Sunday, 20 March 2016

YA Murder and Detective Novels (10-14yo)

There has been a recent flurry of YA novels about murder and detection. Here are some reviews of the ones that have caught my eye. I must admit, I was totally superficial in my selection and went purely on the front covers! Not only are these books all murder mysteries, they all have exceptionally gorgeous covers which are waiting to be picked up, held, stroked and looked at longingly. Now I have read them, I am so reluctant to put away on the shelf. They have all been beautifully produced and are as captivating and appealing as the words and characters inside them. All of these titles would be suit readers aged 10+

The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth (The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, #2)
Having been lured away by the Kindle's enticingly ridiculous price offers and the double beauty that it not only solves my ongoing book storage problem, but also no one in my family is quite aware of how many books I am hoarding, I was delighted to reawaken my love for the paperback with these stunning books by Katherine Woodfine. They are beautifully produced with distinctive covers, illustrations, end pages - even the font for the blurb on the back! The blurb also establishes the setting for this period mystery with an invitation where the "Honour of your company is requested." It's then further placed within its historical context of the Edwardian era with complimenting extracts from "Lady Diana Deveres Etiquette for Debutants" humorously prefacing each chapter.

The novel starts with the introduction of Mei and her family in China Town. There is great detail which quickly and fluently establishes scene and characters. The retelling of Grand-dad's mysterious tale of the Moonbeam Diamon implies adventure and misfortune from the outset and the chapter ends on an cliffhanger.

We then return to the colourful and vibrant world of Sinclair's Department Store, first introduced to us in "The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow." It is not necessary to have read the first instalment although I'm sure you will be looking for it the minute you finish the last page of this book if you have not already read it! We are re-introduced to Lil, Sophie, Bill and Joe. This chapter not only refreshes your memory with a recap but also moves the plot along. Lil reminds us of the detective skills herself and Sophie have proven to possess: "Girls can be detectives just as well as boys...just as clever and brave....in books all girls are perfect idiots who do nothing but swoon but that's a lot of old rot," she reminds the boys.

The novel continues by developing a dual storyline. Mei and her family are being threatened by the "Baron" who runs the East End. The Baron is like the "monster who is coming to get you....the dark shadow underneath the bed...the distant shriek in the night." Mei fears for her family, especially as her dad seems to think they can stand up to him.

Back at Sinclairs, Veronica White needs the assistance of Sophie and Lil to help her find her moth shaped jewelled brooch - a gift from Lord Beaucastle - which she believes was stolen from her. The brooch was especially made for her by London's most elegant jewellers but to Veronica it reminds her that this creepy man who makes her squirm means to marry her and she will have no choice but to oblige despite her daydream that she would find a husband in a more romantic, moonlit scenario. But if anyone finds out she has lost the brooch, she will be shamed and no one will ever want to marry her ever again. Veronica is reluctant to call upon the help of mere shop girls who seem "ordinary and not very clever" but as a young girl without adult authority and finances, has no choice.

Veronica is not a particularly pleasant character at first - haughty, condescending, bored with her life and its suffocating restrictions. Sophie and Lil are a complete contrast with their positivity, energy and friendliness. Despite the period setting, these girls feel very contemporary and are really rather modern heroines set against a historical backdrop. The language and dialogue is authentic and evocative of this era but is not forced or intimidating in anyway. It adds character and humour and I actually found the vocabulary refreshing and more engaging.

Following the discovery of a murdered body, one mystery begins to lead to another. The initial crime is solved but in fact this only leads to the beginning of the real adventure - one which is more dangerous, more threatening and more complicated.

These detectives are great actresses who thrive on disguise, adventure and risk taking. They are bold, clever, full of life and spark, creative problem solvers and not confined by the expectations and stereotype. They are friendly and moral. In fact the theme of friendship is quite an important one in this book as the girls remind Veronica "we are in this together" and even though they "find her a bit of a ninny they were still prepared to fight her corner."

There is a great ending and resolution to the drama which echoes the great stories of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes -especially with Billy writing up the case notes. I finished reading feeling desperate for the next instalment. The book ends with the arrival of a new person seeking out the detectives and the girls final intriguing words are "What can we do to help?" Fortunately the next book, "The Mystery of the Painted Dragon", is due in Feb 2017.....not too long to wait.....

This is a charming, exciting and entertaining read with great heroines and role models. Highly recommend!

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)
An equally appealing book cover! There are four books in this series to date and my bookshelf demands them all! I love the design of the front cover and the bright colours used - it makes them very distinctive and they really stand out in the book shops demanding to be read!

These stories are set in 1934 at the Deepdean School for Girls and feature Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong who decide to set up their own detective agency. Initially struggling to find "real" mysteries, they then stumble across the dead body of the Science Teacher, Miss Bell, in the gym, and there they have their first case!

The book is very entertaining, full of vivid characters and events. Daisy is a strong character - sometimes a little overbearing-but her comments and observations are dry and provide much humour for the reader. Constantly interpreting events around her into versions that suit her personal theories she remarks that the problem with the school is that "there are too many secrets wherever you turn and most of them are pointless. It doesn't make it easy for detectives to do their jobs."

Hazel is very likeable and I really empathised with her more retiring and shy personality. You can almost feel her shudder and roll her eyes as Daisy gallops along her lines of investigation which often present themselves as slightly madcap. Hazel has more reserve than Daisy's slightly more frenzied enthusiasm for things like "Hunt the Hiding Place of Miss Bell's Body" which she claims will be like hunt the slipper only with a body. "Oh," replies Hazel, knowing full well that "looking for a body would be nothing like hunting for a slipper." When Daisy announces proudly that they've solved the crime, Hazel's more thoughtful response is that actually the evidence is not conclusive and there were still many other explanations. Daisy's typically effusive comment that "everything is wonderful" is met with Hazel's intriguing statement that "I did not think everything was wonderful at all." Indeed, it is perhaps Hazel who is the real brains behind the detective agency rather than the exuberant Daisy, with whom she often has to bring back to earth a little with a more rational approach like pointing out to Daisy that actually her plans to confront their suspect might not be the best course of action - particularly as it might lead to her own murder! Hazel is more conservative and realistic in her behaviour which the reader probably feels is more akin to the way they would respond to a situation - particularly within the context of a school - whereas Daisy is more caricatured. "I still feel a guilty lurch in my stomach whenever we go somewhere we're not allowed to go," says Hazel, whereas Daisy is as "cool as a cucumber" and walks like she's merely entering the Dining Room. Daisy's self confidence verges on arrogance and there were a few moments when I felt she was a little unkind to Hazel but I also felt the author was quite teasing towards Daisy and the reader is often smiling inwardly at her unintentionally comic phrases like "there I was unintentionally minding my own business in a opportune listening place in the library..." This is a novel after all and it's great to have characters that provoke feeling as that proves real engagement with them. The characterisation is vital and energetic as well as charming and captivating. The relationship between Daisy and Hazel provides much humour, wit, tension, complications and more depth to the characters and the plot. They provide both contrast as well as complimenting each other and Hazel's narrative is used to both create intrigue and cliffhangers.

There is a glossary at the end which obviously I only discovered as I turned the last few pages but might be worth pointing out to readers when they start to help them understand some of the more archaic expressions unique to boarding schools in the 1930s.

This is a great read. It's fun; full of suspicion, secrets, misleading clues and hints, a cast of well crafted, believable characters and vocabulary that evokes the period authentically. Although set in 1934 it is has a very fresh and original feel to it and will definitely appeal to a young adult audience and fans of "Harry Potter", "Malory Towers", "Sherlock Holmes" and "Nancy Drew."

I'd like to include a comment the author makes in her Acknowledgments. She thanks her parents for teaching her to love language and "putting every book that matters to me into my hands". This is a book that matters and a book you should put into the hands of your child to encourage their love for language, fictional worlds, adventure and friendship. Highly recommend! I will be reading the sequels!

Nancy Parker's Diary of Detection
Again, I saw the cover of this posted on Twitter and immediately had to order a copy! Again, a murder mystery set in the 1920s with a bright and vivacious female protagonist.

Fourteen year old Nancy Parker starts a new job as a housemaid to Mrs Bryce. This is her journal; her "Journal of Detection" in which she will write down "all my SUSPISHINS". Despite becoming a housemaid, Nancy really wants to be a detective and can't think of any reason why she wouldn't be "except perhaps I am too young. And I don't like blood." But as another character points out, she is in fact perfectly placed to see all that goes on - "I am a Detective in an apron and cap. This is FOOD FOR THOUGHT."

The novel is made up of Nancy's "handwritten" journal entries -complete with misspellings- illustrations, post cards, letters and more conventional narrative chapters which focus on Ella and Quentin's perspectives. Ella and Quentin are also young people hankering after careers in detection and huge Sherlock Holmes fans. Ella keeps an "Anthropology Notebook" as people "are strange even when you have been studying them for ages." Ella's observations are perhaps more thoughtful and considered than Nancy's hilarious suspicions which provide much mirth. I enjoyed reading Nancy's reasons for singling Cook out as the main perpetrator: "She does not look like a cook in my opinion. She should be plump...Mrs Jones is stringy as a worn out horse." "My experience," she adds, "is that Cook is not a pleasant woman (not spekulation)."

Nancy also adds her own key points in the "Theory of Detection". For example, "Detectives should not have to wait on everyone while they are detecting and then clean up after they have gone." She is a fun, comic and likeable character.

This is fast and appealing read. As a more heavily illustrated book and seems more similar to the current genre of massive hits like "Wimpy Kid" -it will definitely be popular. The variety of extracts, different fonts and presentation are creative and make it a hugely appealing text. It will appeal to a slightly younger audience of 9-12 year olds.

Anyone But Ivy Pocket
Another female protagonist, another historical setting, another housemaid and another story of mystery and murder! Another hit!

This is much less serious than the first two books reviewed here; it is full of wry comments and dry, witty, understated humour. Mainly at Ivy's expense.

Ivy is a twelve year old maid who is completely deluded, her comments are full of irony and her behaviour is slapstick. The book opens with her recalling the events leading up to her being sacked from her job. At the Countess's very posh evening dinner, Ivy is serving and her supposedly thoughtful comments are in fact quite rude and disparaging towards her mistress who exclaims that she "loathes" Ivy. Ivy immediately reacts, thinking that to say such a thing the woman must be mad and responds "with lightning speed - for I have all the natural instincts of a physician.....I plunged (the countess's) face into the fruit punch...to relieve her of her brain fever."

Ivy is continuously tactless and unable to read situations. She points out to someone that their "spinsterhood....is common amongst grim, sour faced governesses," and she is sure that "a hunchbacked footman or toothless blacksmith is just waiting to sweep you off your feet." She continues to frequently behave in a manner akin to Mr Bean, walking away leaving a trail of comic destruction whilst assuring herself that "she was filled with the warm glow that comes from when you have helped a fellow traveller in need."

Indeed Ivy often provokes quite dramatic reactions towards her as later in the novel she finds she is faced by someone who "had the scissors poised right in front of my chest. Which was rather troubling." However, Ivy is an eternal optimist as well as delusional and therefore is never hurt, upset or troubled by the chaos she creates around her. She remains unaffected by it and delightfully unaware, convinced that she is "a font of wisdom and bright ideas" and that "nothing gets past Ivy Pocket."

And so, following the dying wishes of the Duchess of Trinty who Ivy comes into contact with during her search for new employment, she continues her quest to deliver the mysterious clock diamond, which can capture glimpses of events past, present and future, to Matilda at Butterfield Park.

The text is complimented with modern, stylised cartoon illustrations which enhance the more  fictional world of Ivy Pocket.

Borrowing words from other reviewers, this book is 'wildly witty" and written with "an original voice". The quotes on the end pages are taken from fictional characters, younger readers as well as critics and are also tongue in cheek, for example: "Who knew a 12 year old girl could cause so much mayhem? She means well but I'm afraid she's barking mad."

I loved the author's note in the acknowledgements which reads:
"if you are reading this you know what books can do - how they are a door to another world, a refuge, a wonderland. How they thrill and comfort, break hearts and kindle hope....You already know life is simply better with books.....I urge you this instant to go out and choose your next adventure!" 
I think I will be quoting these comments frequently!

This will appeal to fans of Lemony Snickett and the next instalment is due out in May 2016. I'm sure this will be a series we will be seeing a lot more of and will be a must have for all 10-14 year olds.

A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes, #1)

I haven't read this book but have seen it reviewed. It also features a female detective as the protagonist although it is set in a modern day boarding school in Connecticut, America.  This novel is the story of Charlotte Holmes-a direct descendent of Sherlock- and Jamie Watson, a direct descendent of Doctor Watson. They are framed for a murder which appears to mirror the stories of their great-great-great grandfathers. This is the first in a trilogy and was released on the first of March 2016. The reviews are mixed but seem more a reflection of people's love for the original Sherlock and Watson and the current BBC series rather than a criticism of Cavallaro's writing. It's always tough to take such well loved, well known characters and reimagine them and authors making such attempts always seem to get very mixed reactions. From what I can infer, I would probably still have a go at this book as to me it sounds like it has all the ingredients of a satisfactory young adult murder mystery novel.

Good luck choosing your next adventure!

For more recommendations, reviews and bookish chat, please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up for email notifications of future posts.

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