Steve Brixton wants to be a detective. He has read every Bailey Brothers detective novel at least twice, and has already begun preparing for a life of criminal investigation. Yet he is taken completely by surprise when, attempting to check out a book on quilting for a school project, he is accused of treason and becomes embroiled in a plot involving secret agent librarians, national secrets, and numerous police chases. It’s up to Steve to clear his name and solve the mystery.
Author Mac Barnett was writing with tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. As an adult familiar with children’s detective series (think Hardy Boys), it was obvious where many of the tropes he was riffing on originated. It was great the way he played with detective novel standbys, and the ways that those strategies don’t work in the real world. Nevertheless, Steve remains confident in the advice of the Bailey Brothers books.
Although Steve is a seventh grader, the age of the target reader is probably much younger. This is solidly a middle grade novel, from the amusing pictures to the quick pace and short chapters. Although girls will also enjoy the series, this is a solid choice for boys, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see a “boy book” that is funny without body function jokes and features a regular boy who is not a “nerd” or a genius, but simply enjoys reading.
Author Justine Larbalestier has, very understandably, asked that no spoilers be mentioned in reviews of her latest book. So the summary will be very brief: Micah is a liar, but she’s promised that she’s stopped lying and will only tell the reader the truth. Her boyfriend has been killed, and no one knows how or why. From there the rest of the book takes place. Everything else, more or less, is a spoiler.
This was quite a departure from her previous light-and-fluffy contribution, How to Ditch Your Fairy, or even her previous Magic or Madness series. Liar is much darker, much more complex, and, in my opinion, the best of the lot. The writing and plotting are tight. Micah’s reactions to her classmates seem very realistic. Even her lying is taken in stride as part of her character. The writing is fantastic, drawing one in and using language masterfully.
Definitely a book to read and then come back and talk to me about, since a need to keep spoilers from showing means I can’t discuss it with anyone who hasn’t already finished the book.
Charlene is one of the smartest girls in the class. Justin is partially deaf and has a radio that picks up signals from his teacher’s microphone. Chip had an accident in a cave and is now invisible. Together they decide to become Invisible Inc., a group of second graders determined to right wrongs using their special abilities.
Because the teacher often forgets to turn his microphone off, Justin overhears a lot of information. When the new ball the school bought just for the second grade is popped, he is shocked to hear the shyest girl in class confessing. He and his friends don’t believe her, and they set out to find who is blackmailing her into admitting to a crime she didn’t commit.
This book is intended for second graders, and barely squeaks into the Chapter Book category.There is a surprising amount of plot for such a short book, but character development is necessarily limited. I liked the inclusion of a kid with a hearing impairment who was mostly accepted as normal by the rest of the class. Having worked previously with a child who had a microphone and radio set, I can attest to the fact that it is easy to forget to turn the microphone off when not talking to the class. Chip’s invisibility seemed a little extreme to me, when the rest of the book was realistic, but I’ll accept it for what it is. Overall a nice solid choice for kids who are just beginning to make the transition from early reader to chapter book.
Hero is not exactly thrilled to be starting the sixth grade at a new school. It’s not that she hasn’t done this before – her father’s academic jobs have moved the family around a lot – it’s that she has done this before, and she already knows exactly how things will go. Her older sister Beatrice will immediately join the crowd of popular kids, instantly liked by everyone, while Hero will muddle along, hoping only to go unnoticed, a goal made much harder when your Shakespeare obsessed parents have named you “Hero”.
But a chance encounter with an elderly neighbor might change that. Miriam Roth tells Hero that the house her family has just moved into holds an amazing secret: there is a diamond hidden somewhere in the house, one worth millions of dollars. It was once part of an antique necklace that dates all the way back to the era of Shakespeare. Hero is determined to find the diamond, even if it means having to hang out with Danny Cordova, who is the most eligible eighth grader in town, and also something of a jerk sometimes.
With themes of betrayal and the disastrous effects of slander, this book could easily have been weighed down, or turned into a generic problem novel. Author Elise Broach was too smart for that, however, choosing to concentrate on the mystery at hand, rather than dwell on the teasing Hero endures. I liked that as soon as the school was made aware of the situation, they reacted instantly and with force. Too many times we see books where the administration or teachers simply didn’t care about teasing, rather than, as can often be the case, they were simply unaware of the whispers or other comments. Not that this was a large part of the book. Most of the plot centers around finding the diamond, and the circumstances under which the diamond was hidden in Hero’s house in the first place. The end of the book, particularly the subplot about Danny and Miriam, was a little too coincidental and neatly tied up with a bow, but it had an emotional satisfaction that will resonate with readers.
The author brings in a lot of history about Shakespeare. But since this historical information is integral to the plot, it never feels heavy-handed. It is clear that the author was not secretly thinking “how can I teach kids today about the life of Shakespeare or Anne Bolyen?”, a trap too many first time authors fall into. The facts and history are breezy, and presented in an exciting context.
Dovey Coe is twelve. She lives in the mountains during the Depression. Oh, and she’s also on trial for murder. The book begins with Dovey’s denial of having killed Parnell, the man who was recently courting her sister Caroline, but who was left alone – in very humiliating circumstances – when Caroline decided to go to teachers’ school. Unfortunately, Dovey isn’t the type to ever sit quietly by, or to hold opinions to herself. Therefore the entire town knows quite well that she hated Parnell and “would sooner shoot him than look at him.” Of course, she hadn’t really meant that, but what’s said is said.
Dovey is a vivacious character, filled with life and personality. Her murder trial is marked just as much by her anger at the lies of a witness as it is by her anxiety that she will be found guilty. She knows she didn’t do it, now she just has to find a way to prove it. Also well done is her relationship with her deaf brother Amos. Even though he’s slightly older, she’s felt that she needs to take care of him and protect him from villagers who don’t understand him. That changes over the course of the story, as she realizes that Amos is more than capable of helping himself.
The language of the book is intended to reflect the speaking patterns of a young girl in the mountains of the 1930′s. As such the grammar is idiosyncratic, and Dovey sometimes uses unique expressions. Some children will enjoy the immersion into another time and place, while others will be annoyed at the “incorrect” language. For those who fall somewhere in between, the rhythm of the language is quickly picked up and becomes simply another part of the character.
Cameryn Mahoney has always wanted to be a forensic investigator. At seventeen she has read every book on the subject she can lay her hands on. Her grandmother is disapproving, she says the profession is too morbid, and insinuates that Cameryn is just like her, meaning the mother that ran out on the family when Cameryn was three. Luckily, though Cameryn’s father is willing to encourage his daughter’s pursuits – possibly because he himself is the coroner in an extremely small town. He somewhat reluctantly agrees to take Cameryn on as his assistant.
But even in a small town, things can get exciting. The new deputy, for instance, who Cameryn’s father appears to hate for no apparent reason. Or the fact that the second case Cameryn helps out with turns out to be the body of a friend, apparently murdered by a serial killer.
The Christopher Killer is the first in a series, and some of the elements laid down in this book are clearly intended to extend to other volumes, such as her unresolved relationship with her absent mother, or more confusing relationship with the new deputy. There are red herrings and clues that seem obvious only after the ending is revealed, the marks of a good mystery. While it is somewhat doubtful that a teenager would be allowed to work on a federal serial killer case, regardless of how small the town is and how strapped for workers they are before the FBI shows up, the suspension of disbelief is acceptable as wish-fulfillment. The book leans towards the sensational, but this will hardly bother the target audiences.
Enola’s name, spelled backwards, is “alone.” She has a sneaking suspicion that her mother named her that way on purpose. Her brothers – including the famous Sherlock Holmes – were already grown up when she was born, and they have stayed away from the house ever since. Enola is convinced this is because her birth, coming so long after that of her brothers, was a scandal they want no part of. Enola hasn’t seen them since her father’s funeral when she was four. But that’s okay with Enola, who enjoys the freedom her isolation brings her.
That is until her fourteenth birthday, when her mother, after leaving a pile of birthday presents, disappears completely. When her brothers rush home to investigate, they are shocked to find Enola without a proper governess, and decide that, whether or not her mother is found, Enola will be promptly sent to boarding school. But, armed with hidden codes in her birthday presents, Enola sees more than even her famous brother Sherlock when she examines her mother’s room. She decides to set out for London on her own to look for her mother. On the way, however, she is distracted by a local uproar having to do with a missing boy.
Action and adventure are found in plenty in this first volume of a series. Enola is intelligent and plucky, a very strong female character. While some of the other characters and situations are a little less developed, they are perfectly in keeping with the Victorian atmosphere of the book. Breaking away from children’s literature tradition, Enola’s disguise is not in the form of impersonating a boy. Instead, she uses a much more subtle and effective use of psychology to formulate her various disguises and identities, which is both far more realistic and more fun.
As a warning, the introduction, consisting of only a few pages, is an odd departure from the rest of the book. The voice is different, and the tone is much older. Some of the content and descriptions are far more mature than the rest of the book. I would recommend skipping the introduction – which is totally unnecessary – and just jumping right into the first chapter.
Gilda Joyce is still grieving over the death of her father a few years before, is convinced that not only is she psychic, but that she will make contact with the dead very shortly. On the last day of eighth grade, she lies to the class about her summer plans, and then, since she has recently vowed not to lie anymore, makes it her mission to actually fulfill those plans, namely going to California. Luckily she has relatives there. Not so luckily they are very distant relatives, and include a sullen teenage girl named Juliet. Once Gilda has managed to insinuate herself into the household, she discovers that Juliet is convinced the house is haunted by an aunt who committed suicide years earlier. Although somewhat skeptical of the highly imaginative Gilda’s use of seances and the occult, the girls set out to solve the mystery of why Juliet’s aunt killed herself, and why her father refuses to let anyone go into the tower room.
Part ghost story, but mostly mystery, Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator is the first in a series of books. Gilda may chronologically be ready for high school, but many of her actions and assumptions are those of someone younger, as commented on by several other characters. Sometimes, as in Gilda’s frequent flights of fancy and active imagination, this is a reflection of her creativity and non-conformity. At other times it is simply immaturity. That does not make Gilda any less likable a character, however. Many young high schoolers and middle schoolers will identify with Gilda’s refusal to try to fit in by acting much older than she is.