mystery

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

This is one of those inherently pleasing children’s books, which, through carefully planted attention to historical detail, whisks the reader into another world. The series is set in the Victorian music halls and theatres of London, and is rather like a mashup of Noel Streatfield and Murder Most UnLadylike, with a lick of Dickens.

Rose Campion (named by the author rather wonderfully, after a hardy plant with magenta flowers) is a foundling – left romantically on the steps of Campion’s music hall. Her world is one of taking theatre trips, performing an act on the music hall stage herself, and consorting with her two steadfast friends, Effie and Aurora.

This second book in the series opens with the appearance of a new act at Campion’s Music Hall, the magician Gandini. He performs magical tricks with appearing doves and disappearing watches, and most magnificently attempts the bullet trick (for any of those who recently watched David Blaine, you’ll know all about it). However, as with any trickery and sleight of hand, all is not as it seems.

When Lydia, actress and new doyenne of society, comes to watch Gandini, wearing the famous blue doomstone diamond, and it is stolen from her neck in the middle of Gandini’s act, Rose and her friends must race to work out who is the culprit before more blood is spilled.

Gardner’s prose is dense but vivid, detailed and transportative. From incidental details such as the delight of penny ices or the murkiness of the Thames, she also describes the opulence of the West End theatres and juxtaposes it with the dinginess of backstreet Victorian London.

In fact, this is one of the highlights of the text – the acute differences between the classes in Victorian society – those thrown into Holloway prison and the arguments for reform – and those in high class society attending the theatre, to be seen rather than to see the play.

Much is made of the similarities between the sleight of hand used by magicians and theatrical performers, and that used by thieves and pickpockets, as well as how important it is to pay attention rather than be distracted. Throughout, the reader follows the clever, but sometimes misguided, observations of the protagonist, Rose, and like her, the reader will try to decipher the twists and turns, red herrings and clues. The reader is very much in thrall to the mystery up until the end.

Despite being a foundling, irrepressible Rose finds a substitute family in the theatre and her friends around her – this is a female-dominated tale with feisty, quick-witted women and girls, who aren’t all always on the side of good.

Mainly because of Gandini, this book reminded me of The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll – another absolute winner for this age group. Fabulously, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone belongs to a whole series – so there’ll be more to come. Bravo!

For confident readers aged 9 and over. You can buy a copy here.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson


A pacey page-turning mystery mashes with an ‘issue’ story in this latest middle grade novel, which won me over with its cunning charm and sympathetic lead character.

Twelve-year-old Matthew Corbin suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder to the extent that he has imprisoned himself within certain rooms of the family house. He spends his days watching out the window – either of his own bedroom or the office/nursery in the upstairs of his house. This device, as anyone who has ever done any surveillance or curtain-twitching, can lead to surprising and interesting discoveries. Matthew takes copious notes of his neighbours’ comings and goings – some humorous, some intriguing.

When a sleek car pulls up in the road and delivers two children to their grandfather, in the house next door to Matthew, things in the neighbourhood start to shake up. Particularly when one of the two children disappears.

Light compelling prose is interspersed with Matthew’s notes on his neighbours, which lightens the text even further, and the chapters are short and pithy, so that the novel skips along at pace. The observations are funny and astute:

“Mr Charles could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety-five – he never seemed to get older. I thought he’d just found an age he quite liked and just stopped right there.”

What’s more, although the book contains a clever mystery – can the reader work out who has taken the child before Matthew does – Lisa Thompson deals sensitively with the issue at hand – OCD.

This is a book for eight year olds and over, so of course, simplicity rules in dealing with the emotional complexity of mental health. Thompson skims over any difficulties with children’s mental health services, and merely touches the surface of the excruciating physical pain that comes with obsessively washing hands and using strong cleaning products, but she does include some brilliant nuggets of truths in dealing with the issue. That a person with OCD can’t just stop it because they’re told to, that it’s not a result of being an overly ‘tidy’ person – but that there is usually a complex reason behind it. With Matthew, Lisa makes the reason fairly simplistic and drops large clues throughout the novel that point to it, with an ending that gives massive hope for recovery.

However, she does also include the heartache that goes along with mental health issues – from the reaction of strangers and neighbours to the illness, to the absence from school and friendships – and, most telling, the agonies of Matthew’s parents. For young readers this will just come across as a shadow of anxiety that falls across Matthew’s life – borne out sometimes by his father’s frustration, and his mother’s hurt, but other readers will also pick up on how they wrestle with what to do in the situation. There’s a strong background of hurts not only in their lives, but in the neighbours’ hidden pasts, and these are all hinted at during the novel. No one’s behaviour goes unexplained.

In fact, for me, this is what propels this novel to book of the week. Each character behaves weirdly if judged simply from Matthew’s notebook – the girl who visits a graveyard almost daily, the bully, the old lady who keeps a light on 24 hours a day, the awkwardness in their dealings with each other, (and Matthew is adept here at looking at body language as well as actions). But each character’s own quirks and perceived weirdness is gradually explained through knowledge and empathy.

So yes, mental health is addressed, and the book features a missing child, but there are so many elements of humour and so many incidents of sympathy and hope that this isn’t a dark novel. It’s poignant, uplifting, and essentially pretty positive. All in all there is more to a person than the quirk with which they are labelled, in the same way that this book is much more than just about OCD. Scratch the surface – there is much more to gain.

Publishes 5th January, although I have already seen copies in the shops, and you can buy it here.

National Non-Fiction November

posterlores

November is National Non-Fiction month, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual celebration of all things factual. And there’s much to celebrate. Children’s non-fiction books is a growing area, with ever more stylised, intriguing, general and niche titles being offered. This year, there’s extra good news. The FCBG and World Book Day have teamed together with non-fiction publishers to give away the 100 Books featured in their ‘100 Brilliant Non-Fiction Books for Children and Young People’ for schools and public organisations, or you can win 33 books as an individual. For full details of the giveaway, see here.

In the meantime, here are some extra quirky non-fiction picks for you that didn’t quite make their list, but ended up on my desk:

pharaoh-fate

Pharaoh’s Fate
An interactive adventure that explores and teaches about Ancient Egypt at the same time as the reader solves a murder mystery. Someone is plotting to murder Pharaoh and the reader has to work out who it is. Journeying through town centres, royal palaces, the gods and goddesses, a map of Egypt and much more – the sections are tabbed for easy reference. To solve the mystery the reader will also have to decipher hieroglyphs. This is a full-colour, beautifully packaged book, the definition of teaching through play.

Not only is the book great fun, but it looks appealing from the start. With gold foil on the cover, and a black mysterious background, the inside is filled with bright, colourful illustrations. Particular highlights are the map of Egypt, the Opet festival and the depictions of the Nile in simple yet bold captioned illustrations. And because it’s so beautifully presented, a child will revisit even after solving the mystery.

Historical facts are absorbed rather than read, as the reader puzzles to solve the mystery, this is a great introduction to Ancient Egypt and good fun. You can buy it here.

very-important-things

DK Encyclopedia of Very Important Things
Fact hungry little ones will delight in this book for 4-7 year olds that doesn’t patronise, but manages to convey information in a tone that is both chatty and informative. Split into six sections, including planet, places, animals, people, me and ‘other’, there is lots to satisfy curious minds. It’s fairly unclear why some pages are placed in ‘other’, such as animal babies, birds’ eggs and beetles, and not in the animals section, but little minds will delight in seeing the large graphics and the simple labelling however they choose to read the book – dipping in, or from start to end.

In typical Dorling Kindersley style, this is a mixture of graphics, illustrations and stock photography, all put to good use. So whereas a fiery volcano, ‘Lava is very very hot’, is shown with a wonderful photographic image of a volcano (sadly unlabelled so that it could be from anywhere), blood vessels are shown as a graphic, indicating the platelets, and blood cells within.

It’s an eclectic mix of topics, and includes some interesting choices, but it’s hard to encompass the whole world and all its history for any age group, let alone this young one. However, hopefully it incorporates enough of the basics – where countries are, dinosaurs, the five senses, colours and shapes, etc. to stimulate further curiosity.

There’s a lovely green ribbon to bookmark the reader’s place, so that this really is a book for dipping into and revisiting. Highlights include common flags, simple maps, and miraculous medicines. Find out more here.

elliots-guide-to-dinosaurs

Elliot’s Guide to Dinosaurs by Elliot Seah
So for those of us still waiting for a publishing deal, this may be rather galling, but on the other hand completely inspiring for children. This book, written by an eight-year old dinosaur enthusiast, is rather interesting. It is like a factfile, firstly in the introduction examining where dinosaurs came from, what they ate, and how they lived, and then examined dinosaur by dinosaur, in chronological sections. Each colour-coded section covers a different era: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Each species is described by appearance and locomotion, as well as distinguishing features.

The text is rather dry, but for kids who like their facts clearly and simply presented this is an excellent resource, supported and fact-checked by an expert palaeontologist. Elliot introduces a cartoon dinosaur friend to lead the reader through the book, although this is not utilised nearly as much as it could have been.

The layout is appealing – crisp and sparing, with large amounts of white space, and short easy digestible text chunks. The identification chart bears a consistency that makes it easy to distinguish and compare the dinosaurs, and nice touches include a section on recent discoveries, as well as showing which museums have skeletons of which dinosaurs.

This book started as a school project and developed from there. The chapter divisions contain Elliot’s original artwork from the project, although the rest has been illustrated by graphic designers, and the book is highly professional in its finish – a regular published non-fiction book. It just goes to show what a school project can become if you work hard enough. Translated from the French. Please note this book goes on sale on November 15th. You can pre-order it here.

cool-mythology

Cool Mythology by Malcolm Croft
Part of the very popular cool series for children on a host of topics from art to science, this is a small book with hugely comprehensive contents. Covering world mythology from the North American myths to Hindu mythology, with everything in between.

The book starts at the very beginning with creation myths, and then embraces individual stories, mythological creatures, places, and of course the afterlife. While some stories will be somewhat familiar to today’s children, others will be completely new. But what’s really cool about the book is that it compares and contrasts them, asks why these myths are so pervasive in our modern culture, and what message they may contain. It’s an entertaining guide to how they infuse our modern morality and what lessons can be learned from the stories of history.

The language is not easy, because the book is designed as much for adults as for children but it’s not so complicated that it can’t be understood, and will certainly stimulate some hard thinking. The use of plentiful colour, diagrams, amusing illustrations, checklists and plays on words adds to the element of fun about the book as well as easing the information flow for younger readers.

There are some real gems contained within, particularly the deconstruction of the seven basic plots of myths, the beserkers of Norse mythology, and the gentle pulling apart of Gilgamesh and its teaching of what it means to be human. This is a brilliantly comprehensive look at myth, and a go-to guide for global myth making. Excellent. Buy it here.

Look out for my non-fiction animal round up next week

Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock

murder-in-midwinter

An out-and-out thriller for children, with incredible pace and a chilly wintry feel, and twists and turns that don’t let up until the end.

Maya is travelling home on the bus in Oxford Street, taking photos of the shop fronts and Christmas lights for her sister, when she sees an altercation between two people, one of whom is holding a gun. When the flash goes off on her mobile, she realises that she’s taken a picture of the scene, and that the two people have seen her do it. When a dead body is found, things turn profoundly ominous and scary.

For her own protection, Maya is moved to the remote Welsh countryside to stay with her aunt and her cousin, neither of whom she’s particularly bonded with in the past. But the people in the photograph are set on finding her. And it’s only a matter of time.

There’s no let-up, no distraction in this snowy drama, from the ongoing rollercoaster of hide and seek that ensues, which makes this a page-turning murder mystery. However, the strongest element is the voice of Maya, an ordinary girl out shopping and looking forward to Christmas festivities, school dances, sisterly chats, who is thrust into a world of police protection, high-end robbery and murder.

Hitchcock throws in small touches that make Maya’s situation feel authentic – from her aunt misremembering that her niece is a vegetarian (over and over), and her and her grandfather’s obsession with fixing machines, to the niggling irritation of the lack of phone connection and wifi in remote countryside, to Maya’s re-arranging of her new bedroom in order to feel safer.

Maya’s first person narrative suits the story well, and her appealing personality not only wins over her belligerent cousin Ollie, but it also seduces the reader.

This ‘real voice’ though plays out against a thriller that is at times highly unrealistic – dead bodies, kidnappings, undercover policemen, shooting at children, the typical absenteeism of parents at various points when one imagines it’s the last thing they would do, and leaving so much of the plot to the children. However, this focus on the children reminded me of the many adventures that The Famous Five managed without adults, or the crimes solved by the gang in Scooby Doo, and it makes the text fun, thrilling and rather magical.

What also makes the book rather magical is the snowy landscape, beautifully imagined on the book’s cover. This is a great thriller for the age group – perfectly poised with clear narrative and thrills and twists – a brilliant read for winter nights under the covers. For age 9+ years, you can buy it here.

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

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The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

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Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.

 

Pockets, Lockets and Wigs: A Guest Post by Helen Moss

I’m delighted to welcome Helen Moss onto the blog today. Helen has written numerous children’s books including the Adventure Island series. Her latest story is published in the Mystery and Mayhem anthology – a wonderful collection of short mysteries from some of today’s best children’s writers. The book splits the stories into types of mysteries – closed system crimes, and canine capers as well as impossible mysteries – but Helen’s fits into the poison plots section. The beauty of the collection – as well as gathering such a huge pool of talent – is that readers can crack the mysteries as they read the stories. The stories are also a delicious taster to the world of these particular authors – I heartily recommend it. Today, Helen reveals the inspiration behind her story – The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot.

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Pockets, Lockets and Wigs

(a.k.a. a thinly disguised love letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum!)

One of the most exciting things about being invited to contribute to the Mystery and Mayhem anthology was the chance to write a story set in the past. My Adventure Island series takes place in contemporary Cornwall, and even though the Secrets of the Tombs series has an archaeological theme, the action all unfolds in the twenty- first century. The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot was my first foray into a full-on history mystery.

I knew straight away that I wanted to set my story in the eighteenth century because it’s full of larger than life characters, new discoveries and amazing events. It’s a favourite period for romantic novels and historical dramas, but it’s not all that familiar to younger readers (it tends to get rather skipped over as the-bit-between-the-Tudors-and-the-Victorians in school history).

Background research is always one of my favourite parts of writing a story – the more obscure the topic the better! I had great fun with the Pineapple Plot. First I had to find out everything about the central theme of the story – the mania for growing pineapples that swept eighteenth century Britain. I’ve talked about that part in another blog post, so will restrain myself from telling you all about it again here (even though it’s one of my all-time favourite subjects!)

But it wasn’t all about the pineapples. I also had to find out all kinds of other details of everyday Georgian life so that I could create a believable world for the story. The opening scene is a grand dinner party, so I had to make sure that the foods and drink and table settings I describe would all have been around in 1761. Luckily there are some fascinating books and websites on this topic. I leaned that French cuisine was all the rage (hence the French chef and the boeuf a la mode) and so was fancy sugarwork. The sugarpaste Taj Mahal (the one that Mrs Fitchett faints into) is exactly the kind of centrepiece that might have graced a high society Georgian banquet table.

georgian sugarwork
A recreation of a Georgian sugarwork centrepiece – yes that building is really made of sugar! Photograph: http://www.historicfood.com

As well as creating an authentic backdrop for the story, I discovered that there is another even more important motivation for a historical mystery-writer to do painstaking research about the time period of their story; it’s critical to plotting the crime and setting the clues. You can’t, for example, have a suspect drop a cigarette end or chewing gum wrapper at the scene of the crime when cigarettes and gum hadn’t even been invented yet (at least in the UK). A snuffbox would be just the thing though!

I had so much fun finding out about eighteenth century fashion in the interest of getting my clues right that I thought I’d share three of my favourite details with you. This research involved several trips to the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. If you can’t get there in person, they also have one of the best websites in the history of websites – just make sure you have plenty of time free when you log on as you could be there for days!

Pockets

Someone in my story (I won’t tell you who, so as not to give the game away) conceals a fairly large object about their person. That might seem a bit unrealistic in these days of skinny jeans and crop-tops, but luckily for me, in 1761 the fashion was for huge voluminous skirts – which were often worn over padded frames called panniers.  You could hide a week’s shopping in there! In fact, in turns out, ladies often did more or less that!

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Photograph: http://www.metmuseum.org/

And they had the pockets to put all the swag in too. Pockets weren’t sewn into the clothes as they are today; they were detachable ‘pouches’ tied on with ribbons, hidden between the layers of skirt, underskirt and petticoat. (If you’ve ever heard the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket Lost her Pocket, and have wondered – as I did- how Lucy managed to lose a pocket – now you know).

There’s a whole page on pockets on the V&A website with lots of lovely descriptions of the contents ladies would stuff into them, including snuffboxes, smelling salts, pincushions, money, combs, nutmeg graters, handkerchiefs, and even snacks. See here. There are also instructions for sewing your own eighteenth century style pocket.

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Embroidered satin pocket, Germany, 1775-1825. V&A website

If my story had been set some forty or fifty years later, in the Regency period, my plot would have been scuppered; big skirts were passé by this time. Flowing, simple dresses (think Jane Austen heroines) were now in fashion. A bulky pocket would have ruined the look. Ladies began to carry small handbags called reticules – as people complained at the time, you could hardly fit a thing into them . . . and definitely not the thing in my story!

Lockets

Another important clue in Pineapple Plot concerns a locket containing a miniature portrait. People do still wear lockets these days, of course, but they’re much less common than they were in the eighteenth century. At that time a locket might have been worn as part of a bracelet or belt, as well as on a necklace. These days we can carry photos of our loved ones around on our phone. In 1761, a miniature portrait in a locket – usually painted on ivory – would have been played the same role – a keepsake of a family member or sweetheart.

The best miniature painters, such as Richard Cosway, were highly sought after – a bit like celebrity photographers today. You can read a fascinating history of miniature portraits on the V&A website.

locket 1

18th century portrait miniature with pinchbeck locket frame with engraved border. Bonhams.

Lockets could also contain a lock of hair (sadly this was commonly a memento of a loved one who had died). Often the locket would have a glass front so that the hair could be seen inside. Sometimes the hair would be artistically arranged to form a design, or even part of picture – something I think we find a little creepy now.

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English, High Relief Urn, c.1775; Photograph from Art of Mourning Website. Yes, that willow tree is made out of hair.

In my story the lock of hair in the locket is not on display but hidden away – for a very good reason . . . I’d better not say any more.

Wigs

Another important clue in Pineapple Plot concerns poor Lord Ponsonby and his wig. I wanted to show Ponsonby as a rather vain and pompous man, and an elaborate wig was very much part of that image. It was fashionable for both men and women to wear powdered wigs throughout the eighteenth century. You’ve probably seen pictures of Marie Antionette and other society ladies wearing enormous wigs complete with ships and birds’ nests and other assorted objects (although these were often not strictly wigs, but huge wire frames, around which the person’s own hair, plus lots of extensions, were woven in what was called a pouf).

high wig

Hand-coloured etched engraving published by M Darly in 1777

The height of fashion for very tall wigs (excuse the pun) was in the 1770’s and 1780’s, so just a little later than my setting of 1761.  This was the case for men as well as women, particularly for the wealthy, fashionable set, often referred to as the Macaroni Club (because they had been on foreign travels and eaten exotic foods like macaroni). These guys – the hipsters of their day – were known for wearing flashy clothes and over-the-top wigs. Not surprisingly, cartoonists couldn’t resist making fun of them.

wig2

Macaroni Cartoon: 1774 (Wikipedia)

In 1761, Ponsonby probably wouldn’t have had a wig quite this outrageous (but he’d be rushing out to buy one a few years later) but he would certainly have worn a sizeable white-powdered wig of some sort.

Exactly what happens to it in The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot I will leave you to find out! In the meantime, I have one last page on the V&A website to recommend to you. This one is an interactive game where you can design your own wild eighteenth century wigs. It’s hilarious, but be warned – it’s really addictive! Find it here.

If you’d like to peruse even more eighteenth century food and fashion you could also have a look at my pinterest page (where you’ll also find out more than you ever needed to know about the history of pineapples!)

Thank you for giving me this chance to share some of my favourite bits of research and I hope you’ll enjoy spotting all these clues in The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot.

With thanks to Helen Moss. You can buy a copy of Mystery and Mayhem here. For age 8+ years.

 

The Shadow Keeper by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Picking up the narrative from the end of The Dreamsnatcher (although it could equally be read as a stand-alone), The Shadow Keeper begins with another wildly atmospheric setting – a secret cave by the sea. Hiding from the evil Shadowmasks, far from the forest they love, Moll and her friends are seeking the amulet, keeper of Moll’s mother’s soul, in an attempt to fight the dark magic.

An adventure/fantasy novel, Abi Elphinstone’s writing continues to move at pace. With an almost visceral, physical quality, the characters move forwards on every page – the text is littered with action:

“Siddy held Moll fast and yanked on Jinx’s tethering rope. The cob backed up against the wall, narrowly avoiding an owl’s blades. Siddy struck his knife against another that came close; metal clanged and the impact of the collision was enough to send the owl swerving away.”

It’s an extremely visual text, with dense prose and vocabulary, and an intense quality that puts Abi in the realms of classic writing rather than the pared and stripped back prose that contemporary writers tend to favour.

Threads of bravery and determination run through the novel, both in the writing, which never holds back from dark disturbing imagery (owls with wingspans of “black blades…each edge serrated and sharp”) but also in the characters of the children who hold friendship and loyalty above all else – showing bravery in the face of extreme fear and danger.

One of the book’s most admirable qualities is the juxtaposition of the vulnerability of the children and the childishness of their emotion: “there was a mountain of hurt inside her”, as opposed to the frightening images of the dark magic. Main character 12-year-old Moll wears her heart on her sleeve and states her emotions plainly and simply:

“I’m angry.” Moll muttered, scuffing her boot against the floorboard.”

But it’s the darkness that pulls. From owls with blades grinding, to a girl with her tongue cut out, to walking with bare feet on shards of glass, the danger is everywhere, as the dark magic rises. In fact, the dominant theme of dark magic versus the children and their lighter magic is reminiscent of such ancient fights as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – ordinary children fighting an ancient fantastical evil with historical curses and messages from long ago.

Of course, the children in The Shadow Keeper aren’t quite as grounded in reality as Will in The Dark is Rising with his idyllic Christmas in the family home. Moll and her gypsies reside in a hidden cave, and rely on nature to help them hide, and heal and eat. The premise of the children’s gypsy background gives them a terrific freedom to adventure, but Elphinstone cleverly weaves in the vocabulary of a childhood set entirely in nature, from a daemon like wildcat companion in Gryff, to a pet crab, bowls of mussels for dinner, mealtimes round the fire, and healing flowers and herbs.

The characters have developed from book one, all three children protagonists are complex and feel very real, despite the simple vocabulary used to depict their emotions. They continue to develop throughout book two, so that the reader not only feels empathy with them, but really feels that they know them. It’s exactly the sort of story you can live within – complete escapism – about as far removed from urban London as you can get!

It’s also riddled with themes, in particular ‘seen and unseen’, ‘said and unsaid’, as well as bearing echoes and motifs from The Wild Swans so that you feel the magic being woven around you as you read.

The ending is uplifting, and yet shot through with further mystery, so that the reader is left raring for book three. For confident readers, aged 10+ years. You can buy it here (if you dare!)

Beetle Boy by MG Leonard

Beetle Boy

It may only be February, but so far this qualifies as my book of the year. A meaty old-fashioned adventure story that is modern in tone, has memorable characters, a scintillating plot, clever communication of scientific knowledge, and oodles of emotional depth. It’s also extraordinarily well written, and looks on the outside as good as it is on the inside, with beautifully colourful insect illustrations sprayed on the pages’ outside edges.

With his mother dead, and his scientist father having mysteriously disappeared whilst working at the Natural History Museum, 13 year old Darkus is left no other choice but to move in with his kindly Uncle Max. But Darkus is determined to discover the truth behind his father’s continuing absence. When a rhinoceros beetle with intelligent communication skills seeks him out, Darkus realises that there is a hive’s worth of mystery to be solved.

The villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter, has elements of Mrs Coulter and Cruella De Ville, but manages to be a perfectly contemporary villain in that she is a mash up of fashion designer/mad scientist. To keep her real, she has a daughter, Novak, who is starved of attention and affection, and who plays a key role in helping Darkus.

But the overwhelming theme, which infuses the characters and the settings is beetles. M G Leonard has woven this fascinating element into all areas of the novel – they permeate the building into which Darkus moves – swarms of them live in the flat next door, which again, is not all it seems. But the beetles also intrude into the main settings – from the Natural History Museum to the cavernous den that Darkus and his friends make in the yard out of discarded furniture (it not only uses insects in its make up, but represents their habitats in its layout), to the hybrid villain of Lucretia Cutter who is more insect-like than she first appears.

These elements all combine to make a hugely visual novel – the tea cup tower habitat of the beetles is kaleidoscopically depicted, Lucretia’s house and entrance is graphically described, and even the small description of Darkus’ room in Uncle Max’s house smacks of insect imagery – from the canvas which “cocoons” Darkus to the “hard-backed” books in the room – like a beetle’s exoskeleton – to the dusty places where insects might scuttle. There are also hard facts carefully dripped throughout the adventure – giving the reader knowledge about beetle behaviour, ecology, habitats, species etc.

But it doesn’t matter if you don’t find beetles agreeable – they just lend an extra layer of knowledge and depth to a fascinating adventure story. Darkus is an intensely likeable protagonist – with wit, depth of feeling, determination, and masses of emotional empathy – displayed through his feelings for Novak and his loyalty to his father. Uncle Max displays plenty of pathos too. The rounded characterisations zing off the page. Darkus is also one of those fantastic characters you’d happily invite round for tea – a character with whom you want to spend all your time.

The book was reminiscent of the best of today’s children’s storytellers – such as Piers Torday – with his dastardly villain Fenella Clancy-Clay and the cockroach in The Last Wild trilogy.

Beetle Boy is exclusive to Waterstones for the month of February, and published generally on March 3rd. I would use your antennae to seek out a copy as quickly as possible – with such original, rich storytelling you’ll want to burrow right through it. You can buy it here from Waterstones.

 

Tamsin and the Deep by Neill Cameron and Kate Brown

Tamsin and the Deep

This is a first for this blog – a review of a comic book. Last year I came across The Phoenix, a weekly children’s comic that’s growing in popularity, and on Feb 4th they are publishing one of their strips as an entire book.

Tamsin and the Deep borrows from folklore and myth, with echoes of The Little Mermaid, as it tells the story of Tamsin, and the legend stalking her family.

While surfing at the beach, Tamsin wipes out and goes missing for a month. She can’t remember what transpired in the weeks she went missing, but before long other strange things start happening to her – from the appearance of a magic stick to a talking bird. Then, she realises that her brother is in terrible danger, and she must break the mermaid’s ancient covenant to save him.

This is a dense storyline, with compelling plot and imaginative vocabulary. The comic book style lends much immediacy to the story – at times enabling several simultaneous events to be unfolded on the same page. It hones terrific inference skills as the reader gathers much of what’s happening from the pictures rather than the text.

But this is no standard comic, no standard story. The characters are rounded, and richly developed. The dialogue between the siblings and their friends is realistic, engaging and witty. There’s a beautiful sibling relationship, but underwritten with the impatience and frustration that accompanies familial dynamics.

The darkness of the legend, and the story within a story give this comic a real potency – it’s both adventure story and fantasy, containing both humour and dark undertones.

The illustrations too are a cut above – the initial drawings of wet-suits at the surf lend this a space age feel, but then it seems to borrow from manga too in its depiction of our feisty heroine. The legend is told almost in sepia, and looks fantastical and romantic – different styles highlighting the illustrator’s wealth of talent.

In a blogpost, Neill outlined the trickiness of writing a comic – it’s not just about the text of course, but a directive and collaboration with the illustrator, almost as in a film script – to work out from which point of view the drawing is in each box, to depict not just the action but the expression on the face, whether there’s a close up or background. This is an intriguing and completely different way of writing from prose, and it draws out attention to detail, each emotion, and each development.

This was a delight to read – darkness, humour, and a great story. A great many books fall through my letter box weekly and not all are snatched away by the children who live here – but to review this one I had to wrestle it from their hands. If that’s not proof enough, then what is? Suitable for all readers, 8+ years.

Publishes 4th Feb 2016. You can pre-order or buy it here.