Last summer, I thoroughly enjoyed The Highland Falcon Thief. This was book one in a new middle-grade series titled Adventures on Trains and written by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman with illustrations by Elisa Paganelli. This month I picked up books two and three: Kidnap on the California Comet and Murder on the Safari Star, but before I get to those, I’ll first briefly recap book one.
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The Highland Falcon Thief
Eleven-year-old Harrison (Hal) Beck is being sent away for a few days with his Uncle Nathaniel, a well-respected travel writer, and steam train enthusiast. Not a fan of trains, Hal is not looking forward to the trip even though the pair will be traveling aboard the Highland Falcon, an aging royal steam train that is soon to retire and is taking a final celebratory tour around the UK. Also aboard the train are a varied cast of characters including Mr. and Mrs. Pickle (owners of a major train company), movie star Sierra Knight, Baron Wolfgang Essenbach, and Lady Elizabeth Lansbury and her man-servant Rowan Buck.
On his first day aboard the train, Hal meets an interesting young stowaway. Lenny is the daughter of one of the train drivers and a huge steam train fan who couldn’t bear to not be a part of this historic journey. Soon after, the kids figure out that a notorious jewel thief who has been stealing from the rich and famous must be among the guests. When the train stops at Balmoral and a recently married Prince and Princess join the train, bringing with them the world-famous Atlas Diamond, the thief manages to pull off a daring heist. Will Hal’s detective skills be up to the task or, with he and Lenny sneaking about up and down the train, will suspicion turn on them instead?
The Highland Falcon Thief reads very much like a middle-grade Agatha Christie with all our suspects cooped up together within the confines of the train. Suspicion gradually moves from person to person with everyone becoming a suspect. Mr. Pickle’s business is having money troubles, Sierra Knight has a history of theft, and the baron’s son is acting increasingly strange – even Uncle Nat is a suspect. The Highland Falcon Thief was a fun adventure of a novel with an interesting mystery, unusual setting, and a great cast of characters. I would recommend it to any middle-grade reader, but those with a love of trains will definitely get an extra kick.
Kidnap on the California Comet
Kidnap on the California Comet is the second outing for twelve-year-old Hal and his travel journalist uncle Nat and, unsurprisingly, sees them head to the United States. Here, they board the California Comet (inspired by the real California Zephyr) in Chicago ready for a cross-country trip through the Rockies to San Francisco. Also on board are billionaire entrepreneur August Reza and his daughter Marianne, along with a whole host of other interesting characters including a miserable young boy named Ryan with his angry father, one of Uncle Nat’s journalist rivals – Zola D’Ormond, two young siblings (Hadley and Mason) with a penchant for magic tricks, and the gloriously named Adalbert Cabbage with her pet lizard.
Only one day into their journey, after a press conference organized by Reza, Marianne is kidnapped in front of many of the guests and the kidnappers leave behind a note threatening to send her father one of her teeth each day until he pays a ransom. After his success in solving the Highland Falcon case, Hal is determined to discover who is behind Marianne’s kidnapping, but so many elements of the case simply don’t add up, making Harrison feel frustratingly out of his depth. Can he solve the crime before Marianne loses another tooth?
Kidnap on the California Comet was a fun story filled with magic tricks, professional rivalries, and food descriptions that made me feel hungry every other chapter! There are plenty of exciting moments, dramatic action scenes, and curious characters that will keep young readers enthralled and turning the pages long after their lights are supposed to be out. Unfortunately, the plot was very predictable and I had figured out who was behind the kidnapping by chapter two (impressively, my husband instantly and correctly guessed who was behind the crime from just my vague description of the plot, without even reading the book) – but this assumes an adult perspective and I doubt that many readers from the book’s middle-grade target audience would figure it out nearly as quickly, if at all. I’m trying to convince my reluctant eleven-year-old reader to give it a try in order to see how quickly he can solve the case! This predictability made Kidnap on the California Comet my least favorite of the Adventures on Trains series so far, but it was still an enjoyable story.
Murder on the Safari Star
The third Adventures on Trains book – Murder on the Safari Star – moves the action to the African continent with a journey from Pretoria in South Africa through Zimbabwe and ending in Zambia, close to the Victoria Falls. Hal and his Uncle Nat are riding aboard the luxurious but now slightly run-down Safari Star where they can witness Africa’s amazing wildlife right from their windows, but one of their fellow passengers, millionaire Mervyn Crosby is more interested in shooting the animals than in simply observing them.
However, Crosby is soon discovered dead in his own locked compartment, shot with a bullet from his own rifle. Is his death nothing more than a tragic accident, or is something more sinister going on? Almost everyone on board – from his wife and daughter to crime novelist Beryl Brash, actor Patrice Mbatha, and activist Satsuki Sasaki – has a grudge against the immensely rude media magnate, but are any of them prepared to resort to murder? Hal is determined to discover the truth and teams up with his new friend Winston (and his pet Mongoose Chipo) to get to the bottom of things.
As the title suggests, the crime in the third Adventures on Trains book is more violent than in either of the two previous books but it is written in such a way as to be appropriate for its middle-grade audience. There are many scenes exploring the majesty of the African landscapes and creatures (as someone with a snake-phobia, I found that a few of these made for pretty uncomfortable reading) but also plenty more action and adventure too.
I found the crime here far more difficult to solve than in the previous book (I didn’t figure this one out until only a few chapters from the end, although, looking back, I’m kicking myself for not spotting something that now feels obvious). This made the story far more enjoyable for me personally, and I also appreciated the secondary plotline regarding wildlife conservation and the work of reserves in combating illegal poaching. As of today, I think that Murder on the Safari Star is my favorite of the Adventures on Trains series so far.
More Adventures on Trains
Adventures on Trains remains one of my favorite ongoing middle-grade series. I am already excited to pick up book four – Danger at Dead Man’s Pass – when it released in September this year and read about Hal and Nat investigating “a spooky supernatural mystery” and “an ancient family curse” in Germany – perfect for Spooky Season! I was also thrilled to see that two more as yet untitled books are in the pipeline for 2022, set in Australia and Norway respectively.
There are so many more amazing railways journeys in other parts of the world yet to be explored in these stories (Japan, India, the famous Trans-Siberian railway in Russia) that I hope this series can continue for many more books yet to come, but for now, I encourage you to pick up the first three Adventures on Trains books, beginning with The Highland Falcon Thief, for your own middle-grade readers, especially if they also happen to be train enthusiasts.
GeekMom received a copy of some titles for review purposes.