Tag Archive | Fiction

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: 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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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: Past Perfect by Leila Sales


There are only three types of kids who get summer jobs at Colonial Essex Village instead of just working at the mall, like the normal people do.

Past Perfect

Past Perfect by Leila Sales

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
Chelsea Glaser has spent every summer since she was six years old acting the part of Elizabeth Connelly, Virginia colonist eternally stuck in 1774. This summer, all Chelsea wants is to get a job at an air conditioned shop at the mall, but her best friend talks her into another summer at Essex. Unfortunately for Chelsea, the boy who broke her heart has also joined up. A crush on a new guy would be the perfect distraction, if only she hadn’t fallen for someone she can’t be with. Chelsea soon realizes she is going to have to come to terms with her past or be doomed to keep reliving it.

Review:
From the first page of this contemporary teen romance, the reader is brought into Chelsea’s world. From her daily duties as a Colonial reenactor to her not-quite-comfortable leadership role in the battles with the Civil War reenactors across the road, little details bring the scenes to life. Her interactions with her parents are laugh-out-loud funny and oh-so-familiar. Her heartbreak is painfully apparent early on, although the facts of her recent relationship are left vague until well into the book. Sales works in some serious thoughts about memory, history, and “what really happened” in a way that feels completely natural. This is a sweet tale perfect for summer vacation.

Which is why I find the cover so completely odd. It has nothing at all to do with the book. And it looks like she’s trying to catch bits of chalk on her tongue, which just sets my teeth on edge.

Final Word:
Laugh-out-loud funny contemporary teen romance with a little bit of historical trivia tucked inside – a just about perfect summer read.

Source:
Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Article 5 by Kristen Simmons

Beth and Ryan were holding hands. It was enough to risk a formal citation for indecency, and they knew better, but I didn’t say anything.

 

Article 5 (Article 5, #1)

Article 5 by Kristen Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
There was a war. It destroyed the major cities and left the United States of America under the control of the Federal Bureau of Reformation, its citizens policed by soldiers nicknamed the “Moral Militia”. The guiding laws of the country are the Moral Statutes, which demand compliance with the Church of America, strict gender roles, and an even stricter definition of family. At seventeen, Ember Miller has been caring for her rebellious single mother for years. She keeps quiet and gets what they need. But when Ember’s very existence is deemed “noncompliant” and her mother is arrested by a group of soldiers including the boy Ember once loved, her world is quickly turned upside-down.

Review
I went back-and-forth a bit in my feelings for this book. It started off strong, dropping the reader straight into a world reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale in its government-enforced religious beliefs. Since she is old enough to remember how things were before the war and the rise of the FBR, she can detail the changes with a minimum of awkward exposition. I found her wry humor endearing. And then came the line that never fails to yank me right out of a good immersion in a fictional world: “I felt as if I were in a science fiction story.” (45)

Well, yes, I can’t help but think, that’s because you are a character in a story. And then, just a couple paragraphs later, she looks in a mirror before describing herself for the reader. That particular cliche moment is a pet peeve ingrained from college fiction-writing workshops. There is also the fact that the news that so utterly shocks Ember toward the end of the book came as no surprise to me, but I think the reader was supposed to figure that bit of information out long before Ember does.

I kept on with the book, because I was intrigued by the world Simmons created, and I wanted to know what would happen next. The plot moves along at a thundering pace, carrying the reader right on past the fact that the backstory is really quite vague. Who exactly were the sides in the war? Why do the Statutes seem to be so unevenly enforced? Who are the players in power now? And why is Ember so clueless?

In the end, I enjoyed the book, and I’ll definitely be seeking out the sequel. There are (clearly) plenty of open questions to be addressed in the middle and final parts of the trilogy.

Final Word:
A decent debut in the crowded post-Apocalyptic teen genre.

Source:
Checked out from the public library

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Book Review: Starters by Lissa Price

Hearing his words made it all too real. Creepy old Enders with arthritic limbs taking over this teen’s body for week, living inside his skin.

Starters (Starters, #1)
Starters by Lissa Price
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
A year ago, Callie lived the life of an average teenager in Southern California. She lived in a house with her mom and her dad and her little brother, Tyler. Then the war that had been raging so far away hit home with the detonation of a Spore missile and the subsequent disease that killed almost everyone between the ages of 20 and 60. Without older living relatives to claim them, Callie and Tyler have been on the run from the authorities, squatting in abandoned buildings and fighting off dangerous Renegades. They are running out of resources, and Tyler is ill. But in Beverly Hills, there is a place called Prime Destinations, a company that will pay handsomely if she will do the nearly unthinkable: allow them to use her body as a rental for elderly “Enders” to experience being young again. Desperate, Callie signs on, only to learn that both Prime Destinations and her final renter have plans worse than she could have imagined.

 

Review:
A post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is the setting for this entry in the popular Dystopian YA genre. In Price’s version of the near future, the “sandwich generation” is gone, leaving a world populated by elderly “Enders” who now live well in their second century and under-20 “Starters”, who have no rights at all until they come of age at 19. The lucky ones are those with grandparents, great-grandparents, and other senior relatives to “claim” them. The unlucky ones are on the run, scrounging for food, hiding out in filthy squats, hoping to run out the clock to age 19 before getting picked up by the authorities and locked up in an Institution. Prime Destinations is strongly reminiscent of the eponymous location in Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Dollhouse, with the twist that the clients are actually inhabiting the “dolls”.

The interesting premise is undermined by some shaky world-building. With people living to 200, it seems like there would be more living grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, and other relatives available to claim kids like Callie and her brother. What happened to their own grandparents (and great-grandparents) is never explained. The only Enders and Claimed Minors Callie encounters are wealthy; what happened to the middle- and working-class kids who had living relatives to claim them? Finally, while it is clear that the post-war world is a huge change for Callie (and everyone else), life before the war was clearly different from what we know, but it is unclear how things got from here to there.

The characters populating this world are also problematic. Callie’s fierce determination makes her an appealing heroine. Unfortunately, she is the only character who really gets any development. After Tyler and Callie’s friend Michael are introduced early on, they spend most of the novel “off-screen”, as Callie is separated from them. Even secondary characters who are more involved in the plot are left static. Complicating this, of course, is the whole body-switching issue; after first meeting someone, he may be quite literally a different person the next time he appears! There are several supplementary stories slated to appear in addition to the sequel that look like they might explore the characters a bit more.

Despite the flaws, this is a promising debut novel. The plot is compelling enough to distract from the sorts of questions that make it impossible to suspend disbelief (at least, until putting it down), and a final twist keeps the reader on the hook for the forthcoming sequel. This is an enjoyable, entertaining read. Just try not to pick at the details.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

 

Final Word:
An intriguing premise and compelling plot compensate for some shaky world-building in this promising Dystopian YA debut.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

 

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Book Review: Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone

The whole city had come out to watch Titanic and the strong, heavy smell of coal filled the air. After a few breaths, gritty black dust coated his tongue. The taste of progress, as Mr. Joyce called it.

 

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic by Gregory Mone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
April, 1912: The RMS Titanic sets sail for her maiden voyage with more than 2000 people aboard. Among the passengers on the “Queen of the Sea”: a wealthy book collector with a rare and valuable volume, a cunning thief desperate for money, and a young steward looking for a chance to be a part of something great.

After his father died, Patrick Waters left school and went to work in a Belfast pub. His widowed mother is determined to make him a practical working man like his older brother, not a dreamer like his late father. At age twelve, Patrick hopes to associate himself with greatness. His brother is about to embark on his ninth trip across the Atlantic, this time shoveling coal into the boilers of Titanic. When an unexpected opportunity on the ship arises, he wastes no time getting himself aboard. To his surprise, instead of shoveling coal, he is assigned to wait on Harry Elkins Widener, a book-lover whose latest acquisition might be worth much more than either of them can imagine. There is someone on board who thinks he does know, though, and he will stop at nothing to get the book for himself. There is danger at every turn as the ship itself heads for disaster.

 

Review:
With the centennial of the shipwreck approaching in April of 2012, new Titanic books are hitting the shelves. It is one of those topics (like Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or dinosaurs) that kids ask about again and again, endlessly fascinated. In this fictional take for middle grade readers, Mone skillfully blends real-life historical figures with his own characters. An Author’s Note at the end explains that Harry Widener really was a book collector who perished on board the ship, while young Patrick and the other main characters are the inventions of the author.

From the taste of coal dust to the color of a partially-cleaned spittoon, the narrative is packed with rich sensory details, bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the scenes to life. Mone uses playful language in his descriptions; in the first chapter, he says of the thief Berryman that “the local baker refused to loan him so much as a roll.” Quick-paced action keeps the pages turning as events come to their inevitable conclusion.

In addition to the drama of the collision, Mone intrigues readers with a mystery that is just a little bit reminiscent of Dan Brown. The perspective shifts between sweet Patrick, who can’t help but follow his own sharp eyes and ears, and the thieves after something they think will bring them untold riches, if only they can decipher a coded message within. The reader, of course, knows more than any single character, and hints are offered about the secret message before its meaning is finally revealed.

On shelves March 13, 2012 (just in time for the anniversary).

 

Final Word:
An original mystery offers a fresh take on a popular historical event for middle grade readers.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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