#MGTakesOnThursday: Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House written by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: ‘But even if these events aren’t caused by a ghost, we simply have to investigate’.

This book in three words: Inclusive – Detective – Mystery

Agent Zaiba and her team of young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency are back for their third adventure and this time there may be supernatural forces at work!

Who or what is behind the spooky events at Oakwood Manor, where vases crash to the floor splintering into thousands of shards, plates fly from the kitchen shelves and expensive jewellery vanishes into thin air? With talk in the village of ghostly hauntings or wicked jinn persecuting the new owners of the ancient manor house, it is up to Zaiba and her cool-headed team of junior investigators to discover the true culprit.

In a gripping plot filled with strange disappearances, secret passages and a cast of suspicious grown-ups, young readers will be engrossed in trying to sift the clues from the red herrings. This story fits all the conventions of the “cosy crime” genre, from the setting in a grand manor house surrounded by ancient woodland, to a house party taking place on a storm-ruffled evening attended by a collection of guests exhibiting perplexing behaviour. The short, dialogue-filled chapters generate excitement and tension but in a style and tone perfectly suited to readers of 9+. The addition of Daniela Sousa’s lovely artwork highlights key points in the story and gives young readers a chance to break from the text and mull over their deductions and theories.

Middle grade readers have an amazing range of detective mysteries to choose from these days, I find myself quite envious! (In my childhood the choice was Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and then Agatha Christie). The Agent Zaiba books have hugely broad appeal because they are so effortlessly inclusive of everyone. This inclusivity is embodied in the main protagonist Zaiba, who, in each story welcomes new recruits into her detective agency with appreciation for the unique talents that they bring to her team. In Zaiba’s character Annabelle Sami has created a wonderful role model for young readers; demonstrating the benefit of teamwork, openness to all possibilities, positive encouragement and leading by example. All of these empowering messages are encased in an entertaining mystery story – what more could you ask for?

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Haunted House will be published on 1st April 2021. If you can’t wait until then to join Zaiba’s team of investigators, check out the first two books in the series:

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Missing Diamonds

and

Agent Zaiba Investigates The Poison Plot

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

Review: Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates written by Angie Lake, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Mystery of the Disgusting School Dinners

The first book in  this exciting new series for emerging readers is called The Case of the Disgusting School Dinners and is perfectly written and designed to appeal to readers ranging from confident 7 year olds to those older KS2 readers who are still looking for the perfect book to set them off on a lifetime of reading pleasure. Printed on buff-coloured paper with playful use of different fonts and fully illustrated throughout, this is a book which makes reading an enjoyable experience for those children who might find densely-formatted text rather off-putting. I applaud the publisher Sweet Cherry Press for producing these books which can act as a gateway for emergent readers.

Of course, all the clever formatting in the world won’t keep a child engaged unless the characterisation and story are equally enticing…and in Mina Mistry we have a bright new star earning her shiny detective badge! Mina Snotbridge is a smart, observant and ingenious mixed-race child, with a caucasian father and Indian mother. She tells us that she chooses to use her mum’s maiden name as her secret, undercover detective name because it sounds like mystery and it’s just a whole lot better than her dad’s surname! I love the way that the story has been organised as Mina’s case notes and log entries so that the information is condensed in a style entirely consistent with a detective story, keeping the plot moving at a good pace.

Mina’s best friend, Holly Loafer, is obsessed with planning her future career as a pop star and chasing after the only boy at school with a sense of style, Gareth Trumpshaw! They might seem like complete opposites personality-wise, but they prove that complementary skills lead to great teamwork. Granny Meera is another larger-than-life character, running her catering business Cooking con Fusion, with recipes such as onion-bahjis-in-the-hole and full English breakfast samosas. As Mina helps Granny Meera to prepare some fusion snacks to sell at the school fun run the realisation dawns that the sugar and fat-laden school lunches do not reflect the healthy eating messages that the school is trumpeting. With her detective antenna on full alert Mina enters investigation mode and formulates a plan to discover why the school cook Mrs Mudge is serving up meals designed to rot teeth and pile on the pounds!

Author Angie Lake has created an excellent story to introduce young readers to the delights of the detective mystery genre and the story has been wonderfully illustrated throughout by Ellie O’Shea. Mina is an engaging character, the plot is entirely recognisable and relatable to its intended audience and the story contains a perfect blend of intrigue and humour. Much thought has gone into the design of this book, from the glossy cover, to the sprayed edge pages and the easy-to-read content. This is exactly the sort of book to give children the positive experience of finishing and enjoying a story and introducing them to the tropes of a genre of which they can find many more examples, once their reading motivation has been engaged.

The great news is that book 2 in the series has already been published and there are hopefully more to come!

Mina Mistry (sort of) Investigates: The Case of the Disappearing Pets

Cover art by Ellie O’Shea, published by Sweet Cherry Publishing

The second book in the Mina Mistry series has the same playful tone and great design as the first story, this time packaged in a glossy lilac cover with matching sprayed edges. This time the investigation takes place during Showcase Your Pets Week at Mina’s school, a hilarious set up with children bringing in such delights as shoe-boxes full of garden snails and over-accessorised hamsters! However, it doesn’t take long before a spate of pet-thefts breaks out. Holly’s hamster, Harriet; Danny’s toad, Superdog and the entire animal population of the town’s pet shop. When Mina decides that PC McApple needs assistance to crack the case she enrols her classmates to track down the pet thieves.

With a plot full of model train sets, night-time expeditions through the town’s sewers, cosmetics research and an animal sanctuary, this is an entertaining story presented in an easy-to-read format. Alongside the fun of the investigation the story gives young readers the chance to think about the way that pets are treated and basic ethical questions about business. I recommend to anyone of 7+.

The publishers have produced a wonderful pack of engaging activities for each of the Mina Mistry books. You can find the resources for Book 1 here and the resources for Book 2 here.

I am most grateful to Sweet Cherry Publishing for my review copies of the Mina Mistry books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap written by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Scott Brown.

Cover image by Scott Brown, published by Little Tiger Press

That’s A Wrap! is the final instalment of the Dragon Detective series by Gareth P Jones, and appropriately, for a series which has continually conjured images of old black-and-white detective movies, the action plays out in Hollywood. This book is so cleverly written that it can be enjoyed as a standalone mystery surrounding a stolen film reel, a search for dragon treasure and a battle for supremacy, but also perfectly wraps up the centuries-old conflict between factions of dragonkind which has featured in the previous three stories. Many of the human and dragon characters from previous books make welcome reappearances to fulfil their destinies. My advice would be to read the entire four book series in order; you will be royally entertained.

The action opens with billionaire Brant Buchanan preparing a deadly trap for our Dragon Detective hero, Dirk Dilly, in LA. Meanwhile, back in London our human heroine, Holly Bigsby, is practically under house arrest as her stepmother (former politician and employee of Brant) punishes her for the chaos and embarrassment she caused at the end of Dragon Detective Sky High! Dirk is staking out a warehouse formerly used by evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin’s Kinghorn henchmen when he learns that a new dragon organisation, the One-Worlders, have set up as rivals to Vainclaw’s Kinghorns with the same mission of waging war on humanity!

When Holly’s stepmother is summoned by her employer to join him in LA, Holly and her best friend Archie find themselves staying in a luxurious mansion next door to Holly’s former dorm-mate from Dragon Detective School’s Out! Petal Moses. She is at her prima-donna best, starring in the film of her less-than-riveting life story. Her guardian, whilst her mother is away recording another hit album, is none other than music teacher, Miss Gilfeather, a woman with an awesome repertoire of sarcastic put-downs. Other characters and subplots reappear from Dragon Detective School’s Out! and Dragon Detective Catnapped! as the action heats up in LA.

As in all three previous books, the dialogue crackles with wit as dry as the Joshua Tree National Park. Here we meet desert dragons Kitelsky and Putz, whose fighting antics have attracted the attention of more than one camera lens over the years that they have been staging their desert rumbles!

I don’t want to give away any spoilers of this tightly plotted adventure but I can say that Gareth P Jones has done an awesome job of tying up all the strands from the series into a perfectly satisfying final denouement. The loyal friendship portrayed between Holly and Archie is entirely authentic and the deep connection between Holly and Dirk is so heartwarming that you never question the possibility of a dragon going about his business from a London flat. One of my favourite characters throughout the series has been Dirk’s landlady Mrs Klingerflim and I am overjoyed that she steps out into the spotlight in this final instalment.

Overall, I highly recommend Dragon Detective That’s A Wrap! to anyone of 9+ who likes their detective mysteries served with a huge side order of quirky humour and I hope you enjoy the entire series as much as I have.

I am most grateful to Charlie Morris, Publicity Manager at Little Tiger Press for my review copy of this book.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Lost Child’s Quest by James Haddell

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

This week, I am featuring a brilliant debut by James Haddell, which I found waiting on my doormat when I returned home from the final day of this most peculiar Autumn term; the perfect start to a school holiday.

Cover image by Clair Lansley, published by Emira Press

Author: James Haddell

Illustrator: Clair Lansley (Cover)

Publisher: Emira Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ Tia felt as though the air in her lungs had turned to ice.”

This book in three words: History – Identity – Family

When I read the glowing reviews for this debut novel by James Haddell, written by many of my favourite children’s books bloggers, I immediately placed an order and was delighted to have the book delivered in time for the Christmas holidays.

The story of ten-year-old orphan Tia Hemyke, found on the doorstep of an orphanage with thirteen treasures inside her crib, totally captivated me. This is a story about identity and family and belonging wrapped in an exciting historical quest with such skill that it will keep middle grade readers enthralled as they absorb historical detail and deeper truths.

You are plunged headfirst into Tia’s quest as a mysterious stranger, Mr Silverman, arrives at the children’s home claiming to be a friend of her late father but obviously determined to claim the silver pendant she has worn throughout her life. After a heart-racing pursuit and escape Tia thinks she has escaped his sinister intentions when she is adopted by the Trevelyan family and goes to live with them in a unique community of historians and archaeologists.

The setting of her new home at Stormhaven Castle, a small peninsula on the coast, with its ancient castle keep, small hamlet, progressive school and whitewashed cottages is beautifully rendered and utterly magical. I am sure that I will not be the only reader who would love to spend time there! As Tia gets to know her adoptive family and adjusts to having an irrepressible older sister, Meghan, and a new best friend in Pasco, she learns to trust and to share her secrets with people who can help her in searching for her own history. In the words of Mrs Trevelyan:

“Our understanding of who we are depends on our understanding of where we have come from.”

Tia’s unusual silver pendant appears to have some sort of power within the ancient castle and when she reveals the twelve accompanying silver discs to her parents, an investigation into the Arthurian legend of The Thirteen Treasures leads the children into a magical unlocking of long buried mysteries.

I highly recommend this book to anyone of 9+ as, first and foremost, an exciting and entertaining historical mystery. On a deeper level there is so much to reflect on about the meaning of family and the value of kindness and love. As a whole class shared story it lends itself perfectly to the study of Anglo-Saxons in the primary school history curriculum especially as author James Haddell has included some incredibly thoughtful activities related to each chapter at the end of the book. An awesome debut and I am hoping that a second story will follow soon!

#MGTakesOnThursday: Advent Review – Frost Castle Adventure by Fleur Hitchcock

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

This week, I am featuring the fourth book in the Clifftoppers adventure series, The Frost Castle Adventure, which seems highly appropriate for this time of year.

Author: Fleur Hitchcock

Illustrator: Tom Clohosy Cole (Cover) and R.S. McKay (map)

Publisher: Nosy Crow

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“ It’s just that the weather’s much worse than it was at home and ten, when I came over the hill, I lost control and you saw what happened…”

This is the moment when the Clifftopper children meet actress Martha Darcy-Court in the middle of a snowy field!

This book in three words: Snowy – Winter – Mystery

This is the fourth book in which we join cousins Aiden, Chloe, Ava and Josh as they spend part of their school holidays staying with their grandparents at Clifftoppers Farm. They have arrived in the period between Christmas and New Year and are looking forward to a week filled with snowball fights, sledging and hot chocolates. However, their first afternoon together outside in the snow almost ends in tragedy when an out-of-control car smashes through a hedge and comes close to colliding with Chloe.

The driver is a young and very famous actress, who has travelled down to Frost Castle as a favour to an old family friend, where she will act in the annual New Year performance. The children find themselves roped in as stagehands and embroiled in a mystery revolving around an inherited pendant, which may or may not be cursed and the castle’s resident ghost Anne, Lady of Frost Castle who is rumoured to appear only at New Year! In a classic closed house scenario, with the snow storm closing in, the tension piles up higher than the drifting snow as the cousins race through secret corridors and spiral staircases in pursuit of a jewel thief.

This book, along with the rest of the series is a perfect read for anyone of 8+ searching for a fast-paced story to read independently. It is the perfect length to give newly confident readers the important sense that they can complete a book alone as they will be driven along by the short chapters, relatable child protagonists and desire to unravel the mystery.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Advent Review – Winter Magic Anthology edited by Abi Elphinstone

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

This week, I am featuring an anthology of winter-themed stories curated by one of my favourite MG authors and featuring many of the writers whose books I have reviewed here during the last two years.

Cover image by

Curator: Abi Elphinstone

Illustrator: Thomas Flintham

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“It felt real, just as the cobblestones and the snowflakes did.”

This is from a story entitled A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll.

This book in three words: Snowy – Magical – Winter

This book contains eleven short stories by some of the most magnificent writers of children’s fiction. The first story is written by the Queen of Historical Fiction, Emma Carroll and features a magical time-slip adventure as Maya finds herself transported back in time to a Frost Fair whilst sitting in a taxi held up by a snowy traffic jam on London Bridge. She tracks down the mystery which has been perplexing her beloved grandmother in a heart-stoppingly thrilling chase across the icy river. In the course of the adventure Maya finds a deep family connection and saves her grandmother from the misery of a regimented care home.

This collection really does contain something to suit every taste, from unexpected adventures on a school skiing holiday; to magical fantasies set in snow-filled landscapes; strange events set in motion by an avalanche on a remote Scottish road; an elegant and delightful ballet story set in St Petersburg at the premiere of The Nutcracker ballet and poetry. All are filled with messages of hope and love and depending on my mood, my favourite changes each time I dip into this wonderful selection.

This is the fourth December during which I have had the pleasure to read Winter Magic and I look forward to returning to it for many years to come. I hope that you too find a story to enjoy from this enchanting anthology.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren: Waves of Mystery by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

This week, as we shiver in our northern-hemisphere open-doored classrooms, I thought we could all escape down under to the sunny, seaside town of Higgity Harbour, where the surf’s up and mystery lurks below the surface! Just look at that glorious, sunshine-yellow cover illustrated by Beatriz Castro and imagine the sound of the waves hitting the shore.

Author: Helen Castles 

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“I’ve got a funny feeling and my funny feelings are rarely wrong.”

This book in three words: Sunny – Surfing – Mystery

This is the second mystery for Scoop McLaren, the editor of her own online newspaper, Click! and, along with best friend Evie Andrews a formidable problem-solving detective. Her instincts for suspicious behaviour are aroused by a series of events befalling surfing ace Fletcher Stein as he prepares for the semi-final of the Monster Wave Supreme Grommet Title on Higgity Harbour’s Five Mile Beach.

As Scoop and Evie launch their investigation they are confronted by the uber-competitive parents of Fletch’s rivals, sabotage attempts, shady competition judges, sinister strangers hanging around the normally peaceful coastal town…and even the long-forgotten curse of a pirate who used to ply his trade along the coast! The plot moves along at a great pace, peppered with text messages and secret coded communications between the two young detectives. The supporting cast of characters throw plenty of red-herrings into the story and the quaint small town, suffused with a sense of nostalgia, is almost a character in its own right.

One of the aspects of the Scoop McLaren books that I have enjoyed most as an adult is the very positive portrayal of father-daughter relationships by author Helen Castles, I think this is quite rare amongst the many MG books that I have read. Scoop’s mum lives in Spain where she trains animals to appear in movies, so Scoop lives with her dad, Ted McLaren who edits the town’s traditional newspaper and clearly acts as a wonderful role model and mentor to his daughter. Evie’s dad is the town policeman, and his love for his daughter is palpable, especially as the plot takes a perilous turn.

I am sure that young readers will enjoy the action-packed mystery, picking up some surfing terminology and inspiration ready for the next time they are able to hit the beaches. If publication had not been delayed by Covid-19, Waves of Mystery would have been my perfect summertime read, but as it arrives on our shores with the chilly north wind I suggest snuggling up on the sofa with it and dreaming of next summer! Highly recommended for boys and girls of 8+.

Do also read the first book in the series, reviewed here: Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me a review copy of this ray of sunshine!

Halloween Treats for #MG Readers

With trick or treating cancelled this year, what better way to use that spare time than curling up with a hot chocolate overflowing with marshmallows and a thoroughly entertaining book to send shivers down your spine?

There are an enormous collection of Halloween themed stories to suit every middle grade reader, so I’ve selected some of my favourite new releases plus a couple of old favourites as sometimes these are overlooked in the tide of new publications.

Click cover to link to review and chapter sample
Click cover to link to review

For newly confident readers who are looking for entertaining stories where the text is interspersed with wonderful illustrations, I highly recommend Midnight Magic by Michelle Harrison, a heart-warming tale of a magical black cat, and Leo’s Map of Monsters by Kris Humphrey, an exciting story of courage and ingenuity. You can read my full reviews by clicking on the book covers.

As children move on to reading longer books in lower Key Stage 2, pictures throughout the story are still important to make the reading process enjoyable. These readers are in for a treat with Harriet Muncaster’s recent book Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering, an enchanting gothic story set in a wonderfully rendered magical woodland world. The Maker of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory certainly reveals a range of gruesome and blood-thirsty creatures to make you quiver in your boots alongside a message of acceptance and the power of self-belief. Please click the book covers for my full reviews.

Meanwhile, Grimm by Mike Nicholson turns a spooky tale of dreadful occurrences at a haunted hotel into a very modern expose of the “fake news” phenomenon. The Scottish town of Aberfintry is blighted by the presence of crumbling Hotel Grimm, perched on the side of Scrab Hill and seeming to cause the untimely demise of anyone foolish enough to spend the night. Needless to say the town’s teenaged marketing sensation, Rory McKenna is less than delighted when he is commissioned by Granville Grimm to design a marketing campaign for the spooky eyesore! Can he uncover the mystery surrounding the hotel and fight the local prejudice whipped up by the editor of a small town newspaper? This is an enjoyable and entertaining story which is very timely as we highlight the impact of fake news in information literacy lessons. At the moment you can actually purchase signed copies directly from the author Mike Nicholson at his website here.

Click book cover to link to review

The Apprentice Witch trilogy by James Nicol are all thoroughly entertaining stories, combining a wonderfully realised magical world with the most kind-hearted and accident prone young witch you could hope to meet. Read all three to immerse yourself in Arianwyn’s quest to vanquish the dark magic which threatens her world.

For those children in upper Key Stage 2, I have picked a selection to provide a substantial read and plenty to think about.

Click cover to link to review

Gargantis by Thomas Taylor is the second in his Eerie-on-Sea series and has enough perilous episodes and wickedly sarcastic humour to keep you engrossed through a long winter evening.

Click cover to link to review

The Hungry Ghost by HS Norup does a marvellous job of combining SE Asian tradition with a modern day story of blended families and loss. It is one of my favourite new releases of 2020 and educated me in a culture and tradition which I had not encountered before. The juxtaposition of the ancient Hungry Ghost festival with a bustling, modern setting in which a displaced teenager encounters a ghostly presence is perfectly crafted by a brilliant writer.

Click cover to link to review

Finally, one of my all time favourite books – I have probably purchased more than 10 copies of this to give away since it was published in 2016, the one pictured is my own signed copy, that’s how much I love it! Strange Star is Emma Carroll’s brilliant imagining of the story behind the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It is a perfect gothic novel, ideally pitched for Year 6 and 7 readers who are very likely to be studying Frankenstein in Year 7 or 8 at secondary school.

Draw the curtains, put some logs on the fire and enjoy … if you dare!

#BlogTour Review: The Hungry Ghost by H S Norup

I am delighted that today is my stop on the blog tour for The Hungry Ghost, a book which has stayed in my heart since reading it, courtesy of NetGalley and Pushkin Press, in August. This moving and complex story by H S Norup weaves an incredible number of threads into a relatively short book, pulling them all into alignment at the end to create a perfect picture.

The story takes off with 12-year-old Freja being handed over like a package at the airport to change continents and families due to her mother’s unspecified illness. She leaves behind her small town life in Denmark to be plunged into the steamy,  international melting-pot of life in Singapore. Her sense of alienation is compounded by the unwelcome addition of a stepmother and half-brothers and a landscape that bears no resemblance to the forests of Sweden where she has previously enjoyed outdoor pursuits with her father on his paternal visits. Freja is a dedicated scout and has come to Singapore prepared for an outdoor culture; she has her Swiss  Army knife, compass, combat trousers and many other survival accessories. She is not prepared for a life of frilly dresses, parties and social media which seems to be the milieu of Clementine, her glamorous step-mother. She also disdains contact with her twin half-brothers.

H S Norup’s writing captures Freja’s sense of displacement perfectly, emphasised further by the fact that her beloved father seems to be more interested in his high pressure, deal-making career, with his unexpected business trips to the financial hotspots of southeast Asia and inability to speak to her without constantly checking his phone screen.

Unable to sleep due to her unhappiness combined with jet-lag and wishing to pursue her natural instinct to be outside,  Freja steps out into the garden on her first night and is surprised to see a tall, silent Chinese girl there. When the girl reappears in daylight and beckons Freja to follow her, she is surprised to be led to an overgrown tropical wilderness not far from the manicured street where she lives. On her way back home she learns that the wilderness is Bukit  Brown, an old Chinese cemetery and that August is the month of the Hungry Ghost festival, when unhappy spirits roam the streets eating the offerings left for them by grieving relatives. 

Despite being warned by Clementine to stay away from the cemetery with its dangers ranging from snakes to unstable ground, Freja is compelled to follow her ghost and help her in her quest to unravel snippets of memories and discover her identity. It appears that the overwhelming fear that her mother will forget her is the catalyst for Freja to assist this unhappy ghost. As the mystery of Ling’s past and connections with Freja’s own ancestors begins to emerge, small clues that Freja has a significant part of her own identity locked away are dropped into the narrative. Aspects of traditional Chinese folklore are blended with modern-day life at international school and the role of domestic servants now and in recent history are also examined. 

The crafting of the narrative is so deftly handled that the reader never loses sight of the central quest despite the lure of dangled hints just on the edge of your peripheral vision. As you desperately reach for these missing threads to complete the tapestry you have to take a moment to admire the author’s skill. The denouement as the Hungry Ghost festival closes is brimming with tension as Freja battles with mythical creatures and poignantly realises that she has made true friends in Singapore.

The weaving and contrasting of Western and Eastern attitudes to death and grieving are wonderfully combined and as the narrative gaps are closed, the importance of remembering the dead, treasuring their memories and being grateful for those who love us is brought to the fore. 

This book has clearly been written for the upper end of the MG readership with its ultimately hopeful conclusion, but in my opinion it is a satisfying read for anyone over the age of 10. I was deeply impressed at the construction of the plot and fascinated to learn a little about an aspect of Chinese culture and Buddhist and Taoist tradition. I was also left curious to find out more about the transition of Singapore to the global powerhouse that it is today from the society described during Ling’s childhood. I am particularly pleased to have read this book during a summer when I haven’t been able to travel; it highlights the power of a great story to transport the reader beyond their physical reality.

I am grateful to #NetGalley and Pushkin Press for allowing me to read an eARC of The Hungry Ghost and to Poppy Stimpson for inviting me to join this tour. Do check out the other stops on the blog tour and read the views of an incredible selection of book bloggers.

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.