mystery

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and a pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t who she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Animal Picture Books

There seems to be a glut of super-talented authors and illustrators bringing a range of stories to life this summer in picture books. It’s hard to choose when there are so many good books. Themed on animals, and with some clear references to great picture books of the past, I’ve narrowed it down to seven.

a mouse called julianA Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
Since the stunning views of Epping Forest inspired the illustrative detail in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, a fascination with underground burrows and attention to detail has pervaded children’s illustration. Todd-Stanton’s new picture book is also about a mouse and his burrow, illustrated to near-perfection with its perspective on size – the giant matchsticks, safety pen and chiselled pencils. And as the perspective widens outside Julian’s burrow, the picturebook excels.

Julian avoids other animals, but when a fox tries to sneak into his burrow, it gets stuck in the front door. At first horror strikes both animals, but gradually a mutual friendship grows.

This plot idea may be borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, but Todd-Stanton’s clever vignettes of Julian on his everyday travails, through burrow and fields, plays on the reader’s expectations of country life, predator and prey. Julian is seen walking with a stick of blueberries across his shoulder, in the pose of Dick Whittington with his bindle stick. The illustrations open out to full page little animal terror, as the reader sees the eye of the fox, huge against the leaves and dandelions, which themselves tower over Julian.

This is a tale, in the end, about perspective. Perspective of size, of danger, but also of companionship and the loyalty of friendship. There are unexpected twists, a sublime amount of suspense for the young reader, and simply exquisite illustrations. A gentle rhythm to the short text amplifies the satisfactory ending. Exquisite. You can buy it here.

in the swamp by the light of the moonIn the Swamp by the Light of the Moon by Frann Preston-Gannon
More borrowing from the children’s literature cannon in this paean to The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, as Preston-Gannon uses the same rhythm to tell her tale of a frog and his orchestra of animals. Singing to himself in the swamp, his song feels incomplete until the other animals join in. It is only at the end, when even the smallest voice is heard, that the music sounds right.

With collage illustrations highlighting the different textures and bold colours of the swamp, from the flora at the front of the picture to the depth of water and colourful fish, Preston-Gannon shows an intense attention to detail, making the scene feel like the liveliest and most comfortable swamp – the frog’s legs dip into the water, the mice sing with every whisker and flick of tail.

In the end, the reader discovers that it is only with the complementary sounds of all the creatures that the song sounds good – a promotion of inclusivity, but particularly of the little bug – the smallest voice of all – showing that there must be space for the extroverts to listen to the introverts and let them in.

Young readers will find the little bug on every page, and delight in her final ‘brightness’ of song. Lyrical, accessible and bright. You can buy it here.

ducktective quack
Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne
Humour and detective skills galore in this wonderful caper by the author of Aliens Love Underpants. Someone is stealing all the cakes in town, and together with Ducktective Quack, the reader needs to work out who it is. In rhyming text, and with successful word play (‘fowl play’ at the police station), the book takes the reader through a humorous investigation of the town, from the crime scene to the portraits of suspects, questioning and solution. A yellow post-it on each page encourages the reader to find clues.

But it is the clever rhyming and busy illustrations that win an audience. A perfect read-aloud, with cute messages about sugary foods being bad for teeth and health, the illustrations of the different animals and their professional lives will make any reader chuckle, even the grownups. Look out for the incongruities too – an old-fashioned telephone, an American mailbox, an electric toothbrush, a takeaway coffee cup.

Timeless and placeless, this is one sugary treat. You can buy it here.

i am a tiger
I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Say something with enough conviction and people will believe you? A tale for our times indeed. This bold, simple picturebook, again with a starring role for a mouse, shows that with enough confidence you can be anything you want to be. Mouse believes itself to be a tiger, and convinces others of this ‘fact’ by way of a series of strong(ish) arguments and behaviours. When a real tiger comes along, mouse has to convince tiger that the tiger himself is a mouse, before explaining what all the other animals are (with some witty surprises).

This is an excellent book, highlighting confidence, truth and debate, all the while managing to amuse. Phenomenal facial expressions take this book to another level. You can buy it here.

my dog mouse
My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom
Old-school illustrations in this translated-from-Swedish slowly paced gentle book about friendship and ownership. There’s a special attention and a special relationship between the unnamed narrator who is taking an old dog for a walk, illuminated in the poetic language of the text ‘ears flap like flags’, ears that are ‘as thin as pancakes’, but mainly in the soft charming shaded illustrations that move as slowly as the child moves in his slow walk, ‘Step, pause, step pause.’

There’s a longing and poignancy to the text, a kind of nostalgia for the enduring time of childhood, and a wry sadness as the narrator proclaims that they wished the dog belonged to them, in beautiful contrast to the title of the story. Will leave children pondering. You can buy it here.

little bear's spring
Little Bear’s Spring by Elli Woollard and Briony May Smith
There is a great depth of understanding of nature in May Smith’s illustrations throughout her picture book output, and this is different only in that it concentrates on the real natural world rather than fairies. Little Bear is coming out of hibernation and Woollard and May Smith track his slow awareness of the new world and the change from winter to spring as he learns whom to trust and whom to befriend.

The use of light to show the sunshine and the passing of the days, shadows cast, and patches illuminated, as well as the textures of the landscape; tree bark, animal fur, rippling streams is magical, and particularly, of course, the double page spread of first blossoming flowers – a carpet of colour and sensory delight. The story is gently told with a good mix of descriptive vocabulary and character-driven dialogue all told in rhyme. You can buy it here.

big cat
Big Cat by Emma Lazell
A case of mistaken identity, a stylistic throwback nostalgia to the 1970s, and an acknowledgement of great picture books from the past combine in this zany intergenerational story book. Isobel and her grandma find a cat in the garden – a big cat – whilst looking for grandma’s glasses. He moves in, but like another well-known big cat, eats a lot of food. When grandma finally finds her glasses, she’s in for quite a surprise.

With a messy, scatty illustrative style, busy chaotic scenes, and a wonderful chattiness in the text, there is a huge amount of fun to discover in this lively picture book. Look at the other cats protesting, Grandma attempting to text on her mobile phone, and her overloaded kitchen (how many mugs does one person need?) A Big amount of fun. You can buy it here.

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

Detective Geniuses: Introducing Sophie Johnson

sophie johnson detective geniusWhat do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a perennial question asked of youngsters, and Sophie Johnson is the most winning picture book character to help answer it.

In her first foray into the book world, she was a ‘unicorn expert’, but now she is trying her hand at detecting.

In the Sophie Johnson picture books by Morag Hood, illustrated by Ella Okstad, (strapline: Meet Sophie Johnson: outgoing, optimistic and oblivious), there is a perfect match of text and picture, the two working harmoniously to give a greater whole. Indeed, despite Sophie’s bragging of her expertise in her chosen career, the pictures give a slightly different perspective.

That doesn’t detract from Sophie Johnson’s awesomeness. In the latest book, Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius, she is enthusiastically looking for the thief who has stolen Lion’s tale. She doesn’t have the time to train her assistant, Bella the dog. But maybe Bella doesn’t need as much training as Sophie thinks.

A riotous, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book, I fell for Sophie as soon as I saw her. Her character’s personality, oozing warmth and exuberance, is infectious. The zesty conversational prose instantly sucks in the reader, and the illustrations are endearing, vibrant, colourful, and full of familiar domestic details, as well as wit and energy.

Here, author Morag Hood gives us Sophie’s favourite detectives:

Top 5 Detective heroes:

My name is Sophie Johnson and these are my top 5 Greatest Detective Geniuses Ever in the Whole World (apart from me).

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

People always call him a ‘classic’ detective (which I think is probably just a nice way of saying he is really quite old now) but Sherlock is a genius just like me. He can solve any mystery and he doesn’t let silly things like manners get in the way of him cracking a case. He also has a hat which looks a bit like mine so he must be pretty clever

Basil The Great Mouse Detective (Disney)

In some ways Basil is just a smaller, mousier version of Sherlock Holmes, but I think he has a lot more fun. He also has a snazzy outfit and a dog assistant just like me. Although his assistant is called Toby and he does actually help a little bit, unlike my assistant Bella who just barks at things.

Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This man does have a very funny moustache, but Poirot is actually quite good at solving cases most of the time. He can spend a bit too much time thinking rather than doing, but we can probably forgive him for that because he did live ages ago.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens)

Finally, a detective with a good assistant! Although actually I think they are probably just joint Detective Geniuses. They prove that girls like me are even better than grown ups at crime solving. I’m sure I will solve all kinds of mysteries once I am at school.

Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)

He is a detective and a doctor and he sometimes wears roller skates and sings.

With thanks to Morag Hood for letting us read Sophie’s detective choices, and S&S UK for the review copy. Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius by Morag Hood and Ella Okstad is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy here. I suggest you do!

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrations by Kim Geyer

the secret starlingSetting is of great importance in most literature, and at first I read The Secret Starling with confusion, then with compulsion and ultimately joy.

The story begins with Clara, being raised with a strict routine under the watchful eyes of a series of governesses hired by her generally neglectful and uncaring uncle, in Braithwaite Manor, a place seemingly disintegrating before her eyes. Artefacts disappear, the grounds are unkempt, and food seems scarce – Cook making do with basic ingredients.

Braithwaite Manor seems extraordinarily reminiscent of Misslethwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which Eagle even refers to within the text, explaining how it is Clara’s favourite book, although there is no secret garden at Braithwaite. Indeed, the metaphor of Misslethwaite Manor is extended here too. There is no potential for growth at Braithwaite (indicated by the lack of secret garden), but both houses are gloomy, shut up, disused, representative of repression or stifled creativity, and the moors in both represent wild freedom.

However, Clara’s uncle grants her this freedom early on, depositing her in the nearby village, and abandoning her to her own devices. It was at this point that I realised the book wasn’t set in some Edwardian era, as The Secret Garden, but is in fact, set in the 1970s, clues being Clara’s shiny fifty pence piece gifted by Cook, the general modernity of the village, and the Queen on the throne.

Clara is joined by Peter, who feels far more up-to-date, a modern child raised in London who is street-savvy and wordly-wise. He is visiting from London, where he lives with his adoptive grandmother in a tower block. Together, Clara and Peter at first make the most of having a manor house to play in without adults, before realising that there is a mystery in the heart of their story – and they set off to London to discover why Clara’s uncle is selling the house, why he’s abandoned her, and what the whole story has to do with Clara’s mother and a ballet shoe.

Before long, this intertextualised novel turns into the most exciting chase to undercover a deeper mystery, involving searching a library for old newspapers, riding the underground, meeting Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, and outwitting and escaping from the most dastardly villains – good old-fashioned types with no scruples and definitely people who care nothing for child welfare!

The conclusion is satisfyingly old-school too – identities uncovered, new relationships formed, and a definite nod to Noel Streatfield and the canon of children’s literature. However, as well as these nods to those that have gone before her, Judith Eagle brings a lovely modern sensibility to her fiction. Peter, in particular, is independent and resilient, although his knowledge and freedom of getting round London on his own does perhaps speak more to the 1970’s London child than today’s.

The objects and places that root this book in the 1970s will feel terribly old-fashioned to today’s young reader, although of course quite familiar to the older reader reviewer! What at first seemed like an Edwardian children’s book to me, then transpired to be from the 1970s, shows that perhaps society has changed exponentially from the 1970s to now, and that the 1970s feel closer to 1910 than they do to 2019.

In Eagle’s fictional world, nothing and nobody is as they seem to Clara, and she has to learn whom to trust, and delve into her own knowledge and past to discover who she really is. In the end though, no matter what era the children are living through, the same attributes hold inherent value: truth, love and loyalty.

This is a cracking pacey novel, written with assurance and with a distinct nod to classic children’s literature. Suggest for age 9+. You can buy it here.

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.