These Shallow Graves

theseshallowgravesby Jennifer Donnelly
First sentence: “Josephine Montfort stared at the newly mounded grave in front of her and at the wooden cross marking it.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, murder, and some questionable situations. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th or 8th grader, who was interested.

Josephine is a thing that an 1890s socialite isn’t supposed to be: curious. She’s supposed to obey her parents, be elegant and ladylike, and marry a wealthy, eligible bachelor of her parent’s choosing. But, when her father unexpectedly turns up dead, supposedly having shot himself, Josephine won’t — can’t — settle for that. She heads out, teaming up with a reporter by the name of Eddie Gallagher, to find the Truth.

Thus starts a winding, sometimes scary, path that will lead Josephine down paths that would scandalize her family if they knew, but ultimately opens Josephine’s eyes and changes her forever.

I’ll be honest: the mystery was kind of predictable. I guess who it was fairly early on, as well as guessing the “big secret”. I didn’t have the how and why, but eventually, I figured out that too. The thing that kept me reading was Jo herself. I enjoyed the push and pull she had with Upper Crust New York Society, how she was willing to go against the expectations of her family. I found it all fascinating, and found Jo a character worth spending time with this.

Which made it worth reading.

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The Golden Specific

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “Dear Shadrack, You ask me for news of the Eerie, and I can tell you that there is no recent news of them in the Indian Territories.”
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Others in the series: The Glass Sentence
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: It’s a long book, and it’s one of those that take some investment. Probably not for the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, even if it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. I’m actually wondering if these might do better in the YA (grades 6-8) section, with the Philip Pullman books…

I’ll be honest: I don’t really remember what happened in the first book. The good thing? You don’t really need to. There’s no real sum-up at the beginning (thank heavens!) but you get the sense, fairly quickly, about what’s going on. And Grove is nice enough to let us know what we need to know as the book progresses.

Which helps, because there are three story lines going here. One is Sophia’s continuing quest to figure out what happened to her parents 10 years ago. This involves going to restricted libraries and ending up across the Atlantic (accidentally by herself) in the Papal States, looking for the lost land of Ausentintia. (I read that Austen-tia every. single. time.) Her adventures there are weird and wild, and the way Grove messes with time, religion, and fantasy are quite mesmerizing. She makes new friends, particularly Errol and Goldenrod, who are fascinating additions to the world Grove has built.

The second story line is related: it’s the diaries that Sophia goes looking  for, the writing of her mother that Sophia was looking for. (This is a second in a trilogy, so there’s a lot of loose ends.) This was the least interesting part to me; yeah, I was curious about Sophia’s parents, but not especially invested in their journey, so to have the story I was interested in interrupted with this one was a bit annoying.

The third — and my favorite this time around — story line was that of Theo, who stays behind in Boston, and attempts to prove that Sophia’s uncle Shadrack didn’t, in fact, kill the prime minister. It’s a fascinating plot line, full of deceptions and intrigue. Additionally, it has the most intriguing characters; Theo’s new friend, Nettie, is the daughter of the police inspector, and absolutely delightful.

I don’t know if it’s as strong as The Glass Sentence was, but I do think that this will be a compelling series once it’s completed.

Audiobook: The House of Silk

by Anthony Horowitz
Read by Sir Derek Jacobi
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Content: While there’s nothing “objectionable”, it does, in the end, feature murder, and the solution is pretty tough to take. Still, I think it’d be a good book for all the teen Sherlock lovers out there. It’s in the mystery section at the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for years, I swear. I like Sherlock Holmes, and this one is actually sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, and Horowitz has written some fun middle grade books… and and and.

I finally got around to it because Horowitz published Moriarty, and I remembered that I did want to read House of Silk. Thankfully, the library had an audio version, and so I opted for that.

And what a ride. First: I loved Jacobi’s narration, from his slightly gruff Watson to his more elegant Holmes. And the wide variations of English accents were amazing. The only time I felt he was off was when he did an American woman, but I was able to forgive that.

The conceit is that Watson is writing this at the end of his life, with the intent that it would be hidden and released in 100 years, because the scandal was too great for it to be published during his lifetime. Which sets up an ominous tone that permeates the whole book. Holmes and Watson (married now, and his wife was away so he was back at 221B Baker Street) were solicited by a man, Carstairs, who felt he was being threatened by one of the Flat Cap Gang from Boston. That leads Holmes and Watson down a tricky, twisty, dark path and into the deepest darkest secrets of some of the most powerful men in Britain.

I know I’m being vague. But, really: the less you know, the more enjoyable the ride. And the ending had me flabbergasted. I had some of it figured out — in retrospect, nothing comes out of left field, which is nice — but when the final revelation came I was sufficiently amazed at Holmes and disgusted by the depravity. As well I should be.

I don’t know if I would have liked it as much had I read it; I prefer the TV shows to the stories, and listening to it gave it the feel of one of those. Or maybe it’s just because Horowitz knows action and plotting… which lends credence to my middle grade/mystery crossover theory.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

The Night Gardener

by Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October.”
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Content: It’s a very slow, very atmospheric book. Probably not good for those struggling, though I think it would make an amazing read-aloud. It’s in the middle-grade section (grades 3-5) in the bookstore.

It’s the late 1800s, and Molly and Kip are siblings are in England looking for work because of the potato famine in Ireland. They’re desperate, so they’ll take anything, even a job at the Windsor house… a place which many people say are haunted. Molly — who is a storyteller at heart — and Kip don’t really have much of a choice, so they accept the job and head to the house, not knowing the fate that awaits them.

The family — father Bertrand, mother Constance, and two children, Alistair and Penny — is a strange one. Guarded, pale, and most of all, adamant that Molly and Kip stay away from the green door.

And then there’s the tree: the gnarled, old, dead, black tree that takes up a good portion of the yard.

Of course, things don’t go well for Molly and Kip: they soon notice that every night a tall, shadow man comes to water and take care of the tree. And to dig holes. And no, none of this is a happy thing. It comes down on Molly and Kip to figure out a way to not only get out of there, but to stop the evil from perpetrating.

The jacket flap compared this one to Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, and I don’t think it was that. (Maybe Irving; I haven’t read him in a long time.) What it was, however, was a ripping good yarn. Auxier utilized storytelling in the writing of this, and it showed. I could imagine someone standing in front of an audience, spinning this tale out, having everyone on the edge of their seat: will they make it? It’s a long tale, sure, one for multiple nights, but one that will have the listeners engrossed.

But as a reader? It was good, sure, but not great. I liked it, yes, but didn’t love it. I was gratified that Molly (and Kip) ended up being heroes of their own story; there was a time I was worried adults would step in and solve the problem, but Auxier is smarter than that. It was a good read, but I think it’d be a better one if read aloud.

The Glass Sentence

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “It happened long ago, when I was only a child.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable or scary. It is, however, nearly 500 pages and it’s small type and that can be intimidating. (A was initially intimidated. I think I’ve convinced her to read it.) It’s also kind of slow-moving, with a lot of tricky names, so probably not the best book for a reluctant reader.

I think the best place to start with this one is Megan Whalen Turner’s quote on the back cover: “Not since Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass have I seen such an original and compelling world built inside a book.”

That’s quite a lot for a book to live up to (MWT! Philip Pullman! Original! Compelling!) but you want to know something? She was right. So very, very right.

In 1799, something happened, and the whole world shifted. It came to be known as the Great Disruption, and what it did was cause different parts of the globe to be in different time periods. Europe was stuck in the middle ages, the Northwest Territory in a prehistoric ice age. What we know as the 13 colonies stayed in linear time, for the most part, though they never developed much farther than that. Past the Mississippi River and into Mexico is what is known as the Baldlands, a hodgepodge of raiders and outlaws, except for three cities which are known as the Triple Era, with people and creatures spanning 3000 years in the same place.

Pretty cool, no?

It’s no wonder that in this world explorers and map-makers are held in the highest esteem. And Sophie Tam’s uncle, Shadrack Elli, is one of the best. He’s been raising his niece ever since her parents — also explorers — disappeared. She’s learned to live without knowing about her parents, and she’s learned how to read the maps that Shadrack makes. So when he’s kidnapped, she’s really the only person who can save him.

The world is brilliant, and the use of maps and magic (of sorts, though kind of not really “magic” as you’re thinking about it; it’s more future techonology) are refreshingly unique. But, once the plot starts going (which, admittedly takes a while), it picks up and becomes one of those books you can’t put down. I was thrilled with the world, with Sophie and her friend Theo and their increasingly intense and urgent adventure. I thought that Grove captured an interesting balance between the older people — like Shadrack — and their expertise and the younger ones — like Sophie — who were able to see things in a new and different light. I loved the use of time and Ages and invented words; I haven’t seen this kind of  creativity in naming things since Harry Potter. I also loved that the “bad guy” wasn’t wholly evil. That while they did some morally questionable things, it wasn’t a pure black and white thing. There’s layers here: yes, it’s a middle grade fantasy adventure, but it’s also so much more.

I can’t wait for the sequel.