Review: The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett, illustrated by David Dean

Cover illustration by David Dean, published by Welbeck Flame

A time-travel adventure so enthralling that the hours will appear to stand still as you read; this second Butterfly Club adventure is not to be missed!

I must start this review by admitting that I have not read the first Butterfly Club adventure, The Ship of Doom (which I plan to remedy very soon) but this in no way impacted on my enjoyment of The Mummy’s Curse, which contained all the elements that I have sought in stories since I was in the readership age for this new MG novel. The blend of actual historical details with a brilliantly imagined time travel scenario and writing that flows like the River Nile, carrying the reader along effortlessly, conspired to ensure that this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

The three child protagonists, Luna, Konstantin and Aidan are all children in the Victorian era and members of The Butterfly Club, a secret organisation which meets weekly in a hidden chamber at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. There, they use a time train invented by H G Wells to travel forward in time and collect artefacts which will speed up the progress of human invention, hence their label as “the time thieves”. In The Mummy’s Curse, the time thieves are sent from 1894 to November 1922, in the company of medical doctor turned detective novelist, Arthur Conan Doyle. Their mission is to ensure that of the multitude of archaeologists seeking the tomb of Tutankhamen, the British team led by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter is successful, and to ensure that whatever is discovered is claimed for The British Museum.

The way that M.A. Bennett combines the actual historical facts and fleshes out real personalities from history is astonishingly skilful. As a reader I was utterly transported to the dry, gritty heat of The Valley of the Kings and could sense the delight of the famous writer as he uses his skill with the written word to instigate the rumour of the curse of King Tut and achieve his goal. The fictional children are totally believable, each acting in ways which appear totally natural given their backgrounds. I particularly loved the elegant and honourable Prussian character Konstantin who arrives in 1922 with no knowledge of the role of many of his countrymen in WWI. He is horribly insulted and ostracised by Lord Carnarvon but uses this experience to empathise with and build a supportive friendship with the Egyptian tea boy, Abdel, who plays a heroic role in the fictional and real story. Another aspect of this story that I adored was the dash of humour injected by the constant enquiries about the author’s motive in killing off Sherlock Holmes; no matter which era Arthur Conan Doyle happened to find himself in. I found this to be both amusing but also interesting given the nature of Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.

I will not discuss any more plot details as I would not wish to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the way this story unfolds. Suffice to say that I found it utterly satisfying and I know that I would have loved to read this at the age of nine or ten. The juxtaposition of Victorian attitudes to plundering the cultural and economic capital of other nations, with the determination of a newly independent nation to retain their own cultural artefacts is presented in a way that will encourage young readers to debate these issues and could lead to some interesting classroom discussions. I whole-heartedly recommend The Mummy’s Curse to all primary school and secondary school librarians, I think this is a book that will engage readers from nine to early teens. I should also mention that there are some lovely greyscale illustrations by David Dean, within the chapters. I especially appreciated the hieroglyphics during a brilliantly tense escape room episode!

If you enjoy The Mummy’s Curse as much as I did, there is a third book in the series due in April 2023, The Mona Lisa Mystery, and you will find a short extract at the end of this book!

I would like to thank Antonia Wilkinson and Welbeck Flame for sending me a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Little Match Girl Strikes Back written by Emma Carroll, illustrated by Lauren Child

Cover image by Lauren Child, published by Simon & Schuster,
October 2022

Anyone who has followed my blog, or followed me on Twitter for any length of time will know that I am a huge fan of Emma Carroll’s writing. I also spent many hours reading Lauren Child’s picture books, chapter books and MG series with my youngest, so I was obviously going to purchase a copy of The Little Match Girl Strikes Back with the greatest expectation of enjoyment. It genuinely exceeded my expectations! I literally could not put it down until I had devoured the entire story, this is one of the finest collaborations between writer and illustrator that I have seen and I am so delighted that it renders Emma Carroll’s extraordinary brand of historical fiction into a format enjoyable for a slightly younger age group. This re-imagining of the classic fairy tale is perfectly pitched for readers of 7/8+ with short, pacey chapters; lots of white space between the text and those “striking” illustrations!

As you would expect from this author, the story is recounted in the first person by Bridie Sweeney, a young girl living in poverty with her mother and younger brother Fergal in the East End of London in the Victorian era. From her opening statement you immediately get the impression that Bridie has a spark of rebellion and a desire to improve the situation in which her family exists. She is fully aware of the injustice in the dangerous and exploitative working conditions that her mam and the other female workers at the Bryant & May match factory have to toil under. It does not shy away from the direct impact that working with white phosphorus had on the workers’ health and the way that this inconvenient fact was ignored by the factory owners. The research that has gone into this narrative is worn lightly, the tale lays out the stark contrast between rich and poor and the daily grind for survival in an environment where the poorest appear to have very little agency to improve their lives.

Based on actual historical events, this story combines elements of fairytale into Bridie’s story with stunning effect. The contribution of Lauren Child’s distinctive illustrations beautifully highlights the power of one bright spark to illuminate a dark world. Bridie’s flaming red hair stands out on every black and white spread, and scattered throughout the text are red-tipped matches or red flames as the smouldering embers of resentment flare into protests and strikes. I don’t want to give away the ending or too much of the plot, but will simply say that this would make a fantastically inspiring present for any child of 7 and above. I can imagine that it will be greatly loved in primary schools and I hope that it will be received by many children in their Christmas stockings and perhaps shared as a family story. As we appear to be plunging back into glaring economic inequality, its empowering message will perhaps bring some hope for better times.

#MGReview: Never Forget You by Jamila Gavin

Cover illustration by Ellie Lonsdale, published by Farshore, July 2022

A work of historical fiction, written on an epic scale covering the years leading up to World War II and an imagining of the war-time roles played by four school friends, this new novel by prize-winning author Jamila Gavin is inspired by the real-life resistance hero Noor Inayat Khan. It is a hefty 500 page novel which doesn’t gloss over the brutality of war and is suitable for mature readers at the top end of primary school as well as those in secondary education.

We first meet the fictionalised Princess Noor as she is dropped off by her father, a Sultan and Sufi holy man, to the relative safety of an English boarding school in 1937. However, even as she is placed under the wing of Gwen – who has grown up in India, the image of a buzzard circling her father’s limousine foreshadows the looming threat of war. Noor has an other-worldly personality with deeply held spiritual beliefs which are severely challenged as the atrocities of war become apparent. Gwen is very protective of her and particularly shields her from the mocking humour of flamboyant, aspiring actress Dorothy (Dodo). Noor’s gentle and empathetic personality brings outsider Vera into their friendship group, and this previously self-contained individual slowly reveals the story of her heartbreaking escape from the pogroms in Poland. The four girls are bonded by their isolation from family; Gwen’s parents serving the British Empire in India, her older brother in the RAF and her younger brother at boarding school; Dodo’s parents too busy gallivanting around Europe with other rich admirers of Hitler to bother with their daughter; Noor’s family dispersed overseas and Vera reliant on her aunt and uncle in Paris who reluctantly took her in when she became separated from her parents and younger brother on their journey across Europe.

With this broad scope of character backgrounds, Jamila Gavin paints the landscape of Europe as tensions seethe between Germany and the other major powers. Readers are given an insight into the way in which the Jewish people were scapegoated, targeted for abuse, stripped of their possessions and sent off to the concentration camps. The rise of tyranny is clearly shown in the way that a “strong” character can bend the wills of others to act in ways that defy humanity. The narrative is constructed in a variety of ways, with Gwen’s tale recounted in the first person; while Noor, Vera and Dodo’s stories are third person narratives. There are also verses of poems and extracts from children’s wartime diaries throughout, which all add to the immersive, multiple perspectives of the story. I think that this is the first time in a Middle Grade novel that I have encountered religious and spiritual beliefs examined as they are challenged by the realities faced by the characters and Noor’s journey from pacifism to active participant in war was deeply moving.

The four main characters leave school as war between Britain and Germany is declared and their plans to attend further study are put on hold as each of them applies their unique talents to the war effort. I liked the dual storylines of Gwen and Dodo’s roles in England contrasting with Vera and Noor’s activities with the resistance in Paris, in both cases the action is gripping, with constant danger punctuated by hungrily-grasped moments of pure joy. The author portrays the strong bonds of female friendship, even when tested by the most extreme forces at times when loyalties are questioned and personal judgements are put under scrutiny. She does not shy away from harsh realities and heartbreak; although the book is sensitively written, I think it is probably most suitable for children of 11 years and older. At the top end of primary school it would make an excellent whole class read as there are so many issues covered which could lead to enlightening class discussions.

I am most grateful to Farshore Books for sending me a review copy of Never Forget You in return for my honest opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.


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