The Shadow Cabinet

by Maureen Johnson
First sentence: “The curtains at 16 Hyssop Close hadn’t been opened all day.”
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Review copy snagged from the box from the publisher rep.
Others in the series: The Name of the Star, The Madness Underneath
Release date: February 10, 2015
Content: There’s a lot of murder in this one, some of it gory, but never graphic. Other than that, it’s just intense. The series is in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t oppose giving it to a younger kid who was interested in ghost stories.

First off: spoilers for the other two books, obviously. You’ve been warned. (And if you haven’t read them, you really should. They’re excellent.)

Two years is a long time to wait for a book. And in the process, I’ve forgotten all the anxiousness I experienced when I finished the last one. So I do have to admit, that this one took a little bit of time to get back into the swing of things.

It begins forty years ago, with the grisly murder of 10 teenagers by a pair of odd, unusual twins named Sid and Sadie (though in my mind, Sadie was always the Thrilling Adventure Hour Sadie…). It’s a violent way to begin a book (then again, they are murder mysteries) and it’s important, though it doesn’t come to fruition until the end. The main story is the two prongs leftover from Madness: trying to figure out what happened to Stephen when he died and trying to figure out where crazy Jane took Charlotte. Both of those lead Rory and the rest of the ghost team: Thorpe, Boo, and Callum down increasingly crazy paths.

Things I really liked: I loved the addition of Freddie, a new ghost hunter. She was spunky and funny and a breath of fresh air in the midst of Rory’s loss. And I loved that MJ brought back Jerome from book one. Even though he’s mostly kept in the dark, he plays an important role in all of the crazy that follows.

It’s as good as Name of the Star, I think. And it sets up an epic conclusion (I hope). Now, it’s just waiting until that conclusion comes.

Greenglass House

by Kate Milford
First sentence: “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way if you’re going to run a hotel in a smuggler’s town.”
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Content: There’s nothing in the usual objectionable categories. However, it’s a slow book, especially at the start, and there’s some confusion sometimes when the characters switch names. That said, a good reader who loves mysteries would really like this one. It would be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t be adverse to putting it in the YA (grades 6-8) section either.

Milo and his parents run an inn at the top of a hill overlooking a river just outside of the fictional town of Nagspeake. The thing that makes their inn special is that it’s a safe having for smugglers. Milo and Mr. and Mrs. Pine know how to keep secrets.

However, it’s winter break, and Milo is looking forward to spending time alone with his parents. Without guests. So, he’s predictably disappointed when four guests, one right after another, show up for the winter.

Soon, they are in full swing, and have to bring up their usual cook, with her daughter, who just happens to be Milo’s age. Soon he and Meddy find themselves embroiled in an adventure and a mystery: figuring out why each of the four guests are there, their connection with the old house that Milo’s parents inherited, and who keeps stealing stuff.

The comparisons to Westing Game that I’ve read are valid. There is a mystery to solve, and it’s a quietly clever one, with a twist that I should have seen coming, but didn’t. (As we all know, I’m not the most careful of readers.) But it’s more than a mystery: it’s a lovely book, full of stories and quiet adventures (Meddy and Milo play a Dungeons & Dragons-like game for most of the book). I’m impressed that Milford wrote such a compelling book on such a small scale; because of the weather, Milo and Meddy hardly ever leave the house. It’s a very bleak landscape (Think The Dark is Rising bleak), but Milford infuses it with both warmth and mystery.

One more thing: Milo is adopted. He’s of Chinese nationality with white parents, and he feels that difference keenly at this point in his life. So, it’s not only a book with a mystery, it’s a book about belonging and family.

I loved it.

Afterworlds

by Scott Westerfeld
First sentence: “The most important email that Darcy Patel ever wrote was three paragraphs long.”
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Release date: September 23, 2014
Content: There’s some grizzly murders, terrorists, and a lot of swearing. Plus the huge length and the amount of patience it’s going to take to get through this one, and I’m not sure it’s for the faint of heart. It’s in the teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

I picked this up because it’s the New Scott Westerfeld. I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I have loved (more or less) everything I read by him. (Also: I’ve met him, at KidlitCon in Seattle. He was pretty chill.) Even so, I didn’t know what to expect. And this was nothing like I’ve ever read before.

It’s really two books in one. Half of it is a ghost/terrorist/murder story. Lizzie, a high school senior, is traveling back to California after visiting her father, and some terrorists attack her airplane. She survives by playing dead, and soon discovers that she can see ghosts. But it’s more than that: she is a psychopomp, a valkyrie, a person who helps the dead find peace. And she’s in love with the underworld’s lord, Yamaraj.

The second half of the story is about Darcy, a recently graduated girl, who “wrote” the Lizzie half of the book during NANOWRIMO her senior year, and got it snapped up by a major publisher for 6 figures. Suddenly, her life is turned upside down, and she decides that college is not an option. Instead, she moves to New York and is thrust head first into the world of YA publishing. It’s a fictional account because Darcy is a fictional person, but very it much felt like an inside peek into the life of a writer.

I liked each of the stories individually; Westerfeld knows how to plot, and how to hold a reader’s interest. The Lizzie story was sufficiently chilling (while also being a bit swoony) and had some clever and interesting takes on the afterworld. And the Darcy story was well-done as well; Westerfeld caught the uncertainty of a first-time published author as well as the excitement and naivete of someone just out of high school facing the Big Wide World.

But, what I enjoyed most, and what kept me reading, was the connection between the two parts. I loved seeing Darcy angst over her book, and how different parts of her life fit into the book. I loved reading about how parts of the story were changed and adapted. And I loved all the different teasers about the end, and how it could have been different. I’m not a writer but I loved seeing how the author and the story are tied up together and the effort it takes to write a story.

I don’t know how well this is going to go over with non-Westerfeld fans; I do hope it goes over well. There’s a couple of good stories here. And I’d be more than happy to read more of Darcy and Lizzie’s story.

The Whispering Skull

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “‘Don’t look now,’ Lockwood said.”
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Release date: September 16, 2014
Review copy snagged out of the box sent by our Hachette rep.
Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase
Content: There’s lots of ghosts, obviously, and some scary situations. Also a couple of deaths and a couple of instances of mild swearing. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be wary about giving it to an overly sensitive child.

It’s not very often, I think, that the second book in a series is as good (if not better) than the first one. This is one of those rare instances.

First off, it was wonderful to be back with Lockwood, George, and Lucy. Lockwood was as reckless and charming as ever; Lucy was still the glue that held the company together. But George was really the focus of this story. He got his moment in the spotlight, and was something more than the bookish, slightly overweight Other Guy.

The mystery this time is centered around a body Lockwood, Lucy, and George are hired to help secure.  A couple of grave excavators have found a grave site that wasn’t supposed to be there, the body of one Edmund Bickerstaff, who was a leading paranormal and psychic experimenter in Victorian times. It turns out that he was experimenting with things he shouldn’t have been, creating a Bone Glass which was supposed to give you a view into the afterlife, but instead kills anyone who looks at it.

Soon after the excavation, however, the Bone Glass is stolen, and Lockwood & Co are in a fierce competition with their rivals at Fittes to solve the mystery.

Oh, and yes, the whispering skull of the title (and the cover; love it!) does play a fairly major role.

There are so many brilliant things about this book. From the pacing (I couldn’t put it down!) to the hilarious asides, to the action-adventure feel.  It’s wonderful that you don’t really have to read The Screaming Staircase to enjoy this one. There are a few references to the previous book, but nothing happened in it that you Have to know before picking this one up. Additionally, even though there are teasers for the next book (which can’t come out soon enough) the story in this one wraps completely up. I love it when series books are like this.

I can’t wait for the next one.

The Lost

by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “For the first hundred miles, I only see the road and my knuckles, skin tight across the bones, like my mother’s hands, as I clutch the steering wheel.”
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Content: The publisher is marketing this one as fiction, but I think it’s because the main protagonist is 27. There’s some mild swearing, and lots of kissing, but other than that, nothing. I’d give this one to a teenager who is interested.

I’ve had a difficult time getting into adult fiction lately. Too often, I picked it up and it’s just Words and no Plot or Characters or anything interesting. But, I saw that Sarah Beth Durst (whom I love) had an adult book (!) out, and I figured if there was an adult fiction book I’d love, it’d be one written by Durst.

I was right.

Lauren Chase is in a holding pattern in her life. She’s given up on her art to get a practical job because her mother has been diagnosed with cancer. But on this particular day, the day in which the book starts, her mother is off to get Bad News, and Lauren can’t handle it. So she runs away. And finds herself in Lost. A place where all the lost things go, once you arrive in Lost, you’re pretty much stuck. Until you find the thing you lost, and then the Missing Man can send you back.

Except the Missing Man, when he saw Lauren, bolted. Which means, she’s got half the town out to get her, and has to figure out how to survive. Thankfully, she has Claire, a precocious 7-year-old, and Peter, who is the Finder, to help her.

It sounds a little trite, writing it all down, like it’s been something that’s been done before. But Durst made it new and fresh for me. Told from Lauren’s point of view, we got her panic when she initially encountered Lost, as well as her confusion and determination as things got worse for her. And the end, while open for the intended sequel, also gave me a sense of closure.

Perhaps I’m just a genre-fiction reader, but I found reading this one to be so much more enjoyable than many of my other forays into adult fiction. Which is something that made me very happy.

The Diviners

by Libba Bray
First sentence: “In the town house at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes.”
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Content: There wasn’t any language (at least that I noticed), and there was only illusions to sex. What puts this in the Teen (grades 9 and up) section of the library is the violence. There are 5 gruesome murders, spouse abuse, and other assorted violence. And then there’s the whole occult/creep factor, not to mention the teenage drinking. However, I’d give it to a 12- or 13-year-old if they weren’t overly sensitive.

Evie hates her small-town Ohio life. She’s a modern ’20s woman, and hates being shackled, especially by her Prohibition-supporting mother. So, when Evie makes big blunder with her talent for “reading” objects — she accuses the town’s Golden Boy with knocking up a maid — and she’s shipped off to Manhattan to stay with her admittedly odd uncle, she’s more than happy. She’s thrilled: finally, her life can Begin!

But while Evie makes some good friends, and goes to a couple of thrilling events, things aren’t all coming up roses. There’s a serial killer out there, brutally murdering people and leaving occult signs on the bodies. Her uncle — who runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult — has gotten involved with the investigation into the murders, and Evie, being the Modern Woman that she is, weasels her way into that. Which brings a whole mess of problems.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of Bray’s book is that Evie’s isn’t the only story. Bray is weaving a huge tapestry here, with multiple story lines that weave in and out of each other. She’s setting up a huge confrontation, of which the murders only play a small part, but I didn’t mind because the characters themselves were so engaging. To the tortured Ziegfeld star Theta, to the daughter of union supporters Mable, to the charismatic thief Sam, to the tortured Jericho, to the African American bookie runner Memphis, they were all characters I wanted to spend time with and get to know. But in many ways, there was almost too much. The book comes in at nearly 600 pages, and it’s only a first in a series. That’s a lot of set-up going there. And while the overall plot line — the murders — gets resolved, the last 40 pages are spent setting up the next book, which dampened my enthusiasm for it.

But dampened isn’t a dislike. There really is so much to love about this one, from the creepy to the characters.

Ghosts of Tupelo Landing

by Sheila Turnage
First sentence: “Desperado Detective Agency’s second big case snuck up on Dale and me at the end of summer, dressed in the happy-go-lucky colors and excitement of an auction.”
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Others in the series: Three Times Lucky
Content: There may be a few instances of mild swearing (but I really don’t think so), and some talk of abuse, and another (potential) murder. But it really is innocent and happily belongs in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Every once in a while, a series of books captures my fancy so completely that I fall head-over-heels in love with the characters. The Casson family books are that way. As is My Most Excellent Year. I’m adding the Tupelo Landing books to that list. I adore the town, even with all its quirks, and the people in it. I want to live next door and enjoy them every day.

This installment picks up as the school year is starting, and Mo and Dale are about to enter sixth grade. This is a good time as any: one of the amazing things about this book is that while it is a sequel, it really does stand on its own. Turnage works in the story from Three Times Lucky as you go along, in ways — like press releases or newspaper clippings or just dropped comments — that don’t stop the narration of the current story. It was lovely to get a refresher while being immediately immersed in the new story.

The case that the Desperado Detective Agency is working on this time is a good old-fashioned Haunting. Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacy bought the old inn at an auction, mostly because they didn’t like the look of the “city” woman (whom Mo less-than-affectionately calls “Rat Face”) who was bidding on the property. They didn’t want her to come in, tear the dilapidated inn down, and put up condos in place. Unfortunately, buying an inn to renovate and then renovating it — especially when there’s a bona fide ghost lurking about — are two different things.

Mo and Dale get involved because of a history assignment. They’re supposed to interview one of the town “elders”, and Mo’s nemesis, Anna (whom Mo less-than-affectionately calls “Attila”) nabs Grandmother Miss Lacy first. So, Mo — in a fit of pique — says they’re going to interview the inn’s ghost. That sets them to unraveling a 60-year-old mystery of how a girl — one of Grandmother Miss Lacy’s best friends — met her death.

The only real criticism I have of this book is that all the conflict seems a little contrived. The outside city girl just lurks in the background being uptight, and the new character, Harm Cremshaw, turns out to have more bark than bite.  Even the resident town grump, Red Baker, turns out to be mostly harmless. That said, I’m not reading these books for the conflict. Or even for the mystery. (Or the ghost story in this case, though it’s so slight, I’m not really considering this as a “speculative fiction” though it probably is.) No, I read this because I love the characters — Mo’s spunk and observations; Dale’s adorable cluelessness, Miss Lana’s optimism, the Colonel’s stoic nature — and I love the way Turnage writes them.

And that’s why you should be reading these as well.

How I Became a Ghost

by Tim Tingle
First line: “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before.”
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Content: This is not a happy story. This is a sad and painful story. And even though the language is suitable for ages 8 and up, the content is, well, hard. And sad. And painful. (It was difficult even for me to get through because of the subject matter.) It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful which child to give it to.

There was a time in my life, when I was junior or senior in high school, when I would have loved this story.

Isaac is a Choctaw boy, happy growing up in the swamps of the south. That is until the Nahullos — the white people — come along, and begin forcing his people out of their homes. And that’s when Isaac begins seeing ghosts. He sees shades of how his family and friends will die (horrible, horrible deaths). He foretells his own death and becomes a ghost. (No surprise: it’s in the first sentence!)

It’s when they’re on the Trail of Tears, however, that things get intense. The soldiers kidnap a girl, and it’s up to Isaac — as a ghost — and his friend — who can morph into a panther — to rescue her. They do, and it’s quite interesting how it happens.

I mentioned that I would have loved this story when I was younger. It’s because I was fascinated by — that seems the wrong word — the Native Americans, and their genocide. I would have eaten this book up, and passed it along to everyone I could. Now, though? Now, I just felt impossibly sad. I know it’s a tale that Needs to be told, a story that so many people need to be reminded of. But call it liberal guilt, call it having children: I couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t violent, necessarily, but it was heart-wrenching. And even though Isaac turned out to be a hero, I never could find it in my heart to be proud of him (even though I wanted to).

It’s a well-written story, and a book that needs to be out there. I’m just not sure that I’m the right reader for it.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Year of Shadows

by Claire Legrand
First sentence: “The year the ghost came started like this:”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There are ghosts and shades and it gets pretty scary. There’s also a lot of pre-teen Angst and a little bit of romance. For those reasons, even though it’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, I’d probably hand it to the older end of the spectrum. But that’s just me.

Olivia hates her life. Her father — whom she less-than-affectionately calls the Maestro — is wholly absorbed with being the conductor of their town’s struggling orchestra. So involved that Olivia’s mother left. So involved that they sold their house and auctioned off their belongings and moved into the back rooms of the concert hall in order to keep the orchestra afloat. And for 13-year-old Olivia, this does not sit well. In fact, she loathes it. (Understatement of the century.)

She’s miserable, she’s basically homeless, and then… she discovers there are ghosts in the concert hall. Not just ghosts, but shades — ghosts that have given up the search for the chance to move on and given into Limbo — as well. And it’s the shades that are Dangerous. And it’s up to Olivia and her new friend Henry to help the ghosts move on and defeat the shades. And, perhaps, in the process maybe they can figure out how to save the concert hall and the orchestra.

I adored this book for lots of reasons. Olivia was dark and grumpy and prickly and perfect for a ghost story. I loved the musical setting for this — the concert hall, the strains of orchestral music (it needs a soundtrack!) running through the story; in the endnote, Legrand talks about choosing pieces to fit the mood of Olivia’s life, and being familiar with many of the pieces, I think she did fabulously. (I don’t know how non-musical readers would react to it, though. Would it make them want to go look up the pieces?) I enjoyed Henry and some of the other minor characters, with their New-Agey feel and their support of Olivia. Because the Maestro? He’s firmly in the bad parent camp. He’s not a “abusive/horrible/evil” dad, but rather the “neglectful/unobservant” dad. And I can understand Olivia’s anger towards him.

There is one quibble: there’s a plot twist near the end of the book that I didn’t feel was absolutely necessary. (And which added to the Maestro’s bad parent-ness.) I think Legrand needed it for plot purposes, but it felt like it was out of left field, and didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book.

Other than that, though, it was highly enjoyable.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Beholding Bee

by Kimberly Newton Fusco
First sentence: “The way I got the diamond on my face happened like this.”
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Content: There’s some bullying, both by (insensitive and stupid) adults and mean girls. But there’s no language, and the language isn’t difficult at all. It sits quite happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

It’s in the middle of World War II, and things are tough for those who work at the carnival. Especially for Bee, who works the hot dog stand with her makeshift guardian, Pauline. It’s difficult for Bee not only because she’s an orphan and the carnival owner, Ellis, is a world-class creep, but because she’s got a birthmark in the shape of a diamond on her face that everyone (EVERYONE!) stares at and/or makes fun of.

So, when Ellis takes Pauline away from her and threatens to put her on display as a sideshow attraction, Bee decides to run away. She makes it to a town with a perfect house, and finds a couple of women whom she ends up calling “aunts” there. The catch? Only Bee can see her aunts.

Of course life in her new town isn’t easy: there are busybodies who want to know who Bee’s caregivers are. There are mean girls who are dealing with Issues themselves. But there’s also good people who reach out to Bee and make her feel at home.

In so many ways, this was just a plain, regular middle grade fiction book. And it’s a good one at that. Fusco writes lyrical, short chapters; ones that make you want to keep turning pages. There’s the backdrop of hardship with the war, there’s bullying, there’s Bee’s “disfigurement” and shyness that places her in the special-needs class. It really is quite a lovely little novel about Overcoming, finding family, and creating a home.

The question I had, though, while reading this book is this: why the ghosts? It was a great novel without them, and I didn’t feel that the ghosts added anything to the story. They felt, well, contrived. And I wished that Fusco had found another way to get Bee into the town and the house that didn’t involve the supernatural. That way the book would have had a broader appeal, more power, and been absolutely perfect.

But, I guess, you can’t win them all.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)