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.

#MG Review: The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson

Cover art by Paul Kellam, published by Puffin Books, May 2022

A thrilling contemporary mystery wrapped around a real-life legal injustice, The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson is a fantastic new MG novel, as powerful as it is gripping.

We are introduced to the three main protagonists as they decide to form a club based on the principles of doing good deeds to earn badges, having been inspired by the example of Josephine Holloway. This club is known as The Copseys, because Josephine, Wesley and Margot all live in Copsey Close, a cul-de-sac close to an abandoned car factory, known locally as the Chicane and its adjoining wasteland, the Outback. Author, Sharna Jackson, is a brilliant creator of characters, building a picture of three authentic Year 6 children as she captures their personalities through pinpoint facsimile of suburban tween dialogue. Josephine is the ideas person, and from the first page we know that she is a girl who wants to get things done:

Do you know what I dislike most in the world? The wasting of time. Mine specifically.

Chapter 1

Margot has recently moved to Copsey Close following her parents’ divorce and Wesley has been Josephine’s neighbour and friend for as long as they can remember. At first there is a palpable tension between affluent Margot, who is constantly capturing conversations and scenarios in her notebook, ready for use when she becomes a writer, and Wesley who bears the weight of being the male support to his mother and three younger siblings. Wesley thinks that Margot is a spy and that she looks down on him, saying to Josephine:

She’s a snob and she thinks I’m budget.

However, as the plot unfolds, each child faces up to their own fears and insecurities, forging stronger bonds with each other and significant adults as they learn that doing the right thing means so much more than earning another badge. And what a plot! The reader is driven through the story by whip-smart dialogue, snappy sentences and short chapters, each named after a Copsey badge.

When Josephine observes lights on the top floor of the derelict factory late one night, she is determined that The Copseys should earn their investigating and camping badges by spending the night in the Outback and tracking down the source of the lights. She will have to lie to her loving parents, a task which does not come naturally despite her resentment about the imminent arrival of a young sibling. Margot has no difficulties in sneaking out at night as her lawyer father appears to be too committed to his high flying career to spend much time at home with her. Wesley is reluctant on two fronts, he suspects that the factory might be haunted and he is embarrassed about his lack of upmarket camping equipment. After being persuaded to join the expedition, he discovers more than he bargained for and connects with his inner confidence, as the owners of the lights are revealed.

I really don’t want to reveal any more plot details as this is such a unique story that I do not wish to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of it. I genuinely could not have predicted the direction in which the plot was going to turn, and the incorporation of a serious social and racial injustice into the story arc is handled expertly and organically without ever becoming didactic. I utterly applaud Sharna Jackson for engaging readers, young and old, with a compelling and captivating narrative which delivers such a powerful message, prompting us all to look beyond our privilege and ally ourselves with those who need a voice. At the end of the book there is a short summary of the real-life background to the story, which will no doubt prove helpful to classroom discussions of the novel.

I have no hesitation in recommending The Good Turn to readers of 11+ and I think it will be an essential addition to primary and secondary school libraries.

I am most grateful to Puffin Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an e-ARC of The Good Turn in exchange for an honest review.

#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 Book Review: Sabotage on the Solar Express by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

Cover image by Elisa Paganelli, published by Macmillan Children’s Books 17th February 2022

If you are looking for  a middle-grade adventure to make your pulse race and time appear to stand still, then look no further than Sabotage on the Solar Express! The vivid writing style of dual authors M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman, combined with the almost graphic novel-like images by Elisa Paganelli, make this, the fifth Adventures on Trains Mystery, the most cinematic of the series so far. The clever choice of chapter titles only adds to the filmic credentials of this story.

For those who have not read any of the previous books, they centre around Harrison, known as Hal, a boy blessed with fantastic observational and drawing skills and his Uncle Nat, a famous travel writer, as they embark on a series of fabulous rail journeys. You could read this book independently of the others, however characters reappear from the second book Kidnap on the California Comet and I think you would find most enjoyment if you read the entire series in order.

This outing takes the uncle and nephew partnership “down under” to the deep Mars-red landscape of the Australian Outback. They have been invited by billionaire August Reza to join the inaugural journey of the Solar Express, the locomotive which has won Reza’s competition to design an environmentally friendly train for the future.

Hal and Uncle Nat are amazed to discover that the designer of the winning locomotive is actually a 14 year old boy, Boaz, who lives with his indigenous, First Nations family on a farmstead just outside Alice Springs. On visiting him in his workshop he explains the technology that he has designed, which uses solar energy to drive his regenerative hydrogen powered fuel cells and explains how his passion for environmentalism stems from his belief in the sanctity of the land. He is guided throughout the story by the Aboriginal belief that,

“We don’t own the land. The land owns us.“

Aboriginal belief

Boarding his futuristic locomotive for the journey from Alice Springs to Darwin are an entertaining cast of characters including Reza’s teenage daughter Marianne, a ruthless and ambitious politician, a shipping tycoon, a couple of competition winners, a retired locomotive driver, members of Boaz’s family, a PR executive and a film crew. Ominously, the chief engineer of the project is found to be missing shortly after the journey begins. This puts paid to Hal’s dream of an uneventful journey where he can for once just enjoy the unique landscape, sketching the harsh but beautiful desert and enjoying the experience of travelling in luxurious conditions. He soon realises that he should have taken the suspicions of Marianne seriously when she alerted him to the mysterious stranger posing as a hotel employee, who delivered a valuable model of Stephenson’s rocket to her father‘s hotel room the previous evening. From the moment that the eponymous sabotage of the computer controlled driving system is discovered,  the book hurtles the reader on a thrill ride during which the dramatic attention cranks up by the chapter, leaving you clinging to the sides of your chair whilst your eyes race over the pages faster than a runaway train.

This is an absolute corker of an adventure story and once you have regained your breath and calmed your heart rate it also provides interesting themes to ponder. Obviously the environmental theme is much to the fore and I thought that looking at it through the lens of First Nations people’s beliefs was a fascinating way of providing young readers with a way to explore the issues of industrialisation and exploitation of the world’s resources. Secondly, female empowerment is beautifully highlighted here, through the characters of Marianne and Michelle. At the start of the story we are reminded of Hal’s discomfort with Marianne who he finds overbearing and some would describe as bossy. However, as the sabotage threatens disaster to her father’s plans and the billionaire tech giant begins to fall apart, his teenage daughter displays the true leadership required to deal with a crisis. Similarly, Michelle’s desire to use her physics degree to join the engineering rather than the PR side of Reza Enterprises is only taken seriously once she proves her credentials in the absence of chief engineer Francisco Silva. There are positive messages for children about trusting in your own abilities and not being swayed by the opinions of others.

I highly recommend Sabotage on the Solar Express as an independent read for anyone of 9+, as a class reader or as a bedtime story; although teachers, librarians, parents and carers should be prepared for cries of “one more chapter”!

I am most grateful to Macmillan Children’s Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of this book prior to publication on 17 February 2022.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books UK

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: Thomas Taylor

Illustrator: Cover – George Ermos, internal – Thomas Taylor

Publisher: Walker Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Do you remember your first Ghastly Night?

p11

This book in three words: Thrilling Shadowy Mystery

This is the third adventure in the Eerie-on-Sea mysteries, and like the two previous books it will take your breathe away as you race through the pages. Thomas Taylor’s storytelling definitely has that sprinkling of magic that compels the reader to “drop everything and read” … and not let go of the book until it is finished. I love the fact that each new book in this series adds another layer to the hinterland of folklore associated with the tourist-free, winter months of the storm-lashed holiday resort.

It is All Hallows’ Eve, which in Eerie-on-Sea, the sinister seaside town steeped in mysterious secrets, is known as Ghastly Night. Long term residents Dr Thalassi and Mrs Fossil usually perform an idiosyncratic re-enactment of the legend of Mayor Bigley, The Puppet Master and the Shadowghast, but this year a troupe of professional magicians have rolled into town to perform the story in the town’s crumbling theatre which clings to the end of the pier. Unsettlingly, the glamorous magician Caliastra claims to have knowledge of Herbert Lemon’s background and might be offering him the chance of a new life outside the Lost-and-Foundery of The Grand Nautilus Hotel.

With best friend Violet Parma casting doubts on the veracity of Caliastra’s claims; the mysterious disappearance of Jenny Hanniver, Vi’s guardian and the owner of The Book Dispensary; and glimpses of the Shadowghast in the misty alleyways, this story plunges readers into The Netherways beneath the town in search of answers. Herbie and Vi agree that:

A problem shared isn’t a problem at all. It’s an adventure.

p46

Join the two young protagonists, along with talking cat Erwin and clockwork companion Clermit on this thrilling adventure to reveal the truth amongst the shadows and uncover the real Puppet Master. This is genuinely one of those books that will appeal to all readers of 8/9+ to either read independently, or enjoy as a class or bedtime story, for the pure thrill of a supremely entertaining mystery story.

You can read my reviews of the first two books in the series, Malamander and Gargantis. Whilst it is not necessary to read all three books in order, I would suggest that it will increase your enjoyment of the series to do so. The fourth book, Festergrim, is due for publication in September 2022 and a short extract is available at the end of Shadowghast.

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

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

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, published by Little Tiger Press 3rd February 2022

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

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

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

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

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

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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