by children and adults who can increase our knowledge of other cultural traditions.

Sam’s mother, the formidable Aunt Fouzia, runs Karachi’s best private detective agency, The Snow Leopard Detective Agency, and Zaiba sees the opportunity to hone her observation skills to ensure that nothing goes wrong during the party. On hearing that a famous celebrity is also in residence in the exclusive hotel, Zaiba, Poppy and Ali set out to investigate the identity of the celebrity, only to find themselves investigating a real life crime when a priceless diamond goes missing.

The plot races along with Zaiba and her team wading through the red herrings, investigating secret staircases and stumbling upon mysterious events in the wine cellar. Can they discover the diamond thief and rescue the pre-wedding party from “doggy disaster”?

With its mystery-filled chapters, vibrant characters and family loyalties and lively black and white illustrations by Daniele Sosa throughout, this is an ideal read for children in Years 3 and 4. I am looking forward to further books in the series, and hope to find out more details of the Snow Leopard Agency!

I am very happy to have discovered another young detective to join the ranks of representative characters in this genre. Agent Zaiba joins the roster  which includes the intrepid Hazel Wong, one half of the Detective Society, the twins Tulip and Ali from A Cure for A Crime, and Sharna Jackson’s siblings Nik and Norva Alexander, as positive role models to inspire all young readers.

 

My thanks to Toppsta and Little Tiger UK for my copy of this book, which I look forward to sharing through the school library as soon as we are safe to resume.

Review: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

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I had seen a lot of praise for this book on Twitter and was delighted to be approved by NetGalley and Hachette Children’s for an eARC to review.

Without delay, I have to say that I loved L.D. Lapinski’s world-building, protagonists and ability to combine an important message within a fast-paced contemporary fantasy for MG readers (thanks to blogger Lily Fae for the genre description).

The two main protagonists, Jonathan and Flick, are fully realised characters who fully engage your interest and sympathy from the moment you meet them. The progression of their relationship throughout the arc of the story is entirely believable and emotionally involving. Both characters are old before their time, with the weight of responsibility on their young shoulders. Jonathan, an eighteen year-old who dresses like a Victorian has been left as the sole custodian of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency since the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. He is lonely, bewildered and mourning the loss of family. Meanwhile, Flick has been the archetypal latch-key-kid on an inner city housing estate whilst both parents worked long hours to keep the family afloat. The arrival of a baby brother, Freddy and a move to a house in the village of Little Wyverns has made Flick feel even more alienated and resentful that she has to take responsibility for many household chores.

Flick longs to travel and when she stumbles into the shabby, old-fashioned Strangeworlds Travel Agency with its curiously stacked multitude of suitcases, her dreams come true, albeit in an unexpected fashion! Once she overcomes Jonathan’s passive-aggressive sarcasm and proves her previously undiscovered magical abilities she joins him on a quest to discover the whereabouts of Daniel Mercator, his missing father.

From the moment that Flick takes a leap of faith into one of the suitcases in which Jonathan’s great-great-great-grandmother Elara trapped magical schisms between worlds in the Multiverse, the adventure takes off. Each suitcase has an individual destination and the author’s imagination conjures deserted beaches where you can taste the salty air; a forest world populated with forever-children; Coral City with its candy coloured landscape and extraordinary gravity, and the multiversal hub, the fragile City of Five Lights. 

I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, but the tension ratchets up as the plot races to its conclusion, with valuable messages about the devastating impact on a world greedily exploiting its irreplaceable resources, and the power of “ resolve, wrapped in righteous ferocity and fear “ to achieve the seemingly impossible. I loved the way that the story ended on a cliff-hanger, and cannot wait to read the next instalment.

I will certainly be adding this book to my library shopping list when it is published in April, when I am sure it is going to be extremely popular with fans of Harry Potter, The Train to Impossible Places, Rumblestar and The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet.

 

Review: The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

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This book is an extraordinary feast for the senses. A story about the power of family, it also feels like a celebration of the ancient woodland of the British Isles, with a deep love of nature permeating every description of a majestic tree or the instinctive behaviour of a forest animal. The language resonates with nature-related similes;  examples include the description of footprints in the sandy riverbank: “bird prints, like little letters in another language.” ancient flowers are “massive and speckled and wrong, like tongue-out faces with wavering tentacles.” Meat cooked in the smoke of a fire is “so tender I hardly have to chew and it’s delicious, like ham would be if ham was less pink and more wild.”

 Charlie Merriam loves Mandel Forest which stands at the edge of his home and town, and knows every inch of it, having played there with his two best friends, Lamont and Beaky since their early childhoods. On the eve of his twelfth birthday Charlie finds a deer’s tooth on the forest floor which he picks up to add to his “Mandel Museum”. The following day Charlie goes to visit his much longed-for, newborn baby brother Dara only to find that his parents are devastated as Dara faces a life-saving heart operation. Unable to cope with the anguish, Charlie runs to the forest, from where he glimpses the multiple windows of the distant hospital looking like a fly’s compound eye, each seeing things from a slightly different perspective. 

This is appropriate to Charlie’s sense of disorientation, when, after squeezing the deer tooth tightly in his hand he finds himself in altered surroundings. Although the familiar landmarks are recognisable, the forest seems wilder and the colours and sounds have taken on a greater intensity. Then he spots the body, face down in the stream…

Somehow, Charlie has time-slipped back to the stone-age! As he forges a relationship with Harby, the stone-age boy he rescues from the stream, he begins to realise that both of them are running from emotions too powerful to deal with. The primitive instincts for survival, for companionship, home and family are all explored.

The sense of a landscape linking the distant past with the present day is beautifully imagined in this emotional story, with the ancient Spirit Stone standing as the totemic link between past and present. The tale also conjured for me an evocation of a more carefree past when children spent their summers playing outside and roaming independently rather than being glued to a screen or tracked by worried parents through their digital devices. 

This is an exciting and thought-provoking tale, with some deeply emotional moments and some episodes of heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping, jeopardy. I would recommend it for readers in Year 6 and beyond, perfect for readers who have loved The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell  or Stig of the Dump by Clive King.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Kids UK for approving me to read an e-ARC of this story on #NetGalley

Review: Planet Omar Unexpected Super Spy by Zanib Mian

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 In his second adventure Omar once again puts his beaming “hypnosis smile” and “pester-power puppy dog” eyes to good use in a charming story about putting others first. 

After emptying his money box in an irreversible fashion, Omar decides to spend the £42-53 he has amassed on a Laser Nerf Blaster, much to the delight of his two best friends Charlie and Daniel. However, when mum tells him that their mosque needs to raise funds quickly for vital repairs, kind-hearted Omar not only donates his Nerf money but also embarks on a fundraising mission.

Omar is the most delightful character and the interactions with his friends, his lovely family and his neighbours are relatable and heart-warming. His attempt to give his tired mum a five-senses spa is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and his secret hiding place for his cash is ingenious as well as giggle-inducing!

The fun element of the book is enhanced by Nasaya Mafaridik’s illustrations and the interesting use of fonts throughout the book. Omar, Charlie and Daniel embark on organising a talent show with the support of their perfect teacher, Mrs Hutchinson, and usually grumpy headteacher and the evening is a runaway success. Then disaster! The money they collect goes missing and suddenly their spying talents are called into action as they set a series of rib-tickling traps for their suspects. 

This book has already proved very popular with children with whom I’ve shared it. Firstly the humour is perfectly pitched for children of 7+. Secondly they were very interested in the way that details of Omar’s religious practice is incorporated into the story, and how many similarities there are between this and the Christian practices we are familiar with. I think this is a huge strength of the book, giving children (and adults) an insight into a kind, fun and loving Muslim family and breaking down barriers. I imagine that Muslim and British-Pakistani children will enjoy seeing themselves reflected so positively by Omar, Maryam and Esa.

 

I received my copy of this book from Toppsta and Hachette Children’s Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Cure for a Crime by Roopa Farooki

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This fast-paced new entry into the MG detective fiction world certainly provides a story to wake you from your post-Christmas snooze and propel you headlong into the New Year.

Featuring super-bright, sassy twin sisters, Ali and Tulip, a grandmother (Nan-Nan) with hidden depths and a pair of frenemy twin brothers, Jay and Zac, the story takes off at a relentless pace and never lets up.

Ali and Tulip’s mother is a junior doctor, and as such, the twins expect her to be exhausted. However, since the instalment of her new boyfriend Brian Sturgeon into their home, mum’s zombie like state is so uncharacteristic that the girls decide to investigate. When their school teacher Mr Ofu exhibits the same symptoms as Mum, and they spot Brian Sturgeon on the school site, the two sets of twins team up to find out what the sneaky Professor, who describes himself as “Britain’s top brain surgeon” is up to.

As they navigate their way around London, the hospital where their mum works, and through school these sisters are never short of a smart reply, excuse or action to smooth their way. A unique aspect of this adventure is that the author, Roopa Farooki, herself a doctor, has infused the story with medical knowledge. The girls exhibit their life-saving skills and the appendix (very appropriate!) contains extracts from their Mini-Medix blog to further add detail. This is completely in character with Tulip’s personality and feels like an intrinsic part of her story.

As for Nan-Nan, she is a force of nature, who does not let her use of an electric wheelchair ( embellished with go-faster stripes) hinder her activities. She is the only character who can anticipate the off-grid activities of her grandchildren, always arrives at the perfect moment and has as many whip-smart replies as any teenager! She also shares the twin’s dislike of Sturgeon the Surgeon but initially tells Ali and Tulip that their mum is depressed rather than having been infected by some diabolical scheme run by the slimy boyfriend. However, once her hidden depths are revealed she puts her former “skills” to work in assisting them uncover the mystery.

This book is perfect for fans of Ruby Redford, Murder Most Unladylike and Alex Rider. Equally appealing to boys and girls, featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters and strongly showcasing the practical applications of science as well as overflowing with useful facts it is a joy to read. I certainly hope that there will be further MG adventures from the talented Roopa Farooki to come.

I would recommend it for upper KS2 children because one plot twist featuring reproductive medicine will possibly require some discussion which younger children probably will not understand.

 

I am grateful to Kate Scott and OUP Children’s Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

Review: Our Castle By the Sea by Lucy Strange

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I am ashamed to say that this book has been wedged in my “to be read” stack for almost a year; when I finally pulled it out to start reading I realised what a treat I had denied myself throughout 2019! It is a superbly crafted story, set on the Kent coast during the Second World War, told as a first person narrative by twelve-year-old Petra Zimmerman Smith.

The author, Lucy Strange, has intricately woven a tale combining local folklore about the megalithic “Daughters of Stone” and a treacherous sandbank known as the Wyrm, with a family’s internal struggles as the onset of war wreaks havoc in their lives.

Throughout, the voice of Petra illuminates the tale with her pinpoint observations, discoveries of family secrets and brave embracing of her destiny as the protector of her lighthouse “castle” and final “daughter of stone”. The supporting cast of characters are perfectly sketched, and the relationship between Petra and her older sibling Magda will be completely familiar to anyone who has shared a room with a sister. Alongside the human characters, this writer has breathed life into the lighthouse itself and the passages where the Wyrm slithers menacingly through Petra’s imagination bring a palpable tension to this adventure.

I do not want to give away any details of the plot, other than to say that I hope you will be as gripped by this unfolding mystery of family loyalties, war time saboteurs and internment as I was. I highly recommend this book for anyone aged 10+, it is another wonderful MG story for children to enjoy whilst studying the WWII history topic.

If you love this story, why not try Letters from the Lighthouseand When We Were Warriors, both by Emma Carroll and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.

Review: McTavish on the Move by Meg Rosoff

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This is the perfect book for anyone who longs for a loyal and super-smart pet dog, or anyone who enjoys realistic family stories or for any child who might be anxious about a house or school move.

In case you have not read any other books in this series, McTavish is a rescue dog, who knows that it is his duty to rescue the Peachey family – Ma, Pa, Ollie, Ava and Betty from danger or harm. He is the perfect pet!

This story starts with Ma and the children being extremely worried by Pa’s unusual behaviour – he is acting happy for the first time that anyone can remember. The author, Meg Rosoff, brilliantly captures the family’s discomfort and confusion at Pa’s change in attitude, caused by the prospect of his new job. This will involve moving to a new house, which most of the family are quite happy about. However, Betty the youngest member of the family is apprehensive about starting at a new school and it is up to the wonderful McTavish to make things right.

From an adult perspective, this is a delightful and humorous family story, produced with Barrington Stoke’s usual care and attention, an enjoyable read for anyone in Key Stage 2 and particularly suitable for dyslexic readers with its off-white paper and clear font. The family members are all fully-developed characters and the family interactions are beautifully observed. There is a gentle message contained within the humour for any child who might be nervous about moving house or joining a new school, with the addition of Betty’s rules for making friends being a lovely touch.

I am very grateful to have been sent a review copy by Toppsta and Barrington Stoke..

Review: The Boy with the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

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This new book from Victoria Williamson brims over with emotion as it flits between the alternate voices of Elin and Jamie, two very different children who are pulled together into a new blended family.

Elin is an eleven year-old, struggling to come to terms with her parents’ broken marriage and hoping that if she lives up to her dad’s “ perfect princess” label he will return to the family. When her dad left she felt “ like he’d taken my wings and the blue summer sky with him.” She clings to her precious memories of life in their previous fairy tale home and bottles up her anger at her new circumstances, only revealing how she truly feels in the fantasy story that she adds to during her lonely, friendless break times at school. 

Meanwhile, Jamie is ignored by his mum’s new boyfriend Chris, but hopes that when the three of them move to California the American doctors will be able to fix his broken brain. He wants an alternative reality to his current one of being “the boy who can’t concentrate for more than half a second before his mind’s fluttering off somewhere else like a butterfly.

When Jamie’s mum delivers the devastating news that Chris does not want him to accompany them to America, but instead he is to move in with his Dad’s new girlfriend and her daughter in Glasgow, Jamie’s violent and destructive reaction is absolutely heart-wrenching. His reflections on his anger-management issues show his struggles and his self-awareness at the same time as his utter inability to control his behaviour when the chaos in his brain becomes unbearable.

Elin is furious at this messy arrival into her home and even more enraged when Jamie joins her class at school, causing disruption to the one area where she feels in control. She labels him “the enemy” and decides that she will have to get rid of him and his dad Paul if she is to have any hope of getting her own dad back to live “happily ever after with just me and Mum.” 

The clever story structure lets you inside the minds of the two young protagonists, and seeing the tale play out through their perceived realities gives the reader an incredible empathy with the contrasting viewpoints. Elin is a difficult character to warm to, her dismissiveness of kind, gentle Paige, her absolute refusal to meet her Dad’s new daughter or girlfriend and her desire to put her fairytale family back together all begin to make sense when seen through the prism of her desolation at losing her father. Meanwhile Jamie is a hugely sympathetic character with a kind heart and a continual struggle with ADHD. In one incredibly moving paragraph he sums up his reality in these words:

It’s funny how just four letters can mean the difference between being normal and being the kind of monster whose own mother moves to a different country to get away from him.

The extreme and deceitful measures that Elin takes to remove Jamie from her home appear to be unforgivable, but the reader has to take Jaimie’s big-hearted lead and believe that redemption is possible. 

In addition to the sensitively written characters of Jamie and Elin, I think that the character of Jamie’s dad Paul is wonderfully realised especially as kind, sensitive Dads are largely missing from MG fiction. Right from the start it is clear that he goes out of his way to respect Elin’s space and to show her understanding despite her coldness towards him, and his devotion to helping his son is all-encompassing. The quietly diplomatic Paige, a lonely character who blossoms as her friendship with Jamie develops is another key element in this story.

I loved the book’s structure, progressing through the different stages of a butterfly’s development and the way that this device was included in the children’s science project. The emotional journey of Elin and Jamie’s metamorphosis into a new blended family is handled with such sensitivity by Victoria Williamson that it teaches us all a valuable lesson in empathy – both for children living with ADHD and those suffering emotionally following divorce. This is one of those books that I know will stay in my heart long after I finished reading it. 

 

I absolutely recommend this book to everyone of age 10+, and I cannot wait to see what Victoria Williamson writes next.

It is heart-warming to see that 20% of the author royalties are being donated to Children 1st, a Scottish charity helping families and children.

If you love this book, make sure you read The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by the same author.

 

Review: Planet Stan by Elaine Wickson

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Meet Stan, a boy obsessed with the solar system and owner of quite possibly the most annoying little brother in the entire universe! When he is not having to avoid the plague of snails that Fred has housed under his bed, or sidestep placing his feet in toothpaste- filled slippers, Stan likes to draw detailed maps of the planets or describe his life in pie-charts, his best friend Liam calls him Graph Vader!

The book begins with a trip to the local museum, where Fred adores the T-Rex skeleton, known as Rory, so much that he colours its toenails with his crayons. Fortunately, Stanley always carries wet wipes when he is left in charge of Fred, and averts disaster with the grumpy curator. Unfortunately, the museum plans to replace Rory with a different exhibit, which causes multiple meltdowns from Fred. The story follows Fred’s attempts to protest the removal of Rory in parallel with Stan’s attempts to win a real telescope with his science-fair presentation team.

This book is a delight to read with its short chapters, illustrated throughout with Stan’s unique pie charts, Venn diagrams and bar charts. The illustrator, Chris Judge, has created some amazing diagrams to visualise the crazy details of Stan’s existence, for example:

 

In the age of data visualisation I think that this book is a wonderful way to introduce children to these concepts. Additionally, the humour will greatly appeal to MG readers with the numerous sticky situations caused by Fred. Finally, Stan is a really sympathetic character for whom you root in his ongoing battle to produce a presentable science competition entry in the face of a continuous onslaught of snot, spilled drinks and low flying spaghetti bolognese! An excellent addition to any Key Stage 2 classroom or school library and one which I highly recommend to all readers of 8+!

If you love Planet Stan, then look out for Action Stan!

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The second book in the “Stan” series again charts the chaotic family life of Stan and his permanently sticky little brother Fred.

Fred’s new obsession is a TV adventurer named Flint Danger, and he claims that like his hero, “danger is in my DNA”. He decides to test this by signing up for the school camping trip to Whispering Woods, and Stan – lured by the prospect of light-pollution-free star-gazing recklessly volunteers as a mentor. Oh, how he will come to regret that decision!

A hilariously action and mud-packed adventure ensues which will have readers laughing and turning the pages with relish. As with Planet Stan, the fun and fact-filled text is accompanied by a marvellous range of illustrated graphs and charts created by Chris Judge.

I think that this is a wonderful series of books which will be enjoyed by anyone in Key Stage 2, and I can’t wait for the next instalment of Stan’s escapades.

 

 

Review: The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant

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I can think of no better way to summarise this book than this quote, which appears almost half-way through:

“This is the story of a girl who lost her mother and her home, and was afraid of losing her father, and needed to find herself.”

The story opens in heart-breaking fashion with Alice bidding farewell to Cherry Grange, the house that has been home to generations of Mistlethwaites for over a hundred years, culminating with her digging up the white rose bush which was planted in memory of her late mother.

She sets off with her Dad, Aunt Patience, a couple of suitcases and boxes and the plant known as mum, “driving towards an unknown and terrifying future.”

It seems that worse is to follow. In her attempts to pull Alice out of her imaginary world and force her to engage with real life, Aunt Patience has decided that boarding school will be good for Alice. She is thrust onto the sleeper train from Euston to travel to school at Stormy Loch Academy in Scotland and on the journey meets Jesse Okuyo, the youngest of 4 brothers, who longs for adventure. Stormy Loch is “an unconventional school with an approximate approach to health and safety”, run by The Major who likes to rescue waifs and strays. On arrival in the vastness of the Scottish Highlands, something about the atmosphere of the place makes Alice believe that her stories can come true…and the adventure begins.

The plot hinges around an Orienteering Challenge and a stolen jade statue, it explores parenting, teamwork and trust and weaves all of these threads perfectly.

This book had me mesmerised with its relatable protagonists, exuberant celebration of the majesty of the landscape, thrilling plot and imaginative writing. I loved the way that Natasha Farrant used her authorial voice to drop hints and teasers throughout. There were frequent, knowing nods to other boarding school books which I am sure will be enjoyed by readers, and the development of the three main protagonists, Alice, Jesse and Fergus was beautifully described. 

I can’t believe that I’ve had this gem sitting, undiscovered, in my “to be read” stack for months – I absolutely recommend that you don’t delay for as long as I have, but get hold of a copy and read it. A fantastic book for confident readers of 9+ 

This is #Book12 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.