Book review for The Charity Shop Detective Agency (2022) by Peter Boland
This weekend, I was in the mood for a cosy mystery.
As someone with very specific requirements for what I like in a mystery, I was browsing through all the options available when I came across The Charity Shop Detective Agency by Peter Boland.
The first thing that struck me was that this was going to be incredibly twee. And that was why I bought it with one click.
I’m incredibly glad I did.
Fiona is a retired women who works in the charity shop dogs need nice homes during the day. She retired from London to a small seaside town and is filling her days with what she considers to be good deeds, good friends and good cake.
Working with her in the charity shop are Sue and Daisy, also retired. These three women form a trio not to be trifled with. The skill-set they have between them is quite remarkable.
The story is told from Fiona’s point of view (with the exception of the very first scene in which the body is discovered). She is a reliable, practical and kind woman with just enough cynicism to keep her interesting as a main character.
Sue (known by Fiona as Partial Sue) is a pragmatic and penny-pinching ex-accountant who becomes Fiona’s right-hand woman in her investigation.
Daisy is the dreamer. She is the dithery, bohemian grandmother of the group who needs a little bit of guidance and who also, coincidentally, has a real knack for lock-picking.
There are other side characters who populate the town and the mystery. All of them are larger-than-life, interesting and (of course) potential suspects.
When Sarah Brown is found stabbed in the back in her own home by a Tesco’s delivery driver, Fiona and her chums at Dogs Need Nice Homes are sent reeling. Sarah was a regular customer to the charity shop and Fiona considered her a good friend. She can’t then, in good conscience, leave it up to the police to investigate Sarah’s death.
However, Sarah’s murder is only the beginning. The killer plans to strike again and the would-be detectives need to catch them before they can.
I really enjoyed this mystery. There were enough twists and turns to keep me guessing, and some peril for our heroines.
How much cake can one woman eat?
In my case, the answer would be ‘a lot’ and I’m pleased to inform you that Fiona, Sue and Daisy can certainly keep up with me. The sheer amount of cake that is eaten in this short novel is astounding.
This is all part of its charm. It is a cosy mystery that is self-consciously English in all the best ways. From the instinctive reaching for the kettle in an emergency, references to Marks & Spencer’s and Waitrose, to the horror of somebody being impolite, it’s an incredibly familiar world.
If you like Fantasy and want to indulge in some cosy fantasy with an equally indulgent amount of cake, check out Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree.
Not all twee and tea
There were a surprising number of deep themes in this novel. They weren’t explored in gritty, gruelling detail but they were there. They were mentioned, they formed part of the plot, and they made the world feel fully formed.
The most obvious themes explored in this book are age, ageism, disability and loneliness. This is done through the fact that there are three single older women working together and becoming friends, and that the victim is also older, lives alone, and has no family to rely on.
There are also references to depression, grief and loss. A rival charity-worker demonstrates racism and, since I expect her to become a series-character and appear in the next books, I hope that she will either get her comeuppance or (even better) learn to examine and overcome her prejudices.
If cosy murder mysteries are your thing, and particularly if small-town English mysteries are your thing, then this is definitely one that should go on your list.
It’s interesting, well-written and is a cracking little mystery. Also, if nothing else, the name of the charity that Fiona works for is pure gold in itself.
Main characters can be diverse in a lot of different ways
Everyone deserves a happily ever after
I have been reflecting on the books that I read in 2022.
It occurred to me that I have been reading some reasonably diverse books lately (and, no, this is not me patting myself on the back, this is me working out why I seem to have read so many banging books this year with characters that are crystal clear in my mind).
I realised that I have read books with main characters who are diverse in many different ways.
And then I realised that most of those books were Romance books.
My Romance reading
Something it is worth noting: I read a lot of self-published Romance and one day I might write a blog that is a passionate defence of self-published Romance against all the snobbery it faces (usually by people who have never read any of the actual books).
But that day is not today.
I just wanted to make it clear that I am talking about self-published Romance and not traditionally-published Romance because those two pools are very different. I rarely read traditionally-published Romance and have very little idea of how diverse the characters are.
The Romance genre I’m talking about
Romance is a broad genre with many sub-genres. It includes contemporary romance, historical romance, paranormal romance, and many, many more. Each sub-genre has a whole load of sub-genres.
So I am going to narrow it down, otherwise I have read a more diverse list of main characters than I thought, namely main characters who are dragons.
Right now, I am only going to consider main characters from the contemporary romances I’ve read.
That still has a range of sub-genres, including romantic comedy (light-hearted stories) and romantic suspense (thrillers with life-and-death stakes).
What are the ‘usual’ main characters in a Romance?
What people tend to expect when they think of Romance is chick flicks, with two hetero, cis-gendered people in their twenties (maybe thirties at a push) who represent the ideal body standards of the day, which includes being white and slender.
Sometimes there will be some variation from the middle-class, neurotypical, successful, family-orientated stereotype but not often. It’s also worth noting that it’s mostly the female who is the less powerful of the two (often poor and working-class) and the male who is not family-orientated (but he learns a lesson about that by the end).
But that is also a subject for another day.
That’s not what you get in self-published Romance books
There is a huge range of books available and many, many sub-genres.
This article isn’t about the pros and cons of self-publishing (though I have some thoughts, good and bad).
However, it’s worth noting that the range of main characters in self-published books of all genres is incredibly wide, mostly because anyone can write their book and publish it and, yes, that means people often do that without taking due care and there is a lot of tripe out there…
But people who would never get a traditional publishing deal are suddenly able to get their stories out there.
And people are reading them.
What kinds of diversity are we talking about here?
There are a lot of ways in which main characters in a Romance novel can differ from the ‘expected’ protagonist.
In the past two years, I have read Main Characters who defy the ‘norms’ of Romance leads.
Please note, that’s MAIN CHARACTERS. The actual romantic interest, the lead character, the protagonist. Not a cute side-character who never gets romanced or if they do it’s by an equally ridiculed side-character because they are only there as comic relief. The actual main character of the book.
In just the past two years, I have read characters who:
Are trans men
Are of mixed heritage
Are Native American
Are Asian American
Are working class
Are middle class
Are upper class
Are late teens
Are in their twenties
Are in their thirties
Are in their forties
Are in their fifties
Are in their sixties
Are average build
Use a wheelchair
I think it’s wonderful that such a wide range of people who represent the population (mostly of the UK and the USA) are the protagonists.
Not only that, they are protagonists in a Romance.
Our predominant culture has taught us that, in order to be romanced, we must be cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, slim, beautiful, young, neurotypical and able-bodied.
If we’re not those things, there is very little traditional media that tells us we can have (and deserve) whatever kind of happily ever after we want.
I love that the self-published Romance community said ‘hold my beer’ and gave us something else.
Shades of Milk and Honey (2010) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Jane Ellsworth is the daughter of a gentleman in an alternative Regency England. She is incredibly skilled at using glamour (a form of magical illusion) whereas her sister, Melody, is beautiful. As both young ladies vie for the attention of their local eligible man, Jane becomes convinced that she must resign herself to spinsterhood.
However, Jane’s small world is about to expand with the arrival of several new people to the neighbourhood.
I’m going to get this out of the way first.
This is entirely a matter of taste.
My only criticism is that I didn’t find the protagonist to be that likable at the start.
She is competent (which I like in a protagonist) and sensible (which I wish more protagonists were) but she lacked any particular warmth.
I can see exactly why this was done.
Jane’s character arc was about her developing those softer and more creative sides to her personality and so she started as extremely practical and proper, and gradually learned to understand and express her emotions. It means she started out a bit cold.
She does claim to feel strong emotions, it’s just that I didn’t particularly believe her or sympathise with her plight. Weird, since she is heavily based on Anne Elliot from Persuasion, my favourite Austen heroine. However, Anne comes across as put-upon and willing to sacrifice her own happiness for those she loves, whereas Jane felt more calculating.
Even the kind things she does, like hug her sister when she is upset, is actually so her sister can’t see her emotions on her face. Ulterior motive much?
This lessened greatly as the novel progressed and I liked her more and more which I totally get was the point. Still, it meant it took me a while to actually start rooting for Jane.
There are so many strengths to this book I’m not even sure I can cover them all.
The world-building is top-notch. Seriously
Many historical fantasies, by definition, have to take magic as a part of the world that has affected everyday society and yet hasn’t changed the course of history at all. That is difficult to pull off.
Mary Robinette Kowal nails it. Glamour permeates society at every level, from the parlours of genteel ladies to the war ships of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. However, while it is capable of doing many incredible things, the limits of glamour are clear from the start.
What I particularly loved was the fact that, like many skills, it was considered proper for a young lady to learn them. But not too much. And certainly not to earn any money from it or do anything practical with it. The whole concept is beautifully woven into the class and social structures that are recognisably Regency England.
I am willing to bet that the author has an understanding of the historical period that goes beyond the superficial ‘I read a Jane Austen book once’. While there isn’t any world-building exposition (thank goodness!), the whole novel is richly layered with details and histories that create the feel of a fully-formed world.
The language is spot on
While I have read several other contemporary books set in the Regency period (both realism and fantasy), many of them use a superficial tone to achieve a Regency-esque sound but it is definitely not Regency. They have too many modern words or turns of phrase. Not so in Shades of Milk and Honey. It is beautifully written in a Regency style that is recognisable and consistent but not difficult to read.
Readers get to spot their favourite Jane Austen characters
This is a fun part of this novel.
Any reader familiar with Jane Austen’s work can tell who a character is based on as soon as they appear on the page. Kowal leans heavily into these character types so we know what the characters will do already (and who will turn out to be a cad). It’s one of the delights in reading it.
There are some lovely set-pieces that are an homage to some of Austen’s most famous scenes. The strawberry-picking, for instance, was both charming and made me hungry.
I love a romance
Shades of Milk and Honey is a charming romance in which both characters learn and grow as they fall in love. That is my favourite kind.
Perhaps it is the feminist in me (and perhaps Kowal flagging up who exactly the love interest will or will not be) but I took an instant dislike to Mr. Dunkirk. I was thrilled when Mr. Vincent turned up and promised to be an excellent, prickly, caring hero.
I recommend Shade of Milk and Honey for readers who like low fantasy, historical settings and personal stakes for the characters.
The ‘glamour’ is such a gentle element of the story that even people not particularly au fait with fantasy can enjoy it.
It’s a lovely blend of magic and romance and historical fiction.
I suggest a way to make sure your advice is solicited
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this tweet.
Was at training once where the facilitator said “Unsolicited advice is criticism. Always.”
Half the room audibly gasped/ objected.
The other half shouted a chorus of yes/thank you/amen.
She offered no quarter to the “just being helpful” brigade. It was glorious.
This struck me as something that a lot of people will instantly rail against.
We’ve all been in that situation, where we can see someone doing something so wrong that we just itch to go and correct them. Usually, we want to do it for their good, not ours – it’s not like we’re going to get anything from it. They’re the one who wants to do the thing, whatever it is (write that book, build that wardrobe, cook that meal, etc.)
The point is that walking up to someone and saying, “You should be doing it this way,” is unsolicited and it is, implicitly, a criticism of the way they’re doing it now. You are literally telling them that they’re doing it wrong because you know the right way.
I think what a lot of people haven’t paid enough attention to in this tweet is the word: unsolicited.
That one word does a whole load of heavy lifting.
It means that you can offer people advice. You don’t have to watch them struggle to do something you know you can help with.
All you have to do is ask if they want your advice.
I’ve grown up with this
My dad has a phrase that’s been a refrain throughout my life. Sometimes I’ll be doing something like packing a load of boxes or planning a journey or attempting some DIY and I’ll hear his voice from across the room. “Do you want to know what I would do?”
I always stop and look at what I’m doing at that point. It is such a good phrase because it tells me three things:
He thinks he’s seen a more efficient way of doing this
He’ll tell me if I want to hear it
He’ll leave me to it if I don’t want to hear it
This empowers me to make the choice.
Now, because I know my dad is clever and of a practical nature, I tend to solicit his advice at that point. “Go on then, tell me how you’d do it.”
Once he tells me, I get another choice: do I want to keep going with my way, or do I want to change?
Sometimes, I take a good look at what I’m doing and says, “Thanks, but I’m happy doing it my way.” This is his cue to shrug and say, “Fair enough.” He usually leaves the room at that point because it is incredibly frustrating watching someone do something in a way you think is less efficient than your way. But he does let me carry on without offering a single piece of criticism.
Is it wrong or is it not what you would do?
I’ve talked to my dad about this and he said something that stuck with me:
There’s a difference between ‘doing something wrong’ and ‘doing it differently from the way I’d do it’.
Sometimes, people just choose to go about things in their own way and that’s fine. As long as they’re not hurting anyone or damaging something that isn’t theirs to damage, it doesn’t matter.
If you’ve ever watched someone else wash up in a completely illogical way or stack a dishwasher as though it were a game of Tetris, then you know what I’m talking about. They’ve been doing it this way for years and it has worked out just fine. All that crockery will get washed. It’s just not the best way of doing it. But it’s not hurting you, so you have to leave them to it.
I’m not offended if you ask
When my dad asks if I want to know how he’d do whatever it is, I’m not offended. It’s often easier for someone on the outside to see much more clearly than the person in the middle of doing it.
I might have come up with a workable solution and gone with that, without stopping to consider whether there is another, better workable solution.
However, I have to say that I’m not going to take advice from everyone.
It depends what the task is and whether I feel confident that I know what I’m doing or not. It depends whether this is in person or on a social media platform (I’m less likely to take a generous interpretation on social media and much more likely to give the benefit of the doubt in person). It depends whether I know you. It depends whether you have expertise in this area.
If you ask me, “Do you want to hear my advice?” you’re asking me a question and I get to give you an answer. I get to choose: yes or no.
Ask if people want your advice
If you ask someone, “I have an idea that will make that easier. Do you want to hear it?” they will make a choice.
If they say no, then telling them your opinion is both unsolicited and obnoxious, after a direct request not to hear it.
If they say yes, however, they are then actively soliciting your advice.
Giving your advice after that is entirely reasonable.
All it takes is one little question before launching into your lecture or starting to point out where they’ve gone wrong.
Unsolicited advice is always criticism.
If someone solicits your advice, that is an entirely different matter.
You can (even should) ask people if they want your advice before giving it. It’s not difficult to do, it shows respect and it stops both of you wasting your time if they don’t want to hear it.
This isn’t purely about people (often men) giving unsolicited advice to women but it has to be said that women, people of colour and people with disabilities are often the ones who receive this kind of advice.
I’ve also noticed that young people (children, teens and even people in their twenties) get this a lot from adults/people older than them. Ironically, this comes full circle and older people and pensioners also get unsolicited advice.
Basically, anyone who is visibly identifiable as being ‘lower’ on the social hierarchy than whoever is offering the advice.
The phrase ‘a woman’s intuition’ is used to cover a multitude of sins
Reading the tone of the room is a skill
Women develop this skill as a survival instinct
Welcome to this month’s blog which comes from me needing to rant. I have attempted to structure my thoughts and make a sensible, informed and readable article for you. I hope it’s useful.
Women have ‘intuition’ aaaaaargh
Let’s examine this.
What is intuition?
Supposed ‘intuition’ is a SKILL.
It is based on small social and linguistic cues, such as body language and tone. Not to mention something as obvious as what people are saying.
Reading a room can include things such as:
How many people are in the room?
What is the ratio of men to women?
Who is seated and who is standing?
Who is sitting/standing together in obvious pairs or groups?
How crowded is it and how easy is it to move around and mingle?
Where are the doors/exits and how easy are they to get to?
Who is talking? (To the whole room or to their group)
How loudly are people talking? (Specifically which individuals are talking loudest)
What are they talking about? (Is it something you know about and can join in with? Is it something you’re uncomfortable with, such as sexist jokes? Because if it’s the latter, you know who to avoid)
Who is in charge/who is in authority? (Because you want to know where to head if you need help)
Who can do it?
Theoretically, anyone can have this skill.
However, it is often attributed to women.
I am deeply uncomfortable with this for many reasons. A few of those reasons are:
It undermines the logical, reasonable opinions of women by dismissing them as ‘intuition’ (more on this later)
It implies that men can’t do this, when they actually can
It erases the skills of the men who can do it
It doesn’t take into consideration any differences between people’s ways of thinking and ostracises neurodivergent people who may or may not develop this skill in the same way as neurotypical people
‘Intuition’ is a learned technique of observation and processing what that could mean. It is not a magical ability gifted to certain humans because of their chromosomes.
Why women develop the skill of ‘intuition’
Women are SOCIALISED into learning this skill.
Men – often – do not have to learn this skill.
From a very young age, women are taught (directly and indirectly) to read the room and individuals as an (often subconscious) survival instinct.
This can be actual survival (saving her life by exiting a situation or getting away from a certain person), avoiding physical or sexual assault, avoiding harassment, or keeping her job.
The range of reasons that a woman has to learn this skill is incredible.
This is one of the reasons that I get angry about it being dismissed as ‘intuition’ or a ‘feeling’ rather than a logical conclusion based on experience. Women have developed this skill for a reason.
Picking up ‘vibes’ is often a person’s subconscious tracking body language, movement, tone of voice, volume, what is being said and taking note of the layout of the room.
That might sound weird but where people are standing can be a big part of this. For instance, is the door blocked? How many other women are in the room? Is it too loud in the room for people to hear you speak and/or call for help? How close are people standing to you and how high do they loom over you?
From where to sit on the bus to how to behave at a business meeting, women must constantly track the social cues in a never-ending quest for survival.
Note: there is a whole other discussion to be had about how People of Colour, openly or visibly queer people, and people with disabilities also have to learn this skill, but I am not the person to wade into that.
As for my previous comment about women needing to learn how to read a room in order to be successful at work:
Yes, learning to read the room and her colleagues is a necessary skill for any woman who wants to keep her job or get promoted at a reasonable, earned rate, especially in a high-profile, high-salary or male-dominated industry. There are so many articles and studies out there which demonstrate the seemingly impossible task of being a woman at work. Should she stay quiet, let others speak, work hard, not blow her own trumpet and then get passed over for promotion because nobody remembers who she is? Or should she bang tables, speak loudly, power dress, call others out on their mistakes and be dismissed as too radical? Loud men are assertive. Loud women are pushy.
Women – and it will be a shock for some people to hear this, I know – are people. They are flawed. They have individual personalities. We are not a homogeneous group who will all act and think the same way. Not all women have the same experiences. Not all women are neurotypical.
Some women will have developed this skill of observation much more than others, and will act on it differently or be on the look-out for different things. So this ‘women’s intuition’ can’t be pinned down to one thing. It is a broad spectrum of observations based on the woman’s needs, experiences and skill set.
How to develop this observation and processing skill
‘Women’s intuition’ is often described as getting a ‘bad feeling’ about a certain person or project, or ‘guessing’ how to make a person open up to them.
Some people can do this with seeming ease.
Actually, though, they are processing information and making a logical choice based on their observations. They are just doing it subconsciously because it’s become so ingrained that they don’t notice they’re doing it.
A project that ‘seems off’ will have small details that don’t add up. Almost negligible in terms of the big picture but still… not right. Those details need to be examined and corrected to fit with the rest of the project before it will feel ‘right’. They could be tiny indications that the project isn’t as well thought-through or as fool-proof as you’re being told.
A person who gives you a ‘bad vibe’ will be doing or saying something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe they’re looking at you funny. Maybe they make jokes you don’t find amusing. Maybe they’re too handsy or stand too close. Identifying why someone makes you uncomfortable will help you decide what to do about it: do you point it out to them, report them to someone else or avoid them?
If you want to develop your ‘intuition’ then you need to examine these things consciously.
Any time you get a ‘bad feeling’, don’t ignore it or act on it without thinking. Examine it. Try and identify what the source of the feeling is. The more you narrow it down, the more you’ll see that you haven’t made an illogical assumption, you’re responding to something there in front of you. It’s just that sometimes other people won’t see it.
A whole range of people need to develop this skill-set in order to navigate the world safely and to the best of their ability.
Dismissing women’s legitimate concerns and observations as ‘feelings’ is patronising and allows misogynist structures to build up in many spaces and businesses.
Developing these skills takes time. It takes practice and effort. If it looks like someone has already learned it at a young age, they might be pre-disposed to observe people closely or it might be they’ve already been practicing the skill for a long time (since childhood).
Many people can develop this skill, if they want to.
If you have this skill, don’t sell it short or doubt yourself. You know something others don’t. Trust your own judgement and identify the source of your ‘feelings’ and ‘intuition’.
If you like reading interesting feminist articles about films, books, writing and life in general, check out all my Gender Equality posts.
About Three Twins at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley
This is a school story set on Mars.
Mars, the Red Planet, farthest flung outpost of the British Empire. Under the benevolent reign of the Empress Eternal, commerce and culture are flourishing along the banks of the great canals, and around the shores of the crater lakes. But this brave new world is not as safe as it might seem. The Russians, unhappy that Venus has proved far less hospitable, covet Britain’s colony. And the Martian creatures, while not as intelligent and malevolent as HG Wells had predicted, are certainly dangerous to the unwary.
What, then, of the young girls of the Martian colony? Their brothers might be sent to Earth for education at Eton and Oxbridge, but girls are made of sterner stuff. Be it unreasonable parents, Russian spies, or the deadly Martian wildlife, no challenge is beyond the resourceful girls of the Crater School.
If someone had taken note of my very own personal likes in a story and had written a novel just for me, it would probably be this book.
It made my heart glad to read it.
This pressed so many buttons for me:
Stories about girls
Small-scale, personal stakes
Good people doing kind things
Who is this aimed at?
Unlike a lot of the school stories I remember (Enid Blyton, anyone?), this one is just as readable as an adult.
It was complex enough to keep me entertained throughout. The problems, though personal to the girls, are not trite.
I recently re-read some Malory Towers and it was fun to whizz through but I noticed a few things I was uncomfortable with these days that I didn’t notice as a child. This article isn’t about that, though, so I’ll move on.
The point is that Three Twins at the Crater School has all the nostalgia of those kinds of books, but in a fresh way that I was captivated by even as an adult.
Why I liked it
There is a range of interesting female characters, from the younger girls who are up to mischief, to the older Levity who is at the school for bigger reasons than just lessons, to the occasional glimpses of the headmistress dealing with pupils, teachers, parents, social pressure and the harsh climate.
It is a classic school story (more on that later).
It has some of the best SFF worldbuilding I’ve come across in a while (more on that later, too).
A classic school story
There are lots of things I think of, when I think of the kind of school stories I read as a child.
One of the most important (and one of the things I longed for in my own school experience and never got) was the sense of community.
Of course, there is a whole discussion to be had about exactly why public schools have such a sense of insular community and school pride, but I don’t want to dig into that here. What I want to focus on is the sheer joy of this book.
Nostalgic, richly-built and leaning hard into every school-story trope you want!
The Crater School is a tight-knit community
Although there is a sense of the sheer amount of space around them – the large building, the crater itself, the nearby town, the whole of Mars, the moons, the distant Earth – the focus of the story is very narrow: the girls in the school.
It is a small world with very personal, tight-knit community knowledge. Everyone knows everyone else, and keeping secrets is difficult. Not that the girls don’t try.
One of my favourite things about Three Twins is the classic trope of school stories: the head girl who knows everything.
The twins stared at her, bug-eyed. “Only the Head Girl,” Tasha said, gasping. Didn’t this new kid know anything that mattered?
That leads me on to the next delightful trope: the rigid school hierarchy.
The rivalry between the Middles and the Juniors is intense and each form is determined to hold their own against the others, older or younger.
A state of permanent war existed as by nature between Lower and Upper Fourth.
The honour of the school and form
The girls of the Crater School are proud of their school and want to show it to best advantage, even when they are struggling with an aspect of it themselves.
I love this trope because I love that type of loyalty (when it is deserved).
What’s interesting about it is that the girls can feel the conflict of that loyalty when it is tested.
There are times when they are torn between loyalty to their family and loyalty to their school. Neither one is necessarily in the wrong, but the clash of emotions and needs creates some really interesting decisions.
It’s not just the school overall that has the girls’ loyalty – it is their own particular form, whichever year that may be.
Bashful Patience would have declined, surely, if she’d had a true opportunity. But […] for the honour of the Middles she had to take a turn. Even she couldn’t yield the game to a gaggle of Juniors without at least a token effort.
Pranks and girls joining together to help each other out
As with most school stories, there comes a time when it becomes Us against Them. Pupils versus Teachers.
Interestingly, in Three Twins, the teachers and headmistress are given space in the narrative and the reader gets to see their point of view for a while. It’s one of the reasons that this book works so well for adults, not just children.
At one point (and I’ll try not to give spoilers), the girls begin a campaign to right a perceived wrong and they launch into it en mass. Even the petty competition between Upper and Lower Fourth is put aside in the face of greater adversary.
An undeclared truce was in place, and even the sniping was minor and perfunctory. They were all Middles together, after all, and there were greater issues at hand. The Uppers had joined in the letter-writing with glee, delighted to make war for once with the mistresses instead.
Sneaking out-of-bounds to explore
No school story is complete without the odd pupil sneaking around when she shouldn’t be.
The school is in a castle. There are secret passages. Of course the girls find them!
“Don’t you see?” Rachel went on. “Whatever she meant, your precious Rowany has given you carte blanche to go anywhere, in bounds or out. And to record it, to map it… This place is a castle, built by an eccentric; it must have secret passages, tunnels, hidden chambers, even beyond the servants’ ways in and out. And you have permission to hunt them all down. Don’t you see what an opportunity this is?”
I have to say that I was utterly captivated by the worldbuilding in this book.
It wasn’t anything like I expected. It has much more of a 1950s feel to it, which is not what I expected from a school story set on Mars.
The worldbuilding – both for the place and the society – are much stranger and more fantastical than I anticipated. Being a lover of Fantasy, though, this was only a positive for me.
A clear sense of place
One of the things I noticed first about Three Twins is the beautiful descriptions of Mars and the crater.
It wasn’t just going to be a story set on Mars which could have been anywhere, a few nods to rockets or different atmosphere and nothing more – this was going to be absolutely grounded in the place it was set.
Those waters might sparkle in sunlight, but they lay as dark as their secrets now, already in the long shadow of the crater wall. That held the lake in an almost perfect circle, the smooth ring of water making a sharp contrast to the jagged broken rock of the wall rearing above it.
Small details of world-building the society
I particularly loved the worldbuilding of the Martian society. The Pioneers were part-explorers and part-Girl guides, which was lovely. The fact that the girls all knew the history of Mars, not just because it was taught to them in lessons, but because it was relevant to them today, because the lessons of their ancestors was what kept the society going and kept the girls alive outside the safety of the school walls.
Tawney spelled it out for Rachel: “We’re never allowed on the path or anywhere outside school grounds unless there are at least three of us. It’s the old Pioneer rule: one to be hurt, one to stay with her, one to run for help.”
Rachel nodded. No girl of Mars would ever need such a rule explaining, and it would take a reckless girl indeed to defy it. She might be miserable without her twin, she might still be determined to hate this school and everything about it – despite any friendly overtures, with or without sweet hot crumbly honey cakes to help them down – but she wasn’t foolish.
A sense of wonder at the world of Mars
This was the moment which changed the whole book for me.
It comes early on, so this shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler. It was the moment when I realised the author was really going for it and this was going to be just as much Speculative Fiction as it was a School Story.
This is the moment when a merlin emerges from the lake.
Don’t know what a merlin is? Don’t worry, neither did I. It’s explained later. It’s part of the fabric of the worldbuilding.
What I loved particularly was the sense of danger, right outside the school gates.
I loved the fact that there were creatures on Mars that we were going to find out about.
I loved the automatic, ingrained response to seeing one. Run. Always run.
She looked out over the lake – and suddenly cried aloud, “Oh, look! Look there—!”
She was pointing and calling and running all at once, because that was what you did, what you were trained to do. All your life, from the days you could first remember: boy or girl, farm-raised or city-raised, on the water or far off in the dry, parents and teachers and adults of all kinds taught the same truth. If you see a merlin come to ground, from water or from the air, point it out and cry the alarm and run. Run towards it if it’s a nymph, if you have the fingertalk; if not, run away. If it’s a naiad or an imago, always run away. But always, always run.
If you love school stories and SFF, then this is a pitch-perfect mash-up of the two.
There is a sequel already out, which is on my Christmas list. Partly because it’s set at Christmas and it would be a wonderful time to spend a few days reading it.
The sequel is called Dust Up at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley.
Can close you off from finding other things you love
Will help you avoid things that annoy or trigger you
I’m going to look first at why people choose genres. There are several things to take into consideration and the people who know what they like are a unique bunch.
I’ll then give my thoughts on why it is sometimes good to expand your choice of reading, and then why it’s sometimes a good idea to stick to what you know.
People who know what they want from a book
Some people assume that people who read the same genre (or few genres) all the time are faulty in some way.
I strongly disagree.
People who have chosen a genre they like and are sticking to it are brilliantly advanced people because they understand what they like. This is a part of understanding themselves that some people struggle with for a long time.
Also, in my own personal experience, the people who say this about others are equally as entrenched in a few small genres and refuse to step outside of that comfort zone. They just don’t realise how small their world is.
The people who have told me to ‘branch out’ and ‘try new/better genres’ have invariably been people who simply don’t understand Speculative fiction. They dismiss it and think I could choose ‘better’ stories to read. Usually, they are people entrenched in a very small genre themselves. They have read a tiny, tiny fraction of the great books out there and have the gall (and lack of self-awareness) to lecture me about my reading choices.
Also, people change over time. You might change your preferred genre, and that’s fine.
How people choose their genre
There are lots of ways in which people choose their genres. Here are some of my suggestions.
Understanding what you like
In order to identify the genres you like, you have to identify a range of things you like, from characters, settings, plot, pacing and narrative style. Some people like a wide range of these, others a much smaller range.
Understanding what it is you like means – ironically – that you can find a broad range of books you like in all sorts of genres.
For instance, someone who likes mysteries might like Cosy Crime, Spy Thrillers, contemporary Police Procedurals and Urban Fantasy. All of them have a strong mystery element, often in first person, with one protagonist solving a murder.
By identifying the elements you really like, you would be able to branch out into a range of genres and still find books to love.
Immersing yourself in a genre and knowing the tropes, language and themes
The more you know about a genre, the more you will get out of it.
This is true of a lot of things, and it’s because you learn to spot nuances, references, allusions and collaborations in the stories that would pass others by.
By knowing the history of the genre and the recent trends, you can see how recent books are in dialogue with older books and current ones.
Also, a lot of genres (such as Fantasy) use certain words, languages and symbols that people who are au fait with the genre will understand straight away, but people who are not familiar with it will find confusing.
Your social group reads the same genre
People often read books because they are recommended by friends.
That’s a great thing, in my opinion.
It’s also how a lot of people end up reading in one or two genres, because they’re in an echo chamber of people recommending the same things over and over again.
This has recently been really easily seen on Twitter, whenever there are lists of ‘must-read’ authors. I saw the same names coming up again and again on these, even on the lists which are claiming to be highlighting diversity. I’m not arguing that they weren’t doing that, but I’m suggesting that recommending the same non-white (usually American) women as a reaction against the many, many lists of mainly-white men isn’t quite as diverse as they thought. When the same names come up on every list, it’s an echo chamber.
I have read a lot of books by those authors. I enjoyed many of them. I recommend many of them. And the people I recommend them to are the people who are open to reading them.
Like calls to like, as they say.
Why it is a good idea to stick to your genre
Genre actually covers a lot of ground.
I am a fan of Fantasy books and, when I tell some people I read that, they wonder how I don’t get bored ‘reading the same thing over and over again’.
Well, I have news for them: I could read nothing but Fantasy for the rest of my life and still have almost infinite variety.
As you know, Fantasy is the umbrella. Below that, there are dozens of sub-genres that are very, very different.
If you have found something you love to read, people should let you read it. You don’t need to expand out, you don’t need to read something they (or society) has deemed more appropriate or enriching. Unless you’re reading for work, you get to choose. You know what you want. You have spent years narrowing down exactly what makes you tick and you’ve found a genre that gives you what you’re looking for in a book. More power to you.
Why it is a good idea not to be led completely by genre
The most obvious answer is that, if you are led by one very specific genre and refuse to read outside of that, you’ll never experience something radically new and different.
By branching out, you might find something you love that you would never have considered before.
I am a member of a book group and the members take it in turns to choose the book each month. I have read some things I would absolutely never have chosen to read. Some of those books, I hated. Some, I merely found tedious. And some, much to my surprise, I loved.
Think about the genres you’re choosing and what you want to read.
I’m not suggesting you go out and read a load of other things, I’m suggesting you consciously decide to either choose something new or stick to what you know. I don’t mind either way, I’m just suggesting you do it deliberately by understanding yourself.
If you can identify the elements you really like, you can search out more books like that, no matter what genre they’re in. It’ll be less hit-and-miss. The more you narrow down what it is you really like, the easier it will be to find books with that in them. You might well be surprised by the range of books that does contain it.
The mouth-watering descriptions of pastries made me hungry
Legends and Lattes (2022) by Travis Baldree
If you’ve been anywhere near the internet recently, you’ve seen this book popping up all over the place.
In just over three months, it has got over 7,000 reviews on Goodreads. And most of them are five stars.
Travis Baldree is that rare inspirational tale of an author who self-published a book, which became a massive hit (and rightly so) and was so successful that a traditional publisher came knocking. What that means for us fans is that it’s gone on sale in bricks-and-mortar book shops and we can get our hands on a physical copy, rather than just an e-book version from Amazon.
I love that this Cosy Fantasy story has taken off in such a big way. I am also hoping that it will lead to a spree of other Cosy Fantasy novels because they just became my favourite thing ever.
The premise of Legends & Lattes
Viv is an orc barbarian who has spent decades adventuring. That means fighting and killing monsters. It has taken its toll on her body and her spirit.
At the start of the novel, Viv gives up her life of adventuring, retiring her blade, Blackblood, and committing to a civilian life in the city of Thune. She finds the perfect place for her new coffee shop, buys the property and begins renovating it, with a little help from a carefully-chosen carpenter.
Gradually, Viv hires new people and draws in more customers. She has to contend with new-business-owner problems such as purchasing stock, hiring, pricing, and coming to a non-fatal arrangement with the local gangsters.
The tag line is: a novel of high fantasy and low stakes.
This totally sets up what to expect from this book. In fact, it was far more action-packed and high-stakes than I expected. There were scheming gangsters, rogue adventurers, arson, assassination attempts…
If you don’t quite know what cosy fantasy is (and defining a genre is always tricky and everyone disagrees anyway) then think of it as playing D&D but instead of fighting monsters, your adventurers are taking some time off, sitting round in the tavern, making a few coins with some odd manual labour jobs, chatting and gossiping about the town they’re in and thinking they must get round to polishing their armour at some point.
Legends and Lattes has high stakes for the protagonists – their livelihoods and even their lives – but there is little to no consequence for anyone else.
They are just a handful of people who are trying to make a living plying an honest trade. They are not important people and their victory won’t change the world. The whole story is personal and, though there is danger to them, it doesn’t feel like the Final Battle or anything. It’s just another day.
I listened to the audible version of this, narrated by Travis Baldree (the author) and it was six hours of perfect bliss.
It’s always interesting to me when authors narrate their own books. In the case of Travis Baldree – who is a professional audiobook narrator – I knew I was in safe hands.
I always wonder whether it’s better for the author to narrate, if they can. They know the book so well. They created the characters. They know the pitch and the tone they imagined when they wrote it.
Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much. It was a soft, smooth narrative. More than anything, it reminded me of the children’s books I used to listen to on cassette tape (showing my age here!) at bedtime when I was a kid. It was a very safe space. I loved it.
All the cake
Delicious descriptions of everyday things like building, chatting, making drinks and eating and drinking with friends.
It reminds me of the Redwall series, in the calm parts between the action and adventure, when the good creatures of Redwall Abbey would gather round and feast. If you’re looking for something with that cosy feel to it, then Legends & Lattes is a great choice.
It also has the lovingly detailed descriptions of pastries and drinks, in the same way that the Redwall feasts are described. Yes, both made me very hungry.
I took a friend to a local café after reading this because I just wanted cake so much.
The descriptions of Danish pastries and pain au chocolat were so lovingly detailed. And I could feel the characters trying them for the first time.
Viv herself is a bit oblivious to the romantic undertones in her relationship with Tandri. It’s endearing, actually.
In terms of how much space it takes up in the story, the romance is very small. The book is described in the blurb as ‘a hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth’ and that fits it perfectly. Also, kudos for the latte metaphor.
Even though it’s a definite sub-plot, some of the most beautiful moments are when these two characters stick up for each other or challenge each other.
The first-person narrative means we get Viv’s perspective on everything. I don’t tend to be one of these readers who thinks it would have been better to get a POV from another character if the author has chosen not to do that. I assume they chose it for a reason.
However, some of the characters feel very surface-level and I would have liked some more information about them, their ambitions or their past. Many of them flit into the café, have a chat, do their thing, and then leave. In some ways, that is great because it’s exactly like real life. And the blurb warned me that it was a slice-of-life story, which tends to be… not unfinished, exactly, but leaving things open for more to come as life simply goes on.
Having said that, the characters are well-drawn and distinct. I was never confused about which customer was which because they were so individual.
I wanted to know more about Thimble/adopt him as my very own son. I think the Thimble fanbase out there will agree.
Legends and Lattes is a solid book to read or listen to if you’re in the mood for something affirming and fun.
I have always loved cosy fantasy, only I could never name it.
Now I have a name for it, I know what to search for.
This is a review of Rainbringer (2021) by Adam Berg and an analysis of the presentation of heroines.
What I was expecting
From the blurb, I thought this was going to be a story about a young woman sitting in a hut and waiting to die.
To an extent, it is.
The blurb didn’t lie. It just didn’t truly encompass everything that this book was.
I don’t want to give too many spoilers, so I’ll keep it vague.
A quick overview of Rainbringer
Yara lives on an island which is threatened every year by sea monsters who rise from the deep and wander the island. The only way to stop the monsters destroying the village and killing the villagers is to sacrifice one person every year: the Rainbringer.
This year, 16-year-old Yara is the Rainbringer. She is locked in a bamboo hut, where she will ritually starve to death.
While she is in there, the shamans divine next year’s Rainbringer. It’s Yara’s best friend, 16-year-old Nika.
They don’t believe it’s a coincidence. And they don’t intend to die. Instead, they set out to fight the corrupt system that has chosen to sacrifice them and find the truth behind the appearance of the sea monsters.
It’s a mystery, a coming-of-age story and a fast-paced fantasy fight against sea monsters, shamans and gods.
Yara as an active heroine
At the start of the book, Yara enters the hut where she will starve to death. She is confined, she has no resources, she cannot speak to anyone and she is there with the express purpose of not coming out again.
You can see why I thought she’d be the most passive heroine ever.
She was not.
From the moment she stepped into the hut, Yara shows how active she is. She might not be running all over the place, but she is actively pursuing her goal.
And her goal? Everyone else expects her plan to be to just wither away and die. Yara wants to know the truth.
What first endeared her to me was the fact that she had thought things through before entering the hut when the book opens. This means that, even if she can’t go anywhere now, she has been to different places in her quest for the truth. Already, even sitting in a hut, she is an active character.
Part of her being active is her fight against the restrictions which have been put on her. She knew she would be trapped with no resources. So she made herself some resources. Sure, she had to do that before the book opens so we readers don’t get to see it, but it gives us a taste of what is to come – Yara is going to be extremely resourceful in her search for the truth. And she is.
What she wants more than anything is knowledge, which she gets from her journal, talking to the shaman, observing the ritual she is a part of, talking (illicitly) to her friend, communicating with a sea monster and a little bit of gruesome grave-digging.
Even when she is trapped in the hut, Yara is actively seeking answers.
Nika as an active heroine
Nika doesn’t have the head-start that Yara does. She has not prepared for this moment for an entire year the way Yara has but, once she decides to act, she is clever and resourceful.
I like that the two young women are different, with different approaches to the same problem. Nika is not a rule-breaker in the way that Yara is, and she has to learn to deceive over the course of the novel. For Yara, that is never a problem.
At first, Nika has much more physical freedom than Yara does. She can roam the island, for a start. She has access to a small number of resources which she uses to communicate with Yara, even though they are not meant to speak. Nika learns information about the mystery of the sea monsters and the ancient tradition of the Rainbringer from a larger number of people than Yara does, and she travels across the entire island to do it.
Once she is chosen as next year’s Rainbringer, though, Nika’s freedoms diminish as she is watched and guarded by suspicious shamans.
Whereas Yara’s greatest resource is her mind, her suspicion and her forward-thinking, Nika’s greatest resources are her allies. She earns the trust and respect of others, who work with her, give her information and help her survive.
The friendship between the two young women
Both young women have little power and very few resources. They don’t own any money, they don’t own property, they don’t have any sway within the local community, and they don’t even seem to have many possessions at all.
Yet, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that their biggest resource is each other. Both young women rely on the other to do what they need.
What they can give each other in terms of resources is limited, but they do give what they can and that is how they start to unravel the mystery.
They give each other:
Alliances with other people
Physical resources (usually self-made)
Their own physical bodies (for example, to use as a double)
What I loved about this book more than anything was the lengths to which these two heroines were willing to go to help the other.
Without giving away spoilers, it is clear throughout the novel that each woman would sacrifice her life to save the other if she could. I eat up the trope of friendship-love and this book absolutely nailed it.
Pick up a copy of Rainbringer
I have been telling all of my friends about this book.
If you love active female protagonists, women helping women, young adults fighting against an oppressive regime and a brilliant mystery, then I recommend it to you, too.
I got my copy from Kindle Unlimited while I was a member. However, I loved it so much that I’m going to buy myself a copy as well.
Demonstrate the values of your society (and your writing)
What do I mean by secondary characters?
Secondary characters are those who are not main characters. They don’t have a POV in the narrative, they aren’t the ‘heroes’ and they probably won’t be in the whole story from beginning to end.
I am talking about secondary characters who are named (the family, friends and even acquaintances of the protagonists) and those who are not named (the crowds, the shopkeepers, the police officers, the teachers, the passers-by and that character who popped up to deliver a one-liner and was never seen again).
Robert Muchamore smashed this!
I recently read Robert Muchamore’s YA adventure story, Robin Hood: Hacking, Heists and Flaming Arrows (2020).
I wrote a whole blog post about how brilliantly he did this, so check out the blog post here.
It illustrates how to include female secondary characters, so if you want some good examples, head over there now.
Why secondary characters are most likely to be male
There are a couple of reasons why secondary characters are most likely to be male.
The first is that we live in a society where women have typically been erased from history and public spaces, and the second is that this unconscious bias rears its ugly head harder with secondary characters than with primary characters.
1. Women have been erased from many aspects of history by our stories and our assumptions.
A lot of people writing about traditionally male enterprises make the mistake of assuming that, if they’re writing about men, there won’t be any women there. Except the love interest. She has to be female *rolls eyes*.
Taking the example of the Napoleonic Wars, the soldiers were generally male. Most of the people employed by the army to transport goods and so on were male. But there were women there. In every town the soldiers passed, there were women. Those male soldiers had wives and sweethearts and mothers and daughters. Many of those women followed the soldiers’ camps across Europe and looked after their men.
Yes, the women’s roles were restricted by social convention and legal legislation. But each of those women had a different personality and a different background. And, importantly, they were there, making up 51% of the population. It’s wrong for modern-day writers to erase women yet again by not including them in their novels.
Even in historical settings, women were there (unless you’re setting this in a male-only environment, in which case are you sure all the servants, etc. were male?) and should appear at appropriate moments.
2. Secondary characters are the ones most likely to slip through the cracks.
Because they’re only in one scene in the book, or they’re only mentioned in passing, our writer brain doesn’t focus on them for very long. That’s when all our unconscious biases come roaring up.
If we care enough about representation of different genders, races, ages, classes and bodies, we’re trying our best to be aware of how our characters fit in with those. We spend time thinking about it. We make sure that we’re not defaulting to whatever comes to mind first (or whatever society has instilled in our subconscious).
Secondary characters, though, don’t get that treatment. They often suffer from a lack of careful planning. We want a prison guard and we automatically assume ‘male’. We want a cleaner and we write in ‘female’ without a second thought. It’s these unconscious biases that come out in secondary characters.
If we want to erase (or minimise) our unconscious biases, we have to constantly challenge them until they are either not unconscious but conscious or, even better, no longer a bias we hold.
Why it’s important to write female secondary characters
Women and girls need to see themselves in these stories and performing roles and jobs that women perform in real life.
Men and boys need to see women in these stories to reflect that reality and to model how to behave when encountering a woman in that role.
It’s the way we live now, and it needs to be reflected in our art and stories.
Every time you don’t include female characters, you’re contributing to the notion that women are less important and less visible. It will mean women and girls continue to learn that they should stand back and let the men take charge, be quiet when the men are speaking and be terribly thankful if they are ‘allowed’ into a male space.
Including women (just 50%, like in real life) will show your readers that women are an important part of society, they are valued and capable and can be seen.
How you can do it
These are 3 really great ways to make sure you are getting an even spread of female and male characters in your books, especially with secondary characters.
They’re easy to do, too, so there is no excuse for not putting the thought into it.
1. Keep a tally.
Literally tally up, on a post-it note or something, how many female and how many male characters you have so far.
You’ll be able to see as you’re going along whether one of the genders is starting to out-weigh the others. And, more importantly, you’ll be able to correct that.
2. For every named character, come up with a female and male name before deciding what gender they should be.
This only works on named characters, not generic ‘guard’ or ‘police officer’ or ‘beggar’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘baker’ you have in the background of your scene.
What it does do, though, is force you to decide on a gender at the character-creation stage. It will (hopefully) stop you defaulting to male for that ‘doctor’ if you specifically create the option of a female name.
Deliberately giving yourself the choice of a female or male name also helps to flag up as you’re going along whether you’re leaning more towards female or male secondary characters. If you find yourself always choosing that gendered name, you know you have a bias in your writing or your worldbuilding (and therefore your writing).
3. Gender-swap all secondary characters at the end.
Once you’ve written your first draft and you’re entering the editing stage, you can gender-swap all the secondary characters.
You don’t have to keep them that way, but it’s a really cool exercise to do. It will give you the chance to read through your story from a new perspective and spot any potential problems.
If you’ve gender-swapped your secondary characters and suddenly you have loads of women popping up everywhere:
Shouldn’t there be women there anyway? Is having all these women there the way it should be?
Maybe you’ve defaulted to male too much in your first draft and now, wow, you’ve got a lot of women all over the place and maybe you need to even out that balance a bit
If you’re a man, particularly, you can suddenly see what it’s like for a woman to read all those male-dominated books where it’s like ‘oh yes, another man, and another, and another’. Now you know what it’s like, you can consider changing that.
Another real benefit of this is that you can see if you’ve made your secondary characters fit gender stereotypes. Even if you’ve included an equal mix of genders, you can spot whether you’ve got all the male secondary characters in positions of authority and doing physical labour, while the female secondary characters smile sweetly and bake bread and care for the home.
Like I said, you don’t need to keep your secondary characters gender-swapped. You can change all or some of them back (depending on what you learned about your writing and what you want for your story). At least you’ll be choosing their gender deliberately, though. And that’s a start.