MG Review: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers by Clare Povey

Cover illustration by Héloïse Mab, publisher Usborne, 7th July 2022



A fast-paced adventure, set in Paris during the 1920s, featuring a band of orphans and their allies, confronting a conspiracy to bring down the government and reinstall a ruling monarch! This timely tale based on the persuasive power of words, held me gripped as I consumed it on a train journey last week. The continuing battle between young story-teller Bastien Bonlivre and the despotic Odieux brothers, Xavier and Olivier, twists and turns like a Parisian alleyway as they grapple for the hearts and minds of the citizens of the City of Light. Although this is the second in the Bastien Bonlivre adventures it can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel thanks to author Clare Povey including sufficient details from the backstory.

We start with orphan Bastien discovering that Olivier Odieux has walked free from court, leaving his younger brother Xavier to take the rap and be jailed for the murder of Bastien’s parents. It soon becomes apparent that Olivier has hatched a plan worthy of a megalomaniacal supervillain, aided by the descendants of an ancient secret organisation, the Red Ink Society. As the power-crazy fiend and his associates begin to sow chaos on the streets of Paris, Bastien and his friends from the Orphanage for Gentils Garçons along with accomplices, Mathilde and Alice, must track down the clues to uncover the dreadful secret that led to his parents’ deaths. The narrative moves at a cracking pace as the clock ticks down to the final denouement at the launch of the Exposition Universelle in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I loved the fact that Clare Povey has wrapped some highly pertinent sociological ideas into this exciting story, revealing the ways that power-hungry individuals can seek to manipulate the masses with the use of propaganda. I feel sure that creative upper key stage 2 teachers will be using this entertaining story as a class read aloud and incorporating the questions it raises into PHSE and media literacy learning opportunities. The sprinkling of French vocabulary is defined in a glossary, adding another educational layer to this highly entertaining read. The large cast of characters means that many children will be able to identify with one of the protagonists, ensuring engagement throughout and I particularly loved that strong adult role models were included in a story about orphans. Overall, I highly recommend The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers to all readers of 9+ who enjoy immersing themselves in fast-paced adventure. It is available for pre-order from good booksellers and will be available on 7th July 2022.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Usborne for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Empathy Day Review: Wished written by Lissa Evans

Cover image by Sarah McIntyre, published by David Fickling Books,
May 2022

Every so often I come across a book that captures my heart so powerfully that I bang on about it endlessly to those who know me in real life, and purchase multiple editions to give away. I suspected that I would love the latest MG title from Lissa Evans as I am a huge fan of her writing (for both adults and children) and I had read great reviews by two of the bloggers whose recommendations I always trust. However, I really was not prepared for how much I would love it. The phrase “modern classic” is often bandied around – but this story genuinely has all the ingredients to deserve this accolade in my opinion. Reading it gave me the same sense of utter joy that I first felt when I discovered Five Children and It by E Nesbit as a child, one of the characters gave me Just William vibes and the intricately constructed comical wordplay had me laughing out loud in the same register as the Jeeves and Wooster stories by PG Wodehouse. With the deft touch of a writer who is utterly confident in her craft, Lissa Evans has created a story which is deeply moving, wildly imaginative, perfectly plotted and hilariously funny. I don’t expect to read a finer book this year.

There are five main characters in this story, brother and sister Ed and Roo (Lucy), Ed is about 10 and Roo about eight; a boy called Willard who has just moved into the neighborhood; an elderly neighbour Miss Filey, and the most gloriously imperious cat, Atlee. The plot is based on the fact that the birthday candles from Miss Filey’s abandoned 10th birthday party have lain in a drawer for fifty years until Roo lights one of them for Willard’s birthday cake…and their magical power to grant wishes is unleashed. Suddenly the most boring half-term holiday in the entire history of the universe becomes a thrilling journey through a book of fantastical adventures!

The interplay of the characters is absolutely brilliant and the character development over the course of a 250 page story is quite incredible. Ed is a wheelchair user and is clearly not comfortable with the sympathetic comments of strangers or the fact that he has become the face of a fundraising campaign to raise the money to make his family home more accessible. His character is depicted with great skill so that he actually appears as a real ten year old with a complexity of character traits rather than just a two-dimensional figure to raise an issue. He can be quite abrupt and sarcastic, and actually treats his little sister Roo quite selfishly at times. She clearly looks up to him and will do anything to protect and look after him, while he takes her devotion for granted. It takes their new neighbour Willard with his blunt outspokenness to point out to Ed that he should show some gratitude to Roo for everything that she does for him.

Willard is a self-labelled “class clown”. As the son of a vicar he has moved frequently and clearly uses humour to settle into new school environments. Initially, Ed resents this newcomer who might take his position as the boy who amuses the class but they develop a mutual respect and friendship as the story progresses. I really enjoyed Willard’s character; big-hearted, kind and always finding enjoyment in any situation.

Miss Filey is a spinster in her 60s, who has cared for her parents all her life, putting her own dreams on hold for many years. The children consider her to be terribly boring when they discover that she is going to be looking after them for half term, but as they find out about her background and begin to see the girl she once was, they form a wonderful bond with her. The tacit understanding and poignant conversation between Ed and Miss Filey towards the end of the story, where the roles of adult and child are touchingly reversed, is liable to have you reaching for a box of tissues.

Finally, a great deal of the comedy is generated by Atlee an extremely smelly cat of advanced years who exhibits the most acerbic sarcasm that I have encountered in a middle-grade novel. I marvelled at the way his character generated moments of utter hilarity, whilst delivering withering one-liners and simultaneously trying to conceal his genuine affection for Roo in particular. I am not and have never been a cat person, but Atlee is one of the greatest animal characters I have discovered in fiction.

I don’t want to describe any of the magical adventures for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the perfectly crafted plot. However, I will say that along with the perfectly crafted adventures, I loved the emphasis in the narrative of choosing your words carefully to ensure that there is no ambiguity in what you might say, or wish for. In a novel in which it appears that every single word has been selected with care, I thought this was wonderful.

I have chosen to review Wished for Empathy Day 2022 because this is one of those stories where you get a real insight into the characters’ motivations for the way they behave as the story unfolds, and you also witness the characters developing an understanding of each other, followed positive actions to improve each others’ lives. The utter joy of the book is that it is so astonishingly well written that you absorb these messages by some kind of magical literary osmosis whilst revelling in the outrageously funny story. There is an increasing amount of academic research into the positive benefits of reading fiction for developing our ability to experience empathy; this year’s theme is “Empathy is our Superpower”. Read Wished and you will certainly become an Empathy superhero! I think this would be an absolutely brilliant book to read aloud with children, whether you are a teacher, librarian or parent/carer, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

MG Review: Knight Sir Louis and the Sorcerer of Slime by The Brothers McLeod

Cover image by Greg McLeod, published by Guppy Books, June 2022

Saddle-up for a seriously silly story featuring slime-drones, invasive garden gnomes and a gelatinous monster with a desire for world domination! This third book in the Knight Sir Louis series is guaranteed to cause outbreaks of uncontrollable laughter in middle grade classrooms up and down the land, and don’t worry if you haven’t read the earlier books – there is a handy guide to the characters at the start, so this can absolutely be enjoyed as a standalone story.

And what a cast of characters! Knight Sir Louis is the hero and despite still being a boy he exhibits all the skill, bravery and intelligence of a king’s champion, which is the position we find him in at the start. With his trusty mechanical steed, Clunkalot, and his magical sword, Dave, he manages to fight off an invasion of garden gnomes before breakfast! Unfortunately, King Burt the Not Bad is also not too clever and is rather easily duped by the oleaginous stranger, Squire Lyme, who arrives at Sideways Castle and charms the king with obsequious flattery and a bag of green gummies! Squire Lyme is soon knighted to become Sir Lyme, manages to replace Louis as king’s favourite and sets a slimy and fiendish plot in motion. As Knight Sir Louis embarks on a quest to save the kingdom you’ll meet ogres, witches, a two headed dragon, a slime sorcerer’s apprentice and my favourites; a pair of most unusual librarians who inhabit a LIBRARY SHAPED LIKE A BRAIN! This story is an absolute riot of wacky characters, crazy situations and laugh out loud jokes.

The sibling partnership of Miles (writer) and Greg (illustrator) McLeod has created a hugely enjoyable book to entice a middle-grade readership. Their brand of non-stop action adventure packaged in a highly illustrated style, with very distinctive cartoon-style drawings ensures that their stories are accessible to readers who are not necessarily attracted by long text-heavy books. I think that is it wonderful for upper KS2 classrooms and school libraries to be able to offer this book in their collections, to encourage children to read for sheer joy. Knight Sir Louis is a character that everyone can get behind and root for, he embodies chivalry, never flinching from an unpleasant task and is brilliantly supported by loyal allies throughout. I love the illustrative device of always depicting him with his helmet on so that we never get to see what he looks like, thus every child can imagine themselves as the hero of this story. This is very appropriate as one theme that emerges from the sticky plot is that children are heroes, capable of solving problems and should be listened to rather than dismissed just because of their tender years.

I found so many appealing aspects in Knight Sir Louis and the Sorcerer of Slime that I will be donating my gifted review copy to a local Year 4 classroom where I am sure that it is going to provide many hours of reading enjoyment.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for sending me this copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGReview: The Lost Girl King by Catherine Doyle

To be published in September 2022 by Bloomsbury

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

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

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

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

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

p189

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

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

p231

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

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

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

Review: The Animal Lighthouse by Anthony Burt, illustrated by Ciara Flood

Cover art by Ciara Flood, published by Guppy Books,
May 2022

Ahoy landlubbers! Here’s an adventure to gladden the hearts of animal-lovers and pirate-fans in equal measure. Featuring talking, inventive animals and a dastardly pirate crew this story is like a hybrid of Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and a cartoon series called Noah’s Island that my kids used to love! It is illustrated throughout with gorgeous black and white drawings by Ciara Flood which present a classic feel to the story.

Twelve-year-old Jim lives a charmed life on a desert island surrounded by a menagerie of fabulous animals who have raised him since he washed up on the shore as a baby, in a rum barrel. The extensive cast of animals who live with him in the island’s lighthouse are wonderful, each has a distinctive personality and I’m sure that all readers will find their own personal favourite. I was torn between Oskar, the paternal, spectacle-wearing, orangutang with his blend of kindness and inventive engineering skills, and the consistently “hangry” raccoon, Ravi, who adds a dash of humour when situations get hairy!

Despite his harmonious existence, Jim betrays a sense of curiosity for the world beyond the island and at twelve years old is desperate to know more about his human family. There is a slight edge of tension between him and Oskar, whom he suspects, knows more than he has revealed. With a pirate ship spied on the horizon and the tungsten filaments stolen from the three lightbulbs which keep passing ships away from lethal rock formations, as well as disguising the island’s existence, Jim has to embark on a race against time to restore the lighthouse beam before dark. Accompanied by Ravi, three rigging rats, a millipede and a parrot, Jim sets off on an action-packed quest across the less hospitable parts of the island, encountering an intriguing selection of wildlife. Without wishing to give away any spoilers I will just say that the cut and thrust of the action will leave readers as breathless as a pair of sword-fighting pirates.

The Animal Lighthouse is a thrilling work of imagination with elements that are sure to be popular with children of 8+. The underlying themes of what constitutes family and the lengths that family members will take to protect one another, along with the ecological harmony of animal and human existence, are deftly woven into the narrative. There is one note of caution that I would sound to librarians and teachers: one of the pirate crew repeatedly uses the word “bleedin'” as an intensifier in his dialogue, which I believe is more commonly used in Ireland than in England. I think it might cause some comments from parents of children at the younger end of the age range for whom this story would appeal, so it’s worth knowing about in advance. That said, this is a swashbuckling yarn which ends on a note which leaves me hungrily anticipating a sequel.

I am grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for my gifted copy of The Animal Lighthouse in exchange for my honest review.

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

Cover illustration by David Dean, published by Nosy Crow 2022

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

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

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

Author: Christopher Edge

Illustrator: David Dean

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

We need you to find the answer.

page 11

This book in three words: intelligent ~ optimistic ~ innovative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Villains in Venice by Katherine Woodfine

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

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

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

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

Author: Katherine Woodfine

Illustrator: Karl James Mountford

Publisher: Egmont (now Farshore)

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

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

This book in three words: Elegant Pre-WWI Espionage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aboriginal belief

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

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

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

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books UK

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

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

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

Author: Thomas Taylor

Illustrator: Cover – George Ermos, internal – Thomas Taylor

Publisher: Walker Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Do you remember your first Ghastly Night?

p11

This book in three words: Thrilling Shadowy Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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