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!

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!

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

Book of the Week: Lumberjanes: The Moon is Up

Firstly, it came to my attention slightly belatedly over the weekend, that Anita Shreve has died.  Her last book The Stars are Fire was a BotW back in May last year – it’s out in paperback in 10 days time and is well worth a read.  She’s definitely on the list of authors I need to read more of – just as soon as I get the TBR pile down…  Anyway, this week’s BotW is not out for a few weeks yet (sorry, but it had to be done), but I enjoyed it so much and have things to say, so I picked it anyway.  The Moon is Up is second Lumberjanes novel and it’s been a while since I wrote about the series (nearly a year in fact ) so I thought it was ok to mix it up a little bit and go back for some more middle grade action.

If you haven’t come across the Lumberjanes before, you can read my previous posts about here and here, but I’ll give you the quick rundown now too:  the series follows a group of campers at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.  Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley  are te girls of Roanoke cabin.  They all have different backgrounds and different strengthgs but they’re also  feisty, fun and best friends who look out for each other whatever the circumstances.  The graphic novel series runs to 9 volumes now, and this is the second spin off novel.

Cover of Lumberjanes: The Moon is Up

In The Moon is Up, the girls of Roanoke are taking part in the Galaxy Wars contest, which sees them up against their fellow campers in a series of space-related challenges and competitions.  There is the usual weird creature of the week type plot – this time a Moon Pirate – that we get in the graphic novels, but the novel format gives us a chance to see a bit more inside one of the characters – in this case Jo, who is trying to make a decision about whether she should take up the offer of a place at a prestigious science camp, and who also happens to be trans.

Apart from the excellent storytelling and fun adventures, one of my favourite things about the Lumberjanes graphic novels has always been the fact that it has a really diverse cast of strong female characters, who have a range of interests and strengths and support each other and know that when they work together they’re better.  And this novel is absolutely doing the same thing.  Jo is the analytical one in the gang and it’s fun to see inside her head as she tries to work out what the right thing to do is and to see the other girls giving her space to work out whatever is bothering her.  It’s a great example of how female friendships should be – and how people with different interests can be the best of friends.

All this makes it sound like the book might be a bit preachy and boring, but it’s the total opposite of that.  It’s a fun adventure romp that absolutely fits in with some of my favourite camp stories from when I was younger.  My copy was an advance e-copy from NetGalley and didn’t have the final artwork, so I know I’m going to be trotting out to the shops to have a look at the finished article as well as looking for the first book in the series too.  The novels are a great addition to the Lumberjanes universe, and I can’t wait to read more of them.

Lumberjanes: The Moon is Up is out on May 8, and is available to preorder now in Kindle and Kobo and hardcover from Amazon, Book Depository and Foyles.  The first in the series, Unicorn Power is available now from all the same places.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, children's books, detective, new releases

Book of the Week: A Spoonful of Murder

This week’s BotW is the latest Wells and Wong mystery, A Spoonful of Murder, which makes three mystery books in a row, but I don’t see a problem with that.  The only surprise here is that I managed to pace myself and take two and a half weeks to read this, rather than glomming it on the day it came out, which is what I usually do and what nearly happened.

Cover of A Spoonful of Murder

Anyway, this is the sixth instalment in the Wells and Wong series and sees Hazel sent for by her father after the death of her grandfather.  Hazel heads back home to Hong Kong, accompanied by Daisy for moral support.  And she needs the support when she gets home and discovers that more has changed than just the death of her beloved Ah Yeh.  As always with this series, the mystery is clever, the action is fast-paced and you just keep turning the pages.  The stories are getting more mature as we go through the series – not unlike the Harry Potter books did – so the murder is a little bit more gruesome, the girls see a little bit more and are in a bit more danger, but there’s nothing here that should give a middle grader nightmares.  Or at least not in the way that I scared myself with Miss Marple books when I was about 10 any way.

The big change in this book from the others, is that although we are still seeing the action through Hazel’s eyes, for once it is Daisy who is the fish-out-of-water and Hazel is on her home turf.  One of the things that I have always loved about this series is the way that it takes classic boarding school stories and adds in new layers and gives you a different viewpoint.  The reader has always been aware that Hazel is seen as an outsider and that she doesn’t always know how things work in Britain, but it’s only really in this book, where Hazel is back at home and Daisy is her guest that you really realise how different her life is at home and how much she’s had to adapt to be accepted in England.  The way that you see Daisy struggle to work out a world she doesn’t understand and to figure out where she fits in and accept (well sort of) that here she isn’t seen as important the way she is in Britain is so cleverly done.  Daisy is still Daisy, but she’s realising that there’s more to Hazel’s life than she thought and that she has hidden skills that Daisy hadn’t appreciated.  And this is all done without meanness or cruelty and seamlessly with everything that we already know about the two girls.

And there’s obviously been a huge amount of research done into this.  The picture that Robin Stevens paints of high society in interwar Hong Kong in this feels grounded in research and facts, but it wears it very lightly.  I came away wanting to know more about Hong Kong’s history and what it was like as well as wanting to read more books set there.  It worked for me on every level – it’s a great mystery, with great characters and a great setting that just happens to be aimed at 8 to 11 year olds.  Perfect.  And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if you liked St Clares or Mallory Towers or (my beloved) Chalet School when you were little and like Agatha Christie and other Golden Age crime authors – then you should read this.  And if you have a middle grader in your house, this makes a great chapter book to read with them.  It has maps and everything.

You should be able to get this from any bookshop with a children’s section and I’ve seen them in the supermarkets too.   For best effect, start at the beginning with Murder Most Unladylike, especially if you’re giving to a child at the younger end of the age spectrum as it’s less for them to cope with on the death and violence spectrum.

Happy Reading!

children's books, Recommendsday, Series I love

Recommendsday: The Sinclair Mysteries

For #Recommendsday this week I wanted to talk about the Sinclair Mysteries – as the final book in the series is out tomorrow (October 5).  Regular readers will be well aware of my love of detective fiction and middle grade novels and Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair mysteries are a great meeting of the two.

In the first book in the series, we meet Sophie and Lily – newly employed to work in Sinclair’s department store which is the biggest thing to happen in Edwardian London since, well, a long time.  Sophie’s father has recently died and she’s having to find her own way in the world.  Lily works in the shop by day and is trying to break through onto the stage at night.  Over the course of the books they gather a gang together and solve crimes, with department store owner Mr Sinclair (think Mr Selfridge) always hovering somewhere in the background.  Starting with the theft of the titular Clockwork Sparrow and moving on to things more dastardly and complicatated.  There is a big bad here, although I can’t say too much about that without giving far to much away.  Suffice it to say that although you can read this on their own, they work best as a series, building to a wonderful climax that pulls all the threads from the previous books together and ties them into a nice neat bow.

If you grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, then these books may well be for you.  Or for your children if you have them.  I’ve lent (given?) my copy of the first one to Eldest Niece who has been tearing her way through the Famous Five and Secret Seven.  I came to these after reading the first Wells and Wong book – and needing more middle grade mystery in my life and they filled that gap admirably.  I’m sad that the series over – but really looking forward to seeing whatever Katherine Woodfine does next.

You should be able to find these in any bookstore that has a good children’s department, as well as in supermarkets – I got my copy of the first book from Tesco (although I got books 2 and 4 from NetGalley) and I can’t remember where I bought book three.  Anyway, read them in order wherever you buy them from.

Happy Reading!