The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn – Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn CoverAlternate Titles: Brightwood
First Published: 10th March, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Daisy has never left her home in Brightwood Hall. She lives a comfortable life with her mother, surrounded by the history of her family. Until her mother disappears, and a man appears at the house.

The fact that Daisy has never left Brightwood Hall already hints that something odd is going on. That something is her mother experiencing a trauma as a child. She hoards supplies and other items, to the point of filling up the rooms in the manor house with storage shelves. She only leaves to get supplies, and doesn’t want Daisy going out at all. That fear of losing things has been enabled by the family’s wealth. She’s never really had to face her trauma, because it’s very easy to shut the world out living in a manor house. It’s easy to hoard when you have so much space.

I liked that the story did address these things. Daisy comes to realise how much her mum’s life has been influenced by those past events. And how this has trickled down to Daisy’s life.

Daisy is a fun protagonist. She holds conversations with the animals and artwork. This includes statues, topiary bushes and portraits of her ancestors. Whether this is entirely imaginary is up for debate. They certainly help her come to a decision about what to do when the man arrives.

I enjoyed the writing style and pacing of the book. There are elements of mystery, about who the man is and why he’s there. There’s some action, as Daisy acts out her plans. I wish I could end the review there, because there are a lot of things about the book I really like. I was promised an adventure set in a manor house, and it delivered on that.

The problem was The Crazy. Daisy has been told that The Crazy runs in the family. It means a person is vile and has most likely murdered people. This made me wince the first time it was introduced, but I gave some benefit of the doubt that it would be addressed later. It wasn’t. The best Daisy gets to is maybe people would call her mum crazy, but she’s not properly crazy as she’s not violent. Daisy doesn’t realise, at any level, that The Crazy is upper class entitlement, rather than a health condition. If you feel you’re better than anyone else and entitled to things, you’re not going to care who you hurt to get it… those other people aren’t really people, after all. This is an entirely sane, if unpleasant, response to privilege. What really struck me is it was a small part of the story, which could have been changed in ten minutes of editing. A few reworded sentences and a new name for The Crazy would have made all the difference. All it would have taken was considering how it might impact a non-neurotypical reader.

The result was though I generally enjoyed the book, I was cringing at those moments when The Crazy came up. They pulled me out of the story. Crazy often looks more like Daisy’s mum. Crazy often looks more like me. It doesn’t make someone a murderer.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Killer Cupcakes – Leighann Dobbs

Killer Caupcakes Cover - Pink with cartoon woman holding cupcakes

Series: A Lexy Baker Bakery Mystery, #1
First Published: 7th May, 2013
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords

Lexy’s ex-boyfriend is killed with poisoned cupcakes from her bakery. With the bakery closed for testing by the police, she sets off to investigate. The book also includes recipes for cupcake tops and frosting.

On the positives, I liked that Lexy is mainly surrounded by women. Her best friend is also a woman and she gets help from a group of elderly women. That does tend to be a strength of cozies, but it’s not something to take for granted. There wasn’t a love triangle (it’s obvious who the love interest is and that they’ll end up together), which is a good thing for me as I find love triangles endlessly angsty.

On the negatives, the mystery was barely there. The character motivations were stretching it even for a cozy (like the police took all the ingredients from the bakery to test, rather than samples, which makes no sense even with handwaving police procedure). There isn’t really anything new here in terms of the plot, characters and setting.

I also dislike books where the main character can eat anything and not put on weight, and it’s portrayed as a wonderful thing. I tend to lose weight quickly and put it on slowly. It’s not wonderful. It means sugar crashes where I stop functioning if I forget a meal. It means even mild sickness can mean dropping underweight. This isn’t a trope I can find fun.

Overall, the writing flows well enough and it succeeds at its aim – it’s a light-hearted book that can be read quickly, without a whole lot of attention required. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a strong mystery, but for a bit of light romance and mystery (plus recipes), it might fit the bill.

Above World – Jenn Reese

Above World CoverSeries: Above World, #1
First Published: 14th February, 2012
Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The breathing technology used by the Kampii (mermaids) is failing. The adults won’t do anything, so Aluna and her friend Hoku travel up to the surface to find answers (young Kampii don’t get their mermaid tails until they’re older, so they still have legs). In the above world, there are unaltered humans, bird people and horse people (among others). They’re under attack from the upgraders (cyborgs).

This book is a fun action-adventure. The world is a dystopian spin on old mythology, without being too gritty. The current situation is one that developed from the founding of the various colonies, so as well as travelling the world, they also have to learn about their past. I enjoyed the contrast between the two main characters – Aluna as a warrior and Hoku as a scientist. It was nice to see Aluna having positive relationships with other girls/women, rather than being the one special girl who hated all the other womenfolk (as so many books with warrior girls/women tend to do).

There were some points that made me pause. Though it’s good that being cool mermaids and so forth isn’t a white person only zone, I wish the racial descriptions had been less ambiguous. There’s mention of brown skin, but that leaves a lot to the imagination in the sort of way where people rewrite in their heads to make everyone white (especially when the character isn’t on the cover). It would have been nice to have some mention of other features, such as hair, facial features and remaining pieces of culture.

I wasn’t too comfortable with what was shown of Dash’s people. They seem rather pseudo-Native American, which is potentially problematic when they’re a race of horse people. Or the suggestion that the desert was an uninhabited area free to be colonised by the genetically changed. However, it’s possible both issues are handled in later books, as these things were told second hand rather than seen.

I did enjoy the book despite those concerns and look forward to the sequel.