Monday, 26 January 2015

Guest Post: My Magnificent Seven Mystery Series by Robin Stevens (author of Arsenic for Tea)

I am absolutely overjoyed that today we have been joined by writer Robin Stevens, who has written a fab post for us about her favourite detective series for children. Murder Most Unladylike, Robin's first book in her Wells & Wong mystery series, was one of my favourite books of 2014, and the sequel, Arsenic for Tea, has a very good chance of making the 2015 list at the end of this year.


My Magnificent Seven Detective Series by Robin Stevens

I’m really excited to have been asked to do this – any excuse to talk about mystery stories! Here are the seven mystery series that most influenced me as a kid, and that I think will still fire children’s imaginations today.

The Famous Five

These books were my introduction to mysteries. Sure, Anne, Julian and Dick are basically dead weight (George and Timmy the dog solve everything), and sure, the mysteries pretty much involve smugglers, smugglers and smugglers, but Enid Blyton is marvellous at creating worlds and groups that you're desperate to be a part of. Kirrin Island is just possible enough to feel like an achievable fantasy – a place where it’s always the summer holidays, delicious, mysterious food like macaroons is piled up in front of you at every meal, and you get to wander around in castles and triumph over bearded, villainous men. I wanted desperately to be a child that things happened to, and the Famous Five’s was my very favourite fantasy life.

The Secret Seven

Like the Famous Five, but more densely populated. I remember, even as a child, being infuriated by how little the girls were allowed to do (especially as the boys made so many mistakes) but again, I was fascinated by the concept itself – kids, going up against adults and WINNING. I had my own secret society with my best friend (as I think most kids did) and we looked frantically for mysteries to solve. It made me really imagine that I could be a detective – if even the Secret Seven could uncover dastardly dealings, surely I could be able to as well.

Sherlock Holmes

I first read these books aged 8, so for me they're very much for children. I loved how no-holds-barred they were: people really died. The stakes were high, and the peril was real, but Sherlock was such a dashing superhero that I knew he’d always be OK. I loved how unashamedly smart he was, too – the cases rested on real information, logically assessed. And even though the stories all take place in the real world, there’s something just a bit magical about them: Sherlock goes up against vampires, ghosts and pantomime-evil villains. Basically, there’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes is the most beloved detective the world has ever seen.

Harry Potter

I'm convinced that this is really a series of mystery novels (starring Hermione Grainger) that just happens to be set in a wizard boarding school. The mystery to be solved is always quite similar, along the lines of 'and where is Voldemort hiding this time?', but although it seems simple, the answer is always wholly unexpected. Rowling is a brilliant plotter and a very clever misdirector – I remember feeling genuinely astonished the first time I read each book, and delighted that I'd found a book specifically for children that could trick me like that.

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew may not be enormously handy in a crisis (she screams and runs away a lot), but I loved her investigative style and her taste in coats (my favourite villain, incidentally, was Carmen Sandiago, for the same reasons). I liked the idea of a detective who was clever and also glamorous (why couldn't someone be both?) and I was so jealous about how free Nancy was. She had access to cars and boats and airplanes – she had all the benefits of being grown up with none of the boring bits.

The Sally Lockhart Mysteries

For me, this series has everything. A bold, clever, sharp-shooting heroine, a Victorian setting to rival Sherlock's, magic, mystery and exactly the right sort of romance. Just like the Holmes stories, too, there’s just a hint of magical otherness – you feel that anything could happen, and it usually does. Murders, fires, thefts, curses and terrifying mechanical contraptions capable of taking over the world, it’s glorious, swashbuckling stuff.

Encyclopedia Brown

My final pick is probably much lesser known over here than it is in its native country, America. All the same, I can’t mention my favourite mystery series without including it. As a kid I was absolutely hooked (and slightly in love with Encyclopedia himself), and I read Encyclopedia’s adventures again and again and again. The joy of them is that they’re such achievable mysteries – each story is only a few pages long, and hinges on a single logic problem which the reader must work out the key to. Basically, they ask you to spot what’s wrong with a scene: perfect puzzles for aspiring detectives to cut their teeth on.


Huge thanks to Robin for taking the time to write this for The Book Zone. Murder Most Unladylike is available to buy right now and Arsenic for Tea is due to be released on 29th January.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Review: The Pirates of Pangaea by Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron

The year is 1717. The newly discovered island of Pangaea is the most dangerous place on Earth, where dinosaurs still walk the land - Sophie Delacourt has been sent to Pangaea to stay with her uncle. But little does she know its perils - for Pangaea is a lawless wilderness, teeming with cut-throat pirates! Kidnapped and imprisoned, Sophie must escape from the ruthless Captain Brookes and embark upon an epic journey, to find her way home.

It's nothing more than simple maths where this book is concerned:

Yes, Daniel Hartwell (no relation) and Neill Cameron's brilliant The Pirates of Pangaea, first seen in The Phoenix comic has finally been given its first collected edition, courtesy of those wonderful people at David Fickling books. Seriously, if you have kids who love comics (or kids who you would love it if they loved comics) then The Pirates of Pangaea is a must-buy book. I was a weekly purchaser of The Phoenix in its early days (and I still would be if I had kids), and although I adored the zany and madcap work of the Etherington Brothers, my favourite part of the comic by far was Hartwell and Cameron's dinosaurs and pirates mash-up.

The story follows the adventures of Sophie Delacourt, who, following the death of her parents, has been sent to live with her uncle, the governor of the remote tropical island continent of Pangaea. What Sophie doesn't realise until the voyage is almost at its end, is that Pangaea is not like the other islands she has heard of as it is still home to many species of dinosaur. 

The interior of Pangaea consists of vast areas of long grass that hide deadly predators, much the same as a quite and serene ocean may hide a school (or is it a shiver?) of vicious killer sharks. In order to travel throughout the interior, ships arriving at the port are craned onto the backs of huge sauropods, which then proceed to transport said vessels across the land. However, as this is set in the early 18th Century, there have to be pirates a plenty as well (of course), and they lie in wait for passing vessels, ready to attack with their own sauropod-mounted ships. Poor Sophie has barely made landfall when her own ship is attacked by a bloodthirsty band of cutthroats, and she is the only survivor.

Sophie is not your typical demure and retiring 18th Century young lady - she is quick to leap into the fray and the incredible creatures that inhabit Pangaea do not faze her at all. In fact, she quickly discovers that she might have a gift similar to that of a horse whisperer, something that will come in very handy as she attempts to escape captivity.

Daniel Hartwell's exciting, dinosaur-laden, swash-buckling adventure story is perfectly complemented by Neill Cameron's stunning graphic work. Neill was the talent behind the brilliant and visually stunning Mo-Bot High, but in Pirates of the Pangaea he has taken his artwork to a new level. Everything about his art in this comic is right: the sprawling Pangaea landscapes; the details of the dinosaurs and their ships; the depictions of the characters (especially the evil pirates); and the great colour palette used throughout (just feast your eyes on the image below, a promo poster that Neill Cameron produced for the launch of the comic). 

The Pirates of Pangaea is due to be published by David Fickling books on 5th February and it is well worth every penny of the £8.99 cover price. My thanks got to the wonderful people at David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to read and review.

(Pirates of Pangaea, all images and concepts ©2011 Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Red Eye Blog Tour: My Magnificent Seven Scariest Books by Alex Bell (author of Frozen Charlotte)

And so the nightmares continue....

Yes, the Red Eye blog tour is back at The Book Zone, this time with author Alex Bell telling us about her Magnificent Seven Scariest Books. Alex is the author of Frozen Charlotte, one of the two books released this month by Red Eye, Stripes Publishing's new YA horror imprint. I've just finished Frozen Charlotte and it is very creepy and pretty terrifying on a psychological level. And if you have a phobia about porcelain dolls (which are creepy as hell at the best of times) the you certainly won't want to be reading this one at night time.

And so, over to Alex and her seven scariest books:

1. The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley - The first half of this book contains some of the best understated, unnerving horror I've ever read. You definitely feel the terror and helplessness of the main character in this one.

2. The Shining by Stephen King - I read this classic horror tale whilst staying in a very old hotel in New Orleans. As haunted hotel stories go, this has got to be one of the best. It’s a shame the topiary animals were replaced by a hedge maze in the film.

3. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James  - One of my favourite classic ghost stories – this creepy tale has an unreliable narrator and an ambiguous open ending as well as some pretty terrifying encounters in the house and the grounds.

4. This House is Haunted by John Boyne – John Boyne can write anything and excel at it. His ghost story is very much in the Dickensian tradition and contains some of the most bone-chilling scenes I’ve ever come across. A total masterpiece.

5. Florence and Giles by John Harding – I love this re-imagining of The Turn of the Screw. The language is a real treat and like nothing else you’ve ever come across before.

6. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane – Not a horror book as such but Shutter Island definitely creeped me out with its themes of paranoia, madness and self-destruction.

7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Another classic ghost tale, this one definitely delivers its fair share of scares.


Huge thanks to Alex for taking the time to write this for us. The Red Eye Blog Tour is about to come to an end, so please head on over to for its final stop.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review: Arsenic For Tea (A Wells & Wong Mystery) by Robin Stevens

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy's home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy's glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy's birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn't really about Daisy at all. Naturally, Daisy is furious.

Then one of their party falls seriously, mysteriously ill - and everything points to poison.

With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem - and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy looks suspicious, the Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth . . . no matter the consequences.

I loved Murder Most Unladylike, the first Wells & Wong book by Robin Stevens, so much so that it featured on my list of favourite books of 2014. And I know I'm not alone in this, as I saw it mentioned time after time when other reviewers were posting their Books of 2014 lists. I have been waiting rather impatiently for the release of the sequel, Arsenic for Tea, and it was well worth the wait. Not only is it a great sequel, but it is also a book that is even better then its predecessor.

In this second book Robin Stevens takes her pair of junior sleuths away from the confines Deepdeane, the private boarding school that was the setting for Murder Most Unladylike. Instead, the stage for this brilliant murder mystery story is Fallingford, a country mansion with obligatory sprawling grounds, and the cast a group of people with a plethora of eccentricities and foibles, most of whom just happen to be members of Daisy's family. For Fallingford is the Wells family home, and Daisy and Hazel are there for the holidays. This makes for the perfect setting for our story, and also makes it slightly more accessible than its predecessor in that there is much less use of boarding school slang that some less confident readers may have struggled with in Murder Most Unladylike

Daisy's fourteenth birthday is looming, and members of her family are gathering to celebrate, and what a family they are:
  • Lord Hastings (Daisy's father). Disorganised, forgetful, but full of humour and loves to play practical jokes on his daughter. Much to the disdain of:
  • Lady Hastings (Daisy's mother). Glamorous, snooty, vain, conceited, and possibly adulterous. If she wasn't Daisy's mother we might be wishing her to be the one to fall foul of our mystery murderer.
  • Uncle Felix. Daisy's favourite uncle who just might work for the police in London in some manner or other.
  • Aunt Saskia. Let's just say, don't leave your silverware lying around when Aunt Saskia's in the house ;-)
  • Bertie. Daisy's exceedingly grumpy older brother.
That's the family, but then there are all kinds of others in Fallingford: Miss Alston, the girls' frumpy but enigmatic governess; the various staff of Fallingford; Stephen, Bertie's friend from school; and finally, Denis Curtis, a 'friend' of Lasy Hastings, and a complete and utter cad.

In Arsenic For Tea, Robin Stevens gives us a much deeper look at the character of Daisy Wells. As with most kids who are domineering and brash, there is a very good reason for it, and in Daisy's case it is to hide a girl whose family life is not quite as perfect as she would have anyone on the outside expect. There are obvious tensions between the jocular Lord Hastings and his overbearing and far more glamorous wife, and it is repeatedly suggested that Lady Hastings has a habit of straying from the marital path. However, although this is obvious to all and sundry, Daisy acts as if everything is perfect in her life. In addition, Falligford has obviously seen better days, and therefore funds are not as plentiful as they may have been in the past.

And then there is Hazel, Daisy Wells's very own Watson. Hazel could so easily be the quiet little mouse who acquiesces to every single demand her pushy friend throws at her, but as we saw in Murder Most Unladylike, Hazel is much more than just a hanger on in the Detective Society. It is easy to forget that back in the 1930s, multicultural Britain did not exist as it does today, and casual (and more overt) racism was rife (this being one of the main criticisms of Enid Blyton's work in this modern age), especially amongst the upper classes. Just as Hazel feels like she is fitting in, she is reminded that she is different to those around her. We might expect it from the undiplomatic Aunt Saskia: "there seems to be an ORIENTAL in your hall" she proclaims as she meets Hazel for the first time, but even the lovely Lord Hastings can't help it: "How are you? Who are you? You don't look like Daisy's friends usually do. Are you English?" Somehow Daisy seems to be able to rise above this and there are moments when, observing the tatty state of Fallingford and its relatively meagre compliment of staff, that Hazel realises how much better off her family is, back in Hong Kong.

Arsenic For Tea can be read as a standalone mystery but I would implore you to start with Murder Most Unladylike if for some unfathomable reason you or your children have not yet stumbled across the Wells and Wong Mysteries, as there are several mentions of the previous mystery in this book (although not enough to spoil the plot of MMU). We are in for a real treat this year, as there is another Wells & Wong Mystery scheduled to be published in July of this year. Titled First Class Murder, it's only blimmin' set on the ORIENT EXPRESS! I can't wait!

Arsenic For Tea is due to be published on 29th January and my thanks go to the wonderful Harriet Venn at Random House for sending me a copy to read. You can read more about Robin Stevens and her books at

Friday, 16 January 2015

Review: Big Game by Dan Smith

13-year-old Oskari is sent into the cold wilderness on an ancient test of manhood. He must survive armed only with a bow and arrow. But instead, he stumbles upon an escape pod from a burning airliner: Air Force One. Terrorists have shot down the President of the United States. The boy hunter and the world's most powerful man are suddenly the hunted, in a race against a deadly enemy.

A handy indicator of how much I enjoy a book is if it has me reading well into the night, on a 'school night' when I am already feeling very tired. This doesn't necessarily apply to every book that I totally loved, but it does apply to Dan Smith's Big Game. It is as if Dan Smith has delved into my DVD collection, and then used his findings to write a book that was guaranteed to appeal to me and kids around the world who have a hunger for cracking action stories.

The story behind Dan Smith's writing of Big Game is a little different from most of the books I have read in recent years. From what I can make out, Chicken House supremo Barry Cunningham acquired the rights to publish a book based on the screenplay of a Finnish/British produced film, and then asked Smith is he would write a book based on that script. Unlike many books based on films, it was not to be a direct novelisation of the movie, but was instead to be a book that would stand as a great action novel in its own right, and this is one of the reason why it works so well. Don't get me wrong, movie novelisations are a great way to engage boys with reading, and I read loads of them when I was a young reader, but too often they come across as second rate to the film and are simply the film translated into words on paper. However, for Big Game to be second rate to the film, then it is going to have to be one damn great film indeed (ok, so it has Samuel L. Jackson in it does have something of a head start).

Big Game is like White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen (don't judge me too harshly for loving both of these films), but set in the wilds of Finland (although I believe that technically Air Force One is the White House when the US President is on board), and instead of Channing Tatum or Gerard Butler stepping in to kick terrorist butt and rescue the President, enter 13-year-old Oskari, possibly the most unlikely hero of all. Tradition has it that in Oskari's society a boy must prove himself in order to be considered a man at the age of 13. Oskari must therefore venture out into the wilds on the eve of his thirteenth birthday and return the following day with a trophy, i.e. the head of a creature he has hunted and killed himself. 

Unfortunately Oskari is small and not particularly strong - he cannot even pull back the string of the huge bow that tradition dictates he must use to make the kill. It is with a great fear of shaming his hunter father that he sets off into the Finnish forest alone, but with the hope that he will somehow be successful and return with a trophy of which he can be proud. However, his hopes and plans are dashed when terrorists bring down Air Force One and Oskari, barely surviving being killed by the cataclysmic crash, stumbles across an escape pod containing the US President. Oskari's quest to become a man suddenly becomes a race for survivial, with all the odds stacked against him.

Big Game could be added to the dictionary as the definition of 'edge of your seat thriller'. The short chapters and fast-paced and relentless action make it one of those books that is incredibly difficult to put down, as I discovered when I was still reading it at midnight, desperate to find out whether Oskari and the President would escape from their hunters. Yes, I imagine that the film is probably one of those action-by-numbers films that some sniff at but others (like me) can't get enough of, and those same detractors will probably turn those sniffy noses up at this book, but it is the perfect book for middle grade readers who love action and adventure stories, and Oskari is a brilliant character with whom many young readers will empathise.

Big Game was published in the UK on 1st January and my thanks go to the fab people at Chicken House for sending me a copy.

Book Trailer: The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

Here it is, as promised in my review of The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone that I posted yesterday evening. I find book trailers can be a little hit and miss, but this one is spot on perfect and captures the magical feel of the book perfectly. Just seeing Moll and wildcat Gryff in live action made me want to read the book all over again. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when Abi asked me if I wanted to take part in a special blogger reveal of the trailer, following its premier on the Guardian website this morning.

The Dreamsnatcher is due to be released on 26th february.