Once again, I’ve been reading a lot of fabulous middle grade, so I thought I’d bundle some thoughts all into one post, in case you’re looking for a run through recent releases! All of these books were sent to me free of charge by the publishers, but all opinions are my own.
Orla and the Wild Hunt by Anna Hoghton, from Chicken House
This was really fantastic! A really exciting quest with some wonderful heartfelt themes of grief, depression, and family. It plays with Irish and British mythology in a way that feels familiar and fresh at the same time – if it doesn’t remind adult readers of the vibe of their childhood fantasy favourites, I’ll be astonished!. I had previously read and enjoyed the author’s first book, The Mask of Aribella, but I feel like this is a step up in everything: characterisation, atmosphere, and plot. It’s very magical and enjoyable – I loved it.
The House of Shells by Efua Traoré, from Chicken House
This wasn’t at all what I was expecting – for some reason I thought it was going to be a historical gothic, but it’s actually contemporary with a smidgen of fantasy – but it was still very enjoyable. Kuki’s troubles with a new school and the class bully are compounded by her aunt’s insistence she’s at risk from an Abiku, a spirit that takes the lives of children. With a relatable contemporary plot, and intriguing use of Nigerian folklore, this is an entertaining read full of heart.
A Beginner’s Guide to Ruling the Galaxy by David Solomons, from Nosy Crow
This zany contemporary sci-fi was great fun, with a really likeable protagonist. Those who like smart humour and fish-out-of-water characters will really enjoy this – it reminded me a little of Louie Stowell’s Loki books, with that ‘non-human undercover at school, bemused by normal human things’ kind of vibe to it. I did find, however, that it was a little bit long – it’s 325 pages, which isn’t much outside the normal length of middle grade, but the plot sagged a little in the third quarter and the jokes started to get a little repetitive. Overall though, it’s still a fun read.
Mouse Heart by Fleur Hitchcock, from Nosy Crow
This was such an interesting read! It’s a sort of alternate history, set in the time of the fictional Queen Anne II in a fictional early 1700s, and featuring a theatre troupe that’s taken in various outcasts. One of these is the foundling Mouse, and we follow her as she not only navigates the rivalries and friendships within the troupe, but also tries to prove that one of her fellow members is innocent of murder. I think this is definitely one for the older end of the age range, as it’s really quite bloody and there are multiple deaths of named characters, but for kids who can handle it, the atmosphere and plot are excellent.
Alice Eclair, Spy Extraordinaire: A Recipe for Trouble by Sarah Todd Taylor, from Nosy Crow
I actually expected to fall in love with this a bit more than I did! It’s a fun and fast-paced mystery, featuring a young, really likeable baker with a knack for spycraft, but I’m just not sure that the historical setting lands as well as it could. It’s not quite been served by its marketing, I think, because everything from the illustration to the blurb to the marketing copy makes it feel and sound contemporary, but it’s set in France just before the Second World War and deals with real historical problems – however, it’s a long, long way into the book before this is confirmed, and it would be very easy to believe it was much more modern! I also wasn’t entirely sure that it tackled the subject of international espionage against the rising Nazi party with enough gravity for my taste – the historical context is underplayed in a way that makes reading it as an adult a bit of an odd experience. I believe this is the first in a projected series, and I’m not sure where it can go from here, as I feel like the realities of working against the Nazis will only become stronger as time moves on, which seems at odds with maintaining this book’s light comic tone. I will say though that Alice’s hijinks are certainly entertaining!