Mysterious Children’s Fiction

I'm sharing my recent mysterious children's fiction reads, including books from Sharon Creech and Peter Abrahams. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Down the Rabbit Hole

Ingrid is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or at least her shoes are. And getting them back will mean getting tangled up in a murder investigation as complicated as the mysteries solved by her idol, Sherlock Holmes. With soccer practice, schoolwork, and the lead role in her town’s production of Alice in Wonderland, Ingrid is swamped. But as things in Echo Falls keep getting curiouser and curiouser, Ingrid realizes she must solve the murder on her own — before it’s too late! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is a fun, kind of dark murder mystery for MG readers. It’s pretty obvious that this is Abrahams’ first exploration of children’s fiction; some of the things Ingrid does are kind of unrealistic for a kid her age. Still, I enjoyed following Ingrid as she gets in over her head and tries to solve a murder without implicating herself.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Pleasing the Ghost

As nine-year-old Dennis confronts the ghost of his uncle Arvie, Arvie’s eccentric antics and wonderful wordplay keep the reader laughing. But at its tender heart, the story reveals the holes left in our lives when we lose the ones we love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I never thought I’d dislike a book by Sharon Creech! She has written some of my favorite books of all time, but Pleasing the Ghost just didn’t do it for me. I think I’m drawn more toward Creech’s MG fiction, rather than her children’s fiction. Still, I found this book cute, and small children will probably still enjoy it.

Rating: Meh

ARC: Jorie and the Magic Stones

Jorie and the Magic Stones is the beginning of a children's fantasy series by A.H. Richardson. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When Marjorie went to live with her frosty maiden aunt, she couldn’t imagine the adventures she would have with dragons — good and bad — and all the strange creatures that live in a mysterious land beneath the Tarn. The spunky 9-year-old redhead forges an unlikely friendship with an insecure young boy named Rufus who lives with his crusty grandfather next door. When Jorie — for that is what she prefers to be called — finds a dusty ancient book about dragons, she learns four strange words that will send the two of them into a mysterious land beneath the Tarn, riddled with enchantment and danger. Hungry for adventure, the children take the plunge, quite literally, and find themselves in the magic land of Cabrynthius. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Jorie is a young girl with a lot of spunk, so when she goes to live with her strict, elderly aunt, of course she gets into mischief. Jorie teams up with the boy next door, Rufus, whom she drags along on her adventures. The two find a book full of dragons and words they can’t understand, which helps transport them to a world of magic.

Let me start by saying that I loved the characters in the real world. Jorie, her aunt, the housekeeper, Rufus and his grandfather–their interactions were so fun. Each character has a unique voice and personality, even the characters who don’t get enough page time to be fully fleshed out.

My one issue with the story is the fantasy world. Although the characters here are also interesting, I found the world itself a bit flat. The issue that I sometimes have with fantasy novels is that they fall quickly into cliches, and there was a bit of that issue in Jorie and the Magic Stones. I found myself looking forward to the time the characters spent in the real world, rather than in Cabrynthius. Still, the MG kids this novel is aimed toward may feel differently about that than I do.

For me personally, I thought this book was enjoyable but forgettable. But if you have a child who loves dragons and magic, they might want to give Jorie and the Magic Stones a shot.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1938

In which Kate Seredy finally wins a Newbery medal and Laura Ingalls Wilder wins a Newbery honor. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: The White Stag
Finally Kate Seredy wins a Newbery Medal! This book of myths from the Hungarian culture is by the author of The Good Master and The Singing Tree, and if you remember how much I enjoyed those books, you’ll have an idea of how I felt about this one. I’m not usually a fan of myths, but these are well written and a beautiful look at a country to which I feel a deep connection.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

On the Banks of Plum Creek
This book is part of the Little House on the Prairie series, which I loved as a child. This one wasn’t my favorite, but it fits well in the series. Other than that, I honestly can’t remember much about this book–all of them seem to blur together. It may be time for a Little House on the Prairie readthrough!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Faithful Place

Faithful Place by Tana French is a dark thriller/mystery, but not as intense as some of French's other books. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was a nineteen-year-old kid with a dream of escaping his family’s cramped flat on Faithful Place and running away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. But on the night they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him–probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again. Neither did Rosie. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank, now a detective in the Dublin Undercover squad, is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly–and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I enjoyed Tana French’s earlier book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, The Likeness, but it was so intense that I put off reading Faithful Place, even though I bought it for fifty cents at a thrift store almost four months ago.

Fortunately, although this book is still dark, it’s not nearly as intense as The Likeness. Frank left behind his abusive, dysfunctional family and his poor, rundown neighborhood without looking back, but when new information appears regarding the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Frank is sucked back in. Frank has to balance loyalty to his past with his desire to find the truth about what happened to Rosie, and he’s willing to risk alienating coworkers, friends, and even family to do so.

Frank, a minor character from The Likeness, is a great MC. He’s a successful undercover detective with a hardscrabble past and an uncertain future, and despite his decisions, he always remains likable. His family is that uncomfortable mix of horrible and lovable, as is Faithful Place. And while I wouldn’t necessarily classify this series as mysteries (more like thrillers, I suppose), the ending definitely took me by surprise.

It’s not necessary to read this series in order, so if you’ve been put off by the goriness of In the Woods or the intensity of The Likeness, you might pick up Faithful Place instead.

I think this quote summarizes the book pretty well:

“Most people are only too delighted to wreck each other’s heads. And for the tiny minority who do their pathetic best not to, this world is going to go right ahead and make sure they do it anyway.”

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.

Thursday Next Series Review

The Thursday Next series is a must read for book lovers. I loved these books! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I loved Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer, and I had heard great things about his Thursday Next series, namely that it’s an amazing series for bookworms. And oh my gosh, yes, it was.

There are four books in the original series, and in the hopes that you’ll read all of them, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. The series starts with The Eyre Affair (and yes, the title is referring to Jane Eyre). As the Goodreads.com summary begins, “Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously.” Set in alternate universe England, this book focuses on Thursday Next’s work in SpecOps as a literary detective, authenticating newly discovered Shakespeare plays and arrests poetry forgers. It’s not very exciting, until Thursday discovers that someone is kidnapping literary characters straight from the pages of fiction.

I think of this book as a time travel story for book lovers. It’s chock-full of literary references and textual jokes, something I love but am very bad at describing. Either way, Thursday is a great character, and the plot is fun without being too convoluted.

The series continues with Lost in a Good Book. This book starts to explore Thursday’s work with Jurisfiction, an agency that governs the characters inside books. The parts where Thursday learns to jump into and between books with the help of Miss Havisham (yes, that Miss Havisham) are just wonderful.

This exploration of BookWorld continues in The Well of Lost Plots (a super fun sequel) and has its culmination in Something Rotten. The series has such a good finish! Something Rotten wraps up plot points from not only this book, but all the way back to the first book in the series. The series finale allows us to have time travel, BookWorld, LiteraTec, and much more.

After the original quartet of books, there is a follow-up series in which Thursday is in her fifties, still secretly working for SpecOps and Jurisfiction and dealing with her old enemies and her teenage children. So far I’ve only read First Among Sequels, which is still as fun as the original series and allows us to keep up with the ChronoGuard, SpecOps, and Jurisfiction.

The Thursday Next series is a must read for any book lover, especially if you’re interested in time travel, text-based jokes, and an exploration of alternate universe England. These books are fun, funny, and ultimately satisfying.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

This series is stuffed with favorite quotes, so in keeping with my Lovely Words series, I’m sharing a few of them below.

“If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Overlong, detailed to the point of distraction-and ultimately, without a major resolution.”

“Governments and fashions come and go but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

“Death, I had discovered long ago, was available in varying flavors, and none of them particularly palatable. “

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.

ARC: Muffins and Mourning Tea

Muffins and Mourning Tea is the latest addition to the Oxford Tearoom mystery series. Just as fun as the rest of the series! #spon | NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Cotswolds tearoom owner Gemma Rose is excited to join the May Day celebrations in Oxford… until the beautiful spring morning ends in murder. Now, she’s embroiled in a deadly mystery – with four nosy old ladies determined to help in the sleuthing! Before she knows it, Gemma finds herself stalking a Russian “princess” and keeping up with the Old Biddies in Krav Maga class, while still trying to serve delicious cakes and buttery scones at her quaint English tearoom.
And that’s just the start of her worries: there’s her little tabby cat, Muesli, who is causing havoc at the local nursing home… and what should she do with the creepy plants that her mother keeps buying for her new cottage?

But the mystery that’s really bothering Gemma is her boyfriend’s odd behaviour. Devlin O’Connor has always been enigmatic but recently, the handsome CID detective has been strangely distant and evasive. Could he be lying to her? But why? (Review via Amazon.com)

Muffins and Mourning Tea is the latest installment in the wonderful Oxford Tearoom mystery series (you can see my previous reviews here, here, here, here, and here), and it was just as fun as always.

Gemma finds herself nearby when a murder is committed in the midst of a crowd, and of course, she can’t resist the temptation to investigate. But what with trying to run her tearoom, fending off the Old Biddies, and dealing with her boyfriend’s sudden evasiveness, Gemma has her hands full.

We get to spend time with some favorite characters in this book, including Gemma’s nosy and overbearing mother (who is still trying to give her daughter hideous decorations and setting her up with her former love interest, Lincoln), the Old Biddies (hilarious as always), and Gemma’s detective boyfriend Devlin. I can’t wait for the next book to find out more details about Devlin’s strange behavior in Muffins and Mourning Tea.

Of course, I also learned some new things in this book–like what banoffee pie is (there’s a recipe in the back of the book that I might have to try!) and more fun traditions from Oxford. I love a good British mystery, and the setting of Oxford makes this series different from the proliferation of British cozies I’ve come across.

If you’re looking for a fun and not super cliche cozy mystery series, I strongly recommend these books. They are always enjoyable with fun characters and a great setting, and Muffins and Mourning Tea is yet another example of H.Y. Hanna’s skill in writing satisfying mysteries.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC: Class of ’59

Class of '59 is the latest installment in the American Journey series. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When Mary Beth McIntire settles into a vacation house on June 2, 2017, she anticipates a quiet morning with coffee. Then she hears a noise, peers out a window, and spots a man in 1950s attire standing in the backyard.

In the same house on March 21, 1959, Mark Ryan finds a letter. Written by the mansion’s original owner in 1900, the letter describes a basement chamber, mysterious crystals, and a formula for time travel. Driven by curiosity, Mark tests the formula twice.

Within hours, Mary Beth and Mark share their secret with her sister and his brother and begin a journey that takes them from the present day to the age of sock hops, drive-ins, and jukeboxes. In CLASS OF ’59, the fourth book in the American Journey series, four young adults find love, danger, and adventure as they navigate the corridors of time and experience Southern California in its storied prime. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve reviewed several of John Heldt’s books in the past (you can see those reviews here, here, here, and here). This book is the fourth installment in his American Journey series, a time travel/romance series which brings couples together against the backdrop of famous times and places in America’s past.

Unlike earlier books in the series, Class of ’59 opens with the main characters discovering the time-traveling tunnel without the help (or knowledge) of the professor. Mark, a collegiate boy living in the late 50s, discovers an unbelievable story about time travel hidden in a desk in the new house his family moved into. When he tries it out, he finds himself transported to the same house almost sixty years into the future, where he meets Mary Beth and her sister. The two girls make the trip back to 1959 and experience the glory days of southern California, participating in school dances and meeting stars in Hollywood.

Of course, the two girls find themselves falling in love with Mark and his brother. The romances are sweet, if a little rushed. But after a few weeks of bliss, the four new friends find themselves in danger, and they have to quickly make choices that will affect the rest of their lives.

Class of ’59 had a few of the same problems I encountered in the last book, namely the use of descriptors rather than names and some flowery sentiments (how many times do we need to be reminded that Mark views Mary Beth as “stunning” or “beautiful” or “never ceases to amaze” him?). Still, if you can get past those details and enjoy the romance and the historical setting, you might give this book a try. And if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the American Journey series, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Roundup: August Edition

Quick reviews of The Little Paris Bookshop, Sold, and Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Sold

Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.

Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution. Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words— Simply to endure is to triumph.

Written in spare and evocative vignettes, this powerful novel renders a world that is as unimaginable as it is real, and a girl who not only survives but triumphs. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that human trafficking is an issue close to my heart. I put off reading this book because I knew it would make me sad and outraged. It did, of course, but that’s not all there is to this book.

Sold is made up of short, almost poetic chapters. Yes, it is heart wrenching and painful, but it is also beautiful and hopeful. If you’re curious about how young girls get trafficked in Nepal, this book (fictional, but based on the author’s firsthand research) is a beautiful way to start.

If you want to know how you can support girls and women who have escaped human trafficking situations like this, check out my post on the subject here.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

December 1941. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill arrives in Washington, D.C., along with special agent Maggie Hope. Posing as his typist, she is accompanying the prime minister as he meets with President Roosevelt to negotiate the United States’ entry into World War II. When one of the First Lady’s aides is mysteriously murdered, Maggie is quickly drawn into Mrs. Roosevelt’s inner circle—as ER herself is implicated in the crime. Maggie knows she must keep the investigation quiet, so she employs her unparalleled skills at code breaking and espionage to figure out who would target Mrs. Roosevelt, and why. What Maggie uncovers is a shocking conspiracy that could jeopardize American support for the war and leave the fate of the world hanging dangerously in the balance. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Guys, I really didn’t like this book. Even though this is the fifth book in the Maggie Hope series, there’s a lot of exposition and very little action. You would think I would be able to get behind Maggie as a woman doing dangerous work at a time when that was far from the norm, but she’s pretty boring herself. She hardly does anything other than take notes for Winston Churchill and follow Eleanor Roosevelt around.

Even these famous historical characters–FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill–don’t seem familiar. I’m not a historical expert, certainly, but some of the things that these real-life characters said rang false. This totally took me out of the reading experience. I’m definitely not interested in reading any of the other books in this series.

Rating: Meh

The Little Paris Bookshop

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve been seeing this book everywhere, and I finally got around to reading it after a friend of mine bought her own copy and demanded I read along with her. And it was not at all what I thought it was going to be!

The Little Paris Bookshop has beautiful writing, and the setting (France) is pretty gorgeous itself. After Perdu finally reads the letter that his lover left him so many years ago, he begins a symbolic journey down the river, pursuing his memories of Manon. I got annoyed at Perdu sometimes because of his stubbornness, and the book was very sad in places, but I liked his companions (Max, Samy, and Cuneo).

Be forewarned that there is some sexual content, but if you’re good with that, you might enjoy this book about the power of books to heal us. I personally found this one beautiful but forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mini Review: Magyk

Magyk, the first book in the Septimus Heap series, is a fun, magical adventure for middle grades kids. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The seventh son of the seventh son, aptly named Septimus Heap, is stolen the night he is born by a midwife who pronounces him dead. That same night, the baby’s father, Silas Heap, comes across a bundle in the snow containing a new born girl with violet eyes. The Heaps take this helpless newborn into their home, name her Jenna, and raise her as their own. But who is this mysterious baby girl, and what really happened to their beloved son Septimus? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the first in the Septimus Heap series, a series that seems to have become popular right after I stopped reading MG books. This is a sweet magical adventure. I think of it almost as Harry Potter for younger kids. It’s funny and snarky, it has great characters, it’s lighthearted, but it doesn’t have the angst and drama of HP. The plot twists are a bit predictable (at least, they were to me, an adult reader), but that doesn’t take away from the fun of the story.

I’m very glad I picked it up this summer, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Septimus Heap series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Middle Grades Book Roundup

These three middle grades books are fun, diverse, and thought-provoking. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Last month I was in the mood for some light, fun reading, so I checked out a few middle grades books. They were fun, but they also explored some thought-provoking topics–and they’re much more diverse than the MG books of my childhood.

Liar & Spy

When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

With his mother gone, his dad out of work, and a brand new apartment to deal with, Georges is facing a lot of changes in his life. The kids at school make fun of him, so Georges ends up spending a lot of time with Safer, who always seems to have a new, crazy idea for Georges. As you read through the book, Georges’s and Safer’s secrets are revealed, and each has to deal with their own struggles.

Liar & Spy is by author Rebecca Stead, who wrote the 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me. This story isn’t quite as nicely put together, but it’s still a cute book. (And, of course, it’s a bit tearjerky.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Murder is Bad Manners

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.

Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is a great English boarding school mystery with, surprisingly, a Chinese MC. Hazel and Daisy are unlikely friends who decide to form a detective agency. But when they start investigating the mysterious death of one of their teachers, they have to struggle to find clues and stay out of trouble at the same time.

Hazel faces some racism (the story is set in 1930s England, after all), but this is treated in a gentle way. It’s an interesting mystery with some fun characters–this is a series I’ll definitely follow.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Out of My Mind

Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the most emotional of all the books I’ve reviewed in this post. Melody has cerebral palsy that leaves her unable to speak, walk, or care for herself. But trapped inside her body is an intelligent, curious mind. After years of repetitive, boring lessons with the rest of her special ed class, Melody receives a computer that helps her speak–and everyone is shocked at how much brain power she has.

Melody is a great narrator. Despite her cerebral palsy, she just wants to be a normal kid, eating meals with friends, wearing trendy clothes, and joining school clubs. It’s incredibly frustrating (for Melody and for the reader) when other students and even teachers underestimate what she can do. If you’re like me, you’ll tear up over the trials and triumphs that Melody faces. This book is a great, quick introduction for young teens to certain types of special needs.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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