Mistletoe and Murder : Robin Stevens

Mistletoe and Murder (Wells and Wong, #5)Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long term readers of my reviews will know that I adore what Robin Stevens writes. The Wells and Wong series are that delightful thing: a series which continues to get better with every book published. And that’s not easy; series are hard works. As are colons. And semi-colons. I am incoherent. These books make me scatty, because I love them and I can’t write coherently about love, I don’t think, not when it’s like this. Not when it’s so perfectly formed and delivered and utterly good.

To be precise: the fifth book in the series sees Daisy and Hazel visit Cambridge over Christmas. Shenanigans occur and, naturally, the girls become involved. But this time they’re not alone; a rival detective agency is on the scene and challenging Wells and Wong’s competence. Will they solve the case? Will their rivals take the glory? Will there be buns? (Of COURSE there will be buns).

The more I read of this series, the more I realise that we are privileged readers today. We get to witness series like this where the titles get better each and every time. And to say that involves a caveat that these were not poor books to begin with. There is not one of this series that I have not been prostrate with love for, that I have not rated five stars. But better is always possible, and Stevens is doing it. She’s doing it so well and I am jealous of her skill and I love it and I adore it. Mistletoe and Murder has a complexity to it that both speaks back to the books which have been, but also looks forward to the books which are yet to come. Relationships, same-sex, mixed-sex; racism, conscious, unconscious; gender-bias, sexism; give these books to people who question the relevance of children’s literature in contemporary society. Give them two copies because once they’ve read it, they will want to share it with the next person they’ve come across and realise that they can’t let their copy go.

There’s not much else to say here other than this series is wonderful and Mistletoe and Murder sparks with a delicious and beautiful complexity and I love it, I love what these books are, I love that they exist, that they are.

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First Pages: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Every now and then, I like to look at the first pages of some very good children’s books and analyse just how and why they achieve that goodness. Today’s post is on the wonderful Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and you can browse some of the previous entries in the First Page series here .

I love Murder Most Unladylike. I am an avowed fan of what Robin Stevens does in her contemporary, classic and delicious school stories. Murder Most Unladylike and the sequels have been of such a standard that I’ve been both frankly envious and madly in love with. These are good, good books and if you do not know them then you should. They are books that tell girls to be what they are and should be and does so in such a wonderfully empowering (and occasionally murderous) manner that they are just lovely.

And so to the first page of Murder Most Unladylike (MMU). It’s a book that actually starts a long while before this page; there are cast lists, a map, and some other lovely little details. I particularly adore how this book uses paratexts (fig 1). What are paratexts I hear you ask? Check out this post on ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith and you’ll see what I mean.

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Figure One: Paratexts! Paratexts! My Kingdom For Delicious Paratexts!

I’ve come back to MMU recently because I hope to use it in the third chapter of my thesis. I’m looking at representations of childhood and how it ties into space and place. As those of you who know this blog might not be surprised to read, I’m concentrating mainly on school stories. School stories are a fascinating beast because they remain somewhat critically neglected. The big titles, of course, have a presence but work on popular fiction like Malory Towers or St Clare’s or Trebizon remains fascinatingly rare. One of the drivers of that, I suspect, is the great introspection of the genre. It’s a genre which thrives on barriers; children are sent to school. They usually stay there. Even if they run away, they usually end up going back. The school itself is usually something stately or castle like; fortified against the world both through the nature of its building but also through location. To all intents and purposes these stories don’t fit within society, they fit next to it.

They are isolated constructions; a macrocosm.  And here’s the thing about this first page; it speaks so knowingly and so smartly within that frame, but also outside of it.

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Figure Two: Best. First. Paragraph. Ever.

Let’s take it step by step and begin with that first paragraph (fig 2). There’s a great potential for this sort of series to turn into some sort of substandard Daisy Pulls It Off affair. Jolly hockeysticks. Cliches and overwrought writing. As much as I adore Angela Brazil, she doesn’t read well today. But this does, precisely because it both recognises the frame of the schoolgirl story but also the great humour of it. That last line ‘I suspect that the solution to this new case may be more complex” is glorious and so deeply funny. But here’s the thing; it’s not overtly funny to Hazel. I might be wrong here, but I don’t suspect it is. I find this deeply matter-of-fact and rather practical and all the funnier because of it. Hazel’s a rather wonderful character here, showing such a delicious sense of practicality and inescapable logic that you can’t help but fall in love with her. This is the way things are. And it’s just a good job she has a new notepad to record the adventures. (Seriously, what a character..)

There’s a lot of work done in these two paragraphs. The first one does much of the context, but the second one does the heavy lifting that’s specific to this particular narrative. We have Daisy introduced, and Hazel named, and the reference to Sherlock Holmes and Watson made. Then there’s that delicious ‘Daisy says…’ sentence which immediately positions Daisy as the more dominant individual of the two. Isn’t it amazing how two words can do so much work? Daisy’s presence is established before she’s even appeared.

The final sentence of this book “After all I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” is spectacular. It both couples with the ‘Daisy says…’ element, whilst also introducing a whole host of elements. The invocation of Hazel’s background is deliberately done; her otherness marked, and noted as something that’s apparently incompatible with this overarching image of Sherlock Holmes and Solving Mysteries. And yet, as we can see from this page and her calm unpacking of The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie, it’s clear that Hazel’s actually pretty awesome.

So just think about that for a moment. One page, and we have a thousand things established. Context. Genre. Humour. Character. Cultural Touchstones. Intent. This is such a well-crafted book and this first page is almost palpable with narrative drive. This sort of thing matters, and Murder Most Unladylike does it so well.

 

Jolly Foul Play : Robin Stevens

Jolly Foul Play (A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, #4)Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes I think back to that first moment I read Robin Stevens. Murder Most Unladylike ticked all of my literary boxes in a way I wasn’t sure was ever really going to happen. Of course there are books out there that I love, books out there that fire my brain into strange and wonderful places, books that make me gasp and weep at their perfection, but then there’s the Wells and Wong books and the way they fit into something very perfect for me and my bookish ways. I am a school story fan; I read a lot of authors who aren’t the ones you’d find in shops today. Angela Brazil. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. I love the roots, I suppose, of British children’s literature. Of those books that live in schools or windswept moors or in the attics of deepest London with nothing but dreams to keep you alive in the darkness.

I think perhaps, what I love with the Wells and Wong series is how it fits. How it talks back to those books and how it talks forward to the books yet to come. These are complex, tightly plotted books and they are, I imagine, not easy to write. But they are so easy, so delightful, so addictively gorgeous to read. And though this book is perfect to read as a standalone, I would reccomend that you take time to read them from the start because the series is evolving. Stevens, I think, is getting stronger and more rooted within her characters and for somebody who was good at the start of this series, I suspect you can realise what I think of Jolly Foul Play itself. Reader, I loved it. It’s a gift this series, one formed of perfect slang-tipped edges and girls being girls and revelling in their strengths as girls. As friends. As detectives.

The great joy in this book comes from that added little edge of Hazel’s increasing maturity. It’s subtly done, cleverly, but through their investigation of the murder of Deepdean’s despotic headgirl, Hazel and Daisy’s friendship is challenged and questioned. Is this it for the Detective Society? Are Hazel and Daisy through? Can their friendship survive this case with its strange edges and familiarities?

I love what Stevens does. I love this classy and classic series; I love the strength of it, and the competencies of it, and that the girlhood within it is presented as messy and honest and terrifying and fun, gorgeous, powerful, fun. Jolly Foul Play is perfect, really, there’s very little else to say.

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First Class Murder : Robin Stevens

First Class Murder (Wells and Wong, #3)First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s strange, sometimes, how books can make you long to read them and then freeze a little when you have them finally in your hands. And this was one: I love the work of Robin Stevens. I have adored Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic For Tea. The third in the series, First Class Murder, was something that I was viciously hungry to read – and yet, reluctant to do so. I think that’s something that sometimes happens when books are this good, this continual level of good and wonderful writing and plots which hit all of your sweet spots and just make everything right with the world. You get scared that it can’t last. You get nervous.

There aren’t many contemporary writers I feel like this about. Susie Day is one as is Sita Brahmachari, and I suspect Aoife Walsh may become another.

Robin Stevens is very much up there on this list; a collective of some of the smartest and most exciting author voices working in contemporary children’s literature today. And because of all of that, I was nervous of First Class Murder. I was nervous that it just might not be that good.

So. Let me tell you this before we go on. First Class Murder is just -well, it’s perfect.

I love what Stevens does with her characters. I love that the further on she gets in the series, the more confident her writing feels and the drama becomes more dramatic and the humour becomes more stylish and heartfelt (The ‘Hermes’ moment is one such perfect example). I love that this series is turning into a such a powerhouse that can have jokes about the amount of times somebody vomits, with discussion of some incredibly dark and relevant issues. I love how the female characters in this book are so intensely multi-faceted and rich and capable; and I love how the adult characters, in particular Hazel’s father, are drawn with such sympathy and truth.

I would give these books to the world if I could, because they’re just a genuine joy all the way from the start through to the end, so instead I shall end with a small anecdote about a girl I met in the library once. I asked her what sort of books she liked. She told me that she liked Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. “Well,” I said, “Do I have the perfect recommendation for you,” and then we beamed at each other as fellow bookish folk often do.

This is the perfect book for that girl. It’s also the perfect book for anyone who’s wanting something that has strong and brave characters, a tightly choreographed and controlled dance of a plot, murder, trains, shenanigans and buns. Basically, it’s the sort of book that I am and will continue to be slightly evangelical over.

(Also, these books are begging to be bought together as a series. Just look at those covers! My book shelves long for the three of them to be back to back!)

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Arsenic for Tea : Robin Stevens

Arsenic for Tea (Wells and Wong, #2)Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a little in awe of Stevens’ debut in this series, the rather glorious and as good as Christmas Murder Most Unladylike, and so when Arsenic For Tea came onto NetGalley, I did a tiny shriek of joy. And by tiny, I mean rather substantial.

Arsenic For Tea is a joy. A multi-layered sandwich cake of joy. There’s really very little else to be said other than this book is gorgeous and it’s something rather special.

It is the second in the Wells and Wong series; Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, schoolgirl detectives, are at Daisy’s house for the holiday and as it’s Daisy’s birthday, the whole family and a couple of extras are invited along for a birthday tea of splendid proportions. However – it’s a birthday party that somebody won’t see the end of.

A closed house mystery; a party of people, all with their reasons for doing the deed, stuck in the house together due to bad weather. Somebody has something to confess – and it’s down to the Detective Society to solve their second case before something very bad happens.

Glorious, really, a book where the stakes are high and the mystery wraps around them a little tighter with each step taken. Daisy and Hazel remain a delight (Hazel’s little revealing one-liners are a joy), and the supporting cast remains ineffably perfect (Lord Hastings – Daisy’s father, Felix and Miss Alston all provide particular highs).

Sometimes, with a second book in a series, there’s always that risk of ‘second book syndrome’. Will it be as good? Will you still like it as much as you did the first time round? Will the characters have grown or will it be a pale rehash of the first?

Arsenic For Tea feels stronger, somehow, and deeper too. It’s glorious and worth cancelling everything for. Stevens feels like she’s settled more into her groove and that groove is producing stylish, charming, witty and delightful stories. I am a fan of this series and a fan of her work and I think this is again a title that feels a little bit like Christmas.

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Murder Most Unladylike : Robin Stevens

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You may know by now that I have a thing for school stories. School stories are one of the great joys of children’s literature in that they do what they do so well. They tell a story in a frame which is familiar to the majority of children, and they do it with a sort of glorious constancy irrespective of date of publication. There is a part of me that wants to see Murder Most Unladylike read with books like The Princess of the Chalet School or Beswitched because it fits so comfortably and solidly into the genre. Because it is, quite possibly, the start of a very new and very lovely and very contemporary spin on the school story, despite the setting of 1930s England and tea houses and pashes.

Murder Most Unladylike is a (Daisy) Wells and (Hazel) Wong story. It’s a sort of hybrid of Angela Brazil meets Agatha Christie all mixed up with some Sherlockian tips and winks that made me snuggle down and read with a contented smile. It is a jacket potato on a winters day book; warm, satisfying, filling.

And can I tell you what I loved most about it? What made me actually adore and fall in love with it? It is Stevens’ kind and funny and lovely writing which features references to pashes and to Angela Brazil, but does it with a sort of love and respect and belief in the genre and what it can do when it’s done well (which it is here, very much so).

This is such a glorious book and it is one which has reinterpreted the school story for the contemporary reader and opened it up with a swift moving and accessible plot line. In Star Trek terms, it is the next generation as compared to the original series. It is very, very gorgeous. Daisy is glorious. Hazel is awesome. I want more, please. It’s as simple as that.

Murder Most Unladylike is published on June 5th by Random House, I would suggest we all save the date, yeah? I think that Wells and Wong are very definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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