A final flying visit, a legend retold and a woodland spy by various authors - book reviews -

Enjoy the thrilling last chapter in the fantastic Cogheart series, marvel at a superb retelling of the epic tale of Beowulf, and laugh out loud at the madcap adventures of the hilarious Agent Weasel in a magical selection of new children’s books.

Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 11:24 am
Updated Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 11:25 am

Age 9 plus:


Peter Bunzl

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It’s an adventure series which began with Cogheart, an extraordinary debut novel that won wide critical acclaim… and the hearts and minds of thousands of youngsters.

With its charismatic cast of humans and mechanimals, the powerful Victorian steampunk thriller was the perfect opener to an outstanding reading odyssey which has taken us on an amazing journey to worlds far beyond our wildest dreams.

The seeds of the stories grew from a non-fiction book called Living Dolls by Gaby Wood, a popular history of automatons, and Peter Bunzl reveals that these fictional Frankenstein-style tales of early androids – full of lies, mysteries and what-ifs – were the key to his remarkable world-building.

And after Moonlocket and Skycircus – two more gripping books which conjured up the same heady mix of non-stop action, pulsating mystery, heart-stopping danger and mind-boggling fantasy –inventive author and BAFTA-award-winning animator Bunzl is bowing out with his final Cogheart adventure.

Shadowsea plunges us back into the perilous lives of inventor Professor John Hartman’s daughter Lily (who has a mechanical heart of cogs and springs beating in her chest), her cantankerous mechanimal fox Malkin, and her best friend, co-conspirator and first-class clockmaker Robert Townsend.

We find Lily and Robert aboard an airship called Firefly in the winter of 1897 as they head across the ocean to the bright hustle and bustle of New York where they plan to visit Robert’s family while Professor Hartman speaks at a conference.

But they quickly discover that there are chilling goings-on in their hotel and that danger lies beneath the city’s surface. Dane, a strange boy who has a white mouse peeping out of his pocket, is haunted by an undersea mystery and is being held captive by his mechanical nursemaid Miss Buckle and the shadowy Professor Matilda Milksop.

With the boy pleading for their help and a vengeful villain hatching a treacherous plan, Robert and Lily are soon searching for clues and finding themselves in deep water. Can they reveal the deadly truth before the secrets submerge them?

Lily, Robert and Malkin’s voyage of murder and mayhem, terror and triumph is a captivating finale to this fantastic series and for those already mourning the loss of the Cogheart experience, Bunzl assures us that he is embarking on another adventure in a world filled with pirates, princesses and wild boys.

Watch this space!

(Usborne, paperback, £7.99)

Age 8 plus:

Monster Slayer: A Beowulf Tale

Brian Patten and Chris Riddell

The epic Old English poem Beowulf, which scholars believe dates back to some time between the 8th and 11th centuries, is one of the most important works of ancient literature.

The story – set in Scandinavia several hundred years earlier, and written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet – stars Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, who helps the king of the Danes when his hall comes under attack from a fearsome monster known as Grendel.

It’s a thrilling tale of heroes and a terrifying villain, and good and evil, which has fascinated students for years, and now the dream team of artist, author and former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell and award-winning Liverpool author and poet Brian Patten work their magic on this stunning retelling written in prose.

One dark night, the sound of music and singing rouses a monster from his sleep in a foul swamp. The dreaded monster Grendel has awoken and the townspeople are terrified. Even the king has abandoned his great hall. Warrior after warrior comes to slay the monster, but no one can outwit Grendel. Only the great hero Beowulf stands a chance. But when Beowulf finally triumphs, an even greater horror awakens. Grendel’s mother, the Hag, wants revenge on the slayer of her son.

Monster Slayer: A Beowulf Tale has been specially created in a super readable format for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers. Printed on publisher Barrington Stoke’s heavy quality cream paper and with a special easy-to-read font, the book is a smooth read for everyone.

And with a dazzling cover, Riddell’s spectacular and atmospheric black-and-white illustrations, and Patten’s highly accessible and exciting retelling, this is an inspirational introduction to one of the world’s most famous poems.

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

Jane Eyre: A Retelling

Tanya Landman

Reading classic novels can seem daunting to youngsters so Barrington Stoke has harnessed the storytelling talents of prize-winning author Tanya Landman for this poignant and powerful retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s eternally popular Jane Eyre.

Landman, who won the Carnegie Medal in 2015 with Buffalo Soldier – a young adult novel featuring an African-American slave from the Deep South at the end of the American Civil War – is renowned for her thought-provoking novels set in nineteenth-century America.

And she brings her observant eye and writing skills to this beautifully realised and accessible retelling of one of the greatest novels in the English language. Whilst honouring Brontë’s classic tale of a spirited heroine’s search for love, independence and belonging, Landman accentuates the key themes and scenes from the original text in a more concise format without compromising on the impact and importance of the original.

Orphaned as a child, tormented by her guardian and cast out to a harsh boarding school, Jane Eyre has been raised in the shadow of cruelty and isolation. But when she takes a job as governess at remote Thornfield Hall, where secrets lurk in the attic and strange laughter echoes through the night, Jane meets the brooding, elusive Mr Rochester… and her life is irrevocably transformed. But for better, or for worse?

Renowned for her own precise, powerful and emotional storytelling focus on strong female characters, Landman proves to be the perfect voice to bring new life to this timeless story and give young readers the impetus to go on and read the original Jane Eyre for themselves.

(Barrington Stoke, paperback, £7.99)

Age 7 plus:

Agent Weasel and the Abominable Dr Snow

Nick East

Banish the January blues with another madcap adventure alongside Agent Weasel, the wonderfully wacky woodland super-spy.

Author and illustrator Nick East is on his rib-ticklingly best form in this second, laugh-out-loud book in the Agent Weasel series in which our clueless but brave and lovable sleuth is on a slippery mission to save the Big Freeze winter games from disaster.

It’s the opening night of the Winter Whopper Games, but all is not well in the United Woodlands. Top animal athletes are disappearing, and there are whispers of a silent snow beast on the prowl. It’s time to call Agent Weasel but can he and his trusty dormouse friend Doorkins find out the secrets of Blanche, their mysterious team-mate? Will Weasel be able to compete for a golden fir cone without falling over his own feet? Will there be enough marshmallows and sprinkles for another hot chocolate? Who knows? But rest assured… even on the darkest and snowiest of nights, Agent Weasel always gets his animal.

Full of East’s wit, vibrant storytelling, and high-octane illustrations, this funny, frantic series is perfectly pitched for reading alone or to share giggles with all the family!

(Hodder Children's Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

The Big Angry Roar

Jonny Lambert

Get ready to have your heartstrings tugged as author and illustrator Jonny Lambert brings us a playful lesson in how to manage your anger.

A little lion cub with big feelings is the adorable star of a beautifully imaginative picture book brimming with fun, humour and emotional intelligence as the ever-inventive Lambert gently teaches youngsters how to control those all too familiar tantrums.

Lion cub is quarrelling with his little sister and when he is told to behave, he angrily stomps off. His animal friends tell him to let his anger out but smashing and roaring, tramping and stamping only makes him feel worse. Finally, a clever old baboon gives cub the best advice… and it starts with taking a deep, deep breath!

The Big Angry Roar – filled with Lambert’s distinctive and superbly stylish illustrations – is tailor-made for little ones learning to cope with complex feelings of frustration and anger. The warm and wise tale teaches patience and thoughtfulness through gentle comedy and sensitive but recognisable experiences.

Picture book magic with a heartwarming message.

(Little Tiger Press, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Shhh! I’m Reading

John Kelly and Elina Ellis

Quiet please! Bella is reading and doesn’t want to be disturbed…

Author John Kelly and illustrator Elina Ellis celebrate the joy of reading in this busy and beautiful picture book which captures the hilarious chaos of a little girl’s quiet reading session when it is rudely interrupted by her imaginary friends.

It’s a wet and windy Sunday afternoon but Bella doesn’t care. She is busy reading the best book ever. And the story had just reached the amazing bit, right near the end where… Oh no, her playmates have come calling! Captain Bluebottom and his Windy Pirates, Maurice Penguin and his dancers, and madcap Emperor Flabulon the Wobbulous can’t understand why she doesn’t want to join in the fun. They will just have to come back when she has finished this utterly amazing and totally incredible book!

Shhh! I’m Reading might be a tale about the sedentary pleasures of reading but this is a book full of life, colour and action as the cast of tap-dancing flapper penguins, adventure-seeking pirates, and Earth-defending aliens strut their stuff across the pages.

Kelly’s clever story underlines the pleasure of books as a means of escape and quiet pleasure but also pays tribute to their power to stimulate inspire a child’s imagination, while Ellis’s illustrations put the words into colourful action.

(Little Tiger Press, paperback, £6.99)