Tuesday 25 October 2022

New Releases: Fancy some cracking wintry tales? Why not try these two middle-grade beauties...

The Miraculous Sweetmakers: The Frost Fair by Natasha Hastings, illustrated by Alex T. Smith

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Published: HarperCollins, 27th October 2022


Perfect for fans of The Whisperling by Hayley Hoskins, this epic, wintry tale crackles with magic and wonder. As debut author, Natasha Hastings, takes us back to The Great Frost of 1683, when the River Thames froze over, her spellbinding storytelling will grip you as tightly as the wintery weather grips London - with the difference being that you may not want it to let go...

Thomasina's world is one filled with grief. Following the death of her twin brother, she helps to run her father's sweet shop and cares for her grief-stricken mother. But when she meets a mysterious conjuror, who introduces her to a magical frost fair and promises to grant her deepest wish, Thomasina's life takes on a new purpose. 

But it appears that the sinister Father Winter is watching her and as a magical mystery unfolds around her, Thomasina and her friends race to solve it before she pays the highest price. 

This is a magical story set in an historical world and one which captivated me right from the beginning. The opening chapter is instantly hard-hitting and grabs your attention with the force of a sledge-hammer. Character emotions are raw and play an integral role throughout the entire story, drawing us in and making us invest in the characters. The wintry setting is as cruel as it is enchanting and the plot gathers pace like a sledge flying downhill. 

Thomasina is a broken character, burdened by guilt and loneliness and vulnerable to temptation. I particularly loved her burgeoning relationship with Anne and the love she has for her mother. Without giving away too many spoilers, however, the novel is packed with other great characters too- watch out for the elderly neighbour, the frost bear and the unnerving conjuror, whose agenda will keep you guessing until the end. The theme of grief is prominent all the way through the narrative, woven alongside the exploration of the treatment of women and the 'madness' of women, the pursuit of youth and poverty. For me, there were real echoes of Midnight in Everwood by M.A Kuzniar - an adult novel I read last year that is based on 'The Nutcracker' - which I think is down to the sinister villain, Father Winter. 

If that isn't enough to sink your teeth into, a cracking mystery sits at the heart of this novel, made all the more urgent by the ticking of a clock. Then there are the sensory descriptions of Thomasina's sweetmaking and Anne's apothecary. I loved the strong ending for these two female characters and I have to admit to shedding more than a tear or two. This is truly special and enthralling read and it will be interesting to see how it will be made into a series. 

Murder at Snowfall by Fleur Hitchcock

Link to publisher

Published by: Nosy Crow, 3rd November 2022


It's always great to curl up with a gripping mystery at this time of year and this one has murder at the centre. Set in the present day, this fast-paced novel features two secondary school detectives: Ruby and her new step-brother, Lucas. 

When the step-siblings find an abandoned trunk in the snow, Lucas jokes there might be a body in it and dares Ruby to open it. But the pair might soon regret their game as they are drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse...or human and lion. 

This is, rather unbelievably, the first Fleur Hitchcock novel I've read and I found it highly enjoyable. Part of a series of standalone murder mysteries, this one, to me, has a stand-out USP due to the awkward family dynamics between Ruby and Lucas and the unusual and highly engaging setting of a safari park. 

The plot was ultra-exciting but quite menacing for the age-group with a ruthless villain clearly willing to stop at nothing to cover up their secrets. I liked the way Ruby and Lucas made for sharp, instinctive but rather amateur sleuths, making mistakes that will have the reader shouting at the page but which enhances their relatability and likeability in the process. There are enough clues for the reader to stay one step ahead of the detectives but not necessarily guess the whole story and the ending is an edge-of-your-seat climax. Perfect for middle-grade readers who want a pacy, edge of your seat mystery set amid the familiarity of family and school, just remind them to...trust no one!

A big thanks to NetGalley, HarperCollins and Nosy Crow for providing me with a review copy of both novels, which are now available to pre-order. 

Sunday 23 October 2022

It's our Spooky Halloween Round-Up 2022...

 Leila The Perfect Witch by Flavia Z. Drago

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Published by: Walker Books, September 2022


Last year, Flavia Z. Drago brought us Gustavo The Shy Ghost where, throughout the illustrations, a little witch kept appearing. Well, now the witch is back in her very own story, Leila The Perfect Witch.

Leila is good at everything. But when she enters the 'Magnificent Witchy Cake-Off' for the first time, her success becomes unstuck. Worried about letting down her family, who boast a long line of master bakers, Leila practises and practises in the hope of achieving perfection. But, even with the help of her sisters, can she claim first prize?

Leila is an adorable and determined main character who will delight readers right from the front cover. Her witchy baking is perfect for young readers who love having fun in the kitchen around Halloween, or for those who just want to snuggle up with a fun, feel-good story. If they're not even in the mood for that then maybe they'd just enjoy spending time looking at Flavia Z. Drago's stunning artwork, which has so much detail, they'll be noticing new things for hours. By the way, has anyone seen a gingerbread person wearing an eye-patch?

The theme of not feeling good at something will no doubt feel relatable to little ones. However, this story has a hugely positive message of determination, perseverance and sibling support rather than rivalry. Mix in a final twist and you have a recipe for a surprising but satisfying ending that strengthens the takeaway message even further...but I'm not going to spoil it. All that's left to say is that if you're ever going to judge a book by its cover, then this story is genuinely as gorgeous on the inside as it is on the outside. 

No Home for a Ghost by Jess Rose

Link to Waterstones

Published by: Owlet Press, 4th October 2022


No Home For A Ghost is a gorgeously sweet picture book with a heart-warming message that is perfect for all the family this Halloween. With a strong focus on kindness, inclusion and belonging, it encourages readers to think about their decisions and not be too hasty to make judgements. 

Dylan's family are shocked to discover their new home comes complete with a ghost. But while everyone else in the family wants to evict it, pronto, Dylan thinks differently. When his family get their way and the ghost is ousted, can Dylan make them see the error of their ways?

This is a gentle story that will tug strongly on the heartstrings. Turfed out onto the street, what will become of the ghost if Dylan doesn't intervene? Ironically, however, it seems that Dylan's family are losing out as much as the ghost is. What would life be like if they opened their eyes and gave their spooky resident a chance?

Creeping Beauty by Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas

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Published by: Walker Books, September 2022


Truely edging on the grotesque, Creeping Beauty - the third in the Fairy Tales Gone Bad series - is for strong-stomached young readers who don't mind their fairy tales being curdled with fear...

Eshe and her sisters are Fairy Godmothers but Eshe has a different kind of gift to her siblings - she can see into the future. Ridiculed for being useless, Eshe becomes alienated from her family. But when she glimpses a terrifying future for one young girl, which will change the world as they know it, Eshe becomes determined to change her destiny. 

Written by Children's Laureate, Joseph Coelho and illustrated by Freya Hartas, this short but gorgeously presented verse novel is deliciously dark, gruesomely grisly and terrifically thought-provoking. Not only does it deliver a brilliantly entertaining story that will make your toe nails curl, it also challenges fairy tale tropes, explores what makes 'baddies' bad and encourages readers to care about the world around them and the future in front of them. 

The verse is rich in language and imagery with some challenging vocabulary. However, the length and amount of white space on the page balances this out, making it accessible for younger readers (6/7+) and gorgeous to read aloud. It is definitely aimed at readers who like the gorier angle of Halloween and I'd err caution with more sensitive readers, especially before bedtime. However, this has been a brilliant series (the physical copies are stunning) and I'm extremely sad to see it come to an end so soon. 

Anisha, Accidental Detective by Serena Patel, illustrated by Emma McCann

Link to publisher

Published by: Usborne, September 2022


I've loved the Anisha, Accidental Detective series from the start but the sixth book in the series (will it really be the last?) has got to be my favourite. Packed full of delicious Halloween spookiness,  Fright Night is a creepy, funny but still full of the family fun we have come to expect from the Mistrys.

A school Halloween disco isn't Anisha's idea of fun. But when strange and spooky occurrences start happening around the school site and the governors threaten to cancel the event, Anisha realises it means more to her than she first thought. Convinced there is a more logical explanation than a school ghost, Anisha starts investigating. Who would want to ruin a Halloween disco? And how have they managed to fool the whole school?

With brilliant illustrations from Emma McCann all the way through, this is a treat of a read for Halloween. Serena Patel is brilliant at writing Anisha's family dramas with both relatability and humour - watch out for the salsa scene - and yet it has been great to see the family dynamics evolve and develop throughout the six books, making them all slightly different. 

Aimed at the lower end of middle grade,  Fright Night is perfect for Halloween fans who prefer fun rather than fear. There's certainly plenty of spooky action with skeletons, flying books and slime galore but it's all wrapped up in the warm safety of Anisha's world. The well-plotted mystery keeps you guessing and there's also a handful of sub-plots which, not only bring even more drama and tension to the text, but also a heart-warming take-away message centred around family and friendship. If you haven't yet read of the other five Anisha books, I can highly recommend all of them. 

Malice in Wonderland and A Trick Of Time by Jenni Jennings, illustrated by Hannah Peck


Published by: Scholastic, September 2020 & 2021

Last year, I picked up Malice In Underland by Jenni Jennings in a bookshop and LOVED it. A year later, I've also just gobbled down the sequel, A Trick in Time and have the third instalment, Ghost Games, on the way. These short but very unsweet mystery stories - prepare for hilarious gruesomeness - are packed full of cleverly plotted mysteries, fantastic world-building and laugh-out-loud characters. Think Addams Family x Sherlock Holmes.

Malice is not like her Topunder family. Living in Topside, they spend their lives creating mischievous mayhem. But Malice - different as she is - prefers doing good and solving mysteries.

A Trick of Time - Malice's dastardly uncle, Maniacal Malign, has stolen back his long-hidden, time-stopping pocket watch and is now wrecking havoc in both Topside and Underland. But it's not long before Malice discovers that Maniacal has a far more serious plan than just causing chaos - a plan to get REVENGE. And it's up to Malice, Uncle Vex and Seth to stop him...TICK TOCK, TICK, TOCK. 

Energetic and entertaining, these incredibly fast-paced novels burst off the page. The clever play on Alice in Wonderland is a great way to draw readers in, but don't expect too many similarities because this series is sparky and original in its own right. Perfect for Halloween, with a dark, gothic feel, the brilliantly-formed characters are stand-out with everyone bringing either humour or creepiness to the plot. There's puzzles, cryptic messages, LOTS of quirky action and bags of yuckiness too.

Malice is a great character - a focussed, determined girl who loves her family but isn't scared to be different. I particularly love how she earns her family's respect for staying true to herself, despite the fact they don't understand her, and she never shies away from tricky situations or characters. Life in Underland is certainly never dull and you'll have a whale of a time if you decide to give these books a go. 

And watch out for...

The Vanishing of Aveline Jones by Phil Hickes

Link to publisher

Published by: Usborne, 27th October 2022

Unfortunately, The Vanishing of Aveline Jones isn't due to be published until 27th October. However, if the previous two in the series are anything to go by, it will be well worth a read. Spine-tingling and spooky, these short but very scary novels have a wonderfully classic feel to them. Why not check out our reviews for:

Sunday 16 October 2022

It's the new instalment of Pages and Co: The Treehouse Library by Anna James


Published by: HarperCollins, September 2022


Hooray! The fifth instalment of the bookwandering series, Pages & Co, has arrived and this beautiful hardback edition jumped straight to the top of my 'to be read' pile. After being late to the series- the first three books having being published before I even heard of it - these stories have lodged themselves as firmly into my heart as The Faraway Tree series did when I was a child. 

Now in charge of the Quip, Milo and his new travelling companion, Alessia, seek out The Botanist, in the hope they can find the cure to awaken Milo's uncle, Horatio, from his cursed sleep. But when they arrive at the Treehouse Library, it becomes clear that finding the ingredients for the cure will be more challenging than they thought. It's not long before they are bookwandering into famous lands and meeting well-known characters. But, with The Alchemist growing impatient,they may have to abandon their quest to help Tilly and her family back at Pages & Co.

Aside from the fact that Anna James' incredible imagination takes us on an epic fantasy adventure into the world of story, there is something extra-special about this concept that I can't quite put my finger on. Is it that it's set in a bookshop full of cosy nooks and hot chocolates or is it the nostalgia of being able to literally walk into some favourite childhood classics? It's almost definitely both, although the characters themselves create an extraordinary warmth and the same fuzzy feeling I felt reading characters of the past. 

What's brilliant for young readers is that, although they themselves might not be familiar with the classic stories that are featured in Pages & Co, they are introduced to them in such a fresh and appealing way that it's almost impossible not to become interested, even excited, about them. In book two, there's a gorgeous nod to fairytales and, without giving away too many spoilers, book five features a famous vagabond thief, a Yorkshire secret and a well-known wizard. It promotes a love of reading and the pure joy of books - I mean who wouldn't want to wander into a book full of their favourite characters and adventures. 

Despite allowing us to spend time with stories of the past, however, the lengths that Anna James has gone to in order to create an original story in its own right is incredible. My initial delight at finding a series that would involve characters wandering into other famous stories and having adventures was soon turned on its head when it became obvious that there was going to be far more to the series than that. With a botanist, an alchemist, a train that runs on imagination, secretive relatives, curses, ultimatums and library treehouses, this plot just keeps on giving, taking us onto a journey into the very depths of story and evoking all the feelings I felt as a child reader. I just can't wait for the next instalment...

If you'd like to know more, why not check out our reviews of other books in the series:

Sunday 9 October 2022

UPCOMING RELEASE FOR 2023: Libby and the Highland Heist by Jo Clarke

Published by: Firefly Press, 19th January 2023

High concept and full of charm, the second book in Jo Clarke's fun detective series is lying in wait to greet us in January 2023. After thoroughly enjoying Libby and the Parisian Puzzle in March, I pounced on the opportunity for a sneak peek faster than if it was a piece of Scottish shortbread and I loved it in equal measure. After all, who could resist the chicness of a travelling school, mixed with a well-plotted mystery? 

Following their adventure in Paris, Libby and her best friend Connie are looking forward to a quiet Christmas at Connie's Scottish home. But when they arrive, the subdued and rather tense atmosphere soon has the girls alarmed. Just what secrets lie within Connie's historical home and what are her parents hiding? One thing's for sure, Libby is determined to get to the bottom of it and, with her aunt's travelling school setting up home in Edinburgh, it's not long before help in on hand to solve the mystery...

What I particularly love about this series is that it cleverly mixes the contemporary with the traditional. Although, the concept of a travelling school feels fresh and unique, there is a definite nod to the mysteries I read as a child: old buildings, secret passages, austere relations and elusive but dangerous villains. Don't be fooled by the light-hearted, fun feel created by Becka Moor's delightful illustrations and Jo Clarke's effortless writing - there is a real edge of danger to this novel as Libby finds out when she takes a tumble. This, for me, really raised the stakes and made me turn the pages even faster. 

The theme of food in the novel also harks back to books of my childhood. If you're keen to read descriptions of the food Libby and her friends enjoy in each city they visit, then this could be the series for you. Equally, it's clear that Jo Clarke has chosen to take her travelling school to places she knows well, with each story detailing the geography and popular locations in the area. This all adds to the depth and sensory descriptions in the novel, making it an extra satisfying read. 

The novel is incredibly well-plotted. I liked the return of a familiar face and I was kept guessing to the end. I particularly like that Libby doesn't solve every part of the mystery, making her character feel more real and relatable, and the dynamic between Libby and Connie works incredibly well. The series is the perfect side step for fans of the Anisha, Accidental Detective series, the Agent Zaiba Investigates series and is a stepping stone for mystery lovers who are just developing in confidence as readers. It has firm foundations in family, friendships and school, making it adventurous yet cosy and comforting.

A big thanks to NetGalley and Firefly Press for allowing me to read a review copy. Libby and the Highland Heist is available to pre-order. 

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