Tag Archive: mysteries


ghosts of tupelo landing

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Return to the world of the Newbery Honor book Three Times Lucky in this follow-up novel.  Mo and Dale continue to run their Desperado Detective Agency but the mysteries have gotten smaller.  Then an old inn goes up for sale and Miss Lana, Mo’s guardian, accidentally purchases it.  That’s when it is discovered that that inn comes with a resident ghost.  Now it is up to Dale and Mo to figure out why the ghost is haunting the inn, something they also manage to make into a homework assignment to do double duty.  But the mystery of the ghost is tied up in other secrets in Tupelo Landing, secrets that have been kept for decades but that must be revealed to solve this mystery.

Returning to Tupelo Landing was immediately like being reunited with friends.  There was catching up to do, but it was easy and warm right from the beginning.  Turnage’s writing is rich and layered.  She excels at descriptions, creating analogies that are surprising and constantly original.  Here in Mo’s voice is a description of Lavender, the boy she plans to marry eventually:

Lavender has eyes blue as October’s sky and hair like just-mown wheat.  He’s wiry and tall, and flows like a lullaby.

All of your favorite characters from the first book are back again.  There are the Colonel and Miss Lana, continuing to figure out their relationship while running a restaurants whose theme changes every night.  There is Grandmother Miss Lacy whose funding saves Miss Lana and the inn, but who may be dealing with secrets of her own.  There is even the scary Red Baker who may be closer to the ghost than anyone else.  There is even one complex new character who takes time to learn about because his secrets are held very close.  And then of course there are Mo and Dale, the two detectives at the heart of the story and who give the story its heart.

Funny, heartfelt and memorable, this sequel is just as good as the award-winning original.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin Group.

palace of spies

Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Peggy is an orphan who lives with her uncle, aunt and beloved cousin, until she is thrown out of the household for refusing to marry the man her uncle has chosen for her.  Peggy has few options, so she turns to a gentleman who seemed to know her mother when she was alive but whom she only met the day before.  With no other choices, Peggy is drawn into the sparkling grandeur of being a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I.  But she does not go as herself, instead she assumes the identity of Lady Francesca Wallingham.  As Fran, she joins the circle of girls serving the queen but she also must be watchful for anyone discovering her.  As the intrigue increases, Peggy realizes that anyone around her could be a spy and starts to question what happened to the real Fran.

Zettel manages the near impossible in this novel.  She has a historical novel that stays true to the time period and yet manages to read as swiftly as a more modern teen novel.  Without ever breaking out of the setting or inserting modern sensibilities, Peggy still manages not to turn off readers with her opinions.  Readers are quickly shown what life was like for an orphaned and penniless girl in this time with a sexual assault on Peggy soon after we meet her.  This helps underline her lack of power and explain why she takes on the danger that she does for the rest of the book.

Zettle plots this book with great skill, revealing the true motivations of the characters slowly.  There are several mysteries at play here and more that emerge as others are figured out.  The pacing of the book is don’t very well too, with enough historical detail to make sure the setting is strongly presented but never too much to slow down the speed of the storytelling.

A dark and mysterious historical novel, this is much less froth and much more intrigue and betrayal with some romance too.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

great trouble

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet.  He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private.  It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail.  But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him.  Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London.  Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently.  Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.

Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters.  At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England.  She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive. 

Eel is a wonderful protagonist.  He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery.  Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been. 

This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

ketchup clouds

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Zoe stays up late at night and writes to her pen pal, a Texas death row prisoner who murdered his wife.  He is the only one with whom she can share her dark secret:  she too killed someone.  Zoe slowly reveals her story, including her own role in a boy’s death and living with the aftermath of having done it.  Zoe’s story is one of being drawn to two boys, using one against the other, and the startling result of her betrayal.  It is a story of love that is beyond the expected, first romance that is tortured but desperately real, and the wounds left behind that are impossible to heal.

Pitcher, author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, has returned with a beautifully written second novel.  She lays bare Zoe as a character, giving her the space to reveal herself in all of her remorse and conflict.  Here is one of my favorite passages in the book:

I’d do anything to forget.  Anything.  Eat the spider or stand naked on top of the shed or do math homework every day for the rest of my life.  Whatever it took to wipe my brain clean like you can with computers, pressing a button to delete the images and the words and the lies.

But perhaps what Pitches does best in this novel is to build tension and doubt.  Throughout the book until the final reveal, readers do not know which of the boys died.  Pitcher writes in a way that lets readers fall for both of them for different reasons, so that either one’s death is a grand tragedy and something to destroy lives. 

This is a book that is burning and compelling.  It is a book that is beautifully honest, vibrantly written.  This is Zoe’s heart on a page in all of its wounds and glory.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

book of lost things

The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

  Max’s parents who were both well-known actors had been invited to Kashmir, India to start a theater troupe there.  They planned to take Max along with them but then they disappear.  The ship they were meant to take does not exist and they are simply gone.  That left Max with just his grandmother to care for him, but Max knew that if he was well-cared for, his grief would be too much to bear.  Instead he moved back to his family home, across the garden from his grandmother, and had to find a way to earn his keep.  It was through that that he stumbled upon a job at which he was exceptionally good:  being a detective or as Max preferred, a “solutioneer.” 

Set around the turn of the 20th century, this novel has a strong, brisk pace that is invigorating.  Max is a character who is bright, curious and always thinking.  Voigt populates his life with many other interesting characters, including is wonderful librarian grandmother, the various people he helps find solutions for, and even one demanding baby.  The entire book is a vibrant historical fiction that will have great appeal. 

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the use of painting and creativity as a way to allow your brain space to think and figure things out.  Max is a painter, creating watercolors of the sky during different seasons.  It is this artistic outlet that is a big key to his success and creative thinking.  Voigt ties the two together clearly and also gives other characters creative outlets that make them even more well-rounded.

The first book in a new series, this book is a delight of mysteries, solutions, theater and historical fiction.  Appropriate for ages 10-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

al capone does my homework

Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

Released August 20, 2013

This is the third and final book in the Alcatraz trilogy.  Moose is growing up on Alcatraz where his father has just been made Assistant Warden.  But with the promotion also comes dangers that he had not faced as a guard.  Moose quickly discovers that the inmates have a point system where his father is now worth a lot more points if he is attacked.  Moose has far more to worry about though, when there is a fire in their family apartment.  Moose feels very guilty because he had been watching his sister Natalie who is autistic, but he fell asleep.  Others are all too quick to blame Natalie for setting the fire, though Moose and his family don’t see her doing something like that.  Now Moose feels that he has to solve the mystery of the fire as well as protect his father as best he can, but there may be more mysteries along to solve, one that is even hinted at by a note from Capone himself!

I have loved this series from the first book.  The historical perspective of a family living on Alcatraz is tantalizing.  Yet it is Choldenko’s skill in creating characters who are immensely human and wonderfully heartfelt that makes this series so good.  Moose is a character who grows from one book to the next and within each book as well.  The growth is strong and believable.  The mystery here fits nicely in the historical setting and one finds out from the Author’s Note that the reason it is so credible is that Choldenko based much of it on real events of the time.

This series has been strong from the first book, never suffering from lagging in the middle book or from the final book trying to do too much.  Nicely, each book is individually satisfying as well, so they stand just as nicely on their own as they do in a trio.  However, I could never not find out what happened next to Moose and the other children on the island.

Satisfying and superbly written, this book is a great conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.

hold fast

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Early lives in a warm and loving family.  Her father Dash is a lover of words and word games.  Her mother Sum and little brother Jubie make up the total of four in their family.  But when Dash gets involved in something shady, their loving family becomes three.  Then people raid their home, breaking down the door and they are forced to head to a shelter without knowing where Dash is or how he will find them again in the big city of Chicago.  Early finds she has to be the strong one as her mother begins to falter and her brother is so little.  Shelter life is difficult and it takes Early some time to realize that she is in the middle of a mystery that she can help solve. 

Balliett demonstrates her own love of words and wordplay throughout this novel.  Told in beautiful prose, she writes poetically about the city she loves, the beauty of snow, and the power of family.  She incorporates wordplay through her protagonist, who looks at words the way her father taught her to.  Many times words sound like what they are, points out Balliett, and just reading this book will have readers seeing words in a new way.

Balliett also introduces young readers to the poetry of Langston Hughes.  One of his books is at the heart of not only the mystery of the book but at the heart of the family.  As Hughes muses on dreams and their importance, both Early and the reader are able to see his words and understand them deeply. 

The aspect of the homeless shelter and the difficulties the family and Early face there is an important one.  Balliett is obviously making a point with her book, sometimes too obviously.  There are also some issues with plotting, with the book dragging at points and struggling to move forward.  That aside, the writing is stellar and the characters strong. 

Another fine offering from Balliett, get this one into the hands of her fans.  It will also be great choice for reading aloud in classrooms with its wordplay and strong African-American characters and family.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

one came home

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Georgie knows that she is the reason her sister Agatha left.  When an unidentifiable body is found with her sister’s hair color and the dress her mother sewed, everyone assumes it is Agatha.  But Georgie refuses to accept that.  She sets off to find out what happened to her sister.  In 1871 in rural Placid, Wisconsin, Georgie is forced to ask her sister’s old beau Billy to give her a horse.  She has a gun that she is an expert at using and a destination in mind, where the body was found.  It doesn’t work out the way Georgie expects since Billy insists on joining her for the trip and gives her a mule rather than a horse to ride.  The two set off arguing all the way, traveling through the debris from the largest passenger pigeon nesting in history, finding wild adventures along the way. 

Written in a lyrical voice, the prose in this book is noteworthy and lovely.  Timberlake has radiantly recreated both the society and setting of the late 1800s.  Happily, she spends less time on clothes and societal niceties and much more on spirit and gumption.  Early in the book you can see her words at work, drawing a picture of the two sisters using imagery from nature around them:

Feathers flew up with each breaking bottle. Pigeon feathers that spring were like fallen leaves in the autumn-they were everywhere, in everything. But there’s a difference between feathers and leaves. Feathers claw their way back into the sky, whereas leaves, after flying once, are content to rest on the earth. Agatha? She was a feather. She pushed higher, farther always. I suspected my constitution was more leaf than feather. I hoped I was wrong about that, though, because I wanted to be like Agatha.

Georgie is a tremendous protagonist.  She’s a natural with a rifle, looks forward to taking over the family store in their small town.  She’s not interested in boys and is far more concerned with her own future with her sister than with anything else.  She speaks with confidence and very boldly, never keeping her opinions to herself for long.  At the same time, she is also the voice of the novel, and through that she herself looks at the world in a poetic way.

Beautiful with a strong heroine, this book is a dazzling read for tweens.  Appropriate for ages 9-12. 

Reviewed from copy received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.

great cake mystery

The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrations by Iain McIntosh

The author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has written his first children’s book.  This one too stars Precious Ramotswe and is the story of her very first mystery as a child in Botswana.  When her father tells her a favorite story about when a lion got into their village, he notices that she has several characteristics of a detective: she asks a lot of questions and she can tell when people are telling the truth.  So when food starts disappearing at Precious’ school, she gets involved in solving the mystery.  She is shocked when one of her friends accuses another boy of being the thief because he has sticky fingers, literally.  It makes her even more determined to figure out exactly who is stealing the food. 

Told in very simple prose, sometimes a bit too simple, this story has a certain charm about it.  The book begins in a rather stilted way thanks to the wording, but quickly moves on to a more natural cadence that works much better.  I am pleased to see a mystery set in Africa with a young female protagonist who manages to solve the mystery without any adult help.  Smith captures the differences between societies as well as the special setting of Botswana.

McIntosh’s illustrations are block prints done in a limited color palette of red, black and gray.  They have a quality about them that speaks to the setting clearly.  They have a delicate and yet unfinished quality that is very appealing.

This book for young readers has plenty of mystery, detective work and an appealing heroine.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

three times lucky

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Mo LoBeau arrived in the small North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing as an infant riding on a hurricane wave.  She was discovered by the Colonel, a man also trapped in the storm who completely lost his memory.  Now at age 11, Mo helps the Colonel and Miss Lana run the café that is attached to their home.  It’s a quiet life, punctuated by the hope of her long-lost mother finding one of the bottles that Mo sends off upstream.  Then the law comes to town and things get interesting.  A murder was committed in a nearby town, then someone is murdered right in Tupelo Landing!  Mo and her best friend, Dale, form a detective agency and try to stay a step ahead of the police as they investigate the murder, try to clear Dale’s name, and worry that the Colonel may be mixed up in things too.  All Mo knows is that it is up to her to continue to trust the people she loves so fiercely and to prove their innocence. 

I must admit that I sighed a bit when I discovered that this was another book set in a small town in the south.  I knew that it would be filled with interesting small town characters, probably have a spunky heroine, and expected that it would be pretty formulaic as well.  It does have interesting small town characters, but also ones that resemble modern society.  As much as this is a story of a family that is created out of love alone, it is also the story of what a small town community can be.  Yes, Mo is spunky.  She is also smart, savvy and wonderfully inventive.  And while the story starts out in a familiar way, it quickly turns into a book that is a fun, fast-paced read.

The story is not as light-hearted as it might seem on the surface.  Dale lives with his mother in fear of his drunken father returning and beating him.  There are families that are divided in other ways, including money.  And without giving anything away, there are twists that are surprising in a children’s book.

Turnage’s writing is filled with humor.  She creates memorable characters, dancing quickly with stereotypes and then reaching beyond them to something that means much more.  She is not afraid of real danger in her book and she is also not shy about deep love.  It is a book about family, community, bravery and friendship. 

This is one to read on a slow summer day, preferably one threatening a nice fat thunderstorm.  Now if someone can just find me a real café like Miss Lana’s I’m all set.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.

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