Review: Mystery and Mayhem – a short story collection

What it says on the tin – fantastic murder mysteries by contemporary children’s authors.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Egmont

I am partial to a good short story collection, and Mystery and Mayhem really delivers that bite-sized intrigue every short story should have. There is not a dull moment, and every story is on point.

Each writer has a unique voice, with a fascinating way of murdering their literary creations. Some play with your head, some play with your emotion – some do both in wonderful combination. Peppered with that special brand of British humour, with elements which range Gorey-esque to Blackadder and everything in between, the stories are separated into Impossible Mysteries, Canine Capers, Poison Plots or Closed-system Crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the majority of these stories are set in the past – anything from Sherlock Holmes’ time to Hercule Poirot’s. This allows for a glamorous feel to the collection, with exotic fruit hidden in hoop skirts and horse-drawn carriages alongside online research and dog-walking services.

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fun, well-written literature (so… anyone). The stories are fantastic and, as I realised after I’d read it, they are all written by women. As it should be, no attention is drawn to this fact, they are simply described as “twelve of the best children’s crime writers writing today.” Yet it is hardly surprising, in retrospect, as the female characters are well-rounded and interesting, and there is a strong portrayal of male-female friendships with no need for romance, which is refreshing to read.

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Review: Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

Role reversal in a High Fantasy world.

Publication date: 7th June 2016
Publisher: First Second Books

In a world of fantastical creatures, elves and adventurers, it seems like there’s no place for Goblin. When his best friend Skeleton is cruelly taken as loot, he has to leave his cave and enter this hostile world, but it turns out that more people like goblins than you might think.

Nobody Likes a Goblin ticked all the boxes for me. It’s funny, fantastically illustrated and has a well-executed plot. The humour appeals to young readers as well as adults, especially those with knowledge of high fantasy tropes, along the lines of Dungeons and Dragons. There are even multiple threads which come together at the end, something which is not easily done in the confines of a picture book. This is a great achievement on Hatke’s part.

The illustrations are wonderful, with consistent attention to detail. Hatke obviously also has a tendency towards ‘easter eggs’, as the book is peppered with entertaining elements hidden in the background. The characters are remarkably expressive and the landscapes are portrayed with a depth which contributes to the fantastical atmosphere.

I recommend this picture book to readers of all ages – it has all the qualities of a great book. In terms of illustration, let’s just say that there are pages in there that I’d like to have as prints on my wall. Nobody Likes a Goblin is a fantastic read, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Hatke.

 

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Historical fantasy with a feisty heroine.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Egmont

I really enjoyed Serafina and the Black Cloak – a strong middle grade mystery which keeps you on your toes throughout. Serafina is a great protagonist to follow, and the plot blends personal self-discovery with social commentary and magical threats. Set on the Biltmore Estate, Serafina is hiding in the Vanderbilt house as the secret daughter of their live-in engineer. When the children in the house start to disappear, she is forced to emerge from her isolated life in order to get to the bottom of the puzzle.

The glitz and glamour of the Vanderbilt family’s manor comes into stark contrast with our heroine, who has never received a present in her life and whose only clothes are her father’s old shirts. As Serafina allows herself to access the world that surrounds her but that she’s never been a part of, the reader is also introduced to the Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age. The historical elements transition smoothly into the fantastical, as the Man in the Black Cloak takes centre stage.

Beatty’s writing style is simple – perhaps a little too simple at times – and conversational. I especially liked the use of dialect and slang, which Serafina’s father uses regularly, and which she herself slips into. Not only does it serve to accentuate the social differences between the ‘upstairs’ and the ‘downstairs,’ it also creates a more complete picture of the life and experiences of Serafina and her “pa.”

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a magical mystery, with a wild atmosphere and a truly terrifying villain. The novel stops short of ‘gritty’ due to its strong message of friendship and love, but considering the two major climaxes occur in a graveyard, and Beatty does not hesitate to write blood and gore, I’d prepare for a gripping read.

 

Review: Geek Girl 5: Head Over Heels by Holly Smale

A solid new addition to the Geek Girl series.

Publication date: 7th April 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

The fifth instalment in the Geek Girl series, Head Over Heels does not disappoint. True to form, we follow Harriet Manners down complex routes, as she tries to navigate being a total geek, and a top model.

Focusing, not so much on romance – though there is a dash of that! – but on the value of friendship and family, Harriet Manners develops in a new, though perhaps not unexpected, way in this novel. Despite retaining the humour which runs through the entire series, there is a seriousness to this book which only shines through in glimpses. Harriet is trying to juggle the memories and heartbreak, whilst intent on being carefree and ‘fun’ – something the reader only slowly realises might be taking its toll on our vibrant heroine.

The writing is clear and up-beat, with a natural flow to it which keeps the reader hooked. The characters are the perfect balance of unrealistic (who can regurgitate so many facts and still retain friends?!) and totally relatable, making for a wonderfully entertaining novel. Harriet is a fantastic creation with an ever-expanding emotional world, resourceful and impressive as always.

I would have to recommend the series in its entirety, as the reader definitely gains a lot from having a bit of context, however it is good enough to potentially stand on its own. It’s a great, humorous book for a middle grade audience. I would recommend avoiding it if you have difficulty dealing with misunderstandings and awkwardness – as I know some people do. Otherwise, a thoroughly enjoyable read.