Book of the Week, Children's books, new releases

Book of the Week: Top Marks for Murder

Another old friend for this week’s BotW: the eighth in Robin Stevens’s middle grade Murder Most Unladylike series. It was between this and the new Tessa Dare for this week’s pick and although the Dare is a lot of fun, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, this series and the importance of Hazel and Daisy.

Cover of Top Marks for Murder

We rejoin the detective society as they return to Deepdean after their extended break visiting Hazel’s family in Hong Kong and then their appearance in a play in London. And they’re back at school just in time for the anniversary weekend, which proves to be a rather more dangerous time for the girls than you would hope, after one of the gang sees what she thinks is a murder from their dormitory window.

The girls are back on the trail and are happy to be distracted from the things that have changed at school while they’ve been away. But this isn’t the first time that there’s been a murder at Deepdean, and Daisy and Hazel are older now and are seeing more of the consequences of what’s going on as well. After all how many parents want to leave their children at a school where murders happen. So the girls may not need to just solve the case, they might need to save the school as well.

What I’ve always loved about this series is the way that it takes familiar tropes from the school stories that I loved when I was little and update them so that they will work for kids today. I’ve spoken before about revisiting old favourites and realising they’re now problematic (to say the least in some cases). I’m lucky with the Chalet School – LH Johnson recently wrote a lovely piece about the Chalet School Peace League and Elinor M Brent Dyer quietly advocating peace and cooperation – but I’ve bought and read a couple of Shirley Flight books over the last few weeks and although they’re mostly fun adventures, there are some horrible attitudes towards non-Brits and especially non-Westerners. One of them is downright racist to a point where I now wouldn’t want to lend any of them out to a modern child of the age I was when I read the first book in the series. But if you want to give the next generation the sort of warm feels you had from Girls Own books but without the nasty undercurrents, this series will do that for you.

And that’s not to say that these are populated by perfect exemplars of modern day life sticking out like sore thumbs in the olden days. They’re not like that. You see the nastier side of 1930s boarding school life because because you’re looking at it from Hazel’s point of view and nothing she can do will change the way some people look at her just because she’s Chinese. Daisy definitely isn’t perfect – she doesn’t handle the fact that while she’s been gone a fascinating new girl has taken her place very well at all. And she’s still dealing with the fallout for her family after the events at her house in book 2. This is full of realistic characters learning real life lessons as well as solving a tricky mystery. As a grown up, I really appreciate and enjoy what Robin Stevens is doing – but it does works for its actual target market too, as my niece as well as several of the ten year olds my sister taught last year (who lent her copies of books in the series) prove. And when my niece is a bit older, I’ll lend her the Golden Age mystery stories these are influenced by and she can read the grown up versions of some of these plots (this one is very Sayers inspired). But with a few caveats about old fashioned attitudes.

Now, I’m going to be very careful how I phrase this section because: spoilers, but in the last book we learned an important piece of information about one of the main characters. A piece of information that both is and isn’t a big deal. Inside the last book it was treated exactly right by the character who learned it and in this book nothing has changed about that piece of information but it is absolutely not an issue or a Big Deal. And that is exactly as it should be. If you’ve read Death in the Spotlight you’ll know exactly what I’m talking abut and if you haven’t, then I’m sorry for that impenetrable paragraph, but go and read it and you’ll understand.

I had First Class Murder pre-ordered (and had to remember to change the delivery address to the new house!) but you should be able to get hold of it easily from any shop with a children’s section. It’s also available online – from places like Book Depository – as well as on Kindle and Kobo.  And you can read some of my previous posts about the series here and here.

Happy Reading!

tribute

Judith Kerr

Another sad week, but another life well lived – maybe even better lived than Doris Day‘s.  Her life story – her flight from Nazi Germany as a child, coming to writing for children when she was at home as a full-time mum, still producing new books right up into her 90s, when she could also be spotted out and about in Barnes – is one that will inspire you as much as her books did when you were a child.

There have been so many lovely stories and the obits all pay testament to a wonderful woman with an amazing gift.  There’s not much I can really add.  Except that I wanted to mark her passing somehow.  I was out for lunch with a friend last week and we went into a bookshop on our walk.  She’s got a new baby so we were looking at the children’s books.  I ended up buying Mog the Forgetful Cat for her, because every child should have a copy of Mog. I should add that I think her little girl (six months old) already had a copy of The Tiger Who Came To Tea.  Which is exactly as it should be and a total testament to the power of Kerr’s books.

Lots of people on Twitter yesterday were quoting from – or posting pictures from – Goodbye Mog, which is probably the saddest picture book I’ve ever read.  I ended up teary eyed in the office and on the train.  Kerr had such a way with words and pictures.  I hope she knew how much her books meant to everyone. All the stories of her at her publisher’s summer parties – in a lovely frock, with a drink in hand – being mobbed by authors who’d read and loved her books as a child make me think that she might have had an inkling.  And I hope that I’m as fun and sprightly as she was at 95.

Here’s just a few of the articles that I read about her yesterday:  The BBC’s obituary, the Independent’s obituary The Guardian had an obituary but also collected some reader recollections.  I’ve also got her Desert Island Discs on my listen list as well as this essay from the TLS Writing with borrowed words still to read.

As I write this The Tiger Who Came To Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit are best sellers in their categories on Amazon.co.uk.  And Tiger is 99p on Kindle, Pink Rabbit £2.99.  If you haven’t read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – her book for older children telling the story of her family’s escape from Nazi Germany – take this chance, you really should.

book round-ups

Top reads of 2019 so far… Q1 edition!

It’s the end of March, so we’re a quarter of the way through the year – and I thought I’d try something a bit different and do a first quarter round up of the best things I’ve read so far.  But before I do, in case you missed it on Wednesday, here are my romance recommendations for people who are looking to broaden their author base after the #RITASsowhite fiasco and also my BotW post for Can’t Escape Love.  I’m still angry.

Daisy Jones and the Six

A BotW post in March, I think this is a book you’re going to hear a lot more about this year – it was an Apple books pick in March as well as being Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick and it’s being picked by articles and groups all over the place.  It sent me off down a Wikipedia rabbit hole – and I’m still thinking about it a couple of weeks on – and not just because I went to see Taylor Jenkins Reid talk about the book on Tuesday evening.  There are a lot more thoughts on that BotW post – but basically, it’s just brilliant.  It was my second Taylor Jenkins Reid book of the year – the first The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was also a BotW (in Janurary) and would have been on this list but for the think where I try not to repeat myself!  Also Taylor Jenkins Reid has made a Spotify playlist to go along with Daisy – if you need some more hints about the book – or something to listen to while you read it…

Don’t You Forget About Me

Cover of Don't You Forget About Me

I’ve been recommending Mhari MacFarlane’s latest all over the place sine I read it back in January.  As I said in my BotW review back then, it’s a proper romantic comedy – along with rooting for it all to turn out alright for Georgina, it’ll make you snort with laughter, as well as make you want to cry.  And that’s often what I want from a book – and it seems to be getting harder to find at the moment – as lots of my previous auto-buy and favourite authors seem to be shifting towards different things.  But this is proper good and will restore your faith in rom-coms.  Now if only they were still making films to match.

Skylark’s War

Cover of The Skylark's War

This is another one that was a Book of the Week and that I’ve been recommending all over the place – it’s my favourite middle-grade book of the year so far and adults should be reading it too.  I know that the centenary of the First World War is over now, but it still feels really timely to read this beautiful look at a family growing up through the Great War.  It’s just wonderful.  I cried happy and sad tears and generally embarrassed my self by getting emotional in public reading this.  If I was a teacher reading this to my class, I’d have to get the children to read the climax or I’d be crying as I did it.  And I don’t think that’s a plot spoiler – happy and sad tears I said.  I’m hoping that this will find a place on the shelf of children’s classics about war – along with Carrie’s War, The Machine Gunners, War Horse and the like.  It would make a brilliant – but heartbreaking – double bill with Five Children on the Western Front, but maybe read Skylark’s War second…

So there is your three top picks, honourable mentions to Fence, Brown Girl Dreaming and The Sumage Solution – my other top rated reads of the year so far.  I’ve only written about one of them so far, but I’m sure that will change at some point…  And as I’m writing this slightly before the end of March, you never know, there may be something else amazing in my last couple of the month.  If there is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Happy Reading!

 

Cover of The Skylark's War
Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books, Prize winners

Book of the Week: The Skylark’s War

This was such an easy choice this week. As soon as I finished The Skylark’s War, after I’d blown my nose and got rid of the tissues, I turned around and went back and read the last 20 pages all over again. Then I messaged my sister and my mother to tell them that they had to read it with a big happy (and soppy) smile all over my face.

Cover of The Skylark’s War

The Skylark’s War tells the story of Clarry, her brother Peter and her cousin Rupert, through their childhood, the Great War and beyond. Clarry’s and Peter’s mother died soon after Clarry’s birth, their father isn’t interested in them and at first at least, Peter blames the new baby for the loss of his mother. The two children are brought up by a succession of housekeepers, with the interference of the do-gooding spinster across the road. The high point of their lives is their annual visit to Cornwall every summer holiday. Their cousin Rupert spends his holidays there – his parents are in India and have basically forgotten about him and he was sent to boarding school at a young age so Peter and Clarry’s dad couldn’t send them to live with their grandparents. During the summers, all the best things in their lives happen and they grow and mature and become a tight gang. Then Peter is sent away to school, Clarry is left alone with her father. And then there is the War and Rupert joins the army. Can their bond survive? Can they all survive?

This is a middle-grade book, and although that synopsis may sound miserable, it is anything but. I mean I did cry my way through a whole pocket pack of tissues, but some of them were happy tears and I just couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what happened. At one point I was sitting sniffling and making a scene of myself in the lounge at a youth hostel, but I was so engrossed in the book that I wasn’t prepared to stop reading for long enough to climb the three flights of stairs to get to my room. The closest I can get to a comparison for this, is if Noel Streatfeild, Nina Bawden and Elizabeth Jane Howard had a book baby. And if that isn’t enough to make you go and read it, then I’m sorry you may be in the wrong place and I’m not sure that we can be friends.

I’ve had this on the NetGalley list since the autumn but I had forgotten about it until I saw this tweet from Harriet Evans (remember her? I had some ravings/gushing about one of her books here, here and here. And that might also scratch your Elizabeth Jane Howard itch, except that it’s a contemporary story about a house not a 1930s one.)  So off I went to look at the blurb, thought it sounded familiar, looked at my NetGalley, tweeted her back and then the die was cast, my fate was sealed etc.

And now I’m telling you that you need to read it. Maybe as a double bill with The Five Children on the Western Front if you can stand all that Great War and foreboding at once. But if you can, read The Skylark’s War second. Trust me on that. I see from the Goodreads write-ups that there’s a connection to one of Hilary McKay’s other novels, so I’m off to find that and then to buy copies of The Skylark’s War to give to people. As I mentioned my copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of a copy really easily: it was Waterstones‘ Children’s Book of the Month in January and it won the Costa Children’s Book Award, so I’m expecting it to be everywhere.  And yes, I know, this all means I’m late to the party again. But better late than never.  Here are some more links to enable your book-buying habit: Kindle, Kobo, Amazon paperback, Book Depository and Big Green Bookshop.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, children's books

Book of the Week: Paperback Crush

Another super quick BotW post – I’m sorry.  It’s been so busy. And it’s a day late because of the end of the month Stats.  Sorry again.  Anyway, this week’s BotW gave me some happy hours reminiscing about some of my teenage reading last week, and I thought it was worth a mention here.  If you’ve been hanging around here a while, you’ll know that I’ve written a fair bit about fiction for teenage girls and middle graders in the past – from my weekend at a book conference all about them, through my enduring love of classics like Drina and the Chalet School, through new books like the Wells and Wong series, the Sinclair Mysteries and everything in between, so you can probably tell from looking at the cover that Paperback Crush would be right up my street…

Cover of Paperback Crush

Paperback Crush’s subtitle is “The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction” and author Gabrielle Moss takes a fairly deep dive into the American books of those two decades.  If you read the Babysitters Club, any of the Sweet Valley iterations or the revamped Nancy Drews, there’s something here for you.  I was delighted to rediscover a couple of series’ I’d forgotten about  – like the boarding school series which I read a few of in the school library and was never able to find again.  This also covers some of the single titles and the notable authors – like  Caroline B Cooney’s Face on the Milk Carton, and it’s sequels which I remember devouring as an early teen and then watching the TV movie of!

This is an exclusively American book though, so if like me, you were a reader in the UK, some of your favourites and the series that you remember most won’t be here – there’s no Trebizon for example, which was one of the few “new” boarding school stories I remember reading.  It’s also exclusively about girls fiction – so there’s no three investigators, or Hardy Boys – but it does touch on career books a little.

My copy came via NetGalley, but Paperback Crush is out at the end of the month in the US and the UK – my suspicion is that you’ll need to order it in specially, rather than happen across it in the store.  Here’s the link for Amazon paperback and Kindle pre-orders if you want to get your bids in early.

Happy Reading!

Children's books, Series I love

Bank Holiday Bonus post: Verity goes to a Book Conference

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about this here, but actually, I can’t help myself.   At the end of July I went to the Sixth Bristol Conference on Twentieth-Century Schoolgirls and Their Books.  If you’ve been hanging around here for a while you’ll know that one of my big bookish passions are school stories – and one of my most enduring loves are the Chalet School series.  And this was a gathering of over 100 people who love all the same books as me to listen to talks about them, chat to people about them and yes, buy more of them.

Wills Hall quadrangle

As it’s the centenary of the end of World War One, the theme this year was War and most (although not all) of the talks had that as a theme linking them together.  Now I am quite a young enthusiast in the genre – the last run of Chalet School paperbacks came out when I was in secondary school and they were one of the last classic series left in print – so I discovered a lot of new authors at the conference – and was able to pick up books by some of them.  You may have spotted some of my purchases popping up in Week in Books and Book of the Week posts.

My book purchases!

What was really, really wonderful was meeting up with people who love the same things that I do.  I think I had underestimated how wonderful it would be to be able to talk to other people who have read the same books that I have.  I mean all of my friends – and most of my work colleagues  – know that I love reading and read a lot (some of them even read this blog) and we have conversations about books, but I never really get to talk about this bit of my bookish life because I’m meant to be a grownup reading adult books – and no one has read a lot of these books any way even when they were younger.

Saturday night dinner in the Hall

So I guess what this boils down to is find yourself opportunities to go and hang out with other people who are into what you’re into.  You’ll make some friends, learn some new things and have a marvellous time.  I’ve already got the next conference (in 2020!) in my diary.

Happy Bank Holiday!

Book of the Week, Children's books, Classics, Fantasy, Young Adult

Book of the Week: Howl’s Moving Castle

Two children’s books in a row as BotW? This is totally within the normal range of what I do and what you expect from me. And this is another book that I started during my weekend at boo conference and then got distracted away from by the purchase of more books at said book conference and then by other books on the kindle. So sue me!

cover of Howls Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, a teenage girl who is turned into an old lady by a witch while she is working in her family’s hat shop. One of the conditions of the curse is that she can’t tell people that she’s been cursed and Sophie doesn’t want her mother or sisters to see what’s happened to her, so she runs away to the hills, where she runs into the moving castle belonging to the Wizard Howl and makes it her new home in the hope that the curse can be lifted. Howl is a temperamental, vacillating young man who is on the run from something and only seems to do things that help himself but Calcifer, his fire demon promises to help her if she can help him with the curse that ties him to Howl. Also living in the castle is Michael, Howl’s apprentice, who, it turns out is in love with one of Sophie’s sisters. And so they move around the countryside, and Sophie tries to figure out how to get her old (young) body back.

That’s the short version of part of the story and doesn’t really do it justice. Before I read the story, I was actually worried that I wouldn’t like it as much as I liked the film of the book which I saw in the cinema back in my high-cinema visiting university days. Now the two are the same basic story: about a teenager who is cursed to look like an old lady and who seeks help from the wizard with the moving castle, but beyond that there are a fair few differences. The movie has a design aesthetic that leads to some differences from the book and it is missing some of the subplots from the book, but it turns out I really liked them both.

I don’t often read the book after I’ve seen the movie, but this time it worked out really well. In fact, this is the opposite experience to what usually happens with me, books and movie adaptations – because quite often I really hate the movie versions of books I’ve loved, so maybe I need to do this more often?! There are a couple more books featuring Howl, which are now on my reading list – and I’m trying hard to work out if I read any Diana Wynne Jones books back when I was the right age for them because I really liked her writing and the style felt somewhat familiar to me.

I bought my copy of Howl’s Moving Castle on Kindle, but it’s also available on Kobo (and it’s 99p on both platforms at time of writing) and in paperback (from Amazon, Book Depository or places like Big Green Books) and audiobook. I think it should be easy enough to buy from a bookshop with a good sized children’s section (not a supermarket because it is no where near new) I suspect it will also be available at some libraries too. And if you haven’t seen the film, you really should watch it too.

Happy Reading!