The Beast and the Bethany: Battle of the Beast / Llama on Ice / Dungeon Academy: Tourney of Terror

These are additions to three popular series from Farshore: thanks to the publisher for sending them for review

The Beast and the Bethany: Battle of the Beast
Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

With the beast safely imprisoned after controlling Ebenezer Tweezer for 511 years and twice attempting to eat Bethany, Ebenezer is trying to attract new clients for the problem-solving business, The Wise Tweezer. He also keeps receiving phone calls; these he determinedly ignores until eventually Mr Nickle gets through and announces some strange, disturbing news concerning the beast.
Almost before you can say the dreaded word, Bethany and Ebenezer are on the beach of D.o. r. r.i.S Island facing Mr Nickle. He informs them that the beast is to be released on account of its having lost its mind and become a reformed character. Moreover, in the next stage of his rehabilitation, he’s being put in the care of Ebenezer and Bethany; either that or the former will be arrested. Bethany though is having none of it and off she storms.
Nonetheless the beast sets about proving how adept he is at do-gooding as he gets involved in Ebenezer’s business. carrying out kindnesses around the neighbourhood by vomiting out things people need. But Ebenezer surely can’t carry on ignoring those rumbling sounds that come from the beast’s belly every so often? Bethany meanwhile is determined to prove that the beast is still its evil self. Enter Mortimer the parrot. Let battle commence …
Fiendishly funny and darkly discomforting, this will definitely leave readers wanting still more

Llama on Ice
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s the Christmas holidays and with her llama pal Levi away on a training mission and her best human friend Ezra enjoying himself in Jamaica with his grandad for a fortnight, Yasmin is feeling pretty miserable stuck in London. Then comes the snowstorm: apparently the thickest for twenty years, so the TV news announcer says and soon after she hears from Ezra that the adverse conditions mean his return flight is cancelled. What will she find to do? Certainly not have a family Christmas; her family don’t celebrate that festival.
The snowstorm also means that Tia, her erstwhile best friend and now arch enemy, can’t go on her luxury holiday to France to see her dad and stepfamily and visit that Fantasy Icestravaganza.
Suddenly as Yasmin is sitting in her bedroom trying to cheer herself up, the llama landline lights up and she receives a message from Mama Llama, head of Seen Not Herd, informing her of a mission: to give Tia her best ever Christmas. Eventually she accepts. But then what? With just three days to go, Yasmin must switch to guardian llama mode. Let the carol singing begin …
Things don’t always go to plan and this looks like being one of those times, especially when Yasmin lets her temper get the better of her. Surely her very first mission isn’t going to be a failure?
Perhaps with the help of the unexpectedly returned Levi and Ezra, she can achieve what she sets out to do and even give Tia a version of that special ice show …
Despite the chilly wintry setting, this story has at its heart, warmth, kindness, forgiveness and family love.

Dungeon Academy: Tourney of Terror
Madeleine Roux, illustrated by Tim Probert

This is a sequel to No Humans Allowed. Secretly human, Zelli is having enigmatic nightmares sent by Lord Carrion the necromancer currently a captive in Dungeon Academy’s detention room.
The adults (Zelli’s adoptive minotaur mothers included) instruct her to leave things to them but she’s not convinced they’re doing sufficient, especially when she learns that she’s not the only one having nightmares and so she turns to the Danger Club to help her research the clues left by Lord Carrion. Meanwhile chaos ensues at the school, which is host to rivals, the Waterdeep Dragons for the Tourney of Terror, a monstrous sporting event.
Nonetheless Zelli decides she must investigate and close to a portal she discovers a dragon, or really, a human boy, Tavian. Soon the two, both of whom are masquerading as something they’re not, are swapping back stories, they form a bond and Tavian decides to join Danger Club’s investigation.
With some fierce battles, the tale twists and turns all the way to its cliff-hanger ending that will leave Dungeons and Dragons fans in suspense awaiting the next instalment.

Llama on Holiday

Llama on Holiday
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

This is the third Llama extravaganza starring Yasmin and her toy best friend, Levi, as well as Yasmin’s human bestie, Ezra. It’s the May half-term holiday, an ideal time to have a break from Guardian Llama responsibilities especially when a week’s visit to the seaside is in the offing. The only snag is it means having to share a bedroom with cousin Omar who is let’s say, not at all their favourite person and exceedingly unwelcoming.

At breakfast on the first morning of their Whitehove stay there comes a beeping on the llama landline: it’s a message from Mama Llama regarding a new mission, the only other information being, it’s called Help Omar. Is it at all possible to get the boy to lighten up and have some fun? Team Yasmin, Levi and Ezra need to find out what is troubling Omar. A good place to start is the funfair but that proves to be a dodgem disaster.

So what about a beach party with all the activities Omar likes? That too ends in disaster in more ways that one. It now appears that what at first seemed like an easy mission might be turning into Yasmin and Levi’s toughest challenge so far, especially when the two fall out.

Could a visit to the arcade on the pier be a better bet?

Can Omar start to believe in himself and could it be that at the end of the day, being a bit weird is something to be celebrated.

I suspect a lot of primary school readers, along with this adult reviewer, will be sad that this story with its terrific black and white illustrations by Allen Fatimaharan, concludes the super series during which Yasmin has grown hugely in self-confidence, and happily as she transitions to secondary school with Ezra, she’s determined not to let go of all the fun and magic in her life.

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants / Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret / Solve Your Own Mystery: The Time Thief

How to be a Hero: A Gathering of Giants
Cat Weldon, illustrated by Katie Kear
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the finale of Cat Weldon’s terrific trilogy, Whetstone and banished trainee Valkyrie Lotta are fugitives, now in hiding in Asgard. Whetstone is on a mission – to rescue his mum who, according to Thor, is being held, along with the second harp string, by the Frost Giants in Castle Utgard. It’s definitely time for him to work on becoming a proper hero, tough and fearless. Step forward Rhett the Bone-Breaker. But how many of Lotta’s plans is it going to take for them to succeed in outwitting Loki the trickster? They certainly won’t do it without encounters with treacherous trolls, indoctrinated Valkyries and an entire army of giants.

With Katie Kear’s illustrations helping to ramp up the drama, this fast-moving tale is full of thrills and a fair few spills too, plus a generous scattering of insults adding to the hilarity. This will keep readers on the edge of their seats right through to the cup’s final poetic offering. So gripped was I by the telling that after finishing the story late at night, I found myself back in the quest along with the heroic duo in my dream.

Readers who fancy sampling the sort of meal one of those giants might eat, should turn to the recipe adapted by Whetsone for spiced oat cakes. A tasty treat indeed.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Smuggler’s Secret
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa
Little Tiger

Zaiba and fellow members of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency have a new case to solve. There’s a school History Club trip to Chesil Bay involving an overnight stay. The children are told that divers have just discovered a priceless artefact from Assam among the wreckage of a ship and it’s currently in the safe-keeping of the local museum prior to being sent back to India. While there they’ll be able to witness the unveiling of the artefact and Ms Talbot challenges them to discover what it is before it’s revealed. Now that is just the kind of thing Zaiba, Poppy et al love.

No sooner are they on the train down to the coast than the intrigue starts: Zaiba notices a man replacing a magnifying glass in his briefcase and then she thinks she sees him on the boat trip out to the wreck and again leaving the theatre in the evening after the play they’re invited to watch. In fact he seems to pop up all over the place. What is he up to?

Next morning everyone is excited about the big reveal but then it’s discovered that the artefact has gone.Now Zaiba and co. really must ramp up the action. There are quite a few possible suspects and some leads to follow, but not much time to discover the culprit.

Embracing a controversial topic: the returning of precious artefacts to their countries of origin, once again Annabelle Sami keeps readers guessing right to the final pages of this story of teamwork and as with previous titles in the series, there are lively black and white illustrations by Daniela Sosa throughout.

Solve Your Own Mystery: The Time Thief
Gareth P. Jones, illustrated by Louise Forshaw
Little Tiger

Choose your own adventure books have long been popular but rather went out of fashion. Now with Gareth P. Jones’ new series of which this is the second, interactive tales are back for readers who may well be offspring of the original enthusiasts.

In this instance the scene is set in the opening pages: in the town of Haventry the Museum of Magical Objects and Precious Stones (MOPS for short) is putting on a time-travelling exhibition but its key feature, the Time Sponge, an object able to stop and start time for whoever squeezes it, has gone missing. Then in the role of main character, the reader must make the first decision: two choices are presented as to what to do next: interview suspect mermaids or go to the crime scene – in the company of Klaus Solstaag the yeti detective, of course.

With a fair number of potential suspects and a multitude of paths to choose from, none leading to a dead end, you will eventually reach one of three possible endings.

A fun and intriguing read for key stage two readers especially those who like to do a bit of detecting.

The Very Merry Murder Club

The Very Merry Murder Club
edited by Serena Patel & Robin Stevens, illustrated by Harry Woodgate

This bumper collection of wintry mysteries wasn’t quite the novel I originally anticipated.. Rather it brings together stories by thirteen authors: Elle McNicoll, Roopa Farooki, Annabelle Sami, Abiola Bello, Patrice Lawrence, Maisie Chan, Dominique Valente, Nizrana Farook, Benjamin Dean, Joanna Williams, Serena Patel, E.L. Norry, and Sharna Jackson.

Only some of the tales are of murders: the first, set in Inverness, tells of a ballerina’s death, which, main character Briar, an underestimated autistic girl, is determined to show was the result of foul play.
Another murder (also taking place in a hotel) is Nizrana Farook’s ‘Scrabble’ mystery narrated by young Saba, a member of the Hassan family who are on their way to spend the Christmas holiday with Grandma. However an impassible road results in an overnight stop in an isolated hotel an hour away from their destination, and that’s where another guest is discovered stone dead after a game of Scrabble.

Other Christmas tales involve theft, sabotage and a Christmas Eve visit to a very weird funhouse that really sends shivers down your spine.

However if you want to be really chilled, then turn to Dominique Valente’s The Frostwilds which is a fantasy set in an icy-cold world wherein children’s lives are under constant threat from the mysterious Gelidbeast.

It’s impossible in a short review to mention every story but suffice it to say that with a wealth of interesting and determined, often brave protagonists, settings modern and historic, as well as invented, there’s sure to be something for everyone to puzzle over and enjoy, especially snuggled up warm with a hot chocolate and a mince pie close at hand.

Harry Woodgate’s black and white illustrations (one per story) are splendid – full of detail and there’s also a clever ‘book cover’ that serves an a visual introduction to each one:

Be sure to look under the book’s dust jacket where a colourful surprise awaits.

Llama on a Mission / Waiting for Murder

Llama on a Mission
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

This is the second story featuring ten-year old Yasmin and her magical toy llama guardian Levi, and it’s every bit as daftly funny as the first.

Having found her voice with Levi’s help and a new friend, Ezra, she’s ready for year 6.

With her sights set on joining the art club, Yasmin is more than a tad perturbed when her teacher Miss Zainab informs her that she’s been selected to join the science team The Funsen Burners and participate in an inter-school competition. Just when what she really wants is to spend time getting Levi restored to his normal toy state. That, and get on with the new comic, LOUDMOUTH, she’s trying to create for another competition.

The very last thing she wants is for Levi to be sent all the way back to Peru but the way he starts behaving while engaged on his mission under the watchful eye of Mama Llama could result in just that. Then what? Yasmin just can’t let it happen. With Ezra’s assistance, perhaps there’s something that can be done; meanwhile she needs to learn the difference between talking and communicating.

Is it a case of mission accomplished? The only way too find out is to get hold of a copy of this tale of high drama and a whole lot of trouble. Allen Fatimaharan has done a terrific job with the illustrations, adding to the fun of the book.

For older readers is:

Waiting for Murder
Fleur Hitchcock
Nosy Crow

Daniel and his archaeologist mum are spending the summer in the country and a sweltering one it is. While his mum is engaged on her dig, (searching for the grave of Edith the Fair, King Harold’s wife) Dan too is observing and he also makes a discovery – a car with what looks like a body in the reservoir.

Next morning however, the body is no longer there, but Dan notices new scratches on the car. Seemingly, something strange is going on, something that needs investigating. Moreover somebody in the village is absolutely determined to stop Dan and his new friend, Florence from discovering the truth.

The climax of this terrific story more or less coincides with the weather finally breaking and pretty soon torrents of muddy water threaten to sweep everyone and everything away.

With an abundance of thrills and some surprises, this is a totally gripping, nail-biting, page-turner with a surprise finale. Crime drama for youngsters doesn’t come much better than this.

Willow Moss and the Vanished Kingdom / Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House

These are new additions to popular series both with strong, determined female protagonists

Willow Moss and the Vanished Kingdom
Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

This is the third instalment in the Starfell series, starring young witch Willow Moss and her kobold best friend, ‘not cat’ Oswin.

Now Willow has been enrolled in school – a normal school – and it’s the very first time the Brothers of Wol, the order newly headed by none other than Silas, have allowed Starfell’s magical children to be educated alongside their non-magical peers, and her parents think it’s now the right thing. Surely there’s an ulterior motive? Willow has her suspicions from the outset.

On the very first day of term Willow meets Twist, a forthright elf girl and they soon become firm friends. Also willing to accept Willow for who she is, there’s Peg, a human boy. When she learns of the new curriculum that students will study Willow finds it pretty alarming, but Peg speaks out firmly in support of ‘magic people’ and of diversity.

Before you can say ’broomstick’; though, the three of them have escaped the confines of the classroom and are heading to Lael, the elf city made entirely of marble wherein Twist’s aunts Tuppence, Griselda and Dot reside.

All they have to do thereafter is to find the vanished elvish kingdom of Llandunia and get hold of the elf staff before it gets into the wrong hands. Not much to ask then.

Dragons, trolls (including an old friend of Willow’s) and more – even Oswin’s cousin – appear in this terrific fantasy tale, but be warned: it ends on a cliff-hanger.

Somehow, despite Sarah Warburton’s illustrations, the cover apart, being in black and white, many readers will I suspect experience parts of this enormously engaging story in colour, such is the power of Dominique Valente’s writing. Bring on the next book.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House
Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Daniela Sosa
Little Tiger

Zaiba has a third case to solve and it’s set in the home of her new friend Olivia. Olivia’s parents have recently bought the run-down Oakwood Manor and Olivia tells Zaiba that her mum thinks the house is haunted. With its plethora of secret passages and hidden rooms it is certainly steeped in history and some strange things have happened but ghosts? Surely not.

Olivia invites Zaiba and Poppy her pal, to come to the house-warming party the following day and then sleepover, as that offers the ideal opportunity to begin their ‘ghost’ investigation. Zaiba has an unexpected offer of assistance from her brother Ali and with her backpack of detective paraphernalia, and fellow Snow Leopard Detective Agency UK members they’re ready to investigate.

Once the party is underway, things get increasingly weird

and sometimes, a tad dangerous. There are plenty of suspects, and in true detective story style, some red-herrings; but this isn’t merely a junior who-dunnit with all suspects present at the final reveal. Zaiba’s family dynamics and the diverse cast of characters add to the reader’s enjoyment of this fast-paced mystery. So too do Daniela Sosa’s black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout and it was good to see the police treating the crime-solving children with respect rather than dismissing them as interfering.

Young would-be sleuths can also enjoy the additional content after the story.