I’ve read several books recently that seem to be on a similar theme, so I thought I’d scoop them all up into one post of mini reviews. None of these were quite my usual cup of tea, but they should all be hits with those who love middle grade mysteries set in the real world!
All three of these were sent free of charge for me to review; the first two were unsolicited physical proofs from Nosy Crow and the last was one I requested from NetGalley.
The Secret Detectives by Ella Risbridger
Publication date: 03 Jun 2021
Content warnings: Murder (not graphic); MC is grieving parental death; racism and sexism (historically accurate).
This Victorian mystery is set on a mail boat travelling from India to England, which is carrying a few passengers including our heroine, orphaned Isobel Petty. When Isobel accidentally witnesses a murderer throwing a victim overboard, she teams up with two other children to investigate – but nobody is missing! Isobel and her friends have to work out not only the identity of the murderer, but also of the victim.
The Secret Detectives had a great mix of peril and humour, and plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I found the portrayal of Isobel really well done – I think she’s supposed to be on the autistic spectrum, though no labels are used, and I thought the ways in which her friends adapted their behaviour to include her was lovely to read. I thought some of the historical issues raised (racism and sexism) were dealt with a little heavy handedly, but I appreciated that the author had made the effort to examine the attitudes of the period.
Luna Rae Is Not Alone by Hayley Webster
Content warnings: Mild bullying; divorce.
I have never been a reader of contemporary fiction, even as a child, so the Jacqueline Wilson comparisons here have rather passed me by, but Luna Rae Is Not Alone is a sweet story of a girl trying to settle into her new house while wondering where her mother has gone. Luna makes friends and enters a baking competition, but she begins to obsess over where her mum is, and starts to investigate.
While I really liked Luna’s frank and realistic voice, I found the plot pretty lacking from an adult perspective. It was very obvious what was going on with Luna’s mum, and I found it quite annoying to watch her flounder around coming up with whimsical causes rather than accepting reality. I also thought both her mum and dad behaved appallingly towards her and her sister – to the point of emotional neglect – but this was swept up into a happy-ish ending that seemed incongruous to me. I can’t imagine acting that way towards a child. As I say though, this is not my genre, and I did enjoy the narrative style – I think this could be an important book for children processing family break-ups, or simply for those who like a messy, realistic depiction of life.
How to be Brave by Daisy Johnson
Content warnings: Mild (comic) violence; mentions of kidnapping.
I requested this book because I follow the author on Twitter and share her interest in classic girls’ school stories! How to be Brave wasn’t quite what I was expecting, as it’s a lot more quirky and whimsical than the classic stories tend to be – far more St Trinian’s than Malory Towers! – but it’s an enjoyable romp of a book. Calla’s mum is an expert on a very rare kind of duck, and when she has the chance to go to the Amazon to find it, she sends Calla to the same boarding school she attended and loved, but it’s a very different place now! The girls at the school end up on a mission to take down the evil headmistress and rescue Calla’s mum from kidnappers, and that isn’t even touching on the zany places this goes…
The narrative voice is so strong with this one that you’ll either love it or hate it instantly – I thought it was great! I really enjoy footnotes in fiction, and there are a lot here (perhaps slightly too many, but that depends how much you like constant asides about biscuits). While I found the school side of things a bit lacking (since I like the quiet, low stakes of boarding school stories and this is anything but that!), I really enjoyed the story behind the quirkiness, about Calla and her mum’s unconditional love, and believing in your own strength.
So, three very different books, but I thought they all had a similar vibe, with mysteries, new friends, and mothers at the centre! Have you read any of these? I’d love to know your thoughts!