Review: The Miracle on Ebenezer Street by Catherine Doyle

Cover image by Pedro Riquelme, published by Penguin Random House/Puffin Books

This is the book that everyone should find in their stocking this Christmas! Catherine Doyle’s reworking of A Christmas Carol sparkles with Yuletide magic and is served with a dusting of her trademark lyricism and charm.

This story overflows with magical and mysterious characters as it recounts the tale of George Bishop, a ten year-old whose world was drained of colour three years previously when his mother died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. Since then, his father Hugo has immersed himself in his work running the family property empire and has banned all references to Christmas. As they approach their third monochrome Christmas without beautiful, kind, artistic Greta, the prospects look grim. Or so it would appear, until George’s grandmother takes him on a clandestine trip to the Winter Wonderland and leaves him to explore Marley’s Christmas Curiosities at the end of a row of wooden huts. In this enchanted space, with its myriad attractions, George is drawn to the shelf labelled “last minute miracles” and discovers a snow globe which inexplicably contains a heart-breakingly familiar snowman.

As anyone familiar with A Christmas Carol would expect, visits to Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future follow, as the snow globe grants George his three miracles. Without wishing to give away any plot spoilers I will just note that these wondrous journeys in the company of fellow travellers such as oil portraits and purple reindeers will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Moments of great hilarity such as Elf-on-the-shelf Tricksie halting mid-miracle to perform an audit segue seamlessly into Aunt Alice whispering to her late sister in a scene that will cause eyes to leak.

The characters are all beautifully realised, from six year-old cousin Clementine with her loudly joyful ability to see magic around her; Hugo whose grief has caused him to shut all colour from his and his son’s lives and George whose longing for family and home drives the narrative. My favourite of all was Nana Flo, the perfect grandmother; warm and wise with an Irish twinkle in her eye, she wears “mystery like a cloak” and is always “happy to conspire at short notice”.

In summary, I absolutely love The Miracle on Ebenezer Street and wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, independent readers from 9+, and parents, carers, grandparents, teachers and librarians to read aloud to younger children. Teenagers studying A Christmas Carol for GCSE are also likely to enjoy this thoroughly modern reworking of the story and can amuse themselves finding the clever references sprinkled throughout. Catherine Doyle has written a remarkable story which celebrates the colour, beauty, hope and love of Christmas.

I read somewhere that this book had been commissioned to mark the publisher Puffin’s 80th anniversary and Charles Dickens’ 150th anniversary and feel that it’s timing this year is perfect. With many families facing this Christmas grieving for a loved one, this tender, poignant story might just help children to feel that they are not alone in processing the memories of Christmas past whilst trying to rekindle the hope that we all wish for at this time of year.

Let your heart be your compass, it will show you the way”.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Penguin Children’s Books for allowing me access to an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. The hardback version was published on 1st October 2020 and I hope that the image above gives some idea of the beautiful cover artwork created by Pedro Riquelme.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

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

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

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

Author: Robin Stevens

Illustrator: Nina Tara

Publisher: Puffin/Penguin Books

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

” All right,” said Daisy. “But – oh, if only something interesting would happen!”

This book in three words: Detective Society Forever!

It’s been a few weeks since I read and reviewed this perfect finale to the Murder Most Unladylike series and every time I spot it on the bookshelf I just want to pick it up again! I am still in awe at the way that Robin Stevens pulled all the threads together to complete the collection and I am so pleased that the book has become so successful.

To read my full review of Death Sets Sail, please click here – you will also find links to my reviews of all other books in the series.

#20BooksOfSummer: Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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!

 

Top Marks for Murder by Robin Stevens

IMG_3171

 

The penultimate Detective Society mystery sees our intrepid duo, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, return to Deepdean School after an absence of several months, to find that the school hierarchy has shifted sufficiently to disturb their equilibrium.

They are welcomed with delight by their dorm-mates and additional society members Beanie, Kitty and Lavinia, but much to Daisy’s consternation she is no longer the darling of the school. That position has been claimed by new arrival Amina El Maghrabi, for whom Daisy’s former acolytes cannot perform any service too small. Understandably, Daisy is sent into a moody depression by this turn of events whilst trying to maintain her customary appearance of nonchalance. However, she cannot hide her true mindset from loyal and kind Hazel, who recognises that Daisy needs school to remain constant as she struggles with her personal feelings, and does everything in her power to cheer Daisy’s mood. 

With the tension building as the 50th Anniversary Weekend celebrations approach, when Daisy and Hazel’s parents will be conspicuously absent, it is almost a relief for the girls to find themselves once more in the midst of a murder investigation! This time the very survival of Deepdean School for Girls depends on their sleuthing abilities.

On the Friday morning of the celebratory weekend Beanie witnesses a man appearing to strangle a woman on the crest of a distant hill. By the time she summons the other girls to the dorm window, the suspect is nowhere to be seen and the usual school subterfuges have to be employed to enable a Detective Society investigation. The adventure is afoot, and the chain of events that follows held me gripped until the end.

I don’t want to say any more about the engrossingly complex plot for fear of giving away any clues or plot spoilers. However, once again Robin Stevens has crafted an entertaining murder mystery, filled with vibrant characters, false leads and subtle clues. I read in an article that Robin Stevens got the idea for the initial murder scene whilst sitting waiting for a train at Bath Spa and gazing at the hillside in the distance. I sat on that same platform many times as a student (a very long time ago) which makes this particular book even more special to me!

I also love that enclosed within the highly entertaining detective story we are given an insight into the personal challenges facing the main protagonists. Daisy’s family has been torn apart by the scandal that took centre stage in Arsenic for Tea and she has suffered a blow to her self-esteem as her prestige at school has been tarnished. Hazel is also coming to terms with her family’s behaviour and scandal recounted in A Spoonful of Murder. Beanie has suddenly grown into her intellect and has to cope with family illness, Lavinia must get used to her new-found status as a tennis ace and her Dad’s brash girlfriend, and Kitty is suffering the teenage plight of owning “embarrassing” parents and an irritating younger sister! All of these issues are handled sensitively by the author, in a way that is likely to spark recognition and reassurance amongst her readership.

As a series of books to “read for pleasure” from the age of roughly 9+ I highly recommend the Murder Most Unladylike series. They have entertained a member of my own family right through primary school and she is already looking forward to the final book which will be published shortly after GCSEs end this summer. You can read my short reviews of the earlier books in the MMU series here.