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 of the Week, Children's books, detective

Book of the Week: The London Eye Mystery

This week’s BotW is Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, which I devoured* last week.  This has been on my radar for a while – I read A Monster Calls (Dowd’s concept but written by Patrick Ness) last year before the movie came out and thought I’d like to read more of Dowd’s work and then one of my favourite middle-grade authors Robin Stevens (you’ve all seen how much I’ve written about Wells and Wong before) was announced as writing a sequel to The London Eye Mystery.  That came out last month, so of course I needed to read the first one before reading the second one.  You know me: read series in order, glom on stuff you like, read everything authors you like have ever written.

A copy of The London Eye Mystery
I love the cover of this – and The Guggenheim Mystery has a great one too

Anyway, to the plot: Ted and his big sister Kat take their cousin Salim to the London Eye when he comes to visit them.  They watch him get into the pod and then they watch the pod go around and wait for him to get off.  But he doesn’t get off when they expect him to.  Or from the next pod.  Or the next one.  He’s vanished.  But how does someone vanish from a closed pod on a giant rotating wheel?  The police start looking, but so do Ted and Kat, and it’s not long before they’re following a trail of clues across London to try and work out what happened to Salim.

This is a clever, well-written locked room mystery: all the clues are there for the reader to be able to work out what happened to Salim, if only they can spot them.  But spotting them is not as easy as you think because Ted’s his brain works differently.  Ted says he has a “syndrome” and although it’s never said what it is, it’s clearly a disorder on the autism spectrum, possibly Asperger’s.  Ted has developed his own operating system – with tips and tricks to navigate the difficulties his syndrome causes him.  And he is very adept at dealing with the challenges of social interactions and situations.  But this does still mean that the reader isn’t always getting the whole picture.  Ted notices somethings that other people don’t – but he also doesn’t see somethings that other people would and this adds to the experience for the reader.

I pretty much figured things out at the same time as Ted did – which is great as I read a lot of mysteries and this is a middle-grade mystery and I’m definitely not a middle grader.  In fact I’m old enough to have my own middle grader and not have been a teen mum.  So depressing.  Anyway, I digress.  I loved the London Eye Mystery, will probably be lending this to my niece-in-law and will definitely be bumping the sort-of-sequel The Guggenheim Mystery to the top of my to-buy list.  Although I might wait for the paperback.

You should be able to get hold of the London Eye Mystery from all good bookshops.  My favourite is The Big Green Bookshop who will order it for you and post it out to you because they’re nice like that.  Or you could get it on Kindle or Kobo.  And I’m sure this won’t be the last time that I mention the Guggenheim Mystery here…

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

*I started it the week before, but only really got a good run at it at the weekend and basically read it in one big gulp.

books, Chick lit, cozy crime, historical, reviews, romance

Summer Reading 2015 Recommendations

Here it is at last – Verity’s top suggestions for what to read on your holiday. And less than six weeks after my holiday when I started the list of what I wanted to include. Ahem. It has a lot of footnotes (sorry) and I still haven’t got to the bottom of the list of books that I thought I might want to include, so it may yet have a sequel!

The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance by Kirsty Greenwoodª

This was my favourite book that I read on holiday – and not just because the fab Kirsty runs Novelicious (who I also review for).  The Vintage Guide is funny and sweary and perfect and I nearly got sunburnt because I was to distracted by Jessica Beam’s antics.  I laughed and I cried (on the beach – how embarrassing) – and I was rooting her on.  She’s got a lot to figure out and some issues to overcome, but Jess is so easy to identify with.  Everyone’s had similar experiences to some of the stuff that she goes through albeit probably less extreme. Perfect for lazy days on the sunlounger. Amazon* Kindle Kobo

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnettª

This one isn’t out in paperback yet, so it might be one for your e-reader rather than your suitcase, but Laura Barnett’s debut novel is well worth a read.  It’s been hyped as a One Day meets Sliding Doors – and that’s kind of right – except that I liked it much more than I liked One Day – and it’s got three different realities to Sliding Doors’ two. The Versions of Us presents three different futures based on one encounter in Cambridge in the 1950s. For me, the best part of it was that none of the possibilities seemed to be marked out as being the “right” one – all of the different versions felt real – with ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. I’m not usually one for books that have been really hyped – but this one’s worth it. Foyles, Kindle, Kobo

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willigª

Another hardback recent release (I’m sorry) but Lauren Willig’s latest stand-alone book just had to go on this list.  Rachel Woodley infiltrates the Bright Young Things after discovering that her life-story isn’t quite what she thought it was.  If you’re interested in the 1920s, you’ll spot familiar faces as Willig weaves her fictional characters into the real crowd who were racketing around causing chaos and scandalising their parents.  This is less romance than Willig’s other books** – and is the first to be set just in one time period, and it’s engrossing and brilliant.  This one is pricier and harder to get hold of in the UK, although if you’re holidaying in the States you could buy it out there. KindleAmazon, Foyles, Kobo

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

This is new Christie Estate sanctioned Poirot mystery – out now in paperback and which should be easy to get hold of at the airport should you arrive there and discover that you’re short of reading matter.  I enjoyed it – but a week on I’m still trying to work out if it felt like a “proper” Poirot or not.  It certainly helps that Hannah has created herself a new policeman who narrates the story – so the famous Belgian is not always centre stage.  The mystery is well put together and intriguing although I have some of the same reservations about this that did about the Wimsey continuations – but I can’t go into them because it’s a sort of plot spoiler. Never the less it’s a good crime novel set in the Golden Age which will entertain you by the side of the pool. Amazon*, Kindle, Kobo.

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

It wouldn’t be a list of recommendations from me without a kids/YA recommendation – and this time its the latest Wells and Wong mystery.  Both the previous books in the series have already appeared on the blog (first one, second one) and book 3 is Steven’s homage to Murder on the Orient Express.  Yes I know, two Poirot-y books in one post, sue me. One of our regular treats when I was little was to borrow the audiobook of David Suchet reading Murder on the Orient Express from the library to listen to in the car on the way to our holiday – and my parents had their first date at the Peter Ustinov film version, so it has a very special place in my heart.  Stevens’ story has enough nods to the Poirot for those who’ve read it to get the warm fuzzies inside, but still manages to be totally its own book too.  One for the late primary kid with a good reading age, or lower secondary kids and of course for grown-ups who are children at heart. Foyles, Waterstones*** Kindle, Kobo

So there you have it.  My favourite holiday books for your summer break.  Or your next holiday if you’ve already been and got back! Hopefully there’s something here that appeals to you.  And sorry again for the footnotes, but the history graduate in me finds it the best way to deal with my stream of consciousness ramblings!

ª Books with an ª next to their titles came to me via NetGalley.  The others I bought for myself, with actual, proper money.

*By a fortuitous chance, several of my picks are in Amazon’s 3 for £10 promotion – so I’ve put amazon links to those (rather than Foyles) to help cut the cost of buying my recommendations. If you don’t make it to three on Amazon, recent BotW’s The Cake Shop in the Garden and The Day We Disappeared are also in the promotion, as is the paperback of Marian Keyes’ The Woman Who Stole My Life – a BotW back in November, RJ Palacio’s Wonder (a March BotW) and Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project which I have raved about plenty and you should have read already!

** Willig’s 12th and final Pink Carnation book has just come out as well – if you haven’t discovered her yet and are looking for a series to binge on on your holiday, they may be a good choice – timeslip historical spy romances – featuring a heroine in Napoleonic France and a modern day American grad student researching her.

***Waterstones have totally championed the Wells and Wong series – so they get a link as well as Foyles.

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

Book of the Week: Arsenic for Tea

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.

books

Back to School Books

The schools go back this week coming, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend some books based in schools or with a school-y element

I’m starting with a recent discovery (thank you NetGalley) – Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens which combines two of my favourite things – boarding school stories and Golden Age detective stories.  Like Mallory Towers crossed with Agatha Christie but with a wry smile, this is the first book about the Wells and Wong Detective Agency – aka Daisy and Hazel – and the very real murder they encounter at their boarding school.  I sped through this during my break and train journey on a nightshift and it was a joy.  There are subtle lessons about bullying and race for the children (I’d say 9 – 12 year olds) and enough sly nods to things for the adults amongst us too.  I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Melissa Nathan was one of my favourite authors of the early 2000s – and her final novel, The Learning Curve – is one of the best novels I’ve read about being a teacher (speaking as a non-teacher of course).  It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s romantic and the characters are all brilliant.  I loved Nicky and thought her relationship with her class was utterly believable and Oscar and his dad Mark are brilliant too.  I cried in Tesco when I read in the front of this book that Melissa had passed away and it saddens me that so many people won’t have come across her work –  so I heartily recommend this.  And as a side note, every year I have found at least one amazing new author from the Melissa Nathan Award Shortlist, so although tragically there will be no more books from Melissa herself, I feel like she’s pointing me in the direction of other people carrying on her fine work.

As previously mentioned, I love a good school story – and it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite boarding school series of all time in a round-up of books about schools and that’s Elinor M Brent Dyer’s Chalet School books.  I’m working my way up to a full post on the subject so I won’t say too much more, except that if you like school stories set in the 1920s through to the 1950s and haven’t read any Chalet School books, then where have you been.  They are slightly dated now, and children should be given the abridged Armada paperback versions (which take out the smoking and some of the more questionable language) but I still adore them. “I bet Jo could sing it better” is still a running gag between my sister and I when things go badly wrong based on the main protagonist’s ability to cure fever, coma and emotional trauma with her singing voice. The School at the Chalet is the first book and is easily findable on the second-hand book sites – and Girls Gone By Publishing are republishing the unabridged versions in paperback for those of us who can’t afford the very collectible original hardback books.

One of my recent discoveries are Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire novels from the 1930s – and one of the best of these that I’ve read is Summer Half – where Colin Keith decides to spend a term as a teacher (as you could in those days!) rather than live off his dad whilst he studies for the law.  The focus is on the teachers and their lives and in particular flirtatious attention-seeking Rose – the daughter of the headteacher – who is engaged to one master, but busy flirting with every man she encounters.  It’s delightfully funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s boarding school stories, this may well float your boat too.

And finally, little bit tangential, but I really enjoyed John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which starts with a section set in a school, when I read it last year – and I’m not normally a spy/thriller reader.  Well worth a look for anyone who hasn’t read this classic of the genre – although I can’t claim that the school section is the main bit of the plot!