Review: Dragon Detective Sky High! by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Scott Brown

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Publishing

The third Dragon Detective mystery, Sky High! soars into the bookstores on 1st October and I am most grateful to Little Tiger Group for sending me an early copy of the latest in a series in which I am more heavily invested than a dragon in its stash of gold!

Dirk Dilly, the orange-squash-swigging, four-metre-long, red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, Mountain Dragon Private Investigator has been hired by Mr. Strettingdon-Smythe, the curator of a London art gallery. His mission: to investigate why and how important pieces are going missing without any evidence left behind on the electronic surveillance equipment. He is distracted from this investigation by the clumsy and destructive arrival in his office of Alba Longs, a Spanish Sea Dragon with an aversion to the ‘humano’ world, who insists that he helps her discover the whereabouts of her ‘vamoosed’ sister Delphina.

Meanwhile, Holly Bigsby, Dirk’s twelve-year-old investigative partner needs his help to discover what the world’s seventh-richest man, Brant Buchanan, founder of Global Sands and prospective employer of her step-mother is planning. He is obviously using Mrs Bigsby to acquire the top secret weapon hidden away by her previous colleagues in government but what is his target and with whom is he working?

This book is infused with the smart-talking, action-packed, cynical-PI with a heart of gold vibes you encounter in an old film noir. There are more double crosses than on a piece of third form homework (no offence intended third formers) and never before in the history of MG literature has the hyphen key been in greater demand! As with the earlier Dragon Detective books, there are laugh out loud cameos provided by hapless crooks Arthur and Reginald as well as my personal favourite, Alba finding the “shell” of a tin of beans a little too crunchy for her taste. Chemistry teachers everywhere will be dancing with joy that the process of sublimation will be so well understood by future students thanks to the unique properties of sky dragons! With action spanning the diameter of the globe, from inner core to skyscraper rooftops, readers will be left gasping for air as surely as a dragon who has swallowed a mouthful of liquid fire!

Whilst you await publication on 1st October there is time to catch up on the previous two books in the series; you can read my reviews here: Dragon Detective: Catnapped! and Dragon Detective: School’s Out!

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris at Little Tiger Publishing for an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Frost by Holly Webb

As the nights draw in and the temperature starts to drop, Frost is the perfect book to warm the depths of your heart; a magical time-slip adventure featuring a journey to the London Frost Fair of 1683. Holly Webb’s storytelling sparkles and gleams like the reflected winter sunshine on a frosty path.

Young south Londoner, Cassie, leads a solitary existence with a constant feeling of being left behind. Mum is pre-occupied with baby brother Lucas and she is considered too much of a baby to be allowed to join big brother William and his friends in their football games. One summer afternoon, whilst examining the foxgloves growing in the scrubby wasteland outside her apartment block she senses a movement and spots an inquisitive fox cub. His glorious red coat, white tipped tail and cute face enrapture her and she soon becomes bewitched by the family of four cubs, although Frost as she has named the first one to appear, is always  her favourite. Dismissing the accepted wisdom that urban foxes are dangerous pests, Cassie spends her summer holiday observing and feeding the cubs. When her school-term commences she feeds them the leftovers from her lunchbox, not realising that her secret is being observed by elderly neighbour Mrs Morris!

Cassie is shown to be a generous, warm-hearted girl. She continues to feed the hungry cubs as the seasons change and the weather turns wintry, despite being told off for doing so after Mrs Morris reports on her for encouraging vermin. Additionally, she assists Mrs Morris after finding her in distress due to the broken down elevator, leading to an unlikely friendship and an education about the history of Southwark. Her relationship with Frost develops to such an extent that when she is roused from her bed by howling on the night of the first heavy snowfall, she follows her vulpine friend into a magical adventure!

I am sure that this story will be very popular with a wide range of children of age 7 and upwards; fans of animal stories as well as fans of historical fiction ( I will be highly recommending it to all the Emma Carroll and Michael Morpurgo fans of my acquaintance). The wonderfully detailed illustrations throughout add to its charm and give newly independent readers regular resting places. It is such a heart-warming tale of kindness and friendship that I urge you to buy a copy when it is released in paperback format on 1 October and perhaps gift it to a child you love as a half-term treat or a Christmas present. As an added bonus you are able to read a sample chapter of Luna, another magical animal adventure from Holly Webb at the end of this book!

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a copy of this book to review in exchange for an honest opinion.

Review: The Humans written by Jonny Marx illustrated by Charlie Davis

Cover illustration by Charlie Davis, published by Little Tiger Group

This is the type of non-fiction book that I would have loved as a child and still adore as an adult. With its large size and sumptuously coloured pages it invites you to open it out flat on a table or on the floor and lose yourself in the detail for as long as you can spare. It is certainly a book that I can imagine returning to on multiple occasions.

The book begins by chronicling the emergence of the genus Homo from apes and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens over the other species such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus. There is then an excellent map showing the migration of Homo sapiens from the original ancestor Mitochondrial Eve’s birthplace in or near Ethiopia approximately 150,000 years ago. Then the continents are explored one at a time, with their main civilisations and the contributions that these humans made, presented in detail. A feature which I greatly appreciated was the “Where in the World” inset on most pages reinforcing the understanding that similar advancements were being made in different parts of the globe at similar times whilst also making you realise how geography contributed to certain developments.

Small blocks of text and large, bold headings are complemented perfectly by beautifully detailed artwork, enabling reading for information as well as for pleasure. This book covers many of the topics included in the primary school history curriculum as well as many that are not. In my opinion this is what is so special about “The Humans”, it covers many ancient civilisations that are not usually taught in schools and thus helps to put different historical periods into context, aiding the reader’s understanding of the global development of humans. To give one example of this, I was astounded to find a double-page spread on the Micronesians and Melanesians containing information on the design of their sailing vessels and the many languages and cultures found on the islands. I had not heard of the term “Micronesia” until I was an adult and I heard it in an episode of The West Wing! It delights me to know that primary school children will have the opportunity to learn about the emergence of this culture.

Finally, the civilisations are organised in a timeline, which again highlights just how much of human development occurred in periods which are not explicitly taught in the UK. My overall impression of this book is perfectly summarised in the final paragraph, humans are “an intelligent and resilient bunch. We are the best problem solvers on the planet.” This book does a wonderful job of presenting the awesome achievements of humankind and I highly recommend adding it to any school or home library.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Group for sending me a copy of The Humans in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Trailblazers Stephen Hawking written by Alex Woolf

Cover image by Lisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger UK

This is the second biography from the Trailblazers series that I have been fortunate to read and once again it delivers on the series’ goal to inspire middle-grade readers with a story of a remarkable individual. Stephen Hawking’s life story is recounted by Alex Woolf in clear language, filled with everyday analogies which enable young readers to understand his revolutionary theories.

There is sufficient detail in this book to arm young scientists with an overall understanding of some of the key questions that cosmologists have tried to answer, and inspire them to formulate new questions of their own. If you will forgive the pun, the book starts with a brief history of the theory of black holes, presenting the key breakthroughs in understanding and naming the physicists and mathematicians involved. Alongside the chronological story of Stephen Hawking’s life this book is filled with information about new theories and discoveries in the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics. For example, the reader will learn that the term “black holes” was popularized in 1967 as the young Stephen Hawking was working as a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge University.

Many fascinating details of Stephen Hawking’s life are included, I can imagine a multitude of young readers will identify with his childhood fascination with model trains and exploring The Science Museum in London. I was very surprised to read that he had not worked particularly hard for his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Oxford, putting more emphasis on his rowing activities and socialising than on studying Physics! However, his diagnosis with the incurable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) propelled him to focus his intelligence in a way that is inspiring to any reader.

The author Alex Woolf has addressed Stephen Hawking’s life challenges and scientific discoveries in language that confident readers at the upper end of primary school can understand, assisted by excellent diagrams and illustrations created by David Shepard. I would also recommend this book to any secondary school children studying GCSE Physics as excellent background reading to their syllabus. The use of panels throughout the narrative, summarising theories or describing key contributors to the understanding of the universe, certainly aide the comprehension of some complex scientific concepts.

Aside from its value as an educational science book, this biography presents Professor Hawking as an incredibly inspiring individual who refused to let his illness define him or hold him back from pursuing his intellectual dreams. The subtitle “A life beyond limits” encompasses his phenomenal cerebral achievements despite his physical restrictions and his 1983 theory of a “no-boundary” universe. His compulsion to ask questions, propose new theories and not be afraid of making mistakes is a great example to all of us. The fact that he became a best-selling author and cultural icon, even featuring in “The Simpsons” provides empowering knowledge for any young person who might be suffering with an illness or disability. At the end of the book one of his most famous quotes is printed, finishing with the words:

Be curious.

If all readers are inspired to follow this advice then who knows what new theories could emerge to solve the many unanswered questions that still exist about our universe.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

44 Tiny Secrets by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

44 Tiny Secrets, cover image by Ashley King, published by Little Tiger

Betsy Bow-Linnet is not a coward! Unfortunately for her, she carries the knowledge that her mother considers her “A Terrible Disappointment” and regardless of the number of times that Grandad says it doesn’t matter, it is a cloud that hovers over her whenever she sits at the piano. You see, Betsy’s parents are Bella and Bertie Bow-Linnet, world-famous concert pianists and Betsy lives with them and Grandad in a grand London townhouse filled with grand pianos and ferns. Sounds very grand, doesn’t it?

Well, not for Betsy. She has had piano lessons since early childhood but her playing does not meet the levels of brilliance expected  by her parents. Even more tragically the malicious journalist Vera Brick, gossip columnist at the London Natter, broadcasts Betsy’s lack of talent after hearing her play at one of her parents’ famously glamorous and musical parties. As Betsy gloomily reflects on being a Terrible Disappointment, she receives a letter from a mysterious well-wisher, Gloria Sprightly, who claims to have heard her performance at the party and offers her a fail-safe “Method” to improve her interpretation of classical pieces. This Method involves daily practise with the eponymous 44 Tiny Secrets and builds to a crescendo of hilarity at The Royal Albert Hall!

This book is an absolute delight, Sylvia Bishop’s elegant writing is wonderfully complemented by the coloured illustrations throughout created by Ashley King (I particularly loved the diagram of the inner mechanism of a piano and the ferns which occasionally appear in the gutters of pages). The interactions of the characters and the layering of family secrets are combined with the precision of a symphony; it entertains at surface level and then you can dig deep into the themes of  expectation, honesty and acceptance. The way that the text is broken up and the addition of green into the illustrations will make this an immensely enjoyable reading experience for readers of 8+. I cannot wait to recommend it to the many young musicians at school in September.

Thank you to Little Tiger for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Poison Plot by Annabelle Sami

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, book published by Little Tiger Press

In Agent Zaiba’s second adventure, crime strikes close to home, leaving her racing against the clock to investigate the tensions and rivalry simmering beneath the surface of her tranquil village.

Since her successful identification of a jewel thief several months earlier Zaiba has been on the lookout for a new crime to solve. She is now the UK representative of Aunt Fouzia’s Snow Leopard Detective Agency, and ever-mindful of her duty to the family’s reputation, Zaiba does not want to let her aunt down. There hasn’t even been a hint of a new case so Zaiba has employed her talents in designing an immersive detective experience for her peers to enjoy at the 30th Anniversary School Fete! The entire village has been commandeered for the big day and as Zaiba dashes across the park she is sad to observe the careless destruction of the rhododendron bushes in the flower garden.

Meanwhile, her father Hassan, and younger half-brother Ali are competing against stern Aunt Raim and miserable cousin Mariam, as well as ultra-competitive Marco and his son Gabriele in the bake-off competition, and step-mum Jessica turns the village children into a menagerie of animals at her famous face-painting stall. It’s a scene that anyone who has ever been involved with a summer fete will recognise…until a blood-curldling shriek emanates from the baking tent!

What has Ms Goremain, the new head teacher with the fearsome eyebrow raise, consumed? Who baked the offending cupcake? Is her present state of distress caused by an allergic reaction or is there something sinister afoot? Can Zaiba, assisted by best friend Poppy and super smart Ali pick through the sprinkling of clues to solve the conundrum before the police arrive and stomp all over the evidence. Will her kindness towards Mariam result in a helpful new recruit to her team or be paid back with further point-scoring? All these questions will be answered as you race through the story.

I gobbled up this book in two sittings, only interrupted by my day-job! Zaiba is the most likeable character; diligent, smart and dutiful and is surrounded by a lovely family and loyal friendship. This book is a model for multicultural co-operation and will delight young readers of 8+ who will enjoy an entertaining mystery unravelling in a very familiar setting. The text is broken up by the lively illustrations of Daniela Sosa and at 228 pages the book is the perfect length for young readers embarking on the detective mystery genre. I feel certain that children from the British-Pakistani community will enjoy seeing their community so positively represented by an own-voices writer, Annabelle Sami. Equally, for children (and adults) from other ethnic backgrounds, increased understanding and empathy are huge benefits of enjoying Agent Zaiba’s exploits. The absurdities of holding grudges are made plain and like so many MG books, Agent Zaiba shows children that their instincts for kindness and acceptance are often a lesson to adults.

As headteacher Ms Goremain states, ”Our children’s voices are as important as our own.”

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

#20BooksofSummer Book 1 Dragon Detective: School’s Out! by Gareth P Jones

The second dragon detective mystery is every bit as enjoyable as the first in the series (you can read my review here), with a great cast of characters (I loved the portrayal of vain and venal headteacher Principal Palmer), sublime plotting and wry sense of humour. Some characters from Catnapped!, such as evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin and his inept human henchmen Arthur and Reg re-appear, but you could easily read and enjoy School’s Out! as a standalone story. The illustrations throughout by Scott Brown add to its charm, particularly the singed page corners.

After almost derailing her stepmother’s political ambitions following a late night incident involving blazing dragons, Holly Bigsby now finds herself incarcerated at William Scrivener School for children of the ridiculously rich and phenomenally famous. Smart, independent Holly will not rest until she has figured out a way to foil the high tech security systems and return to her best friend in London. Meanwhile Dirk Dilly, her red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, mountain dragon private eye friend has been hired by a worried wife to investigate her professor husband’s unusual and alarming behaviour.

Dirk’s investigations lead him to a hideout in the thick forest surrounding Holly’s school. The sleuthing friends find themselves caught up in the middle of another of Grandin Vainclaw’s fiendish plots involving secret high-tech weapons, squabbling tree dragons with a hilariously mangled sense of the English language, the prime minister’s delusional son and a school concert of grand drama.

Huge fun for both child and adult readers, this book is a must-read for an audience of 8+. Author Gareth P Jones packs so much into 250 pages, with a wry sense of humour and fabulously imaginative plot, I even spotted a reference to A Little Princess in the early stages. Dragon Detective: School’s Out! is a perfect addition to any school library and one to add to recommended reading lists for this summer’s #SillySquad2020 Reading Challenge. I guarantee that the dialogue between the tree dragons:

I’m sure he’ll comprestand us mistaccidentally schmunching a member of his family.”

will definitely raise a smile if you are lucky enough to read this book aloud to a young audience.

You can register to join the reading challenge at sillysquad.org.uk

My thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is book 1 of my #10BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.com, do check out her wonderful blog.

Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

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: Trailblazers Simone Biles Golden Girl of Gymnastics by Sally J Morgan

Simone Biles

The  2016  Rio de Janeiro Olympics was the time that those of us not engrossed in the world of gymnastics probably first heard of Simone Biles, as we watched her incredible performance, triumphing by a huge margin in the women’s gymnastics event.

This detailed biography charts her journey from a childhood of 32 hours per week of gym training to the top of the Olympic podium. Her ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood, when there was often insufficient money for food due to her mother’s problems with addiction, through foster care and eventual adoption by her grandfather eventually led her to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston. The book makes clear the combination of natural talent and energy, input from top class coaches and hours of dedication that contributed to Simone’s rise to the top of her sport. It also explains her diagnosis with ADHD, as well as pointing out other top sports stars who have been diagnosed with this condition.

Great care has been taken with the design and layout, making it most attractive for an MG readership. The biographical narrative is punctuated with illustrated panels explaining technical details of the sport. There is a concise history of gymnastics as a competitive sport, detailing its arrival at the Olympics and the way that the women’s competition has changed since women’s artistic gymnastics was introduced at the 1928 Games in the city of Amsterdam. I particularly liked the feature named “All around the Apparatus” dotted at appropriate points throughout the text, with its descriptions and diagrams showing the routines that Simone has pioneered and perfected.

Importantly, the book also covered the setbacks that Simone has faced, including injuries, struggling with some of the gymnastic disciplines, racism and even sexual abuse by a USA Gymnastics doctor. I applaud the author for showing young gymnasts that even those at the top of the sport have had to overcome difficult times, and presenting a clear message that they must not be afraid to speak up about any wrongful adult behaviour. In celebrating the achievements of the most decorated gymnast of all time Sally J Morgan has provided readers with many examples of what makes Simone Biles such a great role model for young people involved in any competitive sport. The illustrations by Luisa Uribe and Emma Trithart show not only the technical aspects of gymnastics, but also the obvious enjoyment that Simone Biles gains from her sport.

Overall I would say that this is a fantastic addition to the Trailblazers series and a fascinating book for anyone of 10+.

Review: Dragon Detective: Catnapped! by Gareth P Jones

IMG_3401

This is a wonderfully entertaining MG crime caper with a perfectly realised film noir feel and a liberal dose of sly humour. It’s one of those books that adult readers will gain as much enjoyment from as their young audience.

Anyone who has ever watched an old black and white private detective film will immediately recognise the familiar tropes outlined on the first page; a detective with his feet up on the desk of his unkempt office with smoke unfurling from his nostrils. Turn the page and you discover that Dirk Dilly has actually exhaled that smoke because he is a dragon! To be precise: an urban-dwelling, green-bellied, red-backed mountain dragon. 

Business is clearly less than brisk, so, uncharacteristically Dirk agrees to take on a case from 11 year-old Holly Bigsby whose cat Willow has gone missing. As Dirk begins his investigations he realises that the case is far greater than just one missing cat and involves a dastardly plan to wipe out more than just the feline population.

There are so many enjoyable aspects to this story:

 

  • The relationship that develops between friendless Holly Bigsby and outwardly cynical but soft on the inside, Dirk.

 

  • The snortingly-hilarious interaction between crooks Arthur Holt “ the brains” and Reg Norman “the muscle”. The pseudo-intellectual explanatory excuses invented by Arthur of his medical reasons for never being able to help out with the dirty work will have you honking with laughter! “I am unable to participate in any physical activity on account of a rare condition that I concocted in Africa. That is why I am the brains.” being just one example.

 

  • The seamless blending of a dragon detective, who only occassionally disguises himself with a raincoat and hat, with everyday life in modern London. Dirk is able to get around unseen by hopping across the rooftops because Londoners never look up from their screens, and if they do they just end up squabbling with each other rather than focussing on the observation of a mythical creature.

 

  • The sibling rivalry demonstrated by the dragon brothers, Leon and Mali, in the Kinghorns gang mirroring the behaviour of the human crooks.

 

  • Finally, Dirk’s landlady Mrs Klingerflim “blind as a bat. And madder than a badger”,  taking over the mantle of top fictional landlady from Mrs Hudson of 221b Baker Street.

With its short chapters, a plot that crackles with snappy dialogue and fast-moving action, and imaginatively constructed characters I think this book will appeal equally to boys and girls of 8 years plus. Both human and dragon characters come alive in a tale laced with humour and heart and interesting questions are raised about the identity of the real villains; megalomaniac dragons or neglectful, ambitious, political parents!