Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

Review: Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

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Extract:

The Chief had just told her that Sophie was fine – that there was nothing for her to worry about. But he had lied. He hadn’t heard from Sophie in over a month – she was missing in St Petersburg, all the way on the other side of Europe.

(Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine. P33.)

 

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Synopsis:

When Lil is given her second mission from the Secret Service Bureau she finds out something alarming. Sophie’s messages from St Petersburg have stopped arriving. Nobody knows where she is. Lil is supposed to be off to Hamburg, but there’s no way she’s leaving Sophie in danger. Even if it means dragging the impossible Carruthers all the way to Russia.

Behind the spectacular jewelry shops and the excitement of the circus setting up, trouble is building in St Petersburg. Whispers of a revolution may be student gossip, or they may hint at something greater.

Once again it is up to Sophie and Lil to save the day.

 

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Review:

Fans of The Sinclair’s Mysteries will remember Sophie and Lil from their days at Sinclair’s Department Store. The Taylor And Rose series follows their adventures and misadventures as they solve cases for the Secret Service Bureau and continue their quest to stop a certain group from causing trouble. Their role as secret agents takes them all over the world. This time the adventure centres on Pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Katherine Woodfine is the master of series. One end is a new beginning. The ongoing fight with a very secret society allows every book to be both its own self-contained adventure and part of a bigger picture.

She’s also good at cliff hangers and this book will leave you screaming for the next one on at least three counts.

The reader is at an advantage during this plot because, unlike Lil, we know what Sophie is up to. The question is why are her messages not getting through? The old gang comes into the story too, and there is the first hint of romance as Joe and Lil each question to themselves whether there could be anything between them. While this is no more than a hint, it made me wonder what the bigger picture is and whether Lil could have a whole new side to her life in later books.

St Petersburg is a fantastic setting, with the opulence on one hand and the fear and unrest on another, and Woodfine captures a place where everyone is looking over their shoulders. People are disagreeing about the political situation and two people in one family can have very different views. It is a time when the wrong word can be a life sentence. There are also warm homes where family and lodgers and guests live side by side and eat from the same table. It couldn’t be a better setting for this story, and I felt as if Woodfine had taken time to study and represent the historical details.

A fantastic addition to the series which sees the characters moving on internally, questioning what their moral positions would be in certain scenarios and learning ever more about their enemy. Katherine Woodfine is a confirmed genius of the mystery adventure. However long the wait for the next book feels, I know it will be worth it.

 

Thanks to Egmont UK for my gifted copy of Spies In St Petersburg. Opinions my own. 

 

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Peril In Paris (Taylor& Rose Secret Agents) by Katherine Woodfine

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Extract:

For a moment, she saw Carruthers’s sneering face again, then heard the Chief say, ‘your friend is a very courageous woman’. Was the implication that she herself was not? But surely that wasn’t fair: her mind flashed at once through scenes of underground passageways and rooftops and standing in an empty Office, face to face with the Baron himself. But that had been different, she realised. Then she’d always had Lil by her side.

(Peril In Paris by Katherine Woodfine. P40.) 

birdSynopsis:

Taylor and Rose detective society is turning its hand to espionage.

Sophie and Lil are sent abroad on top-secret missions. Lil must play an undercover governess, while Sophie is posing as the niece of a recently dead professor. Although both girls have solved many mysteries, Sophie is uncertain how she will fare without Lil by her side.

Can the girls get to the bottom of the murder and intrigue before international security is threatened?

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Review:

The gang from Taylor and Rose are back and now they are having adventures on an international scale. I am a long-time fan of Katherine Woodfine’s mysteries and am pleased to see the same characters back in a different guise. By shifting the focus of the series, Woodfine has maintained the same characters but broadened the setting. Their adventures could now take them anywhere in the world.

The Taylor &  Rose series follows on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries. You could certainly read this first, but if you haven’t read the earlier books I can’t recommend them enough. They are set in an Edwardian department store and follow a group of young detectives.

Katherine Woodfine is the master of the overarching plot. I’ve said it before but this series confirms my conviction. Without giving too much away, things we learned as the Sinclair’s series came to an end have become the first plot-point in a new storyline. While every book has a standalone plot, there is also a larger story. Something which needs to be solved across the series. Peril in Paris not only sets up a new story, it follows neatly on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries.

Peril In Paris takes a fascinating look at European history. Although the countries in the book are made up, their politics and geography situate them in the middle of very real events. This would make a fascinating introduction to the political events which lead to World War 2 because it takes in a complex web of relationships and conflicts.

There are also some beautiful moments which pay homage to made-up European countries in past children’s literature. It was a delight to see those countries from a different angle.

I’ll make no secret that these are some of my favourite mystery-books of all time. They are complex, intelligent and have just the right mix of history and legend. Without any spoilers, it is difficult to say more. I know readers of these books aged between 8 and 70-something and the big kids wait as eagerly as the real ones for the next installment.

 

Thanks to Egmont UK for my copy of Peril In Paris. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Reviews: New books for younger middle-grade readers

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Arlo, Mrs Ogg and The Dinosaur Zoo by Alice Hemming

Maverick Arts Publishing

Headteacher Mrs Weebly says Class 4X are unruly, disobedient and downright unteachable. When yet another teacher leaves, Mrs Weebly gives 4X an ultimatum – one more incident and there will be no end-of-term-party.

Then Mrs Ogg arrives, and she is unlike any teacher 4X has had before. She takes them on a trip to the zoo, except it is no ordinary zoo. It is a dinosaur zoo.

A lovely chapter book which reminded me of Mr Majeika. A class of children comes together under the leadership of a less-than-normal teacher. This will be popular with children who dream of having an adventure instead of an ordinary school day. I love the illustrations and design.

 

img_5701Dino Wars – Rise Of The Raptors by Dan Metcalf

Maverick Arts Publishing

The dinosaurs have won the war.

Adam Caine lives in Bastion – a city of bunkers which is home to human survivors and peace-loving dinosaurs. He has his friends accidentally activate and old biological weapon. It is up to them to find four energy-giving crystals to stop the weapon from destroying every dinosaur on the planet.

Problem is, there are dinosaurs to fight too.

An intriguing dystopia for the very youngest readers. This would be lovely for newly confident readers who are ready for a more involved plot. Although I have read similar quest stories, I was impressed by how suited this was to younger middle-grade readers. The main characters make a great team, and I love the set-up and backstory.

 

 

img_5710Rose’s Dress Of Dreams by Katherine Woodfine

Little Gems (Barrington Stoke)

Rose dreams of beautiful dresses. Dresses made of whipped cream, and butterflies and woven starlight. Nobody understands about Rose’s dresses. They say such things are impossible. Then Rose meets the Princesse de Conti and is given a chance to make the dress of her dreams.

A book so beautiful it feels as if it has been sprinkled in fairy-dust. This is a gentle fairy tale, inspired by the real-life story of Marie Antoinette’s favourite dressmaker. I love the descriptions of material and dresses. If you loved the Tailor of Gloucester for its taffeta and silk twist, you will adore this.

 

img_5707McTavish Goes Wild  by Meg Rosoff

Barrington Stoke

Where will the Peachy family go for their holiday?

Betty Peachy wants to go camping, and Ma knows the perfect place, but Pa Peachey, Ollie, and Ava show no interest in the great outdoors. It is up to rescue dog McTavish to bring the family together so they can enjoy their holiday as a family.

Rescue dog McTavish watches as the holiday unfolds. One disaster follows another until the family is totally fed-up. This has a lovely, light sense of humour. There are running jokes throughout the story, such as Ava’s obsession with philosophy.  The reader becomes familiar with these jokes until they feel like part of the family. McTavish is the underdog who is wiser than the humans. We know the solution rests with him.  

 

img_5704Mummy Fairy And Me by Sophie Kinsella

Puffin Books 

When Ella’s Mummy says the magic word marshmallow, she turns into Mummy Fairy. 

Mummy’s Computawand does all sorts of amazing things, but sometimes the spells go a little bit wrong. Like conjuring up a cow instead of a pint of milk, or giving the cleaning things a mind of their own. When the spells go wrong, fairy-in-waiting Ella comes to the rescue. 

This is a cute and relatable fantasy. It shows how, for a young family, everyday chores can become havoc. I think lots of parents have wished at times for a magical wand, never once thinking that magic might make things a thousand times worse. I love the mini-me Mummy-and-daughter team. 

Thanks to Maverick Arts Publishing, Barrington Stoke and Puffin Books for sending copies of the books to review. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Midnight Peacock by Katherine Woodfine

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Extract:

It was a trick. It had to be. ‘Charlie, I know it’s you!’ she called. ‘Come out and stop playing the fool.’ 

But there was no reply, no answering snigger. Instead the footsteps just kept coming towards her along the passageway – slow and heavy. Too heavy to be the steps of a young underfootman. Her chest tightened. 

‘If this is your idea of a stupid joke…’ she began, but the words seemed to choke her, and fell away. 

As she stared, she saw that a dark shape was moving steadily towards her. A tall, billowing, unearthly shadow, stretched into the shape of a human figure, advancing closer and closer along the wall.’

(The Midnight Peacock by Katherine Woodfine. P13.) birdSynopsis:

Christmas comes to Sinclair’s. Mr Sinclair’s Midnight Peacock New Year’s Ball is the event of the London festive season. While Billy and Joe stay behind to set up, Sophie and Lil set off for Winter Hall, home of their friend Leo and her aristocratic family.

All is not right at Winter Hall. Everybody knows the East Wing is haunted, but recently the ghost has been heard and sighted by the serving staff. Serving girl Tilly was too rational to believe it, until she saw it for herself. When Leo comes home, Tilly tells her about the figure in the downstairs passageway. Who better to investigate that Leo’s guests, detectives Sophie and Lil?

Meanwhile, Billy finds an investigation of his own. Somebody has taken the empty office opposite Sinclair’s, and they only move about at night. What connects the two things? Who is the strange lady Sophie keeps seeing? Can she find out more about her father’s relationship with the Baron?

An epic finale for the Sinclair’s series.birdReview:

The Sinclair’s Mysteries has been a favourite series over the past 18 months. I love the settings, the young detectives and how Woodfine has expanded her world with a cast of characters from different social backgrounds. The Midnight Peacock is my favourite story of all. I read it over a day, finishing in the small hours having failed to put it down.

Winter Hall is a deliciously gothic setting. It is not the first aristocratic manor with hidden passages I have encountered in fiction, but Woodfine makes it something special. Winter Hall, in the North, contrasts nicely with Sinclair’s. It may be that the social scene takes place in London, but it is at dinner tables and in smoking parlours that links between aristocratic ‘sets’ are forged. Leo’s mother is quick to make it known that she disproves of Sophie and Lil as guests, even though they are the darlings of Sinclair’s, and have caught the imaginations of many wealthy visitors to Sinclair’s.

The mystery builds nicely. I love how the main characters split early, so the reader keeps their attention in two places. The questions build, and it becomes a puzzle. How could the answers connect the events? The story which was introduced in The Painted Dragon, about the Baron’s past and his connections, continues as Sophie learns more about his father. I love how Woodfine connects a wide cast of characters. The stories set in Sinlair’s may have finished, but there is scope for further stories set almost anywhere in the world.

Woodfine has also explored the history of the early 1900s, and the attitudes of the time towards different groups of people. This time we meet Tilly, a black working-class girl in a world skewed towards middle-class white men. It is humbling to see how hard Tilly works when the world literally forbids her from pursuing her education as a scientist. There were real-life women like Tilly, with a passion for engineering and science, who paved the way for change.

All along, I have loved descriptions of Sinclair’s. The chocolate department made my mouth water, and the spectacle of the Midnight Ball caught my imagination. I hope Sophie and Lil’s adventures continue. There is a hint after the story that they will, and I will be here to read them wherever in the world they might go.