Another Pop Classic From Quirk Books

The X-Files: Earth Children Are Weird is a hit for my two year old and for me. Little Fox and Dana are camping in the backyard. Fox is nervous about the strange lights and sounds, and Dana reveals their harmless origins…until they’re both spooked at the end! The illustrations are cute and quirky and the story clever. It holds my toddler’s interest and warms my Scully-adoring heart. Squee-hoo!

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

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Not exactly Halloween, but Halloween-adjacent

Quirk’s Pop Classics have darling illustrations and cute stories. Obviously Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t appropriate for a toddler, but this picture book lets me have a little thrill every time my two year old asks to read “Buffy book!”

In this alternative history, Buffy goes to elementary school with Willow and Xander. She has a secret: she’s afraid of the dark. During a sleepover, the friends are frightened by noises coming from the closet, so they go to school librarian Giles for help. The illustrations are packed with fun details for the Buffy fan and still manage to be appealing to toddlers. The message about facing your fears and sticking together is lovely and well-executed. My toddler and I both love this one.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Halloween books: The Witch’s Supermarket

The Witch’s Supermarket follows Helen and her dog, Martha (who will eventually eat alphabet soup and star in Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks series), as they follow an old lady into a very strange supermarket on Halloween. Helen is dressed as a witch and Martha (grumpily) as a cat, so no one notices their trespassing at first. My two-year-old happily sits through this one even with so much text, and we both love the detail on the illustrations (witches go shopping for some truly gross items!). This is a very fun little Halloween story for preschoolers and early elementary school children.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Halloween picture books continued

I Am A Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster isn’t strictly a Halloween book, because the little girl in the story wears her cat costume year-round. She explains the reasons she knows her mom is a witch: she grows magical plants, makes potions, and cackles over spellbooks with her fellow witches.

There’s a lot to love here. The imaginative little girl and her mother have a sweet relationship and do many activities together. On Friday nights, the mom takes a break from being a witch while her cat stays with a babysitter. This is a positive portrayal of a loving single mom who needs time to herself, and a positive portrayal of babysitting.

The artwork is a combination of traditional illustration and really extraordinary paper and mixed-media constructions that Muncaster has photographed, which give a whimsical feel that complements the story beautifully.

Happy Halloween, Witch’s Cat finds the little girl unable to decide on a Halloween costume as she considers her options with her patient mother. Each option is a different color, making this one a color primer as well as a Halloween book. At the end, the little girl finds a creative solution.

My two-year-old and I read these over and over. The stories are simple and sweet and the illustrations perfectly matched.

Source disclosure: I purchased these books.

Halloween picture books!

We used to do Picture Book Thursday on On My Bookshelf (and there are still reviews up there!) and since I’ve been reading Halloween books with my two-year-old nonstop, I thought Thursday would be a good time to start posting about some of our favorites.

Today’s is Ten Timid Ghosts by Jennifer O’Connell, and this may be the current favorite. This is a countdown-from-ten book, and it’s one of the better ones. The story is cute, the rhymes aren’t forced, the rhythm doesn’t trip me up as I read it aloud, and the pictures have delightful little details we both enjoy. A witch has moved into a haunted house and she wants the resident ghosts to leave. She scares them away one by one, using various disguises and props. But the ghosts won’t give up that easily!

My only complaint is that the stylized, ghostly numbers on each page aren’t the best for number recognition. I don’t get bored or annoyed reading it aloud over and over (which is good, because we read it eleven times this morning), and my daughter points out details in the pictures and has started to chant along as I read. She liked it last year, but it’s perfect for her at two, almost three. I expect it’ll still be popular next year.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Lies by T. M. Logan

I’ve had trouble breaking my unintentional book reviewing hiatus, but I’m irritated enough that I stayed up too late finishing this book to sit down and write a post.

LIES intrigued me at the beginning: “I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t seen her car that day.” Joe, a happily married teacher who takes care of his four-year-old son while his ambitious wife, Mel, focuses on her career, makes a fateful U-turn when William says, “Mommy car!” as they are driving home. They decide to surprise Mommy, who has parked at a hotel. Joe witnesses a tense discussion between Mel and their sort-of friend Ben, a high-powered app developer. He has a run-in with Ben in the parking garage, and shortly after that, Ben disappears and Joe’s Facebook account is hacked. Other strange technological things start happening as the police investigate and begin to narrow their focus to Joe, who behaves increasingly irrationally as everything he cares about is taken from him.

This book was compelling in a “I can’t stop eating these potato chips even though I know I’ll regret eating the whole bag later” kind of way. I did not see the twist coming, but the shock was more because I couldn’t fathom such a weak ending that threw away the little character development the book had.

I don’t have to like a first-person narrator, but he does need to have some character development. Joe was bland in the extreme. He had very little personality, and the other characters weren’t much better. I was morbidly curious how events would play out, but I really didn’t care about Joe. Joe makes bad decisions that result in high-action scenes, but that’s about it.

I’ve read other thrillers that rely on technology for suspense, so I know it can be done well. Joe scrolling through Facebook was not compelling. There were a couple of good moments where the malicious use of technology added a much-needed creep factor, but these never found any traction.

The writing is…well, take a look:

“I stared at my reflection for a moment.

“Then straightened up, took a deep breath that filled my chest.

“Chin up. Shoulders back.

“Beaten up, maybe. But not beaten. Not yet. I still had a couple cards left to play.”

I did have trouble putting the book down, but that was because I wanted to be done so I could read something else. This might be an okay beach read, but there are much better thrillers out there.

Source disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

We Are Called To Rise by Laura McBride

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We Are Called To Rise is a debut novel, one of those books where multiple points of view all come together at the end. I have mixed feelings about this one. It has a firecracker of an opening that ends up fizzling out, which was disappointing. The beginning grabbed me immediately. Avis is reaching into her sexy underwear drawer when her entire life changes with shocking news. This opening was so well done, and it goes nowhere. Avis is sidelined after this explosive scene, her character never really developed. Roberta, another point-of-view, serves as an objective reporter but isn’t developed as a character. The real story here is about Luis, a gravely injured and bitter veteran, and eight-year-old Bashkim, child of struggling refugees. Their story is what kept me reading, and it’s very well done, complicated and meaty and wrenching. I saw the ending coming, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It’s gratifying in a sense, but it feels a bit like cheating and I’m not sure it was earned. Overall, I’m glad I read it despite its flaws, and I look forward to seeing what else McBride writes.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge by Jayne Barnard

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Two words: parasol dueling. If that phrase fills you with joy, you will almost certainly love this book. I really enjoyed the first Maddie Hatter adventure, Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, and the follow-up was just as enchanting. Maddie Hatter is the alter ego of Madeleine Main-Bearing, the daughter of a Steamlord and fashion journalist. Hemmed in by her sex and social standing, she seeks freedom under a new name and disguises, thirsty for juicier stories to tell. She’s enticed to the parasol dueling academy by the promise of a scoop by the mysterious Emmy Gat. Scenes of parasol dueling absolutely steal the show here. Barnard’s descriptions of the moves from various dueling disciplines and their fanciful names are a delight. Emmy Gat’s scoop is initially a bust, but Maddie starts an acquaintance with Emmeline Gauge, daughter of an American steamlord, which gives her an interesting job as a bodyguard and a front-row view of some mysterious happenings. Complicating matters is the arrival of her father to the Gauge home.

Maddie is again a delight, and the new locale and mystery serve her well. Barnard makes the differences between American and English technology and social norms fascinating, and did I mention the fabulous parasol dueling? There are plenty of plot twists to keep Maddie busy and the action moving along, and new and familiar supporting characters round out the cast. My only complaints about this book are that it’s too short and I have to wait too long for the third in the series.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Reviews With Lilah: The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

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Eleven-year-old Nell Warne is sent from upstate New York to Chicago to live with her aunt after the death of her father, just before Abraham Lincoln moves into the White House. Nell continues to exchange letters with her friend Jemma, whose free black family escaped to safety in Canada. Jemma isn’t sure what happened to her father, and Nell doesn’t know exactly what happened when her daddy shot Aunt Kitty’s husband, so she’s starting out with mysteries to solve when she learns that Aunt Kitty is the first female detective of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Aunt Kitty is ambivalent about keeping Nell; she’s reluctant to drop her at the grim Home of the Friendless, but her detective life isn’t conducive to keeping a child. What else can can Nell do but make herself indispensable as an assistant detective, solving her own mysteries along the way?

Lilah and I loved this book, and we were delighted with the historical note at the end talking about the real Kate Warne, who was indeed the first female detective in America. We will be looking for more information about her life. A warning to parents of animal lovers: there is an extremely disturbing bit involving the cat at the boardinghouse. I simply skipped it since I was reading aloud. The cat’s fate isn’t explicitly told, but it’s made pretty clear, and it’s horrible. Beyond that, the book is a delight. Nell is smart and resourceful, and brings a unique perspective to the cases her aunt is working. She is an engaging heroine, and Aunt Kitty’s reluctance to keep her, and reluctance to wash her hands of her, give her a welcome complexity. We’ll be looking for more books by Kate Hannigan.

Source disclosure: This book was a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson

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Caroline Carlson’s series about The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates is an absolute favorite in our house, so Lilah was hoping very much for a fourth book in the series (though I was pretty sure at the end of three that Carlson had wrapped it up). We are still hoping for future adventures with Hilary Westfield, but we were both delighted with The World’s Greatest Detective.

The Westing Game was one of my favorites as a child, and The World’s Greatest Detective reminds me a bit of that book, in a good, non-derivative way. I was initially disappointed that Carlson had chosen to make a boy the protagonist since she’s so good at crafting strong female heroes, but Toby grew on me, and his sidekick, Ivy, is a well-drawn, complex character in her own right, and I enjoyed their growing friendship and partnership.

Toby lives with his uncle, Gabriel Montrose, a detective on Detectives’ Row, where the most famous detective is Hugh Abernathy, whose exploits are memorialized in the magazine The Sphinx, which Toby reads religiously. Uncle Gabriel is the last relative to take Toby in after the mysterious death of his parents. If he can’t make it work with Uncle Gabriel, it’s off to the orphanage with him. An invitation arrives for Uncle Gabriel to participate in a contest to determine who is the world’s greatest detective, hosted by Hugh Abernathy. Uncle Gabriel hates Hugh Abernathy, and he has a client abroad to deal with, so he refuses. With stacks of past-due bills and the $10,000 prize money in mind, Toby decides to crash the contest. He spends the weekend with a variety of memorable detectives, and of course nearly everyone has something to hide (including Toby, who is pretending that Uncle Gabriel is busy thinking in his room while Toby is doing the legwork). He meets Ivy, a budding detective in her own right, and when Hugh Abernathy turns up dead, the two children team up.

This was a really fun mystery. Lilah and I were riveted and surprised by numerous plot twists. Toby and Ivy are endearing, interesting children, and their investigative efforts are great fun. The mystery unfolds at a fast clip with lots of fun supporting characters. The ending leaves the door open for a sequel or even a series, which we are both enthusiastic about. It makes me want to start reading Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes with Lilah, and obviously The Westing Game, which we somehow have never read together.

Source disclosure: This book was a gift.