Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen ventures back to historical fiction

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some historical fiction! (Warning: this review will contain one (1) spoiler for the previous book in the series, Following Ophelia).

34483827Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mary Adams, once a scullery maid, has swapped daily drudgery for the glamourous existence of her much-admired alter ego, Persephone Lavelle. From lavish Venetian balls to luxurious Mayfair townhouses, she’s been let into the most fashionable – and enviable – lives of the age.

But somehow she can’t seem to forget those she’s left behind below stairs. In mysterious Venice and pristine Mayfair, she has the chance to rise to the very top – but will she risk her friendships to take it? And if she rose, could she fall?

Following Ophelia, Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction – after making her name with warm, chatty contemporary teen fiction like Threads and Love Song – was a pleasant surprise in my reading last year. Charming, confident and draped in the allure of the Pre-Raphaelites, I was pleased the book was slated for a sequel.

Flame-haired maid turned artist’s model Mary has found her way into high society – but her hold there is precarious. Her dalliance in the bohemian art world and reliance on admirer Rupert to keep herself off the streets has generated scandal in fashionable social circles, though her closest friend Kitty seems blessedly oblivious. Accepting gregarious, elegant Kitty’s invitation to join her at the family palazzo in Venice, she embraces her disguise as Persephone and indeed is referred to as such for the rest of the book.

Bennett’s accessible style and vivid descriptions return here, and Venice in particular shines. She evokes a hugely realistic sense of wide-eyed awe in the face of the city’s soaring patchwork of old buildings and extraordinary pieces of art, as well as the world-famous canals. Persephone’s brief time there is so believably rendered as that of an awed outsider that readers may perhaps feel that it acts more as set dressing than an exploration of its storytelling potential, but it’s the most memorable part of Unveiling Venus.

Bennett always manages to pack an amount of excitement and plot into her books. Much of the conflict emerges when it’s revealed that Kitty is about to become engaged to charismatic young viscount Arthur Malmesbury. His indulgent lifestyle and wandering eye prove troublesome. There are also appearances from friends Persephone met as a scullery maid, and I actually found myself enjoying some of those subplots most. There are servants Harriet and Annie, and the latter’s brother, Eddie, an Irish stableboy and boxer caught in the web of a Whitechapel gang’s match fixing. Previous love interest Felix is rather swiftly done away with through a handful of scenes in this sequel, so there’s a really likeable touch of romance for Persephone and Eddie, too.

While Persephone is briefly seen sitting for people like John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and new figure James Whistler, these moments are flourishes rather than rich canvases; the Pre-Raphaelite world which was so crucial to Following Ophelia is  essentially only given lip-service here. The painting of the title, Titian’s fabulously scandalous portrait of a nude and reclining woman, known as the Venus of Urbino (probably painted for a Medici after he was reluctantly made a cardinal and continued to do things like spend the night in Venice with a famous courtesan) is never viewed on the page, only talked about. As a result, there’s a lack of depth and pay-off to the book’s artistic references.

Stripped of the mercurial underground of eighteenth century artistry, much of Unveiling Venus reads more as a conventional grand house or society story – sort of like a Regency novel that’s been left a bit behind on the times with some YA thrown in. Persephone’s somewhat spontaneous talent for sewing (so amazing it’s literally described as her ‘magic hands’ at one point) also grates, as does the disparate feel of plot events and dissatisfying pacing. Still, I’m curious to see what happens if there’s another book in the series, where it looks like Persephone will be heading to another famous city.


Well-researched, incredibly vivid and ultimately enjoyable, Sophia Bennett’s Unveiling Venus is a book of two worlds: wealthy high society and grimy Victorian London. It needed better plotting and more artistic richness, but its character-focused conflict is effective and its Venetian scenes shine.



Most Anticipated Reads of 2018

Today on the blog, I’m talking my most anticipated reads of 2018! There are SO MANY books to choose from I don’t know how I’ve done it. You may notice that it excludes some key titles – like Goodbye, Perfect by the fabulous Sara Barnard or the much talked-about The Fandom by Anna Day – but it’s primarily because I’ve already read them! So these are in (no particular order) the 2018 books I’ve yet to read but am totally intrigued by. You can my corresponding 2017 list here and check-in posts on my progress through that list here. 

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Of course. I can’t wait to read more from Lyra’s world of daemons, alethiometers and strange adventures – and this time, the heroine herself will finally be appearing. The Book of Dust’s opening novel, La Belle Sauvage, was as expected a big hit last year, and it introduced an endearing new protagonist, Malcolm. It’s still Lyra, however, that many readers like myself remember this series for.

Save the Date by Morgan Matson

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married, and Charlie can’t wait – for the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof. Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend – one final chance to fill their house with love and laughter – before her home is sold and everything changes, but will her plans go without a hitch? The regulation contemporary rom-com choice featuring weddings, families, distractingly cute love interests and inevitable chaos, Save the Date meshes the glossy appeal of Sarah Dessen’s Once and For All with the knowledge of how much I liked Morgan Matson’s The Unexpected EverythingReally looking forward to this potential summer delight.


Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt

Maggie Harcourt created one of the best surprises of my 2017 reading with the fun and fandom-filled Unconventional, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for this next standalone. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Hope Parker, who has always dreamed about a career in the theatre – not on the stage, but behind it as part of the crew – and the chaos that ensues during a production with a badly-behaved lead actor, fans camped out at stage door, and an usher Hope can’t get out of her head. If Harcourt can make this standard premise shine, it could be a fabulous contemporary read.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Katherine Webber

The fabulous Katherine Webber’s YA début Wing Jones was swoony and sporty, big-hearted and bittersweet. Katie’s next book will technically be a collaboration with husband Kevin – the opening book in a series for readers age 6+, Sam Wu Is Not Afraid of Ghosts. Only Love Can Break Your Heart releases in August, and is described as a contemporary “full of desert adventures, late night drives, moonlit discoveries and sunlit magical moments” – and there are slices of prose in Wing Jones that make think Webber has exactly the ability to make these surreal surrounds work in her favour.  I first got all the goss on this book more than TWO YEARS AGO, so I’m particularly intrigued to see how it turned out.

Hero at the Fall by Alwyn Hamilton

I know this is already out but my TBR is long, okay?! I’ve really enjoyed Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands books – these action-packed fantasy adventures have held some great twists, pacy plots and a strong sequel in Traitor to the Throne. It’s always pleasing to find a trilogy you want to see through until the final book, and the stakes are certainly high for Amani Al’Hiza. She must rally her skeleton crew for a rescue mission through the unforgiving desert, watching those she loves lay their lives on the line against mythical ghouls and enemy soldiers, to a place that, according to maps, doesn’t exist – and save the rebellion they began all that time ago when she left her dead-end desert town for the mirage of a better future.


Throne of Glass #7 by Sarah J. Maas

My most anticipated reads of 2017 included what we believed would be the final Throne of Glass novel, but that book’s release date was pushed back in favour of a spin-off Chaol novella that had somehow become a full-length book marketed as part of the larger series? The twists and revelations of Empire of Storms feel as if they happened decades ago at this point, but as this series has been such a feat in female-led high fantasy in YA – it certainly inspired a renewed cascade of female protagonists in the genre – I’ll definitely be sticking with it to see how it ends.

Bright We Burn by Kiersten White

Another trilogy closer, this historical fiction finale will see the series come far from its genderbent Vlad the Impaler beginnings. White has opened up  rich alternate history world of ruthlessness and power plays stretching from Lada’s iron-willed rule of Wallachia to the luxurious courts of Constantinople. I was surprised by how much I liked And I Darken and particularly by how engaging Radu’s sections were in Now I Rise. This final confrontation between an increasingly powerful lead trio will undoubtedly be dramatic.

Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier

Many of my most anticipated reads every year are, naturally, sequels or standalones from authors I know can deliver solid story and enjoyable prose. In the interests of adding a new-to-me author to this list, I’ve chosen the award-winning Makiia Lucier’s début in historical fantasy, Isle of Blood and Stone. Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the new king of del Mar’s oldest friend. He’;s about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime with an expedition into uncharted waters, but when the long ago story of del Mar’s lost boy princes re-emerges in the shape of two maps bearing hidden riddles, he finds himself sucked into a world of secrets and danger.


Floored by Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Tanya Byrne, Non Pratt, Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Williamson and Eleanor Wood

I love a good ensemble cast, and seven different writers voicing seven different characters is about as much of an ensemble as you can get in YA! There are some serious YA credentials here – I absolutely love Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder and Non Pratt’s Remix, found Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club series hilarious and so biting, was surprised by Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia, and can’t wait to see fantasy trilogy alum Melinda Salisbury turn her hand to contemporary. Floored follows seven teenagers thrown together in unexpected ways, and could be one of the most unique UKYA contemporaries of the year.


Honourable mentions:

A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens: I finally caught up with Robin Stevens’ terrific Murder Most Unladylike books in 2017 – you can read my quick reviews of all of them here! I can’t wait to see where Daisy and Hazel go next in these delightfully written, old-school mystery adventures.

Pages and Co. by Anna James: At last, a début for this list – and children’s fiction, too! I’ve been making more room on the blog for children’s books like Tom Easton’s hilarious Our House, Jessica Townsend’s magical Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow and Katherine Rundell’s Costa-winning The Explorer. I’m pretty sure Pages and Co was originally slated for a 2017 release, but then the details all went a bit quiet. If this story of a girl who discovers book characters coming to life in her grandparents’ bookshop does indeed release this year, it could be terrific.

What books are you looking forward to reading in 2018?


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. 


GUEST POST: Linni Ingemundsen on where she writes and her début, The Unpredictability of Being Human

Today on the blog, I have a guest post from Linni Ingemundsen, whose début YA novel, The Unpredictability of Being Human, releases from Usborne this month. 


Linni Ingemundsen is the author of THE UNPREDICTABILITY OF BEING HUMAN (out from Usborne, January 2018). She has worked as a dishwasher in Australia, a volunteer journalist in Tanzania and has approximately 2.5 near death experiences behind her. She does not know how to draw, but is somehow also a freelance cartoonist. Some of her favourite things in life include chocolate, monsters and her yellow typewriter. Originally from Norway, she now lives and writes in Malta. 

Malta isn’t the easiest place to write – the weather is always (and I mean, three hundred days a year always) sunny and nice and it makes me want to go out and do other things. I’d prefer to write in a cabin in the mountains while the rain is pouring down outside, preferably of the thunderstorm variety. When it rains on the island it really pours – just six minutes of rain can see cars half-submerged and roads looking like rivers!

IMG_3836_previewIf I can’t track down any mountain cabins, a coffee shop will also do, though in Malta there aren’t too many options when it comes to places that has both sockets and wifi (yes, I do need wifi. If not it becomes very hard to listen to Spotify or procrastinate with Buzzfeed quizzes). My favourite writing spot at the moment is a little coffee shop around the corner from where I live. I mean, you can’t go wrong with a coffee shop full of books and a vintage typewriter in the corner.

Another favourite writing spot is my bed. If I wake up and reach for my laptop first thing in the morning, I know it is going to be a good day. This currently doesn’t work too well as my wifi doesn’t reach the bedroom, because, well, Malta. But of course, when I feel inspired I can write anywhere. I’ve written during lunch breaks at work, in the line to the bank and sometimes simply on random benches around the island.

36369048Fourteen-year-old Malin knows she couldn’t change much about her life, even if she got to play God. Her dad would still yell all the time – especially as Malin is still friends with Hanna, the girl she met shoplifting. Her mum would still say a glass of wine is good for her heart – and Mum needs it, with Malin’s brother, Sigve, getting into trouble all the time.

If she were God for a day, Malin wouldn’t imagine changing much. Because stuff’s okay, mostly. And if He could fix the world, wouldn’t he have done it already?

And Malin would still be Malin. Because she can’t be anybody else.

In a voice bursting with immediacy and dark humour, Malin shares the absurdities of growing up and fitting in with her family amid all their mistakes, secrets and irreverent wit in a small town in Norway. 



I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

Look! It is I, returned to the world of saying effusive things about fictional escapades after an unexpected sojourn! And I come bearing gifts: my favourite books of 2017!

I read so many amazing books last year, it’s been almost impossible to choose favourites – but I have persevered and whittled it down to a top ten. (Some of the best books I read last year were actually ones I caught up on reading many years after they’d originally been published, but in the interests of not being here for three thousand words of flailing, I’ve kept this list to books published in 2017.)

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

I adored this book. I adored it in so many ways I’m just going to point you in the direction of my pre-release review, because it has ALL THE FEELS. “Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable.”

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

While Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers remains my personal favourite of her books, The Explorer is a marvellous addition to her repertoire of historical fiction. Vibrant, accomplished and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing, and it’s little wonder that this book went on to win the children’s Costa. The writing is by turns clever and challenging, tongue-in-cheek and touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”).

30197201 (1).jpg

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best book yet, and hands down the best YA-but-set-at-the-first-months-of-university book out there at the moment. “Told in fast-paced alternate narration, Freshers is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb. Messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, it’s full of chaotic charm. A vibrant array of characters populate the pages, and the friendships are particularly brilliant. What’s more, it’s sharp, candid, and outrageously, unashamedly funny.”

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Certainly one of the most talked-about books of the year, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fantasy début. It spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.  I’m not yet sure if it’s going to nab a place in literary memory the same way that its go-to comparison, Harry Potter, has, but it’s still an enjoyable series opener.

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

This is a 2017 book I wish had been talked about more! Girls Can’t Hit was a surprises of last year’s spring reading for me. Satisfying and clever, this is funny, feel-good, affectionately feminist teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. Easton manages to make you want to keep reading even if the sport in question, boxing, isn’t one you like (as in my case) as it follows teenager Fleur go from reluctant new recruit to unexpectedly empowered young person. I picked up several more of Easton’s books after reading this one.


Now I Rise by Kiersten White

The only sequel on this list, Now I Rise is the second book in Kiersten White’s genderbent Vlad the Impaler retelling. This is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Much of this book follows Lada’s brother Radu at the siege of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, and I was pleased to see this sequel living up, but appearing distinct, to its predecessor And I Darken. 

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

This is technically an adult book, but I’ll allow it as Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series is a great crossover for fans of young adult fantasy looking to read more adult fiction. Schwab’s practical, vivid prose, well-developed lead characters and strong sense of plot make for some memorable storytelling. A Conjuring of Light was a satisfying trilogy finale, but it’s since been announced that she will return to this fictional world with another trilogy, and I, like many fans, am so excited to read it.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it’s perhaps not as memorable as some of the other books I read in 2017, but this character-driven contemporary delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking.


Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. It has a top-notch, surprisingly swoony romance and vivid running scenes as embattled biracial teenager Wing takes to the track in 1990s Atlanta. Rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

A hefty, mesmerising tome of a fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer is the first in a duology full of things to like: librarians, desert quests, mythical cities, some flashes of wit and description, and… odd blue-skinned alien-demigod beings…? It is perhaps a little unnecessarily long, but it’s the first Laini Taylor book I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ll be reading the sequel.


BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

Oh, you knew it was coming. Philip Pullman’s long-awaited return to Lyra’s Oxford via the Book of Dust finally began last year (the rumour mill was such that it had actually been one of my most anticipated books of 2016 before publication was confirmed). This dramatic, often dark tale is balanced by an endearing protagonist in the shape of Macolm Polstead. And of course, The Secret Commonwealth, in which Lyra will go from baby to young adult, is slated for this year, so we get even more daemons and alethiometers and chases and unnecessary literariness and DAEMONS.


What did you think of these 2017 releases? What were your favourite books of 2017?


Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.


A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 


The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)



An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.

*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.

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.