The Very Merry Murder Club

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

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.

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.

Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe / Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day

Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe
Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould
Oxford University Press

Holidays may seem like a distant dream at the present time but there’s no harm in looking forward and we all need something to keep us cheerful. This second Alfie Fleet story will certainly do just that and perhaps keep holiday dreams alive too.

If you’ve not encountered Alfie before, he has sandy coloured hair and awkward knees. In this adventure he and Professor Pewsley Bowell-Mouvemont are soon to open their enterprise the Unusual Travel Agency and are compiling the final few entries to the Guide to the Universe.

Pretty soon though, the two find themselves in trouble as they drop in on other planets that turn out to be anything but welcoming to the visitors.

In addition there’s that motley crew, members of the Unusual Cartography Club with their thoroughly nasty leader, Sir Willikin Nanbiter who is determined to sabotage the Unusual Travel Agency, to deal with.

A brief review cannot do justice to this utterly crazy, twisting-turning story with its wealth of Chris Mould’s brilliant illustrations portraying the fantastical cast of characters;

let’s just say that with its weird words and toilet humour and more, this is a total hoot from beginning to end. Just give it to children who have a particular penchant for unlikely quests and stand well back.

Now I’m off to try that ‘Stuttering Ferret’ pose at Guru Wobbli Rubbalegs Bindobendi yoga retreat way off on Planet Baldy and leave readers to discover for themselves whether Alfie finally succeeds in finding all those whom he seeks and bringing love and peace – well maybe just peace, to the universe.

Also full of fantastic characters but of a rather different kind is:

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day
Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

With her second adventure just published it’s time to get acquainted with Willow Moss. Young Willow comes from a family with magical powers. She too has a special power but hers is less impressive-seeming than other family members. Willow, has the power to find lost things.

Then the scariest, most powerful witch in the whole of Starfell appears on the scene and changes things, for none other than Moreg Vaine has chosen Willow to help in a crucial search,

Apparently last Tuesday has disappeared– nobody remembers a thing about it – and almost unbelievably Moreg needs the talents of a finder like her. How on earth can she possibly manage such a thing, especially as failure to track down and return Tuesday to the place it belongs, could have catastrophic consequences for the entire world?

Really, Willow has little choice but to get on board (rather broomstick) and accept the mission. If truth be told though she’s long harboured a desire for a bit of excitement, so it’s bag packed and off they go (accompanied – in Willow’s bag – by lie-detecting cat-like kobold Oswin, Willow’s only friend).

Magical writing of a magical tale – Dominique Valente’s debut has everything younger fantasy lovers could want: humour, fabulous characters including a dragon with an empty egg and trolls, plus there’s a portal cloak (Moreg’s), a splendid compass-like device that can act as guide when tricky moments present themselves and much, much more.. In particular, the wonderful Willow herself – resourceful and determined and lacking in self-belief. And yes, she does finally discover what happened to that lost Tuesday.

The potency of all this textual magic is further strengthened thanks to Sarah Warburton’s cracking illustrations.

This reviewer can’t wait to read more of Willow, and I’m certain that will be the response from youngsters too.