Turn your salsa up to extra-hot folks, because I have two books for you today that will set your tastebuds tingling (in a metaphorical sense, obviously). Both are aimed at the older end of the middle-grade audience, both feature shocking murders, and both also feature a team of two young friends intent on solving the respective mysteries presented. Let us begin!
First up, we have The Orphan of Awkward Falls by Keith Graves. I’m going to be submitting this one as my entry in category seven of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with something unsightly in the title – because there’s nothing more unsightly than an awkward fall!
When Josephine moves to Awkward Falls with her parents for her father’s new job, she can’t resist poking around in the abandoned mansion next store. Unfortunately for Josephine, the mansion next store is not abandoned, and she is promptly taken prisoner by an overprotective automaton, and presented to one Thaddeus Hibble, a small boy with all the bearings of a nutty professor. Thaddeus lives alone in the mansion with his robot butler and frankensteinish cat, carrying out experiments, all the time in constant hope for his parents’ return, and in constant fear that he will be discovered and shipped off to the orphanage.
At around about the same time as Josephine’s family is moving in to their new home, Fetid Stenchley, resident of the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane and cheerful cannibal, is planning an audacious escape. Stenchley also has reason to come poking around Thaddeus’ mansion…because Stenchley used to be the assistant of Thaddeus’ grandfather. Before Stenchley murdered him, of course.
Unbeknownst to Josephine and Thaddeus, danger has broken loose and is now making its way slowly but surely toward Awkward Falls. But other secrets are about to be uncovered and for our two young heroes, the information that they unearth could change the course of their own personal histories…forever!
Dip into it for…
…a super-original book with fantastically creepy illustrations and quirky, but likeable characters. The story drew me in immediately and though this is pitched at a middle-grade audience, with the protagonist being thirteen, there’s a lot here that is far more suited to the adult reader with a slightly juvenile attitude (ie: me). There’s action a-plenty here, wacky inventions (including the aforementioned robot butler and frankensteinish cat) and a pervasive underlying theme about the importance of friendship. Graves obviously has a reasonably dry sense of humour because I laughed at a lot of the bizarre situations and was continuously double-checking to make sure I had actually picked up a kid’s book.
Don’t dip if…
…you have a sensitive stomach, or you are a child reader who does not wish to be scarred for life. While this book is super-original, it also features the super-original use of open-brain surgery on the criminally insane, a cannibalistic murderer, descriptions of implied cannibalistic murdering, genetic experimentation on animals, the unlawful exhumation of a corpse (with accompanied illustration), the reanimation of said corpse and a range of other gorily odd bits and pieces that one wouldn’t expect to find in a book for this age-bracket. I did question the inclusion of many of these darker elements – particularly the illustrated corpse exhumation – although I decided that as an adult reader, these added to the atmosphere of the story. If you’re a kid though, I’d probably skip those bits if I were you.
Overall dip factor:
As a concerned gargoyle citizen, I would say that if you’re planning to give this one to your kid to read, you probably should read it yourself first. Otherwise, I heartily recommend it – I really loved the story and while I had to contend with a bit of stomach-churning imagery as I was reading, the book as a whole was both original and engaging.
Now onto the much-less-ambiguously targeted Murder Most Unladylike, the first Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens.
There’s been a murder at Deepdean School for Girls, but where is the body? Hazel Wong, the logical and precise secretary of the Wells and Wong Detective Agency, unwittingly stumbles across the body of Science Mistress Miss Bell in the gymnasium – but in the time it takes her to alert her friend Daisy Wells, the body disappears.
Without a body, or any proof of a murder, Hazel and Daisy find that it’s quite difficult to catch a murderer! As secrets old and new are unearthed and potential motives come to light, the girls look to be making progress – until another mistress dies in suspicious circumstances, and Hazel begins to wonder whether she and Daisy will be next. But with Daisy’s intrepid investigative skills and Hazel’s accurate recording of events, the girls know that soon they’ll have their man (or woman). Look out murderers – Wells and Wong are on the case!
Dip into it for…
…a combination of good old-fashioned boarding school story and Christie-esque murder mystery. The moment I saw the cover of this book, read the blurb and found out about the author’s interest in Agatha Christie, I had to have it (hooray for preorders!), and it didn’t disappoint. Set in 1934, the writing is delightfully nostalgic, without being too difficult for youngsters of today to understand, although Stevens does provide a handy glossary of 1930s English schoolgirl slang at the end for the uninitiated. If you can imagine murders occurring at say, Malory Towers or St. Clare’s, but with a bit more oomph in the main characters, then you’ve pretty much got the idea of what this book is going to be like.
Hazel is a tentative narrator who is very aware of her differences from the other girls, hailing as she does from Hong Kong, and sensitively relates some of the difficulties inherent in making friends and staking an authentic identity in a largely mono-cultural environment. The parts of the book dealing with Hazel and Daisy’s friendship are an interesting inclusion and broaden the story’s appeal above that of a simple kid-detective romp.
The plot reads much like a Christie novel, with multiple suspects, red herrings a-plenty and a satisfyingly thorough reveal-scene at the end. All of this adds up to me pre-ordering book two, Tea and Arsenic, so I can dip into that one as soon as it’s out!
Don’t dip if…
…um…you don’t like murder mysteries? There’s not a lot wrong with this book, but admittedly, as is the case with most murder-mysteries, there is a lot of conversation, recapping and consolidating the evidence and those who enjoy lots of action might find that a bit off-putting. There’s also quite a bit of friendship/everyday school life type stuff added in, given that it’s a school story, so if you’re hoping for a plot completely focused on the murder, you might be disappointed.
Overall dip factor:
If you’re a fan (of any age) of murder mysteries, dip into it. If you love boarding school stories, dip into it. If you enjoy historical fiction of this era, dip into it. If you like girly friendship stories with plucky protagonists, dip into it. Oh, just go on, you know you want to!
I have to say, that after finishing this book, I got so attached to Hazel in particular, that on remembering when the book was set I suddenly realised that by the time Hazel and Daisy turned seventeen, they would have been slapped right into the middle of the second World War…and I was WORRIED for them! I was particularly worried about Hazel, given that she’s from Hong Kong – I didn’t know which was better, to stay in England and face the war in Europe or return to Hong Kong and become stuck in the war in the Pacific…obviously, Stevens is good at writing believable characters, otherwise I wouldn’t be wringing my claws over fictional characters that would probably be dead by now, war or no war.
Oh, and just for our American friends – if you’re looking for this book on your side of the Pond, it will be released under the title Murder is Bad Manners in April next year. Beautiful cover though:
I particularly like the body in the wheelbarrow in the bottom corner being carted off in a jaunty fashion.
And for those interested in participating in (or just want to know more about) the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge, simply click here. To have a look at some of the entries from those already on the Safari Bus, click on this attractive little button:
And then come join in! There’s still plenty of time!
Until next time,