Tuesday 20 February 2024

What's new in middle grade?

 When it comes to middle grade novels, we have been absolutely spoiled for choice over the last few months. So much so that our to-be-read pile is about to topple over and our list of previews on NetGalley has us scheduled until the summer. If we could have a super-power, it would absolutely be the gift of reading faster. Still, we've been busy making headway and so let's get cracking with some new and upcoming releases:

The Clockwork Conspiracy by Sam Sedgman

Link to publisher
Published by: Bloomsbury, 1st February 2024
In three words: Time, villains, mystery

We jumped at the chance to review this book. Firstly, because the author is Sam Sedgman, who penned the fantastic Adventures On Trains series with M.G Leonard, and, secondly, because of the fantastic title. The words 'Isaac Turner Investigates' also suggests that this is going to be a series and, after loving this first instalment, that makes us really happy. 

Isaac Turner's dad is the horologist in charge of Big Ben. But when he mysteriously disappears, Isaac's world is thrown into utter confusion. How could his dad vanish from the belfry and why has he left behind a cryptic clue? With the help of a new friend, Isaac solves a series of puzzles which leads him across London in what is literally a race against time.

If you enjoyed Adventures on Trains, then you will absolutely not be disappointed by this new novel. It is seamlessly and smoothly written with a super-cool, sophisticated plot. On a personal note, I was slightly worried about being bamboozled by the concepts of science and time, and although I did struggle to keep up in places, it never interfered with my enjoyment of the novel because the plot is so fast-paced and engaging. Sam Sedgman's explanations are fascinating and his knowledge of the topic is superb - something which only enhances the delivery of the story. 

If clocks are not of particular interest to you, don't worry. There are high stakes, a huge amount of peril and some very ruthless villains to contend with. The characters are big, bold and memorable and the ending is highly ingenious and tense. Sam Sedgman has made trains and now clocks exciting, dynamic and the backdrop for absolutely brilliant drama. 


Yesterday Crumb and the Tea Witch's Secret by Andy Sagar
Published by: Hachette, 15th February 2024
In three words: Tea, cake, witchery

If you're after something more fantastical then the final instalment of The Yesterday Crumb series is out now. This has been a firm favourite over the last two years because Andy Sagar takes a wild and ruthless adventure, mixes it with tea and cake (and the wonderful Miss. Dumpling) and makes it feel completely cosy...

Yesterday Crumb and her friends are on an overwhelming mission - they need to find a way to defeat her father, Mr. Weep, before he storms the world of the living with his army. But as they search for allies, a mysterious flower seems to be turning people against them and freezing their hearts. Yesterday must find the courage to face a terrifying fight...but does the answer lie in a pot of tea?

Never mind the fact that Yesterday battles with the ruler of The Land of the Dead or visits giants or is faced with her worst nightmares, this story will warm you from the inside out. We couldn't get enough of the tea magic and wanted Yesterday to make a new brew on every page. The characters are wonderful - Madrigal has become a particular favourite and it was great to see Miss. Dumpling back in the fray, but Pascal stole our hearts - and it was refreshing to see Yesterday explore her flaws as well as heandr strengths. 

The series finishes with some unexpected twists and turns, taking us to new places in the world. There's certainly never a dull moment, the pace is swift and the imagination is joyful. Watch out for the meeting of the tea shops - it's brilliantly visual and beautifully created. We only wish we could visit them.


The Artezans by L.D. Lapinski
Published by: Hachette, 29th February 2024
In three words: Magic, dreams, nightmares

From the author of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency, Jamie and Stepfather Christmas comes a brand-new fantasy series about finding your magic. 

Edward and Elodie Crane belong to a magical family but are they magic themselves? For the past 400 years, magic has been fading with only a few powerful gifts remaining. 

But as Edward's magic is gradually revealed, much to his relief, he embarks on a journey into the land of dreams... until the dreams start morphing into nightmares. Now everything Edward hoped for is being challenged - can he work out what is happening before the nightmares become real?


There are a lot of magical middle grade novels out there but, yet again, L.D Lapinski has found a unique angle that has a strong backstory. Magic in this world has been dwindling, a mystery which needs solving in itself, and then the magic takes us into the realm of dreams and nightmares, which again offers a slightly different USP. Add in strong themes of family, identity and belonging - a topic that is highly relatable to the target readership, if not readers of any age - and you immediately get the sense that something big is about to unfold. 

L.D Lapinski's world-building is rich and imaginative, with the world of nightmares giving the story a dark, sinister and rather unsettling edge. We really enjoyed exploring the different types of magic and the unpredicatable plot kept us guessing. We also really liked that Edward was a underconfident, rather anxious character who desperately wanted to explore who he was and what he had to offer. We're looking forward to seeing what unfolds next...

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


Monday 19 February 2024

What's new in chapter books and graphic novels?

My son is now deep in the realm of searching for books he wants to read independently and chapter books and graphic novels are always a great option for him because they are short, accessible and very often funny. Although we have read together since he was tiny and he's enjoyed a wide range of picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels, building up his own reading has been more of a challenge. Reading for pleasure and enjoyment is, for us as a family, the most important thing and so we're starting this round-up with something he loved:

Pablo and Splash by Sheena Dempsey

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 18th January 2024

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Graphic novels are a great way of engaging reluctant readers and, after barely reading any graphic novels in my forty-something years, I have discovered a real love for them too! All of the ones we have read so far, including DogMan, Agent Moose, Bumble and Snug and Pea, Bee and Jay have been incredibly clever and hugely funny and this was no exception:

Pablo and Splash are the best of friends and totally different. Pablo likes his life in the Antarctic but Splash wants change and adventure! Fed up of the freezing weather, Splash persuades Pablo to go on holiday with him. But a series of unexpected events leads them on a time-travelling escapade to the dinosaur age instead. Was life in the Antarctic really that bad?

This is the first in a series of adventures for Pablo and Splash and we found them to be instantly loveable. If you're after a laugh-out-loud adventure that's fun and very silly then you've found the perfect pair of penguins. The illustrations are fab, the plot is twisty and turny and the humour is spot on for younger readers, whilst also appealing to anyone who fancies a giggle. Graphic novels really are the dream combination of words and pictures - exciting, unintimidating and totally page-turning.

The Dog Squad by Clara Vulliamy

Published by: HarperCollins, 18th January 2024

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Perfect for dog lovers, this is the second in a really lovely series about dogs and journalism. It may seem like an odd combination but it really works! Penned by Clara Vulliamy, author of the Dotty Detective and Marshmallow Pie books, it's a simple but gentle story with a great twist. 

When Eva and her friends take Wafer to a whippet racing competition, Eva is super proud of her pet. But something is amiss - some underhand cheating is going on and Eva smells a new story...

We really loved the characters in this series. Wafer, of course, is star of the show but Eva and her friends have a lovely dynamic. The author creates an ominous sense of peril with some grumpier characters and there is also an element of mystery which Eva must uncover if she wants to write her story. This is great for anyone who prefers 'real-world' stories. Eva's love for her pet, Wafer, is really relatable and the books fit really well into the pet genre that is really popular with chapter book readers, whilst also offering a new and specific angle. 


The Magician Next Door by Rachel Chivers Khoo, illustrated by Alice McKinley

Link to publisher

Published by: Walker Books, 7th March 2024

If you're looking for something more fantastical, then this is the book for you. As with Rachel Chivers Khoo's first chapter book, The Wishkeeper's Apprentice, this has the magical and traditional feel of the stories I used to read as a child. With a magician and giants and spells going wrong, it is packed full of imagination, joy and delight. 

Ten year old Callie is struggling to settle into her new life in the mountains after living a life in London. But when a magical house crashes into her garden, Callie is pulled into an urgent mission. 

Winnifred, the owner of the house, has lost her precious Wanderdust and if Callie can't help her find it, then her house is in terrible danger. But soon Callie learns that she might be the reason for the Wanderdust going missing in the first place.

This story deals with big and relatable issues, such as grief, moving house and old and new friendships. And yet Rachel Chivers Khoo wraps these themes up in a captivating and immersive story that crackles with magic. The result is a rollercoaster ride of imagination, adventure, peril and emotion. There are high stakes and urgent missions at the same time as Callie is coming to terms with her past, present and future. However, none of it felt too heavy because there's a great balance of light and dark, humour and sadness mixed with a huge dose of imagination. 

There's a fabulous nod to folklore and famous stories too - giants, houses falling out of the sky, woodland and pixies all remind me of those old classics. And yet there's something incredible fresh and contemporary about the story too as well as a dynamic and exciting energy. 


Princess Katie's Kittens: Ruby and the Royal Baby by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Sam Loman

Published by: Piccadilly Press, May 9th 2024

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The fifth book in this series is just as delightful as the others and this time it is Ruby's turn to have an adventure. The last of the five kittens finds herself getting into trouble as she explores the wider world around her...

The Queen is having a baby! Katie is over the moon that she is going to be a big sister again and she and her friend, Becky, launch themselves into preparing for the new arrival. 

But it's not long before Ruby the kitten interrupts their plans by unintentionally causing mischief and mayhem. The Queen isn't happy either... Will Ruby be allowed to stay? And can Katie fix everything before the baby is born?

Told in a dual perspective which cleverly switches between Katie and Ruby, these stories are perfect for encouraging independent reading. The chapters are short, the illustrations are delightful and there are strong themes of family, friendship and how to care for animals.  We really liked how some factual information is always woven into the text and, in this story there's a gentle warning about introducing cats to babies.

The 'princess' aspect of the series is also very appealing and adds another layer of specialness to the concept. Despite this, however, Katie and her family still feel very relatable to readers.


A big thanks to NetGalley and all the above publishers for allowing us review copies of these new and upcoming chapter books. All these books are avaiable to purchase or pre-order.







Monday 15 January 2024

Exciting new products from Maverick Publishing

We've been big fans of Maverick publishing ever since the children were tiny and so, when we were offered the opportunity to review two new product lines, we jumped at the chance. 

We found Fusion readers and Tangled Tales instantly exciting. Both have clear USPs and bring something new to the reading table. Readers will be dazzled by the dynamic titles, the bold, bright illustrations and the accessibility of the texts as well as by the energy and enthusiasm for reading that these books exude. In short, they are REALLY cool. 


Fusion: Sandstorm Riders by April C. James, illustrated by Diobelle Cerna

Published: 28th February 2024

Mixing fast-paced, action-packed text with highly illustrated 'graphic novel' style pages, this new reading scheme is perfectly pitched at reluctant readers and readers who are developing their confidence and independence. They are also a great option for anyone who fancies dipping into a short but gripping story. 

We absolutely loved this book. The text is easily accessible, but still offers a level of challenge in terms of the vocabulary. The graphic novel pages are bright, bold and instantly engaging and feel like an exciting reward after reading a bite-sized chunk of the story. The format sets up readers to enjoy their reading and to succeed in their efforts. 

The story itself was a fantastic whirlwind of adventure with a strong and determined female lead, a dangerous quest and a twist in expectations. My son is a fair reader but is daunted by longer texts and prefers graphic novels. This book is, therefore, such a great option for him (and one which made his eyes light up) because he can be encouraged to read and enjoy the graphic novel scenes as a pay-off.  Furthermore, the rest of the titles in this scheme all scream action and adventure but are very different in terms of style, genre and colour palette. Why not check out Nebula League: Nightbloom  or Redfangs - stories that both boys and girls will enjoy but which definitely pulled in my son.


Tangled Tales: Movies, Magic,Mayhem!/Bites, Camera, Action! by Jenny Moore, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Published: 28th January 2024

Aimed at chapter book readers, Maverick's new Tangled Tales series also offers a unique and exciting USP: two stories in one! Readers can pick up the book, open the front cover and begin to read and then turn the book over, flip it upside to find a second front cover and a second story waiting to lure them in. 

With fabulous black-and-white illustrations, including a double-paged spread to separate the two stories from each other, readers will love the bite-sized length - each story is less than ten chapters - and the fast-flowing plots which are as sharp and snappy as the titles. I loved the play on Buffy the Vampire Slayer with 'Puffy the Vampire Catcher' as well as some other cultural references which, although may go over reader's heads, adds in a note of humour for the adults who may be supporting their child's reading. The books feel special to hold also - slim and very undaunting with gorgeously-sprayed purple edges. 

As withe Fusion Readers, this series offers a range of titles, all with a spooky feel. With The Spectre Detectors and The Poltergeist's Problem, we don't think readers will be getting bored anytime soon...and if they do, they can switch to the other side. 


Monday 8 January 2024

New year, New books: A sneak peek at 2024...

2023 seemed to pass in a blur of brilliant reads. From awesome adventures to laugh out loud comedy to some beautiful tear-jerking tales, we met characters - both human and animal - that will stick in our memories forever. 

But a new year inevitably brings new books and we are already super excited to read some much-awaited sequels as well as some brand new offerings. In fact, over the festive period, we have taken the chance to take a sneak peek at what's a-coming and, from picture books to chapter books to middle-grade, it's already shaping up to being another fantastic year...

PICTURE BOOKS

We are the Wibbly! A Tadpole's Tail by Sarah Tagholm and Jane McGuinness

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 28th March 2024

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In Three Words: Funny, Adorable,Educational

We've known about this one for a while and feel so lucky to have been able to read it early, courtesy of NetGalley, because it is ace. Telling the story of one tadpole's transformation from wibbly to frog, this is a picture book that every KS1 teacher will be crying out to have on their bookshelves...

OH MY CRIKEYS! Everything and everyone around me is changing. First we is the wibblies and now nothing is staying the same. What is happening to them...and what if it doesn't happen to me?

Nailing an hilarious voice and a child's anxious viewpoint perfectly, Sarah Tagholm explores what change can look like to little ones and the importance they place on those around them. If everyone is changing, then why aren't they? Can they do what everyone else can do? And what if they can't? Besides, what is this change anyway? What on earth is going to happen next?

Alongside all these humany questions, is also the simple but brilliantly executed tale - or tail - of a tadpole's journey from frogspawn to frog. Fitting in with topics such as life-cycles and nature, it will capture children's fascination and interest in a thoroughly entertaining way, enriching their understanding and curiosity. Even older children will be chuckling along and uttering the catchy catchphrase: OH MY CRIKEYS! Throw in the most adorable illustrations from Jane McGuiness and what you have is a perfect picture book package. 

Please by Simon Philip and Nathan Reed

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 18th January 2024

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In Three Words: Brilliant, Bonkers, Manners

We've read quite a few stories about manners over the years but this is, by far, the most brilliantly bonkers one. If you struggle to remember to say 'please' then prepare to be whisked off on a rip-roaring journey that will never let you forget again...

Uh-oh! Bill wanted ice-cream but forgot to say please. Now he's been kidnapped by alien toads, crash-landed in a jungle and has had an unexpected encounter with a yak. What's going to happen next? Will Bill ever find a way to get his sweet treat?

Told in bouncy, upbeat rhyme, this cautionary tale will make readers laugh out loud whilst also imparting an important life lesson. Manners cost nothing and using them might save you from upsetting those around you. But instead of hammering the message home in a dull and didactic way, readers will have a whale of a time predicting what crazy thing will happen to Bill next. 

The voice is as hilarious as the illustrations and the repetitive refrain is a delightful and funny treat. Each spread is as random as the next and you can just imagine the author having the time of his life writing this text. Little ones will surely want to invent their own scenarios too and the ending leaves you with another big laugh. This is exactly what everyone needs to read in January...as long as they remember to say please!

Meet the Dinosaurs by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 18th January 2024

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In Three Words: Dinosaurs, Rhyme, Learning

Another great book for the classroom is the latest in the Meet the... series. Following Meet the Planets, Meet the Oceans and Meet the Weather, Meet the Dinosaurs is perfect for any dinosaur enthusiast but also a brilliant introduction to these prehistoric beasts. 

Have you ever wondered where those old bones in the museum actually came from? Well, now is the time to find out! Why not get in the truck and travel back in time on a dino-safari to meet who those bones belonged to?

Perfectly pitched for young children, this well set-up picture book begins in a museum and explains the age of the dinosaurs in a fun but easily understandable way. The bold and vibrant illustrations by Bethan Woollvin have been joyful in all of these books but are perfectly suited to dinosaurs, allowing them to leap out from the page. From Bront-to-saur-us to Dip-lod-o-cus to the infamous Ty-ranno-saur-us, the rhyming text is packed full of factual information about the dinosaurs' diet, habitat and features and even helps new readers with pronunciation by breaking down the long names. The language is both child-friendly yet challenging with some brilliant sound words and dynamic verbs. This is a lesson that both children and adults will not want to miss, made even clearer by the fabulous timeline at the end.

Once Upon a Storytime by Gareth Peter and Natelle Quek

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 15th February 2024

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In Three Words: Fairytales, Love, Reassurance

If you're looking for a lyrical, bedtime story then this gorgeous picture book is really special. With stunning illustrations and a heart-warming message, it's perfect for snuggling under a blanket with and reminding little ones how much they are loved.

Nia and her mum love reading adventure stories and fairy tales together. But Nia has some questions. If the scenarios in the stories ever happened to her, would Mum come and find her? Even if she stumbled across a wicked witch in a gingerbread cottage or was about to be gobbled up by a grouchy giant? 

But Mum has a question too! What would happen if SHE ever got lost? Who would come and save her?

Told in beautiful, lyrical prose, this story draws on the fairy tales we know and twists them into a gentle tale of love and reassurance. Highlighting the special bond between a mother and daughter, it can also be used by any parent, grandparent, family relative or carer to help a child feel secure and settled before bedtime. We loved all the different settings and adventures, brought to life by the incredible illustrations, and it definitely left us with a lump in the throat and in need of a warm hug. Although real life doesn't always offer us the happy endings that fairy tales do, this shared story will empower readers, both young and old, with hope and the knowledge that they are special, unique and important. 

When Dinosaurs Walked the Earth by Sean Taylor 

Link to publisher

Published: July 2023

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In Three Words: Big and Small Dinosaurs 

This picture book was actually published in 2023 but we missed it back then and thought it was too good not to point out. With a repetitive text and brilliant larger-than-life characters - called Smallosaurus and Badasaurus and Worseasaurus - it's the voice that makes this picture book absolutely hilarious.

Smallosaurus just wants to eat a patch of juicy ferns. But Badosaurus isn't going to let her eat them in peace. And that's the way it sometimes was when dinosaurs walked the earth...until Worseasaurus comes along...

This is a tale of a small dinosaur coming out on top in a laugh-out-loud hilarious escapade. It deals in facts in a totally deadpan way and is a definite must for Jon Klassen fans. Told with a very child-like perspective, it will appeal to the sense of humour of young listeners who are very likely to ask for it over and over. These are the picture books I am most in awe of; those with minimal text but which just get how to make children (and adults) laugh and laugh and laugh. 

A big thanks to NetGalley, Bloomsbury and Quarto for allowing us to preview these texts. 


CHAPTER BOOKS

Princess Katie's Kittens: Poppy and the Prince by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Sam Loman

Link to author website

Published by: Piccadilly Press, 4th January 2024

In Three Words: Princesses, Kittens, Adventure

The fourth instalment in this re-released series by Julie Sykes becomes available today, offering another gorgeous story which centres around palace kitten, Poppy. Following on from her siblings, Poppy is keen to find a way out of the boot room and explore...although a rather unpleasant experience is waiting for her. 

When Princess Katie's cousin, Prince Edward, comes to visit, Katie is really excited to spend time with him again. But Prince Edward soon announces that he is far too grown-up to play with Katie anymore and sets about teasing her kitten, Poppy. 

Poppy can't understand why this visitor is being so unpleasant to her. But when the pair go missing at the same time, things come to a head. Will Poppy find herself in danger or can she handle the situation?

This series has become a firm favourite in our house. With a familiar and reassuring format, gentle characters and a dual POV which switches between Princess Katie and her kitten, each book is easily accessible with a managable reading length and a heartwarming adventure with a subtle message. 

In this story, Prince Edward's treatment of Poppy is both unkind and unacceptable and teaches children, through both Katie and Poppy's point of view, how important it is to treat animals kindly. This is all gently wrapped up in a lovely adventure which involves mazes and picnics and family. There's a lovely exploration of Prince Edward's character and a great resolution which I really didn't see coming. Great for newly independent readers, this oozes charm and warmth.


Middle Grade

Stitch by Padraig Kenny

Link to publisher

Published by: Walker Books, 4th January 2024

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In Three Words: Frankenstein's monster, Friendship, Humanity

I've been in awe of Padraig Kenny's writing ever since I read The Monsters of Rookhaven and this new, relatively short novel inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein absolutely tugged on my heartstrings. Simply told, the story takes us on an exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to be different. 

Stitch and his friend, Henry, are alive - creatures created by Professor Hardacre. But when Professor Hardacre dies and his troubled and ambitious nephew takes the helm, things take a sinister turn. Determined to progress science by experimenting on Henry, Stitch is horrified by the professor's intentions. Can Henry and Stitch escape?And what will become of them if they do?

Both Stitch and Henry - but especially Henry and his innocence - are incredibly special characters who will leave a monster-sized imprint on readers' hearts. Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear who the monsters actually are. Challenging attitudes and preconceptions of anyone who is 'imperfect' or 'different', Padraig Kenny's paired back narrative only serves to make the impact of the tale more powerful - the simplicity of it allowing us to see the truth in a compelling yet clear way. 

The length of the novel and the way it is told makes this rather literary story accessible. There's twists and turns and lots of hooks, an exploration of motives, conscience and the reasoning (or justification) behind actions and, most importantly, an exploration of acceptance. I was really sad when the novel ended and am wondering if we'll ever get to see more of Stitch and Henry's adventures...  

Beastlands: Race to FrostFall Mountain by Jess French

Published by: Piccadilly Press, 18th January 2024

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In three words: Beasts, Quest, Adventure

If you're looking for a novel that's full of danger, pacy adventure, thrilling beasts and exciting flora and fauna then this is an absolute must-read. Despite reading a lot of 'magical beast' stories recently, the imaginative world-building and confident writing of this fantasy novel hooked me in faster than a beast could bite me. Not only that but the narrative, as fast-moving as a river, kept me absolutely gripped. As the story of three different main characters evolve, their stories soon collide in a epic quest of discovery and realisation. 

Before people, there were beasts. But now people have arrived on the island of Ramoa, beasts are feared and the cities keep the citizens locked in and the terrible beastlands outside. But when sky-rider Kayla's beloved pagron is stolen, she is desperate to find him. Alone in the beastlands, she soon encounters a failed warrior, Rustus, and a healer, Alethea, who are each on their own missions. Can the three of them unite to find what they are looking for and have they been told the truth about these terrifying beasts?

Although a fantasy novel, the expertise of author Jess French - who is a veterinary surgeon, zoologist and children's TV presenter - is plain to see. The world-building is edgy and the beastlands are fierce and yet there is a plethora of exciting beasts and plants for the reader to encounter. Each of the three main characters bring something different to the novel in terms of personality, drive and motive and there are certainly fireworks when their paths cross. I loved the plotting and the pace and found myself thinking about the world long after I had finished reading. 

In terms of theme, there is a definite exploration of the impact humans have on their surroundings. Fear, survival, prejudice and disease are also prominent as is social hierachy and control. I loved the character's burgeoning respect as they unravel the truth and also the gentle eco message. This is a cracking novel and definitely one to watch.

Libby and the Manhattan Mystery by Jo Clarke

Link to publisher

Published by: Firefly Press, 4th January 2024

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In three words: New York, Actresses, Jewels.

There is something so utterly charming about this mystery series. Perhaps it is the concept of a travelling school or the relatability of the characters or just the cosy and unthreatening atmosphere that Jo Clarke evokes in her writing, despite there being plenty of peril for Libby to contend with. Whatever, the secret ingredient is, this series has gone down a storm with both myself and my ten year old and this third instalment, set in New York, is full of danger and excitement... 

Libby is looking forward to settling in New York for the next school term and things get off to an exciting start when Connie's godmother - famous actress Eloise Fitzwilliam - asks them to help her and her friend, Count Alverez, organise a charity auction. But Libby soon spots that Count Alverez is acting oddly and might not be all he seems. Is he planning something unsavoury or is there someone else behind the puzzling palava?

This is the perfect read for younger middle-grade readers or for anyone who just wants to cosy up and do a bit of sleuthing. The fact that each mystery is set in a different part of the world instantly makes the books exciting. Throw in food, friendship and the coolest boarding school you'll ever encounter and you have all the ingredients for a corker of an adventure. Just like with Alice Eclair, Spy Extraordinaire and other school detective novels for this age-group, there is also something reassuring in the format - each adventure is different and yet we know what we're getting. The level of peril is just right on the notch-dial and readers know they are in capable hands with Libby. I also really enjoyed the more personal mystery, regarding her own family, that Libby is encountering throughout the novels. This has left the series open to even more interesting developments. 


City of Spies by Iszi Lawrence

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 4th January 2024

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In Three Words: History, Plots, Spies

Set during the American War of Independence in the year1780 and based largely on facts, this is a gripping historical novel full of spies, traitors and difficult decisions. Packed with action and compelling twists and turns, the costumes and corruption created an atmosphere of such danger and intrigue, it was hard to put down. 

The war for American independence is raging in New York and twelve year old Aiden Blaise is sure that the British are on the verge of winning. But Aiden's certainty is soon shaken as he discovers that the city, where he is desperate to prove himself, is full of spies and secrets. As Aiden gets drawn into a tangled web of lies and deceit, can he decide what is right and wrong and can he hold his nerve?

It was really exciting to see a middle-grade historical novel set outside both the First and Second World Wars and outside of British soil. However, occasionally the language was a little confusing and it might have been useful to begin with a short historical overview to help readers establish who was on which side, although I was reading a proof copy. However, the characters carried the story brilliantly and the level of danger and deception felt immediate and gripping. 

There were a lot of key figures and historical detail in the narrative. I was fascinated by the end papers and the information about the Culper Spy Ring, George Washington, Benedict Arnold and James Rivington. There was a lot to learn and absorb and Iszi Lawrence achieves this by placing readers right in the thick of the action alongside Aiden Blaise. I loved Aiden's realisation of not necessarily being on the 'right' side and the subsequent exploration of the complexities, justifications and devastation of war. The personal and human cost really rang clear and I'd highly recommend this to competent readers who are looking for something a eye-opening and different.



Monday 4 December 2023

It's Christmas! Our seasonal round-up for 2023..

 You Can't Let An Elephant Pull Santa's Sleigh by Patricia Cleveland-Peck and David Tazzyman

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 12th October 2023

We always enjoy reviewing books in this series and this festive edition will ensure your Christmas gets off to a jolly start. Full of silly scenarios, rather than an actual story, it's a book that readers of all ages can enjoy together and one which will have you turning the pages in delight again...and again...and again...

An elephant pulling Santa's sleigh? Raccoons decorating your Christmas tree? And a walrus putting up your Christmas lights? Oh no, no, no, that will never do. If you want your Christmas to go smoothly, you'll need to adhere to the warnings and find some sensible alternatives. Otherwise, who knows who you'll end up kissing under the mistletoe...

Packed with hilarious illustrations by David Tazzyman, this is a book that celebrates both words and pictures. You only have to look at Santa's expression on the front cover to get a glimpse of the riotous fun in store. Plus, little ones can use the silly inspiration to create fantastic scenarios of their own. Who do they think should pull Santa's sleigh...or not?

Every page-turn builds on the last, escalating the excitement, with a lovely conclusion that pulls everything together at the end. As always with this series, the animals steal the show, making it extra appealing for younger readers. Animals + Christmas + a bit of bonkers humour = you CAN'T let this book go unread.

A big thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for allowing us a review copy. 


There Was a Young Reindeer Who Swallowed A Present by Kaye Baillie and Diane Ewen

Link to publisher

Published by MacMillan, 26th October 2023

Keeping the mood light-hearted, There Was A Young Reindeer Who Swallowed A Present offers another dose of festive fun. Based on the well-known rhyme, There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, this is the Christmassy version - although there is also an Easter and Halloween one as well!

There was a young reindeer who swallowed a present. Did it fill them up? Obviously not because they then go on to swallow a elf, a bauble and a tree. Surely they won't swallow Santa himself..?

Nothing screams fun more than cumulative rhyme and this treat of a book has all the joyfulness of the original version. The illustrations from Diane Ewen are a delight, adding in lots of brilliant detail AND an extra layer of adorability to the narrative - just look at those reindeer's butter-wouldn't-melt eyes! There's mounting tension as the story progresses and little ones will be turning the pages faster than this reindeer can gobble things up to see how the story ends. No spoilers here though! You'll have to find out for yourselves. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan for allowing us a review copy. 


Ho, Ho, Ho! A Pirate's Christmas for Me by Red, illustrated by Jack Button
Published by: Sweet Cherry Publishing, 2023
This rhyming story is great for anyone looking for a Christmas story with a difference. How do a pair of pirates link to the concept of Christmas? You'll have to read it to find out but it's a lovely and original idea which also celebrates the love between siblings...

Nic and Kris Beard are twins who are very, very different. While Nic is naughty, Kris is nice. But when Nic's actions lead Kris to fall overboard, he gets washed up on an island of woodworking elves. Will remorseful Nic ever find his brother again and what does the future have in store for them?

Inventive, thought-provoking and full of piratey fun, the warmth of this story comes across in the gorgeous illustrations by Jack Button. The fact it's so different makes it instantly memorable and it's a perfect read for warring siblings who, underneath it all, love the bones of each other. The ending is wonderfully imaginative and plays on the idea of Saint Nick and Kris Kringle - names which little ones may have heard of but may not be so familiar with. Christmas + Pirates = A winning combination!

A big thanks to NetGalley and Sweet Cherry Publishing for allowing us a review copy. 


Gnome Alone at Christmas by Nick Pine, illustrated by Di Brookes

Link to publisher

Published by: Hachette, 12th October 2023

If you're after a comical Christmas caper then this may be the Christmas story for you. Perfect for 5-9's, this is a simple, humorous and heartwarming story set at home. But, if you're expecting anything like the famous film, Home Alone, there are more differences than similarities, starting with Tommy the gnome. 

Noah loves Christmas more than anything. But this Christmas, his gran is poorly, his sister doesn't want to join in with anything and everything feels completely unfestive. 
So when his parents go and visit his gran on Christmas Eve, Noah takes the opportunity to make the most of things and decorate the house to cheer everyone up. But when Tommy the magical gnome appears on the scene to help, things might not go the way Noah planned... 

In some ways this feels like a cumulative story just like There Was a Young Reindeer Who Swallowed A Present. Tommy's magic keeps going wrong and the ensuing chaos goes from bad to worse. From an army of gingerbread people going on the rampage inside to a reindeer rampaging around outside, how is Noah going to put everything right before his parents come home?

Tommy and Noah are a great duo and we'd definitely love to read more adventures involving Tommy. Full of warmth as well as magical mishaps, he's the sort of help you'd love at Christmastime, even if he does make a mountain of mess...


The Ice Children by M.G. Leonard, illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee

Link to publisher

Published by: Macmillan, 2nd November 2023

If you're looking for something more wintry than Christmassy, then this icy cold story is a great alternative. Don't worry about freezing though. It might be about a magical land filled with frost and snow but there's enough love in it to keep you toasty warm.

When children are found frozen in a London park, including Bianca's own brother, no one has a clue why such a terrible thing is happening. But when they realise the children's hearts are still beating, Bianca decides that there's still a chance to save them. 

Her determination to solve the mystery takes her on a journey to a winter wonderland where some sinister characters are determined to thwart her attempts to find the truth. Can Bianca find a way to free the Ice Children without becoming one herself...

With strong echoes of The Snow Queen, this a fantasy story about sibling love but with an urgent eco message too. Grounded in the issues of today's contemporary world, it whirls fiction and fact together to create a magical yet thought-provoking adventure. The world-building is enchanting and reminded me of both Narnia and the Moomins Winter Wonderland and while some of the parallels to The Snow Queen are clear, it isn't necessary for today's generation to know the original story. 

I particularly loved the villains in this adventure. Cleverly crafted and complex, they really hooked me in. As the mystery unravels and the pieces slot together, it becomes clear that the ending is going to be slightly different to conventional fantasy tales. Yet, with more twists and turns than a ski slope, this one will keep you guessing until the very end. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan for allowing us a review copy. 


Step Father Christmas by L.D Lapinski

Link to publisher

Published by: Hachette, 12th October 2023

If you're looking for something short, sweet and a little bit different then Step Father Christmas is a must read. Split into 25 chapters, to match the countdown to the big day, this is a concept that's so brilliant, it makes you wonder why it hasn't been done before...

Harper loves spending Christmas with her mum and brother. So when her mum announces that she's invited her new boyfriend to stay for the Christmas period, she's taken aback. She's even more taken aback when she discovers that Nick bears a striking resemblance to Santa. The more time she spends with him, the more Harper becomes convinced that he actually IS Santa. But can she prove it or will she be proven wrong?

This novel was such a joy to read that I struggled to put it down. It's has great characters, a fast-pace and the text is super accessible - never mind reading it over 25 days, my middle daughter read it in a weekend! Both of us loved the strange occurances, the Christmassy vibe and the constant musing of 'is he or isn't he Santa?'.Whatever the answer is, this is a great portrayal of family life which explores the challenges, emotions and postive elements of changing dynamics. Add in the magical elements like a random reindeer on the roof and snow in ONLY Harper's garden and you've got something really special. The extra good news is that this might be returning next year...

A big thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for allowing us a review copy. 


The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent, illustrated by Selom Sunu

Link to publisher

Published by: Farshore, 12th October 2023

If you're looking for a completely over-the-top, in-your-face, all-out Christmassy story, then the Christmas Carrolls series is a must-read. Following the success of  Book 1 and Book 2, The Christmas Club is the third novel to look out for...

Holly Carroll and her family are off to New York after winning the competition for 'Most Christmassy Family'. But when they get invited to audition for the mysterious and highly secretive Christmas Club, the family is forced to make a difficult decision: fulfil their commitment to the New York Christmas parade or chase their only chance to bring about their biggest dream ever...

For me, thanks to its brilliant characters - particularly the animal ones - this series has got more hilarious with each instalment. Riotously funny but with a serious message at it's heart, it offers at least several laughs on each page, as well as a massive dose of upbeat Christmassy cheer. 

As ever, Holly - with all her optimism and warmth - is on a mission to help others and spread as much festive love as possible. But again, she is faced with difficult questions and truths: what is Christmas really all about and is she missing the point? I really enjoyed her inner struggle and the way Holly learns from others around her. Seb and his daughter are great characters and watch out for a cameo appearance from Santa himself - adding a great fun twist to the end of the story. 

The setting of New York was perfect, enabling the story to go BIG. Reggie, Sue and gorgeous Chilli may be the shining stars of the story but The Big Apple also felt like an incredible character in itself. With the city acting as a backdrop for lots of Christmassy action, the story ramped up to a tense conclusion which celebrated both failure and success. With themes of being true to yourself, friendship, love, compassion and connection, reading The Christmas Carrolls is like stopping for a warm marshmallowy hot chocolate in the middle of a frenetic Christmas market. Oh, and watch out for the real name of Holly's mum - it's brilliant!


Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat

Link to publisher

Published by: HarperCollins, 26th October 2023

The hardback edition of this book, with its incredible cover by Chaaya Prabhat, is one of the most beautiful Christmas books I've ever held in my hands. Open the pages, however, and you'll find a gorgeously unique story told in a classic storytelling style...

It's been ten years since Santa hung up his sleigh reins and went into hiding. But when Juniper's mum goes missing, she stumbles across a mysterious man called Niko in a London park and realises that he must be the Santa that gave up on Christmas. 

Desperate and alone, Juniper takes on the task of persuading Niko to help her find her mum and protect the park from its ambitious new keeper. But it's not long before she's saving Christmas itself. Will Santa return to his duties or will the world lose the festive season forever..?

This is a beautifully complex tale, perfect for those looking for a more challenging read. Eoin Colfer takes us on a journey that follows both Juniper's story and explores what Christmas means on a human level. With lots of magical and real-life elements colliding - such as flying reindeer, magical sacks, a criminal gang and a London park housing a community of homeless people - it allows readers to consider whether the human world is better off with or without Christmas and how true magic can spread love, hope and empathy to those who need it and those who think they don't. 

There's a cracking mix of characters to discover between the pages of this book and I particularly loved both Duchess and the villains. There's adventure, humour, grief, heartbreak and hope - oh, and some elves on an urgent tracking mission across Europe. I loved the contemporary setting of London and particularly the London park and it's been wonderful to read a range of Christmassy books this year that are set in different locations to the North Pole and which focus very much of the human element of Christmas.


And we're still reading...

The Snow Girl by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon

Link to publisher

Published by: Usborne, October 2023

We're only halfway through this novel, which is a new release from one of our favourite authors, Sophie Anderson. However, from what we've read so far, this is set to become another wintry classic with stunning descriptions and a timeless feel...

When Tasha moves to her Grandpa's farm, she finds the first fall of snow incredibly special and, based on the story her grandpa has told her, she builds a snow girl. 

Desperate for a friend, Tasha wishes with all her heart that her creation will come to life and soon, she is spending the winter nights having adventures with the magical Alyana. But winter isn't going to last for ever... What will Tasha and Alyana do when spring comes? 

Based on Russian folklore, this is definitely the sort of novel you'll want to curl up with in front of the fire. Its soothing, lullaby-infused language whirls around you like snow in the air and transports you to a winter wonderland that feels both beautiful and intoxicating. Tasha is a relatable heroine who is experiencing very real fears and anxieties and yet, as we accompany her on her journey, we see her connection with both the natural world and Alyana begin to heal her. We're going to have to read on, though, to find out how the story progresses...

From what we're read so far, there's strong themes of community woven throughout the story as well as a focus on that special relationship between child and grandparent. There's also a wonderful celebration of the beauty of winter as well as the real acknowledgement of how harsh and dangerous it can also be. We are particularly loving the rural farm and woodland setting and the strong sense of wonder. 

Also recommended: 

The Christmasaurus series

The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo

Tinsel by Sibeal Pounder

And why not look at our previous Christmas round-ups to get some further inspiration:

Round-up 2022

Round-up 2021


Sunday 19 November 2023

UPCOMING RELEASE! Bronte Tempestra and the Lightning Steeds

What with our Halloween round-up and some fantastic new middle-grade releases taking up all our attention, it's been hard to fit anything else into our reading slots. But we can never resist a chapter book and, along with the return of some of our favourites, there is something new to get excited about in 2024. YA author, Bex Hogan, has a debut CB series launching on the 1st February and it's definitely one to watch out for...

Bronte Tempestra and the Lightning Steeds by Bex Hogan, illustrated by Hannah McCaffery


Published by: Piccadilly Press, 1st February 2024

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Packed full of pacy action, the first in this new series sees Bronte Tempestra follow her dreams of being a knight. But what does being a knight entail exactly..?

Bronte, Princess of the Storm Kingdom, knows what she wants...to be the first princess to ever train to become a knight. But when she heads off to knight school, she is surprised to find that the knights are more interested in bravado than being brave. Is saving and protecting kingdoms really second to showing off? 

But when Bronte finds out that the Lightning Steeds from her kingdom have gone missing, leaving the thunder trolls to cause havoc in their absence, Bronte takes matters into her own hands and sets off on a quest to find the root of all the strange happenings in the realm. 

This is a great concept which places a strong, female character centre stage. We loved how Bronte knows exactly who she wants to be and how much she cares about her kingdom. With bags of agency and a fighting spirit, you just know that this is a girl set for lots of adventures and that we, as readers, are definitely going to enjoy riding along with her. 

The world-building is brilliantly done with a cleverly constructed setting (again paving the way for lots of future adventures) and a cast of fun and creative characters. We loved the pompous griffin lord and the fire cats and we also loved the plot twist which centred around Bronte's own cat. There's a real sense of tension and imminent threat running right from the start and this escalates into a villain-busting climax which will leave readers as breathless as if they were the knights on a mission. 

There's so much to love about this new story and we can't wait to explore more of the world. We're particularly keen to meet the thunder trolls and find out what kind of peril Bronte will be facing next. You can bet it's not going to be anything like we expect... 

Highly recommended for 6-8 year olds and fans of Hotel of the Gods and The Naughtiest Unicorn.


Call the Puffins: Tiny's Brave Rescue by Cath Howe, illustrated by Ella Okstad

Published by: Welbeck Children's Group, Hachette, 12th October 2023

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This second book in the series is as charming as the first and places Tiny, not Muffin, as the main character in this adventure. Perfect for 5-7s, this is a gentle story with gorgeous characters and strong eco themes. 

Tiny, Muffin and the other puffins on the Island of Egg are on to the next stage of their training. But Tiny is still worried he's not up for the job, especially as his sight is limited. When a wild cat turns up on the beach during an important rescue, Tiny is convinced he's messed up. Will he pass this level of training and be able to stay one of the team?

This series is just a pure delight and perfect for fans of Adventuremice. The setting is simple and easy to visualise and the characters are amongst the sweetest you'll ever meet. We particularly love the representation of different disabilities amongst the puffins; from limited vision to feet that are different to everyone else's. The plot is pitched perfectly for the age-group but still has surprisingly high stakes - this is nature and nature's emergencies are serious. Saying that, there's still a lot of fun and friendship to be had and the power of teamwork is forefront! We love it!


Suki in the Snow (Princess Katie's Kittens) by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Sam Loman

Published by: Piccadilly Press, 12th October 2023
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With winter on the way, the third instalment of Princess Katie's Kittens feels particularly seasonal. If you're a big fan of the white stuff, then Suki in the Snow is a must-read; a gorgeous story with a holiday setting told from both Katie and Suki's perspective...

Katie is off on her annual holiday to the mountains but is sad to leave the kittens. But when Suki sneaks into her backpack, Katie finds her winter break is rather more stressful than usual. Suki sneaks out into the snow and it's not long before she is lost. Can Katie find her before frostbite sets in as well as keeping her family and friends happy?

With strong themes of pet care, this is a gorgeous series for young animal lovers or those who love a princess story. Katie and Becky are caring characters who mix having fun with responsibility. Suki being lost in the snow creates naturally high stakes but also whisks readers away to a magical snowy landscape full of festival fun, ice-skating, igloos and all the best things about winter. This change of setting was refreshing and all the stories offer a very different adventure. Allowing readers to see things from Suki's point of view as well as Katie's is a genius move and adds a whole special USP to the series. We can't wait to see what the next kitten will get up to.


Monday 6 November 2023

A Medley of Middle-Grade Mysteries...

Whether it's a book aimed at adults or children, mystery stories never seem to go out of fashion. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that, although they tend to follow a specific set of rules, mystery stories can be presented in a plethora of different ways. Fancy a mystery that will make you laugh? Or maybe a mystery set in an historical setting? No? Then maybe a spooky ghost mystery is what you're after? Whatever is on a reader's wishlist, they're bound to find something that fits the bill.

This medley of middle grade mysteries is only a very small selection of what's currently on offer in the children's book market but they are all books we've recently enjoyed. Each story contains the elements we love in a classic mystery story and yet they couldn't be more different from each other in tone and style. This is why we will never get bored of this versatile genre.



1.Funny

Montgomery Bonbon by Alasdair Beckett-King, illustrated by Claire Powell

If you're after a mystery series that has an hilarious main character, complete with an endearing sidekick, then the Montgomery BonBon series is a must-read. A spoof of the famous Agatha Christie series, Poirot (I think it's even funnier for adults who are familiar with David Suchet's depiction of this astute detective), it follows a young girl with a mystery-solving alter-ego...

Bonnie Montgomery is a brilliant detective. But no one has a clue who she is because children can't be detectives...can they? Maybe not! But Montgomery BonBon can. 

Disguised as a gentleman, complete with moutasche and hat, Bonnie looks nothing like a ten-year-old girl. Only her Grampa Banks knows her secret and, with his help, BonBon is on a mission to solve as many cases as possible...cases that might involve priceless artefacts and...onions.

This is a brilliantly written, laugh-out-loud series which combines murder with mayhem...bonkers mayhem. Bonnie's alter-ego, BonBon, will keep you giggling while the plots in both books will keep you guessing. Grampa is the perfect pairing for Bonnie and it is their relationship which gives both books real warmth and heart. We particularly enjoyed the setting of book two and the fact that it was even more bonkers than the first.

It's hard to talk too much about the stories without leaking spoilers. However, everything about the series oozes personality; from the larger than life characters to BonBon and Grampa's unusual set of wheels to the scenarios they find themselves in. We particularly loved the chapters where Bonnie was as stumped as we were and yet we knew the small details would lead her to the correct conclusion. Bonnie - or BonBon - should I say is endearing, charming, smart and one step ahead of the constabulary. You really don't want to miss her - er, him - in action. 


2. Historical

The Body In The Blitz by Robin Stevens

Link to author website

Published by: Puffin, 12th October 2023
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Following on from the Murder Most Unladylike series, Robin Stevens has continued her success of writing mysteries by introducing readers to Hazel's younger sister, May. In the second of The Ministry of Unladylike Activity series, May, together with her new friends Eric and Nuala, are plunged into a baffling mystery set in the terrifying but fascinating backdrop of The Blitz...

When the ministry calls May, Eric and Nuala back to London, the three spies-in-training find themselves staying in a street full of eclectic people thrown together by the war. But there's more than the nightly air-raids to contend with for, when they find a body in the wreckage of a bombed house, they find themselves in the middle of a strange and complex mystery. Will they ever begin to fit the pieces together or will their suspicions collapse like the houses around them?

Told in first person, in diary format, this second release switches the narrative responsibility to Nuala, rather than the previous dual narrative of May and Nuala. This allows readers to see things through the eyes of a wonderfully gentle and earnest character whilst also giving us all the best - and humorous - bits of strong-willed May. Eric is the calm, practical and tender link between the three, making them a great trio to get on board with. 

Although the novel is on the longer side in terms of length, it is so tightly and brilliantly plotted that it bounces along at a terrific pace, keeping us guessing until the very end. The atmosphere and tension of the setting made this mystery particularly electric and, thanks to Robin Stevens sensory and detailed description, I almost felt like I was in the midst of war-time London myself.

The cast of characters is large and yet compelling. Each one - both on and off the page - is distinguishable and the street where the mystery is set is practically a character in itself. This is a classic mystery centred in a city full of bombs and rubble and offers a huge amount of historical accuracy as well as the fictional element. This might just be the most atmospheric mystery I've ever read. 


Spooky

The Witchstone Ghosts by Emily Randall

Link to publisher

Published by: Chicken House

👍👍👍👍👍

Halloween might have been and gone but this story has stayed with me. Creepy and unsettling, it combines all the thrills and chills of a ghost story with a corker of a mystery. But can Autumn solve it before the darkness comes for her..?

Autumn sees dead people - they invade every part of her life. But when her Dad dies very suddenly and mysteriously, he is the one ghost who doesn't appear. Then his will sends Autumn and her mum to live on an isolated island called Imber and Autumn finds herself in a race against time to work out how Imber and her father's death are connected.

This mystery kept me guessing. It's highly original plot builds slowly to an incredible ending with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Once again, there's a cast of fabulously memorable characters - Fred and Jack being my personal favourites - and it's unsettling and haunting atmosphere offers a darker take on this popular genre, making it perfect for the higher age-range of middle grade or those who just want to be spooked. 

The setting in this novel, as with Robin Steven's The Body in the Blitz, is also incredibly atmospheric. The fictional island of Imber is located just off the coast of Cornwall and Emily Randall taps into the wild, and often brutal, coastal nature of my home county, giving it a timeless and almost historical feel. Whereas some mysteries are quite linear and progress logically, the supernatural element of this story means that a lot of unusual events and characters collide together like waves in an ocean, creating intrigue, suspense and an outcome that is much harder to predict but which makes perfect sense when all is revealed...

What's new in middle grade?

 When it comes to middle grade novels, we have been absolutely spoiled for choice over the last few months. So much so that our to-be-read p...