Category Archives: middle grade

Private Eye July

FirstClassMurder_finalUS_200x300Ah, mysteries…I love mysteries.

I finished reading Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz a few weeks ago – a nice homage to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot with an added complication or two.  Then there was The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths, another great Ruth Galloway mystery.

And then First Class Murder landed in my holds stack … another homage to Agatha Christie, complete with a trip on the Orient Express with girl detectives, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.  Daisy and Hazel started their detective work in a boarding school, and then solved a head-scratcher of  a murder at a country home.  The Orient Express is supposed to get them away from murders, but it never works out that way, does it?

The cast of characters is quirky and interesting, with a Russian countess, her American Pinkerton-obsessed grandson, a spy, a magician, a medium, maids who might be more than they appear, an obnoxious husband and an heiress.  It’s a fun, light read, despite the murder, and Daisy and Hazel’s detection skills are just getting better by the moment.   There are another three already-released-in-the-UK books in the series, so now I’m debating whether to wait for their U.S. release or get them over here now.  Sigh.  So many books.  So little time.

First Class Murder: a Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens

 

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Hell and high water and a whole lot of other stuff

hellandhighwaterI don’t remember how this book ended up on my list.  I haven’t actually been getting much serious (or not serious) reading done lately, although I’ve done a few re-reads of Dumplin’ (awesome as always) and Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (part of my annual attempt to remember languages I haven’t spoken for a few decades).  Given much thought, I probably would have found something a bit lighter, especially since I usually don’t go for things with puppets of any kind.  They’re a little like clowns to me—kind of creepy and maybe a little menacing, unless they are fluffy, cute animal puppets which are a completely different thing.

Anyhoo, this is a great book.  There are bad guys — rich aristocrats cheating poor people and a few of their own supposed friends, sending the undeserving off to jail or to the colonies – and a few scrappy good guys and a lot of intrigue, action, and close escapes.  Letty and Caleb become friends and partners-in-making-things-right, and you’re with them all the way.  It’s not a happy story, really, but it works.  As a read-aloud, there could be a lot to discuss with the right group of kids: gossip, discrimination, power, women’s roles, poverty, justice.  So take a break from reality and travel back to 1752 for a few hours.  You’ll be glad you did.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

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How to capture my 13 year old inner dialogue, although maybe you’d rather not

BraveMaybe kids think completely different thoughts these days.  I mean, I wonder sometimes if my youth was so wildly different – no electronics, three tv stations available, bad perms – that I can’t even begin to understand what my kid lives with.  Technology is not a kind beast.

Then I read something like Brave.  Or we find ourselves talking about mean girls.  And I realize that at least for my kid, some things are still kind of the same. Definitely still awful.  Do we all find ourselves feeling isolated, dumb, or out of the loop?  Are we all bad at handling bullies, whether it’s jerks who grab our books and play catch or people who attack us with words?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe some kids pass blissfully through adolescence without any bumps along the way.  Svetlana Chmakova captures those who don’t perfectly, and really, everyone can benefit from that.  If you’re struggling yourself, Brave makes you feel like you’re not alone.  And in the rare case that you feel like you’re on top of the world, maybe you can see what it’s like for everyone else and feel some compassion.  Maybe?

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Friendships, good and bad

real friendsThere are so many kinds of friends, aren’t there?  Sometimes you have a friend who begins to feel like all you need.  Then she moves.  Maybe you manage to end up in a bigger group of friends later on.  There will be a kind of unhappy, mean “friend” somewhere in there who’s more concerned with being first at being someone’s best friend than in being friends with everyone.  Or maybe they make fun of you because you’re different, even though they claim they’re only telling you to help you.

Friendship, like love, is so very complicated, which is why I liked this graphic novel/memoir so much.  It reminded me of many happy, silly afternoons as a child, playing in imaginary worlds with a friend.  It also reminded me of some uncomfortable and painful moments.  Both are important things to talk about with kids, since their lives are as complicated, if not more complicated than ours.

I, thank goodness, never had to navigate friendship by way of social media.  I screwed up a lot of things, but no one was saving screenshots of my mistakes.  Maybe there are damning pictures out there somewhere in a shoe box, but my biggest humiliations only take up space in my memory.

I prefer to remember the happier times: building forts under the picnic table, having dance contests at slumber parties, and lying in the shade of the big tree looking at the clouds shaped like turtles and whales.

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

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The sparkling eyes of Mary Alice

ghost shipA ghost ship.  An evil tech gazillionaire.  A missing girl.  One boy in a red shirt.

There are so many details that add to and flesh out the characters in this excellent graphic novel – small things that quickly begin to link together everyone and everything in this book.  It’s a joy to read, quick but full of wonderful small moments – John Blake talking to the ship, shipmates who’ve escaped from other places and times. Fog fades in and out, and there’s time travel, long lost families and friends, debts to pay.

One storyline has ended, but there will be more, right?  Please?

The Adventures of John Blake:  Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham

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3 simple reasons to give York a look

york

  1. Puzzles — also clues, ciphers, and  mysteries to solve.
  2. Quirky public transportation options and elevators that go sideways.
  3. Kids out to save their world from an obnoxious developer.

Fun, fun, fun.

York: the shadow cipher by Laura Ruby

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What is said and what is unsaid

beyondthebrightseaLauren Wolk is a master of atmosphere and setting.  There, I’ve said it.  Why not just put it up front and out there, right?  I found her earlier book,  Wolf Hollow, dark, titling my review of it “A lingering toxic fog,” not maybe what you’d think was a positive review. (It was not my typical positive review, but still…)

But apparently, she has a skill for this, and she’s able to dredge up a whole yard full of emotions in whatever she writes.  You might be pulled there slowly… or an angry, violent thief might materialize pounding on your door.  You’re never quite sure of anything.

Some mysteries are solved – Crow, the abandoned infant who’s now trying to find out more about her parents, does learn what has happened to her parents and that she has a brother.  But other questions are not solved as neatly or with happy endings.  Some characters are revealed; others stay a step back and out of the limelight.   And that is just fine.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

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Blooming perfect

bloomingStevie’s parents weren’t connected to their extended families, so when they’re killed in a horrible accident, Stevie is sent to live with her not-so-welcoming grandfather at his down-on-its-luck motel.  A long list of quirky characters enter her life – an older disabled couple who still haven’t gone on their honeymoon, the handymen, a few kids, an elderly woman who becomes her tutor and a some long-distant relatives.

It’s realistic middle grade fiction at its best.  There’s not a lot of action, although there are always things happening.  The days move forward and slowly, Stevie begins to rebuild her life in this new family of sorts.  The people around her are open to loving and including her in their lives, and she begins to open up, too, even towards a grandfather who is the opposite of warm and huggy.  It’s not just the garden that begins to bloom – Stevie and everyone around her do, too.  Nicely done.

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

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Change, loss, hope…again.

100stringsSometimes it’s enough to read a story that could take place next door to you.  No magic, no long-lost rock star parent, no spy agency looking for kids to recruit.

Steffy is that kid you know who likes to cook and is kind of quiet but a good friend.  She likes her sister, at least most of the time, and she loves her Auntie Gina who has taken care of her since her mom’s accident years ago.  Mom is living in a care facility for people with brain injuries.  Dad is gone.  Until he isn’t.

Is it a good thing Dad is back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Lives are so complicated.  Grief and loss and change are complicated.  Cooking is simple.

I’ve started a lot of realistic fiction lately, but I haven’t made it past the first few chapters very often.  This book was different.  It’s a quick read, but not one you have to read all in one sitting.  Steffy and the other characters are people with flaws, who make mistakes and then make other mistakes while they’re trying to fix things.  Kind of like all of us. It has a happy ending, but maybe not the happy ending you expect.  Like life, I guess.  I think that’s why I liked it so much – its imperfections make it special, and it doesn’t force a predictable happy ending on what we see around us every day.

And there are recipes.  That’s good, too.

One Hundred Spaghetti Strings by Jen Nails

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Why Timmy Failure always makes me think about philosophy

timmy cat

I understand (I think) the beauty of Timmy Failure books.  I have written before about the joy I find in reading the chapter titles, stunners like Unforgivable, That’s What You Are and Wasting Away Again in Marge and Rita-Ville. 

And there is always Timmy, so fabulously clueless about absolutely everything that you begin to wonder if he is really an absurdist genius.  Or maybe he’s an existentialist.  (Merriam-Webster defines existentialism as “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”)  I looked it up, just to be sure.  It’s been a while since I studied philosophy.

Yes, yes, I know.  The author of Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants is not writing for middle-aged white women who go off on philosophical tangents.  And yet.  There’s a certain genius about a character and a series of books which both make you laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of it all – something most definitely NOT to be sneered at in this troubled world – and then very quickly bring you back to the reality of a character’s life.  How does any kid deal with an absent father, an imaginary and difficult polar bear sidekick, AND a confusing world which demands both doing what everyone else does and being an individual?

And those frog underwear are to die for, too.

Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis

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