I’m back in the children’s section with this week’s book of the week – embracing my long time (20-year plus) love of boarding school stories with Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens – the second book in her Wells and Wong series.
I mentioned the first book – Murder Most Unladylike – back in September and have been looking forward to reading the next one ever since. In Arsenic for Tea, there’s a murder at Daisy’s house, where Hazel is staying during the holidays. Once again the Detective Society tries to work out who did it – from a cast of suspects including most of Daisy’s family.
When I started reading boarding school books – back in the early 1990s – the world that the girls at St Clares lived in wasn’t that different to the one that I was in. They called maths arithmetic and the trains they travelled on were steam ones, but I could recognise their school life and identify it with mine. Since then, with computers, mobile phones, tablets and the like, school has changed a lot. But Robin Stevens has found a way to write boarding school stories (yes this is set in the holidays, but it still counts) that still work for modern children. By setting it in the 1930s, she can avoid having to include technology and things that may date very quickly, but she’s also included things that writers at the time didn’t talk about – but that children today can relate to and using Hazel as the principal narrator is a masterstroke.
Hazel is from Hong Kong – and this lends her narration a sense of detachment that works well. She doesn’t fully understand this world either – so it makes sense for her to explain things that modern children might not quite understand but that would seem jarring if they were explained by Daisy who “belongs”. Hazel also faces prejudice – and these are subtly dealt with, showing how unfair it is – in a way you never got in “old school” boarding school books, mostly because the cast was either all white – or because the author didn’t think that it was unfair (a sad commentary on a genre of books I love).
Daisy’s parents also have issues – their relationship is clearly… troubled and that forms part of the plot – which again you don’t have in books like Mallory Towers or my beloved Chalet School (where one doesn’t mention d.i.v.o.r.c.e or have any relationships that aren’t perfect. Although there’s a high percentage of children missing one parent through death from TB or similar!). This makes the book relatable – as well as making the plot make sense and hang together
I said in my mini review of book one that it’s like Mallory Towers crossed with Agatha Christie – and I stand by that. There’s enough here for NotChildren like me to enjoy as well as the target audience. In fact, it’s a bit like a good animated movie – there are bits that adults will love – nods to golden age detective fiction, etc – but that kids would pass straight over without realising that they were missing anything. And Daisy and Hazel’s antics aren’t too outrageous – everything seems perfectly plausible for them to have been able to do, with enough peril to make it interesting, but not so much superhuman deduction that they don’t seem real. In fact, part of the fun as a (supposedly) grown-up is the reading between the lines of what Hazel and Daisy don’t understand.
Arsenic for Tea is out on Thursday – you can pre-order the kindle copy here if you’re a grown-up, but I suggest if you’re buying for the 8 – 12 year old in your life and want use of your e-reader/tablet device in the near future, you buy the paperback – here it is on Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles or on my page at My Independent Bookshop – which gives money to one of my local indies.