October 2, 2019
Better for mature middle schoolers and up
I know I was supposed to love this book- but... Parents should know that in addition to being an engaging mystery, there is a lot that is problematic with regards to how it depicts issues of race, sexuality, body-image, and that a lot of the content is for more mature readers. Note: 3rd form in the UK is Not comparable to 3rd grade in the US. These are young teenage characters, who may not know the mechanics of sex or have experienced sexual passion themselves, but they know of its existence, and the mystery turns on the social repercussions of violating the sexual norms of the period (i.e. teachers are having sexual affairs, there are secret illegitimate children, people are murdered to cover up their sexual pasts and from passion and jealousy). The two protagonists are sweetly innocent themselves, and like Harriet the Spy, spunky and curious and eager to find a mystery to solve. But in the end, it is the impenetrable motivations of the untrustworthy adults around them that is the real mystery for protagonists and readers. The safe English boarding school novel is actually a seething pit of passions, jealousies, shame, regret, and fear of exposure. And that’s really more than any ten year old can decipher. It is a British boarding school mystery that features two whip-smart upper class girls in the pre WWII years. One child, Daisy, is depicted as the ultimate “English Miss”, a real blue-blood, blue-eyed and golden-haired English girl, who is also too smart and too imaginative to really fit the stereotype. The other child, a dutiful daughter and diligent student named Hazel, is a Chinese girl from Hong Kong whose father aspires for her to become a Proper English Miss. The two girls form a friendship despite their different backgrounds because of their shared intelligence. But even for older readers, here’s where the story fails to win me over: the story frames Hazel as a hero-worshipping sidekick to Daisy, and thus does less than it could to challenge stereotypes. On the plus side, Daisy defends her friend from the casual racism that surrounds them, and ultimately learns to listen to and appreciate her as more than just a sidekick. On the debit side, part of Daisy’s mentoring involves teaching Hazel to blend in by disguising her intelligence. At another point Hazel is “hazed” by being locked up in a trunk. She earns her peers’ respect by not telling on them. There is an unsubtle message that female intelligence is a social drawback- and that enduring racist aggression uncomplainingly, may be easier than standing up for yourself. While it may be true that girls and women often find that they are better-liked if they hide their real abilities, it is a depressingly realpolitik message that I would rather have challenged than reinforced. The author does not make the perpetrators of cruelty and intolerance sympathetic, and I recognize it’s a historical novel, but for many younger readers, the take-away could just be “blend in and don’t make waves” or “go-along to get-along.” There are also unchallenged beauty standards: Daisy is beautiful, golden, athletic, graceful, while Hazel bemoans her short stocky figure. And the adult characters trade on stereotypes as well. They are untrustworthy, but not funny and grotesque like Roald Dahl’s creations. There is a handsome but weak-willed male teacher known as “The One” surrounded by hysterical spinsters: a lovelorn lesbian who pines for him, her jilted embittered and unsympathetic female lover, and a woman who appears to be strong and admirable, but who is actually (Spoiler Alert!) an unscrupulous murderess who killed a student rather than be exposed as her “natural” mother... and then murdered and framed her subordinates to cover it up... I find that I don’t want my own daughter to read this book. At age ten, she is an advanced reader in some senses, but not yet a critical reader who can understand the subtext of what she reads. And I don’t want her first literary exposures to sexism, racism, or adult erotic love to be so difficult to understand and full of implicit biases. She might not “get it” yet, but she will be drinking it in anyway- learning what society thinks is beautiful, what’s laughable, what’s cool (playing dumb), and what’s embarrassing (appearing to be smarter). Some parents might object to the things I find objectionable- others might object to references to adult sexuality and to homosexuality. Regardless, I don’t think it’s intended for ten or even twelve year olds
2 people found this helpful.
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November 18, 2020
It's a really well written book set in the 1930s about 2 school girl murder detectives.
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June 12, 2015
Captivating whodunit with diverse characters and heart. Applause!
This excellent 1934-set murder mystery (the first of a series) proves that debut author Robin Stevens can put heart and humor in a genre that is not often directed at 4th-7th graders. It does reference "canoodling"( though this is overemphasized in the main review) and "jilting", which is explained in the glossary as "a sort of adult kissing behind closed doors", though this is not gratuitous and kids hear infinitely worse in the locker room. Set at an English boarding school, protagonist Hazel Wong discovers her science teacher murdered on the gym floor, with a fleeting reference to dried blood around the body. Another person is murdered late in the book (we're talking really bad manners) by an overdose of the early drug Veronal. It has a pleasant twist and an engaging story line, though it is geared toward girls more than boys (a nice change). There are about 7 mild curses( d--n, h--l, a-s, and bloody once or twice each) that you did not mention in your review. Overall, a grand debut that makes you think. Lots of educational value, as well.