A Spoonful of Murder : Robin Stevens

A Spoonful of Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, #6)A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a point in reading this when the back of my neck started to tingle. It’s not often that happens, but when it does, it’s the sort of thing you need to pay attention to. And I think you’ve experienced it too; that little sensation that you are reading something that is kind of superlatively wonderful, and your whole body has realised it. A literary spider sense if you will. The voice that forms afterwards and whispers: this is good.

I had that with A Spoonful Of Murder. I had it in spades. Most specifically I had it with pages 98-103, if you’d like me to be very specific, but this book is just a delight from start to end. I am a fan of Stevens’ work. I adored Murder Most Unladylike ( my review is here), and its sequels have been nothing but a vibrant joy. I even wrote about Murder Most Unladylike in my thesis and will bore you to death for hours on its nuanced representation of transgressive girlhood; and I love A Spoonful Of Murder with all my heart.

I really, really do. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to push good books at people. Not, I hasten to add, literally. I do not stand on street corners pushing books. I talk to people in my libraries and I share with them the books that are just classy and good and brilliant things. Stevens is at the top of her game here, because she takes risks and makes them work in a quite wonderful fashion. This isn’t the same old same old framework, resting on its laurels. Hazel and Daisy are in Hong Kong and there’s a murder and a kidnap to solve.

The relocation means that, for once, it’s Daisy who’s out of her depth and trying to figure out the ways of the world. It’s deliciously done, without ever disempowering her, and can I tell you how difficult an act that is? To write and to never, ever, not even once, devalue nor disempower character? It’s a rare, rare thing and one that is kind of beautiful and wonderful to read. It also speaks a lot about Stevens’ trust in this series and her work. She doesn’t mess this up, not once. Hazel is wonderful throughout, providing an introduction to her home city of Hong Kong and the intricacies of dim sum even as she’s wrestling with the thought that she is, herself, a suspect.

Good books make me happy. Good series make me even happier. Stevens manages to make each of these accessible to new readers, but also to old, and every single paragraph is just a joyful and gorgeous thing. It’s books like this that make me run out of superlatives.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The Belles : Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles (The Belles #1)The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually step towards fantasy, but The Belles caught my eye. Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, tasked with ‘controlling’ Beauty in the gray and dammed world of OrlΓ©ans. It is only through appointments with a Belle, that people can be transformed and made beautiful. Yet, upon arriving at the royal court, Camellia and her sisters come to realise that everything is not as they dreamt it would be. Beauty, and the search for it, can be deadly. And a girl who can control that may be asked to make some impossible choices.

That’s a good hook right there; a premise that sings towards some vital discussions, and places The Belles at a very vital intersection in Young Adult literature. This is the book that, for example, (Modelland by Tyra Banks) was trying so very hard to be. Beauty, and the commodification of that, the corruption of that, is something that needs to be bought out of the shadows and subject to critique. As The Belles shows, and as Barbara Kruger might say, your body is a battleground.

So The Belles hits notes that needs to be hit, and it hits them well. It took me a while to get into this, though I suspect that’s partially my unfamiliarity with the genre but it is worth mentioning. In contrast, however, the final third or so was a powerful reading experience with some severe, scarring scenes. As Clayton remarks in the afterword, this is a story that’s been gestating with her for quite some time and you can sense that. There’s a lot of rich detail work and it’s convincing. There’s no loose space in this world; it all makes sense and combines to deliver something that, ultimately, is a powerful and kind of brilliant read. The second half of this book is a genuinely great read. I suspect the first half is too, but it just took me a long time to get into it.

A final thing is worth mentioning. You know how certain books become very conscious of their first part in a series and end with a madly infuriating cliffhanger? Well, the Belles does end with a cliffhanger but it manages to get away with it because I actually cared. Funny how good writing does that to you.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Egyptomania : Emma Giuliani and Carole Saturno

EgyptomaniaEgyptomania by Carole Saturno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something very good has been happening in children’s non-fiction over the past few years. This is something to add to that realm of good things. Big, bold and rather deliciously put together, Egyptomania is a look at several key aspects of Ancient Egypt. Where this book differs is that it’s a hybrid of fact and papercraft; nearly every page has a fold out or a tag to explore further.

It’s a beautiful book. Giuliani’s artwork is wonderful; clean, big and rather wonderful, ranging over topics such as temples, pharoahs and the ever-appealing mummification rituals. The mummification page in fact is one of the best in this book, and allows the reader to quite literally peel back the layers of the mummy and discover the processes which have helped to create it. It’s very nicely done, and one of those spreads that makes you realise the benefit of papercraft in a non-fiction book like this.

I would have welcomed a slightly more robust paper quality here, but I do recognise that there’s a balance to be made between the level of engineering that’s gone into making this work and the final price point. Having said that however, in the hands of a careful reader this book’s a gem. It’s distinct, it’s interesting, and it’s genuinely very beautifully done.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Murderer’s Ape : Jakob Wegelius

The Murderer's ApeThe Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The titular Murderer’s Ape is Sally Jones and she’s also our narrator for this gently told story of murder, double-crosses and false imprisonment. It’s an interesting note to take for such a dramatic series of topics but then again, Sally Jones is an interesting figure. She’s the best friend of the Chief, and together they run a cargo boat. She’s the engineer, who lives with humans, and although she doesn’t speak she can understand everything that they say. The Chief and Sally Jones take on a job and it ends badly; the Chief is accused of murder, and Sally is forced to go on the run. Can she clear his name? Can she survive?

I read the hardcover edition from Pushkin Press (my thanks to them for the review copy), and it is a beautiful edition. I bang on a lot about the importance of design when it comes to books and this is perfectly and distinctly done. A book can look good, but one that looks good and distinct? That’s important, and it’s nicely done here.

Quietly and lengthily told, The Murderer’s Ape isn’t, perhaps, the quickest of books. It took me a while to read, but it wasn’t a traumatic process in the slightest. Narrated by Sally Jones, this is a quiet tale of peril and trauma that skates the edge of some nasty topics (anarchism, forced imprisonment, the idle rich, revolutionaries, and abusive relationships) whilst never quite wholly engaging with them. Some of this distance comes from Sally’s position of remove, never quite accepted for who she is except for when she’s with her friends, and the overall effect is rather one of gentle disturbance.

That’s not to say that this book doesn’t pose some big questions. Far from it. Sally is constantly required to assert her presence in a world that is not wholly comfortable with her, and that question of negotiated identity is something very important to children’s and young adult literature. The best of these books allow our protagonists to find out who they are and, more to the point, who they can be. Sally is aided and abetted on her quest by a variety of characters who illustrate both the good and bad sides of humanity. It’s up to Sally to decide how to live, and to survive.

For me, The Murderer’s Ape sits somewhere on the lower edge of Young Adult, and on the higher edge of Middle Grade literature, and that is something I welcome very much. This is a book which should be placed into the hands of those who want meaty content, but may be, perhaps, unable to deal with the darkest edge of what young adult can (and indeed, should!) provide. The short and precise chapters, told in Sally’s clean and clear prose also would fit very nice as a bedtime read. There are eighty so it may be a lengthy process, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a slow read and in fact, it’s something that might prove quite appropriate to this rich and classic tale.

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Why We Took The Car : Wolfgang Herrndorf

Why We Took the CarWhy We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After spending time as a writer in residence for a road, I’ve been increasingly interested in the role of ‘roads’ in children’s and young adult literature. Young adult literature, in fact, has a perfect sort of marriage with the metaphor of the road, where the open road promises freedom, independence and self-determination, and it’s a sense of liberty which is always in sharp contrast to that which exists at home. Furiously well known in its original German, Why We Took The Car is a translated novel that sometime burns with brilliance and sometimes widely misses the mark. It’s a book of dualities where sadness battles with raw and fierce happiness, and nothing sometimes battles with everything. I think it is occasionally rather perfect. Sometimes it is not. But then again, that’s the sort of delicious thing about roadtrip novels; there are moments, as with every journey, that the getting there matters as much as the destination itself. The journey might be quieter, duller, but it’s still so very important.

So here are our travellers: Mike, our narrator, who is a boy who doesn’t fit in, and a new boy at his school called Tschick. Tschick doesn’t fit in either, being an emigre from Russia, and also possessed of problems of his own. A slow twist of circumstances and parental absences lead Tschick to give Mike a dare. It’s time to go on a road trip. Tschick has a stolen Lada, Mike has some money, and the open road’s calling them…

Messy, wild, eccentric, this is a book that burns on the edge of the world. I liked it a lot. It’s scrappy at points, and very definitely not perfect, but then again there’s a point to be made that a teenage narrator who’s just had the trip of his life wouldn’t ever be especially coherent. Yet that’s not to say that there isn’t potency here; there’s an encounter with a family that is one of the best and most brilliantly unexpected things I’ve read with a long while, and the final movement of the book itself is kind of awe-inspiring. I think that’s the best way I can describe Why We Took The Car; sometimes it is perfect, and sometimes it is not. Such is life. And sometimes, you don’t know that, until you go out and live it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings : Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Rob Hodgson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like this. A joint production by Rob Hodgson, and Aidan Onn, it was Hodgson’s artwork that originally caught my eye, with its exuberant and definite renderings of creatures ranging from the Sphinx through to the Werewolf and the Kraken. Hodgson delivers such rich and deliciously dark work, that manages to juxtapose a childish aesthetic with some gorgeous little touches. Let me explain a little more about that phrase of ‘childish aesthetic’ as I think it’s one that’s worthwhile to explore here. The visual literacies of children fascinate me because they are marked with a sort of infinite potential. A line on a page could be a pony, a house, or a comment on post-modernism. And yes, some of that has to do with the development of motor skills, but it also has to do with the fact that children can work in this sort of creative world of infinite potential. It’s the same with writing, and any other creative practice; we learn to work within frames. And that’s a good thing, because when we subsequently break them and remake them, we are better than what we were before. Learn the rules. Break the rules. But don’t forget to embrace that period of before, where a horse can have three heads or an antelope can sit down for tea. And that’s what I mean with Hodgson’s work, he kind of goes ‘here’s a blue minotaur’ or ‘here’s a pink Kraken’, and you believe it because it is delivered with such emphatic affirmation. It’s great.

One thing to note is that this a book that deserves a better cover than the one it has. The world of children’s picture books is a busy one, and this cover isn’t ideal. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that reoccurs in the book itself as the illustration to the ‘Troll’ page, but when people describe it as dull and dark to me then that’s feedback I need to note and recognise. Admittedly you’ll not see many picture books which go for the dark blue palette of this cover, and there’s an argument for it standing out for that reason, but equally there’s a question to be asked about the cover when it comes to reprints. A similar question could be asked about the unexploited space of the endpapers at that point.

So, to sum, there are parts of this book that are under-exploited, but there are points that fiercely and satisfyingly hit the spots. I can imagine this going down well with a primary audience (expect lots of shrieks), and also as part of some dark and deliciously wintry creative writing and imaginative artwork sessions. I can also imagine it pairing very well with something like Bernard by Rob Jones.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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My Miniature Library

My Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and TreasureMy Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and Treasure by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s been a bit of a delay in my reviewing of this because, to be frank, I’ve been too busy screaming with joy over it. Every. Single. Time. I’m not one for craft, really, as I have the adeptness of a lemon when it comes to such things, but My Miniature Library is adorable. And accessible! And a conceit so delightful that it almost beggars belief!

Presented in a robust box, the contents of My Miniature Library make up thirty small books – both classic and less well known, alongside several blanks to create your own book. These books can be subsequently displayed on a small bookshelf, which can be then situated against the backdrop of the box which, on the interior, is patterned with a wall scene and carefully laid floor (seriously, if you’re not squeaking with joy at this point then we need to talk). The tiny books themselves are madly delightful. I’m not sure why such extremes of scale are, but these are beautiful. The instructions are clear; super little people might need help with the more fiddly aspects, but this teaches bookbinding! sequential literacies! how to make your own book! how to become madly possessive over beautiful things!

God , I love this. It’s adorable. Buy it for the young people in your life and then borrow it.

(And by borrow, I mean buy them another and keep one for yourself).

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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