Friday, September 30, 2011

Review - "The Midnight Tunnel"

I've said before that mysteries were not really my thing growing up, but I'm really starting to come around. There's something about an intrepid young detective that sparks my interest now. I don't know if it's the danger, the smarts or the twists and turns these young ladies (for it always seems to be a young ladies) face that are reaching out to me or if it's something else entirely, but I've just about turn around into a mystery convert. The latest young lady to take the stage is eleven-year-old Suzanna Snow, star of Angie Frazier's The Midnight Tunnel.
It's 1904, and another summer has come for Suzanna, of Zanna, at the Rosemount Hotel, which her parents manage. This summer, Zanna is apprenticed in the kitchen, but she'd much rather be out and about, taking notations in her notebook, honing her skills as a detective, just like her famous Uncle Bruce, who lives and works in Boston. Even though she takes notice of every small little thing (and you always know those small details will come back), Zanna hardly dreams that she'll soon be in the middle of an honest to goodness mystery when a young girl, a guest at the hotel, goes missing one stormy night. Zanna thinks she saw Maddie being taken away on the night in question, but she can't get any of the adults to take her seriously. So of course, this calls for some on the side investigation. Aided by Will, her Uncle Bruce's nephew, Zanna follows clue to clue through to the logical conclusion and, of course, saves the day.
What I like most about Zanna is her willingness to bend the rules to get what she wants or needs. She's not reckless or hurtful, just independent, like sleuths Flavia de Luce and Enola Holmes before her (ok, Flavia is occasionally hurtful, I'll give you that). She respects her parents, and tries to obey her mother's rules of "social taboos", but sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. I liked her indignation when the search for Maddie slows down and people start to lose interest in the little girl's safety. Zanna's got spirit, yes she does. The setting for this mystery is another high point. With open beaches, long, dark tunnels and junk rooms filled with debris, the locations provided an excellent atmospheric backdrop to the action. What Frazier's really done is given us a solid mystery that's easy to follow, even when it has many balls up in the air, and a delightful new character to add to the pantheon of great girl detectives. I look forward to more Suzanna Snow mysteries, as I certainly hope there will be more to come.
The Midnight Tunnel: A Suzanna Snow Mystery, by Angie Frazier
2011, Scholastic
Library copy

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quickie Review - "The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic"

Heroic adventures can start in so many different ways. They can start with prophesies and magical destinies, or they can start with something as simple as the wind blowing away your hat while you trek through the forest. This is how the adventures of Persimmony Smudge begin in The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton. They begin with such a simple act of losing her hat, but they continue on, leading her into a face-off with a poison-tongued jumping tortoise, into the throne room of a rotten boy king and into the super secret domain of the Leaf Eaters. The story in Trafton's debut novel is light, fluffy and full of life. It rarely gets more than skin deep, but that's okay. Persimmony and her colorful supporting cast of characters skim the surface of the fantasy on nimble feet. The wonderful mood of the book is helped tremendously by the illustrations of Brett Helquist, who always makes things better, I find. All in all, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic is a splendidly enjoyable first novel, and Trafton is certainly someone I will be looking out for in the future.

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton
2010, Dial Books
Library copy

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review - "Kat, Incorrigible"

I don't believe I've yet done any "meets" in this blog.  As in, 'this book is A meets B'.  It can sometimes be a lazy way to describe books, and sometimes a very creative way to do so.  Describing The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place as "Lemony Snicket meets Jane Eyre meets Call of the Wild" certainly sticks in one's mind.  For Stephanie Burgis' debut novel, I can't resist the urge to throw out a "meets".  It's "Jane Austen meets Harry Potter meets Our Only May Amelia".  Gotcha, didn't I?
 In Kat, Incorrigible, the titular heroine lights up her narration with a tremendous opening: "I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.  I made it almost to the end of my front garden".  What a cracker of a beginning, eh?  The first sentence has you raring in your seat, ready for adventure, and the second plops you unceremoniously back down to earth with a bit of a laugh as a consolation prize.  It also gives you a good idea of time and place without being specific.  The impending ruin in question is the proposed marriage between her eldest sister Elissa and the possibly homicidal Sir Neville.  The marriage is being arranged to help lift the family out of debt and save reckless brother Charles from debtor’s prison.  You see, Kat’s family has its troubles, and has its secrets too.  Kat’s mother was practiced magic, and sister Angeline may be attempting to follow in her footsteps when she hides away her mother’s spell books.
 When Kat, Elissa and Angeline, along with their imposing Stepmama arrive at a stately manor for a house party, things really start to get interesting.  Kat must deal with the magic she’s unleashed from her mother’s cabinet, while juggling her sisters’ love lives and trying to escape the clutches of the sinister Sir Neville, who knows more about Kat and her magic than he lets on.  There’s a daring dinner party, a dastardly highwayman and lots of popping in and out of magic rooms.  And like many a tale from Miss Austen and her contemporaries, there’s a last minute discovery that changes the landscape and resolves our sisters troubles.
 What I found most charming about Kat, Incorrigible was Kat herself.  She’s clever and full of spirit, and will have nothing to do with “simpering females”.  She has a bit of my beloved May Amelia in her, in her youngest sibling spunk and her desire for adventure.  She’s positively abuzz with the possibility of being hijacked by a highwayman.  Equally entertaining and clearly drawn are Kat’s sisters, especially Angeline, who has some secrets of her own to keep.  I loved the way Burgis created her sisterly dynamic.  It’s very realistic and relatable, while at the same time keeping with the novel’s place and time.  I know this is going to be a series, and I look forward to what lies ahead for Kat and her sisters.
 There’s an audience for this book, though I’m a little lost on who exactly that might be.  I would definitely recommend it for fans of aforementioned Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (must be something about that word: incorrigible) and of the similarly spunky Enola Holmes.  I don’t get a lot of Jane Austen fans in my department, but I can grab some fans of historical fiction.  I would say fans of Harry Potter (which covers such a huge span), but I’m not sure most boys would go for Kat, and not every Potter fan will go for her particular brand of magic.  In any case, I’m going to look for Kat’s audience, because this is just the kind of book I relish putting in the hands of just the right reader.
 Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
2011, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Backlist files - "The Teashop Girls"

The Teashop Girls
This is a book that had me at hello. That is, it had me from its very pleasing book cover in complimentary pastel colors and promise of tea and cake. It has been a space of two and a half years, however, between that first glance and my chance to actually, you know, read the book. What I got was not exactly what I wanted, but it was a pleasant distraction for a day of lousy weather and a generally good read. Thirteen year old Annie has just taken a job as a barista at her Grandmother Louisa's tea shop, Steeping Leaf, when she finds out her beloved family hangout may be going out of business for good. Rallying her best friends, Genna and Zoe, Annie tries to find ways to fight back against the coffee conglomerate across the street. Speckled with tea advertisements, recipes and stories, The Teashop Girls is a light, quick read, with little to challenge you, but conversely, little to vex you. I enjoyed the characters, though they were thinly drawn, and I was pleased with the ending, which I have to admit I wasn't expecting. This is definitely a good read for a day at the beach or the pool, or wrapped up in a blanket when the weather is foul, with a scone and your favorite cup of tea.

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer
2008, Simon & Schuster
Library copy