#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.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles

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: Helen Castles

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from page 11: “I whipped out my phone (that Dad said I’m only supposed to use in emergencies) and googled ‘antigen’.

Three words: Detective – Editor – Mystery

This is a perfect introduction to mystery stories for lower KS2 readers with a feisty lead female protagonist and unusually, manages to combine a technology-driven modern day plot with a nostalgic, small-town feel. My original review, which includes an interview with the author Helen Castles, can be read here.

A second book in the series should appear in October, release has been delayed for obvious reasons. I cannot wait to read it!

#20BooksofSummer Book 1 Dragon Detective: School’s Out! by Gareth P Jones

The second dragon detective mystery is every bit as enjoyable as the first in the series (you can read my review here), with a great cast of characters (I loved the portrayal of vain and venal headteacher Principal Palmer), sublime plotting and wry sense of humour. Some characters from Catnapped!, such as evil dragon Vainclaw Grandin and his inept human henchmen Arthur and Reg re-appear, but you could easily read and enjoy School’s Out! as a standalone story. The illustrations throughout by Scott Brown add to its charm, particularly the singed page corners.

After almost derailing her stepmother’s political ambitions following a late night incident involving blazing dragons, Holly Bigsby now finds herself incarcerated at William Scrivener School for children of the ridiculously rich and phenomenally famous. Smart, independent Holly will not rest until she has figured out a way to foil the high tech security systems and return to her best friend in London. Meanwhile Dirk Dilly, her red-backed, green-bellied, urban-based, mountain dragon private eye friend has been hired by a worried wife to investigate her professor husband’s unusual and alarming behaviour.

Dirk’s investigations lead him to a hideout in the thick forest surrounding Holly’s school. The sleuthing friends find themselves caught up in the middle of another of Grandin Vainclaw’s fiendish plots involving secret high-tech weapons, squabbling tree dragons with a hilariously mangled sense of the English language, the prime minister’s delusional son and a school concert of grand drama.

Huge fun for both child and adult readers, this book is a must-read for an audience of 8+. Author Gareth P Jones packs so much into 250 pages, with a wry sense of humour and fabulously imaginative plot, I even spotted a reference to A Little Princess in the early stages. Dragon Detective: School’s Out! is a perfect addition to any school library and one to add to recommended reading lists for this summer’s #SillySquad2020 Reading Challenge. I guarantee that the dialogue between the tree dragons:

I’m sure he’ll comprestand us mistaccidentally schmunching a member of his family.”

will definitely raise a smile if you are lucky enough to read this book aloud to a young audience.

You can register to join the reading challenge at sillysquad.org.uk

My thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is book 1 of my #10BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.com, do check out her wonderful blog.

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

#20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 246 Books

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

I am excited to take part in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy  at 246books.com for the second year running.

Learning from my experience of last year, when I managed to read 18 books, but failed miserably to keep up with the reviews, I am going to set myself the modest target of 10 books this summer! I have definitely lost by ability to concentrate since the Covid-19 crisis began and although books offer a great deal of comfort, I definitely cannot read as quickly as I used too. Additionally, I intend reading two long books (The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantelland Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell) this summer which I will not be reviewing as my blog focuses solely on books for primary school-aged children.

So, here it is; one summer, three months, 93 days, 10 books! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

10 books from my TBR stack to be read and reviewed this summer. Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens will be published in August, I will drop everything to read it the day it appears!!

#MGTakesonThursday – Look into my Eyes by Lauren Child

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

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

 

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.

Look into my eyes

 

Author: Lauren Child

Illustrator: David Mackintosh

Publisher: Harper Collins

Favourite sentence from Page 11: Well this is interesting, because in this edition of the book, page 11 is a blank between two parts of the prologue …so from Page 12:

“When Ruby Redfort was seven years old she won the Junior Code-Cracker Championships – solving the famous Eisenhauser conundrum in just seventeen days and forty-seven minutes.”

This book in three words: Adventure, Ciphers, Intelligence

This is the first book in the Ruby Redfort series and opens with two year old Ruby observing a suspicious incident across the street and trying to communicate with her glamorous, socialite parents Brant and Sabina through the medium of alphabet blocks. They, not being at all on her intellectual wavelength, think she wants to go out for a walk! This sets the tone so brilliantly for this book and indeed the rest of the series – Ruby is able to carry out her spying adventures under the noses of her parents, without them suspecting a thing!

The sentence I’ve selected above highlights Ruby’s unique code-cracking skills, which lead to her recruitment by Spectrum, a top secret spy agency who operate from a base in her hometown of Twinford. She is a fantastically inspiring character for girls and boys who love maths and enjoy solving puzzles; reading these books certainly encouraged a great deal of reading about ciphers in this house! Her adventures show that being small for your age, needing glasses and having a serious notebook habit are no barriers to tackling a nest of villains.

This book is populated by a great cast of characters. Ruby’s best friend Clancy Crew, the son of a diplomat, who is always ready to pedal over and lend Ruby a helping hand; Mrs Digby the Redfort family’s cook who shares Ruby’s love of mystery thrillers and keeps her supplied with banana milk and cookies; Hitch the suave butler who communicates by toast and just happens to be a Spectrum agent; LB the head of the spectrum office with her air of mystery and of course the villains: Baby Face Marshall and Nine Lives Capaldi!

The story takes place in a fictional American town, set in the 1970s and has a lovely nostalgic vibe, it definitely transported me back to childhood enjoyment of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Ruby is equipped with some spy gadgets, but without smartphones or the internet, the mission is able to maintain a high level of suspense throughout.  The chapters are short, with cliff-hangers a-plenty, and for those readers who are so inclined, there are code-cracking challenges to attempt. The plot centres around the  Jade Buddha of Khotan, a priceless treasure with mythical powers which is due to be unveiled at the Twinford Museum at an event planned by Ruby’s parents.

I completely adore the entire Ruby Redfort series, and was very fortunate that this book was published just as my own daughter had finished reading Clarice Bean by the same author, and wanted to know if the Ruby Redfort books actually existed. The exceptionally high quality plotting and characterisation is maintained throughout, each book focuses on a different sense as reflected in the titles. I so applaud Lauren Child for bringing the series full-circle and returning to the crime that Ruby witnessed as a two-year old in the final book. To fully complete the theme of ciphers, you might be able to see from the photo below that there is a code to crack on the beautifully designed covers. I have lost count of the number of Ruby Redfort books that I have given as gifts, and I have yet to find a child who hasn’t enjoyed them after a recommendation. Ruby Redfort should be an essential fixture on your MG library shelves!

Ruby Redforts

Review: Agent Zaiba Investigates by Annabelle Sami

Agent Zaiba

“The best agent is cool, calm and oozes charm”

Zaiba has one huge ambition – to become a world class detective! She doesn’t go anywhere, even to her adored older cousin Samirah’s (Sam’s) Mehndi party, without her trusty copy of Eden Lockett’s Detective Handbook.

She has inherited the handbook, along with a collection of fictional Eden Lockett crime novels from her late mother, and the comforting sight of her “ammi’s” handwritten margin notes makes her feel close to the mother who disappeared when she was very young.

However, this is not a story that dwells on sadness. Zaiba has a loving stepmother, Jessica, and an adorable, super-smart half-brother, Ali. as well as her caring Dad, Hassan. Along with her best friend Poppy, they are staying at The Royal Star Hotel for an enormous family gathering to celebrate the Mehndi party of Sam and Tanvir. The details of British-Pakistani culture woven throughout this story are one of its utter joys, I am sure that they will be greatly enjoyed by children who recognise themselves and their families in the main protagonists and also by children and adults who can increase our knowledge of other cultural traditions.

Sam’s mother, the formidable Aunt Fouzia, runs Karachi’s best private detective agency, The Snow Leopard Detective Agency, and Zaiba sees the opportunity to hone her observation skills to ensure that nothing goes wrong during the party. On hearing that a famous celebrity is also in residence in the exclusive hotel, Zaiba, Poppy and Ali set out to investigate the identity of the celebrity, only to find themselves investigating a real life crime when a priceless diamond goes missing.

The plot races along with Zaiba and her team wading through the red herrings, investigating secret staircases and stumbling upon mysterious events in the wine cellar. Can they discover the diamond thief and rescue the pre-wedding party from “doggy disaster”?

With its mystery-filled chapters, vibrant characters and family loyalties and lively black and white illustrations by Daniele Sosa throughout, this is an ideal read for children in Years 3 and 4. I am looking forward to further books in the series, and hope to find out more details of the Snow Leopard Agency!

I am very happy to have discovered another young detective to join the ranks of representative characters in this genre. Agent Zaiba joins the roster  which includes the intrepid Hazel Wong, one half of the Detective Society, the twins Tulip and Ali from A Cure for A Crime, and Sharna Jackson’s siblings Nik and Norva Alexander, as positive role models to inspire all young readers.

 

My thanks to Toppsta and Little Tiger UK for my copy of this book, which I look forward to sharing through the school library as soon as we are safe to resume.

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

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

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

thieves ostia

 

Author: Caroline Lawrence

Illustrator: Peter Sutton and Fred van Deelen (mosaic)

Publisher: Orion Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “They had almost reached the umbrella pine when the boy looked back, stopped, and reached towards his belt.”

This book in three words: Ancient Roman Adventure

Once again for this feature, I am returning to a book which I read several times before I started my blog. As you can probably tell from its battered appearance, this book has been much-loved by my family. My chosen sentence marks the point when Flavia Gemina, the central protagonist and only daughter of a widowed Roman sea captain, is rescued from a pack of wild dogs in the necropolis behind her villa. Her noble rescuer is Jonathan, a teenage boy who has recently moved in next door. Together with an African slave-girl, Nubia and a mute beggar, Lupus they set out to investigate who is responsible for killing the dogs of Ostia and find themselves delving into the criminal activities of the ancient Roman port of Ostia.

I love this book and the subsequent sixteen in the Roman Mysteries series which still sit proudly on a bedroom bookshelf. In classic ‘whodunnit’ plotting Caroline Lawrence dispenses her knowledge of the classical world with such lightness of touch that children cannot help but absorb facts as they accompany the young detectives through thrilling adventures. I cannot recommend this series highly enough to any Key Stage 2 child studying the Ancient Romans, and for adults who read these as bedtime stories I can only say that I have found myself answering “University Challenge” questions purely based on knowledge gained from The Roman Mysteries!

One final comment, if you ever get the chance to take your child to one of Caroline Lawrence’s events, book a ticket immediately. Her talks are utterly fascinating, she answers all questions with kindness and she signs books with a phrase in Latin, which is totally inspiring, especially for children who attend state school and might not get this inspiration otherwise!

 

 

 

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Case of the Drowned Pearl by Robin Stevens

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: Robin Stevens

Illustrator: Nina Tara

Publisher: Puffin Books

 

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “He was not formal with her as he had been with us, and Karam bent towards him and nodded – they seemed to know each other well.”

 

This book in three words: Murder, Mystery, Friendship

On the day that the title of the final book in the series will be revealed, I thought I would use #MGTakesOnThursday this week to celebrate my love of the Murder Most Unladylike stories.

Since first reading Murder Most Unladylike to my daughter as a bedtime story when she was still at primary school, we have both been hooked on the adventures of The Honourable Daisy Wells and her best friend Hazel Wong. Robin Stevens has created two iconic characters and written a marvellously entertaining set of beautifully plotted murder mysteries which tick all the “read for pleasure” boxes. You can read my reviews of the first seven full length mysteries here and Top Marks for Murder here.

For World Book Day 2020 a mini-mystery was published, The Case of the Drowned Pearl which I did not manage to review at the time, so belatedly, here is my review:

 

It is testament to this author’s brilliant plotting that she is able to write a self contained murder mystery within the space of 80 pages. All existing fans of the MMU series are likely to want to get their hands on this mini mystery and it is also a good place to start for children who are maybe not quite ready to read one of the longer books yet.

The story takes place in a rain and wind-swept British seaside town where Daisy, Hazel and the two junior Pinkertons, Alexander and George have been taken for a short holiday by Daisy’s mysterious uncle Felix and aunt Lucy. The older relatives are obviously investigating a mystery on behalf of the un-named secret spy agency they work for but having to pose as a normal family on holiday hence the addition of the young detectives.

From the moment they enter the down-at-heel hotel, which definitely doesn’t live up to Hazel’s expectations, they find themselves witnessing a heated conversation between two swimmers with aspirations for medals at the Berlin Olympic games which are due to take place the following month. The next morning on a pre-breakfast trip to the beach where Daisy has insisted they should all have a bracing swim in the chilly sea the children are astonished to stumble upon the drowned body of Amber Braithwaite, Britain’s best hope for a gold medal at the Olympics.

Of course our keen amateur detectives soon spot the clues that hint that this is no accidental drowning at sea but another murder mystery for them to investigate and fans of this series will love watching the young detectives at work.

As with all of Robin‘s previous books you are drawn into Daisy and Hazel‘s world and cannot help but admire the spirit of these two girls as they defy convention and expectations to solve another mystery. Their interaction with the Junior Pinkertons has developed over time to show their increasing maturity; their friendship and understanding of each other’s personalities continues to grow. Daisy can still be infuriatingly self-centred but you just can’t help loving her spirit and Hazel as ever is the voice of kindness, calmness and reason as she puts up with Daisy’s superior antics, supporting her friend and growing in wisdom herself.

This book nicely sets up the final mystery, due to be published later this summer. I cannot help feeling a sense of foreboding for the destiny of my favourite member of the detective society. I am torn between being desperate to read the final adventure and feeling that it is going to leave me heartbroken. I think I’ll be ordering a box of tissues alongside the book!

 

#MGTakesOnThursday: Mickey and the Animal Spies by Anne Miller

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

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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.

 

mickey and animal spies

 

Author: Anne Miller

Illustrator: Becka Moor

Publisher: OUP Children’s

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “Mickey was craning her neck as she tried to read (and answer) Rachel’s homework over her shoulder as they bumped their way through the city’s winding roads.”

This book in three words: ciphers, animals, humour

I’m highlighting Mickey and the Animal Spies this week because I don’t think it has had the attention it deserves as a thoroughly engaging introduction to the spy – mystery genre for MG readers. My full review can be read here: Mickey and the Animals Spies by Anne Miller

#MGTakesOnThursday Strange Star by Emma Carroll

MG TakesonThursday
Image created by Mary Simms and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started by Mary Simms 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.

Strange Star

Author: Emma Carroll

Illustrator: Julian De Narvaez

Publisher: Faber & Faber

 

Favourite sentence from Page 11: “Taking the cape and Miss Clairmont’s wet shawl, he shut the front door.”

This book in three words: Gothic, Mystery, Family

The quote above sets the scene for an evening of storytelling in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva which will produce one of the greatest works of gothic fiction of all time. I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and in the world of MG historical fiction there is no doubt in my mind that Emma Carroll rules supreme. This is my favourite of all her works: her imaginative retelling of the inspiration behind the story of Frankenstein. I urge you to read it, and then read every other book written by this incredible author.

My full review can be read here. Strange Star by Emma Carroll

Once you have read the book, you can watch this Lego stop-frame animation created by my daughter a few years ago for a school extended study project. Strange Star in Lego.  Warning: contains spoilers.