First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

First Class Murder, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2017 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Poison is Not Polite.

Rating: 4/5

First Class Murder is a subtle tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I enjoyed the way Stevens paid homage to Christie’s novel in subtle ways, yet crafted a mystery entirely of her own making. A woman is murdered in her compartment and the ruby necklace around her neck has gone missing…as usual, there’s lots of suspects with plenty of motive, plus we get the added tension of Hazel and Daisy having to work around Hazel’s father’s strict ideas of what they should be doing.

As in the first two books, I didn’t really enjoy Daisy as a character—she’s far too blunt and rash. She does get a bit of characterization as she is continuing to deal with the aftermath of the mystery of the second book (which I’ve completely forgotten, but I remember took place in her own house), but most of the time she continues to be self-important and annoying.

Hazel gets a ton of development here, particularly in her relationship with her father. And, despite how I don’t like Daisy, I do like how Stevens frames it so that the reader clearly sees what each girl brings to the table and what each has that the other lacks. The difference in thought process and action in Daisy and Hazel lead to an effective detective team.

As for the mystery, it was a little too obvious for me—I knew during the body discovery scene what the murderer had done to navigate the locked room scenario, and I immediately picked up on most of the other clues regarding the murder. There were some side mysteries that I didn’t catch, though, and the final reveal did have some surprises, so I’m glad for that. I also enjoy that Stevens doesn’t have her detectives make awkward leaps in logic—they figure things out very naturally, which I appreciate.

First Class Murder was another enjoyable mystery by Stevens. Though still a little too obvious, Stevens did throw in some things that I didn’t catch right away, which meant there were still some surprises left by the end.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/3352baG

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

Broken Things, by Lauren Oliver, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Lauren Oliver and her books. Some, I liked. Some, I hated. I enjoy her writing a lot, but occasionally her plots leave a lot to be desired. Panic was a jumbled mess of unrealistic garbage. Vanishing Girls was interesting and compelling.

Luckily, Broken Things is more like Vanishing Girls. The plot, which may have been inspired (but I’m just guessing) by the real-life Slender Man murder, is intriguing and a fairly decent suspense novel. The characters are interesting, too, if generic and too teenager-y for me. I liked the inclusion of the Narnia-esque fantasy book and the nod to fanfiction, though I’m not a fan of the “end a book mid-sentence” aspect.

I was ultimately going to give this book a 4 out of 5, but when I figured things out a hundred pages before the characters did, and when I realized how much of the book was clues and how much was just Brynn and Mia thinking about how terrible Summer was to them, I knocked its rating down. I mean, they really should have figured things out with the wildly obvious clue that was mentioned and then immediately forgotten because Oliver didn’t want her characters to figure it out for another two hundred pages, so she had them deliberately bypass it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be a superfan, or even a fan, of Lauren Oliver. Her writing is beautiful, but her books never appeal to me beyond the interesting plots that they sometimes have. There’s always something about her books that set my teeth on edge, that make me want to hurry up and finish so I can be done with the teenage angst and the attitudes and the catty behavior. Broken Things has a decent, compelling plot, marred by the actions of the characters, but it’s character-driven and I’m not that big of a fan of character-driven books, especially when the characters are forced to forget things in order that they don’t figure things out too quickly.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ themes, sexual situations, swearing, drinking, drug abuse.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2V8fjbh

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.

Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.

We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2E8sbsd

1979 Newbery Medal: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, was published in 1978 by Dutton.

This highly inventive mystery involved sixteen people (including a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber) who are invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play the game. All they have to do is find the answer—but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and generous, but the heirs play on—through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings. Ellen Raskin has entangled a remarkable cast of characters in a puzzle-knotted, word-twisting plot filled with humor, intrigue, and suspense.

Rating: 4/5

The Westing Game is a fun mystery/puzzle story, with a diverse and quirky cast of characters and a twisty-and-turny plot that, according to the introduction, the author made up as she went along. I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people, so I knew when I started this Newbery Medal read that I would finally get a chance to see what it was all about.

At first, the characters can be hard to differentiate between, and none of their voices (or their interactions) seem quite accurate. However, as they start to get fleshed out and you become used to each character’s particular quirk, it becomes easier to tell them apart. Raskin was clearly aiming for humor/distinction rather than realism with these characters (and with her plot as a whole), so there’s still a little bit of separation there, but once the mystery really gets going, the odd absurd factor to the novel becomes less apparent.

Speaking of the mystery, it’s really quite fun. While I figured out the first half of it relatively quickly (almost as soon as the clues appeared), the rest was a surprise for me—especially the last part, which was almost too obscure (but not quite, making it rather brilliant). I wish there had been more to it, though—more clues, more steps, something. There was slightly too much in the middle that didn’t have to do with the clues and instead had to do with random revelations about each character (some of which didn’t really fit, like what we learn about Angela). It helped us get to know the characters more, but made that part of the mystery drag.

The multiple characters in The Westing Game are hard to get accustomed to at first, but once they get fleshed out it’s easier to tell them apart. The mystery is great—lots of twists and turns, obscure hints, red herrings, and a pretty cool reveal. However, there was almost too much going on in some parts, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked (why does Angela marry the intern after a whole book of her lamenting mournfully about marrying him??). It’s not quite on level with an Agatha Christie mystery (I have a bad habit of comparing all mysteries with hers), but it’s still great fun.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Children’s.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uXaeY7

The Girl from Felony Bay by J. E. Thompson

The Girl from Felony Bay, by J. E. Thompson, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins.

I’m not going to lie to you, the last year has been rougher than alligator hide for me and my dad. You see, he’s in the hospital in a coma since his accident a year back, wherein he was framed for a terrible crime he didn’t commit. Our home, Reward Plantation, had to be sold to pay off his debt to society, so I’m stuck living with my Uncle Charlie, who, even in the few hours a day when he’s sober, ain’t exactly your ideal parental role model. And I managed to run afoul of Jimmy Simmons, the meanest kid in the sixth grade, and on the last day of school no less. But things just got a bit more interesting. Turns out the new family that moved into Reward Plantation has a daughter named Bee, who is the same age as I am. And she’s just as curious about all the No Trespassing signs and holes being dug out by Felony Bay, in the corner of what used to be my home. Seems like someone’s been poking around a mystery that dates all the way back to the Civil War—and it just might be the same someone who framed my dad. I’m Abbey, by the way. Abbey Force. And if it takes all summer, I’m going to find out what’s happening out on Felony Bay, and maybe even clear my dad’s name.

Rating: 2/5

The Girl from Felony Bay has lots of things I’m not fond of in middle grade books in general and mysteries in particular. The protagonist, Abbey, is decent enough, though she makes one too many “puzzle piece mystery” guesses for my liking, as well as ends the book with five pages of moralizing and “these are the lessons I learned” summation. I also didn’t much like the scene at the end where she gives the usual “whodunit” spiel and then all the police officers applaud her, literally, and mention how incredibly smart and wonderful she is. It’s clunky and awkward and the reader really didn’t need the reminder that Abbey can solve things quickly, since that’s what she spends the entire book doing.

I did like how Thompson brought up the idea of heir’s property, though I’m not sure how well he incorporates it into the mystery as a whole. I suppose it was relevant in the sense that it got Abbey and Bee wondering about why the property had been sold in the first place.

As for the mystery itself, it was pretty far-fetched, in my opinion, or perhaps that was simply a problem with the delivery of it. The writing really wasn’t the best. The characterization also didn’t help, with the villains being bland and one-note and their machinations unbelievable. The whole thing was simply clunky and poorly executed and developed.

The Girl From Felony Bay was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish. The mystery was slapdash and unbelievable, Abbey spent her time wavering between Action Girl and Brilliant Detective Girl, with awkward conversations from the adults around her interspersed, and the whole thing was simply far too sloppy and mediocre for me to enjoy it. The cover art, at least, is cool and intriguing (Brett Helquist!), but nothing else about the book is.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HAFwIQ

The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy

The Disappearance of Emily H., by Barrie Summy, was published in 2015 by Delacorte.

Emily Huvar vanished without a trace. And the clues are right beneath Raine’s fingertips. Literally, Raine isn’t like other eighth graders. One touch of a glittering sparkle that only Raine can see, and she’s swept into a memory from the past. If she touches enough sparkles, she can piece together what happened to Emily. When Raine realizes that the cliquey group of girls making her life miserable know more than they’re letting on about Emily’s disappearance, she has to do something. She’ll use her supernatural gift for good…to fight evil. But is it too late to save Emily?

Rating: 2/5

The Disappearance of Emily H. takes a potentially interesting premise and then immediately drags it through the mud, combining teenage drama that’s just a tad too over-the-top (I feel like the author simply watched a bunch of teenage movies about high school and then based her book off of that) with a weak, unnecessary supernatural aspect. I nearly didn’t finish the book.

The protagonist, Raine, has this supernatural ability: she can sense people’s memories when she touches “sparkles.” It’s mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book that this ability of hers has been muted lately. Yet there is no explanation given as to why, nor is this problem addressed or solved later on. Anyway, she uses this ability to help unravel the mystery surrounding a local girl’s disappearance, as well as spy on the people around her and bring down a bully by resorting to bullying.

The one redeemable aspect of this book was that Summy didn’t have the final mystery behind Emily’s disappearance be the dumb reason I thought it was initially. If it had been, I would have ended the book extremely angry. As it was, I ended the book mildly disgusted instead (my exact words were, after closing the novel, “What a dumb book.”).

There’s literally no reason for Raine to have the ability to sense people’s memories; all it does is serve to alienate her so that the Mean Girl Jessica (*Jennifer) can be even more Mean. The mystery could have been solved with just a little bit of extra detective work and if Raine had paid more attention to what people were telling her. I especially didn’t like that Raine and Shirlee dealt with Jessica (*Jennifer) by being bullies themselves, basically blackmailing her into submission. That’s a great way to teach kids about how to overcome their problems.

The Disappearance of Emily H. has an unnecessary premise, a mystery that completely falls flat once motives are figured out (though it’s much more reasonable than what I initially thought it to be), boring characters, and over-the-top melodrama that is poorly described and poorly resolved. I probably would not have had the patience to finish this novel if I hadn’t read most of it on a plane without much else to do.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HfWRar

Death at Thorburn Hall by Julianna Deering

Disclaimer: Death at Thorburn Hall, by Julianna Deering, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Drew Farthering arrives in idyllic Scotland for the 1935 British Open at Muirfield, hoping for a relaxing holiday with his wife, Madeline, and friend Nick. But death meets him once again when Lord Rainsby, their host at Thorburn Hall, is killed in a suspicious riding accident—only days after confiding in Drew his fears that his business partner was embezzling funds. Thorburn Hall is filled with guests, and as Drew continues to dig, he realizes that each appears to have dark motives for wanting Rainsby out of the way. Together with Madeline and Nick, he must sort through shady business dealings, international intrigue, and family tensions to find a killer who always seems to be one step ahead.

My rating: 3/5 

Luckily for me, it is not required to have read any other Drew Farthering mystery before reading Death at Thorburn Hall. It may have helped me get a better grasp of the characters, but I was able to understand enough that reading the previous books wasn’t a prerequisite to understanding this one.

First of all, I’d just like to quickly say how much I enjoy the cover art for this book. I love the vibe and the “old-timey mystery” feel it gives off.

Anyway, back to the important stuff. The mystery of the book wasn’t anything too special—definitely no Agatha Christie—but there’s lot of red herrings and rabbit trails for Drew to explore, and lots of speculation as to the various suspects and motives, which I appreciate in a mystery. However, while I wouldn’t say the killer is obvious, the revelation of the killer left a lot to be desired, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the lack of complexity to the whole thing.

Reading the previous books definitely would have helped me to be able to better understand the characters, especially Nick and Carrie, who seemed to be in the book to further their own personal plotline, rather than contribute anything to the plot of the book. However, as I mentioned above, there’s enough mentioned about each character and each situation for a new reader to get a good grasp of what’s going on. I wish that I had experienced everything from the beginning, but at the same time, the book didn’t thrill me so much that I’m dying to start from the beginning.

Death at Thorburn Hall is a decent mystery, though my Agatha Christie-loving bones wished for a bit more complexity to the whole mystery. The villain isn’t obvious, though the revelation is a bit disappointing, and I wish some of the characters had been more important to the mystery, and contributed more, rather than just there to further their own storylines. Overall, though, Death at Thorburn Hall is not bad at all.

Warnings: Some violence.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction, Mystery

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2AUBYB0

No Such Person by Caroline B. Cooney

No Such Person, by Caroline B. Cooney, was published in 2015 by Delacorte.

Murder. One of the Allerdon sisters has been charged with a premeditated killing and taken to jail. It doesn’t seem possible—but it’s happening. What was supposed to be a typical summer is anything but for this seemingly ordinary family. Shortly after the Allerdons arrive at their cozy family cottage on the river, Lander meets and is smitten with a handsome young man, and they begin to date. Miranda has a bad feeling about her perfect sister’s new boyfriend. And when the family must suddenly deal with an unimaginable nightmare. Miranda can’t help feeling that the boyfriend has something to do with it. The police say they have solid evidence against Lander. Miranda wants to believe in her sister when she swears she is innocent. But as Miranda digs deeper into the past few weeks of Lander’s life, she wonders why everything keeps pointing to Lander’s guilt.

Rating: 2/5

Caroline B. Cooney was one of my favorite authors of my teenage years, offering the sort of mildly dark and angsty reads that I devoured at the time. I’ve wanted to return to her older books as an adult to see if my perception of them has changed any, but one of her newer books caught my attention instead.

No Such Person is a murder mystery, and a fairly tame one at that despite some of the more intense scenes at the end. Unfortunately, it’s pretty predictable, especially once some more details are revealed throughout the investigation. I started losing interest in the book once it became obvious what exactly had happened and the characters were still floundering around trying to figure it out.

The strongest aspect of the book is probably the setting and the characterization and interaction. Lander doesn’t do much but cry the whole time (I guess that’s not surprising, considering her position), but I liked the riverside interactions and the whole idea of the tranquil river community shocked by murder (a common trope in murder mysteries, but still done well here).

However, since this is a murder mystery, the atmosphere and setting of the book were not enough for me to think particularly highly of it. I liked it, yes, but I found the motive and the “behind the scenes” of the murder to be, if not far-fetched, at least poorly executed and a little random. I love intricate, detailed plots in mysteries, and No Such Person has no such thing. It’s simplified for the audience, perhaps, but I’ve had better murder mysteries in books like Between and even Before I Fall. This one was a little tame in comparison.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Young Adult

She wants to warn her sister again—to cry out, He’s bad news! Stay away from him!

But her sister is so happy.

And their mother, seeing this happiness, also lets it go. Lander’s happiness is worth a lot to her.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2vR43Hy

Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens

Poison is Not Polite, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Murder is Bad Manners.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong visit Daisy’s sprawling countryside estate for the holidays, Daisy’s mother throws her daughter an extravagant birthday tea party. Then one of the guests falls mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving (and the police from arriving), Daisy’s home is suddenly a very dangerous place to be. Everyone is keeping secrets. When someone very close to Daisy look suspicious, the Wells and Wong Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

Rating: 4/5

Poison is Not Polite (Arsenic for Tea in the UK) continues the fun, charming yet surprisingly deep at times story that I found so delightful about Murder is Bad Manners. Daisy and Hazel are back with another murder mystery, this one establishing a bit more character for Daisy as her family members are all suspects.

I didn’t know whether or not I liked Daisy in the first book, and although this book gave her a bit more development I still don’t know how I feel. I found her a little less annoying in Poison because I understood her character better, but she’s not a character type I’ve ever really liked so the jury’s still out on her. Hazel, however, is delightful and Kitty and Beany are great additions to the detective society as well.

I found the mystery in this one a little more obvious than Murder—as well as some of the other reveals—but I also fell into the same kind of thinking that Daisy and Hazel did, which meant the reveal was still a surprise, if only in its execution as opposed to its “whodunit” value. Stevens is a remarkably good mystery writer, not just in putting together the pieces of a puzzle but also in having her characters figure it out. Hazel and Daisy never take logical leaps or stretch the evidence more than is warranted; everything is carefully thought out and executed by Stevens, which makes for a nice, natural flow to the book as a whole.

I’m still going to hold out on a 5/5 rating for this series until one of the books completely blows me away. Poison is Not Polite is great, but not excellent, and even though I’m thoroughly enjoying the series so far, the “wow” factor is not quite there yet. Good mystery and characters aside, there’s still something missing—and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“How handsome!” Aunt Saskia was staring at the watch, and her eyes were glinting. She looked as though she wanted to lick her lips.

“Oh—this?” asked Mr. Curtis jauntily. “A memento. I do like having beautiful things around me.”

“Do you indeed?” asked Uncle Felix, in his most silky voice.

They stared at each other down across the table. Everything had suddenly become very tense.

“Goodness!” cried Lady Hastings. “What has got into you all? We ought to be celebrating. Let’s have a toast. To the party! May this weekend be absolutely perfect!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sybnmL

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Murder is Bad Manners, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

When boarding school students Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find any exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t.) Then Hazel discovers Miss Bell lying dead on the gym floor. Before Hazel can tell anyone what she’s seen, the body mysteriously disappears, seemingly without a trace. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve—they have to prove a murder happened in the first place….Can the Well and Wong Detective Society get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again? And can Hazel and Daisy’s friendship stand the test?

Rating: 4/5

Murder is Bad Manners, also published as Murder Most Unladylike (a title I like better, actually), is everything that I love about MG or YA mysteries. The characters are interesting, the murder is intriguingly complex (if a little obvious, but I’ll put that down to me reading lots of mysteries), there’s humor sprinkled amidst the tension, and it’s the sort of book that sucks you in right away and makes you not want to put the book down until you’re done.

To be honest, the only reason I didn’t give it a 5/5 is that I want some room for the other books in the series. Also, there were some bits in the middle that I didn’t like as much as the rest because they seemed a trifle clumsy.

Oh, and Daisy drove me a little crazy at times, so there’s that. She was arrogant and dismissive of Hazel’s talents one too many times for me to really like her, and throughout the entire middle portion of the book, I kept rooting for Hazel to dump her as a friend since Daisy was an awful one. But Stevens does a good job of redeeming Daisy, at least a little, and implying that a lot of how Daisy acts is a persona she uses to hide her true self, as young people often do. So, by the end of the book, I had thawed slightly towards Daisy, although I still think she’ll need a lot of redemption for me to truly like her as a character.

Murder is Bad Manners is the first book in what I hope will continue to be an intriguing, fun, complex mystery series. I love a good mystery, especially when the audience of the book doesn’t bring down the intricacy that a mystery plot requires at times.  Hopefully, the other books in the series are as fun, charming, and engaging as I found this one.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

“A teacher!” I gasped, horrified. “That’s why they’re all pretending that nothing’s wrong!”

“Well, not all of them did it,” Daisy pointed out. “But the one who did—whoever it was—has managed to bamboozle the others with that note. That’s what Mamzelle meant about not ‘prying into Miss Bell’s affairs.’ This is really it, Hazel. This means that it’s up to us! If the Detective Society doesn’t do something, nobody will!”

I had a momentary un-detective-like pang. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just go to the police?” I asked.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Daisy severely. “We don’t have any evidence yet. We don’t even have a body. They’d simply laugh at us. No, we’re on our own. And anyway, this is our murder case.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2r1j5UY