The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Set in Toronto in the sixties, this book is about two lonely girls living in homes that attach to one another. Polly has a huge family with foster siblings too. She feels ignored by all of them, though she can’t get away from her twin brothers and their noise. That’s how she finds her way into the attic as a safe place away from the bustle of her family. Polly has always wanted to meet a ghost, which is why she thinks that Rose is a ghost the first time she hears her singing in her neighboring attic. But Rose turns out to be a real girl, who just happens to look very ghostlike too. Rose has always been able to see ghosts, and she hates it since they never leave her alone. Rose spends a lot of her days alone, no one at school talks to her, her parents are very busy business people, and the housekeeper ignores her. So the two girls quickly form a close friendship, made even closer by the frightening ghost that looks just like Rose and who threatens Polly’s life. Can the two girls figure out who this ghost is and what she wants?
I seem to be on a roll with Canadian children’s book authors lately, and this is another wonderful Canadian read. Cotter creates a mystery inside a ghost story that twists and turns delightfully along the way. Readers will think they have it all figured out and then the story will change. Yet somehow Cotter makes it all work and in the end the entire novel makes great sense, enough that readers will want to start again to see the clues they may have missed.
The writing here is exceptional. Cotter writes with a confident voice, one that allows each of these girls to be entire unique. The two of them are quite different from one another, each clearly resulting from their very divergent upbringings. The friendship also reads as real with small arguments happening regularly and the two girls having to repair these small issues. Through the entire book there is a wonderful ghostly presence, a feeling of being in a real place but one unseen by others. It’s a place that is a delight to visit.
Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight, this strong ghost story is both entertaining and riveting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hermelin: The Detective Mouse by Mini Grey
Released August 5, 2014.
Hermelin is a mouse who lives in the attic of Number 33 Offley Street. His attic is filled with books and boxes and a typewriter that Hermelin uses to write with. When Hermelin notices that the Offley Street Notices board is filled with people missing things, he knows just what he has to do. So he starts working as a mouse detective and solving the mysteries of Offley Street. He does this by noticing things and then leaving typed notes for the people to help them find their missing items. Then when tragedy almost strikes the youngest person on Offley Street, Hermelin is the one to save the day! Soon everyone wants to know exactly who this Hermelin person is, so they invite him to a thank you party in his honor. He just isn’t quite what they were expecting…
A new Mini Grey book is always a treat and this one is perfectly lovely. Hermelin is a winning character with plenty of pluck as he goes about solving mysteries. Happily, the mysteries are just as small as Hermelin himself, making the book all the more jaunty and fun. Grey spends some time showing Hermelin’s attic and how he lives. The small details here add a rich warmth to the book and it is also the details that create such a vibrant world on Offley Street with the humans as well.
Done in her signature style, the illustrations are filled with details. One can read the cereal box, the milk carton, and the titles on the books as well as giggling at the flavors of cat food on the shelf. Hermelin himself is a lovely white mouse with inquisitive eyes and a face that shows emotions clearly. The entire book is a pleasure to immerse yourself into and simply enjoy.
Clever and filled with adventure, the vast appeal of this detective story is no mystery at all. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Knopf Books for Young Readers.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Cady has been spending her summers on the family’s private island for her entire life. She and her two cousins Johnny and Mirren were joined by Gat, a boy who became almost a cousin but also so much more for Cady. The foursome call themselves The Liars, and during the summers were inseparable but barely contacted one another during the rest of the year. But then one summer it all changed and now Cady can’t remember what happened. She was found bedraggled and wet on the beach of the island, alone. Now she suffers from amnesia and migraines, spending days in bed in severe pain. But she is determined to find out what happened, even if the other three refuse to contact her any more, so she returns to the island.
Lockhart has created a mystery and thriller that is written like modern poetry. She plays with construction in her novel, dancing between verse and prose masterfully. This disjointed approach to construction also speaks to the way the entire novel is deconstructed and put back together again. The book moves in time, flashing forward and backward, yet is never confusing. Still, readers will be caught in this sparkling web, unable to piece together the mystery until Lockhart is ready for the reveal. And she does it with great style and technique.
With such a character-driven book, the depiction of the characters is of paramount importance. Lockhart excels in all of her books in creating characters who are real people, human and flawed. She does the same here, creating in Cady a very complicated character that readers have to put together as a puzzle until it clicks together in the end. The other supporting characters are equally well rendered. Even the parental figures who seem stereotypical at first reveal surprising depth as the story continues.
Superbly crafted and brilliantly written, this book is one of the best of the year. Get your hands on it now! Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Delacorte Press and Edelweiss.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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 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.