Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli.

Review: The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli.

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Extract:

The locomotive puffed out a sigh of steam, as if it were alive – a dragon, ancient, powerful, and ready to fly. 

(The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. P14.) 

 

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Synopsis:

As Harrison Beck waits for his new sibling to enter the world, he is sent off to spend time with journalist and train enthusiast Uncle Nat. The pair board the Highland Falcon for its final journey before it is sent to a museum. They are in the company of well-known society figures – from actress Sierra Knight to a Countess, a Baron and important railway officials.

Then a notorious jewel thief strikes.

Can Harrison and his friend, the not-so-secret stowaway Lenny, solve the mystery and catch the culprit before the wrong person takes the blame?

 

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Review:

All aboard for the first mystery adventure in a series dedicated entirely to trains. Imagine that Michael Portillo had taken an 11-year-old boy along as he filmed Great British Railway Journeys. And that the boy in question had met a girl with a wealth of knowledge about railways. The train isn’t just a pretty backdrop in this series. It is the living, beating heart of the story. At last! A mystery series for readers who care about the ins and outs of railways.

This first story sees a notorious jewel thief strike on the first night of the journey. The Magpie has a reputation for stealing high-value pieces. The trouble is, nobody knows the Magpie’s true identity. As the blame shifts from one person to another, Harrison and his friend Lenny set to work figuring the case out.

Harrison is an artist and the illustrations tie in with the story as his casebook. This breaks from the recent tradition of detectives with notebooks. This detective has a sketchbook. It also gives the reader very visual reminders of the events and allows them to flick backwards and forwards through the pages as each piece of new information is revealed and notice new details in the illustrations.

Lenny is the resident train geek. Her father drives the train and Lenny has followed him along the rail tracks since she was very small. I was impressed with the level of knowledge and railway vocabulary woven into the story. This series acknowledges that when children have hobbies and interests, they gather huge amounts of knowledge and trivia. It is great to see a series built around this. Recent conversations about whether middle grade has become too adult have failed to discuss this aspect of childhood, but the pure love that young people have for their favourite subjects needs to be reflected in their fiction.  

This story will be a hit with fans of middle-grade mystery and its fictional trains should be a hit with young railway enthusiasts. A roaring start.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Booksfor my copy of The Highland Falcon Thief. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

 

blog tour · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Q&A with Annabelle Sami, author of Agent Zaiba Investigates – The Missing Diamonds.

Blog Tour: Q&A with Annabelle Sami, author of Agent Zaiba Investigates – The Missing Diamonds.

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About Agent Zaiba Investigates – The Missing Diamonds. 

Zaiba is at the Royal Star Hotel for her cousin Sam’s mehndi party when she learns that a VIP guest is staying in the hotel. Alongide her brother Ali and their friend Poppy, Zaiba sets out to learn the VIP’s identity. What they uncover is a whole lot more exciting. 

A dog has gone missing. A very important dog with a diamond collar. More to the point, some unknown person let the dog off the lead. Zaiba, Ali and Poppy use the principles of the great fictional detective Eden Lockett to solve the mystery and save Cousin Sam’s mehndi party from being remembered as a total doggy disaster. 

Agent Zaiba Investigates is fast-paced, funny, and it is also slightly lighter than some of the popular middle grade mysteries. Murder can be frightening – even fictional murder. A missing dog is more managable, especially with a team of dedicated agents on the case. The story also has a strong cast of characters, from the main characters right down to the passers-by. Every person in the story is so well imagined that reading it feels more like watching it play out. From emotional bride Sam to bossy, infuriating cousin Mariam, everyone is so memorable. This will make it a strong series because the reader will recall all the characters when they pick up the next instalment. 

I offered a chance to put some questions to author Annabelle Sami, and her answers are worth reading for budding detectives and aspiring authors alike.

Thanks to Annabelle Sami for your time and to Stripes Publishing LTD for the opportunity. 

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Q&A with author Annabelle Sami. 

 

Q. How did you decide what the mystery would be?

A. I worked with my friend Karen Ball at Speckled Pen on the storyline, and we both agreed that a mystery set at a mehndi party would be exciting! Hotels are perfect locations for hidden staircases and a variety of guests/ suspects.

 

Q. Will we hear more about The Snow Leopard Detective Agency in future adventures? Can you tell us anything more about its history?

A. Yes, Aunt Fouzia does tell Zaiba a little more about some of the cases the agency is working on. Of course it’s all supposed to be top secret, but Aunt Fouzia does occasionally let the odd detail slip.

 

Q. Zaiba’s family feels so real. Have you got any tips for aspiring authors about bringing minor characters to life?

A. Think about the minor characters in your book like the cast in a film. You want to make sure you have a wide variety of distinct characters, who all bring something different to the story. You should be able to ‘see’ every character, no matter how minor, in your minds eye. This means that when you’re writing them, they come across as fully formed, realistic, characters.

 

Q. What tips would Zaiba give to other young detectives?

A. Zaiba knows that being organised is key to a good investigation. That means taking thorough notes, photo evidence and making lists are all very important.

 

Q. Zaiba is inspired by her favourite fictional detective, Eden Lockett. Did any fictional detectives inspire your writing?

A. Nancy Drew will always be the ultimate girl detective! However, I also like Violet from the series by Harriet Whitehorn and the Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens.

 

Q. Please can we have a hint on the kind of adventures we might see next from Zaiba, Ali and Poppy?

A. Hmmmm, in the spirit of Zaiba, here’s a series of clues: 1 cup of sugar, 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of summer fun and a dash of a deadly ingredient!

 

My copy of Agent Zaiba Investigates – The Missing Diamonds was sent as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions about the book remain my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. Illustrated by Marco Guadalupi.

Review: Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. Illustrated by Marco Guadalupi.

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Extract:

His first scoop. He carefully folded the note and placed it back on the desk, before putting his fingers on the keys of the typewriter and hammering out

By Jamie Creeden

It looked just as good as he had always imagined it would. 

(Trouble In New York by Sylvia Bishop. P42.)

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Synopsis:

Paperboy Jamie Creeden loves the news. His biggest dream is to be a reporter for the Morning Yorker. He is given a chance to visit the paper’s offices, and on the same day the paper reports an actress missing. Jamie sees his chance to investigate and is drawn into a world of underground criminals and strange events.

Together with Eve, whose family owns the Morning Yorker, and Rose, whose father has been affected by recent events, Jamie tries to solve the mystery before another journalist takes his scoop.

Will Jamie still want to be a reporter when he uncovers the truth?

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Review:

I recently read The Secret Of The Night Train, Sylvia Bishop’s middle-grade mystery published in 2018, and fell in love with her playful yet intelligent style. It was a pleasure to have her latest novel to hand, and I am impressed with how she has built a mystery around a topic issue. Set in the 1960s, at a time when television news is causing a threat to print journalism for the first time, Trouble In New York is a mystery with themes that are relevant in the present day.

Jamie is a great character – he is driven so much by his interests and ambition to become a reporter that at times he forgets all else. He wants to be a good friend, and his morals are in the right place, but getting to a story before adult journalists and winning a competition for young reporters is the central focus of his life. He has read The Morning Yorker every day for practically as long as he can remember. He would trust every word it says.

A trip to the offices suggests things aren’t as rosy and brilliant as they first seem. The workers in the office are male, white and from the same privelleged backgrounds. They think it is a good joke that a paperboy can imagine himself in the same role, and their interest in journalistic values only reaches as far as their next pay packet. It is one of these slacking journalists who gives Jamie his chance to investigate a real story. Except doing so puts Jamie into a whole lot of danger – and also puts him on the scent of a real story.

The trio of main characters has a wonderful dynamic as a group. They each have strengths and flaws in their personalities, and it feels as though the writer has had huge fun writing the different characters’ responses to the same situations. All three are faced with questions about their futures – Eve is expected to live up to family values and expectations, Rose wants to be a firefighter to prove she can be brave, and Jamie reckons he would do anything to become a reporter. Their learning and growth are wonderful, and they make a great team.

This will feed the appetite of mystery readers, while the deeper questions the book explores make it a good choice for readers who are less familiar with the genre. The trio of memorable characters would make this a fabulous first in a series, although Sylvia Bishop has written so well in different settings that I look forward to finding out where her next story is set.  

 

Thanks to Scholastic LTD for my copy of Trouble In New York. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe.

Review: Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe.

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Extract:

‘OK, fairies – one more for luck.’ Mr Lamont squints into his phone. ‘Can the Lilac Fairy move to the front? And Golden Vine, you to the back. Milly, did you hear me? That’s it – a bit further back. Smashing. Everyone smile for the camera. Let’s hear you say “Scarlet Slipper”.’
‘Scarlet Slipper!’
‘Smiley face, Milly. And again . . .’

(Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe. P1.) 

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Synopsis:

First Milly messes up the dance of her life. Then her famous ballerina mother vanishes into mid-air.

After the fiasco at the Scarlet Slipper Ballet Prize event, Milly thinks she has hung up her pointe-shoes for good. Then she receives a mysterious letter telling her she has received a place at Swan House ballet school.

Beneath the tutus and tiaras, Swan House is also a school for spies.

Milly learns about her mother’s time at the school and realises exactly how much danger she is in, but how can Milly help when she can’t even get through her lessons without disaster? And why has she been made lead ballerina in the latest round of the Scarlet Slippers?

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Review:

Who says ballerinas are dainty? They are super fit, trained in languages and they travel the world, which makes them brilliantly placed to be spies. And this is the ballet spy story of your dreams. Think past grudges, secret weapons and lots and lots of dance practice.

Mysteries and detective stories are a favourite genre of mine and this story has incredible series potential. Swan House is a brilliant setting which places equal importance on the two main aspects of its curriculum. It is also an old building with a rich history, and it is home to some technical geniuses as well as to the pupils themselves.

Milly’s storyline is all about jealousy and doubt. Her best friend Willow is a bully and a liar, but she has always received heaps of praise and attention from Milly’s mother. Over the years Milly has struggled to outshine Willow and this rivalry destroys Milly’s confidence until she hangs her shoes up for good. With ballet being notoriously competitive, this was a brilliant storyline.

The first case centres on the school itself, although locations outside the school include a prestigious shop in Covent Garden and Milly’s London home. Pupils from rival schools are invited in to compete in the best fictional school tournament since The Goblet Of Fire. There was a hint of Durmstrang in the distinctive and memorable natures of each school and this will appeal to Potter fans for the nostalgia as well as the story.  

I am certainly enchanted by this new world and look forward to seeing where Milly goes next. Her future spy missions could take her almost anywhere, and I hope she keeps the ballet shoes close to her side.  

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books And Laura Smythe PR for my copy of Peril En Pointe. Opinions my own.

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: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

Review: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

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Extract:

‘And not just any dragon,’ said her father. ‘If I’m not mistaken, it’s a two-hundred-million-years-old dracoraptor, breathing fire across the ages. It’s so perfectly preserved that one could almost believe it capable of springing from its sandstone tomb to hunt again.’ 

(Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John. P45.) 

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Synopsis:

A pair of Hollywood actors arrive in Bluebell Bay, a strange explosion causes a cliff slide and a rare dragon fossil is unearthed on the beach. Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb are thrilled by all the exciting things happening in their local area.

Then an apparently innocent man confesses to the murder of his old friend. The girls begin investigating the death and uncover a whole web of dangerous secrets.

Meanwhile, a series of sheep attacks put Kat’s wild cat Tiny in trouble and he is threatened by an animal control officer. Can Kat and Harper solve the mystery and save Tiny before it is too late?

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Review:

The second book in the Wolf & Lamb Mysteries series brings together a huge number of strange situations and ends in a conclusion which is both satisfying and brilliant in that it offers huge potential for the rest of the series. A new Lauren St John story is always exciting and this book is no exception. With her trademark mix of environmental narratives, Famous Five fluffiness and modern-day technology, Lauren St John has written a page-turner.

Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb met in the first book. With Harper’s coding and language skills and Kat’s intuition and love of animals, the girls were already a strong team. Add Edith, a librarian for life, and new character Kai and the range of skills is formidable.

Kai’s own story builds across the story without distracting us from the main action. During the introduction, we learn that his father, a Chinese herbalist, has been threatened by masked men. Kai’s own quest puts him in touch with Harper and Kat.

As well as strong themes about caring for the world, this book shows how preconceived ideas and prejudice cause people to make uninformed judgments. This is about the good guys picking on good people, and Kat and Harper are as guilty of it as anyone else. When they are called out by their friend Edith, they face up to it admirably and then Kat starts seeing it everywhere. Fear of homeless people, unkindness towards stay dogs and assumptions about a bright young man who dropped out of education. With every person who makes a poorly informed judgement, these characters suffer another setback. Themes like this have never been more important in children’s literature. With politicians, news outlets and policies spouting discrimination, change needs to come from the bottom up. We will never fight prejudice and hate crime until we face up to the problems caused by basically good people making casual statements.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

Review: High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

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Extract:

Norva nudged the bag with her foot and an arm flopped out of the top. On the hand was a ring on each finger. This was a body and this body was Hugo. 

The game was over. 

(From High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson. P37). 

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Synopsis:

The Tri Estate is home to budding detectives Nik and Norva, and they’ve just found resident Hugo dead in the garbage chute. Worse than that, their Dad is the only person with access to paint cans like the one which probably hit Hugo’s head, and the pair were witnessed falling out at a recent meeting.

100% certain their Dad isn’t guilty, however bad it looks, Nik and Norva set to work investigating all the possible suspects. And what’s this message Hugo received about the clock? The girls know Hugo dealt in antiques. Could he possibly have been killed over a valuable timepiece?

A cosy mystery with a Twenty-First century setting.

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Review:

A new detective duo is on the block. Nik and Norva are the sister sleuths to rival all others. Until now, their investigations have covered fairly minor things, but suddenly there is a real crime with big stakes. They rise to the challenge like true pros and the result is a story which kept me turning the pages.

We have a great group of suspects, big questions about how the murder was possible and a strange message which was left for the victim before his death. Added to that is a great cast of side characters like George (the cool kid on the block who gets everywhere. Sees things) and Katie (whose job as a police officer has taken her away from The Tri, but whose heart still belongs with that community). The voices are so authentic that it was like being back in London. I grew up on the Central Line and recognised too well the divisions shown in the story. The communities living around the corner from each other but figurative worlds about.

Most importantly, this story reflected London authentically, in a way I have seen in very few children’s stories. Not so many years ago, the voices of my neighbours and friends weren’t reflected in fiction. I lived in this amazing place that was like the whole world pushed into a few square miles, but the world inside fiction was white and middle-class. This is still an issue because, although stories like High Rise Mystery are being published, only a tiny percentage have main characters who are not white. A big thumbs-up to Sharna Jackson for capturing the many voices and faces of London.

Anybody who follows my Twitter will know how much I love Nik’s character. From the opening pages I knew that, in many ways, Nik was like me. What caught my attention was the way she summarises situations in percentages. Whatever the question is, Nik wants the percentage breakdown. She’s analytical and quick to spot the significance of small details which other characters overlook. Her voice was so real I felt more like I had met her than read about her in a story, and I can’t wait to catch up with her next adventure.

A modern-day mystery which will appeal to fans of Murder Most Unladylike and another hit from new kids on the block Knights Of.  

 

Thanks to Colour Pr and Knights Of for my gifted copy of High Rise Mystery. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Knights And Bikes by Gabrielle Kent

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Extract:

‘The knights who left decided that the treasure was cursed. They wanted to return it, but one night the whole castle just disappeared without a trace.

No one knew what happened to it, or the knights, or their pile of treasure. I reckon they all fought each other to little pieces, then they rotted and their eyes fell out and now their skellingtons guard the treasure from anyone who comes looking for it.’

(Knights And Bikes by Gabrielle Kent. P23.)

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Synopsis:

Penfurzy Island is the best home in the world. There’s a scrapyard, a tor and a not-so-busy caravan park where Demelza lives. When another girl appears in the middle of the night, Demelza is determined to prove that exciting things do happen on Penfurzy, starting with the legend of the Penfurzy Knights and their missing treasure.

Then Demelza’s Dad makes a terrible announcement: he is going to sell the caravan park.

Can Demelza, her new friend Nessa and Honkers the goose find the treasure in time to save the caravan park? Who is Nessa anyway, and what is she doing on Penfurzy? Action and adventure and foam swords abound in this Retro-adventure.

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Review:

Remember the games you played between five and eleven-or-so? The ones where you and your friends could take on anything with a weapon (be it a toy sword, invisible ray-gun or silly string), transport (skateboard, bike or scooter) and a pinch of imagination. Knights And Bikes conjures up those games in a way which will make adult readers nostalgic. The best part of all? The Penfurzy Knights are real.

I loved the realistic setting. Lots of quest narratives are about children taken out of the ordinary. Children with special powers or equipment or all-powerful mentors. Nessa and Demelza are ordinary kids with a slice of attitude. They know they can do anything if only they pedal the fastest.

The story is set in the 1980s – a move which will be popular with many parents of current middle-grade readers. Novice writers are often told that children aren’t interested in the recent past. The advice is not to lose sight of modern childhood in favour of your own. I’ve always found this a pity – children are generally receptive and open to stories set in other periods of history and I think it is important for children to be able to place their special adults on a timeline and to understand what made their childhoods different.

I also liked that the nostalgia wasn’t rose-tinted. The bad (see the chain-smoking worker) is shown alongside the brilliant.

Knights Of is a brand-new publisher whose list for 2019 is looking very exciting. They are on a mission to publish voices which are underrepresented in children’s publishing, and they’ve already found some fabulous and exciting stories. Knights And Bikes was longlisted for the Blue Peter award and I’m we’ll hear more from this publisher in the near future.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Murder At Twilight by Fleur Hitchcock

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Synopsis:

The worst thing about living on a big estate is Noah. Viv’s mum has cared for Noah since he was a baby and Noah has always been the most important. He thinks he is far more important than Viv. Viv has grown up in the shaddow of the big house and the heir to the Belcombe family fortune. 

Then Noah disappears. At the same time, his PE teacher goes missing and is named as a major suspect. Viv is forced to question everything she thinks she knows about life on the estate. 

With Mum held as a suspect, it is up to Viv to figure out what has happened. A gripping and totally modern mystery.

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Review:

It is no secret that I love middle-grade mysteries. Fleur Hitchcock’s stories are the closest thing in the middle-grade cannon to adult crime novels. They are set in the modern day, which is fairly unusual. There is no shying away from the internet, mobile phone technology and modern policing here.

The story gives a little more detail about the crime than other mysteries. Do you remember knowing about crime dramas on television but being told they weren’t suitable? Nothing frustrates kids more than being told they are too young to handle something. These will be a hit with fearless readers. The grizzly details come in manageable doses, and the worst comes when the protagonist is safe. This allows a taste of those forbidden subjects but keeps the age of the audience in mind. 

There was good tension between the main characters. Viv and Noah are forced to work together despite the fact they have spent years at war. We are able to empathise with both characters at different times – Viv has grown up feeling second-best and Noah is quickly labelled because of who his parents are. He is also under huge pressure to grow into a particular role. 

The story also has a strong setting – a rural landscape of rivers and sawmills. It is easy to get lost in and full of interesting micro-settings. 

A strong mystery set firmly in the modern day. The story will keep you guessing, and you want to follow Viv and Noah to a safe end. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my arc of Murder At Twilight. Opinions my own.