Book reviews: Below stairs mysteries, high-flying dramas and bad bunnies

The Last Duchess by Laura Powell and Sarah Gibb
The Last Duchess by Laura Powell and Sarah Gibb

A lady’s maid battles the Dark Arts, a schoolboy heads off to a forgotten land, and two mischief-making bunnies steal the show in a sunshine collection of new books for young readers.

Age 9 plus:

The Last Duchess by Laura Powell and Sarah Gibb

A lady’s maid turned dragon-slayer… whoever said that being in domestic service was boring?

Step into the magical fantasy world created by Laura Powell, an exciting author inspired to write this thrilling children’s adventure by her childhood years spent in the shadow of the ruins of Carreg Cennen Castle in Wales.

The Last Duchess, an action-packed, rollercoaster story, is the first of her original and imaginative Silver Service Mystery series starring 13-year-old Pattern, a resourceful maidservant turned fearless Adversary of the Dark Arts.

Pattern is only 13 but she knows what is required of an exemplary lady’s maid… she must obey orders with enthusiasm, always be loyal and righteous, and quietly observant at all times. Pattern has been trained at Mrs Minchin’s Academy of Domestic Servitude and is widely considered to be one of their best ever students.

Fate intervenes when she is employed by the Baroness von Bliven, from the small and secretive Duchy of Elffinberg, to serve as lady’s maid to her goddaughter, the recently orphaned Grand Duchess Eleri. Not only is this Pattern’s first chance to employ her finely tuned domestic skills; she is also returning to her home country for the first time since her émigré parents drowned at sea.

But Pattern’s young new mistress is petulant, excitable and paranoid that someone in the kingdom wants her dead. She won’t listen to reason, refusing to even leave her chamber, and there are whispers throughout the land that Eleri is mad and unfit to rule when she comes of age.

Despite their differences, the two girls start to forge an unlikely friendship and Pattern realises that there may be more to the duchess’s fears than just an overactive imagination. The picture-perfect Elffinberg hides an extremely dark and deadly secret.

Armed only with her trusty sewing basket, a bottle of smelling salts and her inestimable guide, The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, Pattern will need all her wits and resourcefulness when dealing with above-stairs conspiracies and below-stairs intrigue. Darning stockings has never been so dangerous!

With its atmospheric fairy tale backdrop, cast of amazing characters, lashings of dark humour and devilish twist in the tail, The Last Duchess is an entertaining blend of real life and fantasy. There are warm friendships to enjoy, an intriguing mystery to solve and plenty of adventures, dramas and danger to set the pulse racing.

Sarah Gibb’s intricate black and white silhouette illustrations add visual charm to the action and Powell’s references to J. Bulcock’s The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, an early 19th century guide to being the perfect servant, bring authenticity and extra shine to this wonderful opener to the Silver Service Mysteries.

And hold on to your tea trays because Pattern will be back soon to battle more supernatural skulduggery in The Lost Island, a mysterious Cornish isle where she will be catering to a house party full of love-sick aristocrats and a mistress with a sinister past.

Service with more than a few smiles!

(Macmillan, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter

There’s magic in the air as a schoolboy takes flight on the adventure of a lifetime. ..

Fantasy-loving youngsters will be reaching for the skies as A.P. Winter, an exciting new voice in middle-grade fiction, takes us on an action-packed, out-of-this-world odyssey alongside a teenager with an extraordinary past.

They say magic is long-gone ... but is it? Bert Rumsey isn’t like the other boys at Oneiros School, and not just because he was brought there as a young child by a mysterious cloaked man who said he was an urchin found in the scrapheaps of the city.

Bert is now 13 and his greatest ambition is to be an adventurer, but life at school is exceedingly dull. However, on a trip to the museum to see an exhibition about the old land of Ferenor, a chain of fantastical mishaps sends Bert’s life out of control.

Fortunately for Bert, he is rescued by Finch, a plucky, hyperactive girl adventurer with metal legs, and soon they are sailing through the clouds on a pirate airship bound for the forgotten land of Mirinor. Magic is their destination, for reasons Bert will soon discover...

A bookseller living in York and a part-time professional chocolate taster, A.P. Winter blends his talents to serve up a truly tasty reading dish… a good, old-fashioned fantasy adventure, a spellbinding tale packed with thrilling battles and escapades, a gang of ruthless air pirates, castles in the sky and lashings of that extra special ingredient, magic!

And it’s not all derring-do; Winter also knows how to play on our heartstrings as he tackles emotive issues like coping with loss, the loneliness of being an outsider and the importance of finding a sense of belonging.

A world of fantasy at the turn of a page…

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

The Misfits by Kieran Crowley

Forget Sherlock Holmes and instead head off for a summer holiday with the super-sleuthing Misfits!

Kieran Crowley, Irish author of The Mighty Dynamo, a hilarious story of footballing feats, returns to enthral his young readers with this all-action adventure starring a group of friends determined to solve a real mystery.

When Brian, Hannah, and twins Chris and Sam start their summer holidays, they know it’s going to be the end of an era. The Misfits Club is disbanding and they still haven’t managed to crack a real crime case.

Meanwhile, Amelia is gutted when she finds out that her parents are sending her away to stay with her grandmother for the holidays. What could be more boring than being stuck in the world’s most uneventful place, Newtown?

But things start to look up when Amelia meets Hannah and the rest of the Misfits gang. They introduce her to the game ‘gravest danger,’ a series of dares to test if Amelia is Misfits material.

But things become even more interesting when they persuade her to go and investigate a spooky old cottage and unexpectedly discover some stolen goods. Could this be the Misfits’ chance for one last adventure as they try to track down the crooks behind the theft?

Illustrator Vince Reid puts faces to the gang of gregarious friends and an eclectic cast of characters while Crowley brings us an all-action story packed with drama, mystery, comedy and adventure.

Fun and games with the perfectly matched Misfits!

(Macmillan, paperback, £6.99)

Age 8 plus:

Bob’s Lunar Adventures by Simon Bartram

It has been 15 years since author and illustrator Simon Bartram launched Bob and his amazing extra-terrestrial dog Barry into space and their exciting, fun-packed adventures are still causing a stir here on Earth!

Bartram’s super funny, super nova Bob, the Man on the Moon, books have become must-reads for young space fans and now this special anniversary anthology allows a new generation of children to head for the stars with Bob’s space adventures and enjoy the stunning black and white illustrations.

The collection includes favourites Clone Chaos, A Right Royal Disaster, The Disappearing Moon, The Heartless Robots and Bob’s Film Fiasco.

Bob, the Man on the Moon, goes to the Moon every day with his trusty six-legged dog Barry and keeps it all tidy for the space tourists. He clears up space litter, entertains visitors, sweeps out craters and checks for aliens, although the funny thing about Bob is that he never sees aliens.

And yet every day, aliens climb aboard Bob’s rocket when it’s on the Moon and he’s not looking. And when he arrives back on Earth, they get off and start mingling with the people on Earth. Hard-working Bob just doesn’t seem to see them. In fact he’s sure – just like every other sensible person – that there are no aliens on Earth!

With laughs and space antics on every page, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to take off with Bob’s loony lunar adventures!

(Templar, paperback, £14.99)

Age 8 plus:

Help! I’m a Genius by Jo Franklin

Imagine being a pea-brain when the rest of your family are geniuses!

The second book in Jo Franklin’s warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud series continues the anarchic adventures of Daniel Kendal and his two irresistibly funny pals, Freddo who loves crisps and Gordon the Geek.

Franklin, who writes funny, feelgood stories for 8-12-year-olds, likes to celebrate the concept of being different and her playful stories always give centre stage to tomboys, geeks and misfits… youngsters who might not normally be the heroes in children’s books.

Not being the brightest member of his prodigiously brainy family, Daniel is horrified when he is mistaken for a genius and selected to compete in the National Brainiacs Championships… do badly and he will be humiliated on national television.

Fortunately, Freddo and Gordon the Geek are on hand to help with practical suggestions ranging from brain-boosting menus (bleeurgh!) and head-expanding experiments (yeeow!) to plain old cheating.

But Daniel is a true Kendal when it comes to honesty, if not brains, and he is determined to do the competition all on his own!

Enjoy the thrills, spills, downright disasters and giant guffaws as this hilarious trio of accident-prone pals fine tune their muddled minds to turn Daniel into the brain of Britain!

Family, friendships and ingenious schemes make these books a must-read for all fellow mischief-makers!

(Troika Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 2 plus:

The Bad Bunnies’ Magic Show by Mini Grey

Award-winning author and illustrator Mini Grey puts her own special magic into an outrageously clever lift-the-flaps picture book featuring a magic show with a devilish twist in its tail.

When the great magician, Hypno, goes missing just before a show, his rabbits Abra and Cadabra step in to save the day. And what a show it is! Marvel as a small fish becomes an octopus, hold your breath as a rapid knife-throwing display is more near misto than hey presto, and hold on to your seats as the lovely Brenda is sawn in half. But are the rabbits all that they seem, or is there more to their sleight of paw than meets the eye?

There are comic moments to enjoy on every page of this showtime showdown as the mad, bad bunnies fool the audience with their magical mayhem and cunning schemes.

Grey’s exquisite artwork is filled with witty details, big, busy illustrations and delightful lift-the-flap surprises which will have everyone oohing and aahing.

Stealing the show has never been so much fun!

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Little Red: A Howlingly Good Fairy Tale with a Twist by David Roberts and Lynn-Roberts Maloney

Renowned illustrator David Roberts and his sister Lynn Roberts-Maloney have sold nearly 60,000 copies of their delightfully different fairy tale series… and it’s easy to see why!

The talented siblings have teamed an imaginative and exciting spin on classic stories with galleries of wonderful illustrations that hark back to the big wigs and satin gowns of the late 18th century, or whizz forward a thousand years to a world of robots and flying saucers.

Little Red: A Howlingly Good Fairy Tale with a Twist, the first book in this enchanting series, is set in the late 1700s and stars a boy, a grandmother, a big bad wolf, and a keg of delicious fizzy ginger beer. Young Thomas is known as Little Red and he lives with his parents in a cosy inn, famous for its sweet, fizzy ginger beer. Every week, Little Red visits his grandmother with food and a keg of the ginger beer. But on one of his visits, grandma doesn’t quite look herself. Can Little Red save Grandma, and himself, from the big bad wolf… perhaps with the help of a certain fizzy beverage?

Little ones (and their parents!) will love this engaging story which features an amazing cast of characters including strange ladies with beauty spots and powdered faces, wicked highwaymen and fearsome wolves.

David Roberts’ charismatic illustrations bring visual life and vigour to a story packed with danger, daring, humour and adventure. And there’s a twist in the tail that will have youngsters laughing until they burp!

Also included in the series is Sleeping Beauty: A Mid-century Fairy Tale, another refreshing twist on the familiar fairy tale which promises futuristic friendships and no kissy princes!

Young Annabel lives with her two aunts in the 1950s and dreams of a future with jetpacks, flying cars and robots. However, little does she know that she is living under an evil spell that could mean she has no future at all. When the curse is fulfilled on her 16th birthday and she falls asleep for a thousand years, her house is overgrown by a magnificent rose tree. Fast forward and we meet a young explorer called Zoe who discovers the story of Sleeping Beauty in a dusty old book and sets off on a race against time to find her. But will she discover Annabel in time to lift the curse and show her what the future actually looks like?

Children will love the retro charm of this enchanting story with its jealous witch, science fiction-obsessed heroine, and plucky girl rescuer as the classic fairy tale gets a stylish reworking.

The power of books to inspire discovery and the shared joys of friendship all take leading roles as the talented author and illustration duo work their magic on another storytelling favourite.

(Pavilion Books, paperback, both £6.99)

Age 3 plus:

Rapunzel by Bethan Woollvin

Another classic fairy tale gets a unique and funny picture book twist in the clever, crafty hands of the multi-talented author and illustrator Bethan Woollvin.

Woolvin’s startlingly confident debut, Little Red, which starred a street-wise girl not in the least bit scared of growling wolves, caught the imagination of everyone who saw it and it went on to become a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2016.

And in her new fairy tale retelling, we discover that there is more to imprisoned princess Rapunzel than her excellent hair!

Golden-haired princess Rapunzel is kept trapped in her tall tower by a wicked witch who lops off locks of her beautiful hair and sells them to make riches. Under the threat of a fearsome curse, Rapunzel seems doomed to a lifetime of captivity. Can Rapunzel ever figure out a way to escape? But of course she can… this Rapunzel’s escape plan is a snip!

This bold, daring and funny story dispenses with the traditional handsome prince and empowers a resourceful Rapunzel to not just rewrite her own story but become the mistress of her own destiny.

Printed with stunning pantone inks in a visually striking combination of black, grey, yellow and white, Woollvin’s unique and striking artwork and drily comic voice make this the perfect gift for fairy tale fans both young and not-so-young.

(Two Hoots, hardback, £11.99)