Audiobook Review: Rules at the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #2) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Rules at the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: Originally published 2010; reissued 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s summer, but school is in session in the delightful second book of New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan’s utterly charming School by the Sea series, set at a girls’ boarding school in Cornwall.

For the second year at Downey House, it’s getting harder and harder to stick to the rules . . .

Maggie Adair’s first year as a teacher at Downey House was a surprising success. After making the leap from an inner-city school in Glasgow, she’s learned to appreciate the mellower pace of the girls’ boarding school by the sea.

Now engaged to her longtime boyfriend, sweet and steady Stan, Maggie’s just got to stop thinking about David McDonald, her colleague at the boys’ school down the road. Well, hasn’t she? Can Maggie take a leaf out of the Well Behaved Teacher’s exercise book and stick to her plan for a small but elegant wedding and settled life of matrimony?

Even as Maggie tries to stay within the lines, rules are being broken all around her. Maggie’s boss, headmistress Veronica Deveral, has more to lose than anyone. When Daniel Stapleton joins the faculty, Veronica finds herself forced to confront a scandalous secret she thought she’d carefully buried forever. How long will she be able to keep her past under wraps?

What does a new year of classes, rules, and camaraderie hold for the students and faculty at Downey House?

After listening to the first book in the Little School series, Welcome to the School by the Sea, I thought I’d wait a bit and enjoy the anticipation before listening to the second… but in the end, I just had to see what happens next!

In Rules at the School by the Sea, we start a new school year alongside teacher Maggie, headmistress Veronica, and the rambunctious group of girls — Simone, Fliss, and Alice — we got to know in the first book.

Maggie is much more settled into her life at Downey House. She’s more confident in her teaching abilities, and plans to grab her girls’ attention by focusing on romantic poetry from the World War I era during English lessons. Maggie and her long-time boyfriend Stan have recently become engaged, but Maggie seems to be in a bit of denial: She doesn’t really have any interest in wedding plans, and despite Stan’s urging, really doesn’t want to leave Downey House and look for a teaching job in Glasgow.

For Veronica, she’s both thrilled to have her biological son teaching at the nearby boys’ school, but also worried about whether news of her having once given up a baby for adoption will create a scandal among her staff and the parents. Meanwhile, she and Daniel are cautiously beginning to get to know one another, but Veronica is finding it almost impossible to balance her growing love for her son and his family with her deeply ingrained need for privacy.

And the girls — well, what can we say about a bunch of 14 (almost 15) -year-old girls in all their glorious confusion of hormones and growing up and still being so very young in so many ways? A new girl, Zelda — the daughter of a US army officer temporarily stationed in the UK — shakes up the group of friends with her brashness and American approach to school, while Fliss and Alice fall out over a boy and Simone takes Zelda up on her offer of a total image makeover. There are arguments and rule-breaking and hilarity, and it’s quite fun to see the girls’ petty squabbles as well as their friendship and commitment to one another.

Rules is quite a lot of fun, capturing the excitement of the school year from the perspective of the students as well as that of the teachers. Overall, I quite enjoyed this 2nd book, but I did feel particularly frustrated by Maggie’s romance story line.

Maggie has been with Stan for ages and cares for him, but she’s so clearly in love with (and better suited for) David, the English teacher from the boys’ school. Maggie spends the entire book trying to convince herself that her crush on David is just a passing phase, and that she really does want to marry Stan — but it’s entirely obvious that she and Stan have grown apart and want very different things out of their lives. It seemed as though there were plenty of opportunities for Maggie to face the truth and take responsibility for breaking off the engagement with Stan, but each time, she backtracks and recommits, even though she isn’t actually happy.

I know this back-and-forth love triangle stuff is supposed to add drama and tension, but after a while, it just makes it seem as though Maggie is emotionally unaware, and that doesn’t feel true to her character. There’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending in the final chapter, but it does appear that Maggie has finally had an epiphany and is on the verge of taking action… and I hope that’s really the case! (This is why I’ll probably grab the 3rd book the very first second that I can — I need to know what happens next!!)

On a more serious note, the problematic focus on Simone’s weight from book #1 continues here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Simone making an effort to adopt healthy eating habits if that’s what feels right to her, but the over-emphasis on being slim in order to gain popularity and attract boys leads to an eating disorder for another of the girls in the group. On the one hand, I’m glad that the darker aspects of this focus on dieting are shown, but there’s still something very uncomfortable about how much weight and appearance matter in the girls’ lives. (Perhaps this is an aftereffect of the fact that this book was originally published in 2010 — if it were written today, I’d hope that the fat-shaming and focus on a specific standard for acceptable bodies would be addressed or eliminated altogether).

My frustration with the romance and the weight/dieting storylines aside, I did find Rules a sweet, entertaining, engaging read. I love how the storyline bounces between the adults and students, and how we get to see each sides’ attitudes and perceptions about the other. The characters are all quite endearing — even the obnoxious spoiled girls have something going for them — and the story as a whole is just such a yummy treat in the way it presents a somewhat idealized yet still modern-day version of life at a lovely boarding school.

This is the 2nd book in a series that was originally published over 10 years ago under a pseudonym, now being reissued with spiffed-up covers, titles, and the actual author’s name! The third reissue, Lessons at the School by the Sea, will be released in March 2023 — although since I have a paperback of the original version, I may have to read it much sooner. (Apparently, I am terrible at waiting.)

The audiobook is very enjoyable — I really liked the narrator’s approach to voicing the different characters. She does a very good job of capturing their personalities, although I found her version of an American/Texan accent for Zelda incredibly grating and overdone. Otherwise, though, it’s a charming listening experience.

And finally, one lovely bit is that the audiobook ends with a collection of Maggie’s poems — the poetry she teaches her class over the course of the school year. It was a sweet treat to get to hear all of these after the main story had concluded, and even though pieces of some of these are included earlier in the story, it was lovely to get to listen to them in their entirety. (My favorite of these is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou — see the full text here).

Another nice little bit at the end — after finishing the audiobook, I picked up my paperback edition and discovered that the final piece included is step-by-step instructions for some of the dances that the girls learn, including The Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow, and Eightsome Reel. (I can’t actually visualize the dances from reading the instructions, but seeing these pages is motivating me to go look for dance videos online.)

Wrapping it all up…

I love when a first book’s promise is delivered on in the second book, and that’s definitely the case with Rules at the School by the Sea. There’s much still unresolved plot-wise, but it’s wonderful to see these likable characters continue to learn and grow, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for all of them!

Book #3, to be released March 2023

Audiobook Review: Welcome to the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #1) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Welcome to the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: January 1, 2008 (reissued March 29, 2022)
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 54 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The first book of Jenny Colgan’s delightful new four-part series, set at a charming English boarding school on the sea.

Maggie went to the window and opened it wide, inhaling the lovely salt air off the sea. Why had she never lived by the sea before? Why had she always looked out on housing estates and not the little white hulls of trawlers bobbing off in the distance?

It’s gloriously sunny in Cornwall as the school year starts at the little boarding school by the sea. Maggie, the newest teacher at Downey House, is determined to make her mark. She’s delighted by her new teaching job, but will it come at the expense of her relationship with her safe, dependable boyfriend Stan?

Simone is excited and nervous: she’s won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school and wants to make her parents proud. Forced to share a room with the glossy, posh girls of Downey House, she needs to find a friend, fast.

Fliss is furious. She’s never wanted to go to boarding school and hates being sent away from her home. As Simone tries desperately to fit in, Fliss tries desperately to get out.

Over the course of one year, friendships will bloom and lives will be changed forever. Life at the Little School by the Sea is never dull…

Jenny Colgan books are always a treat, and this one was an especially nice surprise! Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Beaton starting in 2008, the three books in this series were hard to find in the US, and I finally landed copies of the UK editions (titled Class, Rules, and Lessons) by ordering via EBay.

The series is now being reissued by Avon, with books 1 and 2 available, and #3 coming in early 2023. Although I’ve had my paperbacks for several years, seeing the new editions made me realize that it was finally time to give this series a try!

The books are set at an English boarding school, Downey House, located in a beautiful old manor house on the shores of Cornwall. While there are several point-of-view characters, our lead character is Maggie Adair, a young teacher from Glasgow who applies to Downey House on a whim. Maggie cares deeply about education and providing opportunities for youth, but she’s frustrated by her early years of teaching in an underfunded school where the headmaster doesn’t even bother learning new teachers’ names, since he’s sure they won’t last. Maggie spends her days on discipline and making sure her students are safe and have food, rather than being able to actually teach her beloved literature.

The job offer at Downey is a surprise to Maggie, as well as to her long-term boyfriend Stan, a good-natured guy who just wants life to continue as it’s been, with pub quizzes and a non-changing status quo. But Maggie sees Downey as an opportunity to truly stretch herself and grow as a teacher, and hopes to one day bring what she’s learned there back to Glasgow and its lackluster schools.

Downey House is run by the stern but impressive headmistress Veronica Deveral, who has secrets of her own. It’s an all-girls school, with a partner boys’ school just down the road. Students enter at age 13 and continue on for six years. Most are from hyper-privileged families, with money (oodles of it), fancy homes and vacations, and the clear impression that the world is theirs. Not all, though — there are the occasional scholarship students, and one of these is Simone (originally with the last name Kardashian, but changed for the new editions to Pribetich).

Simone is from a working-class Armenian-British family, a brilliant girl who’s shy and insecure after years of bullying in her local school. Downey is a chance for her to shine, but even there, she’s ostracized by her classmates from day one because of her looks, her background, and her embarassing family.

Then there’s Fliss, the younger daughter of a very popular older student (she’s a prefect!), who absolutely doesn’t want to leave her friends back home and go to a stupid posh school. Fliss is determined to get kicked out, so she breaks rules, has a nasty attitude, and teams up with one of the worst girls there to cause trouble and act up.

Maggie has a hard time fitting in at first, and the girls are obnoxious as hell about her Scottish accent. Still, she’s clearly a gifted teacher, if a bit headstrong, and begins to make a difference, and she finds a friend in the glamorous French teacher (who smokes contraband cigarettes out the window) and the dashing English teacher from the boys’ school.

Jenny Colgan writes in her author’s note that she grew up loving boarding school books, but not being able to find any for grown-ups, she decided to write some! Reading this book, it occurs to me that everything I know about English boarding schools basically comes from Harry Potter! I mean, prior to HP, I’d never heard of school houses or prefects or any of the other terms and concepts of this type of school — but reading Welcome to the School by the Sea, I had fun seeing how pieces I assumed were Hogwarts-specific are actually just elements of a boarding school (sans magic).

At Downey, the girls are divided into four houses (Wessex, Plantagenet, York, and Tudor), and live in house dorms with their classmates. There are school uniforms, mandatory sports sessions, classes and exams, and annoying teachers to gossip about. There are also pranks, holidays, performances, and competitions, as you’d expect in this kind of story.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the characters, and appreciated that the characters we spend the most time with (Maggie, Veronica, Fliss, and Simone) are each given well-developed backstories and their own sets of challenges and adventures.

Maggie’s romantic life quickly develops into a love triangle. Stan is not supportive of her new position and gives her a very hard time about it for most of the book. He’s a lovable doofus, and Maggie has been with him since they were teens — but clearly, he’s not the right guy for her. Underneath his mocking and lack of support, he does truly care for Maggie, but even though they stay together, we know this won’t last. Meanwhile, David from the boys’ school is surprising, fun, and very much in tune with Maggie in terms of dedication to education, and they seem to work. The triangle is left hanging by the end of the book, but it seems pretty obvious that the Maggie/David pairing is end-game for this series.

A few bits seem dated, or perhaps don’t quite fit with current sensitivities. For me, the most annoying was the emphasis on Simone’s weight. When she arrives at Downey, she’s quite heavy. It’s clear that she’s been overindulged with sweets by her doting mother, and due to the bullying she grew up with, has found refuge in food and has always tried to avoid further ridicule by shying away from physical activity. That’s all fine, as far as backstory goes, but she continues to be referred to as chubby or fat throughout the book, and after a while, it starts to feel like too much. The fact is, at Downey, she discovers that she’s a gifted field hockey goalie and starts to eat a healthier diet away from her mother’s influence, so whether or not she’s still plus-sized, she’s definitely getting healthy, and that should be applauded.

Other than that, there’s some mean girl business that’s a bit too obvious, but I was happy to see unexpected friendships formed by the end of the first year, and assume we’ll see these characters and their relationships continue to grow in the next books.

The audiobook is quite fun to listen to (although the audiobook uses Simone’s original last name, so it’s a little inconsistent when compared to print editions). At the start, I found the audiobook hard to follow, as we’re introduced to so many characters right away, each with their own POV sections. After a while, it becomes clearer, and I appreciated the narrator’s ability to give the various characters their own distinct voices.

Overall, this is a fun, engaging listen, and I can’t wait for more! Book #2 (Rules at the School by the Sea) is now available, so I’m already in the queue for it at the library, and I hope to listen to the 3rd as soon as it’s released. As for additional books, the synopsis (above) refers to this as a four-book series, although in the author’s notes, she mentions intending to write six books… but as of this moment, I don’t see anything specific online about books beyond the current three.

If you’ve visited my blog over the past few years, you may have noticed that I’m a Jenny Colgan fan. It’s true!! Her books are sweet, good-humored, and full of engaging, funny characters, and she excels at building a fictional community around key lovable, memorable characters. I can’t get enough, and I’m always excited for her new releases. Bring on Rules… and keep ’em coming!

Book Review: Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey



Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

Magic For Liars may be set at a school of magic, but we’re on notice from the very first page that this is not THAT kind of school:

Now they were all downstairs at the welcome-back dinner, an all-staff-all-students meal that marked the end of the first week of classes. They’d joke there about house-elves and pumpkin juice — or at least the freshmen would. By the time they were sophomores, that vein of humor was worn beyond use.

After a bloody murder at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages (located in the vicinity of Sunol, California — less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco or Oakland), private investigator Ivy Gamble is called in to help solve the case. Magical authorities have deemed it an accidental death due to a spell gone bad, but the school’s headmaster thinks there’s more to be discovered… and since Ivy is the non-magical twin sister of a professor at the school, she seems to be the right choice to lead the investigation.

The assignment at Osthorne is fraught with tension and high emotional stakes for Ivy. She and sister Tabitha have been estranged for years, really since Tabitha was selected to go to an elite magic school when they were teens. Their paths diverged sharply from that point onward, and the two have never managed to reconnect, especially in the aftermath of their mother’s death while Tabitha was away at school.

Now arriving at Osthorne, Ivy sets out to solve the murder while also trying to understand who Tabitha is now, and who she herself might have been if she’d had magic too. Ivy’s journey is painful to witness, as she drinks herself through her tumultuous feelings every night and lets herself become consumed by the mysterious death and the suspicious undercurrents at the school

I love Sarah Gailey’s writing — I loved it in the American Hippo books, and she’s totally on point here as well, conveying the otherworldliness of the magical world while rooting it in a grim and grimy reality that has more than a shade of noir to it. What magical school doesn’t have a library with weird and dangerous sections? Here at Osthorne, Ivy hears:

… the books murmuring to each other like a scandalized congregation of origami Presbyterians.

Isn’t that delicious?

Some other choice bits:

Across the bay, San Francisco bled money like an unzipped artery.

…. and

The drive through the Sunol hills was as beautiful as the novocaine that comes before the drill.

Certain magic school tropes makes appearances too — there’s a Prophecy and a Chosen One, for starters, as well as the more mundane clique of popular girls who flutter around the central Mean Girl and all sorts of relationship drama, both appropriate and not.

The plot zooms along quickly, and sometimes reality can be a slippery thing. Ivy’s investigations are often clouded by the magical elements around her, but even so, she applies her skills and street smarts to get to the shocking truth. The resolution is pitch-perfect, and even though I guessed at the outcome ahead of time, that did not detract at all from the impact and the shock when the answers are finally revealed.

Magic For Liars is, plain and simple, a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Magic For Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley