Thursday, April 30, 2015

British Boarding Schools are Dangerous Places

Cover image for Murder is bad manners / (A Wel...Stevens, Robin. Murder is Bad Manners.
21 April 2015, Simon and Schuster BFYR
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Daisy and Hazel attend Deepdean, a girls' boarding school, in 1930s England. Hazel feels a bit out of place, being from Hong Kong, but is thrilled when (after initially being a bit mean) Daisy befriends her and asks her to help with her detective agency. There aren't a lot of things to investigate... until Hazel happens upon the body of the science teacher, Miss Bell, lying bloodied on the gym floor! Hazel runs to get Daisy, but when they return, the body is gone, and the school claims that Miss Bell has gone away. The girls are quick to detail all of the clues, make a list of suspects, and methodically figure out which of the teachers, from Miss Bell's roommate to a dashing young male teacher to a poor drunken Latin mistress who is jealous of Miss Bell. They have to hide their efforts from the staff, but when they accuse one teacher of committing the crime and that teacher later turns up dead, they know that something particularly bad is going on, and they eventually involve law enforcement. Of course, their brilliant detective work is able to solve the crime.
Strengths: The detective work that the girls do is first rate, and clearly inspired by the author's background with Agatha Christie-type mysteries. In a perfect world, reading this book would encourage a tween to pick up Dorothy Sayers. Since it is a murder mystery, and students ask for those so much, I think I will buy it.
Weaknesses: All of my weaknesses are nitpicky. I'm not fond of the bubble gum on the cover-- it would have been fairly new at this time period. There is also one mention of a man using gel in his hair; I would have loved if Brylcreem or Brilliantine or even Macassar oil (my grandmother had honest-to-goodness antimacassars and CALLED them that!) had been mentioned. There are a fair number of historical details, but I just wanted more, I guess.

I also was a bit unsure about Hazel referring to herself as Oriental. With the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, it's been hammered in to me that that term is only used for rugs and food, and the preferred term today is Asian. I've come to the conclusion that when I was young, I must have been told that using the term Asian was rude and Oriental was more polite, because I find myself slipping and using the term Oriental much too often! In a historical book, using the term used at the time is probably correct; I've just had so much trouble with the term that I bristled at it.

There was also a dismissal of "pashes" being not really love, so people shouldn't be bothered by them. This differs from my understanding of them, so I would rather the term not have been mentioned. The way it's handled seems... odd.

What I really think: Despite my petty objections, I enjoyed this very much. Apparently, any book set in a British boarding school in the first part of the 20th century, especially one illustrated with silhouettes, is one that I want to buy.

23013676Kerr, Esme. The Girl with the Glass Bird
March 31st 2015 by Chicken House (first published May 1st 2014)
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Edie's parents have died, and her grandmother goes blind and is sent to a nursing home, so Edie must go to her aunt's house, where she is miserable, tormented by her cousins who do really evil things like catch and eat her large goldfish. Luckily, her cousin Charles is doing business with the Russian prince Stolonov, whose daughter Anastasia is enrolled in the strict, Luddite Knight's Haddon school but having problems there. Edie is offered a position-- she may go to the school, but must figure out why Anastasia says her possessions go missing, she becomes injured, etc. Edie is glad to get away, and quickly befriends Anastasia, who seems fairly normal, even though odd things do seem to happen to her. Since Anastasia's mother has some mental difficulties, she does worry that she is imagining all of the bad things. There is more intrigue at the school as well-- Edie's mother attended the school, and there was some bad feeling between her and some members of staff. The situation with Anastasia escalates, but Edie is able to figure out that there is a real threat, and it comes from members of staff! Her quick thinking saves the day and insures that she will be able to stay with her new friend at Knight's Haddon.
Strengths: Again, the details of life in a British boarding school, this time a modern day one, are intriguing. The psychological manipulation and scheming surrounding Anastasia are actually more criminal than the cover would indicate.
Weaknesses: The involvement of the mystery with Edie's background complicated an already complicated story.
What I really think: Quite a good mystery, but there are only so many books set in British boarding schools that I can force children to read. I will probably not purchase this one.

20307785Primavera, Elise. Ms. Rapscott's Girls. 
March 10th 2015 by Dial Books

The founder of the Great Rapscott School for the Daughters of Busy Parents (which is more US than British) draws on her own childhood experience as the daughter of scientists to provide what she thinks is the necessary care for five daughters of the busiest parents in the world. Four of these arrive in flying, post paid boxes, and are cleaned up, outfitted with sturdy boots, and sent on an adventure to find the fifth girl, Dahlia, whose box was not properly fastened and who is lost. Bea, Mildred, Fay and Annabelle must try to get hopelessly lost on purpose in order to find her, and have all manner of adventures along the way. Ms. Rapscott provides them with the world's most comfortable beds, proper adventuring attire, and plenty of cocoa. Helping out are the very clever corgis, Lewis and Clark. In addition to solving the mystery of Dahlia, the girls have to learn all of the things that they were missing-- how to brush their teeth, what birthday cakes are, and (most of all) to appreciate adventure.

Accompanied by the author's copious illustrations (ala The Invention of Hugo Cabret, many of them help tell the story), this quirky and charming boarding school balances outings where the girls get swept away by the wind to desolate islands with cozy surroundings like the Bumbershoot tree which keeps them warm and dry. The hunt for Dahlia seems almost leisurely, which is fine, because she is found to be very safe and well cared for. Most of the book is very anecdotal, with etiquette and practical skill sessions interspersed with adventures in all weather... and lots of birthday cake.

The girls really have no choice but to become better people throughout the course of the book, benefiting as they do from the attention of an adult as well as some life lessons.. They are all well delineated, separate characters, and their parenting backgrounds expose their weaknesses. Bea can only get the attention of her parents by screaming. Mildred is used to spending lazy days alone in her pajamas. Fay is a timid soul who is very concerned about the whereabouts of Dahlia, and Annabelle is intellectually precocious. I thought that the story of Ms. Rapscott herself, which is touched upon lightly, was really the most interesting one in the book, and an encounter before the girls are sent home for break leads me to believe that there may be further volumes in this series, and perhaps a romance for the teacher.

Ms. Rapscott's Girls is a happier version of The Series of Unfortunate Events, and will appeal to younger readers who like quirky, unusual adventures away from parents. Mary Poppins, Mrs. Pigglewiggle, Nanny Piggins, Harvey's Alice-Miranda books,and other books with fantastical elements and a good sense of humor are logical companions to this boarding school where much can be accomplished as long as one keeps ones' wits about oneself, ones' mittens on, and ones' appetite supplied with much birthday cake... and the occasional ice cream.

That said, this was so impossibly twee it was hard to finish. Many reviewers have said that their 8-year-old self would have adored this, but their grown up self wanted to scream, and I would have to occur with this. I have no patience for twee, and most middle school students aren't fond of it, either. When trying to define "twee" for my 21 year old daughter, I came up with the title "Little Lucy Sparklepants and the Fluffybunnikins Adventure". Too much sugar!


Iron Guy Carl said...

Thanks for the definition--I've been wondering what "twee" meant.

Dena BatchofBooks said...

Murder is Bad Manners sounds good. I grew up using the word Oriental rather than Asian, but have since been "corrected". Maybe which word you use depends on age or geography??

I wonder if my kids would like Ms. Rapscott's Girls. They are young enough that it might appeal to them.

Kim Aippersbach said...

I was all set to think I would really like Ms. Rapscott's Girls until you mentioned the tweeness. It sounds a little bit like The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, which I quite enjoyed.

There is something about British boarding school stories . . . Remember Millie, the enchantress in Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series, how much she enjoyed them?

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