Tuesday 12 March 2024

New middle grade releases to get excited about...

This month is going to be a treat when it comes to new MG releases. There's a Barrington Stoke book from Katya Balen for those looking for a pint-sized, perfectly-packaged read, a nail-biting Parisien  adventure and a new fantasy from Struan Murray, author of the Orphans of the Tide trilogy. What's not to get excited about?

Little House by Katya Balen, illustrayed by Richard Johnson

Published by: Barrington Stoke, 14th March 2024

In Three Words: Grief, Grandparents, Dolls

As with all Balen's novels, this is a beautiful gentle story which explores grief and abandonment and hope. There's a lovely burgeoning relationship too between the main character and her grandfather as Juno comes to terms with her mum going away. 

Juno is furious when her mum leaves her with her grandfather for the summer to go and help those in desperate need. Now Juno will miss a whole summer with her friends and it's all her mum's fault for choosing to leave. 

But when Juno finds an old doll's house in the attic and decides to restore it, she begins to understand the reasons behind her mum's decisions. Can she find a way to forgive her?

This is a small novella which poses big questions. Is Juno or her mum the selfish one? Written with a huge amount of heart and hope, Katya Balen doesn't shy away from emotional issues, allowing her characters to rage, reflect and restore their sense of hope. 

I loved the pure simplicity of this story, which is captured perfectly in the front cover by Richard Johnson. Aside from the big issues, Katya Balen writes about the everyday in such a unique and fascinating way - with incredible language and a soothing lyrical rhythm. We would absolutely recommend all her of previous novels and novellas. 

Secrets of the Snakestone by Piu DasGupta

Published by: Nosy Crow, 14th March 2024

In three words: Paris, Sewers, Jewels

If you're looking for a gripping, fast-paced fictional adventure that's set in 19th century Paris, has a backstory set in India and is inspired by historical places and events, then Secrets of the Snakestone is a must-read. It's dark and twisty narrative will whisk you away to the streets of Paris, the sewers of Paris and the rooftops of Paris and, if that isn't enough, then add in a circus, a railway and some secret passages for good measure...

Zelie doesn't believe in magic, despite people thinking she is a witch. But when she meets a boy, Jules, who is holding a golden locket which belonged to her missing father, Zelie is plunged into a sinister adventure.

A dangerous and secret society is on a ruthless search for the Snakestone - a powerful and mysterious jewel that was once kept inside the locket. If Zelie finds the stone, she knows she'll find her father. But can Zelie keep herself alive? She's going to need help to find it in time...

This is a novel that means business. The dark and sinister atmosphere hit me smack between the eyes and, right from the off, the pace is like a horse bolting from a starting gate. Zelie, a mistreated maid, is a great character facing overwhelming odds and Jules was the perfect - but very reluctant - sidekick. 

The villains we meet are ruthless. From Madame Malaise to Brother Ombre, the author gives a clear sense of what the poor suffered at the hands of the powerful. There's lies, corruption, deceit as Zelie and Jules navigate an adult world that's as rotten and dank as the sewers. And yet there are lighter moments too with Madame Drusilla and Titicaca the baby sloth, whose wellbeing took up a lot of my thoughts.

 There was a magical layer as well to this tale, with the evil power of the snakestone. Whether the story will develop into a series remains to be seen but there is definitely the potential for us to see the snakestone again. The backstory had been superbly plotted and really added to the story as a whole. It's a fast and furious read that you don't want to miss. 

The Secret of Moonshard by Struan Murray, illustrated by Vivienne To

Published by: Penguin, 29th February 2024

In Three Words: Magic, Science, Deception

Struan Murray won the Bath Children's Novel Award with Orphans of the Tide in 2017 and it went on to become one of the best upper middle-grade trilogies I've ever read - dark, twisty and atmospheric - which then won the Branford Boase Award. Now, his new fantasy is about to hit the shelves and I couldn't resist a sneak peek, courtesy of Netgalley. The length of this novel does mean that it's not for the faint-hearted but if you're after an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery and incredible characters, then it's absolutely worth a read:

Domino has been held in a floating laboratory by scheming Science Barons ever since she was born, believing that a single drop of magic could kill her. But then she discovers everything she's been told is a lie and escapes to a wondrous city filled with magic, thunder lizards and scientific marvels.

But a war is brewing between science and magic and the Barons are after Domino, possibly because she might be the key to saving everyone . . .

This feels very different in tone to the Orphans of the Tide trilogy but the world-building is equally imaginative. Floating laboratories, moving hotels and imaginative creatures - I loved Oshi - are just some of the things you can expect in this meticulously plotted tale. Again, this sits at the upper end of MG and is perfect for more confident readers. There's a large cast of characters and the storytelling is ambitious. 

Domino is a character I immediately found myself rooting for and, for me, there were some gentle echoes of Oliver, although I can't quite put my finger on why. There's high stakes and ruthless baddies but the story overall has a more playful feel than Orphans. Some of the magic is really fun but I'm not going to give away any more spoilers - this is one readers need to explore for themselves. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and the above publishers for allowing us review copies. All of these books are available to buy or pre-order now. 

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