Module 13: The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones

Riordan, R. (2008). The 39 clues: The maze of bones. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Genre: Multi-author series book, realistic fiction, puzzle book.

Book Summary: Amy and Dan Cahill have always been the favorites of Grace, the matriarch of the huge Cahill family. Now, upon her death, they (and other members of the vast extended Cahill family) are given a choice: $1 million in inheritance, or the first of 39 clues that will give the winner power and access to the Cahill family’s vast secrets. Of course, Amy and Dan take the clue, which leads them on a wild and often dangerous race against the other members of their family (who are sufficiently horrible) as they try to figure out the clue and where to go.

Impressions: This was so much fun! (Of course: Rick Riordan wrote it.) I’ve said this before: Riordan knows how to pace a book (or at least did when he was writing the original Percy Jackson series; he’s not been as tight lately) and knows how to keep a reader turning pages. And this one was no exception. I liked the play between Amy and Dan — they really felt like siblings, sometimes fighting but usually cooperating to reach a shared goal while looking out for each other. I can see why kids liked this, and wanted to read more. My only drawback is that Riordan didn’t write the whole series (each book was a different author), so I wonder if the characterizations of Amy and Dan would change slightly with each book.

Review: While Grossman kind of disdained the premise behind the series and the “focus-grouped, manufactured quality” of the books, he praised Riordan’s writing: “the premise of “The Maze of Bones” is dramatic and instantly engaging.” Ultimately, though, he was underwhelmed by the idea behind the series, writing, “It’s a story about people born into the most privileged family in the world, who then set out to become the most important people in history. Whatever happened to just owning your own chocolate factory?”

Grossman, A. (2008, November 7). First prize: World domination.  New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/books/review/Grossman-t.html

Uses: This would be good for a summer reading group (one that reads the first in a series? Maybe just a 39 clues club? I might use this idea one summer) for 3-5th grade kids.

Readalikes:

  • York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby — Siblings Tess and Theo Biederman and their friend Jamie Cruz follow clues left by genius inventors — the Morningstars — in a quest, full of danger and intrigue, to hopefully save their apartment building. The stakes may begin small, but they soon realize there is much more at stake.
  • Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet — A Vermeer painting — A Lady Writing — has been stolen. Demands that Vermeer’s paintings be reassessed have been issued as a ransom. Two sixth grade students — Calder and Petra — start looking at information in new and unique ways, taking no coincidence for granted, and solve the mystery finding the painting and catching the thief in the end.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart — Four gifted children pass a test to go on a secret mission to take down the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. I haven’t read it (yet; I picked it for my summer reading group this year), but it sounds fun.
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The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Mistaken Identity

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “Steve Brixton, a.k.a. Steve, was reading on his too-small bed.”
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Content: There are some slight intense moments, offset by humor. It would probably be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I think it could be an upper beginning chapter: there are short chapters, big print, and lots of illustrations.

Steve Brixton has always wanted to be a detective like the ones he’s always reading about. But it isn’t until  his teacher gives him an impromptu research paper assignment about American Quilting, that Steve gets  to see some, well, detective action. He’s set upon by Librarians (the bad sort) and Goons and he and his friend have to figure out who has stolen the Top Secret Codes from this historic quilt (I think… the plot wasn’t really the point of this one).

Goodness this was funny. Especially if you’ve read a lot of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books. Steve and his friend, Dana, are always getting into scrapes they have to get out of, and somehow (even though neither are terribly bright) figure out the mystery in the end. (My favorite exchanges were of the Steve: “Hey, chum” and Dana: “Don’t call me chum” variety. Every. Single. Time.) It was kind of a lame mystery — the solution was pretty obvious — but I don’t think the mystery is the point of these.

Even so, it was a ton of fun.

Shine

by Lauren Myracle
First sentence: “Patrick’s house was a ghost.”
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Content: This one has drug use and drinking by teenagers and a pretty graphic rape scene. It would be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore if we had it.

Cat’s former best friend, Patrick, has been found at the local convenience mart beaten and tied up to a gas pump, left for dead. The local sheriff is calling it a hate crime, since Patrick is gay, and that it was probably some out of towners who did it. He was right about the hate crime part, but Cat’s convinced it’s someone in the small, southern town of Black Creek, North Carolina. So, she sets out to find out who, which means facing her brother’s friends and her past.

Oh, this was a hard book. It’s a mystery — sort of — but more, it’s a portrayal of what poverty and toxic masculinity can do to people. It turns them to meth, makes them suspicious of each other, makes them feel like they can just take things without any sort of consequences. There’s rape in this — and that was SUCH a difficult scene to get through — and just plain hopelessness. I think Myracle gave it a happy-ish ending in order to alleviate a lot of the general bleak feel of the novel (I certainly was expecting a different ending). I did figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through, and I even figured out why, but I kept reading because I wanted to see how it all would play out. Myracle did an excellent job with Cat’s character development — she went from a hurt, scared girl into a more confident one, facing down the boy who raped her and her brother’s friends for their various “boys will be boys” infractions.

It’s just a very hard read, emotionally.

The Parker Inheritance

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “Abigail Caldwell stared at the letter.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 27, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues brought up about racism, especially in the 1950s, but also currently. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it  may be more interesting for grades 5 and up.

Candice does NOT want to spend the summer in Lambert, South Carolina. Her parents have recently divorced, though, and their house needs to be renovated in order to put it on the market, and it’s better if they’re not underfoot, so Candice’s mom decides to take up residence in her grandma’s old house in the small Southern town. It’s bound to be a boring, never-ending summer.

That is until two things happen: she meets Brandon, the boy across the street, and she discovers an old letter, detailing a mystery about an inheritance of $40 million. The same inheritance that her grandmother tried to find ten  years ago, and was fired from her job as city manager over. If Candace and Brandon can figure this out, they could not only help the city, but also clear her grandma’s name.

I love puzzle books, even if I’m not entirely smart enough to figure them out, and this was no exception. About halfway through, Johnson references The Westing Game (one of my favorites!), and from then-on, I was using what I knew about that book to figure out the clues. (I did pretty well, too!) So, perhaps this one is better the more you know that one. But, in addition to the fun puzzle solving, Johnson takes us through history. We learn about sharecroppers, and what it was like to be a black person in the South in the pre-Civil Rights era (there’s not a lot, especially for kids, written about that time). He weaves in themes of revenge, justice and forgiveness as well as acceptance and tolerance. It’s a lot for a middle grade novel, but under Johnson’s capable hands, everything comes together seamlessly. He knows how to write kids so they seem real, and address tough issues in a way that they are accessible but not watered down.

An excellent book.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 2

Frogkisser!
by Garth Nix
First sentence: “The scream was very loud and went on for a very long time.”
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Content: There’s really nothing “objectionable”, but it just feels… older. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m sure a fifth grader who really likes quests and/or fairy tales would enjoy it too.

Anya is a princess in a minor kingdom, whose parents have died and left her and her older sister to be raised by her stepmother (who is off doing…something) and her husband (whom Anya calls her “stepstepfather”), who is trying to take over the kingdom. So, Anya is sent on a Quest, nominally to find the ingredients to make a lip balm to turn Prince Duncan back from a frog, but ultimately, for control of her kingdom.

It’s a charming little tale; I enjoyed the fairy tale references (Snow White is a male wizard, etc.) and it was mildly funny, but honestly, it was just too long. I lost interested about 23 of the way through, and skipped to the end to find out how it all finished, and I don’t feel like I missed much. I’m sure it’s enjoyable; I just don’t have the patience for it right now.

Beyond the Doors
by David Neilsen
First sentence: “Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.”
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Content: It’s a bit odd; it’s long, but there are interior illustrations, so it’s like the publisher (what’s up Random House?!) couldn’t figure out if it was for the younger or older end of the middle grade spectrum. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Rothbaum’s mom has been missing for years, and then a freak fire leaves their dad in a coma. So they’re bundled off to their (previously unknown) Aunt Gladys’s house, where there are no doors and nothing to eat but cereal. And Gladys is a bit… off… as well. Through some digging, the Rothbaums discover the real secret: their grandfather discovered an ability to jump into memories, and has gotten stuck there. And it’s up to the kids to figure out how to solve the problem.

This was fun. Nothing super brilliant, but I liked the kids and the idea of memory jumping is a clever one.

A Face Like Glass
by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”
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Content: It’s long and slow moving. So, maybe not for a reluctant reader. It’s in the Young Adult section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Neverfell is an outsider in the world of Caverna, an abomination… because you can see her emotions on her face. So, when Neverfell gets caught up in court politics, the fate of Caverna lies within her hands.

I usually like Hardinge’s books, but this one just fell flat for me. I wanted to like it, and I liked parts of it, but it was just… too long. And it didn’t hold my interest. I would put it down for days and just not care enough to pick it back up. (I would have abandoned it, except for the Cybils.) It’s not that it was badly written, or a bad story… it just didn’t hold my interest. So maybe it was more me than anything else.

Dragon’s Green
by Scarlet Thomas
First sentence: “Mrs. Breathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares.”
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Content: There are a few scary bits. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Effie Trulove’s grandfather spent time teaching her about the magical world, and even though she’s not quite sure she believes him, it was spending time. But, he’s passed on, and suddenly Effie’s thrown into situations where she comes to realize that, yes, her grandfather wasn’t making things up: there really is magic. So with the help of her trusty new friends, she can defeat the Bad Guys (who are out to steal all the magic books), and figure out her place in the magic world.

I said, once, that silly names and magic don’t a fantasy make. And I think that holds here. The names bugged me (so very much), as did the gendering of  the friends (the boys were the Warrior and Scholar, the girls were the Witch and the Healer, though Effie was the Hero). I thought it would have more of a D&D feel, and be predictable that way, but it veered a bit from that, which was nice. It just… bugged me, in the end. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why. But this was was most definitely not for me.

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!

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.”
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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.