The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
(Roaring Brook Press, 2014)
Agatha Christie meets Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead in Julie Berry’s wicked and superb murder mystery, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. This tightly wound yarn blends classic farce with the macabre, creating a page-turner filled with wit and mischief.
Prickwillow Place opens with the seven students of Saint Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies at a tense Sunday supper with their vile headmistress and her odious brother. While the adults dine on veal, the girls are left to nibble buttered bread and hot beans. These miserly rationings are to be their salvation, however, as one after the other, the headmistress and her brother keel over dead, their mouths still stuffed with poisoned meat. It only takes the young ladies a few moments to realize the glorious opportunity that’s landed on them: the chance at real independence.
Having each been shipped off to Saint Etheldreda’s finishing school by their horrid families, the young ladies are in no hurry to return home and thus devise a plan to conceal the murders so they might live on at the school in self-governing harmony. This proves quite the undertaking. Once the bodies are buried in the vegetable patch, the girls must deceive the entire town into thinking that all’s well at Saint Etheldreda’s, but they soon learn that there was far more to their headmistress than any of them knew. When a handful of Spanish doubloons turn up, along with a strange gift from an admiring suitor, questions abound: What were those two involved in? Whose shadowy figure did they spy in the garden on the night of the murders? Could the killer be one of them? And will they strike again?
There may not be wizards in this British boarding school book, but magic bursts from its pages. Berry is an enchantress, her confidence and humor bewitching.
Chief among Berry’s achievements is how much she does with so little in shaping her characters. “Dour Elinor,” “Disgraceful Mary Jane,” “Pocked Louise,” each of the seven girls’ names are adorned with a moniker that neatly tells their whole tale. You know these girls, the adjectives seem to suggest, and indeed it feels that you do. While the first fifty-odd pages are a virtual chaos of comings and goings, the murder scene colliding with an unanticipated birthday party, this initial melee serves the plot well, disorienting the reader as to who is where, doing what with whom and adding to the sense of unseen danger.
Beyond the opening set piece and the ensuing theatrics, Prickwillow Place serves an interesting and refreshing portrait of society among young women. Though each has their own idea of what “freedom” means, the girls share a distinctly feminist vision of sisterly co-habitation and scholarship. Disgraceful Mary Jane may be a shameless flirt, Smooth Kitty may be a bit controlling, but each believes in the equality of the other. Their plan to sustain one another’s education after the death of their headmistress says more about the values of these young women than the suspicions that arise in the wake of the murders: These aren’t girls who just want to eat candy all day, unsupervised.
While steeped in genre, it’s the modern wink that makes Prickwillow Place something special. Dotted with welcome silliness, this otherwise sophisticated whodunit delivers pert and malice that would make both Jane Austen and Lemony Snicket proud.
Brown Girl Dreaming
(Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014)
The prolific and decorated children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson gives us the story of her childhood in Brown Girl Dreaming, an ethereal and transporting memoir written in poetic verse. Whether familiar with Woodson’s work (Feathers, Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster) or encountering her fluid yet concise writing for the first time, readers will melt into this lush, vivid account.
That this story is an autobiography is both intrinsic to its success, and beside the point. It’s a memoir that reads like historical fiction, and though this is Woodson’s story, its scope is wider than just one individual. Brown Girl Dreaming begins with “I am born,” (Hello, Dickens! Not the only David Copperfield connection one could draw) but the lens then swirls backwards to unearth the deep roots of her family’s lineage, reaching all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, it seems the Woodsons were destined to be at the fulcrum of the African-American story. In spite of this, young Jacqueline finds herself born into a schismatic culture. While her father was a staunch Ohioan Northerner, “there’s never gonna be a Woodson that sits in the back of the bus,” he intoned, her mother was an ambivalent Southerner, both drawn to her South Carolina home and antsy to get away from it. A particularly memorable stanza recounts the time she whipped her son with a switch from the willow tree after hearing him say, “Ain’t.” When her parents separated, Jacqueline and her siblings returned to South Carolina to live with their grandparents while their mother sought out their eventual permanent home in Brooklyn, New York. These three very different places made their home in Woodson as much as she did in them, and granted her a remarkable breadth of perspective on the great social change of the time period, which she conveys with ease and aplomb.
This is no social studies textbook, thankfully. At its heart, Brown Girl Dreaming is an oral history told from an album of mixed up family photos, time frames shuffling and overlapping in a way only the author can truly understand. But you needn’t worry about exactly how this all fits together, the joy is in listening to the fondness of Woodson’s recollections, her choices in what to reveal more telling at times than the content of the musings themselves. You can feel Woodson’s weight next to you on the couch as she guides you through her memories, sharing with you the flavor of her grandmother’s biscuits, the feel of her first notebook under her fingers. Her words have an aroma and an atmosphere. While the story might have benefitted from a bit more thematic structuring, it’s not wholly without shape. Ten different stanzas titled “How to Listen” are scattered throughout the book to form a neat through-line, each a brief meditation on how we listen and what we hear, and echoing the oral nature of both Woodson’s story and the African-American story on the whole.
Moving and evocative, Brown Girl Dreaming is the tale of a family, a culture, a history, and of one girl on her way toward becoming herself.
The Accidental Highwayman
(Tor Teen, 2014)
What a delight to arrive a skeptic and be made a believer. The Accidental Highwayman is cookies for dinner: an unapologetic blast of rollicking fun, best gobbled up with greedy abandon.
An Editor’s Note from Ben Tripp opens the story, claiming that what we are about to read is based on crumbling documents he found in a mysteriously locked family chest. These purported texts tell the tale of Kit Bristol, an ordinary servant living in 17th-century England who tumbles headfirst into adventure when his master is slain. While known to be reclusive and eccentric, the lord of Rattle Manse is no mere coot: In fact he has been living a double life as the legendary Highwayman, “Whistling Jack,” robbing the carriages of the wealthy to pay off his gambling debts. When Kit dons his master’s mask and cloak to lure away the killers, he unwittingly accepts not only the mantle of Whistling Jack’s identity, but also the fulfillment of his magical oath to save a fairy princess from being married to a warmongering human. Previously oblivious to the existence of the Fae-Folk, Kit is suddenly besieged with them. Though initially he may want nothing more than to just go home, when Kit lays eyes on the enchanting Morgana, his damsel in distress, he finds that duty and destiny have set his course.
Fight back your initial suspicion that this story will be too precious, and you’re in for a merry romp. A glance at Tripp’s author bio reveals that he previously spent 20 years as an “Experiential Designer” for theme parks and resorts (Disney), and it’s easy to see how this particular mode of creativity informed his writing.
A fairy kingdom, a magical crone, goblins, griffins, a prophetic map, the extended title, The Accidental Highway Man: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess and Sundry Magical Persons Besides; no blinking bulb has been spared in this carnival, but there’s not an ounce of cynicism in Tripp’s pageantry. To be sure, Tripp is having a lot of fun wielding his Dictionary of Ye Olde Phrases and Words but there is an authentic spirit of the storyteller in this author, and while he clearly enjoys the whizzes and pops of his magic show, so will the reader. Kit may seem a little thin as a main character, but all the more room for the reader to step into his shoes and see Trip’s lavish world with their own eyes. “This is all for you” his bounty of break-neck, action-packed set pieces seem to sing, and when yet another mercurial villain is added to the mounting list of nasties hot on the heels of our heroes and you find yourself laughing out loud, remember: that’s the point.
In the tradition of Robin Hood and The Princess Bride, The Accidental Highwayman is a cinematic tour de force, a treat, and a dizzying thrill-ride.
ContributorJordan B. Nielsen
JORDAN B. NIELSEN received her master's degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She has been reviewing children's literature since 2008, and is currently the children's book buyer for The powerHouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn.