Book reviews: Super-sleuths, mischief-makers and a US-style Hamlet

A mesmerising reworking of Shakespeare's Hamlet and a would-be Sherlock Holmes are just two of the stars in a brilliant batch of new children's books.

Thursday, 14th April 2016, 10:00 am
Super-sleuths, mischief-makers and a US-style Hamlet
Super-sleuths, mischief-makers and a US-style Hamlet

The Bard is the inspiration for Cat Winters’ thrilling teen novel and a fascinating new sticker book, daring detective Violet Remy-Robinson sets sail, two schoolboy pranksters are back in action, a cat reveals the cycle of life, the chips are down for a special ‘spud’ and aliens are bagging the best underpants.


The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s influential plays still pop up in the most unexpected places.

The Steep and Thorny Way, US author Cat Winters’ thrilling and atmospheric reimagining of Hamlet, tells the story of a murder most foul and the power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

But this is not the State of Denmark… it’s Prohibition-era Oregon in the 1920s and it is not a welcoming place for the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man.

Blending the brutal realities of living under the menacing shadow of the Ku Klux Klan with the haunting, supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Winters’ brilliant story shines with beauty, honesty and empathy.

As the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man, Hanalee Denney has almost no rights by law. She lives with her mother and stepfather in Oregon where the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships.

Hanalee’s father, Hank Denney, died a year ago after he was hit by teenage drink-driver Joe who was jailed for the crime. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all.

Now in hiding and in fear of his life from the hatred stirred up by the Ku Klux Klan, Joe claims that Hank was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him, the man who is Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a troubled spirit who wanders the roads at night...

Winters sprinkles her moving and gripping story with a gallery of facts and old photographs detailing the life, times and people of Oregon in the early 1920s when the state was taken over by the Ku Klux Klan.

The book, she tells us, is a tribute to those who endured and overcame ‘the forgotten injustices of the past,’ the ‘fighters and survivors’ that she has always admired.

Haunting, beautifully written and immensely powerful, this is a story that resonates through time and history whilst delivering a clever and compelling thriller.

(Amulet Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age: 8 plus

Violet and the Smugglers by Harriet Whitehorn

Some books are the complete package… an alluring, gold-foiled cover, irresistible illustrations and stories so funny, clever and appealing that they become instant favourites.

Harriet Whitehorn has certainly struck reading gold with the madcap adventures of Violet Remy-Robinson, a deliciously adorable 10-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the making who dares to venture where many would fear to tread.

The only child of wealthy eccentric parents, Violet’s intrepid sleuthing and her rich cast of friends, foes and family spring to glorious life through the amazing and unique two-colour illustrations of gifted up-and-coming artist Becka Moor.

And now Violet is on her third outrageous outing after solving the case of the stolen Pearl of the Orient and bravely preventing the bird-napping of the Maharajah’s cockatoo.

Uncle Johnny has invited Violet and her best friends Rose and Art to spend the summer with him on a sailing adventure around Europe and Violet couldn’t be more excited. But when she suspects that the captain of a boat nearby might be up to no good, Violet needs to put her detective skills into action. Could he be the head of a smuggling ring, or is he working for someone more dangerous? It’s up to Violet to solve the crime and catch the culprit!

Whitehorn certainly knows how to grab the attention of her young audience… a quirky ‘who’s who’ picture gallery, maps and an ‘extra-helpful’ word glossary help to make Violet’s all-action detective work an exciting and entertaining reading experience.

With their magical combination of subtle but child-accessible humour, sparkling adventures that will charm fun and mystery fans, and a gallery of lively illustrations, Violet and her exotic world are perfect escapist reading for all young adventurers.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £8.99)

Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn

Also available now in paperback is the second book in this brilliant series in which Violet spends her holidays exploring India with her Godmother Celeste.

The trip includes visiting Celeste’s good friend the Maharajah and meeting his very special cockatoo. But when she returns home, Violet gets a surprise visit from the Maharajah’s butler, asking her to look after the bird.

Violet couldn’t be more amazed (and her cat Pudding couldn’t be less pleased) but the cockatoo holds the key to the Maharajah’s fortune, and someone is trying to bird-nap her! Can Violet discover who the culprit is before they succeed?

High drama on the high seas with an irresistible super sleuth!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8-12:

The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett and Jory John, Illustrated by Kevin Cornell

Thousands of mischief-makers have fallen hook, line and sinker (or should that be stinker!) for arch prankster Miles Murphy and his rival-turned-partner Niles Sparks.

And now the two misbehaving schoolboys are ready to cause mayhem again!

The weird and wonderful world of this dynamic deadpan comedy duo set the reading world alight when the first in the series, The Terrible Two, transformed kids’ reading into what many of them like best… laugh-out-loud fun.

The two terrible schoolboys are the inspired creations of another tip-top comedy partnership, authors and friends Mac Barnett and Jory John, both noted for their entertaining and educational children’s books.

Here they combine their talents – aided and abetted by Kevin Cornell’s superb illustrations –on wonderfully witty and warm-hearted adventures packed with brilliant characters, schoolboy humour and pranks so devastatingly devilish that youngsters might just want to try them out themselves.

Separately, pranksters Miles and Niles were pretty devious. But now that they have teamed up together to form a pranking duo, they are truly Terrible. It’s a good thing they have come into their own as friends and pranking partners as their powers will be tested when their nemesis, Principal Barkin, is replaced by his stern, no-nonsense father, Former Principal Barkin, who turns the school into boot camp. Now Miles and Niles will do just about anything to get their nemesis back, including pranking for Barkin.

Daringly different and acutely observant, this sparkling series is as clever as it is comical. No self-respecting prankster would want to miss it!

(Amulet Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 5 plus:

Shakespeare Sticker Book by Rob Lloyd Jones and Paul Nicholls

All the world’s a stage in a brilliant new sticker book which puts the spotlight firmly on England’s greatest playwright.

This month marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and Usborne are making sure that the youngest children get in on the act.

Shakespeare’s plays are as relevant and enjoyable to readers and audiences today as they were in his own lifetime and this entertaining and educational sticker book introduces young children to the Bard in an accessible and fun way.

Add over 500 colourful and amusing stickers, including characters like Romeo and Juliet and Titania and Bottom, to scenes of the renowned Globe Theatre, the streets of Elizabethan London and famous plays such as Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Snippets of fascinating historical information and pages of sticker fun make this the ideal introduction to Shakespeare’s life and plays.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Age 5 plus:

Oscar the Guardian Cat by Chiara Valentina Segré and Paolo Domeniconi

The death of a beloved grandparent is always difficult to discuss with a child so here is a beautiful picture book to help explain to them the cycle of life.

Written with sensitivity and warmth, this inspirational book, packed with stunning illustrations, is based on Oscar, an extraordinary real-life tortoiseshell and white cat who lives in a Rhode Island nursing home in America.

Oscar has a special ability to detect when the nursing home patients, many of them suffering from dementia, are about to die and in more than 100 cases has curled up with them in their final hours. The staff at the home are so sure of Oscar’s accuracy that when he jumps on to a bed and stretches out beside its occupant, his actions provide many relatives with real comfort at a difficult time.

Here we meet Oscar as a Guardian Cat. He keeps a careful eye on all the grandmas and grandads who live with him in Hope House. There’s Lady Lisa who can’t speak any more and Mr Weakhead who is frightened in the thunderstorm and hides in the basement. Oscar makes sure that he’s always there when Mewt comes to visit. None of the staff ever see Mewt though she often comes to Hope House. Oscar knows that Mewt is good and only comes when the time is right. Oscar lets the old people know not to be frightened and stays until they have left happily with Mewt.

Oscar’s story, which is set to be turned into a Hollywood film, is sensitively portrayed in this though-provoking picture book adaptation which is ideal for young children and provides plenty of scope for gentle discussion.

(Ragged Bears, hardback, £11.99)

Age 3 plus:

Supertato Veggies Assemble by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

Meet Supertato… he’s the most a-peeling veg in the supermarket!

Always there when the chips are down, Supertato is a picture book superhero with his eyes firmly fixed on the bad guys and always ready to play out of his skin.

His wacky, calorie-consuming adventures amongst fridges, friends and foes have been cooked up by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet, the formidable duo who created Barry the Fish with Fingers.

In his latest mission, Supertato is rooting for the root vegetables! One evil pea was bad enough, but now there are bags of them on a roll in the supermarket. The Evil Pea is on the loose and there is anarchy in the aisles. He has switched off all the freezers which means that all the peas have turned bad… really bad! Can our supermarket superhero divert disaster? Or is he going to need backup?

Enjoy a scintillating sweetcorn with ninja know-how and a marrow with massive muscles as the veggie gang slices through those pesky peas.

Big, bold and bright illustrations help this funny, fast-moving vegetable adventure boil over as the spud with superpowers makes mincemeat of the perfidious peas.

One taste of Supertato, and little ones will be begging for more!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Aliens Love Dinopants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort

If you thought aliens loved underpants to distraction, then discover why dinosaurs find them just as irresistible!

Award-winners Claire Freedman and Ben Cort return by popular demand to twang at the elastic and launch us helter-skelter into another madcap underwear adventure.

The brilliant duo who brought kids the pant-loving antics of aliens, monsters, pirates and even Santa Claus have now put the lumbering beasts of yesteryear into the most amazing and colourful assortment of underpants in this big, bold, rhyming book.

When the aliens crash-land in the jungle, they have no idea that they are about to stumble on the biggest stash of underpants ever. Their glee knows no bounds! That is, until the prehistoric owners of the outsized stash turn up determined to save their precious hoard of underpants...

This eighth collaboration between author Freedman and illustrator Cort is a true celebration of children’s humour with its addictive rhymes, stupendous array of underpants and larger-than-life cast of hilarious characters.

A book full of underpants jokes that will never wear thin…

And if you want more information on games and downloads, visit the Aliens Love Underpants website

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)