#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Smuggler’s Secret by Annabelle Sami

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, published by Little Tiger Press 3rd February 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: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

The History Club Outing to Chesil Bay – Conducted by Ms Loretta Talbot – Your child/ren is/are cordially invited to a historical exploration of beautiful Chesil Bay.

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

In her fourth mystery adventure Agent Zaiba once again finds herself with a puzzle to solve, an investigative team to manage and a race against the clock to complete her mission! This illustrated fiction series, pitched at a readership of 8+ goes from strength to strength, with Zaiba growing in confidence and the members of her Snow Leopard Detective Agency increasingly providing the collaborative support she needs for her sleuthing endeavours. 

One of the reasons that I love this series is the way that Annabelle Sami has portrayed inclusivity so naturally throughout the stories. Zaiba is part of a blended and very loving family. Her own mother died whilst on a mission for The Snow Leopard Detective Agency when Zaiba was very young; Zaiba remains very close to her Aunt Fouzia who continues to run the detective agency in Karachi and feels a close bond to her mother through the annotated ‘Eden Lockett’ mysteries that she has inherited. However, there is no doubting the warm, loving relationships between stepmother Jessica, half-brother Ali and Dad, Hassan who all play significant roles in all the stories. Additionally, on the theme of inclusivity, I think this is the first middle grade story that I have read where a character is referred to using the pronouns they/their/them. 

Zaiba is determined, patient, methodical and above all kind, demonstrated in the way she welcomes cousin Mariam who has caused much upset in previous volumes, into the junior Snow Leopard team. In return, Mariam proves to be a logical and confident detective. Once again best friend Poppy’s flair for fashion and drama plays a key role in the investigation, as does Ali’s quick-thinking intelligence. There is enough introductory detail in the story that you can read this as a standalone without having to have read the prior books, although I suspect that young readers will want to read the entire series.

All the young detectives have joined the after-school history club and are excited to be taken on a weekend expedition to Chesil Bay. They are to visit an old sunken shipwreck and see the ancient and valuable artefact that has been found within, which is to be displayed in the local museum before being returned to its rightful home in India. Zaiba’s detective instincts are finely tuned and even before they arrive at Chesil Bay she is suspicious of an old gentleman travelling on their train! The setting of Chesil Bay, with its historical tales of smuggling and ancient caves with rumoured secret passages is the perfect location for this ‘closed room’ style mystery which reaches a crescendo during an amateur dramatic re-enactment of the smuggler’s story. I also enjoyed learning a little more about Zaiba’s mum’s story, which is revealed by a character from her past who makes an appearance.

The author has cleverly blended Zaiba’s school history investigation of TheEast India Company with the ancient artefact from Assam, incorporating themes such as slavery and the necessity to return cultural artefacts to their rightful owners. This is woven through a tale packed with twists and turns, plenty of humour and illustrated throughout by Daniela Sosa. It is pitched at just the right level, in both style and content, for children of 8+ who are ready to read independently but still appreciate images to enhance comprehension and to create natural pauses in the text. 

As a bonus at the end of the story, you get an extract from ‘The Cottage on the Cliff’ by Eden Lockett, which Zaiba has been reading throughout the school trip. Additionally there is a brief history of smuggling and a template so that readers can create their own Scrapbook of Legends in the style of the one that Aunt Fouzia has compiled. 

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press and NetGalley for allowing me early access to an electronic proof prior to publication on 3rd February 2022.

If you enjoy this book, you might wish to check out the others in the series: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds, Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot and Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House.

Let’s Get Festive! Blog Tour: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

Image created by Erin Hamilton

This December I am delighted to be one of Santa’s little book bloggers, bringing you reviews of a selection of great books to put you in the festive spirit. Each day one blogger will present you with a seasonal favourite which we hope you might enjoy reading during the holiday season!

I love pretty much everything about Christmas and have read a vast range of Christmas books over the years, so it was quite a struggle to select just one! However, one of my favourite genres to read on a cold winter evening, tucked up by the fire as the weather does its best to send shivers down the spine, is detective fiction, particularly from the golden age writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Therefore my choice for this blog tour is Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens.

This is the fifth book in Robin Stevens’ brilliant series of Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries and combines an intriguing plot with a wonderfully atmospheric Cambridge setting and my favourite festival, Christmas. It really is a perfect example of detective fiction for a confident reader of 9/10+ to enjoy independently, or for adults and children to share during the Christmas holidays.

Set in the few days running up to Christmas 1935, the story begins with the Honourable Daisy Wells and her best friend Hazel Wong (The Detective Society) travelling to Cambridge to spend their school holiday visiting Daisy’s older brother, Bertie. From the very outset this book grabbed my interest because on the train journey Daisy is reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers which would have been newly published at the time and which is one of my favourites! In echoes of that classic work, Daisy and Hazel are to stay at a fictional women-only college, in this case, St Lucy’s, where Daisy’s Great Aunt Eustacia is a mathematics don. Additionally, they team up their detective investigations with their friends Alexander Arcady and George Mukherjee, known as The Junior Pinkertons; although Daisy is aggrieved that simply because she is a girl, she cannot access some colleges in order to carry out all the investigations herself.

Her brother Bertie is at the fictional Maudlin College where he has become friends with twins, Chummy and Donald. The elder twin, Donald, is due to inherit his family’s vast wealth on his 21st birthday on Christmas Day. According to Bertie, Chummy has always been the dominant brother and is furious that he will inherit nothing and is trying to persuade his brother to let him have a say in how the money will be spent. Bertie also tells the girls about the unkind pranks that Chummy plays on Donald as well as some details about a series of accidents that have befallen Donald recently. Alexander and George have heard similar stories from George’s older brother Harold, and a note left for Daisy and Hazel by their former Head Girl warns them that Bertie is mixing with the wrong crowd. The four junior detectives decide that a plot is afoot and a tense investigation to try to avert a tragedy unfolds.

There is something so satisfying about reading a beautifully structured detective mystery, trying to sift the clues from the red herrings and solve the puzzles before the fictional sleuths. Robin Stevens gives us not only a tremendous plot, but continues to develop Daisy and Hazel’s characters, places you in the heart of an ancient university and weaves feminist themes into the story too. The archways, lanes, steep college stairwells and walled gardens of Cambridge become spookily atmospheric in the deep winter nights:

it felt as though the shadows had real weight to them here, or perhaps it was only that the streets were all so narrow, and the walls so very high.

page 42

Hazel is experiencing the painful emotions of first love, flustered and embarrassed every time she talks to Alexander and mortified that he seems to only have eyes for Daisy. Meanwhile, Daisy has met her intellectual match in George, the first person who is able to see through her charm offensive to the deep intelligence that she has hidden from everyone but Hazel.

The racist attitudes of the historical period are explored as are the prejudices against women in the intellectual environment and wealth inequalities. The contrast in fortune between the male college, Maudlin, and the female college, St Lucy’s, is perfectly outlined in the descriptions of the food on offer at each. When the girls are invited to supper at Maudlin they are treated to a feast of roast beef, whilst at St Lucy’s supper comes from a tin! As in all the MMU books, food, and especially bunbreak is taken extremely seriously and the descriptions of the warmth and bustle of the festively decorated Fitzbillies tea rooms bring moments of Christmas cheer to the story, as Chelsea buns and steaming cocoa are consumed whilst theories and clues are discussed. As an aside, if you ever find yourself in Cambridge, you really must try the sticky buns from Fitzbillies! Daisy and Hazel’s friendship and loyalty to each other shines through every page and the importance of finding a “family” who love and respect you for what you are is a key thread.

In summary, if you want to exercise your intelligence whilst enjoying a thrilling work of historical detective fiction then this is my recommendation for your December reading list. Do check out all the other stops on the blog tour for a fabulously wide range of other recommendations.

If you are interested in the other MMU books, you can read my series review here and my review of the final book Death Sets Sail here.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Girl Called Justice The Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths

Cover image by Nan Lawson, published by Quercus/Hachette Children’s Group 2021
#MGTakesOnThursday image designed by Mary Rees

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: Elly Griffiths

Illustrator: Nan Lawson

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Children’s UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

She had tried to be brave (she remembered repeating an old saying of mum’s to herself: ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’) but, deep down, she’d been terrified.

p11

This book in three words: school – kidnap – mystery

This is the third of the Justice Jones mysteries, a wonderful MG mystery series set in a 1930s girl’s boarding school, written by renowned crime writer, Elly Griffiths. The sentence I have chosen demonstrates Elly’s skill at conveying an impressive quantity of information with an economy of words. Firstly, even if you haven’t read the two preceding books, you can pick this one up and immediately catch up with the protagonist’s back story. Secondly, you gain an insight into Justice’s character; she is not only a keen observer of her school mates and the staff at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk but she also demonstrates an empathetic personality as she tries to put herself into the shoes of a new classmate.

As she returns to school to begin the third form, Justice is pleased to catch up with her dorm-mates and Dorothy, the maid that she has befriended. However, relationships are put under strain by the arrival of the Hon Letitia Blackstock who imposes herself between Justice and her former best friends, Stella and Dorothy, leading to resentment and jealousy. Letitia’s apparent fearlessness and reckless behaviour leads Justice into deeper and deeper trouble with Miss de Vere, the headmistress and expulsion looms large on the horizon. When one of the third form goes missing following a midnight feast, Justice has to use all of her ingenuity to uncover the kidnappers, restore her own standing and save the school from closure.

There are many enjoyable aspects to The Ghost in the Garden. Firstly, the plot cracks along at a good pace, chapters are short, often ending on cliff-hangers which propel you through the story. Justice’s character is very well drawn, showing her independence and intelligence but mixed with a healthy dollop of self-doubt, which makes her a very believable and relatable character for young readers. The author’s use of her journal and notes home to her father, to record reflections and feelings, are clever devices for personality insights. The strained relationships with friends when a newcomer has to be accommodated are scenarios that many youngsters will experience in school and seeing these dilemmas played out in the story can provide comfort and a degree of guidance. The world of Highbury House is beautifully portrayed, from the disgusting school meals, to the entertaining cast of teachers and pupils and the atmospheric construction of the school ghost legend; all add greatly to the entertaining plot.

I have blogged many times about books which fall into the “read for the pure pleasure of reading” category, which are so essential if we want to instil a life-long love of reading in primary school children. At just under 200 pages, the Justice Jones series is perfect for readers of 8+ who are building their independent reading stamina. They are ideal for children who enjoy the Scoop McLaren Books by Helen Castles, the Clifftoppers books by Fleur Hitchcock, the Agent Zaiba books by Annabelle Sami and are an excellent precursor to the Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine, the Jane Austen Mysteries by Julia Golding or the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens.

The other Justice Jones books are:

A Girl Called Justice

A Girl Called Justice: The Smugglers’ Secret

Review: Jane Austen Investigates The Burglar’s Ball, written by Julia Golding

Publishing on 22nd October 2021, Lion Hudson plc

The second book in the Jane Austen Investigates series, The Burglar’s Ball, is every bit as exciting and entertaining as the first, The Abbey Mystery. This is MG historical/detective fiction at its finest, an intelligent heroine, a mystery to solve, a cracking cast of memorable characters and a plot that will keep young readers intrigued.

Jane reluctantly accompanies her beautiful, older sister Cassandra to a Summer Ball at their old boarding school in Reading, a place filled with unhappy memories for Jane who was not a favoured pupil, unlike Cassandra. On arrival, it is apparent that Madame La Tournelle has organised the ball to rescue her school from its perilous financial position. She is doing whatever she can to attract new boarders from families who have the new-found wealth of The East India Company to pay for their daughters’ education. In preparation for the social occasion of the summer a dashingly handsome dance master, Mr Willoughby, has been hired and accompanying him is a freed slave, named Brandon who has natural musical talent. While Cassandra, the wealthy young Warren sisters and their orphaned cousin Lucy swoon over Willoughby, Jane is far more interested and compassionate about Brandon’s situation, and catching up with her friend Deepti who is now running a bakery in town with her father. Additionally, Jane’s sharp, inquisitive mind gets to work thinking about Madame’s lack of French vocabulary and the London accent that slips out when her guard is down! When a valuable diamond necklace is stolen on the night of the Ball it is up to Jane and her new friends to prove the innocence of an unjustly accused individual and discover the real culprit.

Julia Golding’s writing reflects that of the real Jane Austen in its perceptive examination of the social structure of the 18th century and particularly the role of females and wealth or lack of it, within society. She is also, with the privilege of hindsight, able to include some discussion of the exploitation of the people and resources of the colonised lands which generated much of the wealth enjoyed by those holding prominent positions. She does so through the eyes of the young Jane, so that this insight is provided as an integral part of the story and doesn’t slow the plot.

I am sure that The Burglar’s Ball will be a particular hit with readers of 9-14 who enjoyed The Abbey Mystery, and the historical detective and spy fiction written by Robin Stevens and Katherine Woodfine. Once again, there are cleverly constructed letters to decode and the narrative of characters from the first book are continued. The story also provides an enjoyable reading experience for those adults who might be reading aloud to children, or even for their own pleasure. If, like me, you are a massive Jane Austen devotee you will thoroughly enjoy the Easter eggs that author, Julia Golding, has scattered throughout the story; a knowledge of the original character names will certainly provide a head start in solving the mystery! This particular mystery draws on Sense and Sensibility for inspiration and one of the loveliest aspects for me was the portrayal of the sisterly bonds between Jane and her older sister Cassandra as well as Marianne and Elinor Warren, reflecting the narrative arcs of the Dashwoods in the original novel. Sharp-eyed readers will also spot plot points which reflect some of those in Pride and Prejudice. Overall, I rate this as a thoroughly enjoyable historical detective mystery, perfectly pitched at the upper KS2 and KS3 readership; a great read for pleasure in its own right and also a gentle introduction to the novels of Jane Austen.

I am most grateful to the publisher Lion Hudson for sending me a review copy, prior to publication on 22nd October 2021, in exchange for my honest opinion.

If you enjoy this book, why not try the Murder Most Unladylike series, the Sinclair’s Mystery series or the Ruby Redfort series.

For younger readers looking for a great introduction to spy and detective fiction, I recommend Mickey and the Trouble With Moles or Scoop Mclaren: Detective Editor.

#Blog Tour: Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery written by Julia Golding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that combining a favourite genre with a favourite author is a combination to thrill the soul of a book reviewer!

I am so delighted that the blog tour for Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery brings you to my review today. I simply could not believe my luck when I was offered a proof copy of this first book in a new series by acclaimed author Julia Golding (whose earlier books were hugely enjoyed by my daughter when she discovered them ten years ago). A historical mystery featuring thirteen-year-old Jane Austen as the investigator; it is simply all of my bookish dreams come true.

From the very first paragraph the reader is swept into teenaged Jane’s life in a small Hampshire village in 1789, where her lively mind and adventurous spirit feel stifled by the restrictions placed on female behaviour. For those readers not familiar with Jane Austen’s works the clues come thick and fast. As she walks a country lane trading insults with older sister Cassandra we are told that:

“Words were Jane’s greatest treasure and she spent hers carefully”

And a few pages later Jane’s mother declares:

“Your wit will make you infamous one day”.

Following the opening scene and its resultant carriage accident, Jane is sent in place of her older sister to Southmoor Abbey where she must act as a lady’s companion to Lady Cromwell during the week-long preparations for her son’s coming-of-age ball. Her reluctance to fulfil this post is made bearable when her older brother Henry challenges her to find proof of the existence of the legendary Abbey ghost, the Mad Monk, said to haunt the ruins of the Abbey buildings destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.

Setting out to uncover this mystery Jane soon finds herself needing to use all her ingenuity and observational skills to unravel the layers of intrigue as horse theft, library fires and deeply buried secrets threaten to send an innocent man to the gallows. Her intelligence, straight talking and courage radiate through the grand country estate as she brings her sharp moral focus, honed by her upbringing as the daughter of a clergyman, into an establishment run by a bully. I don’t want to go into a detailed description of the plot for fear of giving away any spoilers but I will say that the characters populating the novel are wonderful and brought to life through Jane’s perceptive dissections of their personalities. Additionally the story is peppered with “Easter eggs” which anyone who has read the works of Jane Austen will recognise and enjoy.

The fate of servants living entirely at the mercy of rich landowners; young women encouraged to marry to ensure their status in society and estates which could only be inherited by male heirs, all of which are explored in Austen’s novels are included as themes in this mystery. The inclusion of Lord Cromwell’s former bodyguard and his daughter, brought to Hampshire after Lord Cromwell’s time in India and forced to work as a chef and laundry girl is a fascinating touch. It opens Jane’s eyes to the empowerment of women allowed in other cultures and also to the callous and unfeeling treatment of people from overseas. I also loved Jane’s coded letters to Cassandra which appear through the story.

Author Julia Golding has used her academic knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen to create a fascinating portrait of her teenage heroine. Not only is her laser-sharp perception of personalities, the social order and behaviour explored but there is also plenty of historical context added to the story. Details of the East India Company and the changes expected in society following the American Civil War help the reader to understand the environment in which the Austen family lived. The story is constructed in short chapters, driving the narrative at a fast pace and often ending on cliff-hangers, making this a perfect book for a class read.

I can still picture the day (many years ago now) that my English teacher, Miss Lewis, introduced my class to Pride and Prejudice by reading aloud Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, which started my love of Jane Austen’s writing. I can see this book igniting that love affair with Jane Austen’s novels at an even earlier age, as this book is perfect for primary school pupils in upper key stage 2.

I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the historical fiction of Emma Carroll, the historical detective mysteries of Katherine Woodfine and Robin Stevens or the recently published Egmont middle grade adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I am grateful that I was sent a free proof copy by Lion Hudson in exchange for my honest review, I have pre-ordered no less than three copies already to gift to tweens and teenagers of my acquaintance!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House written by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: ‘But even if these events aren’t caused by a ghost, we simply have to investigate’.

This book in three words: Inclusive – Detective – Mystery

Agent Zaiba and her team of young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency are back for their third adventure and this time there may be supernatural forces at work!

Who or what is behind the spooky events at Oakwood Manor, where vases crash to the floor splintering into thousands of shards, plates fly from the kitchen shelves and expensive jewellery vanishes into thin air? With talk in the village of ghostly hauntings or wicked jinn persecuting the new owners of the ancient manor house, it is up to Zaiba and her cool-headed team of junior investigators to discover the true culprit.

In a gripping plot filled with strange disappearances, secret passages and a cast of suspicious grown-ups, young readers will be engrossed in trying to sift the clues from the red herrings. This story fits all the conventions of the “cosy crime” genre, from the setting in a grand manor house surrounded by ancient woodland, to a house party taking place on a storm-ruffled evening attended by a collection of guests exhibiting perplexing behaviour. The short, dialogue-filled chapters generate excitement and tension but in a style and tone perfectly suited to readers of 9+. The addition of Daniela Sousa’s lovely artwork highlights key points in the story and gives young readers a chance to break from the text and mull over their deductions and theories.

Middle grade readers have an amazing range of detective mysteries to choose from these days, I find myself quite envious! (In my childhood the choice was Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and then Agatha Christie). The Agent Zaiba books have hugely broad appeal because they are so effortlessly inclusive of everyone. This inclusivity is embodied in the main protagonist Zaiba, who, in each story welcomes new recruits into her detective agency with appreciation for the unique talents that they bring to her team. In Zaiba’s character Annabelle Sami has created a wonderful role model for young readers; demonstrating the benefit of teamwork, openness to all possibilities, positive encouragement and leading by example. All of these empowering messages are encased in an entertaining mystery story – what more could you ask for?

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House will be published on 1st April 2021. If you can’t wait until then to join Zaiba’s team of investigators, check out the first two books in the series:

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds

and

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot

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

Review: Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates written by Angie Lake, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Mystery of the Disgusting School Dinners

The first book in  this exciting new series for emerging readers is called The Case of the Disgusting School Dinners and is perfectly written and designed to appeal to readers ranging from confident 7 year olds to those older KS2 readers who are still looking for the perfect book to set them off on a lifetime of reading pleasure. Printed on buff-coloured paper with playful use of different fonts and fully illustrated throughout, this is a book which makes reading an enjoyable experience for those children who might find densely-formatted text rather off-putting. I applaud the publisher Sweet Cherry Press for producing these books which can act as a gateway for emergent readers.

Of course, all the clever formatting in the world won’t keep a child engaged unless the characterisation and story are equally enticing…and in Mina Mistry we have a bright new star earning her shiny detective badge! Mina Snotbridge is a smart, observant and ingenious mixed-race child, with a caucasian father and Indian mother. She tells us that she chooses to use her mum’s maiden name as her secret, undercover detective name because it sounds like mystery and it’s just a whole lot better than her dad’s surname! I love the way that the story has been organised as Mina’s case notes and log entries so that the information is condensed in a style entirely consistent with a detective story, keeping the plot moving at a good pace.

Mina’s best friend, Holly Loafer, is obsessed with planning her future career as a pop star and chasing after the only boy at school with a sense of style, Gareth Trumpshaw! They might seem like complete opposites personality-wise, but they prove that complementary skills lead to great teamwork. Granny Meera is another larger-than-life character, running her catering business Cooking con Fusion, with recipes such as onion-bahjis-in-the-hole and full English breakfast samosas. As Mina helps Granny Meera to prepare some fusion snacks to sell at the school fun run the realisation dawns that the sugar and fat-laden school lunches do not reflect the healthy eating messages that the school is trumpeting. With her detective antenna on full alert Mina enters investigation mode and formulates a plan to discover why the school cook Mrs Mudge is serving up meals designed to rot teeth and pile on the pounds!

Author Angie Lake has created an excellent story to introduce young readers to the delights of the detective mystery genre and the story has been wonderfully illustrated throughout by Ellie O’Shea. Mina is an engaging character, the plot is entirely recognisable and relatable to its intended audience and the story contains a perfect blend of intrigue and humour. Much thought has gone into the design of this book, from the glossy cover, to the sprayed edge pages and the easy-to-read content. This is exactly the sort of book to give children the positive experience of finishing and enjoying a story and introducing them to the tropes of a genre of which they can find many more examples, once their reading motivation has been engaged.

The great news is that book 2 in the series has already been published and there are hopefully more to come!

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Case of the Disappearing Pets

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

The second book in the Mina Mistry series has the same playful tone and great design as the first story, this time packaged in a glossy lilac cover with matching sprayed edges. This time the investigation takes place during Showcase Your Pets Week at Mina’s school, a hilarious set up with children bringing in such delights as shoe-boxes full of garden snails and over-accessorised hamsters! However, it doesn’t take long before a spate of pet-thefts breaks out. Holly’s hamster, Harriet; Danny’s toad, Superdog and the entire animal population of the town’s pet shop. When Mina decides that PC McApple needs assistance to crack the case she enrols her classmates to track down the pet thieves.

With a plot full of model train sets, night-time expeditions through the town’s sewers, cosmetics research and an animal sanctuary, this is an entertaining story presented in an easy-to-read format. Alongside the fun of the investigation the story gives young readers the chance to think about the way that pets are treated and basic ethical questions about business. I recommend to anyone of 7+.

The publishers have produced a wonderful pack of engaging activities for each of the Mina Mistry books. You can find the resources for Book 1 here and the resources for Book 2 here.

I am most grateful to Sweet Cherry Publishing for my review copies of the Mina Mistry books in exchange for my honest opinion.

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

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

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

Author: Helen Castles 

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

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

This book in three words: Sunny – Surfing – Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.