Truly Devious

by Maureen Johnson
First sentence: “Fate came for Dottie Epstein a year before, in the form of a call to the principal’s office.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 16, 2018
Content: There’s a smattering of mild swear words, and a couple f-bombs. It’ll probably be in the YA section of the bookstore.

This is the story of a boarding school, Ellingham Academy,  with a sordid past – in 1936 a girl was murdered and the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and never recovered. Which makes it the perfect school for Stevie Bell, a true crime aficionado who thinks she can solve the decades-old crime. But when she gets to Ellingham, things aren’t so simple as waltzing in there and putting the pieces together. There’s friendships and relationships to navigate, and then more… sinister things start happening.

I’ve loved Johnson’s work for a while, and her ability to capture the quirkiness of teenagers. I loved Stevie, and the friends she made. Though this book is less about friendship and more about the mystery, which Johnson also does really well. She wove the 1936 mystery through the book as the contemporary mystery was unfolding, which helped with the air of creepiness, and kept me looking for parallels between the two. (I’m a terrible mystery reader; I never pick up the clues.)

My only complaint was that I was hoping it would be a stand-alone. (Johnson does have a problem with starting a series and then not finishing them. I’m still waiting for the last Suite Scarlett book…) But, alas, it’s not. It comes close; one of the two mysteries solved, sort of, but there are still lots of questions to be answered. Which means, I’m waiting for the next one. Here’s hoping it’ll come soon!

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Winterhouse

by Ben Gutterson
First sentence: “When Elizabeth Somers tugged open the gate to her aunt and uncle’s yard and saw and envelope taped to the front door of the shabby house she shared with them, she knew it was bad news.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 2, 2018
Content: There’s some mild scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Elizabeth is an orphan (of course) living with her neglectful (of course) relatives when she (of course) gets a mysterious invitation to visit the Winterhouse hotel, a posh, somewhat charming (of course) hotel out in the middle of the country. Her aunt and uncle (of course) send her (they got a mysterious Christmas vacation out of it), glad (of course) to be rid of the Burden that she is. Once at Winterhouse, Elizabeth (of course) discovers the gigantic (of course) library, makes a friend in the genius inventor (of course) Freddy and the mysterious, eccentric (of course) owner Norbridge seems nice enough. There’s some other guests who are (of course) creepy, and a mystery looming which (of course) Elizabeth is drawn to solve.

All those of courses kind of make it seem as if I didn’t like this one, except event though the plot/concept seemed really familiar, and Been There Done That, I still enjoyed the book. I liked the puzzles that Freddy and Elizabeth solve. I liked the mysterious codes and word games that they played. I thought the ghost story was a bit much, but it didn’t bother me overly much. Maybe the story was a bit trite but Guterson knows how to engage a reader, and keep the pages turning. Which is possibly all a story really needs.

Just like Jackie

by Lindsey Stoddard
First sentence: “Before I know it I have Alex Carter’s nose blood on me.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a few “damn” and “dammit” and they say “effing”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

For Robinson Hart’s entire eleven years, it’s just been her and her grandpa together. They’ve gotten along fine: her grandpa taught her how to tap the sugar maples and make syrup and how to fix cars. And even though they don’t match exactly — grandpa is black, and Robbie is lighter skinned — and even though grandpa doesn’t talk about Robbie’s mom, things are fine.

Until they aren’t.  Robbie has noticed that grandpa has started messing up words, forgetting things, putting things away wrong… and she’s sure that if she could just be a good kid, he would stop and things would go back to normal. Except Alex is a bully and Robbie can’t handle it, and she keeps fighting back (literally), which gets her into trouble.

This isn’t really a plot-heavy book. Robbie does learn some lessons about controlling anger, and that everyone has their own issues they’re dealing with. But what kept me coming back was the relationship between Robbie and her grandpa, and how worried and powerless she felt with her grandpa’s increasing Alzheimer’s. I also loved the friends that Robbie eventually realized were on her side. It was a slow process for her, and as a parent I was sometimes irritated at that. But, I realized that an 11-year-old might not see everything I could see, and I thought Stoddard captured that extremely well.

A very good book, overall.

Audiobook: Sing Unburied Sing

by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Kevin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley
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Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, drug use, and violence. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s not often I end up reading the National Book Award winner for fiction, and to be honest, I was surprised that I did. (I started listening to it before the awards…) I picked it up because people were talking about it, because I’ve never read Jesmyn Ward before, and because I was curious.

It’s basically a slice of life portrait of Mississippi. A black woman, Leonie, takes her two children — Jojo, whose story this is, and Kayla — on a road trip from the Gulf to Parchman, where their dad is getting out of jail after serving time for drug charges. It’s a hot mess of a road trip, partially because Leonie is a drug addict, and partially because she just can’t parent, interspersed with reflections from Jojo, his grandfather (Leonie’s father), and Leonie. It’s about relationships — Leonie’s brother was killed in a race-related shooting by her boyfriend’s (and baby daddy’s) cousin — and surviving and growing up and expectations.

I enjoyed the narration; there were three different narrators, one each for Jojo (I liked him best), Leonie and a ghost who shows up halfway through, but I wonder if this was a book that would have gone down easier read than listened to. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just felt like I missed things — connections, imagery, story — and I could have taken it slower in print than in audio.

Still, a worthwhile read.

Penelope March is Melting

by Jeff Michael Ruby
First sentence: “Years ago, scientists spotted a strange iceberg floating a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.”
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Review copy sent by the author.
Content: There’s some bullying and a couple of intense situations. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Penelope March lives a quiet, ordinary life in Glacier Cove. Her brother leaves her riddles, her father goes and works as a turnip farmer (they’re the only food that grows on an iceberg). She goes to school, but doesn’t have many friends. She reads a lot though, and wishes for an adventure. Until, one day, she goes into the ramshackle house of  the town eccentric, and learns that an evil force is trying to take over the ocean, and is planning on melting Glacier Cove. And it’s up to Penelope (and a team of ice penguins) to stop it.

On the one hand, this was a unique premise. Not many middle grade fantasies being set on a town build on an iceberg. And, the penguins were truly amusing. There was the same old dead parent (mom this time) and the grieving remaining one (out of touch father). There was the Skeptical Boy (the brother, who didn’t really get on board until the last part of the book) and the Misunderstood Friend. And the buildup to the whole evil magic thing at the end just didn’t work for me. That said, it wasn’t a terribly written book, and I think there are kids — specifically ones who don’t mind a bit of magic with their adventure — who will enjoy this one. I just found it to be a bit… too basic and banal for my tastes.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 1

I’ve been reading LOTS (well, not as much as some years) for the Cybils, and I haven’t had the time to write down reviews of all of them. Here are a bunch I enjoyed, but didn’t have the time to write a whole review of.

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
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Content: It’s a ghost story, but it’s not scary, and it’s short enough not to scare off reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Basic plot: there’s this town, Ingot, that doesn’t have ghosts. Which is unusual in this alternate world where ghosts are incredibly prevalent. Jasper, who grew up in Ingot, doesn’t mind, but Rosa, who just moved there, does. And so when ghosts start appearing at the Renaissance Faire, Rosa is ecstatic: appeasing the ghosts (not banishing!) is her family’s business, after all. And she enlists Jasper’s help to figure out the ghost problem in Ingot.

It’s a fun enough book; short and sweet and simple, and I could tell that Alexander wanted to make it diverse (props for that, but it felt forced) but it just wasn’t, well, interesting.

Dominion
by Shane Arbuthnott
First sentence: “They had been chasing the font for days, and Molly knew the engine was getting tired.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, and some intense moments. It’s not at the store, but if it was, it’d be in the YA (grades 6-8) section.

This book takes place in a world — perhaps our own? — that has been taken over by spirits. Except, these aren’t ghosts (I thought they were, at first). They’re more like djinn, except they don’t have magic powers. What the people of this world do is capture the spirits, and then force them into iron containers (so they can’t escape) and then use them to power airships and robots. Molly is the engineer on her family’s airship, when she realizes (over a course of a few events) that what they’re doing is essentially slavery. So, she sets out to stop it.

The thing I liked best about this was the world. Arburthnott has created a unique world where he mixes magic (of sorts) with steampunk technology, and then thrown in a capable and interesting heroine (whose main antagonists end up being her family, which was also interesting) and it turns out that this is a pretty fantastic speculative fiction adventure.

The Unicorn in the Barn
by Jacqueline K. Ogburn
First sentence: “My dad always told me, ‘Never surprise anybody swinging a hammer; something is liable to get smashed.'”
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Content: There’s one adult smoking and a hunting accident. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a charming little story about a boy and a girl, some woods, a unicorn, and a vet clinic that helps (among other animals) magical animals. It was very sweet and tender, and lovely, and would be perfect for the sweet, tender, animal-loving reader. I enjoyed the push-and-pull relationship between the main character and the daughter of the veterinarian, and I liked that the conflict happened in spite of the parents, not because of them. (They were actually really good parents.) I’m not much of a horse/unicorn lover (anymore; my 4th grade self would have loved this book), so I wasn’t completely enthralled, but I do like that there’s a charming, sweet horse story starring a boy out there.

The Great Hibernation
by Tara Dairman
First sentence: “The bear was dead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s some bullying and sleeping parents. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This was a delightfully odd story about a northern town (maybe in the Yukon? Or northern Alaska?) which, every year, all the adults, 12 years and 4 months and 6 days old  and up eats bear liver to honor a long-ago event by their forefathers. It’s considered a punishable offense to not do so, and so when Jean throws it up, she’s worried. Until everyone who ate the liver falls asleep and the kids — especially the mayor’s kid, Magnus — take over. Then, it’s up to Jean to figure out why the adults are all asleep and stop the vote on the new thistleberry plant before it’s too late.

A highly improbably premise with a scientific solution, this one was silly fun. I enjoyed reading how Jean and her new Thai friend, Isara, figure out the truth behind the sudden “hibernation” and how to wake up the adults. It’s a clever mystery and a silly story, even if it is full of improbabilities.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands
by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “Don’t fall.”
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Content: There’s some intense moments with scary monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

As a general rule, I enjoy Sarah Beth Durst’s writing, and this one is no exception. She’s excellent with her world building — this one being a world of islands protected by a magical barrier which is sustained by a dragon — and her writing propels the reader forward. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twin sisters, daughters of the Emperor, and their journey to the dragon. I liked that Durst explored the nature of the stories we tell each other and ourselves, how a shared history can differ depending on where a person is from,  how perceptions can often be wrong , and how change is sometimes for the best. It was a delightful story, the only negative side being (and this may be a big negative) the vaguely Asian feel to it, which I think could have been done better by an Asian author. That said, overall, it was very good.

York: The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.”
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Content: It’s long, and there are some challenging vocabulary words, as well as a few intense moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to any adventuresome 4th grader and up.

I’ve been looking at this book since before it came out in May, thinking, “I really need to get to this one.” And so I was overjoyed that it ended up on the Cybils list. Even so, I put it off… perhaps thinking it wouldn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard surrounding it.

Boy, was I wrong! This is a difficult one to describe: it’s an alternative New York City, one in which there were genius twins — the Morningstarrs — in the 19th century who invented steampunk-like machines (many of which are still in use “today”), and then, when they disappeared mysteriously, left behind a Cipher to be figured out. Except in the intervening 160 years, no one has figured it out. That is, until a different set of twins, Tess and Theo Biedermann, and their friend Jaime Cruz, get a mysterious letter and set about following a whole new set of clues, in the hopes of saving their apartment building. Following the clues leads them on an increasingly dangerous path, full of wonders and betrayals, all the way to the end. Or perhaps: just another beginning? (Yes, it’s a first in a series.)

I was talking about this to A the other day, and trying to explain it, and she looked at me like this was crazy. And in a way, it is. But it’s SO very good. The characters are fun (Cricket needed a larger role!) and Ruby keeps the plot moving along. I have heard some say that it’s complicated, but I think she manages to mesh the mystery and the steampunk elements (plus good, if distracted, parents) quite seamlessly. I’m definitely on board for their next adventure!