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.


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.



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.


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. 


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.