Category Archives: Review

Murder Most Unladylike

Who doesn’t like a good murder set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s? I mean, it ticks a lot of my boxes. What about you?

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

13-year-old students Daisy and Hazel set up detective agency Wells&Wong at Deepdean school, and it’s not long before ‘luck’ strikes, when their science teacher Miss Bell is found dead. Only for a while though, as the body disappears pretty swiftly and no one knows Miss Bell is a bit more dead than the head teacher makes out she is.

Daisy is rather bossy, not to mention fearless, while Hazel, who comes from Hong Kong, is more conventional and careful. A good detective agency needs both to succeed.

And you know, it’s rather hard to check people’s alibis when you are not the police and when there is no body or even a public acknowledgement that the corpse is indeed a corpse. But Daisy ferrets out where everyone was, and they work out what the motive might have been. Would you kill for the post of deputy head?

The detecting isn’t made any easier when you are a relatively innocent young girl, who doesn’t quite understand the undercurrents between the adults. Wells&Wong do work out who did it, and it puts them in more danger than expected.

As for me, I kept thinking it was turning out a little Midsomerish. When you deduct the number of dead people and the murderer, you’re not left with a whole lot of characters for a sequel. And I hope author Robin Stevens won’t kill more teachers and students in every book. Even a fairly dim parent would surely take their child out of a school like that?

Shoot to Kill

This was just like the films! I must admit I have not read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I do seem to have watched ‘a few’ Bond films, however (when Offspring did, obviously), so I knew what to expect.

Steve Cole, Shoot to Kill

Steve Cole has got young Bond down perfectly. There is not a single break for the poor boy in the whole book. He jumps and climbs and runs and is shot at or otherwise attacked, and when he is not, James drives cars illegally (he is 15 years old), fights grown men and dallies with pretty females.

I wasn’t sure I’d like it, to be honest, but I do, I do. Shoot to Kill does what it says on the cover; with the shooting being both of the gun variety, as well as the film kind of shooting. Starting off at a new school for James, in Devon, he is soon stumbling over corpses and travelling on board a Zeppelin all the way to Hollywood, where there are a lot of bad guys. This is the heyday of bad guys, and power crazy, rich types have the support of rough men from Chicago and other bad places.

James does most of the tough guy stuff, but is ably assisted by a few new school friends, a couple of whom prove very worthy accomplices. One of them I’d love to meet again, so I hope Steve is on my wavelength here.

This is classic Hollywood gangster stuff, with cars to die for (or worse) and beautifully dressed, beautiful people with too much money. And there is James. Lovely boy.

Dead Men’s Bones

You just know there will be bones, even though it doesn’t seem like it to begin with. James Oswald’s Dead Men’s Bones starts off with one of his trademark inexplicable deaths, while his lovely, and convalescing, detective is off to solve a domestic killing. Or rather not solve, so much as confirm that a wealthy MSP who seemingly murdered his wife and children and then killed himself, had done just that.

James Oswald, Dead Men's Bones

Tony McLean knows he did it, but for him the important thing is to work out why this successful politician did such a dreadful deed in the first place.

And it’s worrying, but two of the men he dislikes most at work start behaving almost decently at times. What’s come over them? (It’s almost funny.)

But, I do take exception to the way James picks women characters to suffer when things go wrong in an investigation. I know that Tony McLean can go all manly and caring, but I would actually like to see more male characters hurt! (If that doesn’t sound bad, I mean.)

In Dead Men’s Bones we have another of these impossibly rich and seductive, not to mention fabulously wealthy, black widows, that you often get in fiction. This one is wonderfully menacing and McLean is far too susceptible, and I can recognise a witch when I see one.

So can those cats…

As always it’s good to see Edinburgh in a different light, although I hope I never will in real life. And somebody please show this helpless detective how to dress in cold weather. It’s enough that the baddies are dangerous; he doesn’t need to die of hypothermia.

Katie Morag

I’m probably the last person to know that Katie Morag is now on television. Oh well. I know now.

But it can’t possibly be as good as the books! We used to read Katie Morag a lot at Bookwitch Towers, when Offspring were tiny. Now that I’ve recently unpacked the books, I’ve seen with my own eyes quite how many Katie Morag books we actually have. I was suprised, but I shouldn’t have been, really, as Mairi Hedderwick knows how to make a good book; great story, wonderful illustrations.

The Isle of Struay

And now we have The Katie Morag Treasury, which means lots of old stories in one volume, with six bonus folk tales, as told at Grannie Island’s Ceilidh. I approached those with some level of suspicion, which was silly of me, because they were fantastic. Too.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that Katie Morag isn’t for children. It’s for us oldies. We love all the romance of living on a remote Scottish island, with a boat once a week, and bad weather all the time. And drop dead beautiful scenery all around. We like the idea of living quietly, with the Aga and the friendly neighbours, living off the sea and the tatties grown in our back garden. A little dancing at the ceilidh every now and then.

Sheer romance, the well-worn, old-fashioned way.

I’d never stopped to notice Katie Morag’s mother openly breastfeeding her baby. But I did now. I suppose it’s very New Age, but life on the Isle of Struay is a dream come true. I wasn’t concentrating on the stories, which are very good, because I could ogle the cottage interiors and the perfect but rough landscape. The scones (I’m sure there were scones) and the public toilets and the tearoom and the sheep, and you know… everything.

Katie Morag

The good thing is that children like these stories too. And there’s some pretty decent morals to those folk tales. I’m a firm believer of inviting a smelly goat to come and live with you. And what’s some spinach-stained clothing between friends?

Cover Your Eyes

There’s not as much romance in my life as there used to be. By that I mean I don’t read romance as frequently as I once did. (Nothing else. What did you imagine?)

But when I do, there is no one I trust as much as Adèle Geras. She gives me romance the way it’s meant to be. And here, specially for Valentine’s Day, I give you Adèle’s latest, Cover Your Eyes.

Adèle Geras, Cover Your Eyes

There are several love stories interwoven here. We have a new – failed – one for journalist Megan. She has interviewed elderly fashion designer Eva, who came to England on the Kindertransport in 1938. Eva’s heyday was in the 1960s, when she also loved, and also not as wisely as she should have.

These days Eva mainly cares about her beloved home, Salix House, which her daughter is wanting to sell. That’s her tragedy. That, and the ghost who stalks the house and makes her think back to 1938 and what she did…

Megan can sense the ghost, and she has her own tragedy, and not just the newly broken affair. These two women meet again and their lives are shared briefly, and things happen. There is more love and more possibilities. And we eventually learn about what four-year-old Eva did, and what the ghost wants.

Me, I quite fancy the ramshackle Salix House.

The Track of the Wind

The tone in Jamila Gavin’s The Track of the Wind, the final book in her Surya trilogy, is a lot darker, and a bit more hopeless. You’d think that moving closer to a conclusion, things would be allowed to look up a little. On the other hand, real life doesn’t work like that, so why should a realistically intended novel set in India and London in the 1940s, and now into 1951 be all roses and happiness?

Jamila Gavin, The Track of the Wind

Marvinder and her younger brother Jaspal have returned home to India with their father Govind, and as by a miracle, their mother Jhoti isn’t dead, and they are together again. But because Marvinder has been abroad, she is seen as less pure than a girl ought to be, and there are no offers of marriage. Just as well, when her heart is still in London. And then someone does want to marry her and she can’t go against her father’s wishes.

Jaspal goes the way of many angry young Sikhs, and learns to fight for his own country. Relations with his one surviving childhood Muslim best friend are not good. And then Marvinder’s love Patrick turns up from London…

There is yet again a mystical element to what happens. There is a ‘Watcher’ who watches, and acts, hidden from the world. But what does he really want?

Because Jamila does not make this end – completely – happily in the expected western way, the story feels much more real. You can sense the despair of young women in forced marriages – like Jhoti – and the feeling of anger against the British. There is so much beauty, but also cruelty, and rules which must be obeyed.

Jamila counters this very Indian setting with letters from friends and family in Britain and America, which shows that they are light-years apart. But also that there are surprising similarities.

This has been a very enjoyable and educational trilogy. And I’m western enough that I’m really grateful for that epilogue.

Waffle Hearts

This is, quite simply, a very lovely book. I missed Maria Parr’s Waffle Hearts when it was first published, and am so glad to have caught it now. It was lying around when Son was visiting and he picked it up and informed me it had been translated by his friend (Guy Puzey), as though I ought to have known.

I’d never heard of Maria, either. Seems she’s big in Norway, and Waffle Hearts is the kind of book that has won a lot of awards, except we haven’t heard of it here. But think Astrid Lindgren and The Six Bullerby Children, and there you have it.

Maria Parr, Waffle Hearts

Set in Mathildewick Cove, somewhere near the sea in Norway, 11-year-old Trille (he’s a boy, before you go getting the wrong idea) lives with his family and relatives in this small hamlet. Probably smaller than a hamlet, actually. And next door lives Lena, who is his best friend. She is a bit crazy, and life is a lot more exciting when she’s around. It’s just that Trille fears she doesn’t like him as much as he likes her.

Each chapter features a new, mad idea Lena has come up with. They are not Pippi Longstocking stuff; just simple little things a child might think of, and which nearly always land the two children in some hot water, with someone or other of the family. Like the day they played Noah’s ark on Trillle’s uncle’s boat. You can imagine. Or when they advertised for a dad for Lena. (Easily confused with a puppy.)

There are waffles. The best in the world, made by Trille’s lovely great-aunt. Her brother, Trille’s grandpa is a wonderful kind of grandpa. Lena gets concussion rather a lot, and there is much scope for things going wrong when you toboggan across roads. In fact, ‘don’t try this at home!’

It’s not just sweetness and old-fashioned happiness, however. It gets sad, too. Really sad.

You’ll want to read this, even if they do spread butter and sugar on their waffles.

(Charming illustrations by Kate Forrester.)