The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart
First sentence: “In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.”
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Content: It’s a bit long, and somewhat involved, so maybe it’s not for reluctant readers though I think it would make a good read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I was pretty sure, when I picked this one for my mystery book club this summer, that I had never read it before. But, about a third of the way into it, I realized if I hadn’t read it before, it must have been a pretty predictable book, since I basically knew (most of) what was going to happen. So, I will err on the side of bad memory and say I’ve read this one in the past (sometime) and not that it’s predictable (though maybe it is, a little bit).

The basic story is this: Reynie (and four others: Sticky, Kate, and Constance) is an orphan who answers an ad looking for gifted children to take a test. Once he (they) pass the test, he finds himself working for Mr. Benedict on a secret project: someone has been transmitting subliminal messages to the public (read by children) and Mr. Benedict needs them to infiltrate The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (or LIVE) where the messages are coming from and stop them.

From there, Reynie and his friends embark on a dangerous mission to fulfill Mr. Benedict’s wishes and stop LIVE (or is it EVIL?) from taking over the world.

On the one hand: this was kind of fun. It was nice to see Reynie and company working together, using each of their own strengths, to overcome the bad guys. It took a while — this book takes place over months, not days — but they eventually work together to solve the ultimate mystery. But, on the other hand, did it really need to be this long? And while I got that the mystery was figuring out who was sending the messages and then how they worked and how to stop them, I felt a bit disconnected from the whole book. Usually, with mysteries, I like to be aware that (if I am clever enough) I could possibly solve the puzzles and mysteries as well as the characters can. But this time, I felt like Stewart was just laying everything everything out for us, walking us through each step and not leaving readers any chance to solve the mystery on their own. Which made me a little disappointed in the book.

Still, not bad overall.

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Two (Older) Mysteries

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective
by Donald J. Sobol
First sentence: Mr. and Mrs. Brown had one child.”
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Content: It’s got short chapters, and simple text. It’s in the beginning chapter book section (grades 1-2) of the bookstore.

The girls reminded me, when I picked this one up, that on a vacation we listened to one of the later books in this series. They enjoyed it, or at least they have memories of enjoying it. I remember this, vaguely, but had never actually read these. There’s not much to them: Encyclopedia Brown is presented a mystery — everything from a tent that the resident bully claims is his to missing roller skates — and then the reader is encouraged to solve it. I’ll be honest: I didn’t get a single one. I came close a few times, but never actually guessed the right answer. I went back and looked, and the clues were there. I’m just not a careful enough reader to catch them. Even so, it was a fun little read.

The Secret of the Old Clock
by Carolyn Keene
First sentence: “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”
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Content: There’s some scary moments, but nothing too intense. It’s in the Middle Grade Classics section of the bookstore.

I adored Nancy Drew when I was a kid. (Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie and Wrinkle in Time: those were the books I read and re-read.) I don’t know what it was about these books that drew me to them, whether it was Nancy as a character or just the mysteries and adventure I liked immersing myself in, but I have fond memories of reading these.

So I was a bit wary as I dipped back into the world of Nancy Drew as an adult (after nearly 40 years!). Would it hold up? Well… yes and no. The no is easier to handle: the writing is not only formulaic (which is to be expected, as it is written by committee, something I didn’t know as a kid) but also quite mundane. The thing that really stood out was how expressive Nancy’s eyes were: they sparkled and flashed and twinkled…. how many adjectives can they use to express her eyes and what purpose does it really serve? It wasn’t a mystery that a reader could get involved in; it wasn’t meant to be a puzzle that the reader could solve, but rather we were along for the ride, watching as Nancy got into scrapes and met people and was determined enough to find the solution. In this case, she accidentally stumbled upon a family dispute: Joseph Crowley died and was supposed to have left money to his relatives and friends, all of whom were less well off than he was, but it turned out that he left the money to this snobbish, well-off family in town instead. Everyone, Nancy found, was convinced that there was a newer will. But no one knew where it was.

The thing I did like about this was Nancy. Sure, she was a proper 1930s young lady: polite, kind to her elders, friendly and helpful. But, she was also smart, determined, and  unafraid to take chances. In this one, at least, she’s out there taking on bad guys and solving cases, and doing it by herself. (I know she picks up a boyfriend and a couple of friends later, but in this one, it’s just all Nancy.) Maybe that’s what I loved about these books as a kid: I wished I could be that determined and risk-taking, and I admired that about Nancy. I still do.

I don’t think I’ll revisit any of the others in the series, but I’m glad I reread this one.

Still Life

by Louise Penny
First sentence: “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.”
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Content: There are a few f-bombs, and some other mild swearing as well as few instances of disturbing violence. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, just to see what the fuss about the Inspector Gamache stories are (we have a ton of customers who just love this series). This is the first one, which takes place in a small village in Quebec, around Thanksgiving weekend (which, since it’s Canada, is in mid-October…). A local woman, Jane Neal, dies in a hunting “accident”, pierced through the heart with a hunting arrow. Gamache is called in from Montreal to solve this case. There are ups and downs, setbacks and advances, and a junior detective that I didn’t get why Gamache was so impatient with. It’s a pretty simple plot, and one in which I guessed the ending early on, but then second guessed myself, so I was pretty miffed when it turned out to be the person I guessed.

It was an interesting portrait of a small town, but I didn’t love Gamache enough to want to revisit this series again and again. Still, I’m not disappointed to have read it.

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.

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.