Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

B.B. Alston’s debut middle grade novel, Amari and the Night Brothers, has been one of my most anticipated books of 2021. It feels like forever that I’ve had it on my to-be-read list. There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book and lots of marketing to get it in front of readers. After having just finished it, I can confirm that it is totally worth the hype. This is the first book in a new series that will have readers, including myself, counting down the weeks, days and minutes until the next book in the series is released.

Amari has a scholarship to a prestigious school, where she is constantly reminded how much she doesn’t fit in. She is picked on constantly because she lives in the wrong part of town and she’s Black. She lives with her mum, and until recently, her brother Quinton. Her brother is currently missing and nobody seems to be doing anything to try and find him. Amari receives a package from her brother, with an invitation to attend an interview at the place where he worked. Thanks to her brother’s nomination, Amari is introduced to a world that she never knew existed. Amari joins the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, an organisation charged with protecting the known world from the world of the unknown. Her eyes are now open to the weirdness of the world and she can see the supernatural creatures around her that are hiding in plain sight. Amari must be awarded a badge and decide which part of the organisation that she would like to belong to. At the badge ceremony, Amari is identified as a magician, something that is illegal in the supernatural world. Amari now finds herself even more of an outcast than she was at her school and she has to try and prove to those around her that she isn’t evil. Amari decides to try out for a position as a Junior Agent for the Department of Supernatural Investigations, following in her brother’s footsteps. Her brother was one of the most famous Junior Agent’s before he disappeared, leaving few clues behind about his disappearance. While facing the three try-outs to become a Junior Agent, Amari makes it her mission to find out more about her brother and his disappearance. Together with her new friends, Amari must use her new skills and the information she gathers to stop the Night Brothers and their apprentice from getting their hands on a weapon that could bring about the end of the world.

Amari and the Night Brothers is an addictive read that is bursting with magic and imagination. I was hooked from the start and constantly marveled by B.B. Alston’s imagination. Reading this gave me the same tingles that I got reading Nevermoor, because the world is so fully realised and it’s full of really clever and funny details. The story is action-packed and you care about the characters, so you keep turning the pages because you need to know what happens. Even when you get to the end of the story it’s still exciting because you know that you’ve only just scratched the surface of this world and what is going on, so there will be (hopefully) many more books to come. Amari is just coming in to her powers and figuring out who she is, so you know that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Amari has grown up in a neighbourhood where she didn’t have much, but she did have her family. Whether it is at Jefferson Academy, where she is picked on because of the colour of her skin and where she lives, or at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where she is an outcast as a magician, Amari is told that she isn’t good enough.

It’s kind of like how being a Black kid from the projects makes Mr. Jenson feel the need to watch me extra close every time I come in his store. Or how surprised my scholarship interviewers were that I could speak so well. People assume stuff about you based on things you can’t change about yourself.

Amari just does her ‘best to prove them wrong, to be the person they’re not expecting.’ She does this throughout the book, trying to prove that she is worthy to have a place in the Bureau and that she isn’t the evil magician they think she is.

The Bureau is a fascinating place and I really enjoyed learning about the different parts of it and the way that it operates. It seems like one of those places that you would never really know everything about. There are so many different floors and areas and we only see a handful of them in this first book. I particularly enjoyed the Department of the Unexplained, which has a room called the Origin of Both the Chicken and the Egg. Each of the elevators has a different personality too, from ones that sing opera to ones that like to prank kids.

There are lots of quirky details that give this world depth (and make me laugh). There is a gossip magazine called Rumours and Whisperings, in which one of the headlines is ‘Dwarves insulted by Merlin’s insinuation that golden city is merely gold-plated.’ Amari and her friends sneak out to the All-Souls Festival in the story and discover the Sweet Dreams tent, where you can purchase liquids that give you the dreams that you want. They have titles like Richest Person in the World and Sweet, Sweet Revenge.

Amari and the Night Brothers is the perfect book to recommend to anyone who loves Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series or Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series. Anyone who loves stories with magic, superpowers, secret organisations, the supernatural or the unexplained will love Amari and the Night Brothers. I can’t wait to see where B.B. Alston takes us next!

Max Meow: Cat Crusader by John Gallagher

Do you know a kid that’s read all of the Dog Man books multiple times? Do you want to keep that reading spark alive by giving them something similar? You need to get your hands on John Gallagher’s meow-tastic new graphic novel series, Max Meow: Cat Crusader.

Max was just an ordinary cat, with a pretty average internet show, until the day that he accidentally eats a piece of space meatball and gets superpowers. His scientist friend Mindy discovered the meatball on her travels in space and brought it back to earth to investigate. Now Max can fly and has super strength, so he becomes the Cat Crusader and protects Kittyopolis. Agent M, Reggie and their boss, Big Boss, want to get their hands on Mindy and her space meatball so it’s up to Max to figure out this superhero thing and save the day. Oh, and stop the giant mini-golf monsters while he’s at it!

Meow-za! Max Meow: Cat Crusader is a super fun, action-packed read that will have kids and adults begging for more. There’s something in this book for everyone – superpowers, cats, villains, a robot with daddy issues, monsters, cliff-hanger endings and laughs galore. I had to read this over just two nights to my 5 year old daughter because she couldn’t stand waiting to know what happened in the next chapter. John Gallagher sets that up perfectly by ending each chapter with questions, like ‘WHAT will Mindy show Max? WHY is there a floating whale in Mindy’s lab?’ It’s one of the first graphic novels I’ve read aloud and it works so well. We giggled along together and each picked up different things in the illustrations.

John’s illustrations have heaps of kid appeal. They’re bright, colourful, and full of action and expression. John hasn’t let himself be constricted by the panels, as the action and characters often flow through or burst into other panels, and even right off the page.

The humour works on lots of different levels too. John uses puns in the text and there are plenty of visual gags. There are jokes for the kids and jokes for the adults. I especially enjoyed the character of Cody the dog, who doesn’t say anything but always gives a thumbs up. I also really like Reggie the robot who can’t seem to stop referring to Agent M as Daddy.

Max Meow: Cat Crusader is a must-have graphic novel for all primary and intermediate school libraries. It will be snapped up straight away and it’s popularity will spread like wildfire. Kids will be begging for the next book in the series, which is due out here in NZ in July. My daughter and I can’t wait for Max Meow: Donuts and Danger!

The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant

Imagine if clothes could affect your mood or change aspects of your personality. A hat could give you a confidence boost, give you a dash of bravado, help you sleep or fall in love. In Tamzin Merchant’s enchanting debut middle grade book, The Hatmakers, clothes have these magical properties and their creators are highly valued craftspeople.

Cordelia is part of the Hatmaker family. For centuries her family have been the creators of the headpieces worn by the British royal family. They use their skills to create hats that keep the monarchs level-headed, improve their concentration and help them negotiate peace. They use materials from plants, birds, and insects to create their masterpieces. The Bootmakers, Cloakmakers, Glovemakers and Watchmakers also create their masterpieces, that come together to form the Royal Garb. While the clothes have power individually, they are more powerful if all of them are worn at the same time. However, a rift between the families has left them untrusting of each other. The Hatmakers work their magic, not only for the royal family, but for anyone who needs a special hat to improve their life. When Cordelia receives word that her father’s ship has been wrecked and he is missing, she knows that he can’t be dead. She knows that she needs to ask the king to send a ship to find him. The King, however, is acting rather strangely indeed. It is hoped that a special hat will return the king to normal, but when this doesn’t work, the king’s advisor, Lord Witloof, suggests a holiday by the sea might help and puts Princess Georgina in charge. Cordelia knows that she must convince the princess to send a ship to find her father but every attempt to ask for her help is thwarted. Meanwhile, each of the Maker’s houses are broken into and their precious materials, needed for making their creations, are stolen. Cordelia is accused of being the thief and so she sets out to discover the true thief. She uncovers a plot that will set England at war with France, and when the rest of her family are imprisoned, it is up to Cordelia and her friends to foil the plot and save her family.

The Hatmakers is tantalisingly good! From the moment I picked up this book I was captivated by its magic and I didn’t want to put it down. Tamzin takes us back to a time to a London filled with horse and carts, Lords and Ladies, scruffy orphans and lavish palaces. While it seems familiar, it is also a London filled with magic, where clothes can make a person who they wish to be. As with all magic there is a dark side to this creation of garments, and one particular outfit will make your skin crawl. There are plenty of twists in the story to keep you guessing, with many of the characters not who they first appear to be.

There are so many things I loved about this book. Tamzin is a gifted storyteller, whose words wrap you up in a comforting blanket. I became immersed in her story as soon as I started reading and the language that she uses paints a vivid picture of her world. The idea of clothes being created, with special ingredients entwined in them and added to them to give them certain properties, is just amazing. It is fascinating to read the descriptions of Cordelia’s aunts and uncle creating the different aspects of the hats. Cordelia is left in charge of the hat shop in one part of the story and she knows that she is not allowed to create new hats. However, she has several customers who come in to the shop needing specific hats. This was my favourite part of the book, as Cordelia creates hats for them (even though she knows she shouldn’t) and the hats have unexpected consequences. Two young men, who need a hat to help them win a pistol duel, get hats of a different kind, and an actor gets more than a cure for stage fright. I love the idea of food being a kind of magic too. The Hatmaker’s Cook suggests that food is a kind of magic because it ‘can heal all manner of maladies.’

Tamzin’s glossary at the back of the book adds even more to the story. The glossary is fascinating and lists the ingredients that are ‘most potent and valuable for apprentice hat makers.’ Each ingredient is named, with a description of what it looks like or where it comes from, and what property it possesses. The Sicilian Leaping Bean ‘gives the wearer a sense of levity and gladness of heart,’ the Feather of the Athenian Owl ‘can be used for cleverness, concentration and contemplation,’ and Mellow Daisies ‘promote a happy-go-lucky attitude and a sunny outlook.’ I could imagine a faded, leather-bound book filled with these descriptions and drawings of the ingredients for identification.

Paola Escobar’s cover and internal illustrations are like the ingredients added to the Hatmaker hats. They give the book an extra magical quality. Paolo’s cover illustration invites you in to the world of the Hatmakers and his internal illustrations give you glimpses of the characters and the events of the story. I love that Paolo has even topped the Hatmaker house with giant hats.

The ending perfectly wraps up the story but leaves the promise of more adventures to come. I’m already dying to get back to the world of The Hatmakers and find out what happens next.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

At a time when countries have their borders shut and travel has pretty much been shut down, thankfully we still have books to transport us to different places. The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski is a book bursting with worlds for readers to explore. In the first book in L.D. Lapinski’s new series we meet Flick and Jonathan Mercator and discover the wonders of the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, where you travel to different worlds through suitcases.

Felicity (or Flick as she prefers) has just moved houses and towns. Sure, she has her own bedroom now, but her parents are still as busy as ever and she gets dumped with her baby brother when she would rather have time to herself. While exploring her new town she discovers a dusty and dilapidated shop with a tired sign saying ‘The Strangeworlds Travel Agency.’ When she steps inside she discovers a dusty space filled with dozens of suitcases, stacked in slots on the walls. While exploring the shop she meets Jonathan Mercator, the custodian of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency. After Flick displays a special magical ability, Jonathan invites her to join The Strangeworlds Travel Agency. Flick soon discovers the joys and dangers of travelling to other worlds through the suitcases at Strangeworlds, and Jonathan asks for her help. Jonathan’s parents were also custodians of Strangeworlds, but after his mother died, Jonathan’s father was distant. Jonathan’s father has been missing for a couple of months and Jonathan has been looking for him, with no luck. Jonathan and Flick set off for the City of Five Lights, where they hope to find some answers to the disappearance of Jonathan’s father. When they get to the City of Five Lights though, something is wrong with this world. People and places are disappearing and The Order of Thieves have set a plan in motion that could not only destroy Five Lights but also put all of the worlds in the multiverse in danger. Jonathan and Flick get split up and must do everything they can to navigate the dangers of this world and save their own.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is an action-packed, multi-dimensional adventure, filled with magic and tinged with a hint of darkness. I love the idea of travelling to other worlds through suitcases and the complexities of this (having to make sure you pull the suitcase into the world with you so you can get home). L.D. Lapinski has made the idea of multi-dimensional travel feel fresh and exhilarating. Much like time travel, travelling to different dimensions is never as straight-forward as you at first think, and L.D. Lapinski has explored this well. The story becomes quite twisty as it progresses and the mix of the travelling between worlds and Flick’s abilities make the story quite complex. You get to the end of the story feeling like you have just scraped the surface of multi-dimensional travel and there are quite a few questions for L.D. Lapinski to answer in further books. We don’t really know what has happened to Jonathan’s father or what Flick can do with her abilities. There are so many possible worlds for L.D. Lapinski to explore in future books and we’ve only seen a handful in this book.

L.D. Lapinski’s characters are complex and relatable. Different aspects of Jonathan and Flick’s personalities have been explored in this book, but there is more to uncover. While we know what Flick’s life has been like before she stepped into the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, she is quite a different person by the end of the story. She used to be unsatisfied with her quiet life but now it is full of magic and adventure that she couldn’t have imagined. By the end of the story Flick is just starting to understand her abilities, so there is more for her to explore about herself. Jonathan is quite a mystery at the start of the story, and while we get to know more about him, I don’t feel like we have the full story. He has obviously been affected by losing his mother and then being abandoned by his father, leaving him not very trusting of people. He keeps secrets from Flick and this affects their relationship. I’m looking forward to seeing how their relationship develops in further books.

Natalie Smillie’s phenomenal cover draws you in and invites you to jump into a Strangeworlds suitcase. Natalie shows readers that they’ll experience an out-of-this-world adventure, filled with treasure, strange creatures and unusual lands. Kids are sure to be drawn to this book on the shelves.

I’m desperate to get back to The Strangeworlds Travel Agency and dive into some more suitcases! Luckily I don’t have to wait too long as the second book in the series, The Strangeworlds Travel Agency: The Edge of the Ocean, is due out in April.

The House at the Edge of Magic by Amy Sparkes

Occasionally you come across a book that makes other people give you funny looks. This is because you are grinning madly or chuckling to yourself while you read and those around you, whether they be family or strangers, think you are a little bit mad. Sometimes a book is just so funny and clever that you can’t help but grin and chuckle while you read it. Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic is one of these books and I had a smile on my face from start to finish.

Nine is an orphan pick-pocket whose home is The Nest, a hideaway in the city run by the nasty Pockets. Nine and the other children steal valuables and bring them back to Pockets, who allows them to live in his stinking Nest. Nine’s only glimmer of happiness comes from her regular trips to the dilapidated library, run by the librarian Mr Downes, who lets her take books to read. Nine’s life changes dramatically one day when she steals a house-shaped ornament. When Nine has escaped those chasing her she inspects the ornament and lifts the tiny door-knocker, causing the tiny house to become life-size. When she steps inside she meets a group of unusual characters who desperately need her help. There is Flabberghast (High Wizard, Chair of the Tea Tasters Committee, and World Hopscotch Champion, 1835), Eric (the troll housekeeper) and Dr Spoon (the kilt-wearing, scientist spoon). A curse has been put on the house by a witch and none of them (apart from Nine) can leave the house. If that wasn’t bad enough, the toilet is never in the same place (and sometimes has teeth), the library won’t stay ordered and when they try to make tea they get transformed into strange creatures. Only Nine can help them break the curse, and in doing so, she will get a way out of her horrible life on the streets. They must all work together to solve the clues and break the curse.

The House at the Edge of Magic is an incredibly enjoyable story, that is brimming with magic and imagination. I knew from the stunning cover (by Ben Mantle) and the blurb that I was going to love this book and Amy Sparkes cast a delightful spell over me as I read. I laughed so much reading it, whether it was the conversations between the characters or the many hilarious ways that the house has been cursed. My favourite part (and the bit that had me laughing hardest) is when Nine goes to make tea for the first time. Every time they try to touch the handle to the tea cupboard, each of the characters get transformed in some ridiculous way, like their skin turning blue, their legs turning into springs or becoming an oversized yellow spotty teapot. There seemed to be no end to the different cursed rooms in the house, from the library with its vicious flying books to the cellar containing the ‘Sometimes Dead.’

Amy’s characters are wonderful and their personalities bounce off each other in hilarious ways. I don’t think I could pick a favourite character because they’re all so delightfully odd. Flabberghast is quite eccentric and is the one who is most frustrated by the curse on the house. He is dying for a cup of tea and would really like the library to just stay tidy and ordered. Eric is a sweet troll who just wants to make sure everyone is OK. He loves his feather duster and cooks what he can for his friends. Dr Spoon is a bit mysterious as you never quite know what he is creating in his room with all the explosions. Nine has had a hard life and hasn’t known friendship, so when she discovers the house and the wizard, troll and spoon inside, she can’t believe that magic is real and that this house exists. If she helps this band of oddballs she will be able to escape her miserable life and have riches beyond her wildest dreams. I love the decision that she makes at the end of the story, leaving it open for more adventures in The House at the End of Magic.

The House at the End of Magic would be an amazing read aloud for Years 4-6 and it is sure to have them all laughing and begging for ‘just one more chapter!’ There is something in the story to entice all sorts of readers, whether you like magic, laughs, mystery or great characters. I certainly can’t wait for more adventures with Nine, Flabberghast, Eric and Dr Spoon.

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

I’ve had Elle McNicoll’s debut middle grade book, A Kind of Spark, on my TBR pile for a while. I know that when I see lots of reviewers, whose opinions I trust, raving about a book, I need to read it. I finally had a chance to read it and it is every bit as wonderful as I hoped.

Elle puts you in the shoes of Addie, a girl who sees the world as brighter and louder than those around her. Addie is autistic (or neurodiverse) but often finds herself ‘masking’ or pretending to be neurotypical to fit in. When she gets overwhelmed her hands fizz and flap and her limbs become restless, which she calls stimming. Addie has twin older sisters, Keedie and Nina, and Keedie is autistic too. Keedie and Addie understand each other but Nina doesn’t understand them. Addie’s friend, Jenna is now friends with Emily and doesn’t want to hang out with Addie anymore. Addie finds a new friend in Audrey, the new girl at school, who has come to their quiet little Scottish village from London. Audrey understands Addie in a way that Jenna never did. She asks questions about the things that Addie is interested in and tries to understand what it’s like to be autistic. Addie is fascinated by sharks and her school librarian, Mr Allison, is always finding books for her to read. One day in class Addie’s teacher tells them about the historic witch trials that took place in and around their village of Juniper. Addie is fascinated and horrified that something so terrible could happen and she sets out to find out as much as possible about the witch trials and the women who were killed during this time. Addie decides that these women need to be remembered and she makes it her mission to get a plaque placed in her village to commemorate them. The village council try to stop her idea from coming to fruition but the more Addie learns about the so-called ‘witches’ the more determined she becomes to make sure they are remembered.

I absolutely love A Kind of Spark! It is a stunning story that reminds you how important kindness and empathy are. Elle McNicoll takes you inside the head of Addie so that you not only walk in her shoes but also understand how she thinks and feels. We see what makes Addie different but also unique. We see how horrible and intolerant adults and other kids can be to someone that they can see is different. This is a story that will make you smile, laugh, shout and cry. I read this book in a day and I wanted to go right back to the start and read it again.

The things that make this story so great are Elle’s characters and their interactions. Addie is such an interesting character and you gain a real insight in to what it is like to be autistic. Some people, like Audrey and Mr Allison, take the time to get to know Addie and understand what she needs, while others, like Miss Murphy, just write her off as not being worth their time. I love the relationship between Addie and Keedie, as they understand each other. They can talk about how they’re feeling and the frustrations of being autistic (like not being able to easily read facial expressions) because they both understand what it feels like. One of my favourite characters is the school librarian, Mr Allison, because he knows what kind of things Addie is interested in and keeps books aside for her. He also comes to Addie’s aide when she needs him.

As with many kids who are seen to be different, Addie is bullied, both by a girl in her class and her teacher. Emily, the girl that is now friends with Addie’s ex-best friend, is nasty to Addie at any given opportunity. It gets so bad that there is a horrible thing that happens in the classroom that leads Addie to have a meltdown. Miss Murphy also bullies Addie, by doing things like ripping up her writing. Miss Murphy is intolerant of Addie and her differences and has a grudge against her from the start. Seeing the way Emily and Miss Murphy treat Addie make you feel horrible and want to shout at them.

A Kind of Spark is a perfect read aloud for Years 6-9 and makes a great alternative to Wonder. The themes are similar and the story will grab the whole class. This is also a great book for a class set for the same ages as there are some good themes to discuss and relatable characters. Elle McNicoll’s next book, Show Us Who You Are, is due out in March and it sounds AMAZING, so I can’t wait to read it!

Black Sand Beach: Are You Afraid of the Light? by Richard Fairgray

If you like your graphic novels a little on the creepy or weird side then you need to grab the first book in Richard Fairgray’s Black Sand Beach series, Are You Afraid of the Light?

Dash and his family are off to their holiday house at Black Sand Beach, along with Dash’s friend Lily. Dash tries to explain to Lily that it’s not like any other holiday destination – ‘there’s no ice-cream stand or stores, there’s just giant mosquitoes, scary woods, weird animals and a shaky old house that my dad built himself.’ You think Dash is exaggerating, but then you turn the page to see giant mosquitoes flying past the car. When they get to the house they’re greeted by Dash’s Aunt Lynne riding what looks like a green ram, and things just get weirder from there. Dash’s cousin Andy tries to capture bees to make him fly, Uncle Trevor looks grey and creepy, the sand on the beach is magnetic, and the abandoned lighthouse is suddenly shining its light. As Dash, Lily and Andy investigate the mysterious lighthouse they are attacked by ghosts and there are signs that something really strange is going on at Black Sand Beach. Then Dash’s family get given a heap of purple potatoes from the neighbours, which everyone but Lily eats, and things get really bizarre. Scary, green creatures, with mouths in their stomachs appear but only Lily can see their natural form. It’s up to Lily to save Dash and his family.

Are You Afraid of the Light? is one of the weirdest, creepiest graphic novels for kids that I’ve read but it left me intrigued. When I finished the book I felt like I was waking from a bad dream, but one that I wanted to go back to. I was unsettled but I want to know more about what is going on at Black Sand Beach. There are plenty of weird things going on that Richard Fairgray will hopefully elaborate on in future books. I want to know why Dash doesn’t remember coming to Black Sand Beach last summer. Who or what is the ghostly presence calling out to Dash? Why is Uncle Trevor so creepy? Most of the adults are pretty weird actually, like Dash’s mum, who hardly says anything and spends most of the time looking bored.

Richard Fairgray’s illustrations certainly match the tone of the story, with lots of dark green and purple being used to give it a creepy vibe. I like the way that the eerie light from the lighthouse shines on the characters too. My favourite aspect of the illustrations are the pages that mark the next part of the story, where Richard has used a negative exposure kind of effect.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next part of the story, which is due this year. Hopefully we’ll get some answers to some of the weirdness in Black Sand Beach. This is definitely a graphic novel for those kids who like a bit of creepy or weird in their stories. I’m sure this will be gobbled up by the older kids at my primary school.

Crater Lake: Evolution by Jennifer Killick

I love a good sci-fi book for kids and Jennifer Killick’s Crater Lake is one of the best. I read it during lockdown here in NZ last year and it was the perfect book to get lost in during that time. It was a book that gripped me right from the start and I didn’t notice time passing around me while I read it. If you haven’t read it already you absolutely should and you can read about it here in my review. It is such a great book that I was super excited to hear there was going to be a sequel. Crater Lake: Evolution is coming in May and I was lucky enough to read it early through NetGalley, thanks to Firefly Books. You need to add this book to your TBR pile (along with the first book) because you’re not going to want to miss it!

Crater Lake: Evolution follows on several months after the events of the first book. Lance and his friends have started at different high schools and they have drifted apart. Lance has become friends with Karim and Chets is jealous of their friendship. Karim’s mum works at the university for XGen, which is giving their town renewable energy and super-fast Wi-Fi. Their town is the first SMARTtown in the country. Just when Lance thinks that life is back to normal, an explosion at the university sees the forces from Crater Lake taking hold in his town. These aren’t the same forces as before though. They have evolved into something more dangerous. Lance has to try and get the gang back together again, to work through their differences and save their families themselves. If they don’t stop the evil force’s plans in their town, the rest of the world will be next.

Crater Lake: Evolution is a thrilling, nail-biting sequel that I devoured. I thought Crater Lake was an amazing story but Evolution is even better! The action is fast-paced and there were times I found myself holding my breath as I wasn’t sure how the characters were going to get through. Chapter 13 is one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve read in a children’s book! I can’t spoil what happens but it sent chills down my spine. It is incredibly creepy but such fantastic writing, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the sort of book that I guarantee would capture a whole class of Year 7/8 students because it’s so gripping.

Many of the characters from the first book are back in this book but there is a completely different dynamic. The characters have made new friends but some have also felt the pressure to be a different person at high school. I really liked the way that Jennifer developed the characters but also how she threw them together so that they had to deal with their issues and talk about their emotions. The interactions between the characters adds some comic relief into the story, with some good jokes at the expense of some of the least likeable characters.

The ending is particularly satisfying and it feels like things are wrapped up nicely. But are they? If I know anything from reading Crater Lake it’s that there is always the possibility that there are loose ends that haven’t been completely dealt with. I would certainly like more adventures with the Crater Lake Crew.

If you’re looking for a perfect read aloud to start the school year for Years 6-8, I highly recommend the first book in the series, Crater Lake. It’s a nice alternative to Holes but with a similar sense of mystery and great character development.

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman are back with another rip-roaring Adventures on Trains book. In the second book in the series we jump onboard a train journey across America in Kidnap on the California Comet.

Hal once again joins his Uncle Nat on a train journey to remember. Uncle Nat is covering a press conference on board the California Comet, travelling from Chicago to Emeryville, and he asks Hal to accompany him. After his last holiday with Uncle Nat, foiling the plans of a jewel thief, Hal is eager to go to America. What starts off as a fun holiday, with new friends and magic tricks, soon turns into another mystery, with a billionaire’s daughter being kidnapped. There is no shortage of suspects, as Hal has met some unusual characters on board the California Comet. Using his sharp observation skills and working with his new friends, Mason and Hadley, Hal will need to solve the case before the train reaches the end of the line.

This series is so much fun! Packed full of action, adventure, mystery and new friends, this is the perfect book for any reader. You can’t help getting caught up in the story and whisked away on the adventure with Hal, Uncle Nat and their friends. Reading this book made me once again want to go on this train journey.

Mason and Hadley are great new characters who bring a different dynamic to the story and special skills that become important to the story. All of the characters are nicely fleshed out so there are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing. Like the first book, one of my favourite aspects of this story is the relationship between Hal and Uncle Nat. I love the trust that Nat has in Hal, even if Hal is a little reluctant to share all of his findings with Nat.

Elisa Paganelli’s illustrations are once again superb. I love the way that Elissa captures the characteristics and features of each character and makes them look like they are suspects. My favourite illustration in this book is the one of Hal sitting in their roomette with Uncle Nat, telling him everything. You can tell that Hal has his uncle’s complete attention.

I can’t wait for more Adventures on trains! Luckily we only have to wait until February for Murder on the Safari Star.

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: On With The Show! By Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

I love it when you find the perfect book just when you need it. Pip Jones and Ella Okstad’s wonderful Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat is one of those books for me. I discovered them last year when looking for some chapter books to share with my 5 year old daughter. The first book in the series was released in 2014 and five more chapter books followed, and one picture book. Told in rhyming verse, each book is a new adventure for Ava and her invisible cat, Squishy McFluff. Ava and Squishy get in to all sorts of mischief and the stories are so perfect for sharing with young readers who are ready for a longer story or are starting to read chapter books. I’ve loved every Squishy McFluff book and there is a new book in the series which has just been released. In Squishy McFluff: On with the Show! the circus is in town and Ava and Squishy get to enjoy the show.

The weekend looks like it is going to be super boring when Ava’s Mum announces that they’ll be tidying the shed. An advertisement for a travelling circus catches Ava’s eye and she convinces her parents to go. Ava has to help her parents tidy the shed first but Ava and Squishy spend the time finding things for their circus act. When the star clown doesn’t show up though, Ava and Squishy step in to take his place. It’s not long before Ava’s invisible cat becomes not-so-invisible and steals the show.

On with the Show is another great addition to this wonderful series. Like the other books in the series this is an absolute joy to read! The rhyming text flows so nicely and just rolls off your tongue. I’ve always thought authors who can write a picture book that rhymes while also flowing nicely have quite a skill, but to be able to do this for a 72 page chapter book makes Pip Jones a true wordsmith. Ella Okstad’s illustrations adorable illustrations adorn every page and she perfectly captures this magical friendship between Ava and Squishy.

The thing that I love the most about this series is the rich language that Pip uses. The language is perfectly aimed at her audience but the text is full of fantastic words like ‘apprehensive,’ ‘clout,’ and ‘stupendous.’ It’s the language and the rhythm of the text that makes these books so much fun to read aloud.

The Squishy McFluff books are great for newly independent readers to read themselves, for an adult to read aloud to a 4-6 year old, or for a New Entrant or Year 1 or 2 teacher to share with their class. The chapters are short (and so is each book), making them ideal for sharing at bedtime or in class. They are a great addition to a primary school library as I recommend them to the Year 1 and 2 children all the time. If you have a young reader in your life get them the Squishy McFluff books from your library or bookshop now.

Visit the Squishy McFluff website for more information about the series, the author and illustrator, and to find fun activities. Check out the book trailer for Squishy McFluff: Supermarket Sweep: