Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.


Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 



Truly, Wildly, Deeply by Jenny McLachlan // friendly, funny teen fiction

Today on the blog, I’m talking about one of the surprises on my reading list this spring!

36178510Author(s): Jenny McLachlan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 8th March 2018
Category: teen fiction
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Annie is sixteen and starting sixth form. No more school, no more uniform, a chance to make friends – it’s the start of a new adventure. A shot at freedom. Freedom matters to Annie, who has cerebral palsy. She’s had to work hard to get the world to see her for who she is. 

Then she meets Fabian. He’s six foot two, Polish and a passionate believer in…well, just about everything, but most of all in Annie. And in good old-fashioned romance. The moment Fab sees Annie, he declares she must be his girl, but Annie doesn’t want to be anyone’s anything. At least, that’s what she tells herself – until a rift makes her realise a grand gesture may be needed to repair their friendship… and maybe something more?

Hold onto your hats. Ir’a about to get uncharacteristically praise-worthy in here, because Jenny McLachlan’s Truly, Wildly, Deeply is probably her best book yet. I’d read her jive-tastic début Flirty Dancing and her most recent book Stargazing for Beginners but I hadn’t heard much about this latest contemporary before I started reading, so to find between the pages a standalone so warm and witty was quite a delight. I was surprised by the engrossing story, the focus on friendships, the sweet romance, and the engaging voice.

Truly, Wildly, Deeply’s narrator Annie is candid and fiercely independent. She’s an occasional troublemaker (“I did get a lot of detentions. I blame this on my fiery Mediterranean temperament”) but her heart’s usually in the right place. She makes for a perceptive narrator (“there’s a lot of Big Laughing going on – heads thrown back, cackles, the type of laughter that seems designed to make you feel left out”). You’ll be rooting for her the whole way.

Annie’s on something of a mission to make new friends for sixth form, and finds Hilary, Jim, Oli and Mal – and of course, there’s Jackson, who once fell down a badger’s sett and shares Annie’s penchant for a bit of mischief (from Jackson’s early introduction you might expect him to become the love interest, but he’s in relationship with someone very sophisticated called Amelia, and Annie’s friendship with Jackson is still seen as valuable). McLachlan goes out of her way to focus on positive teenage friendships and I liked that. You can’t help but love considerate, larger-than-life Fab, either. And he is so kind. There is a great deal of active kindness in this book.


There is, of course, a will-they-won’t-they ploy between Annie and Fabian. Fab’s directness helps give it some pace; he’s a grand gestures, fresh flowers and declared feelings kind of boy. The explanation that Annie is hesitant to allow herself to be in a relationship because she perceives it as somehow negating her hard-won independence in believable. Annie and Fab are teenagers figuring out a teenage relationship – the self-searching, the giddy feelings, the mishaps and crossed wires – through friendship and shared interests and navigating trust.

There are just so many enjoyable details to the story: the different kinds of families and cultural identities, the blackberry picking, the wedding. Stand-out secondary characters include Fabian’s extended family and Annie’s mum, who is supportive but is seen to have her own life (and great taste in television, ahem, Poldark). Best of all, Truly, Wildly, Deeply is very funny. It’s some of the funniest kidlit I’ve read since reading Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s or T.S. Easton’s books, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud so much while reading it. The prose itself is unshowy, but shines with the sometimes howlingly sharp humour of a writer who has really stepped up to the task of merging cheerful, chaste teen fiction with YA’s penchant for tongue-in-cheek observation.


I had a few quibbles – there’s no real plot, deeper exploration of themes could have been included, and Fabian’s character arc could have been fleshed out more – but sometimes a light-hearted, one-sitting teen read is just what you’re looking for. The story actually reminded me of Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan’s We Come Apart, but much happier?Annie’s disability is also fully accounted for throughout the book, from articulation of her own feelings toward disability and her identity as a wheelchair user, to things like her fatigue and the personal trainer who helps her work on her muscles. McLachlan includes the realities of everyday discrimination, such as Annie being refused access to a designated wheelchair space on public transport. Truly, Wildly, Deeply may be aimed at 11-14s, but it has the potential to appeal to readers across teen and YA fiction.


Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s Never Evers meets Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder in Jenny McLachlan’s upbeat, laugh-out-loud Truly, Wildly, Deeply. I’m giving it five stars because it achieves what it sets out to do: it’s enjoyable, clever, friendly teen fiction with just a hint of its big sister, young adult. Highly recommended.


a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.


Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.


Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 


The Loneliest Girl In The Universe by Lauren James // space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence

I’m catching up with reviews of some recent(ish) YA releases at the moment, and this one has been in my to-review list for ages…

the_loneliest_girlAuthor(s): Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Genre(s): science fiction
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Commander Romy Silvers is the only remaining crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II.

Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is one passenger, named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long… 

I love Lauren James’ books. Her début The Next Together (“charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down”) and second novel The Last Beginning (“Funny, chaotic and full of adventure… throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says if there’s one there may as well be a hundred”) are among some of my go-to YA recommendations. They’ve got so much going on: time travel, science fiction, historical fiction, alternate universes, starcrossed romance, LGBTQ+ characters, action sequences, humour, post-it notes, powerpoints, KNITTING.

The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, James’ first novel not centred on rule-breaking gay time travellers the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (still need a collective noun for them), is a very different type of book. Where The Next Together is warm and messy, The Loneliest Girl is all cool tones and clean lines. Where Kate and Matthew are ridiculous and adorkable, Romy and J are single-minded and mysterious. If The Next Together and The Last Beginning draw on a remarkable array of interests and genres, then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is almost microscopic in its focus. Set entirely onboard a spaceship – with the exception of Romy’s fan fiction sequences – it’s James’ most high-concept sci-fi book to date (with a cover to match). Short, sharp, and efficient, The Loneliest Girl packs quite a punch.

The first person born in space, teenager Romy is the only person left to pilot her ship, The Infinity, to its planned destination: a new colony for Earth. When she hears that another ship – newer, faster, and with its own passenger – is being sent to join her, she leaps at the prospect of renewed human contact. But a long, slow, perilous journey across the vastness of space is starting to take its toll on an increasingly desperate Romy and on The Infinity. Scientifically smart but incredibly naive, Romy may have the resourcefulness to keep her ship running, but to her, other humans may as well as be aliens.

The Loneliest Girl takes an atmospheric approach to a sinister plot, with intense action and some calamitous twists. This is sci-fi with a thriller edge, and I’ll admit I had my reservations as while I occasionally read science fiction, thriller is not a genre I usually go for. If it had strayed into horror, it would have been a definite no from me. As it was, I can’t say it’s book I enjoyed exactly – it’s just too tense and creepy! – but I can see why fans of the genre would be surprised and thrilled by it. There was a lack of logic to some of the back-story and the suspension of disbelief required throughout is considerable, but it achieves much of what it sets out to do, with a highly concentrated narrative and razor-sharp neatness.

It’s great to see an author challenge themselves so much with their third book. Rather than fall into a comfortable pattern, Lauren James has really flexed her talents and shown her versatility here, taking a cut-glass look at unhealthy relationships in ways I haven’t often seen done in YA and tackling space travel as a psychological experience as well as a physical one. And the bamboozling thing is, you get the sense that this is still just a fraction of what she can do. The prose is accessible, at times cinematic, conjuring the surrounds of The Infinity and making particularly brilliant use of fan fiction. Romy’s fandom centres on a fictional pair of TV detectives, a banshee and a selkie respectively, who team up as Loch & Ness. Her fics serve both as brief respite for the reader and character insight for the narrative, and in fact, I probably would’ve read even more of it. Clocking in at a pacy 290 pages, if you like sleek YA sci-fi – perhaps without the heft of Illuminae or the romances of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe may be for you.


Short, sharp and suspenseful, Lauren James’ third novel is her most focused, and darkest, yet. I still prefer the cosiness of The Next Together and the LGBTQ+ characters of The Last Beginning, but that’s not what this book sets out to be. You’ll find effective, pacy sci-fi with a knock-out twist here. Ambitious, versatile stuff.



Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard // surprisingly nimble and skin-scrapingly pointed

35495848Author(s): Sara Barnard
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Eden McKinley knows she can’t count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with the boyfriend Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. Especially when the police arrive on her doorstep and Eden finds out that the ‘boyfriend’ is actually their music teacher, Mr Cohn.

Sworn to secrecy and bound by loyalty, only Eden knows Bonnie’s location, and that’s the way it has to stay. There’s no way she’s betraying her best friend – not even when she’s faced with police questioning, suspicious parents and her own growing doubts…

After soaring once more into my YA favourites with the gorgeous, expressive A Quiet Kind of Thunder, Sara Barnard’s third book delves deep into the bittersweet side of friendship touched upon in her début Beautiful Broken Things in the latest addition to her contemporary repertoireThis standalone’s straightforward writing style and readable length are true to form, but there are also some fresh details, from protagonist Eden’s unexpected love for gardens and growing things to clever character descriptions through quick-fire lists.

A brief stint as a wild child has left Eden McKinley with a moral compass that only occasionally needs to be prodded into better alignment. She is earthy and mouthy and loyal and blinkered in believable but significant ways, particularly when it comes to her best friend Bonnie. A deliberate contrast to Barnard’s previous heroines – caring but sheltered Caddy and sweet but painfully anxious Steffi – she’s a character readers will find themselves rooting for even amid her mistakes. In fact, this may be Barnard’s best book yet in terms of down-to-earth, individuated characters. Eden’s adoptive parents Bob and Carolyn are kind but firm and a tricky relationship with older sister Valerie is pleasingly explored. In a novel which dexterously balances a variety of relationships, the established romance between Eden and boyfriend Connor is a warm, supportive and healthy one. These family and relationship dynamics were my favourite part of the novel.

Barnard improves in some way with every book she writes. Goodbye, Perfect is easily her most thematic book and it is with unprecedented clarity that she takes on the deconstruction of perfection, as Eden comes to realise that the people around her all have faults and unseen depths. Straight-laced Valerie isn’t quite the unbending, unapproachable figure she had imagined her to be; all-round boffin Bonnie hid her insecurities with disastrous consequences. Barnard takes care to note the realistic immaturity of her teenagers, whether it’s Bonnie’s lack of common sense or Eden’s misguided belief that loyalty is in this case more important than her friend’s safety. There are notable subplots and back-stories involving adoption, identity and young carers, too.

Barnard’s writing is by turns nimble, engaging, funny, and skin-scrapingly pointed. A now-experienced hand makes a largely character-driven plot solidly gripping – I raced through the book in one sitting – which is perhaps helped by a short, intense timeline and strong character scenes. The book’s structure is somewhat jumpy early on, and the heavy issues which make up much of its conflict, while carefully handled may put some readers off. I would’ve liked more warmth and richness to the exploration of Eden’s feelings towards her family. I probably prefer A Quiet Kind of Thunder, but then I really did adore that book, and I still hugely enjoyed Goodbye, Perfect. Barnard’s next project will be collaborative YA effort Floored, but I’m already intrigued to see where she goes with her next solo novel.


Sara Barnard’s most thematic novel yet features realistic characterisation, a solidly engaging plot, and dextrous handling of relationships. Goodbye, Perfect is by turns warm and gut-wrenching, unputdownable and assured. 


The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens // cracking kidlit capers

29080992Today on the blog, I’m doing something a little different – a series review!

Publisher: Corgi
Category: children’s
Genre(s): mystery, historical fiction
Source: Purchased, library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find mysteries to investigate (unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie).

Then the science mistress, Miss Bell, is found dead in the gym. Hazel thinks it a terrible accident, but when she and Daisy return to the scene five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now they know a murder has taken place – and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive. The Wells and Wong Detective Society has its first real mystery, but do Daisy and Hazel have the skills to solve the clues and the crime?

Robin Stevens’ début children’s book slotted in to the UKMG shelf like it had always been there, and no wonder, for there’s a deliberately classic feel to Daisy and Hazel’s escapades. Nods to famous writers like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – observant, gung-ho Daisy serves as the series’ Sherlock, while Hazel, who narrates their cases in her notebooks, becomes its Watson – are backed up by knowledge of the genre and well-planned plots. There’s a sense of familiarity to the structure and trappings of each book, but Stevens’ throws in plenty of red herrings and, importantly, enough detail to push readers to think, to stretch them a little bit. Complex feelings of friendship, belonging and identity are certainly recurring themes, and with two more books slated for the series, they’

It was the distinctive style and voice of Murder Most Unladylike that struck me most. I’d heard praise beforehand but it’s still unexpectedly charming and funny (“I thought at first it was a torture device,” remarks Hazel on discovering eyelash curlers. You and me both, Hazel). I loved that some details went straight over Hazel’s head but meant more to the reader – it’s a mark of a really clever children’s writer. I guessed the solution fairly early on, but its boarding school setting, historical slang, and bunbreaks make for an atmospheric crime-solving caper. Daisy and Hazel are imperfect young characters (in Daisy’s case partly due to a lack of awareness of her own faults) and I would’ve liked their friendship to be a bit more equal, but it’s a cracking opener. Also, this is the book that introduced us to Head Girl King Henry, which is a frankly brilliant nickname.

29235345Arsenic for Tea moves from Deepdean to the crumbling country pile of Fallingford (Daisy is, after all, the Honourable Daisy Wells, daughter of Lady Hastings and scatter-brained Lord Hastings). A compelling mystery ensues when a much-disliked guest at Daisy’s birthday party appears to have been poisoned. The confinement of the grand house is a standard mystery device; for Daisy, it raises the stakes of finding the culprit and highlights some already tricky Wells relationships. The tumbledown grandeur of Fallingford makes for a terrific backdrop (there’s something of the Old Professor’s House to it, maybe a whiff of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings or Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, though thankfully not too much of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle). While Hazel also comes from a wealthy background in Hong Kong, she’s a relative outsider to the idiosyncratic customs of England’s upper classes, which occasionally provides a dose of more dispassionate observation. Notable inclusions: Bertie’s Pre-Hipster Ukulele-Playing, Lord Hastings’ terrific “Daughter! Daughter’s friend!” line, and Uncle Felix generally.

23479358First Class Murder is Stevens’ homage to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. When a bloodcurdling scream leads to the discovery of a murdered passenger and a missing ruby necklace, Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first locked-door mystery. Despite a promise to give up sleuthing, Hazel and Daisy can’t help but try to crack a case when they see one. True to form, all the adult passengers – including a magician, a spiritualist, an heiress and more – seem to have secrets (and a reason to try to obstruct meddling teenagers, some more sourly than others). The Orient Express is described in suitably plush detail and noteworthy newcomers are to be found in fellow teenage detective Alexander and super-cool Miss Livedon (who also appears in a very spoilerific manner in the previous book). Three books in, Stevens’ prose is still engaging. I leave here an image of Kenneth Branagh’s mustache in the upcoming remake of the Christie original so it may be seared into your eyes:


27030027Jolly Foul Play sees Daisy and Hazel return to Deepdean, and at this point it must seem like trouble is following them around like a particularly dogged haunting, for lo and behold, there’s another murder. Now fourth formers and up against a horrid new batch of Big Girls, this is the most challenging book for Daisy and Hazel’s relationship. Hazel is becoming more self-confident, whereas Daisy has always been the dynamo; by book four, you’re really sensing that they need to check the imbalance. We get to see them navigate more of their friendships with Alexander and with fellow boarders Kitty, Lavinia and Beanie (and her outrageous climactic villain-wrangling). If I had to pick a least favourite of the books, it would probably be this one (I want Daisy and Hazel to be happy! I’d like to see them solving more non-fatal crimes!), but they’re all pretty solid and Stevens continues to twine themes with clue-solving. The series’ covers are so striking too, especially side-by-side.

29979535I’m beginning to think setting really is right up there in Stevens’ forte, because the wintry Cambridge of Mistletoe and Murder is amazing. There are so many delectable details: the old buildings, the Chelsea buns, the secret society of rooftop climbers (reminiscent of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers). The mystery is a real corker, with not one but two linked crimes and a plethora of suspects, and it was here that I really noticed how much Stevens’ prose and skill have improved; I would’ve liked a tiny bit more humour but there’s a level of mastery of her form here. She notes the disparity between the extravagant men’s colleges and the underfunded women’s colleges, and illustrates how much harder the fictional Amanda has to work than any of the male students, including Bertie, just to be accepted. Hazel’s growing sense of identity (“It really is not rude to exist, whatever anyone else says”) is touched upon when she meets students Alfred Cheng and George and Harold Mukherjee. Hazel has some romantic inklings in the book (she, like Daisy, is now almost fifteen) but Stevens foregrounds plot. I am also a decided fan of Aunt Eustacia. This one is pacy, fantastically twisty and really keeps you guessing.


Distinctive, clever and memorable, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are detective stories which will appeal to fans of children’s fiction of all ages. Lively leading ladies and well-written, often funny prose meets sharp pacing and careful plotting in one of the best ongoing series for older children on the shelf. 


36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant // true love, tropical fish and other pressing enquiries

35698625Author(s): Vicki Grant
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two random strangers. Thirty-six questions to make them fall in love.

Hildy and Paul each have their own reasons for taking part in a PhD studen’ts psychology study on love and relationships (in Paul’s case, it’s the forty dollar reward). They must ask each other thirty-six questions, ranging from “What is your worst memory?” to “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”

By the time they’ve made it to the end of the questionnaire, they’ve laughed and cried and lied and thrown things and run away and come back again. They’ve also each discovered the pain the other was trying so hard to hide. But have they fallen in love?

A straightforward, eye-catching hook led me to pick up 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You after a brief sojourn from contemporary fiction. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d heard very little about the book beforehand, but then I do like to open up new books away from the hype, and I was surprised to soon find myself racing through this one. Engaging, entertaining and hurtling along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at around 280 pages), it tells the unfolding story of two strangers who turn up for a study which asks whether a close relationship can be manufactured through a series of intense, highly personal question-and-answer sessions. Bubbly, loquacious overtalker Hildy is eighteen and curious about the potential of the study, while artistic, taciturn teenager Paul is, at first, only there for the money.

Sizeable chunks of 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You are told in transcripts, texts, messages and other epistolary additions. It became my favourite thing about the book. It relies heavily on dialogue – something I’m not always a fan of, particularly if it comes at the expense of description, as happens here – but in this case it’s pleasingly deliberate, effective and realistic. It’s sharp (“That was a ten-second cover-up of a thirty-six part docudrama”) and often funny (“You have very good emotional antennae” “I love it when you talk dirty, but could please just finish your answer”). Hildy and Paul have a sparky dynamic which ranges from emotional to witty to furious to solemn; they’re remarkably expressive given that when you take away descriptors or adverbs most authors would, at least initially, flounder, but Grant takes it in her stride (it was only after reading the book that I discovered she’s also a screenwriter, which probably contributes to this). The prose sections are fairly unexceptional, but lo and behold, a book that shows just how much you can get done without dialogue tags!


LOOK AT THEM, IN ALL THEIR DIALOGUE-TAG-FREE GLORY. Significant sections of the book are told in texts and messaging, too, and FINALLY, the first YA book I’ve read for ages that gets teenage textual voices right. It’s not cringe-worthy or overly stylised, instead taking cues from character (Hildy is all long sentences and correct capitalisation; Paul is lowercase and fine with shortening the occasional word) and punctuation, or lack thereof (“hey! watch it with the !!! someone could lose an eye”).

This is undoubtedly character-driven contemporary. Hildy and Paul are interesting and, particularly in Paul’s case, intriguing enough leads to keep you reading. For a book that seems to be about romance, there is relatively little of it in swoony Stephanie Perkins or sweet Sarah Dessen terms. It’s definitely an opposites-attract relationship, with spiky back-and-forth (“normally I’d challenge you to a duel for the insult but I’ve got the sniffles”) and a touch of the bad-boy exterior, but there’s a sense that they matter to each other (“You’re just the way you’re supposed to be”) which is a tricky balance to pull off. You’d be surprised how many other YA romances don’t have their characters spending any time actually getting to know each other, and if there’s one thing you can say about Hildy and Paul’s story, it’s that they certainly do.

Family drama, a last-minute dash to find each other and an unusually prominent tropical fish are thrown in for plot. Hildy’s well-off family life has been ruptured by a startling revelation – a subplot I ultimately wasn’t delighted by, though it’s cleverly only hinted at for much of the book and provides a twist for Hildy and Paul’s first date – with her brother Gabe and friends Max and Xiu making up most of the secondary cast. The psychology study, which isn’t conducted in any believable way in the first place, isn’t followed up much in the latter stages, so if you picked up the book for that, you’ll be disappointed. It looks like there’ll be illustrations in the final edition, though they’re not in the advance copy, which is a shame as illustrated YA is a really fun concept. The book’s ending is fairly sudden and completely lacking in resolution, and there are too many stereotypes in its characterisation. However, despite their differences – and despite the book’s abrupt ending – the reader is invited at least theoretically to hope for Hildy and Paul’s opposites-attract romance.


A surprisingly funny, fast-paced contemporary with a solid hook and some great dialogue, though the ending is rather abrupt and it lacks the spark of truly brilliant YA. If you like books by Keris Stainton, Emma Mills or Sarah Mlynowski, you may find something to like here.