3 brilliant middlegrade mysteries

Anyone else feeling totally frazzled at the moment? I’ve been reading quite a few middle-grade mysteries recently as my brain has needed some good old-fashioned adventure and escape from all the heavy grown up thoughts. So, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourites in case you need some time out too (and there might just be a young person in your life who would enjoy a good mystery as well 😊).

The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant. Faber & Faber.

This is the story of Alice, an introverted girl with a passion for story writing. She is grieving the loss of her mum and although she adores her dad, he isn’t around all that much. Her aunt decides that a boarding school in the wilds of Scotland will bring Alice out of her shell – especially as this is rather an eccentric school, with rather an unusual curriculum. Friendships blossom in the form of strait-laced Jesse and mischievous joker Fergus. Together they take part in the yearly school orienteering challenge and use this as an opportunity to meet up with Alice’s father on a remote island, after Alice receives a rather mysterious note attached to a parcel that she must not open…

Why I loved it: It’s a gorgeous contemporary adventure story, full of friendship, quests and mystery. The Scottish setting is beautifully written, and the characters made the child within me want to be friends with them. The relationship development between the friends as well as that  between Alice and her dad felt really genuine in all its complexities and I loved that this is very much a story of finding where you belong and how family is something beyond biology. There is also some fabulous humour in there to lighten the adventure and balance out the more serious aspects such as loss, not fitting in and the consequences of trusting someone you care for, both positive and negative. Plus, the cover is just stunning isn’t it?

A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths. Hachette Children’s Group

My second recommendation takes us back in time to the 1930s, where we meet twelve-year-old Justice, whose very busy QC father has decided to send her to a boarding school following the death of her mother. Having been home schooled by her mum until this point, this new way of life takes a lot of getting used to. But Justice is addicted to solving mysteries (her mum was a mystery writer) and is always on the look out for real ones to investigate; she is soon immersed in the secrets of Highbury House Boarding School and the suspicious death of a maid…

Why I loved it: Justice is such a sparky, determined, intelligent character, who completely draws you into her world. I loved the way Griffiths creates such a sense of time and places; I was right there in the 30s, exploring the isolated boarding school out on the marshes. The mystery itself was gripping with plenty of tension and intrigue and I enjoyed how the darker moments are interspersed with humour and witty observations (something Griffiths also does so well in her adult crime books). I also found the headmistress Miss de Vere most intriguing; she is illusive and difficult to work out; I love a complex character, who may not be all that she seems!

I asked Elly Griffiths on Twitter whether Justice’s adventures will become a series and thank goodness she is in the process of writing book 2 – it’s always the sign of  a great story isn’t it, when you can’t wait to see what happens next?

The Agatha Oddly series by Lena Jones. HarperCollins Children’s Books

Why I love this contemporary mystery series: Above all, it is 13-year-old Agatha as a character that makes this series for me. She is quirky, incredibly intelligent, intuitive and her zest for solving mysteries is just contagious. I love that she is a bit of an outsider, that these books are as much about Agatha discovering where she fits into the world as the mysteries she attempts to solve.  Plus, she adores Agatha Christie (therefore a kindred spirit) and I love that when she is in the process of working something out, she often imagines a tiny Poirot giving her detecting advice. Her adventures involve plenty of clever puzzle solving, a secret society and a mysterious, hidden side of London. It’s a smart, tightly plotted and quirky series and book 3, The Silver Serpent, is out on the 5th September 😊

P.S. I can highly recommend the audio books; the narrator is absolutely perfect as Agatha!

Shedunnit: my dream bookish podcast

Today, I want to share my favourite bookish podcast with you. It’s called Shedunnit and its premise is “to unravel the mysteries behind classic detective stories.”. If you are into Golden Age crime fiction, the authors behind the books and the real crimes that influenced their narratives, then this is most definitely for you.


What strikes me each time I listen is the quality of the research, the depth of content (all the books mentioned are listed in the show notes and full transcripts are available on the website too)  and just how compelling it is to listen to. It is produced to an exceptionally high standard by Caroline Crampton, who also writes the content and is the narrator of the podcast.gg98405682 (2)

I absolutely love the period music Caroline uses to intersperse the sections, it really adds to the atmosphere and I also really appreciate her voice; its clarity and engaging quality – as we all know, I am so fussy when listening audio. Of course, the content is pretty special as well. To give you a taste of what you can expect, here are a few of my favourite episodes so far:

01: Surplus Women (single, independent women after the First World War 

03: Queer Clues (the portrayal of queer characters)

04: The Lady Vanishes (on Agatha Christie’s missing days)

08: Dining with Death (the pivotal role of food in golden age mysteries)

13: The secret life of Ngaio Marsh

 The podcast includes interviews with lovers of the genre, experts and with authors who set their books during the Golden Age of the 20s and 30s . Recently, two of my favourite ever authors have made appearances and were such a treat to listen to: Jacqueline Winspear (writer of my much loved Maisie Dobbs series)in episode 15, focusing on period style and Robin Stevens (creator of the gorgeous Murder Most Unladylike series)  in episode 19 looking at school as a perfect murder mystery setting.

gg98405682 (2)

A couple of months ago, Caroline set up a membership option as a way to create a community around the podcast but also as a way of keeping the podcast on air. When you listen you will get some idea of the amount of work and time that goes into making each episode.  At this point I must mention that I ‘m writing about this purely because of my love for the show, my post is in no way sponsored.

Membership package 1 enables you to be part of the members only Shedunnit online book club and message board, to access extra content that isn’t included in the main podcast plus there’s an extra monthly episode. Membership package 2 included all of the above PLUS a monthly subscription box containing goodies curated by Caroline and including a rare or unusual second had detective novel. I am personally subscribed to this and absolutely love my monthly murder mystery bookish post. I had a lovely email to begin with, asking me about my reading tastes, books I’ve read/want to read in future etc- that personal touch makes all the difference. Find more info here.

gg98405682 (2)

And speaking of which, this month’s package has just arrived so I’ll stop now and find out what this month’s treasures are…

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing: a Polish Mystery

Translated Polish historical fiction and a murder mystery with a female amateur detective plus an incredible cover – just my cup of tea. Thanks to NetGalley and Oneworld for my arc – this book is now available to buy.


Before I even looked at the content as such, I was already all for reading this book as there isn’t nearly enough translated fiction out there. The book has been supported by the European Council as well as the publishers and it is part of Oneworld’s fab translated fiction catalogue, which you can find here. Mrs Mohr has been translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

So Milena, what is the book actually about, I hear you say: This is the first amateur detective mission for Zofia Turbotynska, a 38-year-old, middle-class, married woman living in Cracow in 1893. Always wanting to improve her social standing and determined to relieve her boredom, she becomes involved in a charity project connecting her with the nearby Helcel House, a new retirement home run by nuns. Zofia is pulled into (or rather, she actively involves herself in) the hunt for the murderer of one of the old ladies there (Mrs Mohr of the title) and of course, there is more death to follow. Zofia, reminiscent of Miss Marple, discovers that her talent and passion lies in detective work.

I enjoyed…

The setting is a fresh take on  Golden Age crime themed mysteries: Although I know a fair bit about Golden Age crime, I know very little indeed about Poland’s history and next to nothing about Krakow itself. I really appreciated the preface with a very brief description of that period in Polish history. I thought it incredibly interesting to see what was going on elsewhere in Europe in Victorian times i.e. Emperor Franz Joseph Habsburg, ruler of Austria-Hungary. Plus, the entire book has that almost indefinable East Europeanness that I adore in books – I am very much drawn to fiction set in these parts.

So, without going into a history lecture, I will keep it brief and say that Krakow was a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions. It was a place of divided loyalties, those loyal to Austria and nationalists increasingly longing for independence. Like so many other countries, it was also a place of inequality in terms of gender and the class system. All of this becomes apparent, mostly in a dry humoured, digestible fashion that reminded me of other Victorian narratives focusing on witty social commentary. This isn’t a book to challenge, it is a light read but the awareness is very much there and to be honest, I just really enjoyed the snarkiness and often witty commentary.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe sheer quirkiness of the narrative and especially the main character of Zofia: I will be honest and say that at first, I couldn’t connect with Zofia; she felt rather two-dimensional and was just incredibly unlikable. But I gave her a chance and as the story progressed, there were some glimpses into her character that showed the potential of a much more complex character. She may hide that side of herself well but there is definitely something intriguing about her below her bourgeois surface. Zofia is definitely a force of nature and I admired that in what was very much a man’s world. She uses the tools available to her, playing the social system to get to the complicated truth of her case. The fact that she hides it all from her professor husband and her work is never publicly acknowledged, illustrates perfectly the double life she leads in order to find herself. I also loved the chemistry between Zofia and her two sidekicks, her cook Franciszka and the wonderful nun, Sister Alojza at Helcel House. She by no means sees them as equals, there is much superiority and naive thinking on Zofia’s part, but nevertheless, these women unite and use their intelligence and skills to solve the mystery together.

It could have been better…

The overplaying of stereotypes and the often too obvious nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction: Whilst I read the book as a humorous ode to Golden Age crime, sometimes it felt too over the top, it borrowed too much, and this affected the story’s originality.  A lot of the characters were types too, with very little depth apart from their function within the plot or to support the social/political statements being made. I thought this was a shame.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eToo many internal monologues: Sophia has a lot of internal conversations where she keeps retelling the story so far, trying to work out what has happened and where this will lead her. It felt pretty repetitive at times. And she never reaches any conclusions or even hints of conclusions but then suddenly at the end, she knows everything. For me, this made  both the flow and coherence of the narrative disjointed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe highlighting of Cracow’s Jewish inhabitants: I’ll be honest and say I didn’t understand what the authors (incidentally, the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa is pseudonym for the writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski)  were trying to achieve with Zofia’s haphazard way of regularly and noticeably pointing out which characters were Jewish. This didn’t seem to go anywhere and felt odd. The preface tells us that a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, but most were not assimilated and led separate lives, even those assimilated into society were treated as second class citizens. I felt that an opportunity to explore this was missed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe translation of the local/national accents/dialects: It felt too much of a caricature. As a reader and translator, I think that such things are rarely done well and often choosing to leave the accent to the reader’s imagination is a more effective option. When dialect is done well it can add a valuable layer of meaning, but this was not the case here. Again, I wasn’t quite sure whether there is an element of  parody to the dialect – if so, I can see why it’s there, but it still didn’t work for me.

So, overall…

It is the first book in a series, and I think there was enough there to hook me and for me to hope that the things I wasn’t too impressed with will be developed and straightened out as the series continues. I will certainly give book 2 a go when it is translated. And I hope the next cover is just as wonderful 😊

Getting to know Agatha

getting to know agatha 2

Agatha Christie has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, yet somehow, I’ve never really pursued my curiosity in any depth. As I’m reading a Poirot mystery a month this year for one of my 2019 bookish goals, this felt like the perfect opportunity to get stuck in to all things Christie! I thought I’d share what I’ve come up with so far- I’ve stumbled upon some proper AC treasures😊


The Shedunnit podcast: I came across this podcast by sheer coincidence recently and it is as if  the creator and host, Caroline Crampton, has created a podcast just for me – themed episodes focusing on the golden era of crime fiction – yay! Each episode is so thoroughly researched, so interesting and beautifully broadcast – I highly recommend a listen. Anyway, the podcast episode titled The Lady Vanishes, is one based on the much-deliberated disappearance of Agatha Christie for 11 days in December 1926 and it was a great way into Christie’s world.

Two fascinating articles online: “How Agatha Christie’s wartime nursing role gave her a lifelong taste for poison” (The Guardian) and “Agatha Christie shaped how the world sees Britain” (BBC Culture). Both were incidentally recommended on twitter by @ShedunnitShow.

The Agatha Christie website: quite an obvious one to mention really but an informative source for all things Christie, including themed reading guides and a Read Christie 2019 challenge.


A graphic novel: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Frank. When searching for books on AC and wanting to go beyond the usual biography type affair, I found this promising looking graphic novel – I’m really getting into reading graphic novels as portals into non-fiction. I’ve only had a quick flick through so far but the artwork in itself is fabulous. I shall report back.


The autobiography: Well, it’s got to be done hasn’t it! I’m really intrigued to see what she wanted people to know about herself, her writing and the life she led. I think I’ll borrow this book from my local library (because libraries are fantastic places for finding non-fiction if you’re not by nature a non-fiction enthusiast and book funds are lacking).

talent for murder

Just for fun: Agatha Christie as a special agent! I’ve just started listening to the first audio book of a series by Andrew Wilson, called A Talent for Murder. I love the premise so much and am keeping everything crossed that this is a series I can get addicted to. Book two, A Different Kind of Evil is out now in the UK.


One last thing: The Mousetrap is coming to Nottingham at the Theatre Royal -I’ve never seen it nor know anything about it despite its status as longest running West End play. Time to purchase a ticket I think 😉

A Cloak and Dagger Christmas

a cloak and dagger christmas 2018

So, here’s the second catch-up post for the end of last year – I’m on a roll! Though 2019 is in full swing, I really want to mention what a lovely time I had reading murder mysteries back in December. I was more than ready for some murder mystery goodness last month, so the Cloak and Dagger Christmas Challenge 2018 was absolutely perfect timing. Hosted by the lovely booktubers Kate (Kate Howe) Mel (Mel’s Bookland Adventures) and Kate (The Novel Nomad), this was such a fun way to connect with other readers, find new books and discuss old favourites. Because of course, nothing quite says Christmas like a good murder!

christmas pudding adventure image

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie. This is a short story collection with 4 short Poirot cases and a Miss Marple at the end. Of course, I read it for the Christmas pudding story, and it was glorious.

christmas candle

I have it as a BBC audio drama and usually listen to it throughout December each year, but I thought it was about time to actually read the words! I bought myself a Christmas pudding scented candle from Good Book Hunting to enjoy whilst reading – what a treat 😊

christmas case image

A Christmas Case: A Posie Parker Novella by L B Hathaway. This is such an underrated series in my humble opinion. I’d read the first two books, Murder Offstage and Tomb of the Honey Bee, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. They are well written, witty and imaginative. Plus they are set in the 1920s and feature an independent and spirited female private detective – just my cup of tea. This novella was absolutely brilliant, my favourite Posie Parker mystery yet and, because I gobbled it up in one sitting, I had to read the next book in the series, Murder at Maypole Manor straight after!

little murder image

Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan. A classic crime novel written in the 1940s. Lots of snow, strangers snowed in at an old country house, a suspicious death… what’s not to love I thought. And enjoy it I did, although it just wasn’t all I hoped it to be…the characters fell a bit flat, I didn’t engage with any of them especially and there were parts of the plot that were so far flung that it took away some of my reading pleasure as it all felt rather disjointed. Nevertheless, the setting was fabulous and as we had a lukewarm Christmas here in the Midlands without a snowflake in sight, it gave me that winter feeling I craved.


The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. I listened to this on Audible with Alan Cumming as a brilliant narrator. Sherlock Holmes stories are a bit hit and miss for me and I often find myself liking the idea of them more than actually reading them. I also find that audio versions suit me far better – yes, I’ve got the collection read by Stephen Fry (that man could read me the shipping forecast and I would be happy). Anyway, this was a short, quirky and entertaining story, perfect for a cosy listen on Boxing Day with a glass of port and a rather too much cheese 😉

mistletoe and murder

Last but definitely not least, I enjoyed my yearly re-listen to the audio book version of Mistletoe and Murder, one of the Murder Most Unladylike books by the very talented Robin Stevens. It is one of my favourites from the series so far and the descriptions of Oxford and Christmas time make my heart sing each time I listen. This is middle grade fiction at its finest, set in my favourite period of history, the 1930s, and with two sparky, incredibly intelligent and unique girl detectives – plus I love how relevant the themes are throughout the series and how great the representation is. Check out Robin Stevens’ booktube channel by the way – she has so many great recommendations and is just a joy to watch.


Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

I requested Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan on NetGalley in return for an honest review. A bookshop, a mystery told through book clues, a complex and quirky main character, a dark past that won’t quite let go- my kind of book! I absolutely loved it and devoured it in a day.


We see the world largely through Lydia’s eyes. A young bookseller at The Bright Ideas Bookstore, she is a listener and a watcher and has a wonderful talent for seeing the special qualities in her customers- who are often people living on the outskirts of society, finding refuge. I absolutely loved her observation of the men she calls bookfrogs, who remind her of Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fischer:

‘And when Lydia saw them folded into the corners for hours at a time, looking monastic and vulnerable, she thought of Beatrix Potter…. They were like plump and beautiful frogs scattered across the branches of the store, nibbling a diet of poems and crackers.’

Books 4

But then Lydia’ life is turned upside down when one of these young bookfrogs, Joey, commits suicides upstairs at the bookstore, leaving behind clues for Lydia to follow as to why he chose to end his life. This event brings back memories for Lydia, of a story in her past that she has tried so hard to move on from but which hasn’t let her go. Sullivan drip feeds the mystery of Joey as well as Lydia’s past until they both intertwine; he sprinkles information and subtle hints brilliantly.

Books 4

I must also mention how much I enjoyed Sullivan’s writing style generally; real, observant often quirky and utterly engaging.

Books 4

It is hard to write about what I thought of the plot itself as I don’t want to give anything away. However, I will say that it is an exploration of the many layers of family dynamics, of the connection we human beings need to thrive, of love lost and found and sometimes lost again, of navigating grief, of what courage looks like, of books and book shops as lifelines. And when it comes down to it, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a gripping story and I do love one of those.


This Side of Murder

I requested This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. It is the first in a new series – the Verity Kent series – and is set in post-World War I England. Mystery, murder, the promise of a strong female lead and one of my absolute favourite periods in history; perfect.


When it comes to a first book in a series, I tend to be more patient and allow for them often not being as rich as books further on. The writer and her characters need to get established, find their own groove. This is essentially how I see This Side of Murder. It wasn’t incredible but I certainly liked it a lot and I will definitely read the next in the series as I do see so much potential.

Books 4

When it comes to a first book in a series, I tend to be more patient and allow for them often not being as rich as books further on. The writer and her characters need to get established, find their own groove. This is essentially how I see This Side of Murder. It wasn’t incredible but I certainly liked it a lot and I will definitely read the next in the series as I do see so much potential.

Books 4

The plot centres around an engagement party on the fictional island of Umbersea in Poole Harbour. Verity is invited as a guest of the groom to be, who had served with her husband in the trenches. Alongside the invitation, she receives a mysterious letter hinting that her husband wasn’t the honourable officer he was portrayed to be and that the answer lies on Ubersea island. And of course, a series of murders occur as the island is cut off from the mainland by a raging storm. I do love this type of plot and thoroughly enjoyed this one. Although I saw some things coming (and remember that I have read a lot of murder mysteries), there were a couple of twists I didn’t predict and Huber is wonderful at making you second guess each character in turn.

Books 4

What I loved the most about this book was the back history of Verity Kent, a young, upper class war widow, trying to find her way in the post war world. She had been part of the Secret Service during the war and I have a feeling that this will provide a lot of interesting story lines in future books. It also means she is fiercely independent and her intelligence coupled with her experience, mean that she is ideal as an amateur detective.

Books 4

I felt the writing itself was at times very strong, especially when dealing with World War I subject matter and the complex emotions of the characters, trying to come to terms with the many consequences of war. I liked that it dug a little deeper, was more serious than the average cosy crime. However, at times the language tries too hard to be 1920s, the characters speak a little unnaturally at points. Some descriptions have the same problem in my opinion, it is there to be a 1920s cosy crime. This relaxes as the book goes on and I have high hopes that the second book in the series will read more fluidly, especially as there were such glimpses of strong writing.

Books 4

So, all in all, a really enjoyable read with the potential to be a brilliant series.