Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded
Series:None
Source: Library
Publication Date: March 2017

SUMMARY

At Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens, the girls learn small spells and, most importantly, deportment–because a woman with magic might be too frightening for the city to contemplate, if she is not submissive and polite.  But then Miss Ellicott and all the other sorceresses go missing.  Chantel worries that without them, no one will be able to strengthen the city walls against the attacking Mauraders.  But what can a thirteen-year-old girl and her friends do?  And whom can they trust?

Review

The premise of the book feels simultaneously heavy-handed and underdeveloped.  Chantel and her friends live in a city ruled by the patriarchs who hold little respect for women.  In fact, Chantel and the other girls spend most of their time learning to be “shamefast and biddable” lest their ability to work magic alarm any of the men.  However, this state of affairs ultimately passes without much commentary as the plot begins to veer into more standard fantasy fare–the fight to rule a city.

There is a lot of room for complex world building here and I would have loved to see Blackwood elaborate more on the rules that govern magic, the politics of the city and its neighbors, and the history of the city.  Instead, readers receive only tantalizing glimpses, just enough for readers to understand that the rulers of the city are not very nice and their neighbors are tired of it.  This allows Blackwood to neatly sidestep the issue of politics in favor of focusing on Chantel’s concerns–find her missing teacher, figure out whose side she is fighting on, harness her magic, and defeat the enemy.  And, to some extent, this makes sense since a thirteen-year-old may not have a firm grasp of foreign diplomacy or politics.  However, it also makes the plot and the solution to the city’s problems feel a little facile.  A short acknowledgment that Chantel does not really understand government is all readers get.  This is a huge problem–but not one the book wants to engage with.

The pacing, too, feels a little off.  The book begins slowly with a focus on the characters and their development.  Then stuff starts happening–and happening fast.  Suddenly everyone is fighting, with no clear idea of which side they all should be on or want to be on.  Small events with the characters continue to occur at breakneck pace all while this fighting continues on indefinitely in the background.  Theoretically, Chantel is racing against the clock.  In reality, it feels like she’s going to let the city burn while she tries to find a lost spell that may not be all that important.

Fortunately, the characters are very charming.  Though I was not impressed with the plot, I wanted to continue reading because I was invested in the fate of Chantel and her friends.  I am not sure I would read a sequel, but I did enjoy the short time I spent with the characters.

4 stars

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Spying on Miss Mueller by Eve Bunting

Spying on Miss MuellerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Spying on Miss Mueller
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1995

SUMMARY

Miss Mueller, half-Irish and half-German, has always been a favorite of the girls at Alveara boarding school, but WWII has made that teacher an outcast.  Then one night Jessie sees Miss Mueller wandering up to the roof.  Could it be that Miss Mueller is really a German spy?

REVIEW

Spying on Miss Mueller is a classic 90s historical fiction/coming-of-age novel, and that may or may not be a good thing.  Perhaps some will find reading it nostalgic.  I thought the book felt a little dated, and that I was perhaps too old to read and appreciate it now.

The charm of this for middle schoolers is, I think, obvious.  It’s set in a boarding school in Ireland during WWII–all very romantic stuff for young readers.  Furthermore, there’s a lot of girl talk going on; Jessie and her friends like to lie awake at night and talk about boys, or even pass notes about them during class. Younger readers might find all this very tantalizing or even daring–the boys and girls are mingling in the dark, even kissing!   Much of this is very amusing to an older reader, however–the girls constantly speculate about what horrible thing one girl must have done to be asked to leave, or what it is that the boys and girls do behind the shed.  The girls all like to act like they know–but clearly none of them do.

Aside from Jessie’s dreams of the handsome Ian McManus, the book is filled with speculations about the titular Miss Mueller.  Can it be her father was a Nazi?  Why is she wandering the halls after hours?  Can they still love Miss Mueller and be good citizens?  These are intriguing questions for girls in time of war.  As an older reader, however, I could not help but sigh.  Here are girls blaming a half-German woman in Ireland for what Germany is doing.  They are prepared to ruin her life, if they can, in retaliation for events she has no control over.  The cruelty and hatred of children is astounding.

The answers to me were obvious.  The woman is not a criminal and there is no reason to make her life horrible or to try to hurt her.  So watching the girls speculate about her actions and form plans to reveal her supposed spying activities was not amusing.  I didn’t even feel a sick fascination as one might from reading The Lord of the Flies.  I just felt jaded.  These girls know so little and are so mean.  Reading felt more like plodding.

And the whole structure and writing style of the book reminded me of the 90s so much that I couldn’t help but be amused.  I never really liked those kinds of coming-of-age stories, the ones where they worry about their bra size or kissing or whatever.  So I had no fond memories to fall back upon while reading this; I just thought it was funny that it was so easy to know exactly when this book had been published.

I do love a good boarding school story, but this one, apparently was not for me.

3 starsKrysta 64

If You Like Boarding Schools, Then Read… (Part Three)

If You Like (60)

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.

Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera

At the Great Rapscott School for the Daughters of Busy Parents, Headmistress Rapscott believes firmly in the motto of Amelia Earhart: Adventure is worthwhile in itself.  Thus her new boarders suddenly find themselves Getting Lost on Purpose and learning how to fly through the sky and skim through the ocean, as well as write thank-you notes and groom themselves.  Their greatest adventure of all, however, will be to find missing pupil Dahlia Thistle.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

When the headmistress of St. Ethedreda’s School for Girls and her younger brother are poisoned at Sunday dinner, the seven boarders know just what to do.  Hide the bodies; convince the town that Headmistress Plackett is alive and well; and continue to live at the school as independent women.  But can the girls identify the murderer before he or she attempts to strike a second time?

Murder Is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have started their own secret detective agency at Deepdean school, but their most exciting case yet has been the case of Lavinia’s missing tie.  Then Hazel discovers their science teacher dead on the gym floor–and minutes later it has disappeared!  Clearly murder is afoot at Deepdean, but is one of the other teachers truly capable of disposing of a colleague?  Published as Murder Most Unladylike in the U.K.

the Grimmtastic Girls series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Long ago the Grimm brothers collected characters from various fairy tales, folk tales, and nursery rhymes, and placed them in Grimmlandia, where they can live in safety.  But now villainous forces are threatening to steal magical objects from Grimm Academy so they can break the border that separates Grimmlandia from the outside world.  Can the students stop the villains in time?  Or will classwork get in the way?

Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera

Ms Rapscott's GirlsInformation

Goodreads: Ms. Rapscott’s Girls
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 2015

Summary

The Great Rapscott School for Daughters of Busy Parents advertises its services for those parents too preoccupied even to teach their daughters what a birthday cake is or how to tie their shoes.  However, the greatest lesson, headmistress Rapscott believes is How To Find Your Way.  Soon her students are parachuting through the sky and skimming through the sea.  But on all their journeyings will they ever find Dahlia Thistle, the student who went missing before she even arrived?

Review

 Ms. Rapscott’s Girls attempts to achieve a quirky tone reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Here we have the mysterious building, the slightly insane owner, and the host of children, each one more unlikely and perhaps unlikable than the previous.  Unusual adventures led by an adult apparently oblivious to danger complete the similarities.  Because, despite the presence of all the elements, this story fails to capture the same magic.

Roald Dahl manages to capture the personalities of his characters in a few deft touches, but in this book, even with informative backstories and and blatant capitalization (“That is how so-and-so become known as Trait”) could not make its girls come to life.  I should have felt sorry for them, sorry for their loneliness and their poor upbringing, which has led them to become so disagreeable because they never were taught how to get along or to be polite or to be useful.  Instead I had difficulty keeping track of them all (the lazy one and the other one, whoever she was) and really did not care what happened to them at all.  I figured Ms. Rapscott would not really let them drown or anything.

I love quirky books and middle grade books and books about boarding schools.  I love adventures and books that feature a band of girls who are (or become) friends.  Even so, I could not love this book.  Without any characters at its heart, the story simply fell flat.

Krysta 64

Murder Is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens

Wells and Wong 1Information

Goodreads: Murder Is Bad Manners
Series: Wells and Wong #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2015 (first published June 2014 as Murder Most Unladylike)

Summary

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have their own secret detective agency operating out of Deepdean school, but until recently their biggest case involved finding Lavinia’s misssing tie.  Then Hazel discovers their science teacher Miss Bell dead on the gym floor–and shortly after the body disappears.  Now the two young detectives must not only uncover the murderer but also prove a murder happened in the first place.  But will the two crack the case before the murderer strikes again?

Review

Murder Is Bad Manners is a fun boarding school murder mystery, one that provides all the late-night sleuthing and invectives against etiquette that one could wish.  However, though Hazel Wong provides a compelling narrative voice and the polite setting is a perfectly incongruous backdrop for such a crime as murder, the story, in the end, failed to captivate me.  The clues fell too easily into the girls’ laps and the explanation at the end seemed too implausible for me to love this book as much as I thought I would.

Of course, explaining why I thought the clues too easy might give part of the plot away.  So, generally speaking, I shall simply note that the girls find clues everywhere they look without much effort.  Apparently the murderer simply trusted that no one would look at all.  As for red herrings– I cannot say they exist.  In fact, I was sure I knew who had committed the crime as soon as Hazel and Daisy had composed their first list of suspects. I need a little more suspense, a little more effort in my mysteries.  As for the ending–I’m afraid I cannot explain why that falls flat without giving spoiling everything.

Though the plot did not much impress me, I did enjoy spending time with the characters.  I love a good boarding school story full of classes and girl friendships.  A little sleuthing during breaks can only improve things.  It’s a little like Harry Potter, without any magic.  And this book, I should mention, also does a fantastic job of introducing some diversity into our literature.  Hazel Wong is a Chinese student in an English boarding school, sent there by her father who admires the West.  Her mother does not have the same feelings on the West at all.  And so, intertwined in this little mystery is an intriguing look at East-West relationships, touching briefly on Western racism, Eastern identity, and the way the East and the West view each other.

Despite my disappointment with how the mystery aspect of this story is handled, I like Hazel enough that I would like to read more of her adventures in the sequels.  Hopefully the upcoming mysteries are more, well, mysterious.

Krysta 64

Sleeping Beauty Dreams Big by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Sleeping Beauty Dreams BigInformation

Goodreads: Sleeping Beauty Dreams Big
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #5
Source: Library
Published: January 2015

Summary

Briar Rose arrives at Grimm Academy determined to live life to the fullest before her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse laid on her at birth comes into effect.  However, her first days quickly turn from exciting to heartbreaking when the students start to believe she’s really a villain.  It looks like E.V.I.L. has managed to rewrite her story!  Can Rose convince her new friends that she’s really against E.V.I.L. or will she fall asleep for a hundred years first?

Review

Sleeping Beauty is my favorite fairy tale and I was excited to see that the Grimmtastic Girls series had finally retold her story.  I decided quickly that I like Rose’s spunky nature (even though the idea of Sleeping Beauty cramming in life experience before her sleep is not new) and that her crush is sweet and kind and therefore a perfect match.  However, their tale was overshadowed by the plot holes that began to appear in the overaching storyline.  In the end, I could only think that Sleeping Beauty deserves so much more.

The story begins slowly enough, rehashing old plot points and even familiar details of the Grimm world–apparently Rose’s newness to the Academy means readers must wade through explanations of who prominent characters are and recaps of the past four books.  With these details out of the way, the story finally has the freedom to move forward, but it continues to do so sluggishly, repeating every few pages Rose’s thoughts on her curse, jousting, her family, and more.  The feeling of repetition never fades; Rose and her crush even seem to have a variation of the same conversation every time they meet.

Between Rose’s  musings on knighthood and her curse, the series plot slowly progresses, but this time it begins to raise troubling questions about how the world of Grimmlandia really works and why essentially no adults seem concerned about the reemergence of the E.V.I.L. Society.  It’s like Harry Potter, with schoolchildren repeatedly saving the world, while the adults stand by and watch–except in this case readers do not even have the certainty of knowing that Principal R. even knows what’s going on in his school.  The one adult who definitely does know what’s going on typically hides herself while directing twelve-year-olds to do her work.  She’s supposed to be the most powerful enchantress in Grimmlandia but she’s afraid to reveal herself?  Yet she’ll risk preteens?

Of course, even though the E.V.I.L. Society knows the identity of several of their enemies (Rapunzel, for example, blithely reveals her plan to thwart them in the last book, in a strange reversal of the explanatory speech usually given by foolish villains), they do nothing about it, so maybe the enchantress believes the kids ares safe.  One wonders if some sort of unwritten truce exists.  The good side, after all, knows the identities of several of the E.V.I.L. members, yet allows them to continue teaching the youth of Grimmlandia.  You might think that they want the villains where they can see them–yet the Academy holds the most powerful artifacts in the land and, by allowing the villains to teach there, the good side grants them easy access to all the magic they need to carry out their plots.

Or perhaps the good side can’t get rid of the villains at all since they belong in the fairy tales?  But that does not explain why the plot of this book features the students at the Academy shunning Rose when they believe her to be evil.  (Her story is rewritten to show her spitting up as a baby on the thirteenth fairy–truly villainous stuff there.) One can’t say that the kids avoid her because her parents are written as rude–the Queen of Hearts is rude but no one cares.  And Snow White’s stepmother is an well-known witch actually named Ms. Wicked, but no one holds that against Ms. Wicked or Snow.  Why are villains allowed to teach at the school–Snow White’s stepmother tries to murder her, after all!–but a girl who spat up on a fairy can’t be trusted?  No one explains.  In fact, it all just brings up another question–if the characters all know their fairy tales, why doesn’t Snow know that her stepmother is jealous of her and wants her dead?  Why are there so many gaping plot holes?

I still enjoy the Grimmtastic Girls series, but I need some of these questions to be answered fast.  I want to be able to focus on the characters and their personal journeys, rather than find myself preoccupied with attempting to wrap my head around the illogical plot elements.  I hope the sixth book will illuminate these matters, but I’m doubtful it will.

Rapunzel Cuts Loose by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Rapunzel Cuts LooseInformation

Goodreads: Rapunzel Cuts Loose
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #4
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

When an enchantment goes wrong, Rapunzel finds herself left with a hair catastrophe.  But the school fair approaches fast and the E.V.I.L. Society plans to use it as a cover for some of their dastardly deeds.  Can Rapunzel defeat E.V.I.L. while dealing with the worst hair day ever?

Review

Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams continue to make each installment of the Grimmtastic Girls feel fresh with the fourth in the series, Rapunzel Cuts Loose.  Finally readers get inside the head of the mysterious goth girl, whom we find has some secrets in her past.  However, the authors skillfully veer away from stereotypes and caricatures, showing Rapunzel to be a sweet and caring girl who, though she harbors worries like any preteen, does not hide behind her goth girl look but wears it because that is how she chooses to express herself.  With a heroine so confident, what’s not to love about Rapunzel Cuts Loose?

The girls, of course, continue to fight E.V.I.L. in this story, but more interesting to me at this point are the characters themselves.  Each protagonist faces a secret fear and manages to overcome it.  Each one brings distinctive traits and talents to the group.  Each one consistently demonstrates kindness, compassion, and caring.  In short, each girl manages to be an excellent role model while still coming across and real and interesting.  How fascinating to see a series that shows that goodness need not be dull and that girls can be feminine and strong and all sorts of things in all different ways!

I also enjoy how, even though each book so far has featured a love interest, each one has been unique.  And each one has been something that young readers may encounter themselves.  Rapunzel’s story is the first to feature two love interests, but it’s not the horrible love triangle you think.  Instead, Rapunzel makes the mistake so many girls do–she falls hard for the handsome, tall, smooth-talking guy everyone wants-even though he’s obviously selfish and self-centered.  Meanwhile, her poor friend Basil, a legitimately caring guy, falls by the wayside.  But such is life and Rapunzel and her young readers are about to learn how to look past looks to see one’s true character.

I am absolutely thrilled to find a series full of so many good messages and so many characters who are worthy to emulate–all packaged in a story that is truly absorbing and never seems preachy.  I can’t believe I haven’t heard more about these books from fellow readers.