Posts tagged ‘Mystery’

What We Saw at Night

What We Saw At NightTitle: What We Saw at Night
Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard
ISBN: 9781616951412
Pages: 243 pages
Publisher/Date: Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press), c2013.

All I could see was white. One massive room: white walls, white carpeting, white woodwork. Except . . . right in the middle of the floor, next to the sliding doors, a young woman with dark hair–probably not much older than we were–was on her back. She wore only a bra. A man with his back turned to us was leaning over her. He seemed to be kissing her, then slapping her, then trying to pull her up. [...]
I said, “That girl looked dead.”
“Dead drunk maybe,” Juliet dismissed, drying her camera with her shirt.
“He was doing, like CPR, right?” I asked, mostly to myself.
“Good date gone bad,” Juliet replied. Her voice was flat. “It scared the hell out of me, though, when that light went on.”
The lightning crashed again. We heard a hollow boom–a tree or a light pole down. It happened all the time.
Then Rob said, “Who has a date in a room with no furniture?” (38-39)

Allie and her friends Rob and Juliet all suffer from a fatal allergy to sunlight called Xeroderma Pigmentosum, which relegates them to sleeping during the day and living in the night. Juliet, the more mysterious and adventurous of the three, discovers the sport Parkour and convinces the other two to begin practicing the free-wheeling jumps and leaps, utilizing their nightly sojourns as private practice in their urban playground. During their first attempt at something big, the three witness what appears to be a murder. While Rob and Juliet convince themselves otherwise, Allie pursues the deadly alternative that a murderer is loose in the city. Her investigation isolates her from her friends and also puts her in real danger as she plays detective at a time when most people are safely asleep in their beds. Sometimes the buddy system really is best, and as Juliet pulls further away the closer Allie gets to the truth, and Allie is forced to question who she can trust.

The best word I can use to describe this book is enigmatic. By the end of the book, you’ve followed Allie’s convoluted detective work and Juliet’s inability to answer a question to a suspect, but really no solution. I did not expect the ending, at all, which usually I’m praising because it surprises me. But then there’s a second curve ball after the first, and eventually the book and it’s questions only leaves my head spinning. The three friends seem to be really only friends because they are the only ones who can be friends with each other, due to their unique allergy to the sun. While I can understand that friendship lasting for a little while, I really question why Allie and Rob didn’t cut Juliet loose a long time ago due to frustration of her behavior. It exasperated me that we never got a straight answer of what happened, and by the end I didn’t really care about the characters all that much. They were underdeveloped and I had a hard time relating to their situation, even with all the information provided about their disease and situation.

The one thing that really did intrigue me was the portrayal of Parkour, which I’d heard of previously but never fully seen developed in a story until now. Unfortunately, it seemed like Allie and Rob only picked it up in order to keep their eye on unpredictable Juliet, and we never really find out what prompted Juliet to take up the sport. Besides referencing some Youtube videos, Mitchard does talk about what structures are used and portrays the characters building some core strength and exercising properly before attempting anything elaborate. It’s not a skill that can be gained overnight, and the dangers, illegality, and injuries of the sport are also portrayed realistically without getting preachy or didactic. Stories about mainstream sports abound, so this one peaks my interest and will probably stay with me because of its inclusion of Parkour. Otherwise, the too many questions and not enough answers story line leaves little for me to hold onto until the sequel arrives in December.

Sketchy

SketchyTitle: Sketchy
Series: The Bea Catcher Chronicles: Book 1
Author: Olivia Samms
ISBN: 9781477816509
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Amazon Publishing, c2013

A light floods my rearview mirror, shining bright in my eyes. What the . . . ? I adjust the mirror and see a car behind me. The lights barrel toward me, pulling up close.
“Shit,” I say out loud. “What’s their hurry?”
I speed up, thinking I’m driving too slowly. But the car speeds up with me and is now tailgating me–dangerously close.
My street is coming up ahead, on the right. I wait until the last second, without turning my blinker on, and pull the steering wheel hard to the right. My tires screech and fishtail as they follow my order. The car behind me turns and screeches along with me, speeding up, getting even closer. The bright lights shine and flicker in my eyes.
“OH MY GOD! It’s going to hit me!”
I abruptly turn left, careening into my driveway. I slam on my brakes with both feet, and the menacing car speeds off into the darkness.
Holy shit. I try to collect my breath.
My cell rings in my purse. My heart won’t stop racing.
I take a deep breath and answer. “Hello.” The phone wobbles in my shaky hands.
A slurred voice. “Monday, before school at seven. The antique barn on Lilac Lane. Meet me–”
“Willa? Is that you? Was that you following me?”
She hangs up. (78-79)

Seventeen-year-old Bea Washington is starting over at a new high school near Ann Arbor, MI after getting kicked out of Athena Day School for Girls. Just coming out of rehab, no one trusts her and she’s struggling to make friends while fighting the call of drugs and alcohol. It doesn’t help when she discovers a secret that could ruin Willa, the perfect head cheerleader and newly crowned homecoming queen. Maybe Willa knows more than she is telling police about the man who killed two women and left Willa for dead. Bea’s mysterious artistic ability could aid in the investigation, so long as it doesn’t first draw the killer’s attention. Whoops, too late.

Amazon has entered the publishing business. I guess it was only a matter of time before the retail giant started producing its own products. Big name author James Patterson provides a glowing recommendation on the cover, and is thanked in the acknowledgements (along with two other people) for “reading my pages, encouraging me to continue, and slipping them onto [agent] Lisa’s desk.” Maybe here are some previous connections at work, but a blurb from a big name is impressive for anyone’s first book. To be honest, I didn’t expect quality, suspense, or high-interest writing from what I though of initially as a self-publishing enterprise. I was happy to be proven wrong.

Bea is a likeable, flawed character who is desperately trying to get her life back on track. It was interesting to see a character attempting to recover from an addiction as opposed to spiraling into the habit. While we saw little of the rehab portion of Bea’s recovery, that wasn’t the focus of the book, and we do see symptoms such as taking up another habit (in this case smoking) to replace the drug and alcohol use, being tempted to relapse, and the use of AA meetings and incentives to stay clean and sober. The chapter headings are an account of how many months, days, and hours Bea has been sober. She faces temptation head on, tracking a suspect into a bar and almost giving it all up for a drink with a cute guy. But another very realistic aspect of recovery is finding out who your friends are, and Bea definitely finds a kindred spirit in Chris, who recognizes Bea from an art camp they both attended. Chris is supportive of Bea’s efforts to stay clean, isn’t freaked out by her unique ability, and is a purely plutonic friend due to his homosexual orientation. Oh, if we could all have a friend like Chris.

The mystery isn’t really a mystery like I would think of one, although Bea does have to track down the suspect and the identity of the killer is unknown. It’s a surprisingly light mystery, with the suspense coming towards the end of the book and the crimes taking place primarily “off stage” and Bea learning about them afterwards. Bea is aided in the end by a surprisingly competent police force and caring parents who are not overbearing or apathetic, but care about her well-being and are struggling just like her to navigate the position and situation they’ve found themselves in. I’d like to read more books featuring Bea, and I would like to see further development of the sweet crush that is hinted at by the end of the book. Overall, a really well-written debut novel that proves me wrong about self-publications.

The Peculiar

Title: The Peculiar
Author: Stefan Bachmann
ISBN: 978006219518
Pages: 376 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2012.

Then a great many things happened at once. Bartholomew, staring so intently, nodded forward a bit so that the tip of his nose brushed against the windowpane. And the moment it did, there was a quick, sharp movement in the yard below, and the lady reached behind her and jerked apart the coils of hair at the back of her head. Bartholomew’s blood turned to smoke in his veins. There, staring directly up at him, was another face, a tiny, brown, ugly face like a twisted root, all wrinkles and sharp teeth.
With a muffled yelp, he scrabbled away from the window, splinters driving into his palms. It didn’t see me, it didn’t see me. It couldn’t ever have known I was here.
But it had. Those wet black eyes had looked into his. For an instant they had been filled with a terrible anger. And then the creature’s lips had curled back and it had smiled. (23-24)

Bartholomew had been told by his mother time and again to not draw attention to himself. He and his sister are Peculiars, half faery and half human, feared and distrusted and occasionally loathed by both races as oddities. So when he gets spotted while observing a beautiful lady, a lady who whisks away a neighboring Peculiar into a whirlwind of black feathers, Bartholomew is understandably concerned. Peculiars seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate, and the skins of their bodies are being found in the river. His concern for his friend turns to fear for his own family as he and his sister might be marked as the next to be taken.

While this book was billed as “part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure”, I really didn’t get a steampunk feel from it. Certainly not in the way the Sherlock Holmes movies or Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is steampunk. Just because there is a clockwork bird and an automaton doesn’t make it steampunk. I’ll agree however about the murder mystery and gothic fantasy. Bachmann knows how to set the scene for the action that follows:

Fog slunk among the headstones of St. Mary, Queen of Martyrs, that night. It smelled of charcoal and rot, and spread in slow shapes down the sloping graveyard. Above, clouds drifted, snuffing out the moon. Somewhere in the maze of streets beyond the wall a dog barked. (205)

Readers might get a little lost in the culture and interactions of faeries and humans, as Bachmann thrusts you into the world from the beginning and worries about explaining things later. While it makes the story flow more naturally, assuming the reader know what they need to know, it helps that Bartholomew and the other main character we see things through, Arthur Jelliby, are somewhat clueless and trying to figure things out as well. Arthur Jelliby is someone who would rather not be investigating the disappearance of Peculiars, as that isn’t really his job, but finds himself being drawn in by coincidences, natural curiosity, and dare I say a sense of duty. I found myself being very sympathetic to both his and Bartholomew’s plight, as the stories intertwine and they are both just trying to get back to normal lives after they unwillingly became involved in this predicament.

I was not informed that this debut book (which it says in the back jacket Bachmann wrote when he was sixteen) is the first in a series, which proved very frustrating to me. Bachmann has nailed building tension by shifting viewpoints after a suspenseful turn of events or a Hannibal Lecter-esque piece of dialogue, where you know something bad is right around the corner. And that, unfortunately, was how the book ended. I definitely foresee a change of setting for book two as the reason for Bartholomew getting involved as yet to be resolved. (That’s really all I can say without spoiling plot points). The good news is that it appears Arthur Jelliby will be along for the ride as well, and we can only hope that Bartholomew and Jelliby interact a little more in book two.

Horten’s Incredible Illusions

Title: Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery, and Another Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #2; Sequel to Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms
Author: Lissa Evans
ISBN: 9781402798702
Pages: 349 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, c2012.

They looked at each other. “Once you start using magic, it’s very hard to stop,” quoted April, her voice breathy. “It’s another puzzle, isn’t it? Another adventure?”
Stuart closed his hand over the star, and felt the six prongs dig into his skin. His heart was suddenly thumping; he felt both excited and slightly frightened, and he knew from April’s expression that she felt the same. The hunt for Great-Uncle Tony’s workshop had been a wild and exciting chase, sprinkled with danger and magic, and now another quest was beckoning. But for what? What was the prize this time? (37-38)

Stuart and April have just finished solving Stuart’s Great Uncle Tony’s clues about where his secret workshop was. While the legal battle ensues over who the contents rightfully belong to, the local museum takes possession of the tricks found inside, and Stuart and April help catalog them. In the process, they find a mysterious six-pronged metal star and a damaged note encouraging them to use it to become the true “owners of the illusions”. Each of the surviving tricks lead them to a magical world of its own, where they must solve riddles and puzzles in order to get back. But when April’s sisters insist on being involved in the secret and cause problems, it becomes Stuart’s responsibility to save the day and get everyone back home safely.

Another fantastic tale about Stuart and April. I almost wish there were more stories about the two sleuths. And maybe there will be, who knows, but the series is well done as it is and I wouldn’t want the author to drag it out unnecessarily. The challenges that Stuart and April face seem almost tailor-made for their strengths and weaknesses, and when Stuart’s father unknowingly becomes involved, it leads an even bigger impression of the magic being malleable. The sheer variety is impressive, with author Lissa Evans proving that she’s able to craft unique and individual tricks and puzzles.

While Stuart’s father is completely clueless as to what’s going on and Stuart’s more observant mother is sent on a business trip, it’s still extremely humorous to see Stuart interact with him. I think I forgot to mention in my review of the first book, but Stuart’s father writes crossword puzzle clues, and talks like a walking dictionary, which can be very entertaining to read.

His father was looking thoughtful. “Do you think it might aid mutual colloquy if I endeavored to converse in a less polysyllabic manner?” he asked.
“What does mutual colloquy mean?”
“Our conversation.”
“And endeavor means try, doesn’t it?”
“Indubitably.”
“So what you’re saying is, Would it be easier for us to talk if you used shorter words?”
“Yes.”
Stuart nodded cautiously. “Well, it might speed things up a bit.” (130)

Not only is the dialogue spot on, but the reactions are accurate too. Even if Stuart’s dad is clueless, the triplets’ parents aren’t, and Stuart is often at the mercy of April, May, and June’s parents regarding where they can go or when they can aid him in his search for clues. All three of the girls try to assert their differences from each other, and I’m thoroughly pleased that they each get their own reactions, talents, and personalities when any other writer would lump them into non-descriptive blobs. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect May and June to insist on being involved in this hunt, and I appreciate the dynamics between the three that we get to witness. I also liked the fact that Stuart only befriended April in the beginning, further emphasizing the differences between the girls.

Observant and intuitive readers might figure out some of the answers before Stuart, but everyone has plenty to look forward to as the book quickly comes to a climax and satisfying ending. All the loose ends are wrapped up in a bow very neatly. A great choice for a read-aloud in a class room or in a bed-time sharing, I charged through it in about three hours, and anyone who finds anything objectionable about this very family friendly read is looking too darn hard. This rollicking good reading series has found a permanent place on my recommendation list.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms

Title: Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & a Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #1
Author: Lissa Evans
ISBN: 9781402798061
Pages: 270 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, c2012.
Publication Date: April 3, 2012 (originally published in 2011 in Great Britain as Small Change for Stuart)

“An entertainer,” answered his father. “A prestidigitator.”
“A what?”
“A magician. He used to do conjuring tricks on stage.”
“A magician??” Stuart repeated. “You had an uncle who was a magician? But you never told me that.”
“Oh, didn’t I?” said his dad vaguely. “Well, I know very little about him. An I suppose it didn’t occur to me that you’d be interested.” [...]
“So, what sort of tricks did he do?”
“I’m not sure.”
“And what was he like?”
“I don’t remember him at all, I’m afraid. I was very young when he disappeared.” (12-13)

His father might not think so, but ten-year-old Stuart is VERY interested in his great-uncle Tony, the magician who disappeared without a trace several years after a fire burned his factory. After discovering coins in an old money-box and receiving a mysterious phone call on an obviously broken pay phone, Stuart realizes that these might be clues to where Great-Uncle Tony’s rumored second, secret workshop has been resting, undisturbed for all these years. Dodging the pesky, prying eyes of the identical triplets next door who purport to being reporters isn’t Stuart’s only problem, as his curiosity in his ancestor catches the attention of someone who is just as interested in finding the workshop and claiming the contents.

A highly engaging and thoroughly engrossing debut middle-grade novel by Lissa Evans. Quickly inhaled in less than two hours, time just disappeared (pardon the pun) while reading this compact book (and I’m not just referring to the book or poor Stuart’s small size). I would go so far as to compare this to Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me as it’s mostly realistic fiction with hints of magic/fantasy until you get to the very end where’s there a twist.

While adults are distant and almost nonexistent in the plot, that doesn’t mean they are absent completely, with both Stuart and April’s parents disciplining them for their disobedience, which is more than we see from most parents. Stuart and April have more than enough personality to carry the book, with April’s knowledge and confidence playing nicely against Stuart’s self-consciousness and curiosity, and they’ve both got determination to spare. They ask questions when they need answers, but they are otherwise very self-sufficient in discovering and deciphering the clues and don’t need to rely on adults for assistance.

Speaking of which, I got a little moment of librarian joy that Stuart enlists the help of library archives to solve the mystery, using “old-fashioned” sleuthing skills such as consulting a map, gathering first hand accounts, and examining photographs. The story reads as almost timeless, with only one mention of computers that I can think of. The cover artwork (with no credit that I can find on the book) also seems to play up an older appearance, with the monochromatic illustrations making it look very different from the colorful cover artwork we’ve gotten used to seeing. This might put it at a disadvantage on the shelf, but readers who enjoyed the mechanics of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick might be pulled in by the title’s promise of “Miraculous Mechanisms”. While probably a shelf sleeper, the availability of the sequel, Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange Adventure (published in September), might help it gather more attention, and the description of book two makes it sound like there are still more adventures to come for Stuart Horten.

Read it before everyone else discovers it, then find yourself recommending it.

Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth

Title: Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth
Author: Jane O’Connor
Illustrator: Robin Preiss Glasser
ISBN: 9780062082930
Pages: 124 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2012.

Nancy Clancy was all set to solve a mystery. She had a fancy magnifying glass complete with rhinestones. She had a spiral notepad and a flashlight. She had sunglasses, a hat with a floppy brim, and a pink trench coat. (A trench coat was the kind of raincoat that detectives wore.) She had superb detective skills. She was naturally nosy. So she was good at snooping. (Investigating was the professional word for snooping.)

Really the only thing Nancy was missing was a mystery. (1-2)

Nancy Clancy, from the popular Fancy Nancy series doesn’t have to wait long for not one but two mysteries to require her investigation. With the help of her friend Bree, they discover that one of the twins is keeping a secret from Nancy and they’re intent to find out the secret! In the meantime, their teacher’s memento, a marble given to him by his grandfather, has gone missing on Family Day. Is there a thief in their classroom? With suspects at every turn, Nancy and Bree are on the case.

I was pleasantly surprised by the substance that was in this book. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Fancy Nancy series, but was hesitant to find out how the glitter girl was going to transition from picture books to chapter books. Nancy is still using her wonderful vocabulary, from “investigating” and “acquaintance” to “memento” and “integrity”. She is also using valuable sleuthing techniques, including dusting for fingerprints, interrogating suspects, examining pictures of the crime scene for clues and trying to determine motive. There are some false leads and accusations that they eventually recognize, but in the end they find their culprit, who is someone they didn’t suspect.

Another excellent aspect of the series that continues with the chapter books is Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations. While they are unfortunately in black and white, the faces are just as expressive as in the original picture books. Nancy’s tongue sticks out in concentration, her body language transitions from imperious to contemplative to dejected, and even her eyes express the range of feelings that she encounters throughout her investigation. The cover design is thankfully in color, and you really get a great idea of what Nancy grew up to become.

The grade isn’t specified, which I think is a great choice since Jane O’Connor said in a Publisher’s Weekly interview that third and fourth grade girls were asking for the chapter books. She’s obviously older, but Amazon.com reviewers (who have had nothing but good things to say about the series) have mentioned reading them aloud a chapter at a time to their four and five-year olds to rave reviews. The format isn’t the only thing that indicates the older audience, as Nancy’s clubhouse has become “Sleuth Headquarters”, she and Bree are communicating in a secret code which might be a little hard for the younger readers to understand, and themes addressed by the end of the book include guilt, justice, and false accusations. But as I said, they are all well handled and appropriate for not only the older audience it was intended for but also the younger, more precocious fans.

The next book in the series arrives in January.

Clarity

Title: Clarity
Author: Kim Harrington
ISBN: 9780545230506
Pages: 246 pages
Publisher/Date: Point, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2011.

“You don’t want to kill me,” I said.
“Of course I don’t, Clare. But I have to.”
If I wasn’t already bleeding, with the room tilting and swaying, I would have slapped myself. I never saw this coming. I had let my personal feelings cloud my judgment. And now I was looking down the barrel of a gun. (1)

Clarity “Clare” Fern is a psychic who receives visions from touching objects. She, her mother, and her brother are all involved in the family business of giving psychic readings, with her brother Perry able to talk to ghosts and her mother able to read people’s minds (to Clare and Perry’s constant annoyance). Clare hopes that her powers can come in handy when she’s called upon to assist in the murder of a tourist in their small town. She has more than one reason to say no, especially when the mayor’s son is her cheating ex-boyfriend (“It was a mistake” — HA not likely) and the new detective in town’s son is a non-believer. But that’s before her brother becomes the prime suspect for the crime. Now, not knowing who she can trust or turn to, Clare is forced to question who people she’s known her whole life really are.

I LIKED this book, and it was a joy to finish off 2011 with this book. It was the perfect combination of mystery and romance and action. You have an escalating body count as people connected to the initial murder go missing and/or turn up dead. There are multiple suspects and multiple motives examined, all with (pardon the pun) clarity and realism. And you have the ever popular love triangle that is much more believable than some of the other ones I’ve seen recently. And it all comes to a riveting climax that keeps you on the edge of your seat and reading until the very end. It’s an enjoyable roller coaster ride.

Clarity was a clearly developed, multifaceted character, and so were the rest of the people in her life. Perry is scared out of his wits, and Clarity’s loyalty to her brother, although understandably called into question, never falters completely. Her confused and torn feelings toward both her ex-boyfriend Justin and the new detective’s hot son Gabriel are relatable. At the same time she’s trying to forgive Justin’s one drunken mistake, she’s also trying to decide if she can forgive Gabriel’s skepticism about her gift. It’s the known vs the unknown, and I for one have a good feeling about where her heart is heading at the end of the book.

There’s never a good way to say this without making me sound like a prude, but although the book references sexual acts and drinking, Clarity doesn’t partake in it and only hears about it second-hand. But there’s still enough suspense and action that you don’t miss the more controversial elements that teen fiction has become famous in having. Bravo!

This debut novel is a great first book, and while the ending comes to a satisfying conclusion, I’m hoping for a sequel. Clare is only sixteen in this summer mystery, and I’m hoping for at least one more book where we can see her in school and interact with more classmates that might or might not care for her special powers. Plus, maybe I’ll showcase my own psychic abilities and predict correctly whether Clare choses Justin or Gabe.

Vespers Rising

Title: Vespers Rising
Series: 39 Clues, Book 11
Authors: Rick Riordan, Peter Lerangis, Gordon Korman, and Jude Watson
ISBN: 9780545290593
Pages: 238 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic, Inc. c2011.
Publication Date: April 5, 2011

“Children, I need your help. We are in great danger. As you well know, I’ve worked many years attempting to find a cure for the plague. At first, I sought a way to kill the contagion. Then it occurred to me that perhaps the answer was instead to strengthen the body. If a man could be made more resilient, healthier, stronger in mind, body, and spirit, then perhaps the Black Death could not touch him. My approach had . . . unexpected consequences.” (26-27)

Part prequel to the upcoming series and part epilogue to the 39 Clues series, Vespers Rising bridges that gap. For newcomers, it serves as a summary of sorts of what brought about the 39 clues. For die-hard fans, it provides answers to questions such as “Who started the fire at Gideon’s lab?”. The book also sparks new intrigue, as you learn that another super secret organization is after not only the 39 Clues but another artifact from the original Cahills.

I was slightly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Each author takes a generation, with Riordan’s story featuring Gideon Cahill, Peter Lerangis following Madeleine Cahill, Gordon Korman giving a readers a glimpse at the life of Grace Cahill as a child, and Jude Watson building on the existing 39 Clues saga and follows Amy and Dan Cahill. Each story has their own action and adventure, and while it’s broken into these four distinct stories, there is no further subdivision. People who are reading it aloud or reading it before bed will have to determine what a good stopping point is on their own. Or maybe that was intentional, because once you start it’s difficult to stop yourself from finding out what happens next. Don’t miss more mystery with the page numbers, starting with page 39.

The new series, apparently titled Cahills vs. Vespers, starts with a book by Gordon Korman titled The Medusa Plot with a release date of August 31, 2011. Want a sneak peek of the book? Scholastic’s got it here.

On a personal note, THANK YOU SCHOLASTIC for not making it a summer release, for those libraries whose budgets end in June. It makes it so difficult to purchase something during that time period.

The Danger Box

Title: The Danger Box
Author: Blue Balliett
Narrators: Jason Culp, Alex Wyse, and Veronika Dominczyk
ISBN: 9780545249539
Pages: 306 pages
CDs/Discs: 5 CDs, 6 hours 10 minutes
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc.

“Planning on turning me in, huh?”
I tried desperately to shake my head no, but by then I hardly knew what was doing what.
Buckeye snorted. “You are a weirdo, aren’t you? Well, no worries — I’m not about to be caught.” He was talking in my ear, and his breath smelled nasty, like old sauerkraut. “And if you tell anyone you saw me, you’re as good as gone. Hey, you’re just an accident with an invisible name — easy to clean up an accident.”(100)

Twelve-year-old Zoomy Chamberlin was dropped on his grandparent’s doorstep in Three Oaks, Michigan shortly after he was born. In those twelve years worth of time, he has learned that making lists helps him make sense of his life. Without his lists, he’d be a goner. It certainly isn’t on his list for the day to have his father suddenly appear in a stolen truck and just as suddenly disappear, leaving behind a box. Inside that box is a notebook, containing lots of crossed out lists just like Zoomy makes. Zoomy has an instant connection with the author of the notebook, and sets out to discover everything he can about it. With the help of his new friend Lorrol, Zoomy might discover that some people want secrets to stay a secret.

Everyone keeps telling me great things about Blue Balliett’s work, so I thought I would pick up his newest one The Danger Box. So I picked it up as an audiobook, thinking I would enjoy this book as other people have enjoyed his previous works. That however, was not the case.

First, the narration. Zoomy talks about the fact that he has Pathological Myopia, which makes him legally blind. He explains it this way:

“Stick your finger straight out from the tip of your nose: That’s how far I can focus clearly. To see farther, I have to put on my glasses, which are heavy. The lenses are about as thick as a homemade oatmeal cookie, and the frames are brown. [...] From my side, the glasses let me see exactly an arm’s length in front of my face, but the stuff on the edges looks bendy even if it’s straight.” (20)

What he doesn’t explain is what else is wrong with him mentally. I’m not a psychologist by any means, but if I had to guess I would have to say Zoomy is either OCD or has a case of Asperger’s Syndrome. He cannot function without lists and has difficulty interacting with people. Whenever something happens that isn’t on his elaborate list, he goes “jittery-splat” and copes by repeatedly hitting his chin and counting aloud. His grandparents seem to encourage this coping technique, probably because they seem to have fallen out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver, complete with their own little quirky sayings like “If turtles have wings!” and “Hodilly-hum”.

The second complaint I have about this book is that the danger box is not the dangerous thing. After a short prologue-like introduction, readers don’t even get a glimpse of the danger box until halfway through the story. The notebook that Zoomy discovers isn’t all that dangerous either, and it’s simply the people who are after it that appear dangerous. Even then Zoomy’s father, who is only remotely connected to the crime that takes place, appears more menacing than the man trying to recover the notebook. The timeline imposed upon Zoomy and Lorrol seems to be there only to add urgency, with mixed success.

The ending is so squeaky clean that it’s amazing if readers don’t hear that annoying shoes on a wet floor sound by the time they finish the last page. This is another aspect that brings to mind the old sitcom shows, like Leave it to Beaver or the Brady Bunch. Completely unrealistic.

Finally, the inclusion of excerpts from “The Gas Gazette: A Free Newspaper About a Mysterious Soul” is just plain annoying. You don’t know what they are until the book is almost over, and they break up what little action there already is. In the audiobook, they have a female voice for just that portion, which really doesn’t make sense because the “mysterious soul” is male. It would have made more sense for that actress to narrate Lorrol’s lines, because the narrator some times doesn’t distinguish between Lorrol or Zoomy.

It really missed its mark with me, with its only saving grace that the story revolves around an actual mystery. Well, that, and it’s set in Michigan, which I’m always looking for good Michigan stories. Fans of his previous work might take a look at it, but there are more gripping mysteries with less annoying and more-developed characters.

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

Title: The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin
Author: Josh Berk
ISBN: 9780375856990
Pages: 250 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, c2010.

Miner Carl comes flying out of the Happy memory Coal Mine emergency exit, screaming maniacally, a hyperball of panic. I can’t tell what he is yelling, but it must be something like “Call the police” or “Dial 911″ because dozens of people begin tapping their cell phones.
Devon, one of the many trying to get his cell phone to work, grabs me by the shoulders and explains with a look of serious concentration on his face.
“P-A-T I-S A-T T-H-E B-O-T-T-O-M O-F T-H-E M-I-N-E,” he signs with shaking hands.
“M-I-N-E-R C-A-R-L T-H-I-N-K-S H-E M-I-G-H-T B-E D-E-A-D.” (117)

Will Haplin is deaf, and has attended a hearing impaired school all his life. This year he’s entering a “regular” Pennsylvania high school, relying on lip-reading for most of his lessons. He’s less than enthusaistic about his experience, especially when his only friend becomes the class reject Devon. When the star quaterback ends up dead on a class trip to the mine, Devon recruits Will to help him solve the crime Hardy Boys style. But as they dig into the mystery, they find that the death isn’t the only thing that is questionable and begs investigation.

I’ve read nothing but favorable reviews for this book, but I was never really sold with this book. I liked the concept, and the boys do excercise some actual snooping and investigative practices. Will and Devon (along with Will’s friend Ebony) sneak in to see video coverage of student interviews and they revisit the scene of the crime to gather more evidence. But the solution seems… I hesitate to use the word anticlimatic, because it does come down to the wire in avoiding accussing an innocent person. In reading it though, I thought the solution came together too quickly and too neatly. And if all the things that were happening at this school happened at every school, I’d be sold on the idea of home-schooling! Mystery fans might enjoy, and the deaf student makes an interesting angle, but there are mysteries with more intrigue and disability stories with more impact out there.

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