The Miraculous Sweetmakers: The Frost Fair by Natasha Hastings, illustrated by Alex T. SmithLink to publisher
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 HitchcockLink to publisher
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.