Middle grades screwball comedy, YA Victorian steampunk mysteries, and a little historical fiction were highlights of this week’s reading list.
Logic lovers, reluctant readers, and everyone who loves a good puzzle will enjoy these short stories mysteries.
Scooby Doo meets Lovecraft, Plato fan fiction, classic and new British mysteries, and some feminist biographies feature in this week's Library Chicken.
A hilarious Lutheran insult generator, the awesomeness of Alice Roosevelt, a philosophy board game, and more stuff we like.
Book or movie? With so many Christie adaptations and books to choose from, we’ve rounded up the cinematic cream of the crop and the stories that give the most mystery mileage.
Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!
Happy Fourth of July! Today I will be enjoying the traditional re-watch of the musical 1776 and hissing and throwing popcorn at the screen whenever Thomas Jefferson shows up. I might also read a bit. I’m still in a reading slump, meaning that I find it hard to focus on anything and have at least half a dozen partially finished and temporarily (I hope) abandoned books lying around. When I’m feeling like this I have a hard time dealing with any kind of fictional conflict, so when I see it approaching I put down the book and pick up something else—typically a reread and/or something with very low stakes. Bring on the Jeeves and Wooster!
Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse
The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse
Bertie Wooster Sees It Through by P.G. Wodehouse
How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I’ve been reading and rereading Wodehouse for decades, but before now I’ve never tried to read through all ten Jeeves and Wooster novels in chronological order. (Mostly because the joys of Wodehouse are not dependent on “story arc.”) I’m enjoying the experiment, of course, but I’m also finding that it allows me to appreciate Bertie’s voice even more—his verbal tics and repetitions, the way that the story of his winning the Scripture Knowledge prize at school works its way into every single narrative. These are books #4 through #7—three more to go!
(LC Score: 0, off my own shelves)
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence #1. Young Tommy and Tuppence, childhood friends just demobbed from their service in The Great War, run into each other in London and (through the usual series of unlikely coincidences) find themselves caught up in a mystery involving the sinking of the Lusitania, Bolshevik spies, and a missing girl named Jane Finn. It’s all utterly ridiculous plot-wise, but great fun, especially if this if your first introduction to the Beresfords. I’ve read it before and remembered The Big Twist, but still enjoy reading it as a romance, even if the mystery is a bit silly.
(LC Score: 0, Kindle)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Another reread! Inspector Alan Grant, flat on his back after an in-the-line-of-duty accident, revisits the murder of the Princes in the Tower. This novel consistently ranks as one of the best mystery novels ever written and I’ve read it at least a couple of times before, but it’s actually the fifth novel with Inspector Grant. Last year I went back to read the beginning of Tey’s series (the first one is The Man in the Queue) and found that I really enjoyed them (though fair warning: they are typical detective stories, so don’t go in expecting something like the historical conundrums of The Daughter of Time). When I got to The Daughter of Time in the sequence, I wasn’t in the mood for a reread (too many great library books on the stack) and it’s taken me until now to get back to it. One thing that struck me was how much more I enjoyed the book now that I understand more of the historical context, having read more English history in the interim. I also think it makes a great homeschool read, not just because of the history, but because the whole point of the book is to develop your critical thinking skills and look at history (or more specially, historians) with a skeptical eye. It’s a great way to introduce students to the idea that history is written by the winners. Since it helps to have context, it would be a good side-by-side read with for anyone studying that period, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s doing Shakespeare’s Richard III. HOMESCHOOL RECOMMENDED.
(LC Score: 0, off my own shelves)
The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Shockingly, NOT a reread! This YA fantasy is one of the books I’ve been picking up and putting down for a couple of weeks now and I decided to power through. I love the beginning: there’s a modern-day town on the edge of a forest and everything is perfectly normal, except for the unbreakable glass casket in the forest where a horned prince has slept for decades. And a changeling attends high school with our protagonists and every year a couple of tourists get eaten, but yeah, other than that everything’s perfectly normal. This novel has a lot going for it—there’s a great scene where the high schoolers are partying and drinking in the woods around the glass casket like they do every Friday night because of course that’s what teenagers would do—but (and this may be the slump talking) it turns out I’m kinda over Faerie at the moment. I’m also definitely not in the mood for YA teenage kissing, and there’s a LOT of YA teenage kissing in this book. (Diverse kissing, though, so thumbs up for that!) I think it’s a case of wrong book, wrong time for me, but I’d have no hesitation in passing it along to my favorite YA readers.
(LC Score: +1)
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
So YA fantasy isn’t working for me; let’s head back over to the mystery section. Claire DeWitt is a very unusual private investigator who has been hired to find out what happened to a missing lawyer in post-Katrina New Orleans. I really enjoyed this book. I also am now completely freaked out about ever visiting New Orleans, since Gran vividly depicts it as a lawless violence-ridden Third-World city that you need special skills to survive. (Seriously: my daughter’s freshman chorus trip was to New Orleans and if I had read this book before then I might not have been able to sign the permission slip. Fortunately she and her fellow singers had a great time and all returned unscathed.) Alongside that, there’s an incredible amount of love and respect for the city and its inhabitants here. If anyone out there is from New Orleans please read this and let us know what you think—I’d love to see a reaction from someone who knows the city.
(LC Score: +1)
Farthing by Jo Walton
A murder has taken place in a country house in 1949 England, getting us comfortably back to the world of Wodehouse and Christie—except that in this version of 1949, England made an early peace with Hitler (as a result of the Hess Mission, which, yes, I will happily read ALL THE BOOKS, fictional and otherwise, about Rudolf Hess and his bizarre flight to Scotland) and so now exists in the shadow of a Third Reich-controlled Europe. The owners of the house and their friends make up the “Farthing Set,” a group of powerful pro-German politicians who helped broker the peace. Things do not end well. I don’t want to say too much, except that it’s a great book and I recommend it, but the book does have a strong political viewpoint and I was surprised to see that some reviewers thought it heavy-handed. I did not, which may be an unfortunate side-effect of the times we are living in. It’s the first book in a trilogy; as soon as I work up the emotional energy I look forward to tackling the next two books.
(LC Score: +1)
The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest by Peter Dickinson
In her introduction to Farthing, Walton thanks Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Peter Dickinson for getting her on the right track regarding British mysteries. I had not read Dickinson, but of course I have to check out anyone mentioned in such illustrious company. This is his first novel, written in 1968, and first in a series with Inspector Jim Pribble as our detective. Here’s the setup: During World War II, a (fictional) New Guinea tribe called the Ku were slaughtered by the Japanese. The handful of survivors now share a home in London, along with the anthropologist daughter of the white missionary couple that had lived with them in New Guinea, and their chief is murdered. When I first saw the cover of the library edition, featuring a cartoonish African man, I was...concerned. You might be thinking that all this sounds like a great opportunity for a lot of casual racism and general offensiveness, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The Kus are described as primitive and child-like, definitively alien and Other, and characters more or less continually comment on the blackness of their skin. One character also suggests that the anthropologist, who has been accepted as a member of the tribe, is keeping them as her own private project, a personal “ant farm” that she can tend and watch. That said, Dickinson gives depth to the story and the characters, and the Kus that we meet (the few with speaking parts) come across as distinct individuals. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this novel, but I can tell you that I read it more or less in one sitting and that I’ve got the next one coming. I’m hoping for no more cartoon African covers.
(LC Score: +1)
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
The nice thick sequel to The Three Body Problem. Nope, not this week.
(LC Score: -1, RETURNED UNREAD)
Library Chicken Score for 7/4/17: 3
Running Score: 57
On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
OK, it would be false advertising to compare this book to The Westing Game, but if there is a contemporary literary descendant of Raskin's deliciously complex mystery, it's The Greenglass House—a genuine, bona fide middle grades mystery that gives its readers credit for being intelligent and that delivers a satisfying mystery, sophisticated character development, and a few (well set-up) twists along the way. Adopted innkeepers' son Milo and his friend—the cook's daughter, Meddy—unravel the clues to discover why their off-season inn is full of unexpected visitors, at least one of whom seems set on sabotaging Greenglass House. It's a terrific mystery. Highly recommended.
The suspense builds over the course of this mystery classic as ten people with spotted pasts realize that they've been lured to a posh but deserted island to be murdered, one by one, by a vigilante who wants them to pay for their crimes and who—they slowly realize—must be one of their number. It's both tense and intense, and don't start it unless you're ready to read it through to the end. (The recent BBC adaptation does a great job capturing the book's atmospheric suspense.) A great book for your high school summer reading list.
I’ve fallen a little behind on reviewing the books I’ve read lately, so I thought I’d combine them into a few posts to catch myself up.
The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society is back with another tale of new friends on a dangerous adventure. This time, this kids in question are Reuben, who makes a dangerous discovery on one of his explorations in the city, and Penny, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose family guards a secret from a hidden evil. Pursued by the henchmen of a criminal known as The Smoke, Reuben unravels a series of clues that lead him to Penny’s lighthouse and the secret power of his mysterious discovery. Reuben, Penny, and Penny’s older brother team up to take down The Smoke once and for all.
Like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Secret Keepers is a sometimes over-complicated adventure story featuring intelligent, resourceful, independent children as its heroes. The storyline isn’t always satisfying for me—especially when it veers into situations that feel ridiculous (The Smoke’s big booby trap of a house is one of these for me)—but the protagonists are terrific and interesting, and you want to know what happens next for them. (I wish the villains were similarly complex.) The book is at its best during its suspenseful sequences, which are clearly Stewart’s forte—he builds the kind of tension that keeps you flipping pages—and the development of the characters on the side of good, especially the children. There are places where the lengthy descriptions and explanations bog the book down a bit—I think a little editorial intervention might have trimmed some of the length without losing any of the story—but that’s a quibble. This is an adventure story and—mostly—a pretty delightful one with plenty of satisfying twists and turns, perilous exploits, and a well-earned conclusion.
If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, this one is definitely worth checking out on your next library trip.
I have always had such a soft spot for old-fashioned books about old houses (see also: The Four-Story Mistake, Magic Elizabeth, Gone-Away Lake), and The Secret of Goldenrod fits so beautifully into that niche, even though it’s clearly a modern book with contemporary sensibilities.
Trina and her dad spend their life moving from house to house, fixing places up for other families to call home before moving onto their next fixer-upper. Their new project is a lonely Victorian mansion on the outskirts of New Royal, Iowa, a house called Goldenrod with a tragic past. When Trina and her dad move into the house, strange things start happening, and Trina’s convinced the old house is haunted. When she discovers an antique doll called Augustine, she’s sure that Goldenrod is no ordinary house. But what does it want?
It is no surprise that I loved this book, which was warm and gentle and just a pleasure to read. Though it deals with complicated issues, including Trina’s long-absent mother and the loneliness of always being “the new kid,” in a realistic way, it’s never bleak or depressing. And though the story is about a haunted house, it’s not scary at all—there are a couple of creepy moments when Trina’s alone in the house early on—but it’s the opposite of a horror story. Trina’s relationship with her single parent dad is beautifully written—complicated and caring and completely authentic. Watching Trina slowly open up her defenses, making friends and becoming part of a community, while the old house is slowly restored to its old splendor, feels good—but it also feels right, like something Trina has earned and built for herself.
This is the kind of book I would have checked out of the library over and over again. I think it would make an absolutely lovely readaloud—in fact, it’s up next in my family’s readaloud queue.
If you know me, you know that I am a sucker for books about readers. (See also: Possession, Inkheart, the Thursday Next chronicles.) So when I read the concept for this book — a girl who’s obsessed with a global book-hunting online game and who may have discovered the first clue in its founder's new, hotly anticipated literary game — I was sold. Book Scavenger, you had me at ‘hello.’”
Happily, the book is pretty charming even if you aren’t obsessed with books set in the world of reading. Twelve-year-old Emily has just moved to San Francisco, her family’s ninth move and part of her parents’ blog-chronicled plan to live in all 50 states. Emily, unlike her freewheeling older brother Matthew, yearns to stay in one place long enough to get bored and make real friends — but every time a place starts to feel like home, her parents start loading up the minivan for their next adventure. Fortunately Emily has Book Scavenger wherever she goes, an online game where participants hide books, leaving clues for other Scavengers to find them — the more complicated the clue, the better. In Emily’s mind, the one good thing about moving to San Francisco is that it’s the home of Book Scavenger creator Garrison Griswold, who’s getting ready to announce his next big game. Maybe being in Griswold’s city will give her an edge.
To her surprise, Emily discovers that San Francisco isn’t such a bad place to live. She even makes a friend, her upstairs neighbor James who turns out to be a puzzle-solving pro. After Griswold is attacked at a BART station and hospitalized, Emily finds a curious book near the site of the attack that she thinks might be the first clue in Griswold’s now-delayed new game. With James’s and Matthew’s help, Emily starts to follow to clues, leading her through San Francisco’s literary history. Along the way, she runs into more than one roadblock, including two shady characters determined to get their hands on the Griswold book and the challenges of learning how to be a real friend when she's used to going it alone.
Book Scavenger is a fun read with nicely developed characters and lots of literary inside jokes. (Em’s parents, for instance, named their minivan Sal after a Kerouac character.) It’s targeted at middle grades readers, who will probably appreciate it, but I think younger and older kids who enjoy books like The Mysterious Benedict Society or The Puzzling World of Winston Breen will enjoy it, too.
If you enjoyed reading about smart kids banding together to solve a mystery, check out Blue Baillett’s books, starting with Chasing Vermeer and continuing with The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. Petra, Calder, and Tommy are intelligent, resourceful detectives, who use math and problem-solving skills to solve art mysteries. Oh, that makes these books sound kind of stodgy, but I promise, they're not!
Want more brain-teasing puzzles? Pick up The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. (You can follow up with The Potato Chip Puzzles and The Puzzler’s Mansion.) Winston loves puzzles, and you can solve them right along with him as you work your way through this book and follow Winston on a hunt for a hidden inheritance.
Have you read The Westing Game yet? Because, if not, you should go and read it right now. Turtle is as smart as Renny, as resourceful as Kate, and almost as stubborn as Constance as she tries to solve the clues to win millionaire Samuel Westing’s inheritance. It’s one of my favorite books.
OK, The Farwalker’s Quest (first in the FarwalkerTrilogy) is a fantasy book, so it’s not set in the real world like The Mysterious Benedict Society is. But friends Ariel and Zeke have to be just as brave and clever as the Society when they discover a magical artifact that forces them into an adventure that’s far away from their ordinary lives.
In another series that puts a fantasy twist on adventure, 12-year-old Stephanie Edgley, in the Skulduggery Pleasant series, teams up with the eponymous undead detective-slash-sorcerer to protect the world from the evil and manipulative Nefarian Serpine. Stephanie is everything you could want in a heroine: smart, sassy, brave, and often hilarious. I think you might love this series.
Forgive it for borrowing so obviously from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I think you might enjoy The Gollywhopper Games, too. Gil Goodson is determined to win the Golly Toy & Game Company’s ultimate competition, and you’ll be right there with him, mastering trivia and solving puzzles, to get to the finish line. (The next two books in the series are fun, too.)
You might also enjoy Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, in which game-loving Kyle and his new friends must solve clues and secret puzzles to find their way out of the library belonging to the world’s most notorious game maker. This one might be a fun read-aloud.
If you don’t mind your books getting a bit silly, check out The Glitch in Sleep, the first book in the Seems series. The book’s premise — that our world is actually constructed somewhere else, from pre-packaged dreams for your sleep to a giant water tank that regulates precipitation — is kind of delightful, and Becker Drane, newly promoted Fixer, is about to face a Glitch in the Department of Sleep. You'll find lots of high-tech shenanigans and much silly fun to be had.
Take one soup heiress on a mission, two unconnected Siamese twins, a crossword puzzle expert in a crash helmet, and a mysteriously incomplete message, and you have The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), a twisty-turny puzzle of a book that’s part melancholy tragedy, part slapstick hilarity, and part interactive detective fiction. If you’ve read The Westing Game (and if you haven’t, you should probably stop reading this and go read it immediately — I'll wait), you already know that Ellen Raskin is diabolically clever, fond of puzzles and planting clues in plain sight. In The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), Raskin goes even further, directly encouraging the reader to participate in solving the mystery. (Mark this page! Remember this fact; it’s important!)
The story itself is simple: Mrs. Carillon is married at age seven to her neighbor and co-soup dynasty heir, Leon, who promptly goes away to school for fourteen years and changes his name to Noel. When he finally sends for her, their first conversation as adults is interrupted by a terrible boating accident: He only has time to gasp out a few word fragments before Mrs. Carillon is knocked out. When she wakes up in the hospital, Leon (I mean Noel) is gone, and Mrs. Carillon thinks the key to his location lies in his waterlogged message. She sets out to solve the puzzle and find her husband with vim and vigor. Along the way, she acquires a set of twins and reconnects with an old friend, who the twins think would make a much better husband for their adopted mother than the erstwhile Leon (I mean Noel). Once you read this book, you’ll see Raskin’s influence in all kinds of places: the solicitous narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events and the complex codes of Blue Baillet’s books come immediately to mind.
We're reprinting some of Amy's summer reading series favorites from Atlanta Homeschool magazine on the home/school/life blog.
Jackaby by William Ritter
Imagine a supernatural Sherlock Holmes with a competent female Watson at his side, and you’ve got the plot of the delightful Jackaby, the first installment in Ritter’s new young adult series. (Its sequel, The Beastly Bones, is due in September.)
Abigail Rook, runaway from a life of British privilege, finds herself in New Fiddleham, New England, via a roundabout route that included a lengthy stopover at a dinosaur dig. Abigail, who’s very much a Watson in the Martin Freeman vein — smart, stout-hearted, and adventurous — needs a job, and R.F. Jackaby, supernatural consulting detective, needs an assistant. Abigail is not put off by the fact that Jackaby’s former assistant is now a duck living on the mysterious third floor of his haunted mansion, and she determinedly follows her new boss on his investigation of a mysterious serial killer, matching her keen observation and logic skills to Jackaby’s otherworldly knowledge.
The serial killer plot is fine, but the real charm in this book — and trust me, there’s lots of charm — is the world Ritter has created. Abigail is a delight — so often, headstrong, determined young women like Abigail disappoint in books. They are too brittle or too competent or too inclined to go weak in the knees around young men who could be their soulmates. Abigail is none of those things — she knows her strengths, recognizes her weakness, is equal parts wise and foolish, and feels like a real, complicated human being. Her cohort is a bit more mysterious, but Jackaby's paranormal powers isolate him from other people in a distinctive way: He literally sees things other people can’t. All the time. And while he radiates the kind of prickly attraction that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the role of Sherlock Holmes, he’s not the cheese to Abigail’s macaroni. They are partners in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and the development of their friendly, respectful relationship is much more interesting than any love story. (Abigail does develop a little crush on a friendly police officer who has a secret of his own.)
“Marlowe is a good man, but he only knows how to slay dragons,” Jackaby tells Abigail during their investigation. “The world is full of dragon-slayers. What we need are a few more people who aren't too proud to listen to a fish.” This odd little book makes me want to listen to fish a little more often.