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.

Series Review: Clifftoppers written by Fleur Hitchcock

Cover image by Tom Clohosy Cole, published by Nosy Crow

I was very fortunate to win a set of the three Clifftoppers Adventures written by Fleur Hitchcock, in a Twitter giveaway, and thought I would take the opportunity to read them before placing them on the school library shelves.

What an absolute joy these books are, the epitome of pleasurable reads!

I can trace my own voracious reading habit back to my childhood “Blyton interregnum” (thank you Lucy Mangan for that magnificent description) and know how compelling child-centred adventures can be for an emerging reader. Fleur Hitchcock, a truly talented author, has created a series which serves up the delights of adult-free mystery solving in the beautiful British countryside. As I read these stories I could almost hear the cries of the seagulls and the rattling of the masts of the yachts in the harbour, smell the farmyard aromas and feel the sting of bonfire smoke in my eyes. They transported me back to carefree childhood summer holidays!

Each book is a self-contained adventure taking place while four cousins; brother and sister Ava and Josh, and only-children Aiden and Chloe get together at their grandparents’ farmhouse during the school holidays. Grandma Primrose and Grandpa Edward own Clifftopper Farm perched above Drake’s Bay, an idyllic getaway for their city-based grandchildren. Their farm dog Bella also plays a key role in the children’s adventures. The stories have a timeless feel to them and although the children are equipped with mobile phones, moorland and coastal locations seem to result in non-existent phone signals at key moments, which perfectly heightens the tension.

These books are just the right length for emerging independent readers to read for pleasure; the short, fast-paced chapters propel you through the story and provide a real sense of accomplishment as a young reader can complete one story in a relatively short time. Just make sure that you have the next one waiting for them on the bookshelf.

The Arrowhead Moor Adventure

Setting off on their first bike ride of the holiday, armed with a delicious picnic lunch (provided by Grandad, who refreshingly does all the cooking in this series) the children and Bella are almost run over by the impatient driver of a bright red sports car. Her aggressive manner immediately leads to suspicions in the children’s minds and when Aiden overhears her having a strange conversation with the owner of The Three Witches pub, followed by Chloe eavesdropping on a mysterious telephone conversation the children decide that the glamorous woman is up to no good.

Each of the four cousins has to call on reserves of determination and bravery as they pedal across moorland paths on the trail of jewel thieves and sheep rustlers, piecing together the clues to foil audacious crimes. 

With short chapters, often ending on cliff-hangers, this is a book which provides an excellent introduction to the detective adventure genre and will have young readers avidly seeking out the next book in the series.

The Fire Bay Adventure

As the story opens the children have just arrived at the farmhouse on the day before the annual Drake’s Bay Fire Festival, at which a huge bonfire is ignited on the beach by villagers carrying flaming tar barrels on their heads. Josh, the youngest and most demanding of the cousins is rather put out to discover that his eldest cousin Ava may take part in the barrel running whilst he is firmly banned from doing so!

The story cleverly combines ancient and modern smuggling plots, with a long-forgotten secret passage which has become part of the local lore making a surprise appearance, a spate of suspicious fires breaking out and dodgy deals in electronic goods being transacted at the harbour. Again the four tenacious children, aided by Bella and a terrified homeless cat, piece together the clues, give chase to the villains and show the bravery and teamwork required to bring the smugglers to justice.

The Thorn Island Adventure

This is my favourite of the series so far, partly down to the addition of a map at the front of the book – I do love to pore over a map!

Published during lockdown, this adventure will allow young readers to vicariously enjoy a thrilling coastal getaway, even if they have spent the summer holiday firmly rooted at home. With echoes of Swallows and Amazons, the eldest of the cousins, Ava, demonstrates her prowess as a sailor in this adventure as the four children try to track down a stolen fishing boat but find themselves investigating a kidnapping.

Whilst scanning the bay and the little offshore Thorn Island in search of the missing fishing craft both Chloe and Josh spot a mysterious face in a tower window. They manage to persuade Ava and Aiden that there may be a link to the newspaper reports of a child abducted from super-rich parents in London. Their daring rescue mission will have readers breathlessly following the twists and turns required to outrun a ruthless gang on land and on sea!

I do hope that there will be further additions to the Clifftoppers series as these are books which I can imagine 8-11 year olds devouring more quickly than Josh can demolish a plate of Grandad’s scones!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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

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

Author: Robin Stevens

Illustrator: Nina Tara

Publisher: Puffin/Penguin Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

” All right,” said Daisy. “But – oh, if only something interesting would happen!”

This book in three words: Detective Society Forever!

It’s been a few weeks since I read and reviewed this perfect finale to the Murder Most Unladylike series and every time I spot it on the bookshelf I just want to pick it up again! I am still in awe at the way that Robin Stevens pulled all the threads together to complete the collection and I am so pleased that the book has become so successful.

To read my full review of Death Sets Sail, please click here – you will also find links to my reviews of all other books in the series.

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 3: Kidnap on the California Comet by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrator Elisa Paganelli

This is the third of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, an event hosted by Cathy on her 746Books.com blog, do read her posts and those of all the other wonderful book bloggers joining the challenge this year.

Having loved the first Adventures on Trains book, I was delighted to be approved by NetGalley to read an eARC of Kidnap on the California Comet. Once again a rollicking adventure unfolds as Hal and his Uncle Nat rattle and clatter their way across an iconic train route.

Travel journalist, Nathaniel Bradshaw, has been personally invited to cover a press conference at which billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur, August Reza, will unveil his latest innovation. Mr Reza shares Nat’s love of trains and has his own luxuriously refurbished 1940s observation car, Silver Scout, hitched to the California Comet. The press conference is due to be staged at the Durham Museum, once one of the country’s busiest train hubs but now a train museum, in Omaha.

Hal is delighted to accompany Uncle Nat on this rail trip of a lifetime,  a three-day adventure from Chicago to San Francisco and despite his jet-lag he doesn’t hesitate to start recording his journey in his sketchbook as he waits in the grand surroundings of Union Station, Chicago to board the train. He soon makes friends with a brother and sister, Mason and Hadley, who are roughly his age, not realising that their special talents for magic and impersonation will be of great use in unravelling another mystery.

As the train picks up pace across the broad expanse of the American plains, Hal feels a growing sense of unease, sensing an undercurrent of subterfuge. Why does Ryan, the teenager with elaborate dental brace-work appear so terrified of his gym-coach father that he tries to pass on a coded message? Why is Vanessa Rodriguez in the roomette opposite so brusque? Is glamorous journalist Zola trying to steal his uncle’s story? Are there really spies from Reza’s rival company Zircona on board the train, and would they stoop low enough to kidnap Marianne, his twelve-year-old daughter? Is Seymour Hart, the businessman with a metal suitcase clamped to his side at all times, training in stolen secrets?

Like its predecessor, this book is infused with a love of rail travel and trains. The story glides through technical details and descriptions as smoothly as service in a first class carriage, leaving the reader satiated with knowledge.  This time there is also a palpable sense of the conflict between nostalgia for old technologies, such as Uncle Nat’s fountain pen and the glamorous 1940s style train carriages, and the desire to embrace new technologies whilst thinking about their impact on the environment.

The illustrations by Elisa Paganelli throughout are an absolutely integral part of the story as they represent Hal’s finely detailed observations. His insightful sketches are the method through which he details the world around him and the basis for his crime-solving conclusions. 

This book will be devoured by young readers looking for an engrossing adventure to read for pleasure. However, I can also see many ways in which it could be used as a class reader to sit alongside curriculum project work: the Americas geography unit, DT/STEM work on design of transport and as a basis for discussions on clean energy and environmental concerns. In summary I highly recommend Kidnap on the California Comet to anyone of 8/9+.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books for approving my eARC request.

My review of the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief can be found here.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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: Helen Castles

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from page 11: “I whipped out my phone (that Dad said I’m only supposed to use in emergencies) and googled ‘antigen’.

Three words: Detective – Editor – Mystery

This is a perfect introduction to mystery stories for lower KS2 readers with a feisty lead female protagonist and unusually, manages to combine a technology-driven modern day plot with a nostalgic, small-town feel. My original review, which includes an interview with the author Helen Castles, can be read here.

A second book in the series should appear in October, release has been delayed for obvious reasons. I cannot wait to read it!

#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.

#20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 246 Books

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

I am excited to take part in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy  at 246books.com for the second year running.

Learning from my experience of last year, when I managed to read 18 books, but failed miserably to keep up with the reviews, I am going to set myself the modest target of 10 books this summer! I have definitely lost by ability to concentrate since the Covid-19 crisis began and although books offer a great deal of comfort, I definitely cannot read as quickly as I used too. Additionally, I intend reading two long books (The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantelland Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell) this summer which I will not be reviewing as my blog focuses solely on books for primary school-aged children.

So, here it is; one summer, three months, 93 days, 10 books! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

10 books from my TBR stack to be read and reviewed this summer. Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens will be published in August, I will drop everything to read it the day it appears!!

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.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on the brilliant Book Craic blog.

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

thieves ostia

 

Author: Caroline Lawrence

Illustrator: Peter Sutton and Fred van Deelen (mosaic)

Publisher: Orion Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “They had almost reached the umbrella pine when the boy looked back, stopped, and reached towards his belt.”

This book in three words: Ancient Roman Adventure

Once again for this feature, I am returning to a book which I read several times before I started my blog. As you can probably tell from its battered appearance, this book has been much-loved by my family. My chosen sentence marks the point when Flavia Gemina, the central protagonist and only daughter of a widowed Roman sea captain, is rescued from a pack of wild dogs in the necropolis behind her villa. Her noble rescuer is Jonathan, a teenage boy who has recently moved in next door. Together with an African slave-girl, Nubia and a mute beggar, Lupus they set out to investigate who is responsible for killing the dogs of Ostia and find themselves delving into the criminal activities of the ancient Roman port of Ostia.

I love this book and the subsequent sixteen in the Roman Mysteries series which still sit proudly on a bedroom bookshelf. In classic ‘whodunnit’ plotting Caroline Lawrence dispenses her knowledge of the classical world with such lightness of touch that children cannot help but absorb facts as they accompany the young detectives through thrilling adventures. I cannot recommend this series highly enough to any Key Stage 2 child studying the Ancient Romans, and for adults who read these as bedtime stories I can only say that I have found myself answering “University Challenge” questions purely based on knowledge gained from The Roman Mysteries!

One final comment, if you ever get the chance to take your child to one of Caroline Lawrence’s events, book a ticket immediately. Her talks are utterly fascinating, she answers all questions with kindness and she signs books with a phrase in Latin, which is totally inspiring, especially for children who attend state school and might not get this inspiration otherwise!