Mondays are for Murder: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

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Welcome to my new murderous feature for 2015, which will replace my Mondays with Marple series from last year – Mondays are for Murder!  I have grown so fond of murder-mysteries over the past few years that I decided I couldn’t just restrict myself to Agatha Christie (although I will certainly still feature her works) and had to branch out into other murder-filled tales.

You may also notice another bright image at the top of this post – when you see this image on one of my posts this year it will indicate that the book being discussed is from somewhere in my teetering TBR pile.  I really let things go a bit last year, pre-ordering and winning and gathering more books than I was able to get to and now things have gotten a bit out of control.  So this year I am committed to working through the pile, even as I gather more tomes.  Wish me luck.

Today’s Monday is for Murder features a Victorian murder mystery for the YA market: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry.

When Mrs Plackett, the headmistress of St Etheldreda’s School for girls drops dead in her roast dinner, swiftly followed by her brother Aldous, her seven young charges make an impulsive decision to hide the murders (as they undoubtedly appear to be) in order to prevent being sent home.  But this is easier said than done, when a whole host of guests turns up at the door moments later expecting to be admitted to Aldous’ surprise birthday dinner.  After fending off the unwanted intruders and keeping their macabre secret safe, the girls are then drawn in to the practicalities of disposing of the bodies, putting off the hired help, and running the school on Mrs Plackett’s dire finances.  As problems (both living and deceased) pile up around them, the girls are no closer to catching the murderer – but will a dalliance at the Strawberry Social shed light on the riddle of the dead Placketts? Or will the girls’ cunning venture be uncovered as their plans go awry?

scandalous sisterhoodThe Usual Suspects:

Well, aside from the seven young ladies, whose names are helpfully prefixed with adjectives to assist the reader in separating one from t’other, we have the slightly distasteful local Doctor, the farmer’s boy who harbours a romantic attachment to one of the young ladies, the weasel-faced solicitor’s assistant whose intentions no one is sure of, the hired help whose mother is ailing, the landlady of Aldous’ boarding house and the un-put-offable matronly friend of Mrs Plackett, plus a variety of hangers-on and village folk.  Oh, and there’s a mysterious and handsome young man who makes a few appearances to muddy the waters (although keen-brained readers – and I include myself smugly among their number – may well figure out who he might be before it is officially revealed).

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Right at the beginning of the story, Mrs Plackett and her brother Aldous are murdered (or so it would seem) by poison. The resulting chaos that hiding these murders causes rather puts the hunt for the murderer on the backburner for most of the book.  In fact, while I was reading I often forgot that the girls were intent on investigating these murders given all the other dilemmas they found with which to occupy themselves.  I suspect that solving the murders wasn’t high on their to-do list either.  But eventually, the murders are in fact solved. But not in the way one might expect from a whodunnit type of story.

Overall Rating:

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Three poison bottles for a mildy disorienting reading experience

While I generally enjoyed this book, its focus is more on the hiding of the deaths than on solving any murders.  The first few chapters read like a Victorian “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a comedy of errors playing out as the girls attempt to hide their newly deceased guardians from a parade of pushy adults.  I did get a perverse giggle out of the burial process selected by the young ladies and there were a few other points in the book at which I released an audible guffaw.  The reveal of the murderer and the supposed “riddle” of the doubloons definitely took a backseat to the developing comaraderie of the girls and I felt the book suffered for that a little, but if you go into this knowing that the mystery isn’t the main element of the story, you shouldn’t find much to dislike.

I did, however, pick up – don’t ask me how, perhaps it was some bizarre sixth sense of Britishness – that the author was not British, despite this book being set in England and this subtle disorientation annoyed me at various points throughout the story.  Irrational, I know, but there you have it.

This story is definitely worth a look if you enjoy historical fiction with a good dose of general silliness and interference with a corpse. Or two.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays with Marple: The Moving Finger…

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Greetings Marplophiles! The next instalment of my quest to immerse myself in the life work of Jane Marple continues with The Moving Finger….

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Plot Summary:

Jerry Burton is under strict relaxation orders as he recovers from an accident and he and his sister Joanna decide to rent a house in the entirely forgettable village of Lymstock to facilitate this end.  Shortly after their arrival Joanna receives a poison pen letter containing some entirely unsavoury (and completely unfounded) accusations.  While the siblings laugh the letter off as the work of a bored or religiously zealous resident, other poison pen letters begin making their way around the village causing great upset to their recipients.  When one resident is found dead after receiving a letter, with a handwritten note stating, “I can’t go on” beside her corpse, police begin to take the poison pen epidemic more seriously.  As suspicions are raised and neighbour turns against neighbour, Jerry becomes more convinced that the poison pen letter writer must be apprehended before another life is taken.  Miss Marple makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance towards the end of the book when the investigation stalls and then returns at the climax to apprehend the murderer and explain her methods.

The Usual Suspects:

The handsome gentleman and his equally handsome sister, interlopers in a quiet village, the owner of the house the siblings rent (a delightful elderly spinster fallen on hard times), the overprotective maidservant, the honest, noble village doctor and his energetic, loud-mouthed sister, the well-respected family with a past (including the black sheep adult daughter) and the slightly odd bachelor with a distinctly feminine mind. Plus assorted servants, maids and hangers on.

Level of Carnage:

Low.

Level of Wiley-Tricksiness:

Fair to middling.  I wasn’t able to guess the killer or the poison pen writer, falling as I did for the red herrings that Christie left lying about to trick to slow of wit.  I didn’t feel that the eventual reveal was overly ingenious or satisfying though.

Overall Rating:

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Two knitting needles.

I’m not entirely sure why Christie made this a Marple novel because she’s in it for such an insignificant amount of time and has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot.  The book would have been just as good without her and I actually felt a bit cheated that I had to wade through a pretty standard mystery for such a small dose of Marple.  I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one if you’re new to Marple, or indeed finishing with it….it was all a bit mediocre and forgettable unfortunately.

Ah well. Better luck next time I suppose.

Until then,

Bruce

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Funny Strange and Funny Ha-Ha: A Double YA Read-it-if Review…

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Morning fellow book-a-sauruses! Or should that be book-a-sauri? Only if you’ve been reading too much in the dark…HaHAA, see what I did there? The funnies have already started!  Today I will be providing commentary on two YA new releases that are light, funny and the perfect thing for cheering up an otherwise frown-worthy day.  One is a cosy mystery (well, cosy enough, I suppose) and the other features a little bit of paranormal and I received both digital copies from their respective publishers via Netgalley – thanks! So set your emotionality regulators to “mildly amused” and let’s get this show on the road!

First up we have Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey. (Incidentally, isn’t that a great surname? I think so. Well done on that, Fantaskey family!).  Buzz Kill features high-school newspaper journalist Millie Ostermeyer as she attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the murder of Hollerin’ Hank Killdare, her school’s almost-universally disliked football coach. Unfortunately, due to his status as one of the least popular people around the school, Millie’s list of possible suspects is quite extensive and even includes her dad, the football team’s assistant coach.  As Millie tries to solve the mystery and win a Pacemaker (high school journalism’s highest accolade), she keeps running into mysterious (and handsome) quarterback Chase Albright and perky, annoying cheerleader and editor of the school newspaper, Vivienne Fitch.  Why do these two seem to be tangled up in every aspect of the crime? If Millie can’t find a lead in this mystery soon, it may be that someone very close to her ends up taking the rap.  So with the help of Nancy Drew, a good friend and a stinky but loveable dog, Millie is going to crack this case…or possibly die trying.

buzz killRead it if:

* you despise Phys Ed class and the many and varied humiliations that accompany it

* you think that being kicked in the backside while wearing a honeybee mascot costume could feasibly be perceived as cause to commit murder

* you’ve been waiting for the teenage Miss Marple to come along, although without the knitting and felt hats (I know I have!)

As soon as I read the blurb for this one the question arose as to why there aren’t more cosy-style murder mysteries aimed at this age group.  It’s such an engaging genre and Buzz Kill is a great example of it.  There was a distinctly light tone used throughout the book and Millie, our narrator, has a dry, self-deprecating humour that really colours the telling of the story.  All the characters you would expect are there: the unpopular murder victim who had wronged plenty of people, the over-zealous-but-not-very-accurate small town police investigator, the popular kids who were humiliated by the coach, the disengaged school principal…it’s your classic whodunnit tale set in a context very familiar to young people and readers of YA.

There’s also a bit of romantic undercurrent to the story with the tall, dark, handsome and mysterious newcomer, Chase Albright being the focus of Millie’s investigative attentions.  As an adult reader and fan of traditional and cosy murder mysteries, I enjoyed the familiar unfolding of the plot and the twist at the end was well-timed and unexpected.  The reveal of the eventual murder weapon is tinged with a bit of slapstick as well and made a very satisfying finish to the book.

I did find that my attention wandered a little towards the beginning of the last third of the book, as the focus shifted more to the developing friendship between Millie and Chase.  Although the mystery surrounding Chase had been set up early in the book, the eventual reveal about his place in the grander scheme of things didn’t really surprise me and I don’t think it will surprise many readers.  This didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the story for me, but simply made that section drag a little.

I’m very happy to have read Buzz Kill and I hope Fantaskey or other YA authors (and publishers!) take a chance on more cosies like this one specifically for a YA audience.  Buzz Kill was released on May the 6th.

Now onto the “funny ha-ha”…

In Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski we are introduced to homeroom 10B, who, after receiving their flu shots at school one day, develop the ability to hear other people’s thoughts.  While for some individuals, this seems like a dream come true and the perfect opportunity to gain the upper hand in their studies or relationships, for others they would like nothing more than  a complete return to normal before they end up accidentally overhearing, for example, any more of their parents’ amorous thoughts.  As the days pass and the teens get used to being exposed to every possible overshare that one could think of (quite literally), some secrets emerge that would ordinarily have never seen the light of day and certain members of the group find themselves subjected to the ethical scrutiny of their peers.  When it becomes apparent that the authorities may be on to 10B’s special abilities, each of the “Espies” must make a choice – do they give up their telepathy for the sake of their health and sanity, or do they hold on to the quality that has turned them into (slightly) super humans?

Don't Even Think

Read it if:

* you have recently taken to wearing a stylish, thought-blocking tinfoil hat every time you leave the house because you suspect the teenagers that loiter in the stairwells of your building have telepathic abilities

* you were reluctant to share airspace with some of your grade ten classmates, let alone brain space

*you’ve ever been in a situation in which you’ve been unutterably grateful that no one could find out what you REALLY think about something

I love a book that’s an out-of-the-box surprise.  Particularly when that surprise is a pleasant one.  I thoroughly enjoyed Don’t Even Think About It.  When I initially read the blurb, I wasn’t 100% sure that this would be to my tastes but I took a chance and I’m glad to say that I was rewarded with an original and highly amusing imaginative tale that blends typical teen angst and relationship drama with ESP to create a very appetising story-smoothie indeed.

The first thing that drew me in (and threw me off a bit, admittedly) was the use of a collective voice to tell the story.  See, by the end of the tale, the teens have become so used to hearing each others’ thoughts that they have adopted a sort of hive-mind, and this is reflected in the narration.  At the beginning this was mildly confusing but within a chapter or two I had it sorted and by the end I felt that it contributed to my experience of the book as original and a stand-out from others in the paranormal/romance YA genre.  After looking at other reviewers’ thoughts, this point stood out as a negative for some, so I suspect it might be a personal preference thing.  As a fan of dialogue-driven writing (as my Fi50 entries will attest!), the multi-character approach to narration appealed greatly to me.

I did have a few troubles in the first half of the book keeping some of the female characters straight, as a couple tended to blend into each other by having similar shy aspects to their personalities.  Other characters like Mackenzie, BJ and Pi stood out as strong voices in the narrative and really drove the story forward.  One drawback of having such a large ensemble cast of characters is that not many of them get time in the limelight and therefore some characters came off as a bit two-dimensional.  Whether this was intentional, as the book is the first in a series and there will be time later to flesh them out, I’m not sure but I can see how this would annoy some readers.  It certainly didn’t bother me however – I felt that the movement between characters added to the light tone of the book and allowed the plot, and the humour, to flow more freely.

As I said, this is the first book in a planned series, but I feel it works perfectly well as a standalone.  If you enjoy your YA light, with plenty of funny dialogue and embarrassing situations, a bit of teen angst and romance, and just enough paranormal to keep things interesting, give this one a go.

Don’t Even Think About It was released on May 1st.

Until next time,

Bruce

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