3 brilliant middlegrade mysteries

Anyone else feeling totally frazzled at the moment? I’ve been reading quite a few middle-grade mysteries recently as my brain has needed some good old-fashioned adventure and escape from all the heavy grown up thoughts. So, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourites in case you need some time out too (and there might just be a young person in your life who would enjoy a good mystery as well 😊).

The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant. Faber & Faber.

This is the story of Alice, an introverted girl with a passion for story writing. She is grieving the loss of her mum and although she adores her dad, he isn’t around all that much. Her aunt decides that a boarding school in the wilds of Scotland will bring Alice out of her shell – especially as this is rather an eccentric school, with rather an unusual curriculum. Friendships blossom in the form of strait-laced Jesse and mischievous joker Fergus. Together they take part in the yearly school orienteering challenge and use this as an opportunity to meet up with Alice’s father on a remote island, after Alice receives a rather mysterious note attached to a parcel that she must not open…

Why I loved it: It’s a gorgeous contemporary adventure story, full of friendship, quests and mystery. The Scottish setting is beautifully written, and the characters made the child within me want to be friends with them. The relationship development between the friends as well as that  between Alice and her dad felt really genuine in all its complexities and I loved that this is very much a story of finding where you belong and how family is something beyond biology. There is also some fabulous humour in there to lighten the adventure and balance out the more serious aspects such as loss, not fitting in and the consequences of trusting someone you care for, both positive and negative. Plus, the cover is just stunning isn’t it?

A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths. Hachette Children’s Group

My second recommendation takes us back in time to the 1930s, where we meet twelve-year-old Justice, whose very busy QC father has decided to send her to a boarding school following the death of her mother. Having been home schooled by her mum until this point, this new way of life takes a lot of getting used to. But Justice is addicted to solving mysteries (her mum was a mystery writer) and is always on the look out for real ones to investigate; she is soon immersed in the secrets of Highbury House Boarding School and the suspicious death of a maid…

Why I loved it: Justice is such a sparky, determined, intelligent character, who completely draws you into her world. I loved the way Griffiths creates such a sense of time and places; I was right there in the 30s, exploring the isolated boarding school out on the marshes. The mystery itself was gripping with plenty of tension and intrigue and I enjoyed how the darker moments are interspersed with humour and witty observations (something Griffiths also does so well in her adult crime books). I also found the headmistress Miss de Vere most intriguing; she is illusive and difficult to work out; I love a complex character, who may not be all that she seems!

I asked Elly Griffiths on Twitter whether Justice’s adventures will become a series and thank goodness she is in the process of writing book 2 – it’s always the sign of  a great story isn’t it, when you can’t wait to see what happens next?

The Agatha Oddly series by Lena Jones. HarperCollins Children’s Books

Why I love this contemporary mystery series: Above all, it is 13-year-old Agatha as a character that makes this series for me. She is quirky, incredibly intelligent, intuitive and her zest for solving mysteries is just contagious. I love that she is a bit of an outsider, that these books are as much about Agatha discovering where she fits into the world as the mysteries she attempts to solve.  Plus, she adores Agatha Christie (therefore a kindred spirit) and I love that when she is in the process of working something out, she often imagines a tiny Poirot giving her detecting advice. Her adventures involve plenty of clever puzzle solving, a secret society and a mysterious, hidden side of London. It’s a smart, tightly plotted and quirky series and book 3, The Silver Serpent, is out on the 5th September 😊

P.S. I can highly recommend the audio books; the narrator is absolutely perfect as Agatha!

Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff: a review of a forgotten gem

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My wonderful, all things Scottish loving, bookish friend Mel made me aware of Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff through the Scotland Street Press Instagram account. She said that it felt like  “a very Milena-like book” and oh how well she knows me! I’m a passionate auntie, I love reading children’s adventure stories from the 1930s/40s plus I have a love of Scotland too. There is also a rather lovely personal aspect to the republication of Auntie Robbo as Jean Findlay, the founder of Scotland Street Press, is actually Scott Moncrieff’s granddaughter, who wishes to delight a new generation with Robbo and her grandnephew Hector’s adventures. Like Scott Moncrieff, My Omi (German grandma) was also a talented storyteller and I so wish her stories had been published to make the world that little bit richer too. So, to get to the point, I of course said yes to a proof copy and to taking part in the blog tour.

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Synopsis: This is the story of eleven-year-old Hector, who lives with his rather quirky great aunt Robbo (Robina) in the Scottish countryside near Edinburgh. Their lives are turned upside down when an ominous woman presenting herself as Hector’s stepmother arrives, causing great aunt and nephew to escape to the Highlands, where they also pick up three homeless children along the way. Plenty of adventures ensue as they travel the Scottish landscape, hoping to stay ahead of the dreaded Merlissa Benck, who is determined to get her own way.

For me, the challenge of reading this book lay in consciously not reading from an adult perspective and not analysing everything to high heaven as I usually do but letting the joy and the adventure take over and remembering what it was like to read as a child. There was so much to enjoy:

I adored Auntie Robbo: I hope that I have her spirit, quirkiness  and energy when I am in my 80s and that my nieces care for me as much as Hector does. She is like an old version of Pippi Longstocking (a childhood heroine of mine)  with that same zest for life, the same heart of gold and the ability to cause confusion, chaos and disapproval from other adults wherever she goes. I think it’s fabulous how Scott Moncrieff challenges the stereotypical image of what being old looks like and the way she illustrates just how much an older person has to offer a child.

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The relationship between Robbo and Hector: This is deep and tender and very much on an equal footing. They care for each other and this is portrayed so beautifully: Hector very much looks out for Auntie Robbo in her more eccentric moments and Auntie Robbo in turn makes sure Hector is loved and installs an awesome love of nature and independence in her nephew. Here I must also mention Hector himself, who is also quite special; rather than being a typical boy character as found in many stories of the period, he is sensitive, intelligent, compassionate and often introverted. I loved him.

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The joy of nature and pride in Scotland: The description of the natural world that Robbo and Hector adore and explore has been written with such love and in a way that totally transported me into the story’s landscape. Scott Moncrieff’s  love of the sea shone through especially brightly for me.AR Cover Image 1

The sheer adventure of it all and the simplicity and freedom of a slower time: I think that this really appeals to me as an adult as well as the child within;  it is what I wish for my nieces and younger, tech-savvy generations in general  – to rediscover the natural landscape, to wholeheartedly enjoy themselves, to experience that sense of freedom and let their imagination roam free. Plus, I love it when children save the day in an adventure 😊AR Cover Image 1 (2)

The comedy: This book made me chuckle at several points and the dry sense of humour really added character to the narrative. To name just one example: what’s not to love about a disgruntled one-horned goat out for revenge?!

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The suspense: the atmosphere Moncrieff build up in the second half of the book when the setting changes is a delight and would certainly have made me read under the covers past my bedtime as a child – I can’t really say more without spoiling the reading adventure.AR Cover Image 1 (2)

A book of its time: With my adult hat on I will say that it is a book of its time, just as all books of the past are, and this is worth noting if you plan on sharing Auntie Robbo. The pace is slower than today’s middle grade fiction tends to be and sometimes the language feels more complex/more adult orientated than today’s children generally come across (and this  is by no means a criticism but something to be aware of).

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My final thoughts:  I think Auntie Robbo is very much a forgotten gem and I hope that this republication will allow it to be as enjoyed and loved as it deserves to be. My nieces are over at the weekend, I think its time they got to meet Auntie Robbo 😊

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{I think this is a rather lovely photo of Ann Scott Moncrieff}

Opal Plumstead

I think that quite often children’s fiction is more open and honest than adult fiction. It reaches out in a very special way and can be an awesome teacher. So often the sheer creativity found in a well-crafted children’s book by far surpasses an adult novel. Opal Plumstead, by Jacqueline Wilson, delivers all of this in one wonderfully purple covered package.

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Opal is an intelligent, sparky and artistic fourteen-year-old, living in the post Edwardian/pre-World War I period. She is lower middle class, has a scholarship to a local girls’ school and keeps getting told off in art class for not being realistic enough. Her relationship with her mother is a difficult one as her mother shows little love for her, choosing instead to criticise severely. Opal is too plain, too bookish, too creative. Not what a girl should be. Then life changes dramatically as her father is sent to prison for taking money at work; Opal is forced to leave school and work in a sweet factory to save her family from the workhouse. Whilst working there, Opal meets the progressive factory owner and suffragette Mrs Roberts and there is also romance in the air in the form of Mrs Roberts’ son Morgan. I won’t give any more away as I obviously think you should read or listen to the book, however be prepared for an ending that is far from sugar coated.

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On one level, Opal Plumstead is simply a cracking read; had I not been listening as an audiobook, I think I would have devoured the actual book in one sitting. The plot is well mapped, the writing lively and brilliantly engaging. The characters jump from the page and it feels like Opal is a personal friend, telling you her life story.

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But it is also so much more. Wilson takes her audience seriously, she clearly believes they are able to deal with more than a good story. She immerses the reader in the time period. The details are there in abundance but sometimes subtle or not obviously explained, so that the reader learns but may have to go and find out more by herself/himself. Big themes such as emancipation, class division, poverty, difficult relationships and loss are explored. It is a very real feeling story, showing life to be challenging and even dark at times. It isn’t all bleak though; the wonderful moments are celebrated too: the pride you feel in yourself when your opinion is taken seriously for the first time or the exhilaration of first love. She wants her audience to feel, to think and form their own opinions.

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I also must mention the reader/narrative voice chosen for this audiobook version because I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her – and I am rather picky when it comes to audiobook narrators! Madeleine Leslay has a really expressive, clear and fluid reading style. As well as this, she is fully in character throughout. I love it when you can tell that the narrator believes in the book she is giving a voice to.

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What I love most of all about all the Jacqueline Wilson books I have read (and I have read a fair few) is the resilience of her determined girl leads. Books that empower children are so very important but I think that books that empower girls in this current climate are vital.