Monday, May 8, 2017

MMGM: School Ship Tobermory

If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you may have heard me mention Alexander McCall Smith. I love his mystery series for adults, THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. It’s one of a few series that  I faithfully read Why? It’s got quirky characters, lovely prose, and a rich African setting.

When I saw that he had a new series out for kids, I was excited. Not only did it have a mystery element, but it was set on the isle of Mull in Scotland (!), and just happened to take place on a school that’s a ship. What’s not to like?

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

The author of the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency draws from his own sailing experience to deliver this rip-roaring adventure on the high seas. The first volume in a middle-grade adventure-mystery series perfect for boys and girls!

Ben and Fee MacTavish are twins who’ve been homeschooled on a submarine. Now they’re heading to the School Ship Tobermory. This is no ordinary school—it’s a sailing ship where kids from around the world train to be sailors and learn about all things nautical. Come aboard as the kids set sail for their first adventure.

Ben and Fee make friends as they adjust to life aboard the Tobermory. When a film crew arrives on a nearby ship, the Albatross, Ben is one of the lucky kids chosen as a movie extra. But after a day’s filming, his suspicions are aroused. Are the director and crew really shooting a film? Or are they protecting a secret on the lower decks of the Albatross? Ben, Fee, and their friends set out to investigate. Are they prepared for what they might find?

What to like:

1. The author, as always, draws from his own experience: This is what I love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. McCall Smith’s books are always set in places he knows well, like Africa or Scotland. He’s also a sailor. So, it goes to show that “writing what you know” really pays off—especially in the depth of your story.

2. A close-knit family: Although Ben and Fee’s folks only appear in the very beginning, I thought it was endearing that Ben and Fee are constantly thinking of writing their parents. I also loved how these twins share secrets and clearly like each other. While Fee and Ben drive the narrative, the author didn’t make the parents awful or kill them off in order for that to happen.

3. An interesting setting: Much of the first part of the book is establishing this school on a ship, and wow, that was a fun idea. I loved how all the students are from all over the world, each with different stories about why they’re at this boarding school.

4. A mystery that’s engaging (and not too scary) for kids: I loved how the two mysteries in the book entwined together.  I loved the emphasis on animals, which was also a hit with my 12-year-old son. This is a gentle mystery, like the No. 1 books, which will appeal to kids who normally don’t like the dark stuff.

5. Kids solve the problems, but adults play a part too. Recently my kids and I were talking about how it seems that all kids in kidlit are smarter than the adults. That doesn’t happen in Tobermory. The teachers are warm and caring, though not without flaws. I liked how the kids decided to tell their teachers what was going on—even if that didn’t work out so well at first—rather than sneaking off by themselves. (I suppose my teacher/mom side is showing.)

What else? Well, there’s an antagonist aptly named Shark (with hair to match), comic-style drawings throughout, cool parents, and the possibility of a sequel in the Caribbean.

This is MG approved, at least at my house. It’s interesting to watch what happens when I bring books home to read for MMGM. The more literary books, especially if they’re perceived to be “sad,” never get stolen from me. But humorous adventures and books about ordinary kids in interesting circumstances (like a Scottish sailing school) almost always disappear. 

Have you read any good nautical yarns lately?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 


  1. Sounds like a great mystery for middle graders. Not easy to do for someone who writes adults. So glad you loved his adult series. I'm really into adult mysteries now and added the first in the series to my wish list at the library.

  2. I am definitely making a note of this for my nephew and niece! I might actually check it out from the library first myself. :)

  3. The last nautical yarn I read was Caroline Carlson's MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, which was a rollicking adventure.

    This book sounds delightful, and not just because the Isle of Mull was my father's favorite place in the whole world. I loved the NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY and I don't normally read that many mysteries.

    Glad to hear there's a close-knit family in this book. And that the mystery isn't too scary.

  4. You had me at "homeschooled on a submarine." I've sen other adult authors struggle with writing good stories for an MG audience. This one appears to be a successful transition. Thanks for the review.

  5. I liked this author's adult books as well. I think I will try to check this one out. Sounds fun. Thanks for the post.

  6. I think I need to check out this author's adult books, as well as his middle grade! They both sound right up my alley.

    Interesting observation on which MMGM book your kids slip onto their own reading shelf. Happy reading to you all!

  7. OMG the setting is awesome! I love how they were homeschooled on a submarine! That's totally cool. The mystery that surrounds it is lovely as well. Thanks for the rec!