MG Review: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers by Clare Povey

Cover illustration by Héloïse Mab, publisher Usborne, 7th July 2022



A fast-paced adventure, set in Paris during the 1920s, featuring a band of orphans and their allies, confronting a conspiracy to bring down the government and reinstall a ruling monarch! This timely tale based on the persuasive power of words, held me gripped as I consumed it on a train journey last week. The continuing battle between young story-teller Bastien Bonlivre and the despotic Odieux brothers, Xavier and Olivier, twists and turns like a Parisian alleyway as they grapple for the hearts and minds of the citizens of the City of Light. Although this is the second in the Bastien Bonlivre adventures it can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel thanks to author Clare Povey including sufficient details from the backstory.

We start with orphan Bastien discovering that Olivier Odieux has walked free from court, leaving his younger brother Xavier to take the rap and be jailed for the murder of Bastien’s parents. It soon becomes apparent that Olivier has hatched a plan worthy of a megalomaniacal supervillain, aided by the descendants of an ancient secret organisation, the Red Ink Society. As the power-crazy fiend and his associates begin to sow chaos on the streets of Paris, Bastien and his friends from the Orphanage for Gentils Garçons along with accomplices, Mathilde and Alice, must track down the clues to uncover the dreadful secret that led to his parents’ deaths. The narrative moves at a cracking pace as the clock ticks down to the final denouement at the launch of the Exposition Universelle in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I loved the fact that Clare Povey has wrapped some highly pertinent sociological ideas into this exciting story, revealing the ways that power-hungry individuals can seek to manipulate the masses with the use of propaganda. I feel sure that creative upper key stage 2 teachers will be using this entertaining story as a class read aloud and incorporating the questions it raises into PHSE and media literacy learning opportunities. The sprinkling of French vocabulary is defined in a glossary, adding another educational layer to this highly entertaining read. The large cast of characters means that many children will be able to identify with one of the protagonists, ensuring engagement throughout and I particularly loved that strong adult role models were included in a story about orphans. Overall, I highly recommend The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers to all readers of 9+ who enjoy immersing themselves in fast-paced adventure. It is available for pre-order from good booksellers and will be available on 7th July 2022.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and Usborne for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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

Review: The House of One Hundred Clocks by A.M. Howell

 

100 clocks 

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am a huge fan of MG historical fiction and this book ticked all the right boxes for me! It is set in 1905, the Edwardian period of English history, a time when changes were taking place that would affect the way everyone in the country lived. This changing time is reflected in a very interesting way throughout a book haunted with the passing of time and resounding with the ticking of timepieces and clamour of  hours being struck.

The opening chapter sets the scene for this tale of mystery and suspense as Helena and her father arrive at the elegant Cambridge home of wealthy Mr Westcott, where strange machinations are hinted at. They are still reeling from the recent death of Helena’s mother and as they arrive at the mysterious house in Cambridge Helena clings to her mother’s memory through the birdcage containing her beloved Amazonian parrot, Orbit. The sense of unease is brilliantly captured by author Ann-Marie Howell as Helena watches in disbelief as her father signs a contract which puts all their possessions at risk if any one of the clocks he has been engaged to maintain stops ticking. Adding to the sense of disquiet is the odd behaviour of Mr Westcott’s sister, Katherine, who appears friendly but somehow gives off the sinister feeling that she is not as she appears on the surface. It is very clear that Orbit senses something odd about her and his behaviour reflects this, much to Helena’s embarrassment and her father’s irritation.

As Helena settles into the house of one hundred clocks she investigates its mysteries: the strange silent child who ghosts into rooms to observe the clock conservation; the reason that all the servants have disappeared leaving good-natured tutor Stanley to fulfill all the domestic duties, the reason Mr Westcott has filled every room with clocks and removed all the other furniture as well as the fate of the previous occupant of her father’s post. The observant and inquisitive Helena neglected by her father’s obsession with the clocks probes beneath the surface of these mysteries as this compelling story progresses.

I loved the way the creeping tension of this story was developed. The relationship between two girls, both coming to terms with loss is delicately unwound, the historical context of females’ expectations of education and self-expression is beautifully woven into the story and the importance of leaving the past behind and creating your own future is a powerful message for an MG readership. I think this story will be greatly enjoyed by readers of 10+ who have previously enjoyed MG historical fiction by Emma Carroll or Katherine Woodfine.

 

I am grateful to Toppsta and Usborne for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Review: The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell

Train Impossible Places

Jump aboard the Impossible Postal Service’s rather unusual train for a rip-roaring journey around the five corners of the Union of Impossible Places on a quest to save the Union from a would-be dictator!

The story begins dramatically when Suzy is awoken by strange metallic sounds, creeps downstairs to find railway lines under construction in her hallway and almost becomes “ the worst  type of incident it’s possible to be” on the aforementioned lines!

Her adventure with Fletch the engineer, J.F. Stonker the driver of the Impossible Postal Express, Wilmot the Postmaster and Ursel the bleached-blonde, brown bear, departs from here. Realising that somehow Suzy has avoided the remote enchantment that was supposed to keep her asleep while the steam train took a shortcut through her home, the trolls have no choice but to allow her to join their late-running train!

Suzy, we are informed very early in the book, loves physics, so the meta-dimensional engineering that Fletch has performed on her hallway to accommodate a huge steam locomotive is fascinating to her, although she does not appreciate his description of “fuzzics” – in her mind physics cannot be fuzzy. She has more surprises in store when she learns that gravity is one of “the more gullible forces” and can be tricked by ingenious troll-engineering to allow the Impossible Postal Express to perform some amazing manoeuvres on its mission to deliver post to any corner of the Union!

It is apparent that Wilmot is extremely nervous about the fact that his first delivery is running late, unfortunately the recipient is the unforgiving Lady Crepuscula in the ominously-named Obsidian Tower. When Wilmot appoints Suzy to be his deputy in order to avoid delivering the parcel himself, and she does not follow his orders to the letter, a frantic chase across the Union ensues. Suzy has learned of a plot that imperils all of The Impossible Places; can the combination of her problem-solving skills and the unstoppable Troll Post outwit the dastardly scheme?

I’m trying hard not to give away the plot, but this action-packed story will introduce you to the wonders of Trollville, Neuroglobes, fusion bananas, the incredible Hazardous Environment Carriage, some ghostly, storytelling explorers, and an unusual spy service controlled by the Curator of the Ivory Tower, Lord Meridian.

The world-building in this book is stunning, the cast of characters are absolutely fantastic and the plot is so brilliantly constructed that it could be the work of the fabulously inventive trolls. Underneath the thrilling machinations of the story there is an array of interesting scientific ideas and a reflection on the control and abuse of information. I adored the central character, Suzy Smith, with her courage, enquiring mind and love of physics and think that P.G. Bell has written a classic fantasy adventure, which is beautifully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. I simply cannot wait for the next book in the series to be published.

If you  enjoy The Train to Impossible Places as Much as I did, you may also want to try Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce; The Cogheart Series by Peter Bunzl and The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet by Martin Howard.

Review: Science Scribble Book by Alice James

science scribble

This is a superb book to inspire young scientists, and a very welcome addition to the MG non-fiction shelves. I was recently speaking to the science co-ordinator at my primary school, who had just returned from a course which presented the view that children needed to be introduced to science at an early age in order for them to choose to study science in their later education. With this in mind, I would recommend this lively and engaging book to every school and indeed every parent!

It is a full-colour, illustrated, hardback with fantastic graphics and small amounts of accessible text on every page. Throughout the book there are scientific investigations to pursue and plenty of space for children to record their observations. One of the things I love most is that all of the experiments can be performed without the need for any additional resources, just a pencil, paper, scissors and glue. This is so important to allow children to actually get on with “doing” some science, rather than having to wait for hard-pressed parents or schools to supply them with extra materials.

The range of topics is broad enough to provide experiments to suit everyone, and I found many which match up with the primary school curriculum. For example, the topics Making a Move (basic algorithms), Moving Pictures (basic animation) and Robot Designer are all useful practical examples to use with the primary computing curriculum and I will certainly be adding these to my own lesson planning. I wish that my school could afford a copy of this book for every KS2 child, as it covers so many items from their science curriculum: Animal Identifier, Perfectly Adapted, The Solar System, Skeletons and Hot and Cold, to name just a few.

The author Alice James should be congratulated for writing such a comprehensive and engaging science book, and the illustrator Petra Baan and designer Emily Barden also deserve great credit. Finally, there is an address inside the book for a related website which offers pdfs for some of the experiments and links to further science resources. Overall I hugely recommend this book for primary school pupils.

I am very grateful to Toppsta and Usborne for sending me this book in return for an honest review. This review also appears on the Toppsta website: here