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.

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The Supernormal Sleuthing Service

by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe
First sentence: “Stephen stepped over the low iron fence and past a sign that said ‘DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS.'”
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Content: There’s some mildly scary situations. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Stephen has grown up his whole life with his father believing that it was just the two of them, plus a grandmother who came to visit every once in a while. But after his grandma’s death, Stephen and his dad move to New York City, and Stephen is thrust into a whole new world. One with “supernormals” which is how the supernatural — faeries, ogres, dragons, vampires, gargoyles, etc — prefer to refer to themselves, and one where Stephen, who isn’t always the best with rules, quickly learns that he’s got a LOT to learn. Especially when a priceless heirloom, and his family’s “permission” to stay in this world, goes missing.

This was a lot of fun. I liked Stephen’s growth arc as he learned about the supernormal world, and the friends he made — there’s a team of three kids who solve the mystery about the missing book. I liked the other characters he met, especially the dragon (whose name escapes me right now). I thought the authors did really well with their worldbuilding, and it was an interesting take on the whole supernatural world. I also like that, though this looks like it’ll be a series, it didn’t feel like a “first-in-a”.

Definitely worth taking a look.

The Empty Grave

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “Want to hear a ghost story?”
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Others in the Series: The Screaming StaircaseThe Whispering SkullThe Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow
Content: Scary stuff and violence, of course. They’re in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I always make sure the kids can handle scary stuff before selling these.

There’s not much new to say about this series that I haven’t already said before. I adore Lockwood, Lucy, George (and now Holly and Kipps, too!). I love that Stroud knows how to pace a story, giving us smaller ghosts and mysteries that all link together in a big huge climax. I love that while this one feels like a good ending, it’s also a good story in its own right. I will definitely miss this world and this series and I’m SO glad I started it all those years ago. If you’ve been waiting until all the books were out to start this series, now’s the time. Go do it. You won’t be sorry.

 

Trouble Makes a Comeback

troublemakesby Stephanie Tromly
First sentence: “I don’t believe in Happily Ever After.”
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Others in the series: Trouble is a Friend of Mine
Content: There’s some drinking by other teens in the book, but it’s mostly off-screen. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Digby has been gone for six months and Zoe’s moved on. Popular friends at the school, dating a football player, living the “life”. And then, Digby shows back up. (Of course.) Still looking for his sister, he’s back in town to, well, stir up some more trouble. And, of course, he ropes Zoe into it. While the over-arching plot is trying to find out what happened to Digby’s sister nine years ago, there’s a nice little subplot involving a steroid ring on the football team. So, with two mysteries to solve (one of which they do, and the other they get closer to figuring out), Zoe and Digby are on the case again.

Much like the first book, this was a lot of fun. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud fun, but it was entertaining. I like the Zoe-Digby push and pull, and I like the way Tromly handles the situations she puts the two of them into. It’s nothing deep (though the unfolding story surrounding the sister’s disappearance is turning into a sad one), but it is entertaining.

Which is really all anyone can ask for. Right?

Creeping Shadow

9781484709672by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “I knew at once, when I slipped into the moonlit office and eased the door shut behind me, that I was in the presence of the dead.”
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Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy
Content: This  is not for the faint of heart, but rather for people who like to be scared. Still, lots of action, and if you don’t mind the scary stuff… It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lucy has left Lockwood and Co.

Let that sit in for a minute.

There was a poltergeist at the end of The Hollow Boy who told Lucy she would be responsible for Lockwood’s death, and that spooked her so much that she couldn’t stay. She didn’t really leave on the best terms, and since then she’s been freelancing for other firms. It’s not ideal. But she (and the Skull, who is really one of my favorite characters) is managing alone.

Until a case — of the ghost of a cannibal — comes that Lockwood needs Lucy’s talents for. She goes to help — as a consultant, only for a night — and they successfully catch and eliminate the ghost. But things go wrong from there. The skull is stolen, there’s a collector who is buying up strong sources, there’s a Creeping Shadow terrorizing a nearby town. And all those things lead up to something Very Big and Very Wrong. And Lockwood and Co are the only ones who are equipped to deal with it.

I feel like a broken record: read these! They’re awesome! The mystery is intriguing, the characters are fantastic, and it’s spooky without being gory. It’s fast-paced, and action-packed, with tons of funny elements. It’s just SO good. The whole series. I love how they’re all inter-connected, but also individual stories. And Stroud just knows how to tell a story.

Just read the series, already. It’s that good.

With Malice

withmaliceby Eileen Cook
First sentence: “I’m not a morning person.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful (less than six) of f-bombs, some reference to teen drinking and sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Jill wakes up in a hospital, with no memory of anything in the past two months. She’s told two things: she was in a car accident on her school trip in Italy and her best friend, Simone, is dead. Oh: and she’s being investigated with murder.

It’s a simple plot, as we go through Jill’s recovery and her attempts to reclaim her memory. We read through police interviews with people who were close to both Jill and Simone and with those who were on the Italy trip with them. We go through blog posts for people who believe that Jill is guilty, and see the spin that the expensive lawyer Jill’s dad hires puts on everything. What we don’t have is Jill’s experience in Italy.

Which means, while this book doesn’t have much going for it with plot, it’s still incredibly gripping. Even though it’s a first person narrative, because of the accident, you don’t know what’s truly a “memory” for Jill, and what she’s just recreated from what other people have told her. It really is left up to the reader to decide guilt or innocence, and it’s a fascinating experience.

I couldn’t put it down.

Driving Heat

drivingheatby Richard Castle
First sentence: “The last thing Nikki Heat expected when she received her promotion to captain of the NYPD was how much the proud expression on Rook’s face in the audience would make her want him.”
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Others in the series: Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, Frozen Heat, Deadly Heat, Raging Heat  (Yes, I really have read the whole series.)
Content : Loads of f-bombs (though less than other books, I think), plus some tasteful sexytimes. It’s in the adult mystery section at the bookstore.

I realized, at some point while reading this, that I don’t actually remember much of what happened in the 7th season of Castle (not its best season) and I waited a lot longer before getting around to this one, so I really didn’t pick up on all the show references in the book. Which means, I was forced to take it on its own merit.

Nikki Heat has been promoted to captain and has to deal with the new pressures that come with that job. It doesn’t help that she catches a high-profile case right off the bat: the murder of a police psychologist, Lon King. HER psychologist. It’s not an easy death for Heat to deal with, especially since King had been helping her deal with her feelings about her impending marriage to Jamison Rook.

But, things aren’t always as it seems, and soon one murder turns into five (and the entire NYPD gets hacked)  as Heat and Rook try and solve this case.

Y’know, on its own merit, these still aren’t bad. The mystery was complex enough that I didn’t quite figure it out (though it did leave out one crucial piece of information, I think, in order to fully solve the mystery)  but it wasn’t super out of left field when they finally figured it all out. The plotting’s good, the writing’s not half-bad (I’ve read worse), and aside from a few editing mistakes (c’mon editors, get your act together. I know you’re trying to churn these out but, take a deep  breath and double check your work), it really is a halfway decent (if pulpy) mystery series.