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

YA Reads: Summer 2017

I'm sharing my latest YA reads: the good, the bad, and the popular. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Summers are made for YA reads, and that’s exactly what I’ve been reading all summer. Some have been really fun; others have been disappointing. I’m sure you’ll find at least one book on this list for your summer YA reading needs! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Ana of California

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.

When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

This book was not as good as I had hoped. Ana, a foster kid running from her past, has to try to prove herself by working on a farm–it’s her last chance before being sent to a group home. I love the idea of having more MG and YA books focused on the foster care experience, but this book is filled with way more drama than necessary. I also wish Ana hadn’t spoken so poetically–no teenager talks like that, guys. I was hoping for a more realistic depiction of teenage life and foster families, and this book left me cold on both areas.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lucky Strikes

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

I loved Melia’s voice in this book. Her 1930s Southern accent comes across well without making the text unreadable, as written accents sometimes do. (There is a fair amount of swearing in this book, so be forewarned.) In Lucky Strikes, a motley family made of three children and a homeless man pretending to be their father attempt to keep Brenda’s Oasis from falling prey to the local petroleum baron after their mother’s death. The three children, especially Melia, are scrappy and resourceful, and even when they make mistakes (I don’t know any adult who would think Melia’s decision to force a stranger to become the father of the family was a good one) they are relatable and understandable. Unique and fresh, with a good balance between heavy moments and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Cute teen romances aren’t for me, apparently. Anna and the French Kiss was a fun, quick read, but I got annoyed at the characters for being so immature. (I know, I know, they’re teenagers in love… I was still annoyed.) I can see how I probably would have loved this book as a teenager myself, but reading it as an adult wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stars Above

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

Stars Above is so much fun! If you haven’t already read through the Lunar Chronicles, I highly recommend it, both on its own merits and because this book won’t make any sense without it. As someone who greatly enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles series, I loved seeing the characters I grew to love having new adventures (both before and after the events of the series). These short stories are a great continuation of the world Marissa Meyer has created.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I feel I should warn you right away: This book is not for the fainthearted. It shows the very different paths of two Muslim sisters living in France. One becomes more religious and gets expelled for wearing the hijab (illegal in French schools); the other becomes more secular, wearing tight clothing, smoking, and drinking. One of these sisters has something horrific happen to her, and the other sister is left to consider where it all went wrong. This is a powerful book and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to read it again.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Chasing Eveline

*Note: I received this book as a gift from the author. She did not request a review. All opinions are my own.

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

I really wanted to like this book. A teenage girl tries to remember her mom by getting her favorite band back together–what’s not to like? Well, to start off with, Ivy is super irritating and immature. Her and her friend’s attempts at raising money to travel to Ireland and reunite the band include being a scam charity and making fun of homeless people during their attempts to be street performers, and I found this kind of gross. The book should have been more about Ivy dealing with her mom’s disappearance, but it was more about her achieving her ridiculous goal (and *spoiler alert* being disappointed in the results anyway). I’d give this one a pass, unless you have a much higher tolerance for irritating characters than I do.

Rating: Meh

Middle Grades July Roundup

Quick reviews of my latest middle grades reads. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s been a while since I posted a review! Life has been crazy in the best ways (and also in some of the not so great ways) since I last posted, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular posting schedule now. I’m starting off with a quick roundup of my recent middle grades reads. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Artsy Mistake Mystery

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

Outdoor art is disappearing all over the neighbourhood! From elaborate Halloween decorations to the Stream of Dreams fish display across the fence at Stephen and Renée’s school, it seems no art is safe. Renée’s brother, Attila, has been cursing those model fish since he first had to make them as part of his community service. So everyone thinks Attila is behind it when they disappear. But, grumpy teen though he is, Attila can do no wrong in Renée’s eyes, so she enlists Stephen’s help to catch the real criminal.

This book is a cute follow-up to the previous mistake mystery. Stephen and Renee have to discover who has been stealing art from around the neighborhood and clear Renee’s brother Attila’s name. Just as in the previous book, The Artsy Mistake Mystery shows how Stephen gains control of his anxiety by counting his and others’ mistakes and by realizing that it’s okay to make them.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

At first glance, Duncan Dorfman, April Blunt, and Nate Saviano don’t seem to have much in common. Duncan is trying to look after his single mom and adjust to life in a new town while managing his newfound Scrabble superpower – he can feel words and pictures beneath his fingers and tell what they are without looking. April is pining for a mystery boy she met years ago and striving to be seen as more than a nerd in her family of jocks. And homeschooled Nate is struggling to meet his father’s high expectations for success.

When these three unique kids are brought together at the national Youth Scrabble Tournament, each with a very different drive to win, their paths cross and stories intertwine . . . and the journey is made extraordinary with a perfect touch of magic. Readers will fly through the pages, anxious to discover who will take home the grand prize, but there’s much more at stake than winning and losing.

This is a fun story about kids participating in a Scrabble tournament. Each of them has a different backstory, from the boy whose father wants redemption for his own Scrabble tournament loss to the girl who feels left out of her super athletic family to the boy who can read the letters of the tiles with his fingertips. Even if you’re not into Scrabble, it’s interesting to watch as the kids (and some of the adults) struggle with ethical dilemmas, making friends, and of course memorizing words.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Locomotion

When Lonnie Collins Motion “Locomotion” was seven years old, his life changed forever. Now he’s eleven, and his life is about to change again. His teacher, Ms. Marcus, is showing him ways to put his jumbled feelings on paper. And suddenly, Lonnie has a whole new way to tell the world about his life, his friends, his little sister Lili, and even his foster mom, Miss Edna, who started out crabby but isn’t so bad after all.

Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful poetry (mostly free verse, but also haikus, sonnets, epistles, and more) tells the story of a young boy whose parents died in a fire and whose sister is in a different foster home. Lonnie uses his poetry to deal with tragedy, find his voice, and find home. This book is sad but lovely, a quick read that will stick with you long after you put it down.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

More MG and YA Book Reviews!

A big roundup of middle grades and YA book reviews. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I realized recently that I have a long list of middle grades and YA books (including a couple of ARCs that have since been published) that have been languishing on my “to be reviewed” list for way too long. As I went back through the list, I was surprised to remember how many of them I really enjoyed! I hope you find one or two books here to add to your list. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

The adventure began in a fading town. Far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket started an apprenticeship for a secret organization shrouded in mystery and secrecy. He asked questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read. Not even by you. Seriously, we recommend that you do NOT ask your parents for this, the first book in his new ALL THE WRONG QUESTIONS series.

I read this book when I was sick as a dog with strep throat, and I actually found it pretty entertaining. It’s about young Lemony Snicket’s adventures, and it has Snicket’s trademark quirky, funny narration and weird circumstances. I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading this series, but you might give it a shot if you enjoyed Series of Unfortunate Events.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Armstrong & Charlie [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. After all, if he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll be older than his older brother ever was. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. This year, he’ll have to wake up at 5:30 to ride a bus to an all-white school in the Hollywood Hills.

When Armstrong and Charlie are assigned seats next to each other, what starts as a rivalry becomes a close friendship. Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds. Different, yet the same.

This book is set during the desegregation of schools in California in the 1970s. Armstrong is part of a small group of black students who are now being bused into white school districts. Charlie’s parents want Charlie to be involved in welcoming these students. Armstrong’s bullying, Charlie’s recent loss of his brother Andy, and ever-increasing racial tensions make these two unlikely friends, but they slowly grow to respect and stand up for each other.

I thought the author did a great job of portraying the sputtering friendship of these two boys as they both face the challenges of growing up, but it does make me a bit nervous that the author himself is white (The Help, anyone?). It seems like he did his research and was respectful of the real racial tensions of the 70s, but I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who is not white.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Odd and the Frost Giants

The winter isn’t ending. Nobody knows why. And Odd has run away from home, even though he can barely walk and has to use a crutch. Out in the forest he encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle – three creatures with a strange story to tell.

Now Odd is faced with a stranger journey than he had ever imagined.
A journey to save Asgard, City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It’s going to take a very special kind of boy to defeat the most dangerous of all the Frost Giants and rescue the mighty Gods. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever. Someone just like Odd…

You know I’m going to read any children’s book that Neil Gaiman puts out. This is a cute story of Odin, Thor, and Loki and the boy named Odd who saved them from one of their mythical scrapes. It’s a fun book for kids who are into mythology.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

Be prepared to cry as Salvador, Sam, and Fito deal with death, addiction, and hate in their senior year of high school. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but be aware that this book deals with themes of ethnicity, homosexuality, addiction, neglectful parents, death, adoption, and the fear of growing up. Sounds like a downer, right? But there is a real joy in this book. Each of the friends, despite their broken, messy families, find a family with each other and with Sal’s father. They talk like teenagers and make mistakes that teenagers make, but they are always there for each other, respecting each other despite their differences.

I’d only recommend this book to older teens because of its difficult themes. But if you’re up for it, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life provides a sad but ultimately hopeful look at the lives of three teenagers struggling to grow up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, Volume I is a collection of stories from African American history that exemplifies success in the face of great adversity. This unique graphic anthology offers historical and cultural commentary on nine uncelebrated heroes whose stories are not often found in history books. Among the stories included are: Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia; Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Marshall “Major” Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport; and Bass Reeves, the most successful lawman in the Old West. Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, the diverse art beautifully captures the spirit of each remarkable individual and opens a window into an important part of American history.

This graphic novel is filled with comics about real-life African American heroes. I had heard of only a few of these people, and I was fascinated to read these short comics about their lives and successes. Despite the title, which refers to the lynching of African Americans, this book is on the whole an uplifting exploration of some obscure but interesting, hardworking, and talented historical figures.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Snicker of Magic

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

So sweet! Felicity meets a new and unusual friend named Jonah in Midnight Gulch, a magical place where she hopes her mother will finally settle down. If you need a lighthearted story which nevertheless explores themes of home and belonging (with a side of magic), this is the book for you.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

When Miss Eells gives young Anthony a job at the library, he thinks he’ll just be dusting shelves and filing books. Instead, he discovers a hidden clue leading to the treasure of eccentric millionaire Alpheus Winterborn. Miss Eells thinks the clues are a practical joke left by the odd, old Winterborn before he died. But then why do things suddenly start getting so strange? And terrifying?

I don’t remember who recommended this book to me, but my main thought as I finished the book was, “Well, that was weird.” Anthony has to outsmart the evil Hugo Philpotts in order to find the eccentric library founder’s treasure. I had heard it was supposed to be suspenseful, that the author was king of writing gothic and horror works for children, but I didn’t find it dark or creepy, just strange. Maybe it’s because the book seems a bit outdated; maybe it’s because the adults aren’t just incompetent but actually antagonistic; maybe it’s because Anthony himself is a bit of a brat (all the characters in this story are kind of jerks). Whatever the reason, this just didn’t work for me.

Rating: Meh

Review Copy: Jesper Jinx

Jesper Jinx is always getting in trouble! Whether at home or at school, Jesper always finds a way to liven things up. #spon | Review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

Jesper Jinx is eleven, and probably the unluckiest person in all of Puffington Hill. Everything he touches seems to end up in sweet disaster. Hence his nickname ‘Jinx’.

In this first book of Jesper Jinx’s wonderfully wicked adventures you’re going to meet Jesper’s family and Snowy the Cat. Also, there’s a mysterious new classmate with a moustache. And it’s up to Jesper to launch his famous Boredom Breaker.

As Jesper so frequently says, ‘What harm would it do to have a little fun?’ (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the first in a series about Jesper Jinx, who is always getting himself in trouble. Each section in this short book covers a different misadventure Jesper finds himself involved in. Whenever things get too boring, Jesper kicks off a “boredom breaker,” which always ends up getting him and the people around him into some sort of shenanigans. Whether he is dying the cat’s fur red or playing pranks on his teacher, Jesper always finds a way of making life interesting. The story is cute, and the writing style is perfect for young kids.

Some of the scenarios Jesper encounters are a bit unbelievable, so I think this series is best suited to small children. They will be sure to love Jesper’s crazy adventures, which can liven up even the most boring rainy day at home.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Penderwicks Series

The Penderwicks is such a wonderful, timeless children's series. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.

The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This lovely series of four books follows the Penderwick sisters as they grow up. Responsible, serious Rosalind, stubborn Skye, dreamy and imaginative Jane, and little Batty give a sweet picture of how sisters relate to each other, whether on vacation or during enormous life changes.

Each book in this series is set in a different time in the Penderwick family’s life. The first book follows the girls, their father, and their dog Hound as they set off on a family vacation that introduces them to their new best friend Jeffrey (and gets the sisters in and out of a lot of trouble!). Following stories discuss the family’s school year at home, a summer vacation that reveals several surprises, and a spring semester several years later. Even though later books in the series have different perspectives, they all offer sweet sisterly relationships and fun adventures.

I found these stories reminiscent of Hilary McKay‘s flawed, rambunctious, loving families (with the added bonus that there are no truly hate-able characters like the Casson family’s father). Throughout the series, there are additions to the family (such as Jeffrey, who becomes almost like a brother to the girls), but the four sisters remain at the core of each story. Although there are revealed secrets, drama, and difficult life changes in each book, the stories remain fun and light, even as they discuss the difficulties of growing up.

I’d recommend these books to kids who feel at home reading timeless stories with a focus on family relationships and lighthearted hijinks. If that description appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy this series no matter what your age.

 

Rating: Re-read Worthy

ARC: City of Grit and Gold

City of Grit and Gold is an interesting middle grades book about the labor strikes in Chicago in the 1880s. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

​The streets of Chicago in 1886 are full of turmoil. Striking workers clash with police…illness and injury lurk around every corner…and twelve-year-old Addie must find her way through it all. Torn between her gruff Papa—who owns a hat shop and thinks the workers should be content with their American lives—and her beloved Uncle Chaim—who is active in the protests for the eight-hour day—Addie struggles to understand her topsy-turvy world, while also keeping her family intact. Set in a Jewish neighborhood of Chicago during the days surrounding the Haymarket Affair, this novel vividly portrays one immigrant family’s experience, while also eloquently depicting the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots. (Summary via publisher)

This book covers the time period in Chicago when workers were striking for an eight-hour day and a safer work environment, a topic I knew little about. Addie and her family face tensions related to the strike, as well as illness, injury, and their immigrant experience. The characters in City of Grit and Gold are wonderful, especially Addie, our main character. She is curious and resilient, despite the fact that her father and brother are constantly arguing, her mother never leaves the house, and her uncle is living in danger on the streets.

The book captures many aspects of this time period, from the illnesses and injuries that we think nothing of now but were life-threatening then to the struggles of the poor to scrape by in a world run by the rich. Through it all, Addie keeps asking questions and fighting to help those who need her help–even when her actions meet with disapproval.

Middle grades readers who are interested in historical fiction will enjoy City of Grit and Gold. The characters and the setting are both wonderful.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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