Last night the Nosy Crow Reading Group met to discuss The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine, the first book in a new mystery-adventure series, which Rooftoppers author Katherine Rundell described as “a wonderful book, with a glorious heroine and a true spirit of adventure.”
It’s a book that provoked a lively discussion and some spirited debate between our reading group members – about the plot, the characters, the setting, the narrative voice – and although there was by no means unanimous agreement, this was, I think, a book that the majority of us enjoyed. And before I carry on, please be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!
The element of Clockwork Sparrow which proved the most popular was, I think, its setting: many of our group commented on how much they enjoyed the time and place of the novel. Woodfine’s Edwardian-era setting, and in particular the glamorous department store of Sinclair’s (which is practically a character in itself), came in for particular praise: described alternately by our group as “a beautiful evocation of a world”, “dazzling”, and “Agatha Christie for little ones”. Several of our members commented on the department store, and we loved the abundant references to food, clothing, and other period details, with one person saying that the large amount of detail helped them to jump into the story straight away. And overall, we felt that the Edwardian setting worked well (several people were particularly interested in this period, and thought that Woodfine had handled it adroitly), and gave the book some interesting things to say about class.
A few of our members felt that perhaps there was a little too much period detail for some children, however – and that the book would have limited appeal as a result. And although several of us admired the way the book addressed class and social hierarchy, a couple of people felt that it was consumeristic – overly celebrating a department store and its wares.
While some of our members found that the amount of period detail helped to draw them into the book’s story, for others, The Clockwork Sparrow started a little slowly – although I think, broadly speaking, we agreed that the pace definitely picked up in the second half. One person commented that they read the first three quarters quite happily, but without feeling that they couldn’t put it down – but then found the final quarter gripping and captivating.
All of us, I think, liked the code-breaking elements of the book (and some of us would have liked to see even more of this), and the clockwork sparrow itself was particularly interesting as a plot device for a couple of our members, who enjoyed the way it became more than just another valuable jewel. And while we did not talk about them at great length, we liked the use of illustrations to break up the story (although several of us would have like more illustration).
A few people commented on what they felt were scenes relying a bit too heavily on narrative exposition – such as the scene during which Sophie hides behind the curtain in the theatre – and a couple of our members felt that more could have been made of the mystery, whodunnit elements of the story. But overall, I think we found a lot to admire in the plot: we particularly liked the ending, and for many people, realising that the book was going to have a sequel (and that, therefore, every plot element – like the identity of the Baron – did not need to be resolved in this book) was a relief. Several of us spoke of looking forward to the next book in the series, and thought that The Clockwork Sparrow had a lot of good things to build on for book two.
The characters of The Clockwork Sparrow provoked, I think, some of the strongest disagreement between our group. While several of us loved the characters (one person described the four protagonists as “a great group of friends”), others felt that Sophie was too “nice” (one person would have liked Sophie to have more misery inflicted upon her (!) and felt that “too much good stuff happens to her”)… whereas some people didn’t think that Sinclair himself was nice ENOUGH.
A number of our group felt that the overall cast of characters was quite large, and hard to keep in one’s head – and one person, who read with their children, commented that reading it aloud was made difficult by the amount of “character hopping” and shifting view point. Several of us had expected Sophie and Lily to be the book’s two chief characters, when in reality it felt like more of an ensemble to us (one person commented that they would have liked Sophie to be “the hero of the piece”).
Despite these quibbles, this was a book that the group as a whole enjoyed (I’m trying to be impartial in my write-up here: I loved it). A comparison that came up often was to Robin Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and I think that fans of those (also excellent) books would like this, too – although this is, to my mind, pitched a slightly older audience.
Perhaps the clearest sign that we liked this book was that the most heated moment of the evening came not when we discussed its merits or its flaws… but when we tried to decide exactly who we thought The Baron really is: Sophie’s father? Sinclair? Or someone else entirely? That, I think, is the sign of a good mystery story.
The Nosy Crow reading group will be back in October – if you’re interested in attending, send an email to tom at nosycrow dot com, and we’ll add you to our mailing list.