#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.

Scrumptious Stories Blog Tour: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent

Graphic created by Erin Hamilton

I could not have been happier when Erin and Kate proposed a blog tour for a group of children’s books bloggers to talk about the delicious treats found within the covers of MG Fiction, and invited me to take part. I had, that very evening, started writing a review of this year’s must-read festive publication: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent which you can read here.

For me, one of the loveliest aspects of Christmas is preparing and sharing food with friends and family; the Carroll family in Mel Taylor-Bessent’s fabulously festive book certainly appear to have the same mindset! There are mouth-watering descriptions of mince pies, hot chocolate, Christmas cake, snowball sundaes, candy canes and turkey sandwiches, you can practically taste the warmth of the mixed spice and smell the astringent sage as you read. I have to draw the line at gravy on chocolate cake, however! I asked Mel about her own favourite Christmas food and this was her reply:

Quote from Mel Taylor-Bessent

Inspired by Holly’s mum presenting Archer with a box of mince pies and a recipe for the Carroll family’s famous hot chocolate as a thank you for taking care of Holly on her first day at school, I decided to try to recreate these enticing treats. So, here are my recipes for Christmas Carroll Chocolat Chaud and Mum’s Mince Pies!

Christmas Carroll Chocolat Chaud


1 cup of milk

2-3 heaped teaspoons hot chocolate powder

Squirty cream/whipped cream



Candy Canes

Sprinkles/grated chocolate/mini marshmallows


Heat the milk in a saucepan, the microwave or an electric milk frother so that it is hot but not boiling.

Use a little of the hot milk to dissolve the hot chocolate powder and then stir in the rest of the milk.

Add whipped cream or squirty cream and any combination of toppings; sprinkles, grated chocolate, cinnamon, mini marshmallows or candy canes according to taste.


Perfect as a warming treat after a hard day at school or a brisk walk in the autumn/winter frost and snow.

Mum’s Mince Pies


1 pack ready-made puff pastry (you can, of course make your own puff pastry. I learnt the technique in school Home Economics lessons and it’s fun but very time-consuming!)

400g jar mincemeat

A little milk

A sprinkle of icing sugar


Cut block of pastry into two and roll out one of the pieces to a thickness of 3mm

Cut 12 discs with a round cookie cutter and place in a well-buttered patty tin

Prickle the bases with a fork, then pile a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat into each of the pastry bases

Roll out the second half of the pastry and use any shaped cookie cutter to make the lids of your mince pies, I like to use a star

Place on top of the mincemeat and brush the tops with a little milk

Bake in a pre-heated oven, 200°C (gas 6) for approx 15 mins, until golden

Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar

Here are some mince pies and hot chocolate I made earlier!

If you wish to attempt other seasonal recipes inspired by Nick, Snow, Holly and Ivy Carroll, head to the resources page on Mel’s website, where amongst a host of activities, you will find downloadable recipe cards for Grotto Cakes, Ice Cakes and Christmallows. These would make a wonderful end of term activity at school or Christmas holiday activity at home for young bakers.

I hope that this post has given you some yuletide inspiration and that you will enjoy the festive season in whichever way you choose to celebrate, hopefully accompanied by family, friends, a great book and something tasty to eat.

Cover art by Selom Sunu

Do check out the other stops on the tour for more foodie fun from the wide world of children’s literature!

#MGTakesOnThursday: The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent, illustrated by Selom Sunu

Cover illustration by Selom Sunu, published by Farshore an imprint of Harper Collins, October 2021.
MG Takes On Thursday graphic by Mary Simms.

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: Mel Taylor-Bessent

Illustrator: Selom Sunu

Publisher: Farshore

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

A world filled with snowfall and sunshine, flashing fairy lights, and constant jingling bells.


This book in three words: Christmas Every Day!

Imagine being part of a family who celebrate every day as if it were Christmas, and see it as their mission in life to spread festive cheer to everyone they encounter! This is exactly the life that Holly and her family, the Carrolls, enjoy, at their home in the countryside. Her Dad, Nick, has never let go of the joyous feeling that arriving from Jamaica in the middle of a snowstorm brought him, and now spends his time inventing merrynifiscent Christmas creations. Mum, Snow, designs a fabulous range of Christmas aprons and homeschools Holly with festive fervour; symmetry lessons using lights and decorations on a tree sounds like a magnificent maths lesson to me! Meanwhile, we await baby Ivy’s first word to see if it will be one of her big sister’s concatenations.

However, when the Carrolls leap at the opportunity to buy a house on the third most Christmassy road in the world, Sleigh Ride Avenue, their lives are upturned quicker than a six-year-old’s stocking on Christmas morning! Firstly, their exuberant arrival is frowned upon by miserable neighbour Hugh Berg, referred to as Mr Bleurgh by Holly. Then there is the small matter of a lack of fireplace to contend with. However, the biggest challenge for Holly is her adjustment to the social and cultural norms of a Year 5 classroom.

Author, Mel Taylor-Bessent, captures the comedic potential of Holly’s enthusiastic embrace of anything festive brilliantly and descriptions of her arrival in the classroom, throwing handfuls of snowflake confetti, offering to sing a carol to her classmates and inability to refrain from shouting out her approval for the class book, will have readers giggling with appreciation. Her enthusiasm is so infectious that even the quiet loner of the class, Archer, seems to be warming to the task of making a joint presentation for the roles of class representatives with her.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares Holly’s zeal. Her yuletide accessorising of school uniform is frowned upon by the head teacher, some of her class cohort are less than complimentary about her “backpack of cheer” and apparently Mr Bleurgh is raising a petition to have the Carrolls removed from Sleigh Ride Avenue. When Archer appears to turn his back on their burgeoning friendship, Holly loses her Christmas cheer and has to reassess her behaviour as she ponders what to do in order to fit in with her new surroundings and whether she can bring cheer to the person who needs it the most. Will she follow her muse, Reggie the donkey-who-thinks-he’s-a-reindeer, and continue to spread goodwill? You will have to read The Christmas Carrolls to find out!

This is such a big-hearted story that it will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s festive story collection. It would be a wonderful whole class read to enjoy during December, likely to instil the Christmas Eve feeling of “everyone still and listening…and magic in the air”. Additionally, the joyfully expressive illustrations throughout, by Selom Sunu, make it a perfect independent read for anyone of 8/9+. It is really no surprise that Mel Taylor-Bessent, who has done so much to promote the love of reading for primary school children should have authored such an exhilarating and inclusive story. It really doesn’t matter how you celebrate the festive season, the underlying messages of gratitude, enjoying the moment and doing your best to make someone else feel happy are universal, and packaged in this beautiful book are bound to spread cheer. The sense of bonhomie seems to burst from the pages and as for the descriptions of festively fragranced food, I am reaching for my 30 year-old copy of Delia Smith’s Christmas a month earlier than usual! This is a Christmas cracker that does not disappoint.

Midnight Magic – Mirror Mischief by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Cover image by Elissa Elwick, published by Little Tiger Press

Prepare for mischief and mayhem as a very special magical cat makes a second appearance on a bookshelf near you!

Midnight made her debut appearance in October 2020 and she leaps back into action just in time for this year’s Halloween celebrations. Once more Michelle Harrison has written a sparkling, delightful story in rhyming text which bounces along with an enchanting rhythm. Young readers will be captivated with the combination of short, easy to read, blocks of text interspersed with Elissa Elwick’s charming illustrations. It is so important for children who are just discovering independent reading to be presented with appealing, enticing books that invite them to read for enjoyment, and this book does exactly that with its endearing characters, hilarious story and short illustrated chapters.

Midnight’s sense of fun results in her conjuring up a “copycat” reflection of herself in the bathroom mirror, an impish doppelgänger who can cause all kinds of havoc in the reflected world without causing any trouble in the real world. It looks like a case of “mischief perfection” until the combination of excitable dog Doodle and enchanted broom Twiggy manage to send the mirror crashing to the floor! Once the copycat escapes into the real world there is nothing that Midnight, Trixie, Dad or Gran can do to stop the escalating chaos!

Young children will love the increasingly anarchic behaviour of the copycat and the extreme measures that Trixie and Midnight deploy as they try to catch the troublesome terror. In scenes which are reminiscent of children’s classic The Cat in the Hat, it appears that every part of Trixie’s home will be reduced to disorder! As for my favourite part of the book – it can only be the sight of Dad ironing the white school shirt at breakfast time; that’s true magic!

I highly recommend Mirror Mischief as an addition to your home and school bookshelves, it is a hugely enjoyable story for 6-9 year olds and would make a much better Halloween present than much of the orange plastic currently filling the supermarket shelves!

If you enjoy Mirror Mischief, do look out for the first Midnight Magic story too.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for sending me a review copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Swop the Satsuma-Sized Secret by Lucy Noguera, illustrated by Laura Ireland

cover illustration by Fabio Gois, published by Brilliant Monsters Books

I absolutely love this gently humorous and endearing adventure written by debut author Lucy Noguera! It features a Key Stage 2 boy Ernie, who is facing some major upheavals in his young life. He is mourning the loss of his father and faces further change with a move from the countryside to London so that his mum can start working again as a doctor and the family can live closer to their gran. Whilst his mum and teenage sister Ivy are excited about the relocation, Ernie is having a much harder time adjusting.

Imagine his surprise and delight when he investigates the scuffling noises emerging from the battered leather suitcase that serves as his memory box, whilst he is unpacking in his new bedroom, and finds a tiny, satsuma-sized dog! Before his father’s death they had been planning to buy a puppy, so Ernie is understandably overjoyed with his pocket-sized companion. However, there are stresses involved too. The landlord has a strict “no pets” policy, and when Swop sneaks into Ernie’s lunchbox and accompanies him to school there are a multitude of embarrassing and awkward situations to be faced!

This book is special for a number of reasons. (At risk of sounding like Mrs Merton)…I was first attracted by its dyslexia-friendly format, clear font, off-white high-quality paper so that text does not confusingly bleed through and illustrations by Laura Ireland which give a young reader reflection time. As well as being accessible to children with dyslexic difficulties, the short chapters and fast paced plot make this an ideal book for newly emerging readers.

The story itself highlights many aspects of the need to ally with those individuals who might otherwise feel excluded, incorporated perfectly into the context of the story so that readers will not feel they are being preached at. Ernie’s teenage sister, Ivy, is deaf and communicates with sign language and lip reading. She is portrayed as a lively, outgoing character, always in the centre of things due to the necessity to clearly see people’s faces as they are speaking to her. This is such a positive example of an individual turning what might be seen as a disability into a positive factor in her life. Just as importantly, there are two characters in Ernie’s new class who demonstrate the kind, empathetic behaviour that all of us would like to encounter in our daily lives. Rafa, who befriends Ernie during his first calamitous lunch break and Clemmie who senses Ernie’s discomfort on his first day and positively intervenes to stop the unthinking sniggers of other classmates. Both are wonderful and age-appropriate examples of kindness for this story’s readership.

In case that all makes the book sound very “worthy” please be assured that it is also a humorous, entertaining and enjoyable story of a boy and his unbelievably cute dog. There are many laugh out loud moments as Swop causes chaos at school, some containing the delights of tiny dog accidents, which are guaranteed to appeal to the sense of humour of many young readers! I think that this story will be very popular for children of 6-9 years of age and I am certainly looking forward to the sequel which will be set at The Natural History Museum!

Lightning Falls by Amy Wilson, illustrated by Rachel Vale and Helen Crawford-White

Cover image by studiohelen.co.uk, published by Macmillan 19 August 2021

This was the Primary School Book Club choice for September 2021 and I am embarrassed to admit that, although I have been aware of Amy Wilson’s reputation for some time, this is actually the first of her books that I have read. Why did I wait so long? Her description of Lightning Falls or The Ghost House, as it is commonly known, had me hooked from the first page; in fact the house is so central to the story that it is a character in its own right!

Lightning Falls acquired its name from the extraordinary waterfall to which it is adjacent; a former grand manor house which is now a tourist destination for ghost hunters attracted by the “creaks and the squeaks” who often arrive clutching their “fifty-per-cent-off promotional vouchers from the Ghostwatchers’ Express”! Owned by Lord Rory, described as an adventurer, its only other human inhabitants are Mrs Peters the housekeeper, Leon the receptionist and Ted the chef. However, the main attractions are the ghosts of former ancestors of Lord Rory and deceased staff, who together make an extraordinary family for Valerie, the first-person narrator of the tale.

One of the main themes running through the story is Valerie’s search for her identity and origins, her solitary clue being the pendant that she was found with. She lives with the hollow feeling of always wondering who left her behind at the hotel as a toddler. She has been brought up to believe that she is a “hallowed ghost”, she exhibits many human characteristics alongside the abilities to remain invisible to humans and float alongside her ghostly best friend, Meg. The warm family relationships with which Valerie is supported by her ghostly and human companions are beautifully and believably written and greatly add to the enjoyment of this fantasy mystery.

As the story begins, Lightning Falls is being besieged by Star Storms which are having a serious impact on the hotel guests. Then a mysterious boy appears, sitting on the ruined viaduct which runs across the raging river, with threads of lightning appearing from his fingers. Valerie is determined to discover whether he is the cause of the storms, but when she confronts him she finds that he holds the keys to unlock her past.

I won’t give away any spoilers because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of this glittering and magical tale. Lightning Falls is a wonderful story for children of 9+ to add to their fantasy and Halloween reading lists and I appreciated the fact that it is not too scary; I know that 9-year-old me would have enjoyed this very much without the nightmares that accompanied some ghost stories! The themes of family taking many forms and the importance of valuing every individual for themselves independent of labels, appealed to me as I’m sure it will do many others in the light of conversations around allyship and inclusion. Finally, a big thank you to the Primary School Bookclub members who have opened my eyes to the magical writing of Amy Wilson, I now have another collection of books to add to my ever-growing TBR stack!

Review: Secrets and Spies written by Anita Ganeri and illustrated by Luke Brookes

Cover art by Luke Brookes, published by Little Tiger Press

This colourful exploration of the undercover world of espionage is an exciting non-fiction book aimed at middle grade readers, published today by Little Tiger Press.

The artwork by Luke Brooks perfectly complements the subject, with its cinematic, comic book style. The cover image absolutely encapsulates the spy’s life in the shadows! The text by Anita Ganeri, a well-known author of children’s non-fiction is presented in small block paragraphs on the full colour pages in a very clear font, perfect for children’s to read and comprehend in small chunks.

The book begins with the early chapters covering the history of spying, dating right back to the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and India. Prominent personalities in the history of spying are discussed. Some widely read children might have already heard of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s famous spymaster and will be interested to find out about the coding genius behind much of his success, a brilliant linguist called Thomas Phelippes. As the chronology progresses to World War II you will learn about prominent female spies such as Noor Inayat Khan (code-named Madeleine) the first female radio operator sent into occupied France and Violette Szabo who also carried out secret and dangerous missions in France. I think that children will appreciate the mixtures of styles, with purely factual pages sometimes giving way to imaginary newspaper stories reporting a case of the spy’s dark arts or the graphic novel-like biography of Harriet Tubman. I was particularly enthralled by the descriptions of different codes and ciphers as well as the modern cryptography on which we increasingly rely.

This comprehensive book will delight the most inquisitive child (as well as teens and adults) and could be used in so many curriculum activities (history, maths, geography, computing) that I would highly recommend it to primary school libraries and upper key stage 2 classrooms. I know from my own experience that a large number of primary school children are fans of MG spy fiction and I am sure that they would love to discover more about the world of covert operations and classified information. For children who love the adventures of Agent Zaiba, Mickey and the Animal Spies, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, Ruby Redfort, The Mysterious Benedict Society or Alex Rider, this book is sure to be a mesmerising read.

Review: The Crackledawn Dragon by Abi Elphinstone

Cover image by George Ermos, published by Simon & Schuster UK

Devoted readers of the Unmapped Chronicles, of whom I am one, have become accustomed to the detailed and whimsical introduction to each new book in the series. Its presence at the start of The Crackledawn Dragon, means that this book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone although it is the conclusion to the series. Fortunately, Abi Elphinstone is not one of the grown-ups who she tells us are “far too busy to believe in magic.” She doesn’t just believe in it, she creates it with abandon, infuses it with wisdom and wonder and spins it into gloriously enchanting stories which leave a glow of pure delight when read.

Zebedee Bolt is the hero of this plot, a boy with three remarkable talents; running away from foster families, succumbing to spectacularly drenching outbursts of sobbing and a natural flair for music! Although he would like to emulate his hero, a TV survival expert known as The Tank, it seems unlikely that this dream will be realised. As we meet him at the start of the story he has run away from his latest foster parents, the Orderly-Queues (yes, the witty names are here in abundance) and is hiding out in an abandoned New York theatre when a kind social worker ( who fans will recognise from Jungledrop) finds him and reassures him that: “One day you will realise that you matter.”

Unfortunately, Morg the evil harpy is also hiding out under the theatre and uses her wily cunning to manipulate Zeb into bringing her the remaining Phoenix tears which will supply the magic she needs to break into the kingdom of Crackledawn. The insidious power of false promises and the deals that individuals can make with themselves to justify their actions or even inaction in the face of wrongdoing is very subtly explored through the interaction of Morg and Zeb during the first part of the story. 

Once they burst into Crackledawn, readers are propelled through the sparkling blue waters on the deck of Darktongue, Morg’s ship of shadows. Zeb discovers that his mission is to ride on Morg’s bone dragon all the way to the sun, protected only by the Stargold Wings, to retrieve the lost Ember Scroll so that Morg can write herself into permanent power over the Unmapped Kingdoms. When this plan goes awry, Zeb is rescued by a young Sunraider called Oonie, whose blindness has made her fearsomely independent as she sails the waters of Crackledawn aboard the enchanted dhow, The Kerfuffle. I will not give away any more plot details as readers will want to discover the story for themselves. Suffice to say that the twists and turns leave you breathless as you marvel at the array of magical creatures; in this case I was most taken with a hurtle turtle, which I would love to employ to do my own housework! As always the names sparkle with invention, my favourites in this book being an exuberantly maternal chameleon named Mrs Fickletint, closely followed by the merglimmer, Perpetual Faff! Oh, and there is humour in abundance, with laugh out loud moments to lighten the tension, such as Mrs Fickletint scolding Dollop the goblin for his suggestion of treetop yoga when the end of the world is imminent!

Abi is such a brilliant writer. You can tell that she totally understands children’s yearning for fantastical adventures, and this she conjures with great panache. On top of this she layers validation, reassurance and love; her characters exhibit flaws and doubts but learn the power of trust and friendship throughout the arc of the story. Then into this already heady mix she stirs in contemporary themes; most obviously the environmental crisis and more subtly, the way in which those with disappointed hopes can be taken in by the empty promises of individuals who wish to use them for their own nefarious purposes. Most of all, it is a story, like an unopenable purse… filled with hope.

I am grateful to Simon & Schuster for allowing me access to an electronic version of the book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I have subsequently purchased a physical copy and highly recommend this book to everyone of 9+.

If you have not already read them, I do encourage you to read the other books in the series:

Everdark, which I have reviewed here and here the second review is for the dyslexia-friendly version, Rumblestar and Jungledrop.

Review: Eco Rangers by Candice Lemon-Scott


Eco Rangers is a new adventure series with an ecological theme, aimed at the MG market, written by Australian author Candice Lemon-Scott.

Book 1: Eco Rangers Pelican in Peril

12-year-old Ebony and her best friend Jay live next door to each other in a small seaside town – and yes, there is a map at the start of the book, which always scores brownie points from me! On an everyday visit down to the beach Ebony spots a “black, feathered mound” at the base of the pontoon, closer inspection reveals a pelican covered in smelly, black gloop. The children try to help the pelican out of the water, with comically wet consequences for Jay, and eventually Ebony manages to gain the confidence of the distressed bird sufficiently to lift it into the milk crate on the back of Jay’s bike.

After pedalling to the conservation centre the children take the pelican, named Poseidon by Ebony, to the vets in the Wildlife Hospital (Dr Battacharjee – known as Dr Bat, and Dr Tan). This earns them the sobriquet “Eco Rangers” and starts their adventure as Ebony decides to investigate whether the oil spill from a cruise ship in the harbour is accidental or more sinister. Are the slimy manager of the cruise ship and his crew really taking their oil waste to the correct disposal facility? It is up to the intrepid Eco Rangers to find out!

This is a fantastic book for newly confident readers to read alone, a perfect length at 102 pages of easily-readable font, alternatively it would make an excellent bedtime story. The action is fast-paced, driven along in short chapters, and contains just the right degree of peril for an audience aged 6+. The friendship between Ebony and Jay is utterly believable; Ebony’s determination and bravery is matched by Jay’s loyalty to his best friend and his endearing tendency to think about food at every opportunity. The ecological message that underlies the story shines through the entertaining plot and is a great start to a discussion of these issues with a young child.

Book 2: Eco Rangers Microbat Mayhem

The second book in the Eco Rangers series starts with Ebony and Jay enjoying their reward, from the Wildlife Hospital staff, of a free pass to Super World theme park. However, it doesn’t take long before they are pulled into another ecological investigation and adventure after discovering two baby microbats abandoned on the grass outside the derelict Wild Jungle Ride which is due for demolition.

In this adventure, Jay and Ebony are up against a devious and greedy theme park manager in their fight to save the microbat colony. The manager of the theme park, Ms Pitts, does not take kindly to Dr Bat and Dr Tan telling her that she will have to delay demolition while the bat colony is rescued and re-homed. She “doesn’t look like someone who loved rides, or kids.” It soon transpires that she doesn’t like protected wildlife species either, especially if their roosting site might delay her plans to cash in on the summer tourist season with a huge new roller coaster ride! Will Ebony and Jay be able to foil her machinations and save the colony before the bulldozers roll in? Read this exciting adventure to find out!

Again, this is a perfect book for Key Stage 1 readers who are ready to progress to early chapter books. It is printed in a thoughtful size for small hands and I am particularly impressed that it has been published on slightly buff-coloured paper which is especially helpful for children with certain reading difficulties.


I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me review copies of these books in exchange for an honest review.

For children who enjoy the combination of adventure with an ecological theme demonstrated by the Eco Rangers stories, I highly recommend, as next steps, the Kat Wolfe Investigates series (for age 8+) and the Carl Hiaasen children’s books, Hoot, Flush, Scat and Squirm (for 10/11+)



Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor Blog Tour – Author Interview with Helen Castles

SM_Blog Tour

Today I am beyond excited that it is my stop on the #Blogtour for Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor, the first in a new MG Detective/Mystery series by Australian author Helen Castles. As well as my review of the book, Helen has kindly answered questions about her inspiration and motivation for this wonderful new series. So, without further delay, allow me to introduce Helen to UK readers through a Q and A!

Hi Helen, firstly, can I congratulate you on your debut novel Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor, which I thoroughly enjoyed. What inspired you to write an MG book?

I loved books as a child, the places they took me to and the people I got to meet. As an author, I wanted to write novels for children, to be able to provide that joy for them that I always felt as a child when reading. I had written two books previously (unpublished), one for middle grade and one young adult novel. The YA novel subsequently got turned into a short film. After a few years of working for a newspaper, meeting so many interesting people and telling so many stories, I thought it would be a good idea to write about my life as a journalist. While still wanting to write a children’s novel, I decided to combine the two and Scoop is the result!

I love your main character, the quick-thinking, bold and determined Henley “Scoop” McLaren. Knowing that you are a journalist I wondered how much of Scoop is based on your own childhood?

I am so thrilled you love Scoop! While I wouldn’t say that any part of Scoop is based on my own childhood, I do love and purposely wanted to focus on the relationship between Scoop and her dad. My own father died when I was nine, so it’s kind of like writing about a part of me and my life that I wished I’d had growing up.

The seaside town of Higgity Harbour almost seems to be a character in its own right, is it based on an actual place?

That’s a great compliment, thank you. It’s not based on an actual place but, in my mind, it would be an idyllic place to live. I’ve always been drawn to the seaside and always wanted to live by the ocean. I really wanted Higgity Harbour to come to life for readers, for them to be able to close their eyes and just see the town so clearly with its cherry blossom lined streets and cobblestone pavement. I grew up in a small community so I also wanted to relay the values of such close-knit communities – friendship, looking out for one another, helping each other – in the novel.

Although the story is obviously set in the modern day, with mobile phones, laptops, internet publishing etc, somehow the story gave me a nostalgic vibe – it reminded me of The Famous Five and The Nancy Drew Mysteries that I loved as a child; was this something you intended?

Yes, so thank you again! I tried to add traditional touches to the language and to the story as well; the kids always referring to people as “Mr” and “Mrs”, that sort of thing. I wanted to add an element of wholesomeness from days gone by to the story, while still keeping it modern.

Who would you see as your target readership for Scoop McLaren?

I think Scoop will appeal to both girls and boys from ages nine through to thirteen/fourteen. While some may think of the book as just appealing to girl readers since the two main characters are female, some of the strongest feedback I’ve gotten thus far has been from boys.

I like the tips and tricks for writing at the back of the book, do you hope to inspire a new generation of junior journalists?

Absolutely! I can just picture children in their school holidays interviewing friends and relatives, collecting and researching stories and turning them into their very own newspaper. I really hope my readers will be inspired to consider journalism as a career because it’s such an important job, keeping people informed. But it doesn’t even have to be journalism – I hope the books inspire kids to just write. To tell their own stories.

I am hoping that there will be a long series of Scoop McLaren books; have you finished writing book 2, and how long will we have to wait for publication?

I am in the final stages of editing book 2 at the moment, and I’m so excited about it! I imagine it will be available early 2020.

How long did it take you to develop the character of Scoop McLaren, and was it straightforward to get a publishing deal?

I first mentioned the character of Scoop to a friend of mine who is a librarian and she loved the idea of a girl mystery-solving newspaper editor. I then left it for a while, mainly due to newspaper commitments, but a few months later I thought, “Right. This is it. I’ve wanted to write this book for so long, I’m going to do it!”. Scoop developed over the course of a few weeks. I had scrap bits of paper everywhere with characteristics I wanted for Scoop that would suddenly pop into my head while I was at the supermarket, or out driving. I’d have to stop and get them down. Over the course of that time, I just grew to love this character and I thought her sassiness and her determination would endear her to readers as well.

I pitched the book to a couple of commercial publishers here in Australia and one liked the pitch and requested to read the whole manuscript. I was so pleased about that because it was the first time a book publisher had said, “Hey, we like it, send it over!”. While they did not end up taking it on, the feedback was good and they really encouraged me to keep sending it out which I did and a few months later New Frontier Publishing offered me a contract. I couldn’t be happier to work with a whole bunch of people who love Scoop just as much as I do.

Growing up in Australia, did you mainly read books by Australian authors, or were British and American writers just as accessible and popular? What were your favourite childhood books?

As a young child, I absolutely loved the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series by Australian author May Gibbs. British and American writers were just as accessible and popular, and I loved Roald Dahl books. Still do! I can’t imagine my childhood without him, really. I remember reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and loving it. When I was a bit older I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. While I wouldn’t say they were favourites, they were definitely two books that have stayed with me. 

Have you read a lot of MG fiction in recent years, and if so, what have been the standout authors or titles for you?

Australian author Morris Gleitzman is becoming a favourite. I love his writing style and how he can deliver important messages in such fun, light-hearted ways.

Have you enjoyed the launch events at schools in Australia and do you plan to attend any book festivals or publishing events in the UK in the near future?

I have so loved going into schools and libraries and introducing Scoop. The children  have been phenomenal with their interest in the book. It’s truly amazing to look out into a sea of smiling faces and to hear giggles of delight when I’m reading from the book. As a children’s author, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I don’t have any firm plans to visit the UK in the near future but if the opportunity pops up, I’ll be on the first plane out!


Thank you for answering my questions. I’m sure that your UK readers will be delighted to learn a little bit about you and the background to your debut book and I hope that Scoop’s adventure will prove to be hugely entertaining, engaging and inspiring to middle grade readers here in the UK.


My review

I am always on the lookout for mystery/adventure books aimed at readers aged 7-11, so I was delighted to receive a copy of this book by Australian writer Helen Castles and sent to me by New Frontier Publishing. Before reviewing the content I’d like to praise the production quality of the book itself. The perfectly named Scoop McLaren is picked out in gold on the beautifully designed cover, the glossy illustrations by Beatriz Castro leave you in no doubt that you are about to encounter a young writer and investigator. The cover is also particularly thick, quality card and the pages are very slightly buff-coloured which make the book a tactile pleasure to read.

Onto the story, which is set in an idyllic, small seaside town named Higgity Harbour, where Scoop’s dad is the editor of the local newspaper the Higgity Harbour Gazette (circulation 900). Scoop has been brought up accompanying her dad as he investigates local news stories and now writes her own daily, online newspaper, Click, with the help of her best friend and roving reporter Evie Andrews. Evie is “feisty, pushy, outspoken and over-confident. All the traits you need to be a successful reporter.” The relationships between Scoop and her dad and Scoop and Evie are perfectly crafted and entirely authentic; one example being that Mr McLaren is the only person in the town to call Scoop by her real name, Henley.

Other inhabitants of the town are similarly well-written and relatable with their distinctive personalities which realistically add to the small-town atmosphere, where everybody has been settled a long time and thinks they know everybody else’s business.

When a new online newspaper begins to be delivered to the inbox of every inhabitant at 1 minute past midnight, always predicting the next day’s terrible news (a plague of frogs, flooding, school mean-girl turned to stone) Scoop and Evie cannot understand why the mayor and even Mr McLaren are unwilling to investigate its editor, Sonny Fink. They are determined to reveal the identity of this villain who appears to be predicting events that are causing the destruction of their previously tranquil seaside community. No-one in the small town is above suspicion; will the two young investigators succeed in discovering who is putting on an appearance to cover their true identity!

Although set in the modern day, with mobile phones, laptops and the internet, this book conjured up a nostalgic vibe which reminded me of The Famous Five and Nancy Drew books which I adored as a child. The young teen characters taking matters into their own hands and doggedly tracking down leads to uncover the perpetrator of the villainous deeds will be engaging for MG readers to read alone, or would make a perfect bedtime story. The junior journalist aspect of the plot is likely to inspire to young writers and I could envisage this being used as a teaching resource, particularly when working on newspaper-writing elements of the curriculum or a model for school news reporters. I think this book will be extremely appealing to lower key stage 2 readers, as an introduction to the mystery/sleuthing genre and a fabulous precursor to series such as Ruby Redfort and Murder Most Unladylike. I am certainly looking forward to the further adventures of Scoop and her friends and I will be recommending this series to many young readers.

I am most grateful to the publishers, New Frontier Publishing, for gifting me a copy of Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor and for inviting me to join the blog tour for this exciting new MG series.