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

Best (new) books of 2019 so far

We’re halfway through the year (or we will be on Monday) and so it’s time for me to take a look at my favourite new releases of the year so far.  A couple of months ago I looked at my top reads of the year Q1 (although they were not necessarily all new releases) so some of these picks will not a surprise to you, but hey, I like to shout about the books that I’ve enjoyed! Sue me.

Contemporary Romance: The Bride Test  by Helen Hoang

Cover of The Bride Test

This one was on my 2019 lookahead after I loved Hoang’s debut last year and which lived up to the buzz it was getting ahead of release.  This is a fabulous way to follow up the success of The Kiss Quotient and would make a brilliant beach read this summer.  It’s an arranged marriage/relationship of convenience romance with a feisty immigrant heroine and an neuro-diverse hero who thinks he can’t – and shouldn’t – love.  Plus it’s mostly set in California and feels super summery and the descriptions of the Vietnamese food will make you hungry. What’s not to love in that. Here’s my review from May.

Honourable Mention: Fumbled by Alexa Martin

Historical Romance: A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian 

Cover of A Duke in Disguise

I went on a big old Cat Sebastian jag while I was in the US last autumn, so I had this on my radar. A Duke in Disguise was billed as her first “traditional” male/female romance – but that’s doing it a disservice. This is a clever subversive romance which doesn’t focus on the world of the ton (although they do appear and the nobility plays a role) with feisty, smart, sexually experienced heroine and a neuro-diverse, virgin hero. And the heroine is called Verity – which makes another for my list. Total catnip right?  The only reason this wasn’t a BotW is because I read it the same wee that I read Intercepted – and that was the first Alexa Martin I’d read.  NB: this has a content warning* for off page domestic violence, off page neglect of child, epileptic seizure

Honourable Mention: An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

Non fiction History: The Adventures of Maud West

Cover of The Adventures of Maud West

Yeah, I know, it’s only two weeks since I read this.  But it really is so very, very good.  And it ticks so many of my boxes – early twentieth century, women in history, detective stories, forgotten lives.  If you’re a fan of golden age mysteries, what’s not to love about this investigation into the life of a real life lady detective from the first half of the twentieth century? Here’s my review from earlier this month.

Honourable mention: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Literary Fiction: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Cover of Daisy Jones & The Six

This is everywhere – on all the lists and getting all the mentions in the mainstream press – even the bits that don’t usually talk about books.  It was on my anticipated books list, I read it and loved it, it was on my Q1 review post and now I’m talking about it again.  By now you may be getting wary of reading it because of the hype.  But trust me, it’s worth it.  I’ve been recommending it all over the place to people for their summer holidays and I think it might be turning into my Swiss Army Knife fiction recommendation – I think it has something for pretty much everyone.  And for once I was sightly ahead of the curve.  Here’s my review from March.

Honourable mention: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Mystery Fiction: Death of an Angel by Derek Farrell

Cover of Death of an Angel

I haven’t read a lot of new mystery fiction this year, but what I have read has been cracking.  This is the fourth Danny Bird mystery and as well as giving you all the snark and fun you could want from a detective who calls himself “Sherlock Homo”, it has a healthy dose of social commentary about the state of London today along with solving the murder.  I love Danny and his world and I would recommend them to anyone. You can read my review from February here or my interview with Derek Farrell from last year here.

Honourable mention: Vinyl Detective: Flip Back by Andrew Cartmel

So there you are, my favourite new books of the year so far – each of them a belter.  Here’s hoping the rest of 2019’s new releases live up to the first half.

Let me know what your favourite book of the year so far is in the comments – and let me know what you think I should be looking out for in the rest of 2019.

*I’m going to be trying to give content warnings when books have things that some readers want to avoid and that wouldn’t be obvious from their plot summary or genre.  So I won’t be warning you about murders in detective stories or in a non-fiction book like The Five which has it in the subject matter – but I will try and tell you if there’s something like sexual assault in the back story of a romance (if it’s not mentioned in the blurb).  Does that make sense?

Book of the Week, historical

Book of the Week: A Dangerous Collaboration

Yes, I know.  This post is a day late.  And yes, I’m sure you’re not surprised by today’s pick.  I mean I’ve got form with Deanna Raybourn, even if this is technically a violation of my first in series rule.  Sorry about the lateness – the bank holiday threw me off schedule and I remembered I’d forgotten to set this live in bed last night.  Oopsy daisy.  Anyway, I got here in the end. Normal service will be resumed next week, I promise.

Cover of A Dangerous Collaboration

A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth book in the Veronica Speedwell series.  Veronica is a Victorian adventuress with a passion for butterflies and a penchant for solving crimes. She has a on again/off again professional partnership with natural scientist and taxidermist Stoker, the black sheep of a noble family.  The start of this book sees Veronica take to the seas briefly to get away from Stoker after developments (that I’m not going to spoil) at the end of book three. On her return to Britain, Stoker’s older brother Tiberius asks her to pose as his fiancée and accompany him to a house party at a castle on an island off the south coast, dangling the prospect of a rare butterfly to add to her collection as inducement.  But on arrival on the island, it turns out their host, Lord Malcolm Romilly has assembled a group of people with connections to his missing wife, who disappeared on her wedding day.  Can Veronica figure out what’s going on?  What is Tiberius hoping for from his trip with Veronica?  What is Stoker playing at? Can I survive another book with these two if it has the same level of unresolved sexual tension as the last one?

I’ve been looking forward to this since I finished the third book in the series last year and this pretty much lived up to what I was hoping. It does have a bit of a slow start, but it’s a great set up for the later stages of the book.  I don’t want to say too much more or I’ll ruin it for everyone else, but there’s definite significant progress here moving along some of the ongoing plot strands.  And so. much. sexual. tension. Hooo boy.

I said in my post about book three last year that this is a great series if you’re an Amelia Peabody fan, but I’d add to that now Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series if you want another Victorian lady being smart and resourceful in a slightly different way.  My dad has a kindle attached to my account and I know that he’s read and enjoyed this series too – because he’s asked me if there are any more of them in the past!

My copy of A Dangerous Collaboration came from the library – it came out in March, so I only had to wait two months for it on hold – but it’s also available from all the usual places like Book Depository and Amazon, but is a hardback release from the US at the moment so the Kindle and Kobo are priced accordingly (the Kindle £5 cheaper than the Kobo at time of writing but still nearly £10) and I can’t currently see a paperback release date in the UK.  But if you haven’t tried any of Deanna Raybourn’s books yet, the first in her other historical series – featuring Lady Julia Grey – is only 99p on Kindle and Kobo at the moment and that is definitely well worth it because it has one of my favourite opening lines in a book:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, I don’t know what will.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, cozy crime

Book of the Week: Death by Dumpling

As mentioned yesterday, picking BotWs is being made harder by the fact that I currently seem to be working my way through two series at a rate of knots and it’s creating a lot of repetition in the WiB list – and could make these posts very boring.  Luckily, I also read the first in a new to me (and actually fairly new) cozy mystery series last week and it was a lot of fun and showed some great potential. Job done.

Copy of Death by Dumpling

Death by Dumpling is the first in the Noodle Shop Mystery series – and was also Vivien Chien’s debut novel.  Our wannabe detective is Lana Lee, 27 years old and back working at her family’s noodle house after walking out on her job and a brutal break-up.  But when the property manager of the plaza where the restaurant is is found dead, she and her family’s business are in the firing line.  Because Mr Feng died of an allergic reaction – to shellfish in dumplings from the Ho-Lee Noodle House.  But Lana knows everyone there knew about his allergy – so how did this happen?  Soon she’s investigating what happened while fending off dinner invites from the new guy at the plaza and hoping to get to know the detective investigating the case better…

I enjoyed this a lot and raced through it in practically one sitting – I moved from the sofa to bed 100 pages from the end but that was the extent of the movement!  The characters are fun and it’s really nice to see a different type of setting for a cozy.  Lana is a nice lead character – she’s got a nice balance of quirks and insecurities to self-confidence and skills.  The setting is good and the side characters are engaging too.  As the book is mostly setting up Lana and the series, you don’t get a lot of the other characters, but I’m hoping that changes as the series continues.   There were a few elements felt a little clunky at times, but as this is a debut as well as the start of the series, I didn’t mind too much because I think this series has a lot of potential.  I’m fed up with cupcake bakers and crafters – I’m so ready for an Asian-American detective working in the family noodle house and this delivers most of the time.

I picked my copy of Death by Dumpling up on a Barnes and Noble trip during my American Odyssey and brought it home with me.  I have no regrets about bringing it back across the Atlantic – because it meant I read a load of library books before I came home – although I do wish that I’d brought the second book in the series as well because they were cheaper to buy in the US than they are here!  But you can get hold of Death by Dumpling on Kindle and Kobo (the Kindle price is much better than the Kobo one atow)  and in paperback from Amazon – but I suspect it’s actually a special order US-Import type deal there, so I’m not sure what your luck is going to be in proper bookshops in the UK.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, mystery, Young Adult

Book of the Week: A Study in Charlotte

And I just can’t help myself.  For the second time in three weeks, my BotW is a Sherlock Holmes-related novel: Brittany Cavalaro’s A Study in Charlotte.  But this time it’s Modern Sherlock descendants at a New England Boarding School so it is Completely Different from Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women. Even if the titles would lead you to think otherwise.  Honestly.  It really is.  Let me prove it to you…

Jamie Watson has won a rugby scholarship to a prep school in Connecticut.  He isn’t happy about it – not only doesn’t he want to leave London, he doesn’t really like rugby and the last thing he wants is to be closer to his dad and his step-family.  The only bright spot in this whole situation is that Charlotte Holmes also attends the school.  The Holmeses and the Watsons have been intertwined for generations – every since Sherlock solved mysteries and Watson wrote them down.  But Charlotte seems like more trouble than Jamie can (or should) handle:  she arrived at the school in mysterious circumstances, she runs a poker game at weekends and is rumoured to have a drug problem.  But the thing is, the two of them seem drawn to each other nonetheless.  Then a student is killed.  And not just any student – one who Watson had a very public fight with after he hassled Charlotte. And Holmes and Watson are being framed for the crime.  Charlotte may be the only person who can solve the case – but by investigating it may put them in the wrong place at the wrong time and make things even worse for them.

This is exactly my sort of YA.  There’s drama and peril and some angst here, but it’s not end-of-the-world or dystopian or bleak.  There’s school stuff and a mystery, but the issues are slightly more adult (drug addiction, sexual assault, stalkers) than you get in middle grade school stories and mysteries.  Jamie and Charlotte are incredibly engaging characters – and once again I had fun watching and seeing how Cavallaro had woven in the Sherlock-lore into her modern day characters.

I’ve actually had this on my reading wishlist for a while – Goodreads tells me I shelved this in November 2016 – but it’s not available in Kindle in the UK and it hadn’t come my way at the library or in the bookshops.  Or at least not at a point when I remembered to look for it anyway.  Luckily I found it in the library near my flat in the US and it was part of my marathon library book binge last week.  There are two more books in the series that have already come out and a fourth installment due in 2019.  I’m going to be be making proper efforts to get hold of them.  I might add the next one to my Christmas list…

You can get a copy of A Study in Charlotte in hardback or paperback from Amazon, but I’ve had trouble finding it for sale on any other UK-based vendors.  Which is a real shame because it is really very good.  But if you’re heading to the US anytime soon, put it on your to-buy list!

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, mystery

Book of the Week: A Study in Scarlet Women

It’s nearly the end of my American Adventure, so my reading at the moment, as I mentioned yesterday, is mostly books I’ve borrowed from the library here.  I’m prioritising the pile too – because when I was borrowing books I was targetting books that I find it harder/more expensive to get hold of in the UK, so I’ll be gutted if I have to take some of them back unread.  And it also means that for the first time in a few weeks, I had lots of books to choose from for BotW this week, but it was a fairly easy choice – I raced through Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women on Saturday night – and it’s the first in a series.  Ideal.

Cover of A Study in Scarlet Women

So, A Study in Scarlet Women kicks off the Lady Sherlock series – which as you might guess is a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes retelling.  Charlotte Holmes has never really felt happy with the life expected of a woman in upper class London in the late Victorian era.  And when her father reneges on a deal he made with her about her future, she takes matters into her own hands.  Unfortunately, that means making herself an outcast – and life as an outcast is harder than she thought.  And then there’s a series of deaths that are casting suspicion over the family she has left behind.  Soon Charlotte is investigating – under the assumed name of Sherlock Holmes – with the help of a few new friends, and one very old friend who has loved her forever.

I read this in almost one sitting** and it is so good.  Charlotte is a brilliant heroine.  The analytical mind that serves Sherlock so well creates as whole load of problems for a woman – who isn’t expected to speak up, or demand a life that doesn’t revolve around marriage.  Her deductions are clever, the mystery is great – and she’s much more sympathetic than Proper Sherlock is – she’s motivated by helping her family and her friends in a lot of what she does, not just the mystery solving.  Just a note though I’ve seen this categorized as a romance – which I think isn’t quite right.  I first head about it on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast and Sherry Thomas does also write romances, but for me this is definitely Historical Mystery with a side order of unresolved romance and sexual tension.  Don’t go expecting a resolution/Happy Ever After here.

Side note, I was listening to that edition of Smart Bitches after a night shift on the way back to where I was staying, and the combination of lack of sleep, going to a different station to where I was used to heading to from Waterloo station and being engrossed in this saw me in autopilot mode and getting on the wrong train and ending up in Richmond and not in Barnes.  I have a vivid memory of sitting on the platform at Richmond, freezing cold, watching it get light, waiting for a train back the other way and listening to Sherry Thomas talking about learning English as a second language through the medium of 70s and 80s historical romance novels!

Anyway, back to the book, if you like series like Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell or Lady Julia Grey, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily – or even some of the interwar-set detective series like Daisy Dalrymple, Phryne Fisher, Dandy Gilver or Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness – then definitely give this a try, even if you’re not usually into Sherlock retellings.  And if you are a Sherlock fan, then definitely take a look at this.

My copy came from the library*, but you should be able to get your hands on this fairly easy.  It’s available in Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback from all the usual suspects.  You might need to order it in though.  I already have the second book on loan from the library, and I’ve ordered the third to take home with me even though I have limited space in my luggage home.

Happy Reading

*Although I’ve since found it on my Kindle where I picked it up on offer for £1.49 last summer and then it got lost in the shuffle of books.  Insert comment about the state of my tbr pile here.

**I moved from the sofa to bed about halfway through, but ended up staying up late to finish it.

 

Book of the Week, detective, Forgotten books, mystery

Book of the Week: Cast, In Order of Disappearance

Back to semi-normal service this week, in that there is a BotW post, albeit a shorter one because I spent the week working and then gadding about Washingotn with my sister.  However after she and her boyfriend left on Saturday evening I consoled myself with books and this was one of them.

Cast, In Order of Disappearance is the first novel in the Charles Paris series by Simon Brett. Set in 1974, Charles is a middle-aged actor, with a drink problem and a career problem.  But when he meets up with a previous paramour (from a seaside run in panto) he ends up getting entangled in blackmail, the murder of a theatre impresario and all sorts of other shenanigans.  It’s all set against the backdrop of petrol shortages, electricity rationing and the winter of discontent which makes for a slightly different take on the murder mystery.  Charles is very much in the mold of the classic amateur sleuth, and even as he’s being terrible (drinking, womanising etc) he’s still strangely likeable and very readable.

This is the first book in a seventeen-book series – which I came across because the radio adaptations popped up in my recommendations on audible.  I’ve been listening to some of them – which are great fun as they have Bill Nighy as Charles (he’s predictably brilliant) but they have been considerably updated.  I really liked both of them – and although the original version is probably my favourite, it does require a level of knowledge about Britain in the 1970s which may not work for modern audiences.  Anyway, I’m already stockpiling more of these to read, so you may well here more of them anon.

Yes, this is short, but it’s been a busy week – and it’s about to get even busier.  As this posts, I should be gearing up for a midterms overnight shift.  Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I love elections – so it’s a big night for me and requires proper preparation.  Hence the short post.  Sorry, not sorry.

You can get Cast, In Order of Disappearance on Kindle or Kobo, but the paperbacks are out of print.  But the radio plays are available on audible and Kobo.

Happy Reading!