Agatha Raisin and the Perfect Paragon (#16) by M. C. Beaton

Published: June 29th 2006 (print)/26 July 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
St. Martin’s Paperbacks /Audible
Pages: 284/6 hrs
Narrator: Penelope Keith
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cosy Mystery
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Agatha Raisin, recent divorcée, hates adultery cases and pompous Robert Smedley, but needs work. Unfortunately Mabel appears the perfect young wife, a pretty church volunteer. Agatha stumbles across dead missing teen Jessica, and investigates free for publicity. When Smedley dies from poison, Mabel hires Agatha, who brings in old friends, new hires, and finds the killers.

Agatha’s detective agency is still going strong, however things like missing cats, dogs, and teenagers get swept aside with multiple murders this time round. Yet despite this, Beaton still finds time to pad out the story with side plots.

The murders are interesting enough, and the reveal was satisfying which is what you want from a good mystery, logical and with a point. There is certainly a lot happening to focus on and a lot of characters to enjoy away from the murders themselves too which adds some more variety.

The story has moved on from the will they/won’t they between Agatha and James that took up so much time in earlier books, and thankfully has moved even further on from Agatha still lamenting about him. Old favourites remain like Agatha groaning about her perpetual early fifties and obsesses about men and love so nothing drastic has changed. I am glad though Beaton is mixing up the characters and storylines a little more.

The new characters introduced fit well into the story, not just living in the village and moving out at the conclusion for the convenience of the plot as the formula has been for a few books. The rotation of villagers leaving through murder, scandal or random chance meant people were coming and going fairly frequently it was hardly worth caring about them.

New regulars of the series are the employees of the detective agency. I liked the mixture of ages and motivations Beaton has chosen for these people; Harry is young and a punk looking for something to fill his gap year, Patrick is a retired police officer which is handy for connections and actual skill and training, and Phil is retired and looking for something to keep him busy and conveniently takes a decent photograph. It’s a mix that works and while they don’t all have complete depth or intricacies, they are enough to be decent characters. Beaton’s certainly presented us with a lot less before.

Charles is back which is always fun, and the regular characters play their formulaic roles. Again there are a lot snide comments and big opinions stated in the story that don’t feel like they fit within the story. It’s a hard line to decide if the views expressed and thought by the characters are their own quirks or Beaton’s own opinions about “these days” and “nowadays”. The judgement, mild offence, and criticism of everyone and anything comes across as mini tirades but it’s such a strange thing because it could be Agatha lamenting, or it is Beaton’s own criticisms about the changes in the world that she is projecting. It is consistent enough however that at least it is predictable even if it feels out of place.

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More Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer

Published: 27th October 2015Goodreads badge
Illustrator: Esphyr Slobodkina
Pages: 40
Format: Picture Book
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Celebrate the 75th anniversary of the perennial favorite Caps for Sale with this never-before-published sequel to the beloved classic! In this first posthumous book from Esphyr Slobodkina, those mischievous monkeys are at it again, bringing laughs to a new generation of readers. The sequel, More Caps for Sale, picks up right where Caps for Sale left off, as the peddler comes face-to-face with those monkeys and their funny business yet again.

This sequel comes long after the publication of the first one in 1940 and is official in the sense that according to the authors note Slobodkina told Mulhearn Sayer to continue her work after her death and apparently they worked on this book together.

This story continues on immediately after the interaction with the monkeys in the first book as the peddler contemplates what occurred and how upset he is at not having sold any caps that day.

Once again the narrative uses repetition and mimicking in the monkeys actions and the peddler’s, and once again the peddler gets angry at the monkeys, somewhat incorrectly this time as they are less of a hindrance this time and more harmlessly mischievous.

The style of writing is similar to the first. The short sentences, the repetition as mentioned, and the basic story all feel like the original style Slobodkina wrote in. The illustrations are the same with the same basic but detailed style and if you combine the two together they could almost be the same story, a longer picture book with no deviation of story whatsoever.

The narrative asks questions to the reader which is engaging, just like the first story, and no doubt the antics of the monkeys will entertain kids. The monkeys have a larger role this time and do more than simply thievery in the first which is entertaining, especially given the peddler’s reaction and the impact that involvement has.

I don’t feel like the first book is ruined by this, it remains one of my favourite children’s books, but I do think it doesn’t hold the same standing. Whether that has to do with the additional author, the different era, or it was always going to be that way I don’t know. It’s a fun addition and with so many similarities it is still just as good as the original I think I’m always wary of posthumous sequels to famous books so long after the fact I probably go in unjustly sceptical before I start.

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Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate (#13) by M. C. Beaton

Published: March 2003 (print)/12 March 2009 (audio) Goodreads badge
Minotaur Books/Audible
Pages: 212/6 hrs and 34 mins
Narrator: Penelope Keith
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cosy Mystery
★   ★  ★ – 3 Stars

Agatha Raisin has just about had it – James has abandoned her, the new neighbour has made an unseemly proposition, and the new curate seems to be taking a more than normal interest in her. Now he is dead.

This was a pretty forgettable book despite it having a few decent components. Beaton keeps us in Carsely but instead of the usual characters like Charles, Roy and the dreaded James we get to discover more of the villagers and the broader community while keeping familiar faces in Bill Wong and Mrs Bloxby.

Agatha is a mixed bag here, she has sworn off men, still has complicated emotions and pining towards James, and thankfully hasn’t fallen head over heels with new neighbour John and started imaging a life together. Her openness about her investigation is nice, she openly tells people she isn’t officially anybody and yet still tries her luck at asking people questions. This is all in an effort to help clear her friend’s husband’s name so credit to her for trying to help, it’s one of the few times her input is justified and isn’t about clearing her own name.

Her own life once again becomes in danger but while it’s predictable, it’s a nice consequence of Agatha running around butting in trying to solve crimes she has no real business solving. Her ability to stumble into revelations is hardly a good justification but Bill and Wilkes put no real effort into stopping her so they certainly can’t complain.

The reveal is relatively clever, the twist and surprises are interesting but Beaton still needs to work out where she is taking these characters because every moment of growth and positive change we see it is either contradicted or backpedalled soon after. The exploration of side characters was a nice change too, fleshing them out to become more than one dimensional. Bill’s love quest continues and we see more of John’s character than we have previously. Agatha learns some more about herself which was some good growth and I liked her decision to help out in the community with her PR skills. It’s these parts of Agatha I enjoy seeing – her input into to community and trying to be a good person for good causes instead of insulting everyone and being brash and abusive.

I don’t know whether it was because the story was lacking or because I had been reading these back to back but this isn’t the most memorable book. It’s not quite formulaic but not revolutionary either. So many of Beaton’s books are memorable for the wrong reasons though so being forgettable is probably the best thing for this one.

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Shrek! by William Steig

Published: 1st September 1993Goodreads badge
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Illustrator: William Steig
Pages: 32
Format: Picture Book
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Shrek, a horrid little ogre, goes out into the world to find adventure and along the way encounters a witch, a knight in armour, a dragon, and, finally, a hideous princess, who’s even uglier than he is!

The story is relatively simple, being a fairy tale and a picture book this isn’t surprising but there is still a great story being told. Steig’s given Shrek a fairy tale story of his own which involves leaving his home, a prophecy of sorts, and many encounters along the way to find a princess.

Through the narrative we learn about who Shrek is and what he is capable of. He is portrayed early on as incredibly ugly, but as the story goes on we learn he is a gruesome character; he has an odour, abilities magical and poisonous, and eats lightning.

The illustrations are great, they may not be intricate or overly artistic but they convey Shrek’s ugliness and the ugliness of his parents, as well as depicting what is happening through the text.

The whole book is not told in rhyme but there are riddles and rhymes in fortunes, signs, or conversations which play into the fairy tale genre and the mixing of talking animals, fairy tale creatures and humans is well done.

The movie obviously took this basic story and key components and ran wild with it to great success but this story isn’t lacking either. There is a great backstory to Shrek and his own adventure that stands on its own away from the film. Steig has taken on the fairy tale genre and created a story with a unique plot and given a story to an unlikely creature usually not given a protagonist role in fairy tales.

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If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Published: 3rd May 2016 (print)/4 August 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Flatiron Books /Macmillan Audio
Pages: 280/6 hrs and 59 mins
Narrator: Samia Mounts
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

A new kind of big-hearted novel about being seen for who you really are.

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a universal story about feeling different and a love story that everyone will root for.

I read this after Russo’s other book Birthday but while I liked this I think Birthday was a more powerful story. Even though some tough issues are raised here like transphobia, bullying, abuse and violence towards trans people, it was still a relatively minor part of the story. The main plot points are about Amanda at her new school, making new friends, falling in love and trying to reconnect with her estranged father.

There are stereotypes and easy roads taken to make Amanda’s story work which Russo admits to, but that is ok because this isn’t a story about Amanda’s transition (though we do get her full backstory through well placed flashbacks), this is about her life now and how she is navigating a new school, new relationships and her first love.

Russo’s author note at the end talks to her readers, trans and otherwise about how to approach Amanda’s story. She admits she took liberties and made the process seamless for Amanda where it otherwise shouldn’t have been to make the reader accept Amanda more easily, but she acknowledges that many other people don’t have such luxuries in real life. I liked this addition because it would be so easy to dismiss Amanda’s experiences because she had it easy and things were perfectly aligned for her, not to mention for people to assume this experience was universal when it isn’t. In doing so Russo makes the story afterwards the focus and Amanda’s life now rather than before where the main story lies.

Having said that, it isn’t a perfect road for Amanda – I hated that for the entire time I was waiting for the reveal about her past and for the town and/or her friends to turn on her. There are so many trans stories and they shouldn’t all end in revelations resulting in abuse and rejection but while some of Amanda’s story had rule bending, I appreciated Russo not sugar coating the entire experience.

Despite being #OwnVoices it still falls into YA tropes and stereotypes; it is cheesy and sappy at times, but if you’re after a sweet romance with the small town aesthetic that so many US YA books have then this is right up your alley.

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