Book Review: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Although looking after my niece and 2 little nephews for one week of my holidays, I have also enjoyed time to read. My niece also loves reading, especially mystery stories. I recently gave her 3 books in a series by Robin Stevens. (Murder Most Unladylike series aka Wells & Wong Mysteries). She has read all three and loved them. She gave them to me to read and I have recently finished the first one, Murder most unladylike,  and enjoyed it a lot. Below is my review for it

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Murder Most Unladylike is a delightful read and it was very easy to suspend disbelief that school girls could investigate a murder, unfettered by any adult interventions in this very English boarding school crime setting.
The story is set in 1934 in a boarding school for girls called Deepdene. It combines the traditional detective novel, (think Sherlock Holmes) with a bit of the traditional girls-own boarding school drama. The story is narrated (Dr. Watson-style) by Hazel Wong, a student from Hong Kong, who, with best friend Daisy Wells (the self-cast Sherlock Holmes of the duo), make up a secret detective agency that in the past had only very mundane cases to investigate.
The adventure begins when Hazel finds the body of their Science Mistress, Miss Bell, in the gym. Hazel runs for help but when she returns with Daisy a few minutes later, the body has disappeared. The official from the School Headmistress is that Miss Bell is simply gone, resigned. The rumour is that it is due to a broken heart after a failed romance with the new music teacher, Mr Reid. Hazel and Daisy know better and set out to first prove that a murder actually happened and then find the culprit.
Whilst the skilfully plotted murder mystery in Murder Most Unladylike is the central thread there are also many other incidental elements that provide an interesting picture that encompasses not only the actual mystery but also the difficulties the two main characters have in maintainin their’ friendship as well as wider social mores of the time about gender, class and race.
Although she has been schooled by her father, who is clearly a fan of all things Anglophile, Hazel has had to learn to fit in and deal with the casual racism and small slights from her classmates. Also, given the historical context of the novel, the classes that are considered necessary, sort of good behaviour that is expected of the girls and how intelligent and smart they are allowed to be. Daisy and Hazel’s characters both play down their intelligence in class and deportment is a timetabled class.
This story has plenty of charm. It is funny and clever, and as with all good classic detective stories, the two heroines complement each other perfectly.
The author Robin Stevens has captured the feel of all of the classic mystery stories that I enjoyed when I was a child. It should have great appeal for many middle-school kids today. I spent 12 months in a boarding school and, although it was not English and 50 years later than the timeframe here, there is a ring of authenticity to the lives documented in the story. There is a language that goes with boarding schools and for this reason there is a glossary at the end that explains all the 1930s boarding school slang.

View all my reviews

What’s a good book for me to read?

Above is a question that all those who have worked in libraries are asked many times. It is a question that I always answer with more questions. What do you regard as a good story? is one of the questions I often ask back. More information comes from me asking the students to tell me about the books they have enjoyed, the tv or films they chose to watch, the games they like to play. These are all examined before I can even begin to answer.

Over the two weeks so far this term, I have spent a lot of time assisting our students find something to read for the wider reading program. Many English classes are studying a film text this term but have to continue with some regular reading, both at home and for 10-15 minutes most English classes.

All our school library staff help students (and staff) not just find what the book they are  looking for but also help them discover books they are not aware of or haven’t heard about. This is still a valuable service to our readers. Find the right book for them and these students/staff may become part of you  “good” or regular readers.

We have a digital space and offer e-books and databases and have pointers to reading and various guides, a blog and reviews. Whilst they can find out about books any number of ways , we know that there are still many in our community who like  personal attention and a conversations as they look for a book. They also often like the tactile experience of reading a printed book. They still like how the book feels and smells.

There are others who just love the stories. These students want nothing more than to get their hands on the story, in whatever format. This is especially so of books in series. There are many of our boys who read “safely”. They are not confident readers and they would rather re-read a book they have read and liked before than try a new one that they may not like. Series have been a great boon for us as we can find books for them to read. By reading through a series our boys often find a level of success that we use to get them on to other novels with a similar theme or style. Success breeds confidence and we can build on this as we get to know our readers.

Of course there are many good readers, including the staff, who love to read series. They build a connection to the characters, the settings and/or enjoy the author’s writing style. I am collecting my thoughts on a number of popular YA  series that I have been reading over the last month and will write more about them soon.

The infographic below tries assist with the definition of the ‘perfect’ book. A piece of literature that pleases a broad crowd with the bestselling books having just under four hundred pages. Men are more likely to read science fiction and a story with a male protagonist. However a publication with women protagonists are much more likely to become a bigger hit. Books still seem to have a huge market, be they in digital form or in print, for the moment at least, e-book have not killed off paperbacks rather they co-exist.

The DNA of a Successful Book

by NowSourcing.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

The Messenger Bird – Learning about code breaking in a good story

I find that I am often reading adventure stories about war, spies and crime. It goes with the territory working in a boy’s school and it is interesting how often things link up or coincide. Recently I watched a great 3-part series, “The Bletchley Circle“, about 4 women in post-war Britain, who are linked through their work together at Bletchley Park during  the war. It is a crime thriller that has these women back together working on clues to track down a serial killer. Last week I picked up the next book in my pile of  holiday “to-read” books. It was entitled “The Messenger Bird. I started reading and found it too was linked to Bletchley Park and the work done there in World War II.

The Messenger Bird - EasthamThis is the first book I have read by Ruth Eastham and I appreciate how she intertwines a modern-day narrative with historical ideas and events in a very seamless way. Nathan, the main character, is very ordinary and likeable as are his friends and the rest of his family.

The story starts when Nathan’s dad is arrested for breaking the Official Secrets Act. He works for the Ministry of Defence and is accused of leaking top-secret information. As he is dragged into a police car he leaves Nathan a message, or rather a riddle to solve. He must to solve this first riddle, then find and work out subsequent clues if he is to save his dad from a life in prison.

Nathan and his family have recently moved into a house owned by a great Aunt fascinated by WWII. There is memorabilia throughout the house. The clues Nathan is given lead him to another mystery that was started by Lily Kenley, a Bletchley Park employee in the 1940s, who stayed in the house during the war and then disappeared suddenly.  The messages, given to Nathan by his dad, follow a path left by Lily and take him on a journey around his local area and finally to Bletchley Park.

Nathan is sworn to secrecy but his friends, Sasha and Josh, learn about his quest early on and are determined to help. He has to be careful as his father indicated there are traitors in the Ministry. There certainly seems to be someone watching his every move and listening in on his conversations. With the help of his friends, Nathan must solve the mystery before the Ministry of Defence figures out what he is up to and the evidence of his father’s innocence disappears.

It is a good story for younger readers upper primary / lower secondary. The book very neatly incorporates mystery, history and adventure all into one story. The references to Bletchley Park, the Enigma code and the Coventry Blitz are fascinating. The Coventry Cathedral’s ruin is incorporated into the cover.

For those who have had their appetite whetted by the story there is a short reference section a the back for any reader who wants to know more about Bletchley Park or the Enigma code. There are many internet sites where you can find more information. I like the Bletchley Park site and for more information, with further useful links, you could go to Breaking Germany’s Enigma Code and Bletchley Park on the BBC site. These are good educational sites where the readers of the book could find information they could easily understand. There are also  some good videos on Code Breaking (World War 2) (History site)

There is also a simple explanation of the Enigma Machine in the you tube video below

Stephen Sewell (Animal Kingdom) podcast

Another interesting podcast from the Radio National BookShow. This is a discussion with writer Stephen Sewell. 

Stephen Sewell is best known as a prolific Australian playwright and screenwriter. He has recently had a novel published by Pan Macmillan. It is based on the film, of the same name, Animal Kingdom directed by David Michod. Stephen Sewell briefly touches on his entry into the playwriting field and then goes on to discuss the reasons for his change of  writing direction and why he decided to write this novel. It is an interesting discussion about the setting and the characters and how he recognised them and the approach to writing about them. 

It’s unusual in the Australian scene for a novel to follow the film but not unknown elsewhere, particularly in the US. Stephen Sewell’s Animal Kingdom is the story of revenge in a criminal family, the Codys, and it’s told through the character of 17-year-old Jay Cody, appalled by the family violence but inevitably affected by it and finally trapped by it. Stephen Sewell’s second novel, Babylon, is due out later this year.

Many boys at our school watched the movie as well as being fans of the Underbelly Tv series. There has been a lot of discussion and criticism about the glamourization of criminals and the underworld they live in. Stephen Sewell, who has often portrayed a grittier side of life, is articulate and thoughtful in his discourse.


2010 CBCA shortlists

CBCA shortlist were announced last week. I was at the ACEC conference and the list was  put on the “backburner” as I enjoyed the conference sessions. This week we have been busy as it the first week of the term so I have not really looked at the lists until today.

Older Readers: These books are for mature readers

  • Christopher, Lucy  Stolen Chicken House
  • We have this book in the library however I have not yet read it. The reviews have mostly been very good but a few interesting comments from those who have not enjoyed reading it have piqued my interest.
  • Clarke, Judith The Winds of Heaven Allen & Unwin
  • Larbalestier, Justine Liar Allen & Unwin
  • A fascinating book that has been somewhat contentious, polarising quite a few readers
  • Metzenthen, David Jarvis 24 Penguin
  • Set in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne there is already a “hook” for our boys. It is a love story but not the “girly” stories that sometimes get written. It is a good story for young men. Marc is a private school boy on work experience. He meets Elektra, an elite runner from Broome, who has been “bought” by another big Melbourne school. The story is about how two young people see their world and the love story is really doomed from the start. Mark realizes that Elektra will run away from him in the end. For all that I have said, the story is humorous and concerns friendship and what you can offer to others. Many of our boys could relate to the characters and situation.
  • Millard, Glenda  A Small Free Kiss in the Dark Allen & Unwin
  • Another book we have here and one that I must read.
  • Tangey, Penny Loving Richard Feynman UQP

 Younger Readers Intended for independent younger readers.

  • Fensham, Elizabeth Matty Forever University of Queensland Press
  • Hirsch, Odo Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool Allen & Unwin
  • Lester, Alison Running with the Horses Viking, Penguin Group Australia
  • McIntosh, Fiona The Whisperer Angus & Robertson, HarperCollinsPublishers
  • Murphy, Sally  Illus. POTTER, Heather Pearl Verses the World Walker Books
  • Storer, Jen Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children Viking, Penguin Group Australia

 Early Childhood: Intended for children in the pre-reading to early reading stages.

  • Bland,  Nick The Wrong Book  (Scholastic Australia),
  • Booth Christina Kip  (Windy Hollow Books),
  • Dubosarsky, Ursula The Terrible Plop illus. by Andrew Joyner (Viking),
  • Gleeson, Libby Clancy & Millie and the Very Fine House illus. by Freya Blackwood (Little Hare Books),
  • Shanahan, Lisa Bear & Chook by the Sea illus. by Emma Quay (Lothian),
  • Thompson, Colin Fearless illus. by Sarah Davis (ABC Books)

Picture Book: Intended for an audience ranging from birth to 18 years range (Some books may be for mature readers).

  • Danalis, John Schumann the Shoeman illus. by Stella Danalis (UQP),
  • Harvey, Roland To the Top End: Our Trip Across Australia (Allen & Unwin),
  • Hobbs Leigh Mr Chicken Goes to Paris (Allen & Unwin)
  • Millard, Glenda Isabella’s Garden illus. by Rebecca Cool (Walker Books),
  • Oliver, Narelle Fox and Fine Feathers (Omnibus),
  • Rogers Gregory The Hero of Little Street (Allen & Unwin)

 Eve Pownall Award: Intended for an audience ranging from birth to 18 years range (Some books may be for mature readers).

  • Clode, Danielle Prehistoric Giants: The Megafauna of Australia by (Museum Victoria),
  • M is for Mates (Department of Veterans’ Affairs in association with the Australian War Memorial),
  • Macinnis Peter Australian Backyard Explorer (National Library of Australia),
  • Patrick, Tanya Polar Eyes: A Journey to Antarctica by illustrated by Nicholas Hutcheson (CSIRO),
  • Reeder, Stephanie Owen Lost! A True Tale from the Bush by (National Library of Australia),
  • Maralinga by Yalata & Oak communities with Christobel Mattingly (Allen & Unwin)

So many books that the judges must read. I looked at the notables list and then these the shortlist and I am amazed at the reading these people get through. I will be interested to hear the Victorian Judge  speak in a few weeks at our SLAV meeting. I do not envy the task that the judges have. To try to choose winners from the many good books is not an easy job. As always it will be interesting to see the eventual winner.The winners and honour books for each category will be announced on Friday, August 20th, at the beginning of Book Week.

Melina Marchetta Podcast

The ABC’s Life Matters program today ran an interview with Melina Marchetta.

In this interview Melina explains that the story of The Piper’s Son and the character of Tom Mackee began forming in Melina’s head during an episode of Australian Story. In the interview Melina describes how her ideas formed for the story and the characters and something about the processes she used when writing this book. 

It is a 15 minute interview and well worth listening to. Budding writers would also enjoy her thoughtful discussion. 

New novel from Melina Marchetta

This week as I was rushing past a book display I saw The Piper’s Son has been published. It had not been brought to my attention by my regular book suppliers so I had not seen it before this. This is the latest book by Melina Marchetta. Two of her earlier books that have been widely read and enjoyed in our school were Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca. This new novel is a companion to Saving Francesca, set five years later and the character Thomas Mackee seems to have lost the plot and his life is out of control.

I have only had time to have a quick glance though it but the story appears to be about family, grief, and love. As always the writing in the parts I have had a chance to look at make it for the reader to identify with the characters and the situations. I think this will be another book that will interest our male teenage readers and I really like the cover that has been chosen. I thought of the classic Catcher in the Rye when I first saw it! We have a 3-day weekend and so I am looking forward to reading this book properly (perhaps with coffee and cake for some of the time!)

One of my pet hates are the bad/inappropriate covers that are given to great/interesting books. This is where I then have to spend the first few  minutes convincing  our readers to pick up a book that I know they will like once they get past that cover. In our library we put up copies of the covers of many of the new novels to let the students know what new books have come in and to entice them into reading them.

Speaking of advertising books I also found out that Allen and Unwin have some author posters that you can download and/or print for your library or classrooms. 

From the Insideadog site:

If you live in Victoria you can meet Melina Marchetta, one of Australia’s very good YA authors, (and Printz Award winner) on Sunday March 14 at 2pm at Experimedia at the State Library of Victoria. (The venue has changed from the earlier advertised one – Village Roadshow Theatrette.)

The Piper’s Son, Melina’s new book, will be under discussion with Penni Russon.

Bookings here. Cost is $5 on the door and includes cake. Readings will be there for book sales and a signing session will follow the talks and questions.


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