#MGTakesOnThursday: The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher

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: Anna Fargher

Illustrator: Sam Usher

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019

Favourite sentence: 

Without mistakes, your life will never know adventure

As I was listening to the audiobook, I’m afraid that I do not know the page number, but this quote leap out at me as I listened.

This book in three words: Bravery – Loyalty – Resistance

I like to use the #MGTakesOnThursday meme to review books which are not newly published, but, for various reasons, I missed reviewing when they were new to the shelves. This week I am opting to review a book that has been on my radar to read since seeing it highly praised by many bloggers I admire, including Mary who created the #MGTakesOnThursday meme. I’ve had a mini reading slump due to the workload of the day job and working on my professional chartership, so took the opportunity to listen to the audiobook of The Umbrella Mouse when I spotted it on the marvellous BorrowBox app from my local library. The plight of Pip Hanway, the eponymous heroine, completely resonated with the current dreadful situation unfolding in Ukraine and I am sure that many school librarians and teachers of children aged 10 – 13 will be using this story to help young people understand and empathise with those who have lost homes and family due to war.

Pip’s life of comfort, living inside a historic umbrella in the Bloomsbury-based store of James Smith & Sons is shattered by a doodle-bug bomb, which leaves her homeless and orphaned. The only thing she has left to cling onto is the Hanway Umbrella, the first umbrella to have been used in England, and she decides that she must return this artefact to the Umbrella Museum in Gignese, Italy. Quite a task for a small mouse kitten in wartime! She persuades Dickin, a search and rescue dog to help her in this quest. After some hair-raising narrow escapes in the underground pipelines of London, Dickin introduces her to representatives of Churchill’s Secret Animal Army and she overhears a plan to send a coded message to animals working for the resistance effort in France. The impetuous mouse finds a way of using this plan to make her way across the English channel, during which time she puts her own life and that of a German rat, Hans, in peril.

Although Pip is the main character in the story, I have to admit that my favourite was Hans. I loved his story arc as a German rat who had at first been enticed by the Goliath rats working for the Nazis, and who had subsequently turned his back on them after seeing their wicked deeds and escaped to join the resistance in France. This portrayal of redemption and his noble bravery throughout the story are likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads this book. I was also impressed at the change in Pip’s character; at the outset her goals are to protect her history and heritage by returning the Hanway umbrella to its rightful place in the Umbrella Museum and to seek the last surviving members of her family in Gignese. However, her adventures, camaraderie and narrow escapes with the heroes of the resistance have an impact on her outlook and we see her mature and encompass their attitudes and values as the story progresses.

The author Anna Fargher has very cleverly anthropomorphised the story of the resistance fighters in WWII so that brutal facts of war can be presented at the right level for a middle grade readership. The admirable qualities of duty, loyalty and courage in the face of extreme adversity as well as betrayal from a saboteur, are brilliantly portrayed in her animal characters; the plot unfolds at a rapid pace; and the tension builds so impressively that I was tempted to speed up the playback on the audiobook! I must mention one final touch that made me fall in love with this book: very early in the story a teenage girl comes into the umbrella shop to buy a birthday present for her father and I was delighted that my assumption that she was based on Judith Kerr was confirmed in the author’s notes at the end of the story. I thought that this was an utterly lovely touch in a hugely impressive WWII story. I highly recommend The Umbrella Mouse for all readers of 10+.

At the current time, when we are again witnessing the dreadful plight of refugees fleeing across Europe, I will once again recommend When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to everyone of 10+.

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 Fiction Review: The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M. Howell

Cover image by Rachel Corcoran, to be published by Usborne 31st March 2022

A story that starts with a scene at The British Museum, one of my favourite places to visit, was always likely to be a hit with me, and this is a beautifully written middle grade adventure from one of the best current authors of children’s historical fiction. Set in 1948, it provides children with an insight into the post-war period of hardship and rationing, within the context of a gripping page-turner.

When Ruth Goodspeed and her mother, Harriett, embark on an archaeological investigation at a remote farm set in the bleak landscape of The Fens, little do they realise that they will not just be scraping away layers of earth covering ancient artefacts; family and personal secrets and mysteries will also be laid bare. Mirroring the meticulously patient art of the archaeologists, the author slowly brushes away at the surface of her characters, gradually revealing the emotions, anxieties and pain buried deep within. The characters that emerge are so believable, with flaws and mis-steps combined with good intentions that you just can’t help rooting for them. 

A.M. Howell’s writing style is wonderful in its ability to lure you in and propel you through the story. You rapidly lose yourself in the mystery, making it very difficult to put the book down or cease to think about the characters and their plight even when you have to break away and return to everyday reality! She conjures the flat, mist covered, dank, ditch drilled Fen landscape with its sudden explosions of birdlife magnificently. I love the image of this landscape providing farseeing horizontal viewpoints for those who wish to spy on their neighbours as well as a vertical view down to our history, buried and preserved in the damp earth. The comparisons between life in the bombed out ruins of cities such as London and Norwich and the hardships of rural life during and immediately after the Second World War are sympathetically portrayed through Ruth’s reflections on her experiences and the tales that she hears from farmer’s son Joe. The realisation that similarities can be found in what initially appear to be drastically different circumstances are thoughtfully uncovered, increasing that empathy that children can develop through reading great literature.

The story is perfectly pitched to entertain a middle-grade readership of 9+, featuring a race against time to uncover buried treasure, save a family’s livelihood and home, and unravel hidden mysteries. The evolving friendship between Ruth and Joe after a resentful beginning is developed believably and the mutual support between two children adapting to different family circumstances is portrayed with great positivity. I can also imagine this book being a valuable addition to primary school classrooms with its factually-based portrayal of the post WWII years, the actual hiding away of national treasures from the great museums during the War, as well as the way that ancient historical finds are handled and investigated to shed light on our past. At the end of the story the author provides factual details on some of the real treasure hoards that provided inspiration for this book. I understand that publishers Usborne will be providing additional online resources to accompany publication of this book.

I am most grateful to Usborne and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of The Secrets of the Treasure Keepers in advance of publication.

If you want to read more of A.M. Howell’s magnificent MG Historical Fiction, I highly recommend The House of One Hundred Clocks

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.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Week at World’s End by Emma Carroll

MG Takes on Thursday image created by @marysimms72, book cover illustration by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

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: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

Publisher: Faber & Faber Ltd

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

When I told Ray what I’d found, I wasn’t sure he believed me.

page 11

This book in three words: Use Your Voice

The Queen of Historical Fiction swoops into the swinging 60s, plunging her devoted readers into the week during which the course of world history hung in the balance. 

Opening a new Emma Carroll novel is like a homecoming. You know what to expect: the domestic details of family life welcoming you in with a hot cup of tea, although when you step inside the furniture has been updated and someone you met as a twenty-something is now married with children.

Emma’s magic is to blend the domestic setting entirely seamlessly with her historic research so that you are utterly transported to whichever era she has mapped out for you. Her next sleight of hand is to take you inside the mind of a child so that you experience this new world firsthand and her writing is so expertly crafted that from page one until the final sentence you are utterly bound up in the adventure that unfolds before you.

I stood for a moment, enjoying how peaceful it was to not hear Bev yakking on, or the radio playing hit song after hit song because Mum, who hated silence, had barely switched it off since Dad died.

p3

Stephanie (Stevie or even Vie, to her closest friend) lives with her mother and older sister Beverley, at World’s End Close, a cul-de-sac backing onto wasteland adjacent to an American airbase. We learn early on that her father’s death occured very rapidly after the onset of an illness that wasted him away when he returned from military duties in an unnamed location exotic enough to give him an impressive suntan. To adults reading this story aloud it will be obvious what has happened to him, but Emma knows and respects her young readership and metaphorically takes their hand when revealing what has befallen him. 

Stevie’s next door neighbour and best friend is Ray, the son of an American airman and an English mother ( who Carrollistas will recognise from previous novels). Their friendship is built on their “otherness”, shunned by the other children at school, he because of his skin colour and Vie because she is so quiet, lacking in self-confidence and, in my interpretation, struggling with dyslexic difficulties.

Right from the opening pages, you are plunged into a world under threat from the Cuban missile crisis, with Ray’s family crowded round the television news listening to a speech given by their hero President Kennedy about the incoming threat from Russia and its communist ally Cuba.

Whilst Ray is captivated by this speech from his rock-star President, Vie becomes increasingly impatient as all she wants to do is drag him round to her woodshed to show him the “dead body” she has just discovered. When she finally gets him to accompany her, the dead body turns out to be a very much alive teenager who has “taken charge of her own destiny” and claims to be on the run from poisoners! With child-like trust, Vie and Ray do everything in their power to help Anna whilst the building tension of impending nuclear war envelops the adults around them in fear and dread. I am not going to describe any more of the plot details because I do not want to ruin your enjoyment of the brilliant unfolding and linking of plot. Instead I will concentrate on the things that make this book one that I enjoyed thoroughly.

The almost telepathic friendship between Vie and Ray, who can communicate with each other just with a nudge; they loyally support each other and extend their friendship to mysterious runaway Anna recognising a fellow outsider in need of help. The issues of nuclear weaponry are explored in a manner entirely appropriate for an upper end of middle grade readership. We see all sides of the argument as presented by different characters. Nana, their late father’s mum, initially supports the idea of all countries holding nuclear weapons as a deterrent, whilst Beverley signs up to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and dumps her “mod” boyfriend when he tries to stop her from organising a protest march. Ray’s father works at the American airbase where nuclear weapons are stored but is presented as a loving family man, just trying to do his best for family and country. The mystery of runaway Anna and the poisoners from whom she is escaping is expertly woven into the narrative and is gradually unravelled to a hopeful conclusion. Finally the power of finding and using your voice to speak up for a cause you believe in, is effectively portrayed. 

The publication of The Week at World’s End was delayed by the pandemic, but ironically reading it in the light of the past eighteen months highlights many parallels of life being lived under threat from a fearsomely destructive force. The appreciation of the small joys in daily life that it can be so easy to take for granted will, I am sure, resonate with Emma Carroll’s legion of Middle Grade readers.

If you enjoy this book, then I highly recommend Emma’s previous novels, some of which I have reviewed in earlier blogposts:

The Ghost Garden

Strange Star

The Somerset Tsunami

When We Were Warriors

Secrets of a Sun King

Letters from the Lighthouse

#20 Books of Summer 2021 hosted by Cathy at 246 Books

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

I’m hastily posting before the end of the month, that I am looking forward to again taking part in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy who writes the marvellous 746books.com blog.

Since moving jobs at the start of this year, I will no longer have a long summer holiday in which to read therefore I am going to set myself the modest target of 10 books this summer! I have to admit that after a long day spent mostly staring at a screen, there are some evenings when I just can’t face reading for an extended period, so I definitely cannot consume books as quickly as I used too. Looking back at my post from this time last year I notice that The Mirror and the Light is making a second appearance, which is a prime example of my lack of reading time over the past 12 months! I am hoping to re-discover my reading mojo and just as importantly I shall look forward to reading the reviews that other bloggers, taking part in this challenge, will post.

My list contains a mixture of MG and adult books, physical and e-books. One, Purple Hibiscus, is a re-read as it is this month’s choice for one of my book groups, and the solitary non-fiction title, The Book About Getting Older reflects my new job in an NHS library. Several of the MG books have been sent to me for review by publishers and one was a very kind gift from a blogger friend, Rachael, bellisdoesbooks.wordpress.com which I feel terribly guilty for still having in my TBR stack.

7 physical books from my TBR
3 e-books, 2 of which are book group choices

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

#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: The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Kaja Kajfež

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 art by Kaja Kajfež, published by Barrington Stoke

Author: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Kaja Kajfež

Publisher: Barrington Stoke

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Who’d hit their brother so hard as to break his leg, eh?”

This book in three words: Friendship – Prescience – Upheaval

A new book from “the Queen of Historical fiction” Emma Carroll is always worth celebrating and I was delighted to find that one of my favourite authors had been commissioned to write for dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. Readers who have followed my blog will know that I am passionate about books that encourage dyslexic readers. I was first introduced to the publisher Barrington Stoke by a marvellous specialist dyslexia tutor who worked with one of my own children many years ago. I am so pleased that they now publish books by highly regarded children’s authors so that dyslexic children can benefit from reading the wonderful fiction that these authors produce; not feel any sense of stigma that they are reading “different” books; and be given a gateway to perhaps tackling longer books or possibly listening to audiobooks by the best writers for children.

This novella is set in the summer of 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War and although not a first person narrative, it is very much told from the point of view of Fran, daughter to the head gardener of a fine country property named Longbarrow House, owned by Mrs Walker. Emma Carroll has the extraordinary ability to capture the essence of her protagonist’s personalities in a few lines of dialogue and you soon realise that Fran is a curious mixture of no-nonsense, hardworking, emotionally-intelligent working class child who has an imaginative side which is open to the possibility of ghostly occurrences. She feels inferior to the noisy, fussy, rich grandchildren who arrive from their boarding schools for the summer holidays preferring to keep out of their way and avoid the teasing of the young twins and the superior attitude of Leo, the eldest.

However, when Leo’s leg is badly broken by a cricket bat and Fran finds herself assigned to be his companion for the summer, an unlikely friendship and some supernatural manifestations develop. The illustrations by Kaja Kajfež throughout the book not only give readers a chance to pause but also add to the spooky atmosphere.

Despite writing a short book, which gives less confident readers the optimum chance to finish it and feel the accompanying sense of achievement, Emma Carroll has crafted a perfect treasure of a story. The tension mounts throughout the narrative as Fran and Leo investigate the archaeological landscape whilst rumours of impending war swirl in the background. The depicted change in normal social relationships predicts the upheaval and change about to be inflicted on the norms of society by the declaration of war with Germany. I would highly recommend this story to all readers of 9+ and for those who are discovering Emma Carroll for the first time and perhaps want to try something slightly more challenging next, I would suggest Skychasers, The Snow Sister, her book of short stories When We Were Warriors before moving onto Letters from the Lighthouse, Secrets of A Sun King and my all-time favourite Strange Star.

Finally, I would just like to give a shoutout to The Rocketship Bookshop from whom I was able to purchase a signed copy of this book. It is so vital that we bookworms do our best to support independent bookshops to help them survive in these uncertain times. I usually try to buy books from an independent bookshop in my own town, but as my daughter owns all of Emma’s books in signed format I was desperate to continue adding to her collection. Not only did this lovely bookseller supply me with the perfect copy, they also wrapped it beautifully as you can see from the picture above! (I am not an affiliate of this bookshop, I just want to give praise where it is due.)

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Closest Thing To Flying written by Gill Lewis

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.

One of the many reasons that I love this meme created by Mary Rees is that it presents the opportunity to revisit great books published in previous years, which can so easily be overlooked as blogs generally focus on new releases. This week I am looking at a book first published in 2019, which presents a perfect combination of historical fiction and present day refugee story, The Closest Thing to Flying.

Cover image by Paola Escobar, published by OUP Children’s Books

Author: Gill Lewis

Illustrator: Paola Escobar

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ The ink had bled into the cloth, but Semira could read the words, The Feather Diaries.”

This book in three words: Courage – Kindness – Empowerment

This beautifully written novel combines the story of Henrietta the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy feather merchant in Victorian London with the modern day experience of Semira, a twelve year-old refugee from Eritrea as she tries to find a better life for herself and her mother in London. Such is the skill of Gill Lewis, that she has crafted a powerful and deeply moving story which has remained with me long after first reading it.

The tale opens with Semira impulsively buying an old-fashioned hat, along with its accompanying hatbox, from a London street market when the bird ornamenting the hat elicits a deep-seated memory. Closer inspection of her purchase back “home” in the single room she shares with her mother in a house run by Robel, a people-trafficker, reveals the bird to be a real stuffed specimen and the discovery of the diary written by Henrietta Waterman in the 1890s, referred to in the quote from page 11 above.

Hen’s diary unfurls a story of escape from the confines of Victorian society’s expectations of female behaviour as Hen is taken under the wing of her rebellious Aunt Katherine (Kitty) and becomes involved in the women’s suffrage movement and the foundation of the RSPB. Her realisation of the horrors inflicted by her father as he exploits wildlife for profit reveal the provenance of the Abyssinian lovebird on the hat, and her courage in breaking with etiquette in order to ride a bicycle both help to embolden Semira.

Meanwhile, Semira has to face another new school and the continued agony of seeing her noble mother isolated and controlled by Robel. This aspect of the story is written very sensitively so that children of 10+ can understand what it must feel like to go without food, not be allowed access to the internet and have your life completely controlled by someone, without the details ever becoming too overwhelming for this age group. Older readers will be able to infer much more, such is the perfection of the writing.

The school setting provides some lovely additional characters. Holly and Chloe, on the surface the sort of “cool” girls that Semira would usually avoid, are the two buddies who show her the ropes and develop into kind friends, and Patrick who is bullied for being different and is a fellow lunchtime “library refugee”. As the friendship with Patrick develops and the recognition that he and his mother had to flee from the imprisonment of domestic abuse (again handled very sensitively), an escape route beckons for Semira and her mother.

I love the structure of the story with chapters alternating between Semira’s struggles in modern day London and extracts from Henrietta’s diary, which emboldens Semira to take action against her predicament. Throughout, the motif of the caged bird, plucked from its homeland and exploited by greedy capitalists is used to great effect, as is cycling as a metaphor for flying free from the shackles in which some people are trapped.

I think this is one of the finest examples of a story which is both an incredibly satisfying and enjoyable read as well as providing so many lessons in empathy without ever seeming sanctimonious. It places you in the shoes of others for a short time and helps you understand the hardships they suffer and also demonstrates how the recognition of the suffering of others followed by kindness and mentoring, can make such a huge difference to individual lives. This is certainly a book which should be available in every school or upper KS2 classroom library.