Adventures on Trains – Murder on the Safari Star

I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

Adventures on Trains: Murder on the Safari Star by M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli, published by Macmillan

This is the third installment in what has fast become one of my favourite middle grade mystery series, Adventures on Trains.

If you’ve not already read the first books (The Highland Falcon Thief and Kidnap on The California Comet), the series centres on Hal who accompanies his Uncle Nat, a travel writer and train enthusiast, on amazing train journeys.

However, they seem to have a knack of landing themselves in the centre of it all as each journey sees a crime committed, with Hal (ably aided by friends on board and his uncle) combining sketching and sleuthing to solve the cases!

Each book can easily be read as a stand alone (but I promise you’ll want to go back and read the others straight after you finish!), with a completely new case, train and supporting cast each time. You can read my reviews of the first books here and here.

Here, we rejoin Hal and his Uncle Nat as they embark on another train ride of a lifetime, this time journeying through South Africa and Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls at Zambia’s border.

The African landscape they travel through and the wildlife they see, both from the train and on safari, really enhance the book, as do Elisa Paganelli’s wonderful illustrations.

There’s also a nice environmental theme running through this, with issues of smuggling, hunting and conservation highlighted. It would be perfect for fans of Lauren St John or Jess Butterworth who maybe haven’t tried this series yet.

So, in some ways, this very different setting gives it a very different vibe to the previous two. However, Leonard and Sedgman are a formidable writing duo who manage to keep it feeling very much in their style and in keeping with the earlier books too.

This is the perfect blend – it keeps it fresh and different, offers up new areas of interest, locations and themes, but ultimately you feel at home – I knew what to expect and was not disappointed!

From the get go, as we join Hal’s family on Christmas morning (which felt just as it should be for them; his dad was spot on!), there’s a warm and gentle tone set – yes, there’s crimes to solve, but there’s a security and light-heartedness too.

Then there’s his Uncle Nat’s unwavering support for, and their open discussion of, Hal’s on board sleuthing. I know I mention this after every book, but I make no apologies as it’s so refreshing to see this adult-child dynamic in a story rather than the missing, dead, cruel or stupid adults we often see.

And let’s not forget the level of detail and passion shown for the trains themselves. Carefully researched and cleverly dripped into the text through Nat’s experience and Hal’s interest in them and sketches, it never feels like an information dump but by the end of the book, we’ve found out all about the train they travel on, its history, route and features. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, I’d never have considered myself interested in trains but I’m always fascinated by what I find out in this series!

You can also expect a brilliant mix of characters on board in each book, including Hal’s new partner in crime (detection), in this case Winston…and his pet mongoose!

As ever, the characters/suspects were a great mix from the loathsome to the lovely to the famous and the fun. And of course, there’s suspicion and motive aplenty amongst them!

Like in the previous books, Hal’s sketches (courtesy of Elisa) are his means to documenting and solvimg the case, providing us with diagrams and sketches to aid the solving of te case. These are brilliant and complement the text so well.

I reached Hal’s initial sketch of the passengers as they gather at the start of the journey, present in every book, with proper tingles of excitement – “here we go!” – ready for another mystery to begin.

Because, of course, with young detective Hal and his Uncle aboard, this could never be an ordinary train ride! Helped by new friend Winston, Hal sets out on the trip convinced there’s a crime to solve, but even he couldn’t have foreseen the classic locked door murder he’s faced with!

As ever, I really enjoyed the solving of the case – I had my (correct) suspicions from early on but couldn’t piece them together to make it fit or figure out the hows, wheres and whys of it all so seeing the pieces slowly start to fall into place and Hal put it all together, well, I was glued to it!

I always enjoy the way the motives are explored in this series too; they never justify the crimes, but there’s a level of understanding there, they never feel senseless. This one in particular feels really well done, but I can’t say any more on that!

And of course, there was the obligatory musically themed chapter title for chapter eight, which I’ve now come to look forward to spotting in each one! (chapter 25 gave me a giggle too!)

I can’t recommend this series highly enough – fast-paced, fun and full of mystery, they are hugely gripping and entertaining reads and I am already eagerly awaiting book four which (from the teaser at the end of this) sounds like it’ll be amazing!

#MGTakesOnThursday – The Valley of Lost Secrets

#MGTakesOnThursday was created by Mary over at Book Craic and is a brilliant way to shout about some brilliant MG books!

To join in, all you need to do is:

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

I’m so glad to be joining in with #MGTakesOnThursday again. It’s ages since I’ve managed to do it, but I’m determined to join in more regularly again this year.

My choice today seemed like a good one, as its the first book I’ve read this year out of choice. It should also have been Children’s Book of the Month at work…well, it technically is CBOTM at work but I’m not there to rave about it, so this seems like a good place to do that instead!

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr, audiobook read by Iestyn Arwel/physical copy illustrated by David Dean, published by Bloomsbury

I love a wartime children’s book and this has shot into my favourites.

We join brothers Jimmy and Ronnie as they are evacuated from Islington in London to Llanbryn, a small village in the Welsh valleys.

Jimmy is set on protecting, comforting and reassuring his little brother, but as they settle into life in the valley, it’s Jimmy who struggles with homesickness and his sense of loyalty and belonging.

The story is centred on the mysterious discovery Jimmy makes when he finds a skull in the hollow of a tree, but it’s really about so much more than that – bullying, belonging, friendship and family; home and change and growth; the ways in which we judge, treat and label others as well as the ways we can show patience and care and offer chances for them to bloom.

There’s some absolutely fantastic characters in this – Ronnie is joyous, Jimmy complex, the Evanses utterly hateful (honestly they had my blood boiling!). I loved Florence (and by extension Phyllis and Ieuan) and I think maybe Alun Thomas was my favourite of all.

The way the mystery of the skull is underpinned by a bigger mystery closer to home in the Thomas household was so well done – the way it built subtly then wove seamlessly in.

The richness of the setting and the history and culture of it were gorgeous to read, utterly transporting me. Lesley Parr mentions David Almond as a favourite author at the back of this and that really shows through – there are unmistakable echoes of his talent for capturing a place and its community in this.

I listened to the majority of this on audiobook and the narration was perfect – exactly how being read aloud to should be; I too was taken straight to the heart of this little village.

I loved that the president of the Mining Institute was Mr Bevan and that one of the most important, yet seemingly minor, characters was Aneurin, or Nye. Surely a tip of the hat to the NHS legend Nye Bevan who came from a Welsh mining village himsrlf. I’d love to know for certain if this was intentional, but I feel it must have been, surely?

I also loved the details and small extras in the illustrations – the way the chapter headers developed through the book and the secret message too.

Everything about this book has been beautifully crafted and carefully considered. It’s a stunning piece of storytelling set off beautifully by its illustration, design and/or audiobook narration.

I’m so, so excited already to see Lesley Parr has a new book, also set in Wales, this time post-WW1. I absolutely cannot wait. Til then, I’m off to listen to Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting on repeat.

My favourite sentence from page 11:

I can feel the place swallowing is up – my little brother, all the others and me.

This book in three words:

Family. Home. History.

Believathon 3 – Orion Lost

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm, artwork by, published by Nosy Crow

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Shadow – Read a book first published in 2020.

Spaceship Orion is taking a crew from Earth to settle and start a new colony in space. However, when one of its ‘jumps’ goes wrong, all the adults are stuck in their sleeping state and it’s up to a crew of children, who don’t always see eye to eye, to try and get a badly damaged ship past space pirates, unknown alien (Videshi) ships to safety.

Things become more complicated when the children gradually realise something’s amiss, but can they get to the bottom of it and put it right?

I’ll be honest, I’m not a sci-fi fan and this did not sound like my cup of tea at all and, despite knowing lots of fellow bookish people had loved it, I wasn’t really looking forward to it.

But I thought it was BRILLIANT. One of the most unique and original MG books I’ve read in recent years.

Whatever my personal reservations, I had been pleased to see a slice of Sci-fi entering the MG world as it felt like there was a real gap to fill and, although I’m no expert, I thought this filled that gap splendidly.

It was full of technical details and language that fans of the genre/space will appreciate, and that give it a sense of authenticity and authority. But, and it’s an important but, its cleverly done so that total newcomers to the genre who don’t speak science (ie me) could not only follow what was happening, but become completely immersed and invested in it.

The characters, and their relationship with each other – particularly the difference, conflict and contrast between Beth and Vihaan – had a lot to do with this. There was a really good mix of personalities which worked really well together and Beth was a particularly likeable and believable main character (and also a handy way to get my head round the more technical aspects of the book as they were explained to her too!)

I really liked the way Beth and Vihaan showcased between them the qualities of a good leader, and the way the novel examined what this was and the balance it needed.

What I also really enjoyed about this book though was the perfectly plotted mystery that gradually developed, subtly at first, creeping up on us a little clue at a time, until we reached a hugely tense and dramatic climax.

Although I did have a couple of correct inklings early on, I didn’t come close to piecing the whole thing together and it really kept me guessing the way the best mysteries do.

I’ll probably never be a true sci-fi fan, but I would absolutely jump on the next novel from Alastair Chisholm so if that counts as being converted, consider me a convert! This was great!

Believathon 3 – The Mask of Aribella

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Chain – Read a book with a colourful cast of characters, and it was certainly an excellent choice for that prompt!

Our main character, Aribella, discovers she can shoot fire from her fingertips and, after narrowly escaping the Palace guards after they raid her home and arrest her dad, finds herself taken in by fellow Caannovaccis – masked Venetians who protect the city using their special powers – speaking to animals, walking through walls, reading minds and/or stars and moving or creating objects with their minds…and more. So, yes, colourful!

Honestly, I was a little uncertain going into this. I thought it might be a bit superhero heavy for me, but it wasn’t at all. There’s enough to hook a superhero fan but it doesn’t feel like a typical superhero story.

Instead it’s more of a mystery with a dash of history and a dollop of magic and fantasy thrown in for good measure. And that is right up my street!

The setting of Venice is wonderful. In a serendipitous turn of events, I started this just as I was coming to the end of Katherine Woodfine’s Villains in Venice, which had already seen me captivated by the city, but it was here that I was truly transported there and enamoured by it.

Anna Hoghton’s writing is rich in detail and steeped in the history of the place and its culture and customs. I couldn’t get enough; I was ready to jump straight on a plane!

The characters themselves are likeable and their powers bring a good mix of the light-hearted and the dramatic. There’s some unfortunate sleepwalking mishaps, singed tablecloths and uncommunicative cats, but there’s also a strong message of believing in yourself and some tense and exciting saving of the day.

The mystery element of the book is perfectly plotted and paced too. There’s plenty of intrigue, secrets and uncertainty along with creeping doubts and wariness about just which characters to trust and what was really going on.

As an adult who’s familiar with the genre, I did figure out a fair bit of it, but even so there were things I didn’t see coming and I really liked the way the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘whos’ were gradually revealed.

A thoroughly enjoyable mystery adventure, with an exciting and original slant in its masked protectors, this has strong messages of friendship, courage and being yourself and embracing your differences.

Believathon 3 – Orphans of the Tide

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Dagger – Read a book with a dangerous setting. With hindsight, I’m not sure I’d choose this for that prompt, but it fits a couple of other rooms too, notably The Footprints – read a book with a prominent villain.

Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, illustrated by Manuel Sumberac, published by Puffin

I’d heard a lot about how great this was but knew very little about the story itself, but you can’t fail to be pulled straight in when a book begins with a whale ‘beached’ on a rooftop with a boy emerging from its stomach, with only a young inventor brave and quick-witted enough to go up there and help him.

I was hooked immediately.

Ellie (our young inventor) is a typically great female lead – clever, loyal, determined, a little impulsive and with a mind that’s always whirring. I really loved the descriptions of her chaotic workshop; they painted a perfect picture of her and I wanted to spend hours in there looking at all her drawings, half-hatched plans, interesting finds and unfinished creations.

Ellie lives and works in The City – the last city on earth, jutting precariously over the sea, everywhere else destroyed by The Enemy in The Great Drowning that saw the other cities and islands wiped out.

The Enemy returns sporadically, each time claiming a new Vessel to work through and each time claiming more lives.

When Seth emerges from inside the whale (with no idea who or where he is), the other residents of The City are convinced he is The Vessel and set about trying to capture and kill him before The Enemy can use him to return.

Ellie, however, is determined to save him and so begins the darkest, most perilous game of Cat and Mouse you’ve ever seen as Ellie and Seth (aided begrudgingly by Ellie’s best friend Anna) attempt to hide from and outwit The City’s Inquisitors.

Everyone lives in fear of The Enemy and The Vessel and the sense of mass panic, hysteria and tension they create in The City is palpable and all too believable.

I have to confess that the way rumour, fear and alarm spreads through the residents, and the authoratitve, powerful nature of The Inquisitors in charge had me convinced this book was going to take a different path.

However, the route it actually took was brilliant and took me an embarrassing amount of time to cotton on to (I’d guessed at certain things but hadn’t put two and two together!)

And this is, of course, thanks in no small part to the excellent writing and the way it somehow manages to keep up a relentless pace and tension, but also to drip feed information and gradually unfold. The use of old diary entries especially was really effective.

Likewise, our characters feel like they never stop; always on the run, hiding or plotting and planning with wolves at the door. And yet, somehow we’re given time to really get to know them, to explore their back stories, their feelings and their relationships. They have both urgency and depth. And there is space to sensitively explore themes of grief, loss and friendship too.

The setting itself is perfect, managing to feel all at once like a historical town – all cobbles and towers and terraces and alleys, all markets and gossip and hangings; a remote coastal Isle in winter – all wind-swept, salt-sprayed, freezing cold edges; and a dark dystopian future.

It’s a perfect setting for the book, all dark corners, precarious heights, shadows and crashing waves. Matched with Manuel Sumberac’s atmospheric illustrations, the formidable Inquisitors and the absolutely terrific Enemy it all comes together to create a gloriously dark fantasy.

And I’ll leave with a word on The Enemy itself – What. A. Villain. Marvellously evil, it is brilliantly drawn.

Overall, this is a tense and twisting fantasy with a brilliantly dark setting and an even darker Enemy.

Believathon 3 – A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Crown – Read a book set in an alternate world to our own, but it fits a couple of other rooms too, notably The Flash of Lightning – Read a book which incorporates folktales.

A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth by Francesca Gibbons, illustrated by Chris Riddell, published by Harper Collins

First things first – just look how gorgeous this book is! And it has all the added extras that make a physical book, especially a hardback one like this, feel really special – a map (have I mentioned before maybe just once or twice how much I LOVE a map in a book?!), an illustrated cast of characters and a gorgeous, classy cover under its equally appealing, magical jacket, not to mention the fantastic illustrations throughout.

When people moan about the price of physical books or buying hardbacks, it’s books like this one that highlight why its worth it. This is a beautiful object to hold and read, to keep, to return to and treasure, and you’re drawn into the story’s magic as soon as you see it.

Which is a wonderful thing, because let me tell you this story’s magic is truly something.

With echoes of Narnia (I know, everyone is saying that but I can’t help it – it’s true) and the traditional fairytales we all know, more than a sprinkling of the Slavic, plus a dose of modern life in our main characters, their sibling rivalries and their feelings towards mum’s new man, this is a fabulous start to a new fantasy MG series.

With dark forests inhabited by monstrous Skret, mysterious doors in trees, a soothsaying clock, moths as guides and keys, a lonely crown prince and a villainous queen-to-be…not to mention a wizened royal advisor, a brawny hunter (with more than a touch of Disney’s Gaston about him!), tall castle towers, quests, rivalries, a huge wooden dragon… and of course treasures, tricks, treason and traps – this is a book fizzing with fairytale know-how, characters and traditions that still somehow manages to be completely it’s own tale.

And what a tale.

Sisters Imogen and Marie follow a moth through a secret door in a tree deep in the gardens of Mrs Haberdash’s tea rooms (incidentally, how great is the name Mrs Haberdash?!)

Stepping out into another world they find themselves facing imminent danger from the shrieking beasts that are terrorising a city locked up from dusk, their houses covered in Skret bones and skulls in an effort to deter them.

What a setting to step into! It felt steeped in history and you just knew it had a tale or two to tell. I loved the description (and visual depiction!) of the bone clad buildings locked and silent – slightly chilling, suggestive of strange customs and traditions and ultimately very atmospheric and mysterious.

Luckily – as bells chime ominously for night fall, beasts bay and with not a soul in sight – the girls are whisked into the safety of the castle by Miroslav, the lonely prince who lives there with his uncle, who has reined since Miro’s parents were killed. He agrees to help them find their way home but of course this is easier said than done…

What follows is a tale of two halves (well, more really…even though that’s impossible) We see Imogen and Marie desperately trying to find a way home, with hot-headed, bossy, big sister Imogen reflecting on her relationship with Marie and with their mum as she does, and growing so much as a person too.

But we also see Miro’s story. Miro himself is a great character. At first seeming obvious and straightforward, we realise there’s a complexity to him and his story over time (likewise his uncle who is nowhere near as likeable but proves that there’s more to people than the traditional storybook good and evil).

As the children enlist the help of hunters, avoid royal guards and befriend ckockmakers and as they journey deep into the forest to face the Skret, we also find out the story of his town, Yaroslav, and the nearby forest, its divisions and troubles.

We hear about the forest-dwelling Skret, the way they turned on the town and the way monsters aren’t always those who at first appear monstrous. We’re told the fable of Sertze Hora – the heart of the mountain – sacred to them and to the balance of life in the forest. We see the disparity between the city’s ‘native’ mesto and the lesni who have fled the forest that was their home (I loved the tree houses!) as its now longer safe and sought sanctuary in the city, only to find it prejudiced against them.

All of these are bound together in the children’s quest bringing depth to the tale and questions, thoughts and observations on human nature, togetherness and society that are just as relevant to us in the here and now as in a make-believe, storybook town.

Meanwhile, there’s also a witch’s prophecy and a spectacularly despicable ‘spare mother’ to consider (including a brilliant Snow White-esque scene).

Anneshka is a character and a half and I loved to hate her. She is the perfect wicked villain of the piece with the hapless King’s ear and beauty on her side (of course). She is utterly brilliant and I loved how her tale ended here (I can’t say anymore for fear of spoilers!)

And I can’t possibly leave out the one-eyed clock maker and his mysterious clock and other creation. SO GOOD! He may only be on the sidelines, but I’d put money on us seeing more from him in future books… If The Miniaturist made clocks in children’s books…

And in all of this, there’s a humour and an energy and a sense of adventure and exploration and a heart that keeps everything from feeling too dark dangerous, that brings a moth-like glimmer of hope to the doom and gloom and despair, that reassures us of the glorious small comforts of home despite the homesickness and new-found freedoms.

It keeps us grinning and has our hearts in our mouths as the children swoop off on velecours (giant birds), and race toboggan-style helter-skelter down an icy mountain path. It reminds us of the joy and warmth of home and family and friendship.

In short, I loved this. It was imaginative and real. It drew heavily on fairytale and folkloric tradition and created something unique and exciting. It was a story of courage, both bold and public, and quiet and personal.

It was exciting and adventurous and I absolutely cannot wait for book two!

Believathon 3 – Storm

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompts The Torn Page – Read a book with supernatural elements and The Spilled Ink – Read a book with ghosts in it, though it fits the prompts for a couple of other rooms too.

Storm by Nicola Skinner, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino, published by Harper Collins

Firstly, if you’re not sold on that striking cover, then allow me to share with you the even more gorgeous end papers and cover-beneath-the-cover (which I only found when Peapod started reading this. He hates dust jackets!)

Simply stunning. And they set the bar pretty high for the book.

But let me tell you, it more than does them justice.

I had no idea what this was about; it was a total surprise and not at all what I expected from that cover but something I was excited about – it felt really DIFFERENT!

And it was.

Frankie has just woken up. One hundred years after she died in an unforeseen tsunami that hit her village. And she’s as angry now as she was when she was alive.

Frankie’s always had a temper. And now she’s dead, there’s even more to get angry about.

I could not figure out how this would work or where it would go, but oh my goodness it is SUPERB.

How anyone can take family and friendship issues, a poltergeist and supporting cast of ghosts, a villainous ghost hunter and his downtrodden ghost-seeing son, throw in some astute, wry and thought-provoking social commentary and come up with a children’s book that isn’t ridiculous or farcical and doesn’t find itself pulling too far in one direction or another is unbelievable.

Or it would be if Nicola Skinner hadn’t pulled it off masterfully here.

This is quite simply one of the best children’s books I’ve read in recent years. And from someone who doesn’t really read contemporary or funny books, I don’t say that lightly.

I loved so much about this – the blend of real life and supernatural happenings; tough issues and gross, funny or spooky goings on; heartache and humour. The balance in it all was spot on.

It takes some really hard topics and emotions and addresses them brilliantly. It feels more blunt than many books, but that’s not to say it lacks sensitivity, it just doesn’t shy away from death or the often ugly nature of the human condition. Yes, it’s dark at times, it pulls no punches, but it’s also full of heart and incredibly moving.

And Frankie’s voice feels perfect too. Anger, guilt, sorrow, frustration, anxiety, confusion, uncertainty, and moments of happiness, warmth and fond memories – she runs the gamut of emotions, and always with a cracking sense of humour, realism and poignancy.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how much I rated this. It feels so fresh, so unique, so utterly original and written in such an engaging, observant and understanding way.

I can’t wait to go back and read Bloom and to see what Nicola has in store for us next.

Believathon 3 – When Life Gives You Mangoes

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Fingerprints – Read a book by an author from a different culture than you, thiugh it also fits the prompts for a couple of other rooms too.

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten, cover art by Bex Glendening, published by Pushkin

Clara can’t remember anything about last summer and best friend Gaynah is constantly picking at the fact. Their friendship is under strain as Gaynah acts less and less like a best friend should.

When new girl Rudy arrives, Clara begins to spend time with her – playing, exploring and even venturing to Clara’s estranged uncle’s old house through the banana groves, where all is gradually revealed.

I’ll be honest, contemporary (as many of you know well!) is not my usual thing. But this has me hooked – it’s a real ‘all in one sitting’ of a book!

Kereen Getten’s author bio at the back of the book says:

And this real life experience – “Her town is where I was born. The game ‘pick leaf’ is a game I played” – and the fondness with which it is drawn on here, is the biggest thing that makes this book so special.

It has left me yearning to read more about Sycamore, its inhabitants and their way of life. Or, if not there precisely, then somewhere else that draws on Kereen’s Jamaican background, as this small community is depicted vividly and warmly.

I was completely drawn in and it all feels so real. I could feel the sweat from the baking hot sun and hear grumpy Ms Gee hollering. It was a world apart from anything I know – as Rudy’s arrival and her mother’s questioning of Clara’s walk home alone attested to – but I felt like I knew it.

I loved the way we saw the laid back, close-knit village community contrasted with the hustle and bustle, traffic and heavy air of the city as well as with Rudy and her mum’s experiences of England.

The way this unfamiliar setting and different way of life was carefully balanced with the universal truths of friendships, fallings out and adolescent moods (at least in the first half of the book) was spot on. Any child reading this, anywhere in the world, could easily relate to Clara’s feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal as she struggles with her friendship with best friend Gaynah.

Likewise, the game of Pick Leaf might be unknown to us; a dip in the sea or river might be uncommon to most; banana groves, forts and overgrown hills may not be the usual location for pretend play. BUT what child (and adult) can’t relate to a game of racing, finding, competing, running, winning. Or to splashing, swimming and playing in water. Or to games of make believe and adventure.

This is a glorious depiction of childhood in all its energy, joy, injustices, and heartache. The emotions and uncertainties, the highs and lows, the complexities of it all are portrayed perfectly.

And then there was the twist. OH. MY. GOD. THE TWIST.

I did not see that coming in a million years. I can’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but it was genius.

And it took this beyond childhood gripes and turned it into a book about community and family and what that really means. It gently looked at loss and grief and all the difficult emotions that are part of that, both for us and those around us. It made this something really special.

A moving, clever and compelling surprise of a story. More please!

The Midnight Guardians

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers. All views and opinions are my own.

I received this at work as it’s our Children’s Book of the Month for November, and I can’t help but feel a bit gutted that it’s not going to get the push it really deserves with us being shut.

Yes, there’s our online message, and word of mouth, and of course the wonderful world of book twitter, but this is one that is both timely and brilliant and one which I’d have been pressing into palms left, right and centre.

I will just have to do the best I can here and shout about it all the more when we reopen!

Put simply, this is one of the best World War 2 books I’ve read in a long time.

Always a hot topic in children’s literature, there’s a plethora of war themed books already, all with a different slant and many of which are favourites of mine.

So to choose a theme so well-mined already and come up with something so unique, so well pitched, so historically accurate and still so relevant today, not to mention so entertaining, magical and hopeful too, is really something and a huge credit to Ross Montgomery’s engaging writing style, meticulous research and understanding of his audience.

Col has been evacuated to live with his Aunt Claire after his dad dies during the war. His sister, Rose, has stayed behind in London to help the war effort but they have agreed to spend Christmas together. When Christmas comes but Rose doesn’t, Col sets off to find her.

Stopping at the cottage they always spent Christmas at, he finds his childhood imaginary friends come very much to life, having returned to protect him from The Midwinter King who has taken control of the Spirit World and has devastating plans for this one too.

I went into this a little hesitantly, expecting a mix of Narnia (which I loved as a child), Land of Roar (which – sorry! – I wasn’t a huge fan of) and some sort of war story. I didn’t really know how it would, or indeed could, work. But, oh it does!

The balance struck between fantasy, history and personal drama is perfect. Likewise, the blend of humour and more serious and emotive messages is just right.

The characters themselves are brilliant, and all with their own unique personalities, strengths and flaws.

The relationship between Mr Noakes (Badger in a waistcoat) and King of Rogues (faithful knight in shining armour) is such a great one, with brilliant bickering and superb sniping between these two friends.

Likewise, the relationship between King of Rogues and newcomer to the group, Ruth, is wonderful. The way their mistrust of each other, and her confident exterior proving a match for his self-importance is great fun to read, and it’s equally lovely to see them gradually accept each other as the story develops.

Ruth was definitely my favourite character in the book and I loved the way her inclusion helped bring another aspect of the war (the persecution of Jewish people and the Kindertransport) to the book. Her story really adds extra depth and breadth to the book, and the role her celebration of Chanukah plays in delivering the message of hope the book carries is very effective too.

I thought the way the historical elements of the book were brought in were excellent too, and the use of real newspaper articles was brilliant. This has clearly been extremely closely and keenly researched, with many little details and lesser known facts really bringing this into its own, as well as adding to the humorous aspects of the book (Mock Banana I’m looking at you!)

It also does a great job at making the war relevant today in its messages about power, dark times, hope and togetherness.

The fantastical elements were brilliant too. We meet talking trees (who will have you in stitches), squabbling giants and easily distracted fairy folk, not to mention the formidable Midwinter King and Green Man themselves. There is a huge array of fantasy folk and magic places, but the story never loses its very human heart.

(And for Labyrinth fans, there’s an absolute gem of a showdown you’ll love!)

This is a book with truly broad appeal. It’s wartime setting will price popular with children at home, aswell as in school libraries, class reads and as a stimulus for wartime topic work.

With themes of family, friendship, loss and hope it is both sensitive and moving, whilst its magical and humorous elements bring levity and a touch of fantasy.

It is a book which draws on much of what has gone before and makes it absolutely and completely it’s own. One of a kind.

October, October

October, October by Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I was very kindly sent a copy of this by Bloomsbury.

However, I had already bought both a physical copy (knowing nothing about the book and based solely on Angela Harding’s beautiful cover) and an e-book version (having started it and not been able to put it down when I went up and down stairs to Peapod each eve)

So, yes, I was technically gifted a copy, but I think the fact that I’ve also bought two copies for myself should prove that both a) I loved this book and b) I’m being honest about just how much!

I really couldn’t put this down. The contrasting settings of woodland and town were vivid and real; I felt like I was being granted a glimpse of a secret, wild world both raw and beautiful in the woods, while I saw the claustrophobic bustle and noise of the city through fresh eyes as they overwhelmed October.

October has just turned eleven and has grown up living ‘wild’ in the woods with her dad. She loves their life and the nature that surrounds her.

I loved reading about their life – seeing how they embraced it with autumn dips in freezing waters and fires outside looking at the stars; how they cared for the wood, striking a balance between respecting its natural, wild ways and tending to it to keep it alive and growing; the little details and practicalities of life there. Katya Balen does a fantastic job of portraying a life both demanding and cosy, hard but rewarding.

However, October’s life as she knows it is brought crashing down when she is forced to move to her mum’s London terrace when her dad is hospitalised after an accident.

October hasn’t spoken to her mum since she left when October was four, despite her mum’s best efforts, and seeing October grapple with both city life and living with a parent she wants nothing to do with, that she feels abandoned by and resentment towards, is an incredibly difficult but believable read.

October is such a fantastic character and I really felt myself in her shoes as she’s runs the gamut of emotions. Incredibly moving, there were times my heart ached for her, but just as many moments of sheer joy; she was truly fantastic to read.

This is a book about growing, adapting and overcoming, about finding hidden treasures in unlikely places, about letting go and learning to fly.

It is an absolute gem of a book, with stunning illustrations from Angela Harding and I cannot recommend it enough.