Beat the Backlist Review: Twitch by M.G. Leonard

Front cover of a paperback book, Twitch by M.G. Leonard, standing on a bookshelf.
Cover image by Paddy Donnelly, published by Walker Books,
3 June 2021

A long Bank Holiday weekend provided the opportunity to read and review another book from my #BeatTheBacklist challenge which is hosted by Austine Decker on her brilliant blog.

I bought Twitch as soon as it was published, being a huge fan of detective fiction and previous middle grade novels written by M.G. Leonard, the Beetle Boy Trilogy, and the Adventures on Trains series written in partnership with Sam Sedgman. I am embarrassed at how long it has taken for Twitch to climb to the top of the TBR and can only plead that the number of books I have received from publishers has buried many of my own purchases in the reviewing trolley!

Anyway, having finally picked it up, I devoured the novel almost as rapidly as the blue tits empty the sunflower seed container hanging in my garden! This is an astonishingly good middle grade novel, not only is it a perfectly plotted detective mystery, but the carefully researched and organically interwoven ornithological content makes it uniquely educational. I was incredibly lucky at my primary school in a little Hampshire village (many, many years ago) to have a teacher who was a member of the RSPB and taught my entire class to love the UK’s bird life and I think this book will do the same for today’s children. The idea of using the observational skills of a bird-watcher to turn him into a child detective is brilliant and delivered with all the aplomb that I have come to expect from this author.

Main protagonist, Twitch real name Corvus Featherstone, is an outsider and the target of bullies at his secondary school. He has no friends, but is dedicated to “birding” a passion that was passed on to him by his now deceased grandfather. He spends all of his free time at Aves Wood, which he knows like the back of his hand, and in which he has constructed a living “hide” from which he can observe kingfishers, woodpeckers, geese and the other avian inhabitants of the woodland. As term ends, Twitch is rescued from the attentions of Jack and his gang of bullies by Billy, a newcomer to the town, whom he befriends. The tension then ratchets up another notch when Twitch finds that Aves Wood is full of police officers who are on the trail of an escaped prisoner “Robber Ryan”. Soon the town is full of rumours that £5 million cash stolen from an armed raid on a security van is buried in the woods, and more than one party seems to be interested in getting their hands on the loot.

The plot has more twists and turns than a rabbit track through the undergrowth, with new-found friendships, manipulated betrayals, comic moments and heart-in-the-mouth action. Twitch is an immensely likeable character, his relationships with his mother and his elderly neighbour Amita are full of love and respect, and his journey through the intricacies of human friendships generates a great deal of empathy. The narrative practically flutters with reverence for our feathered friends, as Twitch educates Jack in the behaviour of his local birds and shows him the training routine of his pigeon squabs, Frazzle and Squeaker, so he educates the reader too. In the same way that the Beetle Boy books educated their readers on the wonders of entomology, Twitch and I suspect the subsequent books in the series, will do the same for ornithology. As many before me have said, Twitch is an essential book for school libraries, I would suggest for both primary and secondary schools, and I would also recommend it as a perfect summer holiday present for any child of 9-14 (it would be a brilliant shared read with adults too). I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did and now I am off to track down a copy of Spark!

This review is for a book purchased by me.

MG Book Review: Euro Spies by Lindsay Littleson

Published by Cranachan Publishing, 20 April 2023

Think inter-railing blended with the Da Vinci Code, written for a middle grade readership and you will have some idea of the content of this super-enjoyable, espionage adventure! Lindsay Littleson has written a (code) cracking mystery which follows three tween protagonists and their “teacher” on a whistle-stop tour of European cities, tracking down clues left behind by a missing MI6 operative. At just under 200 pages, this will enthral readers of 9+ who can participate in code-cracking to solve clues, thanks to a short guide to ciphers on the opening pages.

Samia, Ava and Francis (Frankie) have won their places on a tour of Europe through their entries to an essay writing competition and the story begins with them meeting up with their chaperone, Miss Watson, in Glasgow. Frankie and Samia immediately begin to suspect that something is amiss with the trip when they find themselves boarding a mysterious metro train which will take them to Paris, via London. Miss Watson’s odd behaviour, an outburst from train waitress Gabrielle and a scuffle in the corridor out side their bunk rooms during the night, heighten the sense that this is no ordinary school trip! When Miss Watson admits that she is in fact a spy and they are on the trail of cryptic clues left behind by a missing agent, Griff Fletcher, the children pool their skills to crack the clues and evade the neo-Nazi villains who trail them to each new city.

I found this book thoroughly enjoyable for many reasons. The child characters are fleshed out with distinctive personalities and all show character growth as they progress through the adventure. I particularly loved Frankie, a young carer to a mum with MS, who demonstrated the most chivalrous behaviour throughout; brave, kind and supportive to everyone. The fast-paced action is liberally sprinkled with geographic and historical details about the cities visited which would make this a lovely summer holiday read for children whose families might not be able to travel abroad this summer. As the famous Mason Cooley quote tells us:

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.

Mason Cooley

Each time the young agents are en route to a new country, a short quiz appears before the chapter title, adding to the engagement with the story. Teachers, librarians and parents/carers might like to know that there are some fabulous resources available to download from the publisher Cranachan Books’ website, which include a spy’s guide to Europe and some reflective reading ideas. Finally, the action is thrilling, compelling and has some spine-tingling moments but at a level that is perfect for readers of 9 and above.

Euro Spies is a book which I know one of my own children would have loved and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a captivating mystery.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson and Cranachan Publishing for my review copy of Euro Spies which I will be passing on to a young reader to enjoy.

MG Review: The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries Portraits and Poison by J.T. Williams, illustrated by Simone Douglas

Cover illustration by Simone Douglas, published by Farshore, 30 March 2023

A thrilling mystery plot, a Georgian London setting and Black history; there is a fabulous blend of entertainment and education contained within the gorgeous covers of this book! Featuring real historical characters but in a fictionalised story, the adventures of Belle (or Dido Elizabeth Belle) and her best friend Lizzie Sancho will grip the attention of fans of historical mystery fiction.

Bell’s voice lights up the pages as she swiftly recounts her backstory in the opening chapter. Born “out-of-wedlock” to Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy Captain, and Maria Belle, a young African woman, she has been entrusted to the care of her aristocratic Aunt Betty and Uncle William. She lives with them in the luxurious surroundings of Kenwood House, where Uncle William is the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, and has recently been responsible for the “Somerset Ruling” which states that no individual can be forced to leave England and be sent to work on as a slave on a sugar plantation. She has had the privileged upbringing of an upper class young lady and is clearly a valued member of the family, despite the malicious London gossip. This element of the story is based on historical fact.

Belle’s best friend Lizzie is the daughter of the owners of Sancho’s Tea Shop, a popular café and literary salon in Westminster, again another historical figure. She has been brought up amongst the revolutionary thinkers who are fighting for the emancipation of African people, she is fearless, compulsive and rather more direct than Belle. Despite their different domestic circumstances, together they make a formidable team. Their complementary skills are put to good use in piecing together the clues to solve the dual mysteries of the audacious theft of the Mansfield-Sancho portrait and an insidious case of poisoning. As readers race through the short, pacy chapters, they are provided with a wealth of historical detail on the famous artists of the day, the origins of the Royal Academy and the outrageous trend for “power” portraits. One plot line involves greedy politicians, doing whatever they can to ensure that their access to wealth is not put at risk by individuals who wish to promote equality and dignity for all; I suspect that many bright youngsters will be able to spot some parallels with modern day politics.

I admire the way that J.T. Williams has shown that Black history in England did not start with the Windrush generation, and that she has featured individuals of African descent as the main protagonists in a cleverly crafted historical mystery. The illustrations by Simone Douglas are wonderful and very apt in an MG novel in which art features so heavily. I highly recommend Portraits and Poison to anyone of 9+ who might have previously enjoyed The Sinclairs Mysteries, the Jane Austen Investigates books or the Murder Most Unladylike series.

MG Review: I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery by Rhian Tracey

Cover art by David Dean, published by Piccadilly Press,
2 March 2023

This enjoyable debut by Rhian Tracey combines a fascinating WWII setting with an intriguing mystery adventure, resourceful children and brave birds; and ideal mix for an engrossing middle grade title.

The main protagonist, Robyn, has grown up at Bletchley Park, living in a cottage in the grounds of the stately home where her father works as the chauffeur. It is clear that she has had a carefree existence, roaming the grounds, swimming and rowing on the lake and observing the varied wildlife. However, the onset of war has restricted her previous freedoms. She has been told to stay away from the lake, she can no longer visit her dad in the garages which are now filled with military vehicles and her mother is now employed; running the coffee shop for the multitude of new arrivals who are housed in temporary huts on the site. Worst of all, when Robyn breaks the rules and sneaks out of the grounds to visit her best friend Mary in the village, she is hauled in front of a harsh, humourless authority figure whom she labels “The Heron” and is made to sign the Official Secrets act.

No longer permitted to leave the site, even to attend school, Robyn is put to work in the attics of the stately home where she meets kindly Mr Samuels and becomes his apprentice in the National Pigeon Service. I am sure that animal-loving children will be as fascinated as I was to learn about the vital role that these incredible birds played during WWII. The bond that Mr Samuels and Robyn form with the pigeons is heartwarmingly relatable to any child who has cared for a pet. Being based in the attics gives Robyn ample opportunities to observe the activity taking place in the Park, and she becomes increasingly suspicious of The Heron’s movements, particularly his involvement with the undertaker’s hearse which visits the Park daily. She teams up with the undertaker’s son, Ned, and Mary who is now working as a post-girl delivering messages to the inhabitants of the huts, and together they begin to investigate The Heron’s nefarious dealings. Secret codes, hidden tunnels and unexpected villains keep the plot entertaining whilst readers of 10+ also learn about the changes, particularly to women’s lives, that occurred during WWII. I think that I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery gives a fresh perspective on the second world war and will be a welcome addition to primary school classrooms and libraries.

In my former role in a school I used to deliver a lesson about Bletchley Park as part of the computing curriculum for Year 6, the children really enjoyed making their own Enigma Machines from old Pringles (or non-branded equivalents) tubes. (You can find resources and instructions for this activity, designed by Franklin Health Ltd and available free here). If any primary school teachers or librarians investigate cryptography or the history of computing with Year 5 or Year 6, I would highly recommend using this book as a class reader to coincide with that unit of work.

I am grateful to Piccadilly Press and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a review copy of I, Spy A Bletchley Park Mystery prior to publication on 2nd March 2023.

MGFiction Review: The Storm Swimmer by Clare Weze

Cover image by Paddy Donnelly, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books,
19th January 2023

The Storm Swimmer is a contemporary Middle Grade novel with a fantasy element which explores issues of homelessness, family secrets and the importance of communication.

This is primarily the story of Ginika, an eleven year old of Nigerian heritage who in the summer between primary and secondary school finds herself unexpectedly ripped away from her familiar London landscape and sent to live with her maternal grandparents at their boarding house, Cormorant Heights, in Bridleways Bay. She had been looking forward to a carefree summer in the shadow of the Docklands Light Railway, rehearsing dance routines with her best friend Alisha, but now must adapt to life in a seaside town three hundred miles away. Moreover, she fails to understand why she cannot live with her parents in their camper van after their eviction from the flat that she has always known as home, and feels that she has been abandoned rather than given a chance to escape some of their hardships. Ginika realises that her parents are in more trouble than they are telling her, but the lack of communication results in fractured trust between her and the adults caring for her, leaving her full of frustration and resentment.

Spending the first day of her enforced “holiday” lying on the sand close to the water’s edge, Ginika spots a strange looking boy gliding through the waves with the ease of a dolphin. As subsequent days pass, she begins to develop a tentative friendship with this boy who appears to live in the sea, communicates in clicks and odd sounds, is dressed in seaweed and has webbed fingers and toes. A conversation with her grandad introduces her to the local legend of sea people who are said to visit the bay and thus begins aa adventure with Peri which will force Ginika to confront her deepest fears.

Integral to the narrative are two other tweens; Scarlett whose parents run the holiday park and Ted who is on an organised holiday at the park with other young hospital patients and their families. Ted is using a wheelchair as he recovers from treatment for a tumour on his spine and can empathise with Ginika’s feeling of being “other” in the small seaside community where she is the only person with black skin and Afro hair. On the surface Scarlett appears overly confident, always talking, always surrounded by a posse of three Olivias who are all on holiday at the caravan park and manipulating them and Ginika for her own convenience. However, as her story is explored, readers begin to see that she is probably quite lonely, with her parents and older sister working non-stop all summer to put on the best service for their guests; reliant on temporary friendships with holiday makers and manifesting her own rejection in controlling behaviour. We get a glimpse into her underlying kindness when she reprimands the Olivias for their inappropriate behaviour in commenting on and touching Ginika’s hair in one incredibly claustrophobic scene.

My impression is that the novel is written in an interestingly fractured style which I think highlights the sense of dislocation that Ginika is experiencing and that Peri must encounter to a far greater degree when he is transported from his usual environment to explore the town’s attractions with his human companion. (The book designers have kindly provided a map – always a positive feature for me – which is helpful during this section of the story). The slow process of working out how to communicate is a reflection of the need for Ginika to work out a way to communicate with her own family and the best friend that she has left behind in London. The undercurrents of secrets and unspoken fears swirl around the story and are as likely to knock the protagonists off balance as the undertow in Bridleways Bay. I liked the way that Ginika’s fears about predators which might harm Peri ran in parallel to her parents’ problems with loan sharks. The tension in the final third of the story blows up with the rapidity of a summer storm and the resolve of all three young protagonists is stretched to the limits as they try to reunite Peri with his family.

This is a story which is ideal for children of 11+ and really nicely fills the crossover gap between the final terms of primary school and the first year of secondary school. I would recommend it to Year 6 and Year 7 teachers for classroom book choices and the both primary and secondary school librarians. There is a short section at the end of the story where author Clare Weze provides background information on the natural history and science which underpins the adaptations that could allow Peri and the sea people to survive in a saline environment. This is pitched at just the right level to be understood by children in Year 6 and above and I am sure will interest those readers who have a fascination with science and the natural world.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Liz Scott for sending me a copy of The Storm Swimmer in advance of publication on January 19th 2023.

Audiobook review: The Arctic Railway Assassin by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

Cover image by Elisa Paganelli, publisher Macmillan Children’s Books

The sixth book in the Adventures on Trains series sees Hal and his Uncle Nat complete their mystery solving train rides in superb style in an adventure that blends high stakes thriller with a Lord of the Rings vibe!

I was fortunate to find this audiobook version available on the Borrowbox App from my local public library just at the point when I was rushing to get Christmas preparations made and did not have time to read a physical book; it was the perfect seasonal accompaniment with its snowy, icy, winter equinox setting. It is now added to my list of book recommendations for the Christmas season having introduced me to the Swedish traditional celebration of the feast of St Lucia. It also contains my favourite line of the entire series:

Never underestimate an angry mum!

no page number due to audio format

We join artistic junior detective Hal as he travels to meet travel journalist Uncle Nat in Stockholm, where the illustrious journalist has accompanied his old university friend to the Nobel Prize ceremony. Morti has been awarded the prize for her work on the use of ultrasound to destroy certain cancer cells and young readers are treated to the same midnight physics lesson as Hal. I loved this element of science education as a natural part of the story throughout this series, which I am sure will awaken scientific curiosity in a cohort of middle grade readers. Despite Nat’s assertion that there will be no mysterious adventures on the train journey to Narvik in the Arctic Circle where he is taking Hal to experience the Northern Lights as his Christmas present, the sudden disappearance of Morti combined with the search for her ex-husband’s “kill code” and the presence of not one but two assassins on the journey north, make a mockery of Nat’s statement. With a new friend, a Sami girl, who introduces Hal to elements of her traditional culture whilst showing exceptional bravery to help him track down the villains, and the unexpected presence of his mum, Hal has all the support he needs to take on ruthless forces.

The plot is perfectly structured, building the tension brilliantly and as always using Hal’s sketchbook illustrations to help uncover the layers of mystery. Obviously listening to the audiobook meant that I did not get to see Elisa Paganelli’s interpretation of Hal’s sketches this time, but my experience of previous books in the series is that her artwork greatly enhances the enjoyment and comprehension of the story. I do not wish to give away any spoilers, so will just add at this point my opinion that Adventures on Trains will become a future classic children’s book series. There is so much depth to these stories as they are built on firm foundations of geography, science and engineering with wonderful characterisation and fully immersive and exciting plots. If you want to get a child of 8/9+ hooked on the magic of fiction, put this book or any other from the series into their hands and watch them embark on a thrill-ride of a reading adventure.

You can read my reviews of previous books in the series here:

The Highland Falcon Thief

Kidnap on the California Comet

Murder on the Safari Star

Sabotage on the Solar Express

Review: Breakfast Club Adventures: The Beast Beyond the Fence by Marcus Rashford and Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Marta Kissi

Cover image by Marta Kissi, published by Macmillan, 2022

With the football World Cup fast approaching I thought it was about time to extract the first Breakfast Club Adventure from my TBR stack and explore this new twist on the child detective genre. I have to say that I have great admiration for the efforts that Marcus Rashford has gone to in order to improve the life chances of young people, and this latest initiative supported by the National Literacy Trust, is thoughtfully designed to encourage reading for pleasure. It is clear that children who might not naturally be drawn to reading have been considered carefully; the text is in a large, bold font with extra line-spacing; the language is straightforward and the illustrations throughout the book by Marta Kissi are full of humour and warmth.

The story itself, which is co-written by Alex Falase-Koya is one to which many young readers will relate. The school setting will be familiar and the characters that our main protagonist Marcus hangs out with at breakfast club present the opportunity for many children to see themselves reflected in a book. Marcus is a thoroughly likeable character, clearly popular amongst his peers, polite to adults and with a sense of adventure which is demonstrated in his response to the mysterious invitation to join the secret society of Breakfast Club Investigators. Their subsequent amateur detective work to solve the mystery of the monster beyond the school fence balances tension with humour and reaches a satisfying denouement. The sub-plot around Marcus worrying about his “lost touch” on the football field and missing his cousin who is away in the US on a football scholarship fleshes out his character, making him someone that readers will empathise with and root for, in this and hopefully subsequent adventures.

I very rarely review books written by celebrities as I feel that they already receive sufficient publicity and do not require the recommendation of an amateur blogger. I have made an exception in this case because not only has Marcus Rashford fully credited his co-writer but he is also trying to make a difference. In my current day job as a health librarian, it is plain to me that literacy levels have a considerable impact on an individual’s health outcomes and I am happy to promote this initiative, seeking to enhance literacy levels. I highly recommend this book with its positive messages of friendship, family and teamwork as a great choice for boys and girls of 8+. I will be donating my copy to my former primary school library where I am sure that it will appeal to many children in Key Stage 2.

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.

#MG Review: Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

ARC cover image, publisher Guppy Books, due October 2022

This book has everything that an advanced middle grade reader could wish for; action, friendship, innocent first love (boy meets ghost), mystery solving, sense of place and a spine tingling ghost story! From the opening sentence:

Rebecca Strand was sixteen the first time she saw her father kill a ghost

page 1

I was utterly gripped. I had not previously read anything by the prize-winning Canadian author, Kenneth Oppel, but have now downloaded some of his earlier titles to my Kindle. If you are looking for a fresh take on a ghost story, are aged 10-14 and you have previously enjoyed Frost Hollow Hall and Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, then make this your next choice after it is published on 13th October 2022!

Fifteen year old Gabe is working a summer holiday job, recounting the historical story of the mysterious deaths of Rebecca Strand and her father, as part of the ghost tour he gives daily at the abandoned Gibraltar Point Lighthouse which used to guard the entrance to Toronto’s harbour. On the day that one of the tourists in his audience turns out to be a descendant of Rebecca Strand, Gabe discovers that ghosts really do walk the earth and is drawn into a historical, detective mystery alongside best friend Yuri, teenage descendant of the lighthouse keepers and ghost blogger Callie, and the spectral form of Rebecca Strand. Together they must solve the riddle of the missing “ghostlight”, get their hands on this powerful amber disc, and fulfil the mission of the ancient Order of Keepers to destroy the hideously evil Viker, a villainous ghost hungry for power over the living and the dead.

I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of this novel. The teenage characters really do come to life on the pages as genuine individuals. Gabe is a sensitive, caring boy who is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his father – first to another woman and then suddenly, to a fatal car accident. As his relationship with the ghostly form of Rebecca Smart develops we see him opening up his padlocked emotions and eventually learning the power of forgiveness. Yuri is similarly expertly rendered, the son of Russian immigrants, his mother is a journalist who has had to flee Russia and his father is an engineer struggling to gain the paperwork that will allow him to stay and work in Canada. We see the strain that this uncertainty places on Yuri, even as he utilises his inherent engineering ability to create the weaponry to fend off a ghost army. Aspiring journalist Callie was my favourite character from the moment she uttered the line:

Student librarian, four years running…I know my way around a database.

page 68

as she expertly explains to Gabe, Yuri and Rebecca how she tracked down ancient court transcripts in her hunt for the location of the missing “ghostlight”. There are several key moments of library-related action which highlight the importance of repositories of knowledge and made this librarian’s heart sing!

Finally, the ghostly side of the story. Rebecca comes across as a normal, although somewhat old-fashioned girl; she has been dead for 200 years after all! She is able to communicate with Gabe by “clasping”, holding his hand to gain some of his living energy and to allow him to see her. This connection between them grows throughout the story into a totally innocent first love that genuinely tugs at the heart strings, it is perfectly pitched for a tween to early teen audience who primarily want a thrilling story with some emotional content but are not yet ready for adult themes. Rebecca’s character is not scary but Viker, who wishes to raise an army of the “wakeful and wicked dead” is quite terrifying and readers of a sensitive nature (like me) might want to read this book during daylight hours only!

I will not go into any more plot details for fear of spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the narrative. I will just leave you with the recommendation that if you have any responsibility for choosing books to be read by Year 6 or Key Stage 3 pupils, put Ghostlight on your pre-order list for the autumn term.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Guppy Books for my review ARC in return for my honest opinion on Ghostlight.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by George Ermos

Banner design by Mary Rees, Cover image by George Ermos, published by Scholastic 2021

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. When I have time, I love to use this meme to review books which somehow slipped down my TBR stack when they were first published, or perhaps are books that I shared with my (now adult) children before I began blogging. 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: Vashti Hardy

Illustrator: George Ermos

Publisher: Scholastic

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Me and my grandpa Eden like to experiment

page 11

This book in three words:

Imaginative – Scientific – Mystery

I remember this first Harley Hitch adventure arriving last year to a fanfare of outstanding reviews from bloggers whose opinions I always value, and being quite frustrated that I was at a particularly time consuming phase of my librarian qualification and simply did not have time to read for pleasure. Noticing that it is on the reading list for this summer’s Gadgeteers reading challenge, I remedied this oversight today and discovered that those reviews were spot on. Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest is an outstanding work of science-based fiction, written by an author who has an assured sense of how to captivate a middle grade readership, entertaining them whilst also delivering sound scientific principles along the way. Vashti Hardy’s story is perfectly complemented by the stunning grayscale artwork of George Ermos, who captures her brilliantly imagined world in precise detail. The Botanical Guide illustrations on the endpapers are a thing of beauty.

Just in case there is anyone who has not read this story yet, I am not going to describe the plot in too much detail for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. The quote that I used above foreshadows the plot brilliantly…this is a narrative based on scientific experimentation and discovery, teaching prospective young scientists the values of research and resilience without the slightest hint of dogmatism. It is populated by a core of great characters. Harley Hitch is a smart, kind, somewhat impulsive and accident prone girl who wants nothing more than to win the Pupil of the Term award at Cogworks, the technical school she attends in Forgetown. She lives with Grandpa Eden and Grandpa Elliot, who are kindly and supportive in encouraging her to do the right thing, admit mistakes and never give up. Harley strikes up an unexpected friendship with new boy Cosmo after her former friend, turned mean girl, Fenelda ensures that they both get into trouble on the first day of the new school term.

On discovering an unusual and invasive new fungus in the Iron Forest whilst carrying out a detention task, Harley persuades Cosmo to help her with an experimental biocontrol. Against his better judgement, he goes along with Harley’s un-researched plan…with ecologically disastrous effects. The story contained many elements that kept me utterly hooked; from the unusual fauna and flora of the Iron Forest, to a rebel robot uprising and even a terrifying specimen of my least favourite animal species! This is a story which I would have loved myself at 8/9 years of age and which I highly recommend to all readers of 8-11. The story rattles along at a great pace, chapters are short and the frequent illustrations give plenty of pausing space for readers who are in need of the occasional break in text. If you are encouraging a KS2 child to join in with the summer reading challenge this year, do encourage them to read Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest.