Tag Archive | Book Reviews

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1)

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries, #1)The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would very much like to know why my mother named me “Enola,” which, backwards, spells alone.

Synopsis: Enola receives three fourteenth birthday gifts from her mother: a drawing kit, a copy of The Meanings of Flowers: Including Also Notes Upon the Messages Conveyed by Fans, Handkerchiefs, Sealing-Wax, and Postage Stamps, and a small hand-made book of ciphers. The same day, her mother vanishes without a trace, and Enola must contact her much older brothers in London – Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. Dismayed by the way the grounds of the estate (and Enola, in his opinion) have been left neglected, Mycroft makes plans to send his sister to boarding school for an education befitting a proper young lady of the late 1800s. Enola has no interest in such an education (or, for that matter, being a proper young lady), so she makes her own plan to escape to London and search for their mother on her own. As if eluding her brothers and keeping herself out of danger weren’t enough, she quickly finds herself tangled up in the mystery of a missing young Lord as well.

Review: With a smart and feisty teen-age heroine, this historical mystery is a pretty easy sell. Enola’s free-thinking ways stand out against her brothers’ much more of-the-time views on women. The period as well as the varied settings are evoked with strong, carefully chosen details. My only complaint is the choice of “Marquess” for the missing boy’s title, since that term is particularly confusing for American kids, but that’s a bit of a nitpick. The very real dangers faced by a young girl (and a young boy) in London are portrayed in an age-appropriate yet suspenseful way. This first volume of six wraps up one mystery while leaving enough dangling ends to make the reader want to have the next volume handy.

Recommend to: Historical and mystery fans ages 8 and up.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret (The Sherlock Files #1)

The 100-Year-Old Secret by Tracy Barrett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Please allow the SPFD to welcome you more formally. Go to The Dancing Men (if you’re hungry, they make an excellent ploughman’s lunch) and ask for a saucer of milk for your snake. Then all will be revealed.

Synopsis:
Twelve-year-old Xena is sitting on the front steps of a London hotel with her little brother, Xander, when a strange man presses a note into her hand. The kids barely have time to read the peculiar message before the ink disappears from the paper. Once they learn that “The Dancing Men” is a nearby pub (and that a “ploughman’s lunch” is something they might actually like), they can’t ignore their curiosity about it. The clever siblings might be a bit more curious than most, though, since they happen to be the American descendants of the famous Sherlock Holmes. After inheriting his casebook of unsolved problems, they quickly find themselves on the trail of a century-old mystery the Great Detective himself never solved.

Review:
Barrett introduces a pair of protagonists with immediate appeal for young readers. Like any siblings, Xena and Xander occasionally bicker and even embarrass each other, but when push comes to shove, each has the other’s back. Because they are American kids newly arrived in London, explanations of British culture and customs come up naturally in the narrative, rather than as awkward exposition for the reader. Nods to the original Sherlock Holmes stories are sprinkled throughout and sometimes explained (the saucer of milk for snake reference slips right by, but the Irregulars get a quick description). The mystery itself is very simple, and the characters never face any real danger or violence, making this a great selection for newly independent chapter-book readers as well as slightly older mystery fans. Once they’ve finished this quick-paced adventure, readers can continue to follow the Holmes siblings in three more series installments: The Beast of Blackslope, The Case that Time Forgot, and The Missing Heir.

Recommend to: Fans of mystery and adventure ages 8-12.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Book Review: Secret Letters

Secret LettersSecret Letters by Leah Scheier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I knew that Adelaide would wish to visit the detective and present her case to him as soon as possible. And I would be there by her side, of course, to support her as she told her story. But I had my own reason for visiting Mr. Holmes and my own story to tell him, and so I had to reach him before she did — and I had to speak to him alone.

Synopsis:
Since losing both parents to typhoid fever four years ago, Dora Joyce has lived with her Aunt Ina, a very proper Victorian matron determined to mold the inquisitive, headstrong girl in her own image. During the day, Dora has been laced into corsets and taught to waltz, but in the evenings, she’s been studying the adventures of the Great Detective chronicled in the Strand magazine. Following his methods, she has sharpened her observational skills. She has good reason to believe she might be able to emulate Mr Holmes better than most: a deathbed confession from her mother that the detective is Dora’s father. Now, with her cousin facing a blackmailer threatening to destroy her marriage, Dora finally has a reason to seek out the detective in London. The day she arrives at his Baker Street address, however, she is stunned by the headline screaming from the newspapers: Sherlock Holmes Killed in Switzerland.

The detective she and her cousin finally do consult leaves Dora distinctly unimpressed, but his young assistant sparks her interest. His name is Peter Cartwright, he knew Sherlock Holmes, and he seems to find her at least a little interesting, as well. Dora decides that she – with Peter’s help – will go undercover to solve the mystery herself, as any child of the Great Detective would.

Review:
Scheier’s debut novel is a Sherlockian pastiche with a twist of romance in with the mystery. Several mysteries, actually, since the title might refer to a number of letters and a number of secrets, all of which tangle around each other, catching the spirited teenage heroine in the middle. Dora chafes at the restrictions society – by way of her Aunt – places on her, and she longs to be accepted for the person she really is. She finds a true peer in Peter, who looks beyond surfaces just as she does. Class distinctions of the period are explored through Dora’s disguise as a house servant at Hartfield Hall, a role she manages to fill surprisingly (if perhaps a tad unbelievably) well, while she ferrets out clues.

The first few chapters have to introduce a lot of material about the characters and the setting, but the action picks up pace after that. Plots and sub-plots intertwine as ulterior motives abound above and below stairs at Hartfield. Sly nods to the original stories pop up here and there – little Easter eggs for those familiar with the Canon. This is a satisfying blend of mystery, adventure, and romance, with just enough comedic moments (usually resulting from Dora being a bit too clever for her own good) to balance the more serious elements.

Recommend to:
Historical fiction and mystery fans, ages 12 and up.

Twitter-Style Review: Historical mystery with a touch of romance, perfect for the budding Holmesian.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Arthur and the Great Detective

Arthur and the Great Detective by Alan Coren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

“So I have been considering what kind of Englishman goes to America for a very short stay, carries a magnifying glass and a swordstick, and is well known to the New York police, and there was only one-“

“Conclusion,” finished Sherlock Holmes, nodding. “Yes, Arthur, there usually is.”

In the seventh installment of Coren’s Arthur series, young Arthur William Foskett is travelling alone on a transatlantic sailing, headed back to school in England. The early days of the voyage are plagued by bad weather, and most of the ship’s passengers take refuge in their cabins, leaving the dining room to just Arthur and two other men, who turn out to be none other than Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Even after the weather clears and the passengers re-emerge, it’s hardly smooth sailing for the S.S. Murgatroyd, as there is a robbery on board. Not to worry, though: Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Foskett are both on the case.

This is a charming, very funny mystery for young readers, with plenty of amusing references for those already familiar with Holmes. I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series, but I’m going to be keeping an eye out for copies of Arthur and the Bellybutton Diamond and Arthur and the Purple Panic, both of which also feature Holmes and Watson, and neither of which are held by my library.

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Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Three stories weave together here, all of them fascinating in their own right: the story of the scientists at Los Alamos, including Robert Oppenheimer, the man who would become known as the father of the atomic bomb; the story of the Russian spies, including the unassuming Harry Gold, who were hard at work attempting to steal the secrets to building the atomic bomb, and the efforts of Allied forces, including Knut Haukelid and a few other dedicated Norwegian resistance fighters, to prevent the Germans from building an atomic bomb themselves. The names are important, because what Sheinkin does so splendidly is put human faces to the historic events. Literally, in fact, since each section of the book begins with a scrapbook-style double-page spread of photographs. This is an epic story, and Sheinkin lists a number of consulted sources in the back matter, but he picks out details sure to capture and hold interest all the way through.

This is a fascinating read, with appeal for older kids and teens as well as adults. It has great potential for classroom use, perhaps paired with Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea. MacMillan even has a Teacher’s Guide (.pdf) already prepared with pointers to the Common Core State Standards. Also check out the post at Reading to the Core, which says of Bomb, “This is the kind of book you could build an entire curriculum around.” Suggestions for how to begin to do so are included, of course. Don’t limit this book to the classroom, though. After all, who could resist a true story of international spies and “the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”?

 

Recommend to: Older kids and teens (and adults) who would like a “true story” that reads like a spy thriller.

 

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney

Stealing a car had been much more fun than stealing a credit card. But stealing a toddler!

 

Janie Face to Face (Janie Johnson, #5)Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Janie Johnson was 15 when she recognized the photo of her three-year-old self on a milk carton and discovered she was really Jennie Spring, whose family had been hoping she would come home ever since she was kidnapped from a mall. Now in college, Janie just wants to put the past behind her, stop being known as “the kidnap kid”, and move on with her life. But as her friends and family are pestered by a true crime writer and his researchers to turn her story into a best-seller, she realizes that someone out there does not want to let things go.

When The Face on the Milk Carton was first published, in 1990, it was a different world. It was a world without the Internet in every home, or a cell phone in every teenager’s pocket, or, for that matter, the Internet on a cell phone in a teenager’s pocket. Even when the fourth book in the series – What Janie Found – hit shelves in 2000, cancelled checks could still play a major part in the story. While 13 years have passed since that book was published, only a few years have passed for the characters when Janie Face to Face begins, with the action of the novel spread over the next several years. Because of this, Cooney spends some time allowing Janie and her friends and family to catch up, pondering the rapid changes since the day Janie used a public pay phone during her search for answers. The tendency to tell, rather than show, what is happening bogs down the pace a bit, already an issue with characters mentally recapping the first four books.

Janie’s story is only part of this fifth (and final) installment of the series. Before each chapter – where the third-person narration is squarely focused on the perspective of Janie or one of her friends or family members – is a vignette from Hannah’s perspective (though still third-person), beginning with “THE FIRST PIECE OF THE KIDNAPPER’S PUZZLE” and counting upward. This is the first time readers get inside Hannah’s mind and find out what really happened that day in the mall. Of course, Hannah’s recollections are neither unbiased nor, perhaps, wholly reliable, although Cooney gives no reason to doubt the sequence of events. Fans of the original series should find satisfying closure.

The first four books in the series have remained popular with a new generation of teens, and they were re-released in 2012 with new coordinating cover art.

Recommend to: Teens looking for suspense without gore, and adults who fondly remember the original series and always wondered about Hannah

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My family name was once Fayleure. But somebody changed it. I’d ask that you get your “failure” jokes out of the way now. I am anything but.

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Timmy Failure has a lot going for him, really. A successful business with an unparalleled partner, his own transportation, and all the answers. Okay, so his business partner is a polar bear named Total, so their business is officially named Total Failure, Inc. And “successful” might be stretching things. And his transportation – the Failuremobile – is his mom’s Segway, which she has said he is allowed to use “Never. Ever. Ever.” And his answers might be a little, well, not quite correct. But he has big plans for the “Timmy Empire” and world domination, if he can just get his business off the ground.

Well, and his mom’s Segway out of the hands of his arch-nemesis.

To tell the truth, when I first saw this cover, I rolled my eyes a bit. Another Wimpy Kid read-alike, I thought. But Timmy has a certain charm in his complete obliviousness of the world around him, and his irrepressible optimistic nature. He is absolutely determined that he is going to conquer the world. He is convinced that he is the smartest detective ever, even though the reader can hardly help but laugh out loud at the conclusions Timmy draws from the clues he gathers. Pastis slyly reveals the reality of Timmy’s life at home and at school, as much as Timmy lives in denial of the facts, and the side of Timmy that is a really sweet kid underneath his tough talk. By the end, I was completely won over, and I can hardly wait to get this first volume of the series into the hands of middle-graders at my library (not mention my own hands on volume two).

On shelves: February 26, 2013

Source: ARC provided by the publisher at ALA Midwinter Meeting 2013

 

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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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Book Review: Losing It by Erin M. Fry


There’s something about a belly button sweat stain that’s just really gross.

Losing It

Losing It by Erin M. Fry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since Bennett’s mom died when he was five, it’s just been him and his dad. And the best times with his dad have been hot summer afternoons parked in front of the tv, watching their beloved Dodgers and munching on burgers and fries, their “game food”. As much as Bennett loves baseball, though, he knows he could never really play, because he is too fat. His dad is fat, too, and when Bennett comes in last during P.E. class runs, his best friend P.G. is right there beside him, so Bennett is mostly okay with his lack of physical fitness.

That changes one beautiful summer day when his dad collapses in front of the television. Bennett doesn’t know when – or if – his dad will recover. In the meantime, he has to move in with his bossy Aunt Laura and her family. And Aunt Laura has a mission: get Bennett healthy.

I didn’t hear much about this book (which shares a title with another 2012 book about losing an entirely different “it”) when it came out, but I was intrigued by the description. It is set in my adopted city of Los Angeles, and I wondered how Fry would tackle the issue of childhood obesity, which was clearly central to Bennett’s story.

As it turns out, she handles it very, very nicely. Bennett is a thoroughly believable and sympathetic eighth-grade boy. He knows he is out of shape, and he knows his dad is unhealthy, but he’s a kid, you know? It’s not his job to worry about that stuff. His dad has to work a lot to make ends meet, and watching baseball games while eating tasty food is their thing. It’s how they bond. His dad wants him to be happy. And Bennett is happy, mostly. His weight is just part of who he is.

Another part of who he is has to do with losing his mother. The realistic and sensitive portrayal of Bennett’s grief was a lovely surprise. It’s a common thing is children’s books for one (or both) parents to be out of the picture, whether dead, missing, or just neglectful. It lets the child protagonist get on with being the lead of the story. But all too often, the loss of parent(s) seems to have no lasting effect on the character. For Bennett, it’s formative. The loss of his mother has left a gaping hole in his heart and home. It shapes his view of the world.

Bennett’s physical transformation is believably gradual, and Fry shows the effort it takes in a realistic way. He changes not only physically, but mentally, becoming stronger and more capable of handling the challenges coming his way. Despite the serious topics addressed, the narrative resists becoming didactic. It is contemporary realistic fiction for middle graders that will appeal to both boys and girls on several levels.

Recommend to: Fans of realistic fiction and tales of the underdog

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

The city’s comedians have been out writing signs. One says: WHAT ARE YOU ALL RUNNING FROM? Another says: YOU’VE GOT GREAT STAMINA. CALL ME. 1-834-555-8756. Yet another reads: IN OUR MINDS, YOU’RE ALL KENYANS.

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the world of distance running, athletes from a single country have been getting a lot of attention over the last several years. The East African nation of Kenya has produced some of the fastest runners on the planet. English journalist – and runner – Adharanand Finn wanted to find out what the Kenyan secret was, so he packed up himself, his wife, and their three young children and moved the family to a village in Kenya. There, he met runners. He interviewed them, he observed them, and he trained with them. Through it all, he puzzled over what element could be the key to the success of Kenyan runners (genetics? diet? culture?), and he wondered whether it was possible to improve his own distinctly non-Kenyan performance.

I am a big fan of the whole “quirky memoir” genre, in which the author tries out some experience and writes about it. Through Finn, I got to explore Kenya and take a peek inside the lives of runners whose names I see all over the running magazines. I enjoyed the easy, conversational tone of the first-person present-tense narration. Each chapter is headed with a small black-and-white photograph of people or events discussed in the book. This is not a book to help you improve your own running times, or even really one that thoroughly explores every facet of Kenyan running (a subject of academic research in its own right). It is an enjoyable tale of what one man’s attempt to understand what it means to be a Kenyan runner.

Source: checked out from the public library

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