TAILS: the animal investigators of London by Martin Penny

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case it is definitely a case that the fiction stems directly from real events.  The world of children’s literature has long been the natural home of stories featuring animals, both wild and domesticated.  From ‘Wind in the Willows’ to ‘Watership Down’ we have grown up with these glimpses of life for other creatures.  In the last couple of decades we have seen a focus on more animals that we think of as being domesticated, although in the stories they are often feral and very wary of the human world; characters such as ‘Varjak Paw‘show a slightly different side, being more akin to Yowl with his connection to humans.  The characters that we find in this story are a mix of domesticated and wild and they share an uneasy truce, in the face of a common enemy.

This particular new story features a collection of animals, all of whom live in the London  suburbs; it is based on true life events that took place in Croydon, starting in about 2010.  The central character is a young kitten called Yowl and he has just moved to a new home with his owners  and their young daughter, Lucy.  We follow this young and intrepid kitten as he gradually meets his neighbours, both feline and canine.  He is then gradually introduced to some of the surrounding wildlife, in the guise of pigeons, squirrels and even a family of foxes.  What really brings all of these creatures together is the realization that cats have been disappearing over the last year or so, something like 70 of them,  and the human ‘authorities’ have decided that it is all the fault of wild foxes.  As with any really good detective story, we are given a set of clues and a central character who has the ability (with the help of older and wiser friends) to sort through the evidence and find the likely culprit.

The hero, Yowl, may be young but he is very intelligent and has learnt to understand human speech and written words, from watching television and reading the local paper!  However, at no time does he lose his character as an animal and his encounters with a ‘litter tray’ can be quite amusing.  I love the underlying humour and also the tensions that exist between the various species.  There are some real lessons to be learnt about accepting people who are different, showing empathy and treating others as you would wish to be treated.  It is definitely a recommended read for KS2 children.  I look forward to further adventures for this intrepid band of friends.

Author

About the author: Martin Penny is a cat lover originally from London, the son of a
BBC sound engineer who worked on the Goon Show, he
takes after his mother who used to say, ‘a home isn’t
complete without a cat’. The character of Yowl is based on
the tabby he got as soon as he left his parents’ home. Later in life, for over ten
years, Martin managed the flagship Oxfam Bookshop in Marylebone High Street
(London) which under his stewardship became one of the most profitable Oxfam
shops in the country. He has been living in Turkey since 2015 where he teaches
English part-time. Ideally, this enables him to dedicate himself to his ‘real’ job as
a writer. Already the author of a 7-book crime series, TAILs: The Animal
Investigators of London is his first children’s book. He has enjoyed the company
of Yowl and his friends so much (the pleasure is mutual) that he’s already writing
a new adventure, Yowl and the Fugitive from Justice. It seems that Martin’s
brave and enterprising animal friends aren’t going to leave us any time soon!

The Butterfly Club: The Ship of Doom by M A Bennett

Welbeck Publishing, 9781801300049

Like many millions of people around the world, I have been a fan of time travel stories since I was a child.  Tales such as “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Phillipa Pearce”, “The Ghosts” by Antonia Barber” and  “The Gauntlet” by Ronald Welch” introduced my generation to the possibilities of movement in time.  This sub-genre has become increasingly popular in the last generation or so and a basic search on websites such as Waterstones and Amazon will give you a plethora of titles for a wide range of age groups.  However there is one element that most of these books share, namely that the characters tend to find themselves going backwards in time and only a few authors have taken the heroes forward into an unknown future.  This new series manages to find a compromise with this situation, so read on, to find out how it was done.

The Butterfly Club is the title of the series and it gets its name from a premise that  states “if a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, then there will be a much larger event happening on the other side of the world”  Basically, it is a case of “Cause and Effect” and although I can’t think of many titles that use this construct, a brilliant example of its use is “Mortal Chaos” by Matt Dickinson.  M A Bennett has used this idea to bring together a group of adults, many of them well-known, who are part of a secret organization that has managed to ‘discover’ the secret of time travel.  The young people at the centre of the events find themselves there because of their family links to the club.  Luna is living with her aunt, due to the ‘disappearance’ of her father; Konstantin is the son of a German member of the group, and Aidan is the son of an Irish engineer.  Whilst the story starts in 1894, the children are asked to travel forward to 1912, in order to ‘steal’ information about a new discovery called a “wireless radio” by Guglielmo Marconi.  they arrive at Southampton and manage to stow away  (with the time machine) on board a very fine vessel, one of the White Star Line ships.  By this point most of the readers will be getting a real sense of trepidation, which is only confirmed as the trio discover the name of their vessel, it is RMS Titanic!

What follows is a mix of an exciting adventure story as the intrepid children try to find the wireless, together with a traumatic build up to the events that befell the ship, crew and passengers.  The author uses the time machine to allow the children to re-live the day prior to the iceberg, so that they can try and prevent some of the small events, which then ended up having a profound impact on what happened.  On each occasion their attempts seem to be thwarted by a sinister figure, with a watch face in place of one eye; but who is he and what is his motivation in wanting the ship to meet its doom?

This is a fabulous read, with some fascinating sub-plots that will resonate with many readers.  The fact that they can only travel between their own time and 1969, means that they are limited in where they can visit.  However the additional premise, that the purpose of the club is to find more modern technologies and bring them to the 19th century, means that there is plenty of opportunity for adventure and even danger.  What we do discover is that each of the young people has a secret and as they gradually become friends they are able to share these secrets with the others.  It will be fascinating to see how these issues play out in the coming stories, but what I can say is that the friendships are only strengthened as the young people learn to support each other.

This is a stunning start to a new series and I cannot wait for the next title in the series “The Mummy’s Curse”; as a fan of Ancient Egypt since childhood this is going to be right up my street.  I am willing to bet that a certain pharaoh might be at the centre of this story, especially as 2022 celebrates the centenary of his tomb being discovered.  Thank you to Welbeck for allowing me to include this excerpt from the book, in order to further whet your appetite.

The Ship of Doom (The Butterfly Club series) by M.A. Bennett (£6.99, Welbeck Children’s) available now.

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Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue by Anna Fargher and Sam Usher

The second and final book in this sequence is being published in July and will be eagerly awaited by the many fans who loved the first story.  It was originally due for publication in April, but the pandemic has meant that there has been a delay, as with so many other books this year.  The adventures of Umbrella Mouse are the first books that the author has published and they are a stunning success.  Anna’s imagination is glorious, but it is also grounded in the reality of what is actually achievable for the individual creatures, so we never have a sense of being outside the realms of possibility.  The illustrations by Sam Usher are truly delightful, as you would expect from such an accomplished illustrator.  I particularly love his series about a young boy and his grandfather and would definitely recommend “Snow” and his new title “Wild“.  Not only has he produced the cover illustration for  Anna’s book but he has also  given us some  really strong images to link with the text throughout the book.

I came across the first book when the proof copy was available at a conference I was attending, probably in late 2018 or early 2019.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved it and especially the young mouse Pip Hanway who is the heroine of both stories.  At the beginning of the sequence she is living on the premises of a well known umbrella maker in London, but then one day the shop is bombed and the owners killed; Pip has no where to go as her parents are dead, so she decides to follow an old family story about a museum in Italy, where the ancient umbrella she owns was originally from.  As she starts her journey she meets up with a group of animals that support humans in the fight against the Nazi enemy; they are called Noah’s Ark and they agree to help her with her quest.  Most of the action takes place in France, where Pip is instrumental in foiling a plot by German troops and their animal supporters.

The second story sees the delightful ‘Umbrella Mouse and her friends in the French animal resistance recovering from their battle against the Nazis and linking up with the group in the local area.  Unfortunately the German animals, led by a renegade dove called Lucia, are still trying to kill Pip; making the band of friends decide to try and get to Paris, to help in freeing the city.  Their adventures put them in great peril and they lose some of their comrades on the way, but their determination and sense of loyalty is what sees them get through.

This is a wonderful story of friendship and of courage and I am sure it reflects the feelings of the millions of humans that went through the trauma of the Second World War.  The author has allowed the animals to experience the dangers that real people faced during this and other conflicts, but because it at a slight distance from us, it is easier for the audience to cope with.  However we all understand the feelings when loved ones are lost and when something positive and uplifting happens to the central characters .  This is a heartwarming story at so many levels and is perfect for the older middle grade.  Whilst it is an animal story it does not shy away from describing the dangers and tribulations that were faced by ordinary people during this period of history and is very suitable for reading to children who are studying the war.

I am not giving the game away about the ending, but I will tell you that there is a very fitting ending and that we are left with a sense of hope for the future.  This really is highly recommended reading

 

Summer sun and cakes

For those in the children’s book world this is a very busy time of year.  Not only do we have a swathe of book awards but we have book launches, publishers parties and book festivals and conferences as well as  advance notice of some of the wonderful offerings coming in the autumn.  It can be quite overpowering knowing what to read next, but this can be helped when you get to see some of your favourite authors.

Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

2014-07-17 12.36.58

Oxford University Press, 9780192734563

For younger readers one of the most exciting books to look for this autumn will be the fantastic new offering from Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre called ‘Cakes in Space’.   Fantastic costumes

Fantastic costumes

2014-07-01 19.29.34

The pre-launch party was amazing and as always the two stars produced the best entertainment with a new song to go with the book. The book itself is about a young girl, Astra, who wakes from from a frozen sleep to find that robot like cakes are taking over the spaceship she is on.  All of this as a result of her asking the Nom-O-Tron computer for cakes “so delicious, it’s scary”, before she went into hibernation.  Science Fiction has never been such fun and this is going to be a real favourite for this Christmas.

 

 

 

Scavenger Zoid by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

2014-06-21 11.07.12

Macmillan, 9781447231486

 

Macmillan,

Macmillan,

 

Keeping with the science fiction theme, the new book by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell is also set on a space craft but it is a very different world from that of the ‘Cakes’.  Aimed at the 9-12 years it is about the human survivors aboard a huge space vessel which has been taken over by ‘Zoids’ which have evolved from Robots intended to help and protect humans.  As you would expect, the illustrations are amazing and the story itself is quite dark as groups of people find each other and combine to try and overcome their increasingly sophisticated enemies.

 

Dragon Shield by Charlie Fletcher

Hodder 9781444917321

Hodder
9781444917321

This is the first in a new trilogy by the author of Stoneheart.  Once again it is set in London and statues are coming to life.  However this time the source of the danger is  from the Egyptian gallery at the British Museum, a place full of mystery and an atmosphere that makes the plot really feasible.  This really is a great book for reminding you of places you have visited and those you would really like to go to .  I know that there have been walking tours based on the previous books, so perhaps this is another opportunity to add to the literary walks around central London. Aimed at a slightly younger audience than previous books, this will still find fans among those of us well past our 21st birthdays.

 

 

 

Destination earth by Ali Sparkes

I first came across the books of Ali Sparkes when she produced her Shapeshifter series and I really loved them.  However I have to admit that my favourite for several years has been ‘Frozen in Time’ but this latest book is absolutely fascinating.  Lucy is the last survivor from her planet and has spent the last ten years on a journey to Earth, where she hopes to find a safe haven.  Over the years she has been finding out about the world she is hoping to live in.  Unfortunately what she does not realize until it is almost too late is that she has got an unwelcome stowaway on the outside of her space ship – one of the creatures that has killed off the rest of her race.  Lucy, together with two children from earth are in a race to prevent the same catastrophe happening here.

Oxford University Press 9780192733443

Oxford University Press
9780192733443

 

 

Purely by accident I seem to have had a bit of a Sci-Fi Fest here.  However,  perhaps we are seeing a rise in the number of books that have been published recently within this genre, a move away from the dystopian and vampire/zombie stories which have been so popular over the last few years.  For those who enjoy Sci- Fi why not try and look out authors from the past such as Andre Norton and John Christopher, both of whom were read widely in the 1970s.