YA Roundup, June 2018

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Love that Split the World

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

The time travel/wormhole aspect of this book really intrigued me when I first heard about it, which is why I decided to read this book. However, I really don’t enjoy YA romance that much, so I couldn’t get invested in Natalie and Beau’s relationship. If you enjoy books like Anna and the French Kiss, you will probably enjoy this book as well. It just wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Truth Beneath the Lies

All Kayla Asher wants to do is run. Run from the government housing complex she calls home. Run from her unstable mother. Run from a desperate job at No Limit Foods. Run to a better, cleaner, safer life. Every day is one day closer to leaving.

All Betsy Hopewell wants to do is survive. Survive the burner phone hidden under her bed. Survive her new rules. Survive a new school with new classmates. Survive being watched. Every minute grants her another moment of life.

But when fate brings Kayla and Betsy together, only one girl will live.

This mystery/thriller was slow to start, but I enjoyed the last third once the mystery started to be revealed. This is a good choice if you enjoy thrillers with unreliable narrators but want something a little less intense than the adult options in that genre.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …

This book is funny, but it’s also intense. The novel revolves around assisted suicide and grieving the loss of someone important. The characters are quirky and likable, but be prepared for some surprisingly dark content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Top Ten Clues You’re Clueless

Top Five Things That Are Ruining Chloe’s Day

5) Working the 6:30 a.m. shift at GoodFoods Market

4) Crashing a cart into a customer’s car right in front of her snarky coworker Sammi

3) Trying to rock the “drowned rat” look after being caught in a snowstorm

2) Making zero progress with her crush, Tyson (see #3)

1) Being accused—along with her fellow teenage employees—of stealing upwards of $10,000

Chloe would rather be anywhere than locked in work jail (aka the break room) with five of her coworkers . . . even if one of them is Tyson. But if they can band together to clear their names, what looks like a total disaster might just make Chloe’s list of Top Ten Best Moments.

You might be surprised to learn (given my earlier opinion of YA romances) that I really enjoyed this sweet book. Six teenagers of widely varying personalities and backgrounds are trapped in the grocery store they work at on Christmas Eve when someone accuses them of stealing money from the charity drive. Although Chloe, an awkward teen struggling to keep her diabetes and her overprotective mom a secret, is our main character, each of the other characters is fun and unique. I loved watching the teens bonding and becoming friends even as they make mistakes and say insensitive things to each other. A sweet romance that’s not only about the romance–possibly why this book charmed me while others fell flat.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Roundup: April 2018

It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to blog that a lot of really wonderful ARCs I’ve received lately have gone un-reviewed–until today! Today’s roundup includes books about friendship, science fiction, and (of course) murder mysteries.

Death at the Selig Studios

The next book in the Emily Cabot series is set in 1909 and involves the blossoming film industry. Interestingly, Emily is very judgmental of the actors and actresses, thinking that the films are tawdry and for the working class. When Emily’s brother Alden, who is involved in the movies (and possibly with one of the actresses), is accused of murder, Emily is torn between her desire to vindicate her brother and her desire to make him face the consequences of his choices.

I like how the historical setting in this book made such a difference in the characters’ actions and attitudes, making it different from many historical fiction mysteries I’ve read in which the time period stays firmly in the background. If you enjoy the combination of historical fiction and murder mysteries, you might want to give this series a try.

Strawberries and Strangers

Dumped by her cheating husband, Jenny King is trying to build a new life in the small seaside town of Pelican Cove. Locals are lining up at the Boardwalk Café for her tasty cakes and muffins. But when her aunt is accused of killing a stranger, Jenny is forced to set her apron aside and put on her sleuthing cap.

Jenny battles with the cranky local sheriff and quirky local characters to get to the truth. Aided by her new friends, she will move heaven and earth to find out who the dead stranger was and what he was doing in Pelican Cove.

If you like cozy murder mysteries with friendly small towns, scenic settings, yummy food and a touch of romance, you will like Strawberries And Strangers. (Summary via the author)

Romance and mystery abound on a small island on the East Coast. After a murder at one of the most exclusive parties in this small town, Jenny splits her time between wrangling with the sheriff, whom she can’t seem to meet without arguing, and trying to prove the innocence of her aunt.

I enjoyed the island setting–you know I love a cozy mystery with a good setting–and the interesting characters who populate the island. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, so I didn’t care much about Jenny’s love life in the book, but I am curious about where it will go in future installments. If you prefer a modern cozy mystery over a historical one, this is a light, relaxing read.

Belong

This book about friendship was lovely; much better than I anticipated. The design of the book is beautiful, and the advice contained within goes far beyond the usual tips for making friends. Agrawal suggests that you go IN first and gently deal with your own baggage, discovering what kind of friends you’re looking for and what kind of friends you need to distance yourself from, before you go OUT and find these people in the real world. Some of her advice wasn’t great (I couldn’t fathom why the author is so against identifying as an introvert or extrovert when this can be such a helpful tool in understanding personality, especially since both types clearly want and need friends), but on the whole, I greatly enjoyed the book. If you want a book about making friends that avoids cliches and has a lovely design, I highly recommend this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fresh Ink

I really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories. Some are SFF, some are stories set in the real world, and all feature diverse characters of all kinds by many wonderful authors. I would love to read some full-length books by these authors (and, in fact, I have several of their novels on my TBR list!).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Apple Strudel Alibi

This book is a fun addition to the Oxford Tearoom series, in which Gemma and the Old Biddies go to Vienna and must solve a murder which takes place in their hotel. I missed the usual Oxford setting (always one of my favorite parts of the books in this series), but it was fun to see Gemma and some of our other favorite characters in a new setting. As always, the mystery and the characters are fun and lighthearted. If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, you’ll like this one too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bob

Bob is a fun, short story of a girl rediscovering a childhood friend–who might just be a zombie. But this middle grades book isn’t scary. It’s fun and sweet and heartwarming and a little magical. It hasn’t stuck with me, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inventors at No. 8

George, also known as Lord Devonshire, is living in a crumbling house with only an old manservant for company, after the unlucky deaths of both his parents. When he reluctantly tries to sell his grandfather’s map, he meets up with Ada (a young Ada Lovelace) and Oscar, who loves painting and adventuring with his orangutan. They go on a wild adventure across Europe in order to find George’s lost family treasure, find Oscar’s pirate father, and save Ada from the organization who wishes her harm.

I liked Ada and her flying machine, but I found both orangutan-owning Oscar and curmudgeonly George to be irritating. Still, the group’s adventure was fun, and their friendship despite the frequently insensitive or hurtful comments they made to each other was a lot more realistic than most friendships in MG books.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Comics Roundup: February 2018

The best of the comics I've been digging into lately--starring strong, interesting, flawed female leads. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading a lot of comics over the past few weeks, and I’ve found some that I really enjoyed. I discovered that most of my favorite comics are published by Boom! Studios (Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, Giant Days, and Goldie Vance are all theirs), so I’m really excited to explore some more of their series. (Note: Because I’ve read varying numbers of issues for each of these series, I’m just writing a brief summary of the series as a whole, rather than trying to give a specific rundown of each issue’s plot!)

Giant Days

Three college girls overcome boy troubles, finals, and childhood enemies, making each college event an adventure.

I’m loving the female characters and their college mishaps in this series! The girls are very different from each other, which makes them a lot of fun to follow, but it also creates tension within their group. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. It brings back memories about the crazy adventures of college, while also coating all the boring parts with a layer of fun and silliness.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Lumberjanes

A group of girls at summer camp discovers that there’s more to the camp than meets the eye–in fact, there are a lot of magical creatures and adventures to discover.

The continuing adventures of the Lumberjane girls! I read several issues of this series previously, and I really enjoyed it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read the most recent issues, as I had forgotten some of what happened in earlier issues. But this is still one of my favorite comics ever.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goldie Vance

Goldie Vance, a young valet at a hotel in Florida, is constantly getting wrapped in mysteries.

Goldie is constantly getting into trouble investigating mysteries when she’s supposed to be parking cars, but that’s exactly what makes her fun to follow. The old-fashioned Florida resort is a great setting, too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Paper Girls

A group of rough and tumble girls discover a possible alien invasion during their route and have to fight to stay safe.

This series is a bit harsher than the other comics I’ve been reading lately. There is more swearing and more content that is… not for kids. It feels similar, really to the other Brian K. Vaughan comic I’ve read. I did enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure if I will continue the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Gravity Falls

Dipper and Mabel end up spending the summer at Gravity Falls, fighting wacky monsters while hanging out with their weird Grunkle Stan.

This was okay. I’ve never seen Gravity Falls, although I’ve heard the show is very good, so maybe I’m missing something? I’ll probably read the next collection in the series, just to make sure. It just doesn’t come across as quite as funny or clever as I’m sure the TV show was.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC Reviews: The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Quick ARC reviews of The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received a free copy of these books from the publishers. All opinions are my own.

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Double, double toil and trouble…
The pets in these cozy paranormal short stories are stirring up nothing but fun—and maybe a dash of trouble—for the witches in their lives.

These short stories are fun, cozy mysteries about witches and their pets/familiars. It’s impressive how, although these stories are written by different authors about different characters, they all hang together so well–each has a similar feel. All the stories are silly and sweet. If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of magic, you’ll find plenty of new authors here.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Boy from Tomorrow

Josie and Alec both live at 444 Sparrow Street. They sleep in the same room, but they’ve never laid eyes on each other. They are twelve years old but a hundred years apart.

The children meet through a handpainted spirit board—Josie in 1915, Alec in 2015—and form a friendship across the century that separates them. But a chain of events leave Josie and her little sister Cass trapped in the house and afraid for their safety, and Alec must find out what’s going to happen to them. Can he help them change their future when it’s already past?

A girl from 1915 and a boy from 2015 are able to communicate through a talking board (basically a Ouija board), and what they say changes each child’s life. It’s both exciting and heart-wrenching to watch as Alec uses his resources–the library and the internet–to help Josie and her sister escape from their abusive mother.

At the beginning, this book seems like it’s going to be spooky and mystical. Both Alec and Josie initially think they’re communicating with spirits through the talking board. But when it becomes clear that the two kids are communicating across time, the story becomes much more interesting.

This book isn’t for everyone. I think younger kids are likely to be frightened by the spooky events, or by the abuse Josie and Cass suffer. But for older kids, this book has a fun twist on the typical ghost story.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mega Roundup: Kid Lit and YA

This mega roundup is jam-packed with all the kid lit, middle grades, and YA fiction I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I tend to get behind in my reviews over the holidays. But since I don’t stop reading (of course not!), I always have a few books to catch up on reviewing. Or in this case, a lot of books. If you like kids’ books or YA, with an emphasis on fantasy, today’s mega roundup is for you! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read a Diana Wynne Jones book. Howl’s Moving Castle is a very enjoyable, fun fantasy. It’s a treat to read. I needed some lightweight, quirky, sweet books to get me through the holiday season, and this book hit the spot. I can’t wait to read more DWJ now!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Vol. 2

You might remember my review of the first volume of rebel girls stories. This follow up is just as wonderful. It’s jam packed with lovely illustrations and tons of new, inspiring women and their stories. A great book for girls (and boys!) of all ages.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Josh Baxter Levels Up

Video game lover Josh Baxter knows that seventh grade at a new school may be his hardest challenge yet, but he’s not afraid to level up and win!

Josh Baxter is sick and tired of hitting the reset button. It’s not easy being the new kid for the third time in two years. One mistake and now the middle-school football star is out to get him. And Josh’s sister keeps offering him lame advice about how to make friends, as if he needs her help finding allies!

Josh knows that his best bet is to keep his head down and stay under the radar. If no one notices him, nothing can touch him, right? But when Josh’s mom sees his terrible grades and takes away his video games, it’s clear his strategy has failed. Josh needs a new plan, or he’ll never make it to the next level, let alone the next grade.

He’s been playing not to lose. It’s time to play to win.

Josh gamifies his life when his mom takes away his video games and forces him to focus on improving his grades, making friends, defeating a bully, and winning a video game competition at school (because of course).

I was worried this book would be gimmicky–or possibly not interesting for those of us who don’t play many video games–but it wasn’t. It was a fun MG novel with a video game spin, but its focus is on those timeless, relatable aspects of growing up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

First Class Murder

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

Hazel and Daisy are back, and their latest mystery takes place on the famed Orient Express. But this time, Hazel and Daisy’s investigations are hampered by Hazel’s father, who wants the girls to stay as far away from murder as possible.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in this series, you’ll like this follow up. I missed Daisy and Hazel’s school friends, who are such fun side characters in the previous installments, but this is still a fun MG mystery.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

TodHunter Moon trilogy

Seven years after the events of the original Septimus Heap series, a young PathFinder named Alice TodHunter Moon—who insists on being called Tod—sets out from her seaside village to rescue her friend Ferdie from the malevolent Lady.

She receives help from ExtraOrdinary Wizard Septimus Heap and Ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, but the Lady’s brother, the Darke Sorcerer Oraton-Marr, has a plan that will put everyone Tod holds dear in danger. To save her people, Tod must embrace her identity as a PathFinder and navigate the often dangerous Ancient Ways.

I was so excited to discover that Angie Sage had written a trilogy set in the world of Septimus Heap! This series picks up seven years after the events of the original series and focuses on Tod, a young PathFinder who discovers she has the ability to combine Magyk and PathFinding to explore the Ancient Ways.

We get to visit with Septimus, Jenna, Marcia, Beetle, Lucy and Simon, and several other characters from the original series, but the star of this spinoff series is definitely Tod. Tod and her friends (new and old) have to save the people from Tod’s village and eventually the Ancient Ways themselves.

This is a fun series, but I found some of the characters irritating, and I kept wishing we could see more of Septimus, Jenna, and Marcia. These books just didn’t grab me the same way the original Septimus Heap series did.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

After a year at the king’s palace, Miri has learned all about being a proper princess. But the tables turn when the student must become the teacher!

Instead of returning to her beloved Mount Eskel, Miri is ordered to journey to a distant swamp and start a princess academy for three sisters, cousins of the royal family. Unfortunately, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting and fishing than becoming princesses.

As Miri spends more time with the sisters, she realizes the king and queen’s interest in them hides a long-buried secret. She must rely on her own strength and intelligence to unravel the mystery, protect the girls, complete her assignment, and finally make her way home.

This book is the final installment in the Princess Academy series. I’m always impressed with how Shannon Hale creates memorable, flawed, smart female characters in a stereotypical role, and the sisters in this book are no exception.

However. As much as I enjoyed the backwoods princesses and their unusual way of life, I was so disappointed in Miri! In the original Newbery book, Miri and her friends are set apart from the rest of the kingdom because of their mountain ways and rugged lifestyle. But in this story, Miri has apparently been softened by her time at the palace, and the princesses are constantly looking down on her fancy clothing and her inability to hunt with them. I wished we had more of Miri the mountain girl.

I’m not sorry I read this book, but compared to the first two books in the series, it was a weak finish.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Save Me a Seat

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

This is a cute MG story about two boys, Ravi and Joe, who are having a hard time fitting in at school (Ravi is from India and Joe has a learning disability). Both are bullied and have to learn to band together despite their differences.

All of the events take place in just one week, so the scope of the story is small. Still, it’s sweet to watch Ravi learn humility and Joe learn to stand up for himself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Last Dragonslayer series

I love Jasper Fforde’s writing, and his YA series is a bit less strange but no less wonderful than his adult fiction. I read the first book years ago, and I finally got around to reading the rest. The second book is great, but the third book in the Last Dragonslayer series pulls off something that I think is very difficult: introducing new lead characters into the mix that we don’t hate. The spoiled princess proves herself to be a surprisingly intelligent and sassy character, and Addie the 12-year-old tour guide is resourceful and reliable. Still, Jennifer and Perkins’ quest to find the Eye of Zoltar and figure out what the Mighty Shandar is up to takes center stage. With characters and a plot that continue to be fun and quirky, I can’t wait for the next book in the series to be released!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Witch’s Vacuum

Poor Mr Swimble is having a bad day.

Rabbits are bouncing out of his hat, pigeons are flying out of his jacket and every time he points his finger, something magically appears – cheese sandwiches, socks . . . even a small yellow elephant on wheels!

It’s becoming a real nuisance – and he’s allergic to rabbits.

His friends at the Magic Rectangle can’t help, but the mysterious vacuum cleaner he saw that morning may have something to do with it . . .

Fourteen fantastically funny stories from master storyteller Sir Terry Pratchett, full of food fights, pirates, wizards and crooks!

These funny, sweet, fantastical short stories are only my second foray into the works of Terry Pratchett (third if you count the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman). I enjoyed these quick stories, and they made me more excited to read some of Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

These Ruthless Deeds

England, 1883. Still recovering from a devastating loss, Evelyn is determined to use her powers to save other gifted people from those who would harm them. But when her rescue of a young telekinetic girl goes terribly wrong, Evelyn finds herself indebted to a secret society devoted to recruiting and protecting people like Evelyn and her friends.

As she follows the Society’s orders, healing the sick and embarking on perilous recruitment missions, Evelyn sees her problems disappear. Her reputation is repaired, her friends are provided for, and her parents are newly wealthy. She reunites with the dashing Mr. Kent and recovers the reclusive Mr. Braddock (who has much less to brood over now that the Society can help him to control his dangerous power). But Evelyn can’t help fearing the Society is more sinister than it appears…

I really enjoyed this sequel to These Vicious Masks. Mr. Kent’s power to make people tell the truth when he asks a question is used for great comedic effect, but Evelyn’s struggles to decide whether or not to work with the Society of Aberrations and whether or not to kiss Sebastian keeps things tense. Secret powers + romantic tension + possibly evil societies + Victorian England = a YA series I can get behind, even if I don’t usually like romantic tension or paranormal plotlines.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Wonder

Ten-year-old August Pullman wants to be ordinary. He does ordinary things. He eats ice-cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary – inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Born with a terrible facial abnormality, he has been home-schooled by his parents his entire life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, Auggie’s parents are sending him to a real school. Can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, underneath it all?

So sweet and sad and wonderful! I can see why this is such a classic already. Auggie is a great character, and each of his friends and enemies are interesting and complex. There are a few cliche moments, but on the whole, this is a heartwarming story of a boy who faces bullying over his facial abnormality alongside typical school problems with courage and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: The Case of the Cursed Dodo

*Note: I received a free copy of this audio book from the author. All opinions are my own.

I’ve already read and reviewed the physical version of this book (you can read that review here), so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed the audio version. This audio book is special–it’s more like an old-time radio show than a regular audio book. I loved the music, the sound effects, the voice over, and all the character voices. They really keep the story interesting.

I think kids will love this. Everything from the plot (hard-boiled PI panda has to solve a mystery and save endangered animals from harm) to the voice acting and sound effects is fun and engaging. Although adults might notice the fair amount of cliches and stereotypical characters, it’s still an enjoyable story, something the whole family can listen to together.

P.S. If you are a teacher or parent, the author has also provided these cool online resources for learning more about radio drama and endangered animals. Check them out!

Mystery Roundup, October 2017

Today I'm reviewing all the latest mystery books I've read. It's a wide variety for different ages and settings. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a big fan of mysteries of all kinds, and in today’s post I’m reviewing a wide variety of mystery novels. There are standalones and series; MG, YA, and adult books; and settings from Australia to London to Singapore. There’s something for everyone here! (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit-billed at first as a pleasure cruise-may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

I really enjoyed this mystery. A blog reader told me about this series when I asked for suggestions for diverse mysteries, and this book really fit what I was looking for. The Singapore setting is wonderful, and so is Aunty Lee. I know practically nothing about Singapore, so reading about their food, their culture, and their daily lives (with the addition of murder, of course) was fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Murder Most Austen

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

I picked up Murder Most Austen on a whim (and because it cost fifty cents!). I was expecting something forgettable and bland, a mystery that covers well-trodden ground. What I found was surprisingly fresh and fun. There is enough Jane Austen here for fans to enjoy, but the novel never becomes stale by relying too heavily on Austen’s well-known stories and characters. This book isn’t as saccharine as many cozy mysteries are, but it’s certainly not scary or gory. If you’re looking for a light but interesting mystery with a bit of Jane Austen flair, this book might be for you!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Poison is Not Polite

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

It has been a long time since I read the first book in this middle grade series, but this is a good follow up. Poison is Not Polite takes the form of a classic English country house mystery (think Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but it feels fresh and new because of the main characters–two young girls who are spending their school holiday at the house. Daisy and Hazel, along with their two school friends, take it on themselves to solve the murder of the unpleasant man who was invited to the house. But the deeper they dig, the closer they get to digging up some family secrets that Daisy may not want to know, after all.

For a MG mystery, this book doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of murder (or of the secrets that families sometimes try to hide, or of the casual racism that Hazel experiences). Still, it remains mostly lighthearted. I’m looking forward to seeing what mystery this Detective Society solves next.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

I read this for book club (because of course we read it), and honestly, I think everyone else disliked this book more than I did. I hated the book at first–there’s a lot of cheating, family drama, and of course secrets–and most of the characters are very unlikable. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there are some cheesy moments, and if you need a likable character in order to really enjoy a book, this one probably isn’t for you. Still, I can see how The Husband’s Secret became so popular. This would be a good beach read, I think.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Agency series

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

I read the first book in the Agency series a long time ago, and I remember really enjoying it. But when I re-read the first book, followed by the rest of the series, I felt kind of… meh about it. I forgot how sexist the love interest, James, is and how the writing isn’t very sharp. (To be honest, that’s not the kind of thing that usually bothers me, but there were several instances where I thought, this book could have used another round of edits.)

While I like the idea of this series–a young woman in Victorian London finds freedom in being an undercover spy, despite the restraints on women during that time period–it doesn’t work well for me as it plays out. If you’re going to give me a fictional spy agency which allows women to have more freedom, why don’t you give me at least a couple of characters who also believe in rights for women? This is particularly annoying with James. I think the author is trying to present him as a Darcy-esque character, but while Darcy eventually comes to admire Elizabeth’s quick mind and wit, James continually tries to keep Mary from doing her job in the most patronizing ways possible. I found it very irritating.

I did think that the last book was the best in this series. Mary and James have a much better relationship, and she is able to do more mystery solving than in any of the previous books. In my mind, these books are almost equally balanced between the poor writing and sexist characters and the fun of the mysteries, particularly the last one. I don’t think I’ll be reading this series again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

My Latest MG and YA Reads, September 2017

The latest middle grades and YA books on my reading list. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I haven’t been reading much YA recently (I’m reading through a stockpile of adult fiction and nonfiction), but what I have read lately has been weird and wonderful. If you like quirky characters and ridiculous plots, these books are for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Greetings from Witness Protection!

*Note: I received a copy of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Foster care kid Nicki struggles with kleptomania and and just wants her dad to get out of jail and take her home, away from the many failed foster homes she has lived in. But then the U.S. Marshals give her a chance to change her life: She must find a place in a family who is being put into witness protection. Nicki will strengthen their cover; the family will provide Nicki with a home. But, of course, things don’t work out that neatly…

Despite a totally unbelievable premise, this is a really fun and surprisingly sweet book. Nicki and her new family have issues as they reconcile themselves to a new life, and these issues still stand out against the backdrop of mobsters and false identities. The characters are sweet and relatable, and I think that’s what keeps this book from becoming ridiculous.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Small Steps

Two years after being released from Camp Green Lake, Armpit is home in Austin, Texas, trying to turn his life around. But it’s hard when you have a record, and everyone expects the worst from you. The only person who believes in him is Ginny, his 10-year old disabled neighbor. Together, they are learning to take small steps. And he seems to be on the right path, until X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. This leads to a chance encounter with teen pop sensation, Kaira DeLeon, and suddenly his life spins out of control, with only one thing for certain. He’ll never be the same again.

Holes was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this is the follow up to that Newbery book. For Armpit, now known by his given name of Theodore, life after Camp Green Lake is filled with hard work (digging, of course) and giving reassurance to his paranoid parents. But when he agrees to take his disabled neighbor Ginny to a concert and his old friend X-Ray convinces him to scalp some tickets, his life is turned upside down again.

Theodore is a sympathetic character, and Sacher doesn’t shy away from the reality that he is drawn back to criminal activity through his friend’s prodding. (There is a lot in this book that isn’t very realistic, but that’s Louis Sacher for you!) If you liked Holes and don’t mind taking some leaps of faith in the plot, you should read Small Steps.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

This well-known book offers a look into an autistic boy’s life by an author who has spent time working with autistic people. It has a unique format (filled with drawings, graphs, etc.), a lot of swearing, and kind of a crazy plot (that seems to be a theme with today’s roundup of books!). I did enjoy the format, and the story kept me engaged, but I disliked pretty much all of the characters. I would also be glad to see more novels involving autism written by people who are autistic, rather than people like Haddon who have only spent time with autistic people.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Secret of Platform 13

A forgotten door on an abandoned railway platform is the entrance to a magical kingdom–an island where humans live happily with feys, mermaids, ogres, and other wonderful creatures. Carefully hidden from the world, the Island is only accessible when the door opens for nine days every nine years. A lot can go wrong in nine days. When the beastly Mrs. Trottle kidnaps the prince of the Island, it’s up to a strange band of rescuers to save him. But can an ogre, a hag, a wizard, and a fey really troop around London unnoticed?

The Secret of Platform 13 is a really cute, fun story about a group of misfits from a magical island trying to retrieve their prince from our world. Full of hilarious misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and magic, this is a great read for anyone who likes lighthearted fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Series I’ve Finally Finished Reading!

All of the latest book series I've finally finished reading (some of these are all-time favorites!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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There are so many book series that I’ve enjoyed and yet took forever to finish reading, and I’ve finally decided to make finishing some of those series a priority. Okay, some of these series are ongoing, but I’ve read all the books that have been published, so I think that’s close enough!

(Please note that, because I’m providing a quick summary of many or all the books in a series, there will be spoilers!)

Flavia de Luce

I’ve read a couple of these books previously (reviews here and here), and I was glad to pick them up again. Flavia is as precocious and irritating as ever, which depending on your point of view is either the whole charm of the series or the reason you hate it.

The latest books in this series are Speaking from Among the Bones, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. I found Speaking from Among the Bones a particularly great continuation of the series, as Flavia actually starts connecting with her sisters, Feely and Daffy, as their lives start changing and Buckshaw is sold.

Unfortunately, I thought the quality of the series started to decline with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Flavia is still a wonderful character, but (*spoiler alert*) the fact that she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is secretly training her to be a secret agent feels like an unrealistic twist to a *mostly* realistic mystery series.

In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns to England, where she finds her father in the hospital and a corpse hanging from a door, and the series gets back to normal. I’m hoping that further installments in the series will follow that trend, rather than the out-of-left-field twist in As Chimney Sweepers.

Incorrigible Children

This series is one of my favorite reads of 2017! Penelope Lumley, a young governess in Victorian England, is hired to care for three children with a unique problem–they were literally raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has high expectations for her pupils, and she lovingly guides them through learning both table manners and epic poems.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the Incorrigible children, and possibly Miss Lumley, too. As the children and their governess (along with the oblivious Lord Ashton and his spoiled wife) travel throughout England and face various strange and hilarious perils, we uncover more and more of the mystery behind these children.

This series has been described as Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of narration which is very charming, and the series puts a fun twist on Gothic elements. If you like silly, strange MG novels, you’ll like the Incorrigible Children series.

Miss Peregrine

I had to look up a synopsis of the first book before reading the rest of the series because it has been so long since I read it. In case you, like me, need a quick review, here it is: After the dramatic events of the first book, in which Jacob finds out that he is one of a group of peculiar children and discovers that he can see the hollowgasts that are trying to hurt him and his new friends, Jacob and his friends have to fight off hollowgasts and wights in order to get Miss Peregrine back to her human form.

Am I glad I finished this series? Yes, although I won’t remember these books a few months from now. The books are quirky and strange, and the photographs are always a highlight, but I wish they had been a bit more memorable. Still, the sweet ending was worth it for me.

Septimus Heap

Ahhhh I loved this series so much! After reading the first book years ago, I was finally inspired to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series, and I’m soooo glad I did! To me, this was a more lighthearted, MG take on a Harry Potter-esque series. But don’t let that scare you off–there’s enough of a difference between that series and this one that Septimus Heap doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

As the story progresses from Magyk, in which Septimus finds out who his true family is and becomes the apprentice to the wizard Marcia, we go through Flyte, in which Septimus has some growing pains as a wizard; Physik, when Septimus gets sent back in time and Jenna, Nicko, and Snorri attempt to save him; Queste, in which Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle have to rescue Nicko and Snorri from the House of Foryx (and Septimus gets sent on a deadly queste); and Syren, when Septimus, Jenna, Beetle, Wolf Boy, and Lucy all end up on an island with a syren and Tertius Fume tries to release an army of jinn.

So many things happen in those books that it’s difficult to provide a summary–you’ll just have to read them yourself! But the last two books were my favorites by far. in Darke, Septimus and his estranged brother Simon have to team up as a Darke Domaine takes over the Palace and tries to enter the Wizard Tower, despite Marcia’s best efforts. Merrin, Beetle, and many other characters from past books make an appearance as Jenna accidentally joins a witch’s coven and Septimus completes his Darke Week by exploring the Darke Halls and searching for Alther’s ghost. And finally, Fyre, the finale of the series. I loved having all the gang back together, and Septimus gets to finally resolve some of the plot threads that have been hanging for books.

If you like magic, dragons, quirky characters, and plot threads that continue throughout the series and are resolved in a most satisfying fashion, you have to read the Septimus Heap series. I can’t recommend it enough.

Fragile Chaos

Fragile Chaos, a YA novel about gods, love, war, and sacrifice, is one of my favorite books of the year. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received this ARC from the author as a contest prize. She did not ask for a review in exchange. All opinions are my own.

Theodric, the young God of War, has a talent for inciting conflict and bloodshed. After being stripped of his powers by his older brother, King of Gods, he sets out to instigate a mortal war to prove himself worthy of being restored to power.

Sixteen-year-old Cassia, like many in the modern era, believes gods and goddesses to be just a myth. Enemy to her country and an orphan of the war, she has no time for fairy tales. That’s until religious zealots from Theo’s sect offer her up as a sacrifice.

Can Cassia and Theo end the mortal war and return balance to the earth and heavens? Or, will their game of fate lead down a path of destruction, betrayal, and romance neither of them saw coming? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I absolutely loved this book! I don’t normally like mythological stories or books based on a romance, but this book defied all my expectations for those genres. Fragile Chaos reads almost like Beauty and the Beast set in the world of the gods.

Cassia, an unwilling sacrifice, is put in a position she never wanted to be in–an advocate to a god she didn’t believe in for the country that turned against her. Theo, the god of war who is forever a hot-headed seventeen year old, has to work against the distraction of Cassia as he fights with his brothers and sisters to regain his full powers and earn their respect.

Cassia and Theo, though both flawed characters who sometimes make rash decisions, struggle to make the right choices in a chaotic world. Cassia works to understand the politics of the gods she never believed in so she can find a way to escape, and Theo tries to figure out a way to keep war from devouring the mortal world while still fulfilling his purpose as the god of war.

We also get wonderful characters in the other gods, Theo’s advisor, and Cassia’s Kiskan acquaintances. There’s a good mix of fantasy and romance and war, and coming from someone who usually dislikes all three of these, that’s really something to pull off.

Basically, even though Fragile Chaos seems as if it were written for any reader but me, I couldn’t put it down. The characters are ones you can’t help but root for, the tension keeps you hooked but never seems over-dramatic, and if you like mythology and fantasy, they are wonderfully done. This book took me by surprise and landed a spot at the very top of my favorite reads of 2017.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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