I am Princess X

iamprincessxby Cherie Priest
First sentence: “Libby Deaton and May Harper invented Princess X in fifth grade, when Libby’s leg was in a cast, and May had a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t run around the track anymore because her asthma would totally kill her.”
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Content: It’s a bit intense at times and there is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Libby died three years ago in a car accident. May knows this. She’s moved on (sort of). But, when she’s back in Seattle the summer before she’s 17, she starts seeing stickers around town. Ones of a princess in a pink dress, red Chucks, and wielding a katana sword. The spitting image of the comic that Libby and May created in fifth grade. At first, it seems like a coincidence: maybe someone got a hold of all the pages Libby left when she died. Or, maybe — just maybe — Libby’s still alive.

After reading the webcomic, May is convinced of the latter. She’s convinced that Libby’s mom was murdered, that Libby was kidnapped, and that she’s the only one who can find Libby. She enlists the help of a recently-graduated computer geek (with a bit of a dark side), Patrick, and together they follow the clues May says are left. The thing is: what started out as an innocent investigation becomes increasingly more dangerous the further they get involved.

Ohmygosh! I don’t know why this took me too long to read this!

Seriously though, people: it’s a tight, interesting thriller, one that kept me guessing along as May and Patrick figure out and follow the clues. It gets intense at times and it definitely kept me turning pages.  THIS is what a good YA mystery is about. No extra lame love story. Cool characters. A fantastic mix of graphic and prose. So, so very good.

Can you tell I liked it?

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.

Friday Barnes, Girl Detective

fridaybarnsby R. A. Spratt
First sentence: “Friday Barnes was not an unhappy child.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s some biggish words, and a bunch of swoony 7th-grade girls, but other than that’s it’s aimed toward the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Friday Barnes excels in going unnoticed. In fact, she prefers it that way. She prefers just sliding through school, being little noticed. She also is incredibly observant, so when her uncle (who’s a private investigator) needs some help solving a bank robbery, she helps, solving it. Which means she received the $50,000 reward money. She uses that to go to a posh boarding school, mostly because she wants a change.

What she gets is a brilliant but absent-minded roommate, some ditzy teachers, and a few mysteries to solve (she makes a tidy profit doing so, too.)

It’s not a bad book. I like that Friday is a girl, and that she uses deductive reasoning to solve cases (kind of like Sherlock Holmes, or Encyclopedia Brown). And while the mysteries were run-of-the mill, I didn’t catch the clues enough to solve it myself, so they were pretty smart. That said, the stereotypes drove me nuts. The absent-minded smart girl with the dumb jock brother. The silly 7th grade girls who swoon over a hairy mystery guy in the forest because “hairy guys are cute”. The super hot boy who’s got it out for Friday. Yeah, it’s all supposed to be funny, but it kind of just fell flat. I’d love it if authors stopped using silly stereotypes for humor.

So, in the end, while I like the idea of this one, I didn’t really like the book.

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head

curiosityhouseby Lauren Oliver (and H. C. Chester)
First sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up and don’t be shy.”
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s murder and some adult smoking and drunkenness. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have basically grown up in Dumfrey’s Dime House, a place where unusual kids like them — Philippa is a mentalist, Sam is a strong man, and Thomas is a super-math-genius — are welcome. But, soon after Max (knife thrower extraordinaire) arrives, Mr. Dumfrey’s prize shrunken head goes missing and then people around the city start dying. It’s up to the four kids to figure out what is going on. And, in the process, figure out who they Really Are.

I found the mystery end of this delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the four kids as they learned to work together and puzzle out who exactly was the person behind the killings. I figured it out before they did, but not much before, and I loved that the clues were there for anyone to pick up. Even the big twist ending wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s only vaguely speculative fiction (mentalist abilities and all that), so it’s perfect for those who don’t want much magic or ficitonal places. The only complaint is one I remember Ms. Yingling having: I wish the historical context was more explicitly put out there. Like her, I was able to figure it out, but I’m not sure that kids would get it (in fact I know so: this is one that my kid review group at work read and they didn’t even notice). Though that’s probably not something that would bother them.

At any rate, it’s a lot of fun.

(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.)

All Fall Down

embassyrowby Ally Carter
First sentence: “‘When I was twelve I broke my leg jumping off the wall between Canada and Germany,’ I say, but the woman across from me doesn’t even blink.”
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Content: There’s some intense situations, but no swearing and  no sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Grace saw her mother murdered three years ago. She is 100% sure of this fact. She knows it was a man with a scar on his face, that her mother was shot, not burned in an accidental fire. The problem? No. One. Believes. Her.

She’s spent the past three years in and out of therapy and in and out of drugs, and now has come to Embassy Row in Adria to live with her grandfather and forget what happened. The problem? Grace can’t let it go.

And it doesn’t help that Grace is positive that she’s seen the man who murdered her father. So, she ropes her new friends Noah and Megan (and her German neighbor, Rosie) into spying on the man. The further she goes, however, the more confusing everything becomes. Grace has no idea who’s her friend and who isn’t.

This is darker than Carter’s usual fare, and without the swoon factor (ahhh HALE). But what it lacks in fluff and swoon it more than makes up for with a completely unreliable narrator, several twists and turns, and a pretty amazing ending. Grace is a fascinating character, angsty (well, I prefer to think of it more as PTSD-y), smart, and completely wrong about so much. It makes for a trippy ride, one where I had no idea what was going to happen next. I loved that about this book. And I’m completely in the dark as to where the next book is going.

Of course I’m going to have to read it.

The Odds of Getting Even

by Sheila Turnage
First sentence: “Mr. Macon Johnson’s kidnapping trial snatched Tupelo Landing inside out sharp as Miss Rose snaps a pillowcase before she pins it to her wash line.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at the bookstore.
Others in the series: Three Times Lucky, The Ghost of Tupelo Landing
Content: There’s some intense situations, but nothing too scary (and only mildly life-threatening). It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mo and Dale are back again! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. (I adore Tupelo Landing and want to live there.)

Dale’s no-good daddy is on trial for kidnapping (and other charges), when he disappears from the jail on the way to the trial. If that’s not bad enough, things start happening — break-ins, vandalism, attempted murder — in Tupelo Landing, and everyone (including Mo) is blaming it on Macon. Dale’s the only one who knows his daddy well enough to think that he’s being framed. And it’s up to him (and Mo and Harm) to figure it all out.

First, I’m glad this is solidly back in realistic mystery territory. No more ghosts, thank you. Secondly: the charm of these books is much less the mystery (I kind of figured it out, though not completely) and much more the, well, charm of the characters. Mo’s delightful. Dale’s sweet. Harm even grew on me. There was much less Miss Lana and the Colonel than I would like, but the kids were so delightful that I really didn’t care.

I am completely infatuated with this series and I don’t think I’ll ever get enough.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly
First sentence: “Of course I didn’t like Digby when I first met him.”
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Release date: August 4, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s some mild swearing. And inferences about drug use by teens. I think it’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) though. (It’s not too bad.)

Zoe is the product of a bad divorce: her Wall Street broker dad cheating on her mom. She generally sided with her dad, but ended up in her mom’s custody, moving to a small podunky college town in upstate New York after the divorce. Zoe doesn’t want to be there at all and when Digby — kind of the high school pariah, of sorts — decides that she needs to be his side-kick (she really doesn’t have much say in it; he really just inserts himself into her life and she doesn’t kick him out) in discovering what has happened to a local kidnapped teenager, she goes along with it. For kicks and giggles.

When the ARC came into the store, it had this sticker on it:

I won’t say it gave me high hopes, but I was expecting some laughs. And there were: Digby has a talent for getting into some very bad situations, and there was some pretty amusing antics trying to get out of them. And Zoe’s mom with her bumbling cluelessness was pretty amusing too. (Though: not as amusing as the mom in Finding Audrey.) But while I didn’t find it funny, I did find it endearingly charming. Incredibly charming. And fascinating. There’s a mystery running throughout — and not just the finding the kidnapped teenager one — that kept my interest, and kept me guessing, which added to my general enjoyment. And I just adored Zoe and Digby and their friend Henry. And all the other people they came into contact with. It was just… delightful.

So, maybe it’s not the hilarious read our rep promised. But it’s still definitely worth the time to read it.

Scarlett Undercover

by Jennifer Latham
First sentence: “The kid was cute.”
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Content: There’s a bit of mild swearing (s**t) being the “worst” one, plus some kissing and references to (adult) smoking. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t mind giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

I adored Nancy Drew as a kid. Seriously. I devoured them all. I loved the mystery, I loved Nancy Drew’s pluck. It was what I wanted.

This, however, is Nancy Drew for the Modern Age: she’s sassy, smart, and street-wise. And I loved it just as much (if not more).

Fifteen-year-old Scarlett is many things: an orphan (dad was murdered, mom died because of cancer); brilliant (she graduated from high school two years early); Muslim; and, perhaps most importantly, a detective. No, it’s not really official: she mostly does inside jobs for the Las Almas police department, and sometimes she hustles and gets a case locating something missing. Nothing that prepared her for when 9-year-old Gemma walks through her door.

Gemma’s worried about her older brother: something has happen to change him; he’s become distant, angry, and mean. But, more than that: Gemma’s convinced that her brother is responsible for the “suicide” of his (former) friend. And she needs Scarlett to find out what’s going on. Little does Scarlett realize the rabbit hole that she’s just opened up.

One of the things I loved most about this book was that Scarlett came from a religious family (she wasn’t non-religious; she just wasn’t as religious as her older sister), and there was a huge support in the surrounding community. But, it wasn’t an issue: it was just who Scarlett was. She greeted people in Arabic, she said her prayers, she observed Islamic customs and traditions. And she solved cases. It was so perfect in so many ways.

I also liked that she was sassy. She had an attitude, but one that suited her and the narrative, and it came through loud and clear. If I was my 11-year-old self, I would have adored Scarlett. (Which my mother may not have appreciated it.) I also loved that Scarlett, was capable: she got into some dangerous situations, and she had the know-how (and the tools) to get herself out. It’s really fantastic.

There is a vague hint of the supernatural — talk of djinn and portals and such — but it didn’t develop in a speculative fiction way, which actually made me very happy. I love speculative fiction, but it would have been out of place here.

I’m willing to talk this one up as much as possible; I do hope it finds a ton of readers.

Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery in Mayan Mexico

by Marcia Wells
First sentence: “I’m back.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild violence and some mild romance (it’s not a kissing book), but the language/chapter length level works for the younger readers as well as the older ones in the age range. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I had a woman in the store the other day, looking for a Harriet the Spy-type mystery for a 10-year-old boy, who wanted something with intrigue and adventure. (They’d already read Harriet the Spy, or I would have given them that.)  Thankfully, I had just finished this one, so I had a great, middle grade mystery with intrigue and adventure to hand to the customer. (Bonus: this is the second, but you don’t need to read the first at all!)

Edmund (call him Eddie, please!) and his family are in need of a vacation. He’d just gotten done being grounded (for events in the previous book), and his mother was given a vacation/opportunity to go to a conference. In Mexico. Sounds delightful, no? Especially since Eddie’s best friend, Jonah, was along for the ride. But once there, an ancient mask that’s on display at the hotel is stolen and Eddie’s father is blamed for the theft. So, it’s up to Eddie, Jonah and their new friend, Julia, to solve the crime and find the real thief.

I really did thoroughly enjoy this one. It’s well-paced, with intrigue, suspense, and action, as Eddie and Jonah follow the twists and turns through this mystery. I liked that they were reasonable kids, doing reasonable things, and that aside from Eddie’s photographic memory and artistic skillz, they’re pretty normal kids.

But what I really liked is that Eddie is an African American kid, and its not an issue. At all. In fact, it’s not something I even realized (shame on me?) until I was about a third of the way through. It’s a diverse cast, being set in Mexico, and it’s not something that’s pointed out. It just is. Which is always nice.

A good, refreshingly solid, middle grade book.

The Trap

by Steven Arntson
First sentence: “The last day of summer break before the start of my seventh grade year was the first time I ever got punched in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s some pretty dark subject matter — kidnapping and out-of-body experiences. Plus there’s romance, but nothing too mature. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it’ll probably be of interest to the older end (and maybe into the 6th grade).

It’s the summer of 1963, right before seventh grade, and Henry Nilsson is pretty sure nothing exciting is going to happen. His dad is being laid off at the railroad and they’re having to tighten their belts at home (they even sold the TV!). Henry like-likes his twin sister’s best friend, Nikki, but has no idea what to tell him. And his best friend, Alan’s, brother bullying has increased.

Then, two things happen to change the trajectory of Henry’s summer: Alan’s brother goes missing. And they discover a book to teach them how to have an out-of-body experience, called “subtle” travel. Once they figure out how, they enter the subtle world, where things aren’t as nice as they seem. And where there’s some pretty scary things going on in them thar woods.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this one. I liked the historical detail, which was never the point of the book, but rather just background to give it some weight. I liked the friendship between Henry and the rest, including his sister. I liked that both Nikki and Alan were people of color — Nikki is Asian; Alan, Latino — but that it was never really an issue. (Well, it is, once.) I liked the mystery, the discovery of what was going on with Alan’s brother, and the realization that even though he’s often mean, he has some good in him.

What I didn’t like was the whole speculative fiction part of it. The subtle travel was weird (Seriously.) and I was never really able to suspend my disbelief enough to make it work for me. There was just too much left underdeveloped, that was just plain weird.

But, perhaps, those are adult concerns creeping into a middle grade book. It is a dark book, one that’s kind of creepy, and for those who like a slight creep factor to their book, it’s a good one. And perhaps, the positives outweigh the negatives.