Posts tagged ‘Mystery’

The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

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Baby Monkey, Private Eye

Baby Monkey Private Eye.jpgTitle: Baby Monkey, Private Eye
Authors: Brian Selznick and David Serlin
Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9781338180619
Pages: 191 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2018.

Baby Monkey someone has stolen my […]!
Baby Monkey can help!
Baby Monkey looks for clues.
Baby Monkey writes notes.
Baby Monkey eats a snack.
Baby Monkey puts on his pants.
Now Baby Monkey is ready!
Baby Monkey solves the case! […]
Hooray for Baby Monkey!

Each of the first three chapters of this extended easy reader follow the same format as outlined above. The only clue that readers receive as to the identity of the thief are the footprints that Baby Monkey discovers and follows. Just as you think you’ve figured out the routine, the repetitive nature of the chapters diverges, as in the fourth chapter Baby Monkey is tired and hilariously needs some prodding to solve that case. The fifth chapter divulges even further, making readers second guess the entire premise of the story by the last scene, where observant readers will see the inspiration for all those criminals.

I’m unclear what aspects debut author Serlin (Selznick’s partner) and Selznick contributed to the story. Selznick’s pencil illustrations however are instantly recognizable and as detailed as to be expected, with Baby Monkey’s office accessories changing with every case and the book he is reading lending a hint to the upcoming theft. The snack in each chapter changes and is contained in a clearly labeled ziplock bag, instantly recognizable to children as something they might have packed for their snack. Monkey’s struggle to get into his pants is the visual gags that appeal to children, but I do wish one of this resulting misadventures had yielded both legs in one pant leg. Missed opportunity Selznick, in my opinion. Quite often found with his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration, Baby Monkey is adorable in every way possible, with ears sticking out of his head that are almost as big as his eyes (Mickey Mouse comparisons are inevitable) and cowlick/Mohawk fur on his head that reminds me of a troll doll. The over-sized magnifying glass that he carries around clinches it. It might be a big world, and Baby Monkey might be little, but he’s found his place in it.

I echo Betsy Bird‘s sentiments and exasperation about where the heck we’re supposed to put this cross over, combo format. I strongly believe it is best suited for easy or early reader collections, or better yet simple chapter books if your library has that category. The repetitive narration, simple word use, and large bold font is meant for those beginning or struggling readers, and advanced readers typically looking in the fiction area are well above this level. They still might find enjoyment, but it’s not really meant for them. It’s meant for reading aloud and sharing with families of small children, especially those of mixed ages. A coworker with three little ones ranging in ages from I think 3-7 years old said her whole brood of boys enjoyed it. That is where Selznick has hit the sweet spot, geared for a whole new and younger fan base then his previous works.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down.jpgTitle: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
ISBN: 9780525555360
Pages: 286 pages
Publisher/Date: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Daisy and I were scanning stations in search of a song to a particular brilliant and underappreciated boy band when we landed upon a news story. “–Indianapolis-based Pickett Engineering, a construction firm employing more than ten thousand people worldwide, today–” I moved my hand toward the scan button, but Daisy pushed it away.
“This is what I was telling you about!” she said as the radio continued, “–one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the whereabouts of company CEO Russell Pickett. Pickett, who disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation, was last seen at his riverside compound on September eighth. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is encourage to call the Indianapolis Police Department.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said. “And you know his kid.” (15)

When news breaks of the disappearance of a local billionaire, sixteen-year-old Aza’s friend Daisy can hardly believe that Aza used to go to camp with his son, Davis. Aza and Daisy lead very different lives compared to Davis, and Daisy is definitely interested in the reward money. After Daisy and Aza are caught snooping around, Davis and Aza reconnect in a manner that only two lost souls who are looking for support can appreciate. However, Aza is more interested in simply getting through the day, as her spirals of thought prove more consuming and destructive. Her medicines and therapy visits aren’t helping, and even she is beginning to realize that maybe she can’t handle everything as well as she thinks.

Be warned, this review includes several longer quotes. I tried very hard to avoid any spoilers in their content. But if you want to be as blown away by the thought-provoking nature of the book as I was the first time you read it, this will probably impact your enjoyment and awe.

Aza suffers from an unnamed illness which appears to my uneducated brain as some combination of paranoia, anxiety, and OCD. She is constantly reopening a wound on her finger in an attempt to drain any infections or harmful bacteria from her body. I don’t think I have ever read a book that has so thoroughly described a mental disorder from the sufferer’s perspective. It begins a conversation about identity, awareness, and self-control that was started long before the phrase “I think therefore I am”. In fact, that quote is discussed at length in the book:

“It’s . . . like, I’m just not sure that I am, strictly speaking, real.”
Dr. Singh placed her feet on the floor and leaned forward, her hands on her knees. “That’s very interesting,” she said. “Very interesting.” I felt briefly proud to be, for a moment anyway, not not uncommon. “It must be very scary, to feel that your self might not be yours. Almost a kind of . . . imprisonment?”
I nodded. […]
“You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.”
I nodded.
“But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.”
“But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?”
“No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.” (166-167)

I love the way that John Green presents mental illness in a manner that helps me empathize with sufferers but also allows me to see that there is still a lot to be understood about the brain and how it works. There is a lot to process as the book raises questions on self, awareness, identity, being, and thought. I would love to use this as a book discussion pick, and see what others have to say, either based on their own experiences with mental illness or how they interpret the interactions of biological, chemical, and mental responses.

There’s another passage that I quoted to a friend who is suffering depression right now who said that it pretty damn accurately describes her brain.

“I don’t understand how you can be so inhumanly calm down here, […] but you have a panic attack when you think your finger is infected.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This just isn’t scary.”
“It objectively is,” she said.
“Turn off your light,” I said.
“Hell, no.”
“Turn it off. Nothing bad will happen.” She clicked off her light, and the world went dark. I felt my eyes trying to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. “Now you can’t see the walls, right. […] Spin around a few times and you won’t know which way is in and which way is out. This is scary. Now imagine if we couldn’t talk, if we couldn’t hear each other’s breathing. Imagine if we had no sense of touch, so even if we were standing next to each other, we’d never know it.”
“Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are, which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air. You’re senseless and shapeless– you feel like you you can only describe what you are by identifying what you’re not, and you’re floating around in a body with no control. You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary. This,” I said, and turned on the flashlight. “This is control. This is power. There may be rats and spiders and whatever the hell. But we shine a light on them, not the other way around. We know where the walls are, which was is in and which way is out. This,” I said, turning off my light again, “is what I feel like when I’m scared. This” –I turned the flashlight back on– “is a walk in the fucking park.” (262-263)
There’s another scene where Aza is fighting her OCD, and the claustrophobic nature of the conversation is palatable in the prose. It’s these scenes that make the book a stand-out among young adult fiction.
The rest of the book was less effective from my point of view. The plot of Davis’s missing father is all but forgotten for most of the book. Now this was probably intentionally done to emphasize Aza’s point of view and how all consuming her mental health issues are from her perspective. However, for a book billed as being about a search for a missing billionaire, there is very little searching done. The search for clues that does take place is short, conveniently accomplished, and then the mystery is left on the sidelines until the very end of the book. I also wish we had seen more of Daisy. While the subject is broached of how self-consumed Aza can be, Daisy seems equally one track, talking exclusively about herself, her likes, her relationship, and making decisions for both of them. There are one or two scenes where their problematic friendship is broached, but then the disagreement is truncated and they return to each other without resolving the underlying issues. The above quote is one of the few times that I feel there is actual understanding and connection happening between these two life-long friends.

Davis was equally enigmatic. We see more of him through his blog posts and poetry than we do during his interactions with Aza. He’s memorable qualities are his fascination with astronomy, his apathy towards his father, and his uncertainty about his brother. His concern over what will happen to his brother and himself as opposed to what has happened to his father is heartbreaking and the one thing that made him a relatable character. He sees his life as reactive to his father’s actions, a life he has no control over, which is what really allows him to connect so easily with Aza. Both Davis and Aza see their lives as a result of reactions, Davis to external forces (his father, the media, his brother) and Aza to internal forces (bacteria, chemical reactions, the OCD inside her head).

The last two pages seemed unnecessary to me, as the whole tone changes and it’s added almost intended as an “It gets better” postscript” or epilogue to the story. While that might not stick with you, Aza’s struggles will. Don’t pick this book up for the mystery or the romance. Instead, read it for the thought-provoking portrayal of mental illness and the conversations, self-reflections, and empathy it will elicit. If that was the sole intent of the book, to wrap a discussion of mental illness into a digestible package bookmarked by a billionaire’s disappearance, than John Green succeeded in his goal.

Whobert Whover, Owl Detective

Whobert Whover.jpgTitle: Whobert Wover, Owl Detective
Author: Jason Gallaher
Illustrator: Jess Pauwels
ISBN: 9781481462716
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2017.

Whobert Whover, owl detective, is patrolling the forest when he sees Perry the possum dead on the ground. Or is he? Astute readers will see Perry’s eyes open during Whobert’s examination of Perry and interrogation of nearby animals. The culprit of his feigned demise is someone Whobert would never expect as he jumps from one false conclusion to another with little or no evidence. Brightly colored illustrations dedicate a single color to each animal. I wish the jaunty clothing seen on the cover was included in the story. Perry’s final reaction and Whobert’s continued cluelessness seems overly dramatic, perfect for the story time crowd.

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Audacity Jones to the Rescue.jpgTitle: Audacity Jones to the Rescue
Author: Kirby Larson
ISBN: 9780545840569
Pages: 224 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.
Reviewed from ARC furnished by the publisher
Publication Date: January 26, 2016

“I am here to solicit a volunteer. For a mission.”
“Mission?” The word worked its way out of Miss Maisie’s gyrating mouth.
“Mission?” Seventeen girlish voices echoed their headmistress.
“I may not say more.” The Commodore held up his hand. “It is a matter of utmost secrecy. And”–he leaned in toward Miss Maisie’s ear–“discretion.” (15)

Audacity Jones has always wanted an adventure, and now she has one, leaving Ohio and the School for Wayward Girls where she has lived as the only true orphan most of her life to follow Commodore Crutchfield all the way to Washington D.C. for a secret mission. Asking questions about her role doesn’t get her any answers, and both the Commodore and his driver Cypher are acting very suspicious. When the mission finally begins, things don’t go as planned as Audacity realizes she might need to stop the Commodore instead of helping him, before his plot involving the President succeeds. With only a newsboy, his grandfather, and a friendly cat to call on for help, Audacity might have more adventure then she desired.

The author clarifies in an author’s note the liberties she took with details and timelines when crafting this story, which is always appreciated since we all can’t be knowledgeable about every aspect of history. With age appropriateness she broaches several other discussion worthy topics, including the impact of transitioning from horse and buggy to automobiles had on other industries and the legalities of if a kidnapping truly happens if there is no ransom demand. Audacity is rather precocious because of her literary love, getting intentionally sent to what is called the “Punishment Room” but is really the Library (called such because the proprietor of the school hates to read) in order to escape into the worlds. She is also surprisingly mature for her age, debating with herself early in the book what subject she should focus her reading on based on a variety of school subjects. Although she is naive due to her limited lifestyle, Audacity is not stupid and when given the clues quickly figures things out and reacts accordingly. A dedicated friend who doesn’t ever misstep, quite frankly she’s slightly unbelievable as the plucky orphan heroine.

The other characters were one-dimensional to me, especially the other girls in the school, some of which don’t even make an appearance. The ones who do are almost indistinguishable from each other, although they get identifying traits (the triplets, or the one who came from the circus family, or the bratty bully, etc.). The Commodore and his accomplices are given motivation by the end of the book, but even these two seem stock in their portrayal. I’m not sure if it’s because Larson was trying so hard to keep the plans a secret or simply because she was so focused on developing Audacity. A very quick read, but I don’t think this one will come to mind unless pressed for historical fiction specifically. We’ll see how long it lasts in my memory banks, as it may surprise me.

The Book of Secrets

Book of SecretsTitle: The Book of Secrets
Series: Mister Max #2
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
ISBN: 9780804122078 (audio), 9780307976840 (hardcover)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 10 hours
Pages: 355 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2014 (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.)

He asked, “You’ve heard about the recent vandalism?”
Max nodded. “There have been fires as well.”
The Mayor nodded. “I suspect—I strongly suspect—that something is going on. For one thing, it’s always some small shop that gets broken into, or where a fire breaks out. Greengrocer, cobbler, newsagent . . .” He looked out over the water, recalling. “A bakery, a milliner, a fishmonger. Is that eight?”
“Six,” said Max, who had been counting.
“There are two more.” The Mayor thought. “A butcher and—there was one that surprised me, you’d think that would be the easiest to remember . . . Yes it was a florist.”
“What was surprising about the florist?”
“The shop was outside the gates, not in the old city. Granted, it’s only four steps beyond the West Gate, but still . . . All the other victims are in the old city.” […]
“What do the police say?” he asked.
“That’s the problem. The police don’t have anything to say.” The Mayor sighed and told Max, “They’re suspicious, of course, but nobody will talk to them. Nobody has filed a complaint. Not one.” (71-72)

Secrets are surrounding Max as word spreads about his reputation as a Solutioneer, a detective or investigator of sorts who tries to solve people’s problems. A small boy wants to know where his father disappears to at night. A mysterious woman appears that no one knows anything about. And the Mayor of Queensbridge has enlisted Max’s help in uncovering the identity of an arsonist on the loose, without jeopardizing the upcoming visit of the king. However, he’s made little progress on his own problem, discovering how to get his parents back from their forced extended stay overseas, especially after he and his grandmother are informed they have become monarchs in the foreign, civil war-torn country of Andesia. Now his own grandmother may be keeping secrets from him. Instead of his own intuition and disguises, Max may find himself relying on his expanding number of accomplices, as the Mayor’s problem is the most dangerous yet, risking his own life in the hands of the criminals.

Another engaging novel from author Cynthia Voigt. Readers will have to be as attentive as Max to keep track of the ever-expanding cast of characters. Voigt doesn’t skimp on realistic details, including filling the town with a variety of townspeople. I appreciated the efforts to flush out the setting, which you don’t often see in stories. Most frequently in books, you’ll only interact with the main cast, but this isn’t the case here. The back stories, especially involving some of the secondary characters, are more told than shown, which can get tiring, especially when paired with heavy-handed and thinly veiled discourse about moral quandaries. Those questions about right and wrong could pair well with discussion questions, but most of the discussion has already occurred in the novel. The laying-out of these details comes in handy when attempting to come up with a solution, and the solutions come in clever unexpected twists that readers might be surprised by. The arsonist plot line does get slightly more violent than previous cases that the Solutioneer had worked on, which previously involved lost dogs and missing heirlooms. I’m curious to see if this progression in seriousness will continue in the final volume as they take their show on the road, which we get a glimpse of in an included excerpt.

The audiobook is just as well done as the last one. An even pacing lays out the thoughtful and introspective nature of the story. Paul Boehmer distinguishes between the major characters, not so much with different voices, but with different pacing. The minor characters have slightly less distinction, but Pia’s parts invoke the impatience and distracted energy necessary, Grammie has some English school-teacher inflection, Tomi has a more know-it-all and scratchy staccato quality, and Ari has a slower and rounder, stretched out vowel sounds. Fans of the series won’t be disappointed by this latest installment, and the sequel, The Book of Kings was just released last month.

The Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Chicken Squad First MisadventureTitle: The First Misadventure
Series: The Chicken Squad (#1)
Author: Doreen Cronin
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
ISBN: 9781442496767
Pages: 112 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2014.

First introduced in The Trouble with Chickens, Dirt, Sweetie, Poppy and Sugar now take a starring role in the first book in this spin-off series. They might be chicks, but they aren’t chicken when a scared squirrel named Tail barges into their coop. After running from the big, scary thing in the yard, Tail is not much help (he keeps fainting out of fear) and the chicks come to the conclusion they must save their mother from the danger at hand. Filled with expressive illustrations and hilarious hijinks, the quartet use camouflage and deductive reasoning to discover what has invaded their turf and chase it back to where it came from! Readers might come to an alternate conclusion in this slapstick comedy of errors that proves things aren’t always what they seem.