The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins

The Sisters of Straygarden Place cover image

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins (9781536212273)

Mayhap lives with her two sisters in Straygarden Place, a magical mansion that caters to all of their needs. The house feeds them, tucks them into bed at night, and gives them anything they wish for. But the house can’t bring back their parents, who disappeared into the tall silver grass that surrounds the house seven years ago. Now Winnow, the oldest of the sisters, has entered the grass herself. When she returns, she is different: her eyes are turning silver and she is unable to speak. Mayhap in particular seems to upset Winnow, so Pavonine, the youngest cares for her. Meanwhile, Mayhap is determined to figure out how to save her sister. She encounters a mysterious other girl in the house, one who claims to have been there a long time and who is connected with the house. As Mayhap begins to unravel the mystery of the house, she must face the truth about herself and her sisters and what has been stolen from them all.

Chewins has created a delicious mystery here. It’s a marvelously constricted mystery, set in a house that no one dares leave, surrounded by sentient grass, and filled with strange contraptions, rules and delights. It’s the ideal book for a pandemic lockdown, sharing much of the qualities of our lives over the past few months. Chewins has created a truly eerie setting, the grass whispering at the windows and the house revealing spaces that the girls never knew existed. The clues are glimpses into their own past as well as that of the house itself.

The entire book is filled with marvelous details. There are the dogs who climb into the girls’ heads so that they can sleep. There are the carpets that thicken to provide padding or move to carry Mayhap to a new part of the house. There are delightful meals provided by the house, that can be clues as well. And a coffee-scented library that makes one want to linger with the living card catalog. Mayhap herself is a grand heroine, willing to sacrifice herself for her sisters and determined to understand what is actually happening to them all.

A genre-breaking book that is a fantasy-mystery with Victorian delights and horrors that will enter your dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee (9781452149868)

Released August 28, 2018

After their parents made an Agreement with Death, the Vickery twins had to live with it. It meant that Felix had to serve Death alongside his father, witnessing healing and dying every day. Felix was not allowed to go to school and could not ever see his mother. His father could not see his brother Lee or his mother ever again. Lee in turn lived with his mother on the other side of the house serving Memory. He took bottled memories, labeled them and placed them on shelves. Both brothers had errands in Poplar Wood, Lee to dispense of the memories and Felix to gather herbs. Their life was terrible but steady until Gretchen entered it, determined to figure out how Essie was killed. From a family of Summoners, Gretchen is second born and unable to conduct the Rites. Still, she insists on untangling what is happening in their small town as Death, Memory and Passion let their rivalry get out of hand.

Just writing that summary demonstrates how unique this book is, yet it also plays with existing myths about shades and summoning. The book makes Death, Memory and Passion into figures that are non-human but still have human desires like revenge and dominance. The book is constructed so that the reader learns more about this fictional world alongside the characters. Each brother knows separate elements and Gretchen brings her own understanding of the other part of the relationships with Shades to the book. The organic way that it plays out via the story itself makes it immensely satisfying.

The characters are definitely worth noting as well. Gretchen is the most compelling character. She is wonderfully curious, prickly and determined. There is no way to tell her no that she will accept and her tenacity drives the story forward. The two brothers are unique from one another as well, one who goes to public school and the other who doesn’t. Their lives are as different as can be, each raised by not only one parent but also influenced deeply by the Shade too. These factors play out in their personalities in a way that is subtle but also clear.

A great fantasy Gothic novel with a mystery at its heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.


Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Mary has served six years for killing a baby when she was nine years old. Now she is living in a group home with other teen girls, including ones who want to hurt her. Mary doesn’t talk much and didn’t speak for months after the baby’s death. Now though, Mary has something to speak up for and fight for. She has an older boyfriend who works at the nursing home where Mary is assigned. She also has their unborn child. Mary is smart and loves to read. She sets her mind on going to college and completing SATs. However, there are a lot of hurdles and barriers in her way from the system itself to just getting an ID. As Mary starts to fight back she will have to take on her mother, the person whose testimony got her locked up in the first place.

This is one incredible debut novel. It takes a dark and unflinching look at how our society treats young offenders and the bleak lives that are left to them. It also speaks to the horror of a baby being killed and the effect that race, where a black girl is accused of killing a white baby, has on the system. The writing is outstanding, allowing the desperation to seep into the pages and the darkness to simply stand, stark and true.

Mary is an amazing protagonist. Readers will relate to her as her intelligence shines on the page despite the grime surrounding her. As she begins to build hope and a new life around herself, readers will feel their own hopes soar and warmth creep in. Mary though is not a simple character, a girl wronged. She is her own person, messing up in her own ways and speaking her own truth.

Complex and riveting, this debut novel is one that is dazzling, deep and dark. Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

from norvelt to nowhere

From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

Halloween has come to Norvelt right at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Jack dresses up as the local serial killer to trick or treat, but no one finds him funny.  Even Jack loses his sense of humor when another old lady is killed right in front of him from a poisoned cookie.  Miss Volker, the last surviving original Norvelt woman, takes the murder very personally since the serial killer had been killing in order to marry her.  She is intent on revenge and takes Jack along with her on a cross-country journey to settle the issue once and for all.  But all may not be as simple as it seems as Jack finds himself with plenty of potential killers riding on the same train with them. 

Gantos won the Newbery Medal with the first Norvelt book and it was spectacular.  This book is more of a bumpy ride.  There are moments where Gantos reaches the same smart mix of serious heartfelt writing and humorous situations.  Then it can drag a bit as historical lessons are shared.  But the good thing is that those good parts outnumber the slowdowns and the humor still shines.

A large part of what makes the book work are the characters of Jack and Miss Volker.  This wonderful pairing adds to the fast pacing of the novel, move the story forward and are a pleasure to spend time with.  The book tends to slow when Miss Volker is more quiet and contained.  When she is unleashed, the story is exceptional. 

Fans of the first book will want to read the second and I’m happy to travel along with Jack and Miss Volker anytime.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Review: Burning Blue by Paul Griffin

burning blue

Burning Blue by Paul Griffin

Nicole was a beautiful girl, the prettiest in the school.  But that all changed when someone threw acid in her face at school.  Nicole didn’t know who did it, because she didn’t see anything other than the bottle aimed at her face.  Her boyfriend was nearby, the janitor seemed to know not to touch her, and a teacher was around too.  Quiet loner, Jay decides to figure out who did this.  He sees beyond her wounds, realizing that there is a lot more to Nicole than her lost beauty.  Jay is a hacker, able to get into government databases and trace people’s activities online.  As he gets closer to the truth of the attack, he and Nicole grow closer too.  Now he has everything to lose, especially as Nicole seems to be a suspect herself. 

Griffin nicely creates a lot of tension and mystery in this story of disfigurement and beauty.  Told from Jay’s point of view with insets from Nicole’s journal, this novel asks difficult questions about beauty, what lies beneath it, and the envy that it produces.  The question of who attacked Nicole stays in Jay’s focus, but the reader will equally enjoy the growing relationship between Jay and Nicole.

Jay is a fascinating character.  He is a hacker who pretends to know nothing about computers.  Some of his online conquests seem a bit to simple and easy, but with that aside, the hacking forms an intriguing basis for a detective to work from.  He is able to make breakthroughs and discover information that otherwise would be impossible.  But beyond the actual hacking, Jay lives a tattered life with his father after his losing his mother, and struggles with epileptic seizures.  His is a life lived alone by choice, until Nicole enters it.

A strong introverted and geeky character at its heart, this novel is a fine mystery but much more too.  Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.

Review: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

cavendish home

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand

Victoria has always tried to be the best that she can be with her perfect hair, great grades and neat room.  So when she gets a B in music, she is distraught and refuses to show her parents her report card.  Lawrence, her one and only friend, doesn’t have the same appreciation for perfection.  He’s a musician who is often untidy and has a habit of humming constantly.  As Victoria obsesses about her grades, she starts to notice that strange things are happening around town.  Some of the students at her school have disappeared and no one seems to care.  When Lawrence disappears and his parents are unconcerned, Victoria realizes that there is something horribly wrong.  She knows it must have to do with the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, an orphanage which never seems to have any children around.  In Mrs. Cavendish, Victoria finds another person with a will for order and perfection.  In Victoria though, Mrs. Cavendish may have met her match.  As this book turns from mystery to horror, readers will taken on a frightening ride.

From the endpaper that is designed with bugs to the bugs scattered along randomly inside the book, readers will realize that this is a little darker than most mysteries.  It begins as a classic story of a girl who is top of her class and fairly self-centered.  She is likeable despite these faults thanks to her natural inquisitiveness and bravery.  As the book becomes more dark and creepy, Victoria rises to the challenge, turning into a heroine before your eyes.  It’s a credible and impressive transformation.

Legrand slowly builds the tension in the book, creating a story that you can never quite relax into.  A great example of this is on page 83:

Outside, the streets glistened. Storm clouds sat fat, black, and heavy all along the sickly yellow sky. Victoria wondered if they would ever break or if they would just keep spitting bits of rain forever when no one was looking. She tightened her grip on the umbrella beneath her raincoat and tried not to think about how it felt like the trees were watching her.

It’s a book that twists and turns, becoming the unexpected. At several moments, I thought I had figured it out and the doubted that that would be the outcome in a children’s book.  Children will delight though in realizing that Legrand does not shy away from the horrid, the frightening and the disgusting. 

This is a wild ride of a book clothed in a classic mystery disguise.  Get it into the hands of children who enjoy a good shivery read.  It’s perfect for reading at night under the covers, if you are brave enough.  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

Review: Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield

amelia anne

Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield

When the girl is found dead on the highway near Becca’s small hometown, the entire town is enveloped in the question of who she was and who killed her.  All Becca knows is that she is going to leave town at the end of the summer, and leave her boyfriend behind too.  But then her boyfriend breaks up with her right after they have sex, and Becca’s world shifts.  She too becomes captured by the drama of the murdered girl and finds herself unable to move forward with her plans to head to college.  Amelia Anne, the dead girl, was already in college.  Caught with a boyfriend who no longer understands her, Amelia continues to date him waiting for the best time to break up.  Two girls who end up in the same small town for very different reasons, one at the beginning of her life and the other at the end. 

Rosenfield’s writing is unique and heady.  She writes with all of her senses, creating a feeling that is almost smothering at times, flying high in others, and always remarkable.  Her writing is best when creating a world for just two people, something that happens often here.  Those dynamics ring true and painful and wistful. 

Her writing about the small town and its history of death is also beautifully done.  As readers, we inhale along with the characters, breathing in the scents of the woods and the roses.  We witness the fact that small town knowledge can also kill, work through grief with people, and jump to the wrong conclusions.  It’s an exhilarating ride of a novel that also takes the time to truly create its own setting and history.

Amazing writing, a violent mystery and a small town setting create a book that is impossible to put down, yet invites you to linger with it longer.  Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from copy received from Dutton Books.

Review: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath

mr and mrs bunny detectives

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

Madeline has always taken care of her parents rather than the other way around.  She knows they won’t come to her school events, not even the graduation ceremony that Prince Charles will be attending!  Because they aren’t interested, she has to find a way herself to get the required white shoes for the ceremony.  But when she returns home after waitressing, she discovers that her parents have been kidnapped by foxes!  The only one who can help them is Madeline, who will also need help.  She finds it in Mr. and Mrs. Bunny who have just become detectives, having purchased the necessary fedoras for that sort of work.  The three set out to solve the mystery and rescue Madeline’s parents.  On the way, they have to consort with garlic-bread munching marmots, stand up to the Bunny Council, learn to drive a car wearing disco shoes, and become fast friends.

Horvath takes a clever premise and allows it to twist and turn in her hands, creating a book that is quirky and ultimately lovable.  Her writing is uproariously funny, taking modern culture and making wonderful fun of it along the way.  At the same time, this remains a talking animal book, retaining all of the warmth and charm of that sort of tale.  So there is also plenty of tea, hot soup, and even prune cake to go around.  Think of it as a cozy mystery for children.

Blackall’s illustrations add to the warm but quirky feel of the book.  Scattered nicely throughout the book to encourage young readers, the illustrations have a modern edge but also pay homage to old-fashioned children’s books.  She was the perfect pick for the book.

An ideal read aloud for elementary classes, this book also makes a cozy read all on your own.  Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade Books.