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

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

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. When I have time, I love to use this meme to review books which somehow slipped down my TBR stack when they were first published, or perhaps are books that I shared with my (now adult) children before I began blogging. Please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

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

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

Author: Vashti Hardy

Illustrator: George Ermos

Publisher: Scholastic

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Me and my grandpa Eden like to experiment

page 11

This book in three words:

Imaginative – Scientific – Mystery

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

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

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

#MG Review: The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Villains in Venice by Katherine Woodfine

Image design by @marysimms72 and used with permission, cover image by Karl James Mountford

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

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

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

Author: Katherine Woodfine

Illustrator: Karl James Mountford

Publisher: Egmont (now Farshore)

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

I read this book on my Kindle, where page 11 is an illustration showing the front page of a fictional newspaper, The Daily Picture, with the headline: GREAT BRITAIN IN PERIL!

This book in three words: Elegant Pre-WWI Espionage

Over the Christmas break I tried to make a dent in the ridiculously large number of books which I have bought over the past 18 months and due to part-time studying or starting a new job, have just not had the time to read! One such is this third book in the Taylor and Rose Secret Agents series. Villains in Venice, a historical espionage story, is set in 1912, three months after the previous mission, Secrets in St Petersburg ended. It starts with a classic “dead letter drop” scene in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, setting up another perfectly plotted story in this excellent and elegant middle grade spy series.

Sophie Taylor and Lilian Rose are back in London and on the surface working at their ladies’ detective agency based in Sinclair’s Department Store on Piccadilly. However, their equilibrium has been thrown by the disappearance of Joe, of whom nothing has been seen but his bloodstained cap, found in an East End alley after he pursued a lead in their hunt for a mole inside the secret service! Lil, who was becoming romantically attached to Joe before his disappearance, is steadfast in her belief that he is alive and that their priority should be to find him. Sophie however, is convinced that the secret society known as the Fraternitas Draconum are behind many of the unsettling events taking place around Europe as well as Joe’s disappearance, and is determined to play her part for the Secret Service Bureau and disrupt their plans to spark a war. When the Bureau chief asks her to go on an undercover mission to Venice, loyalties are put to the test. She embarks on her mission without Lil, but accompanied by two art student friends to provide her cover, and the adventure commences.

This is a thoroughly satisfying mystery, combining classic spy tropes and wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the wintry, mysterious, disorienting atmosphere of Venice during Carnivale. The evocation of a city and its inhabitants all cloaked in secrets is perfectly rendered by Katherine Woodfine’s precise prose. She builds a level of tension that will send shivers down readers’ spines as reliably as a February plunge in the Grand Canal! I loved the way that she wove the historical emblems and traditions of Venice into the fictional lore of the evil Fraternitas Draconum and played out this latest cat-and-mouse episode in the otherworldly locations on the Venetian lagoon. Once again her key characters display bravery, companionship and a sense of duty and even when their friendships become strained the reader can empathise with all viewpoints.

A pacy spy mystery, peopled with interesting characters, Villains in Venice will delight confident readers of 10+ who are looking for intrigue, intelligence and immersive storytelling. The quality of the Taylor and Rose stories continues to be of the highest order and I am looking forward to travelling onto New York for the next instalment!

If you haven’t read the previous stories in this series, I suggest that you start with The Sinclair’s Mysteries, then move on to Peril in Paris and Spies in St Petersburg which precede this adventure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aboriginal belief

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

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

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

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

#MGTakesOnThursday: Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Walker Books UK

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

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

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

Author: Thomas Taylor

Illustrator: Cover – George Ermos, internal – Thomas Taylor

Publisher: Walker Children’s Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

Do you remember your first Ghastly Night?

p11

This book in three words: Thrilling Shadowy Mystery

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

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

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

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

p46

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

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

MG Fiction Review: The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by A.M. Howell

Cover image by Rachel Corcoran, to be published by Usborne 31st March 2022

A story that starts with a scene at The British Museum, one of my favourite places to visit, was always likely to be a hit with me, and this is a beautifully written middle grade adventure from one of the best current authors of children’s historical fiction. Set in 1948, it provides children with an insight into the post-war period of hardship and rationing, within the context of a gripping page-turner.

When Ruth Goodspeed and her mother, Harriett, embark on an archaeological investigation at a remote farm set in the bleak landscape of The Fens, little do they realise that they will not just be scraping away layers of earth covering ancient artefacts; family and personal secrets and mysteries will also be laid bare. Mirroring the meticulously patient art of the archaeologists, the author slowly brushes away at the surface of her characters, gradually revealing the emotions, anxieties and pain buried deep within. The characters that emerge are so believable, with flaws and mis-steps combined with good intentions that you just can’t help rooting for them. 

A.M. Howell’s writing style is wonderful in its ability to lure you in and propel you through the story. You rapidly lose yourself in the mystery, making it very difficult to put the book down or cease to think about the characters and their plight even when you have to break away and return to everyday reality! She conjures the flat, mist covered, dank, ditch drilled Fen landscape with its sudden explosions of birdlife magnificently. I love the image of this landscape providing farseeing horizontal viewpoints for those who wish to spy on their neighbours as well as a vertical view down to our history, buried and preserved in the damp earth. The comparisons between life in the bombed out ruins of cities such as London and Norwich and the hardships of rural life during and immediately after the Second World War are sympathetically portrayed through Ruth’s reflections on her experiences and the tales that she hears from farmer’s son Joe. The realisation that similarities can be found in what initially appear to be drastically different circumstances are thoughtfully uncovered, increasing that empathy that children can develop through reading great literature.

The story is perfectly pitched to entertain a middle-grade readership of 9+, featuring a race against time to uncover buried treasure, save a family’s livelihood and home, and unravel hidden mysteries. The evolving friendship between Ruth and Joe after a resentful beginning is developed believably and the mutual support between two children adapting to different family circumstances is portrayed with great positivity. I can also imagine this book being a valuable addition to primary school classrooms with its factually-based portrayal of the post WWII years, the actual hiding away of national treasures from the great museums during the War, as well as the way that ancient historical finds are handled and investigated to shed light on our past. At the end of the story the author provides factual details on some of the real treasure hoards that provided inspiration for this book. I understand that publishers Usborne will be providing additional online resources to accompany publication of this book.

I am most grateful to Usborne and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic copy of The Secrets of the Treasure Keepers in advance of publication.

If you want to read more of A.M. Howell’s magnificent MG Historical Fiction, I highly recommend The House of One Hundred Clocks

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Annabelle Sami

Illustrator: Daniela Sosa

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

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

p11

This book in three words: Inclusive Spy Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Get Festive! Blog Tour: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

Image created by Erin Hamilton

This December I am delighted to be one of Santa’s little book bloggers, bringing you reviews of a selection of great books to put you in the festive spirit. Each day one blogger will present you with a seasonal favourite which we hope you might enjoy reading during the holiday season!

I love pretty much everything about Christmas and have read a vast range of Christmas books over the years, so it was quite a struggle to select just one! However, one of my favourite genres to read on a cold winter evening, tucked up by the fire as the weather does its best to send shivers down the spine, is detective fiction, particularly from the golden age writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Therefore my choice for this blog tour is Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens.

This is the fifth book in Robin Stevens’ brilliant series of Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries and combines an intriguing plot with a wonderfully atmospheric Cambridge setting and my favourite festival, Christmas. It really is a perfect example of detective fiction for a confident reader of 9/10+ to enjoy independently, or for adults and children to share during the Christmas holidays.

Set in the few days running up to Christmas 1935, the story begins with the Honourable Daisy Wells and her best friend Hazel Wong (The Detective Society) travelling to Cambridge to spend their school holiday visiting Daisy’s older brother, Bertie. From the very outset this book grabbed my interest because on the train journey Daisy is reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers which would have been newly published at the time and which is one of my favourites! In echoes of that classic work, Daisy and Hazel are to stay at a fictional women-only college, in this case, St Lucy’s, where Daisy’s Great Aunt Eustacia is a mathematics don. Additionally, they team up their detective investigations with their friends Alexander Arcady and George Mukherjee, known as The Junior Pinkertons; although Daisy is aggrieved that simply because she is a girl, she cannot access some colleges in order to carry out all the investigations herself.

Her brother Bertie is at the fictional Maudlin College where he has become friends with twins, Chummy and Donald. The elder twin, Donald, is due to inherit his family’s vast wealth on his 21st birthday on Christmas Day. According to Bertie, Chummy has always been the dominant brother and is furious that he will inherit nothing and is trying to persuade his brother to let him have a say in how the money will be spent. Bertie also tells the girls about the unkind pranks that Chummy plays on Donald as well as some details about a series of accidents that have befallen Donald recently. Alexander and George have heard similar stories from George’s older brother Harold, and a note left for Daisy and Hazel by their former Head Girl warns them that Bertie is mixing with the wrong crowd. The four junior detectives decide that a plot is afoot and a tense investigation to try to avert a tragedy unfolds.

There is something so satisfying about reading a beautifully structured detective mystery, trying to sift the clues from the red herrings and solve the puzzles before the fictional sleuths. Robin Stevens gives us not only a tremendous plot, but continues to develop Daisy and Hazel’s characters, places you in the heart of an ancient university and weaves feminist themes into the story too. The archways, lanes, steep college stairwells and walled gardens of Cambridge become spookily atmospheric in the deep winter nights:

it felt as though the shadows had real weight to them here, or perhaps it was only that the streets were all so narrow, and the walls so very high.

page 42

Hazel is experiencing the painful emotions of first love, flustered and embarrassed every time she talks to Alexander and mortified that he seems to only have eyes for Daisy. Meanwhile, Daisy has met her intellectual match in George, the first person who is able to see through her charm offensive to the deep intelligence that she has hidden from everyone but Hazel.

The racist attitudes of the historical period are explored as are the prejudices against women in the intellectual environment and wealth inequalities. The contrast in fortune between the male college, Maudlin, and the female college, St Lucy’s, is perfectly outlined in the descriptions of the food on offer at each. When the girls are invited to supper at Maudlin they are treated to a feast of roast beef, whilst at St Lucy’s supper comes from a tin! As in all the MMU books, food, and especially bunbreak is taken extremely seriously and the descriptions of the warmth and bustle of the festively decorated Fitzbillies tea rooms bring moments of Christmas cheer to the story, as Chelsea buns and steaming cocoa are consumed whilst theories and clues are discussed. As an aside, if you ever find yourself in Cambridge, you really must try the sticky buns from Fitzbillies! Daisy and Hazel’s friendship and loyalty to each other shines through every page and the importance of finding a “family” who love and respect you for what you are is a key thread.

In summary, if you want to exercise your intelligence whilst enjoying a thrilling work of historical detective fiction then this is my recommendation for your December reading list. Do check out all the other stops on the blog tour for a fabulously wide range of other recommendations.

If you are interested in the other MMU books, you can read my series review here and my review of the final book Death Sets Sail here.

#MGTakesOnThursday: A Girl Called Justice The Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths

Cover image by Nan Lawson, published by Quercus/Hachette Children’s Group 2021
#MGTakesOnThursday image designed by Mary Rees

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

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

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

Author: Elly Griffiths

Illustrator: Nan Lawson

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Children’s UK

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

She had tried to be brave (she remembered repeating an old saying of mum’s to herself: ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’) but, deep down, she’d been terrified.

p11

This book in three words: school – kidnap – mystery

This is the third of the Justice Jones mysteries, a wonderful MG mystery series set in a 1930s girl’s boarding school, written by renowned crime writer, Elly Griffiths. The sentence I have chosen demonstrates Elly’s skill at conveying an impressive quantity of information with an economy of words. Firstly, even if you haven’t read the two preceding books, you can pick this one up and immediately catch up with the protagonist’s back story. Secondly, you gain an insight into Justice’s character; she is not only a keen observer of her school mates and the staff at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk but she also demonstrates an empathetic personality as she tries to put herself into the shoes of a new classmate.

As she returns to school to begin the third form, Justice is pleased to catch up with her dorm-mates and Dorothy, the maid that she has befriended. However, relationships are put under strain by the arrival of the Hon Letitia Blackstock who imposes herself between Justice and her former best friends, Stella and Dorothy, leading to resentment and jealousy. Letitia’s apparent fearlessness and reckless behaviour leads Justice into deeper and deeper trouble with Miss de Vere, the headmistress and expulsion looms large on the horizon. When one of the third form goes missing following a midnight feast, Justice has to use all of her ingenuity to uncover the kidnappers, restore her own standing and save the school from closure.

There are many enjoyable aspects to The Ghost in the Garden. Firstly, the plot cracks along at a good pace, chapters are short, often ending on cliff-hangers which propel you through the story. Justice’s character is very well drawn, showing her independence and intelligence but mixed with a healthy dollop of self-doubt, which makes her a very believable and relatable character for young readers. The author’s use of her journal and notes home to her father, to record reflections and feelings, are clever devices for personality insights. The strained relationships with friends when a newcomer has to be accommodated are scenarios that many youngsters will experience in school and seeing these dilemmas played out in the story can provide comfort and a degree of guidance. The world of Highbury House is beautifully portrayed, from the disgusting school meals, to the entertaining cast of teachers and pupils and the atmospheric construction of the school ghost legend; all add greatly to the entertaining plot.

I have blogged many times about books which fall into the “read for the pure pleasure of reading” category, which are so essential if we want to instil a life-long love of reading in primary school children. At just under 200 pages, the Justice Jones series is perfect for readers of 8+ who are building their independent reading stamina. They are ideal for children who enjoy the Scoop McLaren Books by Helen Castles, the Clifftoppers books by Fleur Hitchcock, the Agent Zaiba books by Annabelle Sami and are an excellent precursor to the Sinclair’s Mysteries by Katherine Woodfine, the Jane Austen Mysteries by Julia Golding or the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens.

The other Justice Jones books are:

A Girl Called Justice

A Girl Called Justice: The Smugglers’ Secret

Halloween 2021

Books featuring ghosts, magic, monsters, vampires and witches for readers of 4 -14

For anyone heading out to a bookshop or the library this weekend, here’s a brief guide to a range of books for primary and early secondary school children to enjoy on these dark autumn evenings! There are many others out there, but these are all stories that I have read over the past year, although some might have been published prior to 2021.

Winnie and Wilbur and the Bug Safari – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The Winnie and Wilbur series is laugh-out-loud funny as Winnie constantly gets herself into a fix when her magic goes wrong! This story will transport youngsters back to warm summer days as Winnie finds herself in the middle of insect mayhem! Suitable for age 4+

Midnight Magic – Michelle Harrison and Elissa Elwick

Fun, rhyming adventure with a magical kitten. An early reading book with delightful illustrations, short chapters, warmth and humour. The first in a series that will captivate youngsters of 5+

Isadora Moon Goes to a Wedding – Harriet Muncaster

Isadora Moon, half fairy-half vampire, is bursting with excitement at the prospect of being a bridesmaid at Aunt Crystal’s wedding, but will the day survive naughty cousin Mirabelle’s magical interventions? This gorgeously illustrated, short-chapter story is engaging and entertaining and additionally contains recipes and craft activity ideas. Perfect for ages 6-8.

Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of the Dark – Katie and Kevin Tsang, ills Nathan Reed

With comic book style graphics throughout by Nathan Reed, lovely characters and sharp plotting, the Sam Wu series totally fulfils the “read for pleasure” criteria that encourage a love of reading. As Sam embarks on a camping trip, he is not sure what to be most afraid of…aliens, werewolves, vampire bats, bears or just THE DARK! Recommended for ages 7+

Leo’s Map of Monsters – Kris Humphrey and Pete Williamson

Nine year old Leo learns that his Assignment for the next two years is to become a Guardian and protect his fenced, medieval-style village from the monsters that roam the land beyond TheWall! An exciting, illustrated, short-chapter series that will appeal to Beast Quest fans of 7+

A Girl Called Justice: The Ghost in the Garden – Elly Griffiths

The third adventure in this MG Mystery Series sees Justice Jones investigating the disappearance of a classmate against a backdrop of the ghostly presence of Grace Highbury haunting the corridors and grounds of Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk. Cracking mystery adventure for readers of 8+

The Monster in the Lake – Louie Stowell and Davide Ortu

The second adventure of young wizard Kit, brilliantly illustrated by Davide Ortu, sees her and her friends investigating the strangely disrupted magic in the local town. All clues point to the lake…but what is lurking in its depths and can the three friends put things right? Packed with fun for readers of 8+

Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire – Anna Wilson and Kathryn Durst

Vlad’s mother, Mortemia, constantly tells him that he is a disgrace to the Impaler family name…what will she do if she finds out that he has been secretly attending human school and has even made a best friend there? A funny and charming story that shows young readers that being an excellent best friend is more important than being a perfect vampire! Suitable for readers of 8+

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami and Daniela Sosa

The third outing for Agent Zaiba and her young detectives from the Snow Leopard Detective Agency finds the team investigating mysterious and ghostly occurrences at Oakwood Manor. Can Zaiba’s team uncover the real culprit and dispel the rumours of ghostly Jinn? Readers of 9+ will enjoy this “cosy crime” investigation.

Lightning Falls – Amy Wilson, ills Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

A glittering and magical tale featuring life-like and friendly ghost characters, making it suitable for readers of 9+. Superb plotting, immersive descriptions and a lovely tale about family in all its forms.

Victoria Stitch Bad and Glittering – Harriet Muncaster

Sumptuously illustrated and brilliant storytelling from multi-talented Harriet Muncaster are sure to engage readers of 9+ in this tale of magical “Wiskling” twin sisters, Celestine and Victoria Stitch. A story of forbidden magic, envy, betrayal and ultimately the bonds of sibling love.

Everdark – Abi Elphinstone

The introductory book to the Unmapped Chronicles series sets up an immersive world run by magic, controlled by an imaginative range of magical creatures which has come under threat from the corrupting dark magic of Morg, an evil harpy. A series that will absorb and delight readers of 9+

Gargantis – Thomas Taylor, ills George Ermos

“When Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes” Eerie-on-Sea is literally cracking apart in the second instalment of this brilliant series and it’s up to Herbert Lemon and his loyal friend Violet Parma to investigate the fearsome monster, Gargantis, who is stirring out in the bay! Fast moving, ferocious plotting fro anyone of 9+

The Ghost Garden – Emma Carroll, ills Kaja Kajfež

Spookily atmospheric story set in a country manor house in the summer of 1914, this novella from Emma Carroll is published in dyslexia-friendly format by specialist publisher Barrington Stoke. Perfect for readers from 10 through to secondary school age.

The Hungry Ghost – HS Norup

An incredible story that blends Chinese tradition with modern day sensibilities. Set in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore, this beautiful story weaves Western and Eastern attitudes to grieving and treasuring memories of the dead and is a powerfully moving read for anyone of 10/11+

Strange Star – Emma Carroll

An imagined tale of the creation of the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley in 1816. The plot moves between Somerset village life and the grand surroundings of the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva; epic storytelling, fabulous characters and a feminist slant make this my all-time favourite Emma Carroll title, recommended for anyone of 10+

Frost Hollow Hall – Emma Carroll

Yes, I know this is the third Emma Carroll book on my list, but as well as being labelled “The Queen of Historical Fiction” Emma really does have a talent for gothic atmosphere. In her debut novel she produced a ghost story, which at one point in the tale, genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! I would not give this to anyone of a nervous disposition, but for KS3 readers of 11+ it is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.

Dracula – retold by Fiona MacDonald, ills by Penko Gelev

Finding myself pushed for time to complete a reading of the original novel by Bram Stoker for one of my book groups, I reached for this graphic novel version from one of my children’s bookcases. It is an accessible introduction to the Dracula story, which certainly remains faithful to the major plot points and atmosphere of the source text. Perfect for teens, dyslexic readers and adults who leave insufficient time to fully read classic novels!