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Thursday, February 12, 2015

"The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place" by Julie Berry (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

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 OVERVIEW: There's a murderer on the loose—but that doesn't stop the girls of St. Etheldreda's from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda's School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings.

FORMAT: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a middle grade Victorian murder mystery. It has some heavy topics (a girl's intense fascination with death, an overly flirtatious character) that make it one that should be cautious with some of the younger middle grade readers.

It stands at 368 pages and was published by Roaring Brook Press on September 23, 2014.

ANALYSIS: Writing a good middle grade murder mystery is a bit of a challenge. Writers don't want to make the plot too simplistic or they will lose the interest of their readers – both within the target age group and outside of it. Complicate the story/plot and you run the risk of losing the target audience, but creating a book that older readers will enjoy.

It truly is a fine line and Julie Berry knows how to toe that line in her latest novel – The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.  

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightful murder mystery set in 19th century England. One evening at St. Etheldreda's – a boarding/finishing school for young girls – the headmistress and her brother suddenly drop dead while enjoying an evening meal. Faced with the possibility of their school closing down and being forced to move – the 7 girls who attend the school leap into action and create a plan that hopes to fool the small town into thinking nothing is wrong.

This novel follows the girls as they try to keep the charade up. While trying to fool the community, the girls work to uncover who may have committed the murder of their headmistress and her not-so-likeable brother.

Overall, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightful, fun read. The characters are quirky and there is just enough humor sprinkled throughout the novel that things don't get too serious.

Considering there are seven main characters, there is essentially something for everyone in this book. There are enough characters introduced and well-developed that there is someone almost every reader will relate to in some way. There is the flirtatious, fun character, the studious girl who wishes to be a doctor, and the good-hearted, yet not overly beautiful character.

While the multiple characters help make the story more relatable to some people it may cause problems for others. The entire story jumps back and forth between all of these characters. There isn't one main character, there are seven. Throughout the novel we – the readers – will learn more about the characters' personalities, pasts, and future hopes and dreams.  This can be quite confusing.

Readers may struggle with the jumping around between characters, especially younger readers. There are so many characters, plot twists, and different avenues the characters are pursuing that it could be difficult for some people to keep up.

I admit there were some times, especially at the beginning, where I got confused about who was who and what they were doing. It worked out as the book continued, but it was a bit overwhelming at first.

I do want to point out one of the characters is extremely obsessed with death. There is even mention of the fact that she enjoyed spending time with corpses and researching dead people. Multiple times throughout the book she makes references to death, dead bodies and other gruesome things. The average reader might not be bothered by this, but those sensitive to the subject or easily bothered may find this off-putting.

While the book is fun and fast-paced, there was one quirk about the book that I found extremely annoying. Each of the girls in the novel has an adjective before their name. For example, Smooth Kitty, Stout Alice, and Dour Elinor.

I am not sure if this was done to be quirky and fun, to help readers with the characters, or what, but it got old/annoying after a while. About 90% of the time the girls were referred to in the novel, they had their adjectives with them. It also hindered the reading experience, as it made it feel clunky or clumsy. I am sure some people will gloss over this aspect, but it caught my eye every time it happened.

Another aspect of this novel that has to be pointed out is the historical aspect of it. The novel takes place in 19th century England and is fairly accurate. Everything from the timely references to events/authors to the descriptions and the way the characters acted was very true to the time period. I found the time period not only interesting to read about, but fitting. I think it enhanced the novel.

Overall, I found The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place a fun read. The entire mystery part wasn't too complex, but it wasn't so simple that I lost interest in the story. I would be hesitant to hand this novel over to readers on the younger side of the MG/YA spectrum. The topics of death and even the flirtatious nature of the one character make it a book that isn't for every middle grade reader.

Mystery fans will be certain to enjoy the twists and turns of this book. It isn't too heavy/plot intense, but it isn't light, fluffy and simplistic.



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