Book reviews: Mysteries, magic and furry friends for a new reading season

As the new school term gets under way, there is plenty of reading fun to keep youngsters smiling this January.

Mysteries, magic and furry friends for a new reading season
Mysteries, magic and furry friends for a new reading season

Age 8 plus:

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

Twelve-year-old Matthew Corbin’s bedroom is the best part of his house… it’s safe, it’s free from germs and it’s not ‘out there’ where life is ‘dangerous.’

Matthew needs things to be ‘right’ and in his room he has ‘complete control.’ That is important to Matthew because he suffers from severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that has made him a virtual recluse.

But when a little boy staying next door goes missing, the ever-watchful Matthew must turn detective to help find him… even if that means leaving the safety of his bedroom.

Welcome to the complex, compelling and extraordinary debut novel from former radio producer Lisa Thompson whose moving and inspirational story puts mental health centre stage.

With its cast of quirky characters, an intriguing mystery and an emotionally intelligent young narrator forced to battle his demons, obsessions and guilt, this is a classy middle-grade novel which cleverly blends exciting adventure with important contemporary issues.

Matthew hasn’t been to school for weeks. Trapped in his bedroom by his illness, and with his hands cracked and bleeding from over-cleaning them, he passes the time by observing his neighbours from the window, making mundane notes about their habits as they bustle about the suburban cul-de-sac in London.

He knows the vicar’s widow at the old rectory keeps a low profile in case someone from church makes her move out and that Mr Charles next door – ‘anything from sixty-five to ninety-five’ – loves pottering in his garden.

But when a toddler called Teddy, who is staying with his grandfather Mr Charles, goes missing, it soon becomes apparent that Matthew was the last person to see him alive and the reclusive boy finds himself at the centre of a high-stakes mystery.

Every one of his neighbours in Chestnut Close is a suspect and Matthew is the key to working out what happened and potentially saving Teddy’s life... but it will mean exposing his own secrets, and stepping out from the safety of his home.

Thompson is an astute and insightful writer, allowing us to understand the causes and triggers for Matthew’s OCD through slow, carefully observed revelations and a sequence of seminal back stories.

The Goldfish Boy opens up the complexities and realities of this debilitating mental illness in an accessible and comprehensible manner without losing sight of the importance of keeping young readers fully engaged in an exciting and ultimately uplifting mystery story.

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

Age 10 plus:

Alice Jones: The Ghost Light by Sarah Rubin

Maths-whizz Alice Jones, the super cool sleuth that everyone wanted to be at the age of ten, returns to solve another gripping mystery… and this time there are some ghostly goings-on to keep her super-scientific brain buzzing.

The adventures of junior detective Alice, a smart and witty detective who loves maths and science, are most definitely of the irresistibly quirky variety which always proves so addictive for young readers… and an inspiration for young girls eyeing up a career involving science, technology, engineering or maths.

The Ghost Light is the all-action sequel to the acclaimed The Impossible Clue and the new case for Alice Jones, the Nancy Drew for a new generation and star of an entertaining new detective series from US author Sarah Rubin who combines classic mystery tales with the realities of modern day life in Philadelphia.

Alice likes a challenge and has already solved a mystery or two. When it comes to figuring things out, she’s the ‘go to’ girl. Philadelphia’s old refurbished theatre, the Beryl, is re-opening but just days before opening night, the ghost light, which is always left on at night to appease the ghosts of actors, is mysteriously extinguished. Alice is called in and digs into the Beryl’s past, sleuthing in a network of dark backstage corridors and cobwebby storage rooms. Gradually, she starts to uncover the 100-year-old secret of the theatre… a stolen diamond. Is the Beryl haunted by a ghost, or a living thief?

Packed with charm, humour, a mind-bending mystery and mathematical conundrums, this highly original and intriguing whodunit is perfect for young readers who like their adventure books to be both fun and challenging.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Beaky Malone: Worst Ever School Trip by Barry Hutchison and Kate Abey

Make room on your reading list this year for the second laugh-out-loud book in the brilliantly comic adventure series from Barry Hutchison, an award-winning children’s author and screenwriter who has his finger firmly on the pulse of children’s humour.

The star of these irresistible stories is Dylan Malone, aka Beaky, a naughty but nice schoolboy who has a hilarious habit of telling porkies… yes, every time he opens his mouth, out pops a whopper, whether that’s a proclamation that he is in love with the school dinner lady, or swearing blind that the dog ate his homework.

The Beaky Malone books – a joy for naughty schoolboys everywhere – feature suitably anarchic illustrations from the pen of illustrator Kate Abey and come courtesy of Stripes Publishing, a ‘small-but-mighty’ imprint of the Little Tiger Press stable which prides itself on creating books that children want to read.

And there is certainly plenty of fun to be found in the latest outrageous antics of Beaky Malone. It has been 92 hours since he last told a lie (probably because he stepped inside the world’s only truth-telling machine) and so far he has survived two full days of school with only three light beatings, two tellings-off and one wedgie.

However, the annual school trip is going to take Beaky’s survival skills to a whole new level, especially as a mix-up in the school office means that Beaky and his class are on a trip to Learning Land, an educational theme park aimed at eight-year-olds and where the job of cheery-but-creepy Clumso the Clued-up Clown is to dish out fascinating facts to one and all.

But there is worse to come for Beaky when he is partnered with Wayne, the school bully, who has a morbid fear of clowns. With Beaky unable to tell a lie – not even a tiny fib – and Wayne intent on beating him up, things aren’t looking good. And that is before they find themselves on the run from a manic clown who will seemingly stop at nothing to track them down…

Hutchison’s imagination moves into overdrive in this hilarious knockabout tale filled with crazy capers, madcap moments and frantic antics. Hold on to your hats, take a deep breath and prepare to laugh your socks off because Beaky is back.

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 7-8:

Amy Lee and the Darkness Hex by Amy Lee

A recent survey of children aged seven to fourteen revealed that one in three girls play games every day, and yet girls are more reluctant to describe themselves as serious gamers than boys…

So bypass YouTube and dive into the first of a series of illustrated novels written by Number One girl gamer Amy Lee which presents the Land of Love in a whole new way.

There could be no better way to discover the cutesy online world of Amy Lee, star of the biggest girls’ gaming channel in the UK and the bringer of love and adventure. Every day Amy, who has over 900,000 YouTube subscribers and nine million views a month, uploads videos and all have a heart-warming central message of love for each other.

In this first entertaining outing, we find something terribly wrong in Amy Lee’s Land of Love. A strange purple cloud has appeared on the horizon, and Amy discovers that the trees are all dying in the forest. Can Amy defeat the dark forces threatening her beloved kingdom before it’s too late?

Fully illustrated and packed with adventure, Amy Lee and the Darkness Hex brings to life the richly imagined world of Minecraft’s AmyLee33 in a high-octane quest that will leave fans laughing, gasping in shock, and repeating the familiar ‘Loves it!’

So what are you waiting for? Enter Amy Lee’s amazing Land of Love without even tapping a key!

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

Angela Nicely: Starstruck! by Alan MacDonald and David Roberts

Not-so-Nicely does it! Meet Angela Nicely, the girl who looks like she’s made of sugar and spice but isn’t quite as sweet as she would have you believe.

Angela is the invention of top team Alan MacDonald and David Roberts, creators of Dirty Bertie, the yukky boy with nose-pickingly disgusting habits who struggled to escape Angela’s clutches in the adventure story Kiss!

In these three madcap tales of mishaps and mayhem, ideal for confident readers, Angela is determined to cause a stir whether she is tussling with Tiffany over who is the biggest super-fan, helping her mum with the Best kept Garden Competition or trying her hand as an Agony Aunt.

Roberts’ brilliantly energetic artwork is the perfect complement to MacDonald’s hair-raising heroine with her larger-than-life personality and her unwavering desire to be the best at simply everything.

Girls behaving badly has never been so much fun!

(Stripes, paperback, £4.99)

Age 5 plus:

Furry Friends: Marshmallow Magic by Holly Webb

Get ready to dance for joy as Josephine, a tutu-wearing guinea pig and the cuddliest ballet star on the block, gets back on her points for another high-leaping adventure.

Madcap little Josephine is the adorable star of Furry Friends, a gorgeous, warm-hearted series from the animal magician of children’s books, Holly Webb, and talented illustrator Clare Elsom.

Sophie wasn’t happy about moving to a strange new country and starting at a new school. She was lonely in Paris and missing her cat Oscar who had been left behind with Grandma. But then she met Josephine, a macaroon-eating, tutu-wearing, talking guinea pig who lives with her furry friends and family underneath the city’s famous Sacré Coeur church.

Their existence is a big secret and one that Sophie must keep. Josephine has become the best friend Sophie had been looking for but then she meets Josephine’s sister Angelique who is not nearly as friendly. In fact, the other guinea pig is positively mean and thinks humans and guinea pigs shouldn’t even be friends. Can Sophie win over Angelique and show her that being friends with a human can be fun?

Comical, reassuring and packed with high-energy fun and action, Sophie and Josephine’s extravagant exploits are guaranteed to steal the show…

(Scholastic, paperback, £4.99)

Age 6 plus:

Monty the Sad Puppy by Holly Webb and Sophy Williams

Much-loved author Holly Webb conjures up more animal magic in the 35th book in her adorable Animal Stories series for young readers.

Webb, who has written over 90 books for children, brings us the cute and cuddly story of a puppy who feels unwanted when a rival dog moves into his home.

Amelie has always loved dogs but she never dreamed that she would end up with two of them. Her gorgeous puppy Monty has only been with them for a few months when her family offer to take in her grandad’s beloved Daisy when he falls ill and has to go into a care home. Amelie promises Grandad that they will take good care of his old dachshund. But when Daisy arrives, she is obviously unhappy and scared.

Meanwhile, Monty doesn’t understand why there is another dog in his house. And with Amelie making such a fuss over the new arrival, he soon starts to feel very unwanted. Doesn’t Amelie care about him any more?

Sophy Williams provides the gorgeous black and white illustrations for an enchanting story that is sure to capture the hearts of every animal-loving child. And fans can also discover the free Puppies and Kittens app on App Store and Google Play. It’s jam-packed with exciting activities from fantastic games and puzzles to creative colouring and sticker fun.

Perfect for children just starting to read alone, youngsters who love to share a book with mum and dad and any child who can’t resist the magical allure of animals.

(Stripes, paperback, £5.99)

Age 3 plus:

Woodland Hedgehugs Activity Book by Steve Wilson and Lucy Tapper

A new year is here and it’s time to pull on your wellies and discover the wonder of the woods with adorable hedgehog friends Horace and Hattie.

Horace and Hattie are the brainchildren of Steve Wilson and Lucy Tapper, a husband and wife team who have merged their creative talents for an enchanting picture book series about the two playful hedgehogs.

Steve Wilson, a British television presenter who has worked on CBBC and This Morning, writes the heart-warming stories to bewitch and beguile young readers and his talented illustrator wife Lucy Tapper creates the characters and backgrounds for Hedgehugs.

In this enchanting activity book, packed with messy sensory play ideas, Horace and Hattie discover that the woodland is home to lots of little animals, big animals, insects, plants and trees… in fact, it’s a place full of adventure and learning.

Tick off your finds, make your own sensory box to store woodland discoveries, play colour games, make pine playdough and leaf prints, follow the animal tracks, learn fascinating facts and make your own woodland at home.

Young imaginations will take flight as the woodland springs to glorious life and Horace and Hattie join in all the fun and adventure.

A magical activity book for enquiring minds and inquisitive youngsters.

(Maverick, paperback, £5.99)