Friday 14 June 2024

Our Latest Middle-Grade reads

Oof! It's been well over a month, if not two, since we last posted a review - sorry about that! But even when life gets busy (really busy!), it doesn't mean we've stopped reading. While I'm taking a moment to breathe and play catch-up, here are some middle grade stories we've been enjoying:

Magicalia by Jennifer Bell

Link to publisher
Published by: Walker, 2nd May 2024

In three words: Magical creatures, Danger

I read Jennifer Bell's The Uncommoner's series in 2018 and, for me, it was the best fantasy series I'd read since Harry Potter.  I was wowed by its endless imagination, the immersive world-building and the way it made me feel. So, when I was given the opportunity to read Magicalia, courtesy of NetGalley, I jumped at the chance. Although very different in style to The Uncommoners, Jennifer Bell's imagination and world-building once again leaps from the cover...

Bitsy leads a normal life...or so she thinks until, one day, she finds a scary magical creature in her house. Then her dad is kidnapped and Bitsy and her friend Kosh are plunged into a magical world where beasts called magicores can be conjured by different emotions. Now Bitsy must come to terms with her new powers as a conjurer and travel the globe on a terrifying search for the truth. Where is her dad and why has he been taken?

This is a magical world which exists alongside our own and one which is exciting, vibrant and dangerous! We're plunged into the story at a breath-taking pace, meeting all sorts of characters and creatures, whilst slipping through secret doors that lead to different places around the world. If that isn't enough to make your head spin, then there's a dark and dangerous villain, riddles and puzzles to solve and betrayal around every corner. Who can Bitsy and Kosh trust?

Magical fantasy for middle-grade readers never ceases to take my breath away. The standard is so exceptionally high and this novel reaches for the stars. It takes something really different to stand out and this does - it's pure imagination come alive. Rather than offering a take on a dragon or a unicorn story, Jennifer Bell literally makes up her own creatures, inspiring readers to hopefully let go of their inhibitions and do the same when it comes to creativity. I don't think there's going to be many boundaries as to where the next book takes us - but if you want to buckle up for a wild ride, then you're going to be guaranteed magic and adventure in bucketloads.

TideMagic:The Many Faces of Ista Flit by Clare Harlow, cover by James Mountford

Link to publisher
Published by: Penguin, 2nd May 2024

In three words: tides, magic, monsters

If you're looking for a story that's equally gripping but slightly  slower in pace and darker in tone, then TideMagic is a great book to choose. Perfect for confident readers and for fans of Hana Tooke, it offers a very unique take on magic in a strange but immersive world...

In the dark, misty alleyways of Shelwich, magic rises and falls with the tide. Ista Flit has one goal - to use her power of changing faces, which the tide has bestowed on her, to find the truth behind her dad's disappearance. But when other vanishings begin to occur, there appears to be only one explanation: the grilks! Drawn into a web of lies and deceit and forced to steal, Ista joins forces with Nat and Ruby - children who are also searching for their loved ones - to solve a mystery that leads them to old theatres and caves. But will Ista find her father and will she be able to free herself from the nets she's become entangled in. 

This story is so hugely atmospheric, I swear I could smell the salt of the sea as I was reading it. The narrow, cobbled and misty streets, which are a very familiar sight in my home county of Cornwall, are the perfect setting for this grim and gritty mystery which builds like a rising tide. There's suspense, tension and intrigue as well as some brilliant twists and turns. Plus, the magic is eerie and unsettling but also fascinating. 

Ista Flit, with her ability to change faces, is a great character - troubled, alone and determined. I also loved the supporting characters of Nat and Ruby, each with their own distinct characters, and the relationship that develops between them is both entertaining and touching. For me, though, the grilks steal the show. They give this novel its creepy vibe and a very different type of villain. With no real clue as to where the next book in the series is going to lead, I'm very keen to find out.

Twice Upon A Time by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Natalie Smillie

Published by: Simon & Schuster, 11th April 2024

Link to publisher

In three words: Murder, Mystery, Time

This is the moment where I admit that I have never read a Michelle Harrison novel, even though I have had A Pinch of Magic series sitting upstairs for a long time! Therefore, again, I jumped at the chance to read and review this new release. Expecting something magical, I was surprised to find that this is actual a murder mystery novel (my favourite) with a very slight twist that gives the story a very clever USP...

The Morrow twins, Merry and Spike, are less than impressed when they find out they're spending their summer in a dusty old house. But they soon discover, that the house is the setting of an unsolved disappearance. With the mysterious event still hanging heavily over the household and its residents, Merry and Spike decide to investigate using their secret skill: manipulating time. But is time something you should mess with?

This reminded me of Robin Steven's series, The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, and Bella Bright and The Ghost Game by Carolyn Ward. Although it's not a spooky story as such, there are definitely creepy elements to the storyline and the setting is hugely atmospheric. It has the feel of a very traditional murder mystery; old houses, mournful residents, moorlands and a strange and tragic happening, but Michelle Harrison has combined it with something fresh and new. And for anyone may be feeling dubious about complicated time travel or confusing narratives, don't worry! The time element is simple but very effective. 

The novel is well-plotted and kept me guessing to the end, although there are clues along the way to pick up on. There's also a great mix of characters and I enjoyed the fact that the twins were very different and therefore distinguishable. Whether there will be a sequel, I'm not sure, but this could easily become a series; following the twins as they solve other mysteries using their skill. Watch this space!

Gargoyles: Guardians of the Source by Tamsin Mori

Link to publisher

Published by: UClan, 4th April 2024

In three words: Gargoyles, Protectors, Magic, 

Again, I have to admit to not having read Tamsin Mori's Weather Weaver series (where have I been) but the concept of a story about gargoyles was too good too ignore. Combined with the incredible front cover, which made myself and my son snap to attention, we dived in straight away...

 Callen's dad has always been secretive about his past. So when they move into his childhood home, Callen is shocked to find that it's a huge boarded-up mansion, covered in gargoyles that's practically falling down. But there's also something dark and unsettling about the house and when a grumpy gargoyle comes to life in front of Callen, he begins to learn all about the mansion's dark but magical history. As Callen makes friends and discovers their secrets, something sinister is brooding in the shadows. Can Callen befriend the gargoyle Zuriel and find out the truth about his dad's past?

We loved the imagination of this book. Again, with old, dusty mansions, overgrown gardens and magical creatures, it was immediately atmospheric and the gargoyles had us gripped. Fierce and wild, with a raw and dangerous power that matched Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, you can just tell that these creatures, and the series itself, is going to grow in darkness and power. In this first instalment, Tamsin Mori has set the groundwork for a big name it! It already feels quite epic in scale and you can tell this is an author who knows her world. 

We loved the setting, the characters and the mystery. Callen was hugely likeable and relable as a main character, making mistakes and having to learn from them. It also felt very realistic that his burgeoning friendships didn't develop too quickly. This is a corker of an adventure with a great dose of darkness which transported me back to those awesome adventures of He-Man and She-Ra with high stakes, high action and big baddies. It's perfect for both genders but definitely one to grab the boys.

Wednesday 17 April 2024

The Lighthouse at the World's End: The fourth and final instalment


Published by: Walker Books, 4th April 2024
In three words: Marvellous Magical Mayhem!
Written by Amy Sparkes, illustrated by Ben Mantle

Following on from The House at the Edge of MagicThe Tower at the End of Time and The Bookshop at the Back of Beyond comes the final instalment of this hilarious, zany, joyful series that zings with magic. This is the series I wanted to read as a child - a step up from The Faraway Tree in terms of age and plot but with the same calibre of unique and memorable characters that you'll want to share a pot of strawberry tea with. There's a magical setting which feels like a lovable character in its own right (a house, not a tree) and a maze of magical lands to explore...promising to lead to a whole host of mischievous trouble. The quirkiness of it all just makes it brilliant!

This is a masterclass in fantasy writing. Amy Sparkes' imagination knows no bounds and there are delightful and ingenius surprises on every page. Watch out for a wandering toilet, hidden house guests and password-protected biscuit tins. There's loads of witty banter - probably one of my favourite things about the whole series - and a perfect balance of emotion and humour. If you've followed the series from the beginning then this book is particularly emotional and I will happily admit to shedding tears, sometimes whilst snorting with laughter too!

In terms of the plot, be prepared to have the mysterious and unanswered questions, which have plagued both the reader and the main character Nine, all wrapped up. Without giving away spoilers, the key to the mystery lies with what is the best and most enjoyable villain I have read in a long time. For me, Flabberghast's sister steals the show, although Flabberghast, Eric and all the members of the house are all characters who will stay close to my heart. As for Nine, her emotional journey will tug at your heartstrings while her quest will have you on the edge of your seat. There's stormy seas, a in-between world battle, two batty aunts and an interesting game of bowls. 

It's hard to put into words how much I have enjoyed this series and I am a forty-something adult. This is a super-special, magical, totally immersive read which I will be recommending to every young reader I come into contact with it. Hopefully they will find it equally entertaining, brilliant and inspiring. I also want to draw attention to Ben Mantle's incredible artwork - the covers of all four books have been standout and they all have pride of place on my shelf. This world is a treat as sweet as strawberry tea!

A big thank you to Amy Sparkes and Walker Books for sending me a review copy. The Lighthouse at the World's End is available to buy now. 

Wednesday 20 March 2024

What's new in lower middle grade?

We've done lots of reviews for chapter books recently - books that are aimed at the 5-8 age group - but there are some cracking 7-9 books around too! These books can also come under the banner of 'chapter books' but are often referred to as lower middle grade. It's a great space to find books of about 30,000 words which are packed full of humour and adventure. Here are three new releases that we think are corkers!

Sammy and the Extra Hot Chilli Powder by Charlie P. Brooks, illustrated by Steve May

Published by: HarperCollins, 15th February 2024

In three words: humorous sniffer dogs

This book was a brilliant read and right up both my street and my son's. Told from the point-of-view of Sammy, himself, it's pacy, funny and totally entertaining...

Sammy the Setterpoo loves her life with her owner. So when she begins her training as a sniffer dog, Sammy struggles with the unfriendliness of the other dogs and the change in lifestyle. That is until she realises that she has such a brilliant nose, she can sniff out anything. 

But when Sammy accidentally takes a whiff of some extra-hot chilli powder, she loses her sense of smell. Sent to live with Beanie while she recovers, Sammy wonders if she'll ever smell anything again. And when she gets wind that someone is planning on stealing a diamond, can she find a way to stop them?

Sammy is an instantly brilliant character with a hugely engaging voice. Although we love a story about an underdog - which is many ways Sammy is - we loved how she became top of her game at sniffing. Who would expect that of a setterpoo? 

Even when the trouble started and things started to go wrong, we were rooting for Sammy all the way through. Charlie P. Brooks has done an incredible job of capturing the bouncy, upbeat nature of a dog, which is reflected perfectly in the illustrations by Steve May. The plot is twisty and fun, the other characters - both four and two-legged - are great. There just wasn't anything not to like. Do I wish I'd thought of writing this story with this character? Absolutely 100% - Sammy is a winner. 

Kevin the Vampire: A Wild and Wicked Witch by Matt Brown, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino.

Published by: Nosy Crow, 14th March 2024

In three words: carnivals, dragons, witches

Perfect for fans of The Addams Family and Vlad, The World's Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson or those just looking for a spooky story, Kevin the Vampire is a great new series that readers can sink their teeth into. Following on the adventure from Book One, this second story sees Kevin, his family and his new human friend, Susie, arrive at The Festival of Fear...

Arriving in Monstros City, Kevin is determined that his family will win Carnival of the Year. Performing a dangerous and daring dragon display alongside Susie and Gerald - the new member of Carnival Monstromo who is half-dragon and half-griffin - will surely win them the title. 

But in their hurry to get to Monstros City, Carnival Monstromo travelled through the Wild Woods - home to a terribly wicked witch. Unbeknownst to Kevin and Susie, Dog did something to upset the witch and now she has followed them, determined to get her revenge...

This story has loveable characters and a fun, fast-paced plot that is big on world-building and imagination. We enjoyed the mists of time, the evilness of the villain and the spooky, high-stakes atmosphere. The narrator tells the story with a huge amount of humour. This mixes the fear with fun and creates the perfect tone for the age-group. We found Dog particularly hilarious!

If you're looking for action, then there's also a huge amount in this book. From high-speed chases to daring moves, tricks and traps, every chapter is designed to hold the reader's attention. There's also a lovely exploration of some relatable themes - feeling different, alone and out-of-place - and a fun sub-plot which involves wider members of the family. We can't wait to see what happens next. 

Pirate Academy: New Kid On Deck by Justin Somper

Published by: UCLan, 7th March 2024
In three words: pirates, school, swordfighting

If you're after less humour and more serious adventure then this new pirate series is for you. Fast-paced with some cut-throat action, the story-telling is slick and you can tell the author knows this world inside and out...

Step into the future. The year is 2507, seas have risen and pirates rule the waves. 

Jacoby and Jasmine are students at the elite Pirate Academy. Their teachers are pirate legends and they train their students to be the best. But when Jasmine receives news that her pirate parents are missing and new student, Neo Splice, turns up, tensions quickly rise. New students don't just turn up at the academy. Who is Neo really and what alarming news does he bring from the ocean? Suddenly, no one is safe...

I was taken by surprise by the fierceness of this story. The concept is both gripping and believable and the prologue sets the tone for the whole book. Unlike other school stories for this age-group, there is no messing about at pirate academy. Everyone means business and when danger comes a-calling, there's a whole lot of ruthlessness afoot. From kidnaps to swordfights to desperate chases across the ocean, every page is packed with action and adventure and yet it still remained appropriate for the age-group. 

This is the perfect series for adrenaline junkies, pirate fans and those who just want to read a hard-hitting adventure. Although pirate stories are nothing new, this felt fresh, original and something you'd want to see on the big screen. Pirates of the Caribbean for kids - but a serious version. We LOVED it!

A big thanks to NetGalley and the above publishers for allowing us a review copy. 

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. 

Friday 8 March 2024

What's new in picture books?

With the youngest reader in our house turning 9 this year, you'd think we were well past the picture book stage. Wrong! In between everything else that we're reading, we love nothing more than curling up with a picture book for five precious minutes and delighting in the words, pictures and characters. From bouncy rhyming texts to stories that are more quiet and gentle - there's so much variety, it's impossible to get bored. Here are some upcoming releases that are really worth looking out for. 

 Brian the Lion who Learned by Frances Stickley and Chris Chatterton

Link to publisher

Published by: Simon and Schuster, April 11th 2024

If it's an upbeat rhyming text you're after, then look no further than Brian the Lion Who Learned by Frances Stickley and Chris Chatterton. Frances Stickley is a hugely versatile picture book author who writes lyrical rhyme, cautionary tales and fun texts that play with the power of illustration. This text, however, is perfect for fans of Lu Fraser 's Mavis the Bravest, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, and Catherine Emmett's The Dodo Who Dreamed She Could Fly, illustrated by Claire Powell - both of which are also published by Simon and Schuster. 

Brian is the king of the jungle and loves spending each day playing with his friends. But when he finds out that his friends don't feel the same way, Brian is confused. As he sets out to learn what he has been doing wrong, he begins to understand how he can consider the feelings of others as well as his own. 

This is a fun text with great characters and a strong message. It centres around themes of appropriateness and consent but is told in a very child-friendly way. Frances Stickley uses animal characters to explore the topic and Brian the lion feels like the perfect choice for an 'in-your-face' main character. The catchiness of the title reflects the exact style of the story within the pages and it is the characters and the language that will make this story memorable, as well as the bold and brilliant illustrations.

As well as being a fantastic book to have on your shelf at home, this is also an excellent story for PSHE lessons. Through the exploration of Brian's behaviour, it encourages self-awareness, empathy and reflection, as well as the skill of speaking out. We've seen lots of picture books about fear and bravery and about overcoming shyness, but a picture book that centres around an overpowering character feels more unique. Brian is wonderfully endearing and loveable but it's great to see the other animals finding their voice too. 

Help! Ralfy Rabbit and the Great Library Rescue by Emily MacKensie

Published by: Bloomsbury, 25th April 2024 

This is the latest in a series of stories about Ralfy Rabbit and although we have to admit to not reading the others, we definitely will now. With a loveable character on a noble mission, this is a gentle story which champions the power and importance of libraries.

Ralfy Rabbit and his brother, Rodney, are horrified to learn that their local library is closing. The librarian tells them that only a magic dragon can save the library now...and so Ralfy and Rodney immediately set out to find one. But there doesn't seem to be a magic dragon anywhere! Is there anything else that can save the library?

The plot of this story is really clever and we really liked how Ralfy's mission stemmed from a humorous misunderstanding and a throwaway comment about a magic dragon. This made the journey of the story more interesting and the resolution more satisfying, as well as adding a lovely touch of humour. We loved the themes of community and were reminded of how important it is to appreciate each other and also the special things we have on our doorstep. 

As well as the library, there's a variety of other settings in the story too. This allows the reader to enjoy a great range of illustrations, which are just as adorable as Ralfy and Rodney. It's a relatable story that encapsulates the small world of a child, promotes a love of reading and will make you want to visit your library straight away...probably for more Ralfy Rabbit books. 

The Hoys by Kes Grey and Mark Chambers

Link to publisher

Published by: Quarto, 2nd April 2024

We love Kes Grey and Jim Field's Oi! series and this picture book is another fun idea based on a play of words. Perfect for pirate fans, it follows the character of Pirate Jake, who is more than a bit confused...

Pirate Jake is desperate to be a proper pirate. But how can he be when he doesn't know what a hoy is? Every pirate he meets talks about 'a hoy' so why he see or understand what they are on about? It's time for Pirate Jake to go on a search for a hoy!

This text, with its bold, bright and brilliant illustrations by Mark Chambers, is fun, fun, fun and takes young readers on an exciting quest. Will Pirate Jake find a hoy or will he realise his mistake? Things may turn out quite differently to what you expect!

As always, Kes Grey's genius use of language not only creates laugh-out-loud comedy but also encourages children to be creative and imaginative. However, there's a lovely tender undercurrent to this book too, which added depth to the narrative and increased our enjoyment of it. If you're looking for something uniquely different, then this is the book to pick. 

Penelope Snoop, Super Sleuth by Pamela Butchart and Christine Roussey

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 9th May 2024

Pamela Butchart is a comedy genius and this picture book series has her trademark humour in bucketloads as well as a brilliantly memorable character. With World Book Day happening on Thursday, we wonder how many Penelope Snoops there'll be skulking around schools and solving mysteries such as who stole the pencil sharpener and which teacher ate all the staffroom biscuits..?

Penelope Snoop has solved mysteries before but this one has her stumped. Sidney the Smelly Sock Snake has disappeared and Penelope wants him back. Can she, along with her pet dog, Carlos, find out what's happened to him?

This character led story is full of imagination and captures the world of a young child perfectly. With clues and suspicious things all around the house and garden, can Penelope work her detective magic - oh and throw in a trip to the moon as well. There's tons of extra humour lurking in the fantastic illustrations by Christine Roussey - just look at Carlos' expression - and the colour palette is incredibly effective. With sock snakes, mud monsters, frog fountains and super transporters, this is a mystery story you do not want to miss. 

Wowzers! by Lou Carter and Magda Brol

Link to publisher

Published by: Bloomsbury, 9th May 2024

Surprisingly, we've not come across many picture books about vehicles and so this text, with its dynamic title, instantly appealed. The front cover successfully delivers a taste of what lies within the pages - a fun rhyming text with bright, action-packed illustrations and lots of different types of transport!

Rabbit has saved up his coins to buy a flashy new car. But as he drives around town, everyone else's vehicle feels more special than his. Rabbit quickly adapts his car so he can show off all its special features. But is showing off more important than helping someone in need? Rabbit needs to decide quickly...

In the first instance, this story feels like its more about the vehicles than Rabbit. Little ones will delight in all the different types of transport and enjoy pointing out their special features. (The fire engine was a particular favourite.) What's even more entertaining is that Rabbit uses his initiative and lots of household items to make his car do what the other vehicles do. This not only adds a layer of humour but also encourages imagination, creativity and role-play.

Secondly, however, comes the story of Rabbit. Rabbit is so pleased with his new purchase that he can't help showing it off and comparing it to what everyone else has got - something that might resonate with both older and younger readers. Yet Rabbit has a lesson to learn, albeit in a gentle and joyful way. What is the point in your car having all these special features if you're not going to use them for good? And are material things more important than helping those who need it? Although these themes might sound quite heavy for a picture book, they are tackled in an engaging, child-friendly way that is light in touch.

 Funny and thought-provoking!

A big thanks to NetGalley and to all the publishers for allowing us a review copy. All the above books are available to pre-order. 

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


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


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


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.

Our Latest Middle-Grade reads

Oof! It's been well over a month, if not two, since we last posted a review - sorry about that! But even when life gets busy (really bus...