Review: Dragon Detective Sky High! by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Scott Brown

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Publishing

The third Dragon Detective mystery, Sky High! soars into the bookstores on 1st October and I am most grateful to Little Tiger Group for sending me an early copy of the latest in a series in which I am more heavily invested than a dragon in its stash of gold!

Dirk Dilly, the orange-squash-swigging, four-metre-long, red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, Mountain Dragon Private Investigator has been hired by Mr. Strettingdon-Smythe, the curator of a London art gallery. His mission: to investigate why and how important pieces are going missing without any evidence left behind on the electronic surveillance equipment. He is distracted from this investigation by the clumsy and destructive arrival in his office of Alba Longs, a Spanish Sea Dragon with an aversion to the ‘humano’ world, who insists that he helps her discover the whereabouts of her ‘vamoosed’ sister Delphina.

Meanwhile, Holly Bigsby, Dirk’s twelve-year-old investigative partner needs his help to discover what the world’s seventh-richest man, Brant Buchanan, founder of Global Sands and prospective employer of her step-mother is planning. He is obviously using Mrs Bigsby to acquire the top secret weapon hidden away by her previous colleagues in government but what is his target and with whom is he working?

This book is infused with the smart-talking, action-packed, cynical-PI with a heart of gold vibes you encounter in an old film noir. There are more double crosses than on a piece of third form homework (no offence intended third formers) and never before in the history of MG literature has the hyphen key been in greater demand! As with the earlier Dragon Detective books, there are laugh out loud cameos provided by hapless crooks Arthur and Reginald as well as my personal favourite, Alba finding the “shell” of a tin of beans a little too crunchy for her taste. Chemistry teachers everywhere will be dancing with joy that the process of sublimation will be so well understood by future students thanks to the unique properties of sky dragons! With action spanning the diameter of the globe, from inner core to skyscraper rooftops, readers will be left gasping for air as surely as a dragon who has swallowed a mouthful of liquid fire!

Whilst you await publication on 1st October there is time to catch up on the previous two books in the series; you can read my reviews here: Dragon Detective: Catnapped! and Dragon Detective: School’s Out!

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris at Little Tiger Publishing for an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Series Review: Clifftoppers written by Fleur Hitchcock

Cover image by Tom Clohosy Cole, published by Nosy Crow

I was very fortunate to win a set of the three Clifftoppers Adventures written by Fleur Hitchcock, in a Twitter giveaway, and thought I would take the opportunity to read them before placing them on the school library shelves.

What an absolute joy these books are, the epitome of pleasurable reads!

I can trace my own voracious reading habit back to my childhood “Blyton interregnum” (thank you Lucy Mangan for that magnificent description) and know how compelling child-centred adventures can be for an emerging reader. Fleur Hitchcock, a truly talented author, has created a series which serves up the delights of adult-free mystery solving in the beautiful British countryside. As I read these stories I could almost hear the cries of the seagulls and the rattling of the masts of the yachts in the harbour, smell the farmyard aromas and feel the sting of bonfire smoke in my eyes. They transported me back to carefree childhood summer holidays!

Each book is a self-contained adventure taking place while four cousins; brother and sister Ava and Josh, and only-children Aiden and Chloe get together at their grandparents’ farmhouse during the school holidays. Grandma Primrose and Grandpa Edward own Clifftopper Farm perched above Drake’s Bay, an idyllic getaway for their city-based grandchildren. Their farm dog Bella also plays a key role in the children’s adventures. The stories have a timeless feel to them and although the children are equipped with mobile phones, moorland and coastal locations seem to result in non-existent phone signals at key moments, which perfectly heightens the tension.

These books are just the right length for emerging independent readers to read for pleasure; the short, fast-paced chapters propel you through the story and provide a real sense of accomplishment as a young reader can complete one story in a relatively short time. Just make sure that you have the next one waiting for them on the bookshelf.

The Arrowhead Moor Adventure

Setting off on their first bike ride of the holiday, armed with a delicious picnic lunch (provided by Grandad, who refreshingly does all the cooking in this series) the children and Bella are almost run over by the impatient driver of a bright red sports car. Her aggressive manner immediately leads to suspicions in the children’s minds and when Aiden overhears her having a strange conversation with the owner of The Three Witches pub, followed by Chloe eavesdropping on a mysterious telephone conversation the children decide that the glamorous woman is up to no good.

Each of the four cousins has to call on reserves of determination and bravery as they pedal across moorland paths on the trail of jewel thieves and sheep rustlers, piecing together the clues to foil audacious crimes. 

With short chapters, often ending on cliff-hangers, this is a book which provides an excellent introduction to the detective adventure genre and will have young readers avidly seeking out the next book in the series.

The Fire Bay Adventure

As the story opens the children have just arrived at the farmhouse on the day before the annual Drake’s Bay Fire Festival, at which a huge bonfire is ignited on the beach by villagers carrying flaming tar barrels on their heads. Josh, the youngest and most demanding of the cousins is rather put out to discover that his eldest cousin Ava may take part in the barrel running whilst he is firmly banned from doing so!

The story cleverly combines ancient and modern smuggling plots, with a long-forgotten secret passage which has become part of the local lore making a surprise appearance, a spate of suspicious fires breaking out and dodgy deals in electronic goods being transacted at the harbour. Again the four tenacious children, aided by Bella and a terrified homeless cat, piece together the clues, give chase to the villains and show the bravery and teamwork required to bring the smugglers to justice.

The Thorn Island Adventure

This is my favourite of the series so far, partly down to the addition of a map at the front of the book – I do love to pore over a map!

Published during lockdown, this adventure will allow young readers to vicariously enjoy a thrilling coastal getaway, even if they have spent the summer holiday firmly rooted at home. With echoes of Swallows and Amazons, the eldest of the cousins, Ava, demonstrates her prowess as a sailor in this adventure as the four children try to track down a stolen fishing boat but find themselves investigating a kidnapping.

Whilst scanning the bay and the little offshore Thorn Island in search of the missing fishing craft both Chloe and Josh spot a mysterious face in a tower window. They manage to persuade Ava and Aiden that there may be a link to the newspaper reports of a child abducted from super-rich parents in London. Their daring rescue mission will have readers breathlessly following the twists and turns required to outrun a ruthless gang on land and on sea!

I do hope that there will be further additions to the Clifftoppers series as these are books which I can imagine 8-11 year olds devouring more quickly than Josh can demolish a plate of Grandad’s scones!

Review: Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang

Dragon Mountain Book Cover, published by Simon and Schuster Children’s UK

This first step into older MG fiction by the talented husband and wife team who write the hugely popular Sam Wu books is a thrilling adventure set in the mountainous landscape of China.

It opens with a teenage Californian surfing champion, Billy Chan, reluctantly arriving in China to attend a Mandarin culture and language summer camp. He finds that he is in the company of a group of talented teenagers who have all been nominated by their teachers or coaches to attend this unique camp and anxiety creeps in that his patchy Mandarin skills will leave him performing badly compared to the other kids. After a bone-rattling and stomach-churning drive up into the mountainous camp, Billy is pretty convinced that he would rather be back home surfing in the warm sea. However, he starts to form a bond with Irish lad, Dylan O’Donnell and is pleased that he is placed in the same cabin as him by the ancient Chinese camp leader Lao-Jin (Old Gold). On the first night, in the light of the campfire, Old Gold recounts the ancient myth of Dragon Mountain: the battle for supremacy between good and evil dragons and the source of the “River of Blood”.

The next morning the students are divided into teams of four. Billy and Dylan are placed together. Their additional team members are the outrageously confident Charlotte Bell, not just the holder of the Little Miss of the South title for four years, but also two-time ju-jitsu under-14 world champion, and the quiet, shy, dreamer Ling-Fei the adopted granddaughter of Old Gold. Each team of four is given a challenge to retrieve a specific item on the first morning and informed that the winning team will earn extra privileges throughout their time at camp. This is all the incentive that highly competitive Charlotte needs and she leaves her team in no doubt that they must win!

However, when they are confronted by a fierce tiger as well as an earthquake after taking a forbidden shortcut through a bamboo plantation, they find themselves caught up in a magical adventure that they could not have imagined.

The combination of contemporary teenagers bound up into a mythical fantasy is deftly handled, with the teens reacting in believable ways to the incredible scenario of bonding with dragons in a battle to save both the human and dragon realms from devastation caused by the evil dragon “The Great One” whose ambition is to rule over both kingdoms. This malicious dragon is aided by his followers, The Noxious or Nox-wings, an army of dark dragons.

Bravery, loyalty, strength and truth are the values in the hearts of the four teenage protagonists which have bound them to their dragons and alongside their dragon-bestowed powers, arm them for a battle with a fearsome enemy. 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t go into any further details about the plot. This is a fast-paced fantasy adventure, likely to be devoured in a couple of days by confident upper key stage 2 readers; the plot grips you more tightly than a dragon’s claws. Equally it would be a great story for a teacher or librarian to read aloud…but be prepared for demands from the children for “one more chapter!” The book ends on an absolute cliff-hanger and I certainly hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next!

Highly recommended for fans of Harry Potter, Septimus Heap and  Percy Jackson.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Children’s Books for allowing me access to an e-ARC of Dragon Mountain. The book will be published on 3 September 2020.

The Key to Finding Jack by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Cover image by Katy Ridell, published by Head of Zeus

This is the second book that I have read by Ewa Jozefkowicz and I have to say that she has rapidly joined my list of favourite writers. This beautifully written and structured story within a story goes straight to the heart of identity, with its theme of unlocking the barriers that we put up to hide our true selves, even from those closest to us.

As regular readers of my blog will know, mystery novels are my genre of choice, and this contemporary tale of a twelve-year-old girl desperately seeking clues to unlock the location of her beloved elder brother had me hooked from page one. The story opens with Flick ( the narrator) trying to solve one of the complex puzzles that her older brother Jack habitually sets for her. The author has cleverly planted clues to the narrative within this opening puzzle, and this is just one of the details of Ewa Jozefowicz’s writing which I loved. 

Jack has just completed his A levels, in which he has astonished his parents by performing very well given their perception of him as a practical joker who has not applied himself to his studies in the way they would have wished. His father expects Jack to follow him into a career as a barrister and a law degree beckons once Jack returns from his gap year in South America. Flick is determined to treasure the remaining moments with Jack, realising that not only will she miss him while he travels, but she will see far less of him once he starts at university. Their relationship is cemented in the reader’s mind as one of love and mutual respect and encouragement.

Jack departs and Flick’s life continues as before, with her school days allowing us a glimpse of her hidden talent as a writer. Her class are set the task of writing a detective story and as Flick reads the opening of her composition aloud to her classmates you feel their incredulity at the quality of her historical story “The Case of the Beret and the Bell.” As she reaches the cliffhanger at which the young heroine Margot has disappeared in a huge London crowd she is summoned to the head teacher’s office to hear that Jack has been reported missing following an earthquake in Peru. The writing aches with the devastation and helplessness felt by Flick’s family. 

What follows is a tightly plotted and compelling unfolding of clues as Flick, assisted by her best friend Keira, seeks information about her brother’s location and in so doing uncovers the hidden details of his life. Starting from the key that he has always worn around his neck and which he has left in his room addressed to S.F., they track down all of his acquaintances who share those initials. At every turn Flick is able to unlock details of his personality from the heroic tales that each person recounts. In Flick’s words, “even the people you know well can be a cryptic puzzle.” In tandem with seeking her brother, Flick continues to write her historical story. The dual narratives of being true to your own desires and talents and having the courage to be honest about your identity in the face of the expectations of those closest to you are explored sensitively and movingly. Flick lives up to her brother’s childhood nickname for her, and Jack’s actions demonstrate that there is great importance in their grandmother’s elegant motto, “Don’t forget to live.”

In summary, this heartwarming tale of unfolding identity is equally enjoyable for adult and child readers of 9+. I read it as an eARC thanks to #NetGalley and Head of Zeus Publishing but I will definitely want to obtain a physical copy as soon as one is available. This book is due to be published on 3rd September 2020.

My review of Girl 38: Finding a Friend by the same author is here.

#20BooksOfSummer: Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

Well, I’ve only reached #Book5 of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com, mainly because I’ve prioritised new books sent by publishers rather than those which were on my original TBR list. However NOTHING was going to stop me reading Death Sets Sail as soon as it was published, this final book in a much loved series had a huge emotional pull for me.

As a brief introduction for anyone who is not familiar with the Murder Most Unladylike series, the first book appeared in 2014, written by debut author Robin Stevens and described as a cross between Malory Towers and Agatha Christie. I read the first couple as bedtime stories to my youngest, took her to several hugely entertaining book festival events where she became a loyal fan of Robin Stevens and a fully-fledged #DetectiveSociety devotee. I have not met a single child who has not become a fan of the series after reading any one of the books.

Fast forward to August 2020 and Death Sets Sail is launched in an extravaganza of gold foil, sprayed blue edges and excitement combined with slight apprehension from long term fans. I imagine that it must have been quite a daunting challenge to complete the series in a manner which would allow the characters of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong to continue to mature but also bring their adventures to a satisfying conclusion. In this reviewer’s opinion, Robin Stevens has achieved this goal in tremendous style and I thoroughly enjoyed this murder mystery despite finding something in my eye towards the end!

I do not want to discuss the plot in too much detail for fear of giving away spoilers therefore I will just give a brief outline. Daisy and Hazel have been invited to spend the 1936 Christmas holidays in Egypt by their school friend Amina El Maghrabi. Hazel’s wealthy father has agreed to travel from Hong Kong with Hazel’s two younger sisters May and Rose to join the girls on a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan. To complete the young detective contingent on the cruise The Junior Pinkertons, George and Alexander, long term allies and rivals of The Detective Society, have also contrived to join the cruise. Fellow travellers include Amina’s former tutor Miss Beauvais, George and Alexander’s tutor Mr Young and The Breath of Life Society, a cohort of wealthy British eccentrics who believe themselves to be re-incarnations of Ancient Egyptian deities. Hence the stage is set for an exquisitely plotted MG homage to Death on the Nile.

Robin Stevens has honed her craft brilliantly over the last six years and has constructed an entertaining murder mystery which you just can’t put down once you’ve embarked. I love the way that she doesn’t gloss over the unacceptable attitudes to race that were prevalent in the 1930s. Issues of cultural appropriation and white privilege are highlighted and the need to remove these attitudes from society is made plain. Hazel, who started the series as a shy and insecure arrival from Hong Kong has blossomed into a confident young woman who is proud of her talent for logical deduction, able to stand up to her father and is no longer prepared to defer to Daisy on everything. The Honourable Daisy Wells is still inclined to be “Daisy-ish” meaning that she single-mindedly pursues her own agenda, dismissing the suggestions or feelings of others at times, but is ultimately the courageous best friend that we would all wish for in a crisis. She has the ability to strengthen Hazel’s nerve when required with a muttered “Buck up, Watson!” and their unbreakable friendship is one of the joys of this series.

Many of the earliest fans of the MMU books will now be aged 15/16, the same age as Daisy and Hazel appear in this book, and will identify with the girls maturing and experiencing their first loves. I have a favourite quote by Farrah Serroukh, Learning Programme Leader at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in the Reflecting Realities (2018) report “The space between what is written and what is read is often a safe space in which we can make sense of our lives and the world around us.” Robin Stevens has presented Daisy’s sexuality as a natural part of the story and kept the content entirely suitable for an MG readership. I would imagine that presenting a lesbian character as a strong confident protagonist rather than a victim of bullying will help everyone to feel accepted for who they are and encourage acceptance of others. At one point in the book Hazel reflects that “there is no one way for a heroine to look or be.” which for me perfectly encapsulates the core message of the Detective Society.

Finally, it should be said that Robin Stevens has thoroughly researched the Ancient Egyptian content of the story and as this is a period covered by the primary school history curriculum there will be many cross curricular opportunities for using this book on top of the obvious ReadforPleasure! With its shining golden cover and beautiful design and artwork by Nina Tara this truly is a book to treasure and a perfect ending to a series that has accompanied many young bookworms through childhood.

You can read my reviews of the first seven books in the MMU series here.

You can read my review of Book 8: Top Marks for Murder here.

You can read my review of the World Book Day 2020 title The Case of the Drowned Pearl here.

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

#20BooksOfSummer Book 4: Gargantis by Thomas Taylor

Gargantis cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books Ltd

I have fallen rather badly behind with my blogging schedule this summer as I have had to spend a lot of “holiday” time sorting out my school library to ensure that it is ready for use under new guidelines from September. Fortunately I know that the #20BooksOfSummer challenge hosted by wonderful Cathy at 746.books.com is very flexible and forgiving, so I will be doing my best to review 10 books before the end of the month.

Gargantis was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice back in June but I would have read it anyway as I loved the first book in this series, Malamander, so much (you can read my review here).

Once again the author, Thomas Taylor, takes us back to the seaside town of Eerie-on-Sea where Herbert Lemon the lost-and-founder at the Grand Nautilus hotel is about to encounter another mysterious and ominous stranger. Deep Hood, as he becomes known, leaves a mysterious mechanical hermit crab and a sense of impending upheaval on Herbie’s counter, before disappearing into the blackout. This book immediately serves up two things I adore in a mystery adventure – a map and a head-first plunge into the action.

The town of Eerie-on-Sea is cracking apart, metaphorically and literally, in the face of a violent tempest. Old tales have resurfaced of St. Dismal, the first fisherman of Eerie-on-Sea and the current fishermen, described as having “beards that you could hide hedgehogs in” are heard to mutter his prediction “Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes” When the local beachcomber Wendy Fossil is dragged into the hotel, tangled in fishing nets and clinging to a strangely shaped glass bottle, inscribed with ancient Eerie-script, Herbie finds himself at the centre of a dispute over the ownership of this piece of lost property. In trying to decide on the competing claims of Wendy, the fisherfolk led by fearsome Boadicea Bates, teenage outcast fisherman Blaze Westerley and museum director Dr Thalassi, Herbie finds himself drawn to “The Cold, Dark Bottom of the Sea”; the only book he has ever had prescribed from the Book Dispensary.

I do not want to reveal any more plot details as this is a book that propels the reader through so many twists and turns at such an inescapable pace that you just need to plunge in and allow it to envelop you. The ferocious action will leave you gasping for air as if you too have been consumed by “The Vortiss” and you join Herbie and Violet in their quest to untangle the relationship between Eerie-light and Gargantis. Oh, and when you reach the centre of the book you are in for a chart-topping treat!

This book is bursting with fantastic characters, from Boudicea with her “wiry black mane that probably eats hairbrushes for breakfast to Blaze who overcomes everyone’s low expectations of him to fulfil his uncle’s dreams. Herbie is such a wonderful protagonist, constantly having to overcome his deep-seated fears to face his destiny, often as a result of his best friend, Violet Parma’s impulsive actions. They make a thoroughly believable partnership and this story left me longing for more detail on Herbie’s mysterious origins.

I highly recommend this perfectly crafted adventure for everyone of 9/10+ and with its cliff-hanging chapter endings, be prepared to read more than one chapter at a time if you are reading aloud as a class-reader or bedtime story!

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Clockwork Sparrow and Sinclair’s Mysteries Series by Katherine Woodfine

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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: Júlia Sardà

Publisher: Egmont

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence occurs as Sophie Taylor the central protagonist introduces herself to Billy Parker, who will become one of her loyal friends.

“She had already learned that using her full-name, Taylor-Cavendish, would do her no favours here at Sinclair’s”

This book in three words: Mystery – Friendship – Style

Another week and another chance to celebrate one of my favourite books and indeed series in MG Fiction. This week I am highlighting another fantastically plotted and elegantly written mystery series set in a newly established department store on Piccadilly at the start of the twentieth century. (Yes, I have to admit that mystery stories are probably my favourite genre).

Sophie Taylor has been plunged into poverty by the unexpected death of her beloved father and now must make her living as a shop assistant in a luxurious department store in central London. However, beneath the glamour and elegance of this unique modern emporium, a dastardly plot is due to be unleashed and Sophie and her friends need all of their wits and courage to foil the criminals. It’s a wonderful introduction to a fabulous series for Year 5 and 6 (and possibly advanced readers in Year 4) and an essential for any school library collection.

My full review of the Sinclair’s Mystery Series can be read here.

Review: Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Poison Plot by Annabelle Sami

Cover art by Daniela Sosa, book published by Little Tiger Press

In Agent Zaiba’s second adventure, crime strikes close to home, leaving her racing against the clock to investigate the tensions and rivalry simmering beneath the surface of her tranquil village.

Since her successful identification of a jewel thief several months earlier Zaiba has been on the lookout for a new crime to solve. She is now the UK representative of Aunt Fouzia’s Snow Leopard Detective Agency, and ever-mindful of her duty to the family’s reputation, Zaiba does not want to let her aunt down. There hasn’t even been a hint of a new case so Zaiba has employed her talents in designing an immersive detective experience for her peers to enjoy at the 30th Anniversary School Fete! The entire village has been commandeered for the big day and as Zaiba dashes across the park she is sad to observe the careless destruction of the rhododendron bushes in the flower garden.

Meanwhile, her father Hassan, and younger half-brother Ali are competing against stern Aunt Raim and miserable cousin Mariam, as well as ultra-competitive Marco and his son Gabriele in the bake-off competition, and step-mum Jessica turns the village children into a menagerie of animals at her famous face-painting stall. It’s a scene that anyone who has ever been involved with a summer fete will recognise…until a blood-curldling shriek emanates from the baking tent!

What has Ms Goremain, the new head teacher with the fearsome eyebrow raise, consumed? Who baked the offending cupcake? Is her present state of distress caused by an allergic reaction or is there something sinister afoot? Can Zaiba, assisted by best friend Poppy and super smart Ali pick through the sprinkling of clues to solve the conundrum before the police arrive and stomp all over the evidence. Will her kindness towards Mariam result in a helpful new recruit to her team or be paid back with further point-scoring? All these questions will be answered as you race through the story.

I gobbled up this book in two sittings, only interrupted by my day-job! Zaiba is the most likeable character; diligent, smart and dutiful and is surrounded by a lovely family and loyal friendship. This book is a model for multicultural co-operation and will delight young readers of 8+ who will enjoy an entertaining mystery unravelling in a very familiar setting. The text is broken up by the lively illustrations of Daniela Sosa and at 228 pages the book is the perfect length for young readers embarking on the detective mystery genre. I feel certain that children from the British-Pakistani community will enjoy seeing their community so positively represented by an own-voices writer, Annabelle Sami. Equally, for children (and adults) from other ethnic backgrounds, increased understanding and empathy are huge benefits of enjoying Agent Zaiba’s exploits. The absurdities of holding grudges are made plain and like so many MG books, Agent Zaiba shows children that their instincts for kindness and acceptance are often a lesson to adults.

As headteacher Ms Goremain states, ”Our children’s voices are as important as our own.”

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

#MGTakesonThursday: Beetle Boy by M.G.Leonard, illustrated by Júlia Sardà

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

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: M.G. Leonard

Illustrator: Júlia Sardà

Publisher: Chicken House Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence so perfectly encapsulates the character of Uncle Max with whom the main protagonist, Darkus, goes to live following the disappearance of his father.

“He took off his safari hat, his hair springing up above his tanned scalp like a cloud of silver thoughts.”

This book in three words: Beetles – Adventure – Funny

I seem to be having an M.G.Leonard week on the blog, which is great because she has created two incredible series for MG readers. As any regular readers of my blog will know, I adore mystery adventures and I love books which pass on an author’s deep knowledge and passion for a subject wrapped up in an entertaining story. Beetle Boy provides both in abundance and in my opinion appeals to such a wide audience that I am reading it to my virtual library summer book club (with the kind permission of Chicken House) through our closed Google domain. My original review of Beetle Boy can be read here.

#20BooksofSummer Book 3: Kidnap on the California Comet by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrator Elisa Paganelli

This is the third of my #10BooksofSummer reviews, an event hosted by Cathy on her 746Books.com blog, do read her posts and those of all the other wonderful book bloggers joining the challenge this year.

Having loved the first Adventures on Trains book, I was delighted to be approved by NetGalley to read an eARC of Kidnap on the California Comet. Once again a rollicking adventure unfolds as Hal and his Uncle Nat rattle and clatter their way across an iconic train route.

Travel journalist, Nathaniel Bradshaw, has been personally invited to cover a press conference at which billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur, August Reza, will unveil his latest innovation. Mr Reza shares Nat’s love of trains and has his own luxuriously refurbished 1940s observation car, Silver Scout, hitched to the California Comet. The press conference is due to be staged at the Durham Museum, once one of the country’s busiest train hubs but now a train museum, in Omaha.

Hal is delighted to accompany Uncle Nat on this rail trip of a lifetime,  a three-day adventure from Chicago to San Francisco and despite his jet-lag he doesn’t hesitate to start recording his journey in his sketchbook as he waits in the grand surroundings of Union Station, Chicago to board the train. He soon makes friends with a brother and sister, Mason and Hadley, who are roughly his age, not realising that their special talents for magic and impersonation will be of great use in unravelling another mystery.

As the train picks up pace across the broad expanse of the American plains, Hal feels a growing sense of unease, sensing an undercurrent of subterfuge. Why does Ryan, the teenager with elaborate dental brace-work appear so terrified of his gym-coach father that he tries to pass on a coded message? Why is Vanessa Rodriguez in the roomette opposite so brusque? Is glamorous journalist Zola trying to steal his uncle’s story? Are there really spies from Reza’s rival company Zircona on board the train, and would they stoop low enough to kidnap Marianne, his twelve-year-old daughter? Is Seymour Hart, the businessman with a metal suitcase clamped to his side at all times, training in stolen secrets?

Like its predecessor, this book is infused with a love of rail travel and trains. The story glides through technical details and descriptions as smoothly as service in a first class carriage, leaving the reader satiated with knowledge.  This time there is also a palpable sense of the conflict between nostalgia for old technologies, such as Uncle Nat’s fountain pen and the glamorous 1940s style train carriages, and the desire to embrace new technologies whilst thinking about their impact on the environment.

The illustrations by Elisa Paganelli throughout are an absolutely integral part of the story as they represent Hal’s finely detailed observations. His insightful sketches are the method through which he details the world around him and the basis for his crime-solving conclusions. 

This book will be devoured by young readers looking for an engrossing adventure to read for pleasure. However, I can also see many ways in which it could be used as a class reader to sit alongside curriculum project work: the Americas geography unit, DT/STEM work on design of transport and as a basis for discussions on clean energy and environmental concerns. In summary I highly recommend Kidnap on the California Comet to anyone of 8/9+.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books for approving my eARC request.

My review of the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief can be found here.