Mini-Reviews: Piccadilly, Fairyland, Nightshade

Anthony Berkeley, The Piccadilly Murder

Mild-mannered Ambrose Chitterwick is a detection enthusiast, but apart from one notable exception (detailed in The Poisoned Chocolates Case), he “detects” merely by observing people and drawing conclusions about them. During one such people-watching adventure at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, however, he actually sees a murder take place! As the star witness for the prosecution, Mr. Chitterwick is approached by the suspect’s wife, who insists that her husband is innocent and begs Chitterwick to reconsider what he saw. I very much enjoyed this Golden Age mystery; it’s well plotted, the central characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of humor in the form of Chitterwick’s formidable aunt. Definitely recommended if you like this type of thing!

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

A 12-year-old girl named September yearns for adventure, and she finds more than she expected when she is whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind. There she meets various Fairy creatures, undertakes a quest, and comes up against the sinister Marquess, who has usurped the throne of Fairy from Good Queen Mallow. This is a book I wanted to like more than I did. The writing style is interesting and unique, but I felt like the book was all style and no substance. September has a variety of adventures, but I’m not sure what was the point of them, if that makes sense. The stakes of the book are never very clear. Ultimately, I think it sort of collapses under the weight of its own whimsy. I don’t plan to continue with the series, but I would consider reading something else by Valente.

Elizabeth Daly, Deadly Nightshade

After the events of Unexpected Night, Henry Gamadge is called back to coastal Maine to assist the police with a new investigation. Several local children have eaten poisonous nightshade berries; one is now dead, and another is missing. The police suspect that someone may have intentionally given the berries to the children, but they don’t have any leads. Complicating matters is the presence of a Gypsy encampment on the outskirts of town; some of the locals view the Gypsies as convenient scapegoats, and tensions are running high. For me, this book was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I liked the writing style and the main characters. On the other hand, the mystery is extremely convoluted — I’m still not entirely sure it all makes sense — and impossible to guess in advance. So I’m still game to read more Henry Gamadge books, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one.

Mini-Reviews: Q, Manners, Shades

QMurder Is Bad MannersWell of Shades

Beth Brower, The Q

Quincy St. Claire has put her heart and soul into The Q, a popular publication owned by her Great-Uncle Ezekiel. When Ezekiel dies, she expects to inherit The Q, but she soon discovers that there are conditions attached to the inheritance. She must complete 12 undisclosed tasks within a year, or she’ll lose The Q; and she’ll be supervised in these tasks by James Arch, Ezekiel’s solicitor, whom Quincy thoroughly dislikes. This is a self-published novel, and it shows a bit; the plot tends to meander, and there are several intriguing characters on the sidelines whose stories should have been more developed. But I really enjoyed this book nonetheless; it’s part romance, part coming-of-age tale as Quincy learns what’s really important in life. The setting is great, and I’d love to read more books set in this world! I am definitely interested in reading more by Brower.

Robin Stevens, Murder Is Bad Manners

In a British boarding school in the 1930s, Hazel Wong stands out for being the only student from Hong Kong. Luckily, she’s best friends with Daisy Wells, a quintessentially English girl whose good looks and pleasant demeanor distract everyone — well, everyone but Hazel — from the fact that she’s also highly intelligent. Daisy and Hazel have formed a secret detective society, but so far their cases have been mundane and easy to solve. That is, until Hazel discovers the body of their science teacher on the floor of the gymnasium! I really enjoyed this book; not only is the mystery surprisingly satisfying for a middle-grade novel, but I also loved Hazel and was fascinated by her relationship with Daisy. They may be best friends, but Hazel is often relegated to the role of sidekick. Fortunately, she starts to realize this and to come into her own more as the book goes on. Overall, I liked this a lot and will definitely plan to continue with the series.

Juliet Marillier, The Well of Shades

I read the first two books in the Bridei trilogy years ago, and I finally decided to pick up this final installment. It focuses mainly on Faolan, Bridei’s trusted spy and assassin, who is on the road once again on a mission for Bridei. Things quickly go wrong when Faolan meets Eile, a 16-year-old girl who is clearly trapped in an abusive household. Faolan helps Eile and her daughter to escape, then decides they must travel with him so that he can keep them safe. Meanwhile, intrigue surrounds Bridei’s court once again: one of his biggest allies seems to have betrayed him; his trusted adviser, Broichan the druid, has disappeared; and a group of Christian monks is asking to live in Bridei’s lands, threatening their traditional way of life. I’m glad I finally finished this series, especially because Faolan was one of my favorite characters and I wanted to see a happy resolution for him. I really liked the Faolan/Eile chapters, but I found some of the other sections less interesting, especially everything involving Broichan. Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and it’s reminded me how much I like Juliet Marillier in general!

Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!

Review: Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

Chronicles of Chrestomanci vol 1Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

In Charmed Life, Cat Chant is alone in the world except for his sister Gwendolen: their parents died in a steamboat accident when they were very young, and they have no family except each other. Gwendolen is a gifted witch, and her talents soon outstrip the capabilities of the local magic teacher. So when Cat and Gwendolen are invited to live with the Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter in the world and governor of all magic, Gwendolen is ecstatic — until it becomes clear that Chrestomanci won’t teach her any magic. As Gwendolen plots her revenge, Cat gradually realizes that he may have unsuspected talents of his own. The Lives of Christopher Chant takes place 25 years earlier and gives the backstory of how the Chrestomanci came to be. Christopher is able to travel between worlds while he’s dreaming. When other magicians discover this talent and seek to use it for their own ends, Christopher is caught in a battle between good and evil — but which side is he really on?

I dimly recall reading Charmed Life as a child, but I’d forgotten almost all the details. It was a pleasure to revisit the book, which perfectly depicts Cat’s alienation and confusion as he is thrust into a new environment. And I adored Christopher in both books — he’s such a fun enigma as the Chrestomanci, but his origin story makes him an even more interesting and fleshed-out character. In both cases, I felt that the books ended just as they were getting interesting: Cat learns something important about himself, but we don’t get to see what he does with that knowledge. Similarly, Christopher survives his first test as Chrestomanci, but I wanted to see more of his story as he grows into his power. There are a few more books set in this world, so perhaps they’ll fill in some of the blanks, but I was a bit frustrated that these books both ended where they did! Still, I enjoyed both of these books a lot and will continue with the Chronicles of Chrestomanci.

Mini-Reviews: Midwife’s, Check, Talking

Midwife's ApprenticeCheck Me OutTalking as Fast as I Can

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Catherine, Called Birdy was one of my favorite books as a child, but I don’t think I’d ever read The Midwife’s Apprentice by the same author. It’s about a young girl in medieval England who is completely alone; she begins the novel by sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm. But the village midwife eventually takes her in as a servant/apprentice, and the girl’s life improves somewhat. Eventually she learns enough about midwifery to make herself useful, makes a friend, and even gets a name of her own: Alyce. But when Alyce makes a mistake in her work, she runs away, certain that everyone will hate her. Will she ever find a place she truly belongs? I was charmed by this book and wish I had read it as a child; while it’s not a keeper for me now, I would definitely recommend it to elementary schoolers!

Becca Wilhite, Check Me Out

I really liked the premise of this book, with its librarian heroine and Cyrano vibes, but the execution was disappointing. Twenty-four-year-old Greta loves her job and her BFF Will, but she hasn’t managed to find romance yet. That is, until she meets dreamy Mac in the poetry section, and he sweeps her off her feet with his good looks and romantic texts. The trouble is, in person he’s not as sweet or witty as he is in print. Meanwhile, the library is in danger of shutting down, so Greta embarks on a series of fundraising schemes to save it. I thought the library-related stuff was interesting, and the book did a good job of covering the complexities of the situation (community benefits vs. budget, historical value of the library vs. need for a modern, accessible space). But the romance was frustrating for me; I felt Greta was clueless and shallow, and her descriptions of Will (who is overweight) were downright cruel at times. Overall, I was disappointed in this book and wouldn’t recommend it.

Lauren Graham, Talking as Fast as I Can: From “Gilmore Girls” to “Gilmore Girls” and Everything in Between

A fun celebrity memoir by Lauren Graham, best known for her roles as Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman on Parenthood. As a huge Gilmore fan and someone who has always admired Lauren Graham, I was definitely the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it overall. It doesn’t delve very deeply into Gilmore Girls, which I was a little disappointed by, but upon reflection it makes sense: Gilmore was legendary for its long hours and demanding showrunner who expected every line to be word-perfect, so it makes sense that Graham would be reticent about the probable difficulties of working on the show. She obviously feels much more warmly about Parenthood, a show I stopped watching after season 1. Still a worthwhile read for fans of either show, and Graham has a funny, likable voice. But Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs are still my favorites in this genre.

Review: Greenglass House

Greenglass HouseKate Milford, Greenglass House

”There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.” Thus begins the story of 12-year-old Milo Pine and his parents, who manage an inn called Greenglass House in a port city that is heavily populated with smugglers. But the smuggling business tends to die down in winter, so Milo is looking forward to an uneventful Christmas vacation with his family. His hopes for a quiet Christmas are dashed, however, when several strangers arrive at Greenglass House for an indefinite stay, and then a bad snowstorm effectively traps them all in the inn together. Then several of the guests’ belongings mysteriously go missing, and it becomes obvious that there’s a thief in their midst. Not only that, but each of the guests seems to have a connection to Greenglass House or to be interested in its history. Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, decide to investigate the guests, uncover the thief, and unearth the secrets of Greenglass House. But their search, while exciting, may turn out to be more dangerous than they ever imagined.

I must admit, I picked up this book primarily because of the gorgeous cover, but I’m pleased to say that the story does live up to it! It’s not quite the story I was expecting; I was picturing a little more action in the plot, when in fact it’s a pretty quiet story up until the last chapter or two. The novel actually contains layers of stories: First, Milo is reading a book in which several travelers meet in a tavern and exchange tales. Second, he and Meddy create fictional alter egos based on a roleplaying game similar to Dungeons and Dragons. And third, the guests of Greenglass House each tell a story and thus reveal their reasons for coming to the inn. I found this structure surprisingly complex for a middle-grade novel, but it does a nice job of bringing together all the threads of the plot. One interesting aspect of Milo’s character is that he’s adopted — he is of Chinese descent, while his parents are not — so he wrestles with questions about his heritage, while also worrying about hurting his beloved parents’ feelings. I don’t have personal experience with adoption, but I think the issue is handled sensitively here. Overall, I’d recommend this to people who want a cozy, atmospheric winter read, or for smart kids who loved The Westing Game and want more.

Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Review: The Star of Kazan

star of kazanEva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan

Twelve-year-old Annika has never known her parents, but she has grown up surrounded by the love of her kind guardians. Her childhood has been largely carefree: she helps with the cooking and household chores, goes to school, and plays with her friends and neighbors in the little square in Vienna where she lives. But she still dreams of the day when her long-lost mother — who will naturally be beautiful, elegant, and kind — will come looking for her. One day the dream comes true, and Annika is overjoyed when her mother whisks her away to live with her “real” family. But as she spends more time with her biological relatives, she is confused and hurt by their indifference, and she eventually learns that their interest in her may have an ulterior motive.

Ibbotson’s books are the ultimate comfort reads, in my opinion — they’re so sweet and old-fashioned, extolling the virtues of community, kindness, and generosity. This one is geared toward younger readers, which makes some aspects of the plot a little simplistic, particularly the “mystery” of Annika’s newfound relatives and their inconsistent treatment of her. But the book is still very charming, and it paints an absolutely beautiful picture of both Vienna and the Austrian countryside. I’m not normally into books with lots of descriptive details, but this novel really makes me want to visit Austria! I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Annika’s friends Pauline (who is afraid of everything but eventually conquers her fears to help Annika) and Zed (a servant who has a way with horses). Overall, this book hit that happy comfort spot for me, and I would recommend it, along with any of Ibbotson’s other books.

Review: Frogkisser!

Frogkisser!Garth Nix, Frogkisser!

Princess Anya of Trallonia just wants to live peacefully at home, mingling with the Royal Dogs and studying a bit of sorcery in the palace library. But her wicked step-stepfather, the powerful sorcerer Duke Rikard, wants the throne of Trallonia for himself, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He’s already eliminated several threats to his power by transforming them into frogs—including Prince Denholm from a neighborhing kingdom, who is smitten with Anya’s sister Morven. Anya promises the distraught Morven that she’ll transform Prince Denholm back into a human, but she’ll need to leave the palace to acquire the proper magical ingredients to reverse the spell. She sets forth on her quest with Ardent, one of the most loyal and intelligent Royal Dogs, only to discover that Duke Rikard has sent spies and assassins after her. As Anya and Ardent race against time to complete their quest, Anya meets many new friends and foes, including a thief in the body of a newt, an angry giant, a good wizard, and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She also finds that the people of her kingdom are depending on her to defeat Duke Rikard and reestablish the ancient Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But are Anya and her allies strong enough to survive against Duke Rikard and his band of evil sorcerers?

I enjoyed this charming middle-grade fantasy adventure. I found Anya to be a very appealing heroine, especially because she grows as a character throughout the novel. At the outset she is practical and kind, but she’s also a little bit selfish and ignorant about what’s going on in her kingdom. Initially she thinks her quest is limited to transforming Prince Denholm back into a man; she doesn’t want to fight Duke Rikard, and she’s not particularly interested in the Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But the more she learns about the people around her, the more she realizes that she has a responsibility to step up and be the leader they need. I also enjoyed the little flashes of humor throughout the story; at times I was reminded of Terry Pratchett. I absolutely loved the good wizard and the subversive take on Snow White! My only quibble with the book is that the tone is a bit inconsistent. At its core it’s a story for children, complete with talking dogs and the heroine learning a valuable lesson, but there are occasional sly jokes that seem intended for an adult audience. The narrative isn’t played entirely straight, but it’s not exactly a spoof or parody either. Still, there’s a lot to like in this book, and I’d recommend it for people who enjoy a light fantasy frolic.