Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest series by Maureen Crisp

There are lots of great series available now for newly independent readers to choose from. There are books about monsters, fairies, horrible boys, unicorns, stinky dinosaurs and much more. Something there isn’t a lot of for younger readers is mystery books. This is where Maureen Crisp’s wonderful Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest series comes in.

Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest follows a circus troupe who have been together for many years, but believe this year may be their last together. In the first book in the series, The Playbill, they receive an invitation to the circus conclave (a gathering of circus troupes) from The Puzzle Master. However, they must solve the clues to discover its location. Monsieur Charles has said that if they received the invitation this year, it would be his last as head of the circus, which would mean the circus would split up. Everyone agrees to do anything they can to solve the clues and try to save their circus. Last year, the clues were stolen, so this year it is up to Kestrel to keep the clues hidden and safe. Meanwhile, Stanley, one of the circus workers, is being paid by a shadowy figure to make some accidents happen to try and shut down the circus. Kestrel must work together with his brother Peregrine and his friend Skye to solve the clue and figure out where to find the next one. The second book, Magician’s Moustache, follows Monsieur Charles’ circus as they travel to the island of Papenton to perform and try to solve the second clue.

Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest is a clever and fun series for younger readers. It’s a series that gives younger readers a taste of mystery and adventure, but at a level that they can understand. Kids will enjoy trying to solve the clue in each book and figure out what exactly the clue means. Maureen has written the books in such a way that you don’t find out the answer to the clue until the next book. That way you have to read the next book to find out if you’re right. I was a bit stumped by the clue in book 1 but when I started book 2 it was clear straight away.

There is something in the books for all readers, whether they want mystery, adventure, laughs, suspense, or interesting characters. I’ve read the first two books in the series but I need to know what happens to the circus so I’ll be hunting down the other books. There are currently five books in the series, with another five planned. You can buy them from The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie or from Wheelers.

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.

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson is one of my favourite authors. She is a marvellous storyteller and her characters always stick with me. I often recommend her books, especially The Goldfish Boy, to teachers, either as read alouds or as class sets. Lisa is one of the amazing line-up of authors who write for Barrington Stoke, the specialists in fiction for dyslexic readers. Lisa’s latest book with Barrington Stoke, The House of Clouds, has just been released. The House of Clouds packs the same emotional punch as her longer novels, but is the perfect length for struggling or dyslexic readers.

Tabby is in a bad mood. She is annoyed that her best friend is now hanging out with someone else and that her grandad has come to stay. Grandad is struggling to cope by himself so he has been moved in, taking over the dining room space. Grandad is always telling the same silly and annoying stories and he has brought his smelly dog Buster with him, who Tabby now has to walk every day. Her walks leave her even more annoyed when she sees her ex-best friend having fun with another girl. Then there is Alex, a boy from school, who she seems to keep bumping in to. On one walk around the bay Tabby discovers an unusual hilltop house, called the House of Clouds. The place looks abandoned but something strange catches her eye. When Tabby asks her grandfather about the house she discovers that her grandfather has a connection to the place and the woman who used to live there. Could it be that her grandfather’s magical tale is true? Before Tabby is able to find out more, tragedy strikes and she must return to the House of Clouds to discover the truth.

The House of Clouds is a heart-wrenching, beautiful story about grief and believing in the impossible. It’s a story of family, friendship and magic. At just under 100 pages this is a perfectly-formed story with depth of character and emotion. Not only does this make the book perfect for struggling readers or dyslexic readers, it is also perfect as a read aloud for Years 5-8. Teachers are often looking for short but engaging read alouds and The House of Clouds fits the bill perfectly. Tabby is a really interesting character who is trying to process everything that is happening with her friends and family, but the tragedy in her family and the search for answers changes her perspective. She has changed quite a bit by the end of the story.

The mixture of issues facing her characters and a hint of something magical or mysterious is what I love the most about Lisa’s stories. I really enjoyed the mystery of the House of Clouds and the connection that it provided Tabby with her grandfather. Who hasn’t looked at cloud shapes in the sky and wondered how they became that shape?

The House of Clouds is another brilliant book from Barrington Stoke (and Lisa’s second book with them). All school libraries should have a selection of these books in their collection, to recommend for struggling readers and dyslexic readers, but also to anyone who wants a really great short book.

One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

I absolutely love Faith Erin Hicks’ art so I will read anything that she has illustrated. When Faith writes the story as well as illustrating it I know that it will be an absolute winner. Her Nameless City Trilogy are some of my favourite children’s graphic novels. One Year at Ellsmere is Faith’s latest graphic novel but also one of her earliest. She has redrawn all of her original illustrations and they look amazing! Open the covers and step inside this boarding school that is hiding a dark past.

Juniper is the first scholarship student to attend the prestigious Ellsmere Academy, a boarding school for girls. As the only student who doesn’t come from a wealthy family Juniper is already on the outside. It’s not long before she finds herself the target of queen bee, Emily. Juniper becomes friends with her roommate, Cassie, who helps her navigate life at Ellsmere. While working on their assignment near the forest they see a strange creature moving through the trees. Cassie tells Juniper the story of the family who originally lived at Ellsmere and the mysterious disappearance of the two brothers. Cassie explains that there is something in the forest ‘that hates bad people.’ Emily continues to harass and intimidate Juniper and when Cassie attempts to help her friend, Emily corners her in the forest and threatens her. However, the creature in the forest is watching.

I absolutely loved One Year at Ellsmere! It’s a story about family, friends, bullies, anger and a mystical creature watching over it all. Told over the course of twelve chapters (or months) we experience the ups and downs of Juniper’s year at Ellsmere. As well as the confrontations with Emily that see Juniper almost expelled there are funny moments, like building a snowman or Juniper trying to paint a self-portrait.

Faith’s artwork is so amazing in this book! The colour palette is dark, with lots of brown and green (their uniforms and the style of the old building) but her characters jump off the page. Faith’s style is so distinctive (it’s changed quite a lot over the years, looking back at the original comic). I especially love the way that Cassie’s big doe eyes shine and sparkle. My favourite spreads in the book are those where Cassie is telling the story of Lord Ellsmere and his family. I love the way that the images are framed and give different perspectives of characters on one spread. Shelli Paroline has done a stellar job of colouring the book too (especially when you consider how many school skirts she’s had to colour!). It was also fascinating to see Faith’s illustration process at the back of the book.

I know my senior kids are going to devour One Year at Ellsmere. It’s a great addition to any intermediate and high school graphic novel collection (but also suitable for keen Year 5/6 readers).

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

I read Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm way back in Level 4 Lockdown but I’ve been reminded of it a couple of times lately. It was just what I needed to help me get away from pandemics. Alastair rocketed me into deep space with this mystery that had me on the edge of my seat.

Orion Lost is a twisty, nail-biting space adventure that will hook kids on sci-fi. I loved every minute of it!

The ship Orion is travelling from Earth to a new home on Eos Five. The ship has to make a series of Jumps through space time to shorten their travel time and when these jumps happen everyone is put to Sleep and woken after the Jump. The human crew aren’t the only ones in the depths of space – there are the mysterious alien race, the Videshi, and the vicious Scrapers, space pirates who will rip a ship apart to scrap it. When danger lurks the ship’s crew and passengers are all sent to Sleep, but when Beth and her classmates are the only ones woken it is up to the kids to run the ship and try to figure out what went wrong. As they look for answers they discover that someone has been lying to them.

I hope Alastair Chisholm has more adventures planned for the Orion crew because I’m eager for more.

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

I love trains and I love stories set on trains. I love mystery stories and I love books by M.G. Leonard (author of the wonderful Beetle Boy Trilogy). All of these things are smooshed together in the latest series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman – Adventures on Trains. I’ve had the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief, sitting on my shelf for a while now and keep meaning to read it. The second book has just been released so what better time to start the series. I was immediately swept up in this journey that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Hal’s Mum is due to have a baby so he gets whisked away on a special train journey with his Uncle Nat. They are taking the final journey of the Highland Falcon, Britain’s most famous steam train. Uncle Nat is a travel writer who has been on some of the most interesting train journeys in the world, but nothing will compare to the drama that unfolds on this journey. Hal, at first, thinks the journey will be kind of boring but he couldn’t be more wrong. An item of jewellery goes missing and the accusations start flying. This is just the beginning of a string of thefts that include a large jewel belonging to the royal family. Hal and his new friend Lenny start to investigate the thefts and try to discover who the thief is. They’ll need to pay attention to the little details and find the culprit before they reach the end of their journey.

The Highland Falcon Thief is a captivating mystery that has you guessing right up to the end. There are shifty characters, a stowaway, stunning scenery, delicious meals, and some very clever kids who put the police to shame. The story is action-packed, with plenty of sneaking around, and a particularly nail-biting scene on the outside of the train. The descriptions are so fantastic that you can hear the rush of steam through the engine’s whistle and smell the soot. You can clearly picture the lavish details of the carriages. Every detail of this story made me desperate for a train journey like this, with my own compartment. You can tell that both M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman have had a lot of fun writing this book and have both brought their interests and knowledge of trains to the story.

One of the things that I love about M.G. Leonard’s books is the depth of her adult characters, especially those related to the main characters. I especially loved Uncle Nat as he clearly wants to share this unique and wonderful experience with his nephew. He always listens to Hal and tries to help him work through his problems or theories. You’re never really sure who the thief is until it’s revealed at the end, so the authors do a really great job of making you believe it could be nearly anyone. Uncle Nat himself even suggests that it could be him as he has no alibi.

Elisa Paganelli adds extra class to the story with her superb illustrations. Her cover makes the book jump off the shelf and her interior illustrations really bring the characters alive. Elisa’s illustrations also show us the interior and exterior of the Highland Falcon. Hal is an artist who loves to draw so Elisa puts herself into Hal’s shoes by drawing what he sees.

I can’t wait for more Adventures on Trains with Hal, Lenny and Uncle Nat! The second book in the series, Kidnap on the California Comet, has just been released so I won’t have to wait long to board the next adventure.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature by Renée Treml

Everyone has wondered what happens in a museum at night. There have been books written and movies made about it. In Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery, Renée Treml introduced us to the great detective known as Sherlock Bones. The always sharp and super-observant tawny frogmouth skeleton is back on the case again in his latest mystery, Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature.

Sherlock Bones lives in the State Natural History Museum with his pals Grace the raccoon and Watts the stuffed parrot. When the sun goes down and the humans leave, Sherlock and his friends come alive. A new wing of the museum has just opened, with new exhibits, but Sherlock has heard of a swamp monster that is scaring the visitors and the octopus is missing. Where there is a mystery Sherlock Bones isn’t far away.

Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature is a pun-tastic read that is both laugh-out-loud funny and chock-full of facts. Sherlock not only thinks he is an amazing detective (he’s really not), he also thinks he’s the funniest bird around (he just ends up making himself laugh). He has plenty of bad puns up his sleeve that will make readers young and old crack up. Unlike Sherlock and Grace, Watts never says anything out loud but he still communicates with Sherlock and his wings can be extended to help Sherlock fly around the museum. Sherlock and his pals are always on the lookout for clues but the reader sees things that they completely miss. Grace spends a good part of the story distracted with a Rubix cube and isn’t aware of what is going on around her.

The story is told in a graphic novel format, with black and white illustrations. Sherlock is a skeleton but Renée has given him so much personality. I think the star of the show has to be Nivlac though, as he is able to turn invisible and disguise himself. You can tell that Renée has had a lot of fun hiding Nivlac in the illustrations.

The thing I love the most about this book is the way that Renée incorporates information into the story. There are facts about the exhibits in the illustrations that help to explain what is happening in the story. The exhibit about the octopus says that octopus do not have a skeleton which means they can squeeze into tight spaces. This explains why the octopus goes missing. It’s one of those books that is really entertaining but you don’t realise you’re learning something at the same time.

I highly recommend both Sherlock Bones books, especially for kids who struggle to find something to read. They’ll be hooked straight away. They’re also great for kids who have read all of the Bad Guys books by Aaron Blabey as they’re a similar format and sense of humour.

Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble

A new book by Bren MacDibble is a cause for celebration. Each of her books are unique but you always know it is going to be a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. You also know that you are going to meet kids who are trying to get by in an environment that has been dramatically altered by human neglect. Pollution has caused the bees to die off or noxious weeds have spread causing crops to die. In Bren’s latest book, Across the Risen Sea, sea levels have risen hugely, sending cities under water and humans scrambling for hills and mountains that are now islands.

Neoma and Jag live in a small community on what was once the high ground and that is now their island. They live a gentle life, taking little from the land and scavenging what they need from things that remain of the old world. The risen sea provides them with fish and tinned food can be found in the wrecks of skyscrapers. Their peaceful existence is shattered when strangers from the Valley of the Sun arrive one day, installing a strange electrical device on the hill. Soon Neoma and Jag find themselves caught up in secrets and lies and Jag gets taken away as punishment. Neoma knows that it is up to her to rescue Jag and find the truth that will save her village.

Across the Risen Sea is a captivating adventure story set in a version of our world that is scarily possible. It’s a story of survival against the odds, of justice, of friendship and family. It’s also a mystery, as you try to figure out who the Valley of the Sun are and what their technology does.

While not explicitly stating it, Bren shows us what our world could become if global warming carries on its current course. In her story, massive storms have destroyed cities and the sea levels have risen to cover them, leaving only the higher ground for people to live on. Technology still exists but on a much smaller scale, and is often scavenged from what is left of the old world. Neoma’s little corner of the world is relatively peaceful, with small communities living on the surrounding islands, but the existence of the Valley of the Sun shows us that there are other communities that exist.

One of the things I love most about Bren’s stories is that she shows how strong and resilient kids are in the face of terrible circumstances. Neoma sees injustice in what happens to her friends and family so she sets out to make it right. She has grown up on her island so knows how to survive but she is out of her depth when she sets out to rescue Jag. She faces a cranky crocodile, a massive (and very hungry) shark, an angry pirate and the Valley of the Sun. Even after she has faced huge challenges she is still determined to find the truth and save her village.

I have loved each of Bren’s stories and can’t recommend them highly enough. Across the Risen Sea would make both a great read aloud and a novel study for Years 7-9.