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.

 

Reviews With Lilah: Sticks and Stones (Upside-Down Magic #2)


Lilah (age 8 at the time) loved the first Upside-Down Magic book by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. And I mean LOVED it. I appreciated the message and thought it was cute, but she loved it. I think she reread it immediately after we finished reading it aloud and asked regularly if the sequel was out yet. She repeated jokes from the book and said things out of the blue like, “Remember when Nory turned into the dritten? That was so funny!” I spent probably excessive amounts of time trying to figure out why I didn’t love it the way she did. It’s an easier reading level than say, the Harry Potter books, shorter (208 pages), and geared a bit younger, but there are similar series (the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors is one) that I find immersive and engaging instead of plodding through. Naturally, after the sequel was out, we needed to reread both books after reading #2, giving me a chance to sort out where the series disappointed me.

In short, there’s so much potential, but the follow through is superficial, and that’s a shame, because the well-executed parts really shine. I’m not sure if it’s a problem of fiction-by-committee (three authors for 200 pages seems excessive), or a focus on the message (diversity is good; be yourself) at the expense of character development and world building. The message is a good one, and the series stands out in its diversity (both in magical ability and in race/background). The first book is told from the point of view of Nory, a Fluxer (Fluxing is one of five types of magic, involving changing into animals) whose magic is “wonky.” She tries to keep her magic under control for her audition for the fancy school where her jerk of a father is headmaster, but she turns into a dritten (dragon + kitten), so her father sends her to live with her Aunt Margo to go to the Upside Down Magic class at a public school in another town. This *inappropriate language redacted* not only refuses to talk to her, he’s forbidden her siblings to contact her as well. Yet Nory is barely bothered by this. She thinks about it a couple of times, but it’s not the huge looming presence in her life you’d expect.

I have so many questions about this world and the nature and history of upside down magic. There are five types of magic, and children first demonstrate their type around their tenth birthday. The next school year, they switch to magic school, where along with the usual school subjects they learn their particular type of magic. Until that time, I guess they just try to control their new magic? At schools with no upside down magic (UDM) class, what happens to kids with unusual magic? Are they sent away somewhere else? Are they left to struggle in their assigned class? This isn’t clear. Does type of magic and/or unusual magic run in families? Also unclear. They don’t seem to learn much about magic up through grade four, or be prepared for the possibility of unusual magic, so it’s unclear how unusual it is to fall outside normal parameters for a magic type. Ms. Starr refers to a time when unusual magic was revered, but there’s no explanation as to why this changed. The lack of worldbuilding is so frustrating.

The first book focuses on Nory getting used to the other UDM students and dealing with being called names by the normal students. She and Elliott, an upside-down Flare, decide to try to pass as normal and get out of UDM. In the second book, the point of view is split between Nory and Bax, a Fluxer who only turns into a rock. Splitting POV in a 200-page book makes things even more superficial. The main plot is a mystery: someone is turning things to stone at school and the UDM kids are suspected, so the resident mean girl starts a petition to get rid of the UDM kids as too dangerous. The solution proves to be fairly obvious (to me and to Lilah). 

A secondary plot involves individual tutoring for the UDM kids, and this is where the potential of the series is really obvious. Nory and Bax are assigned to Coach, whose rah-rah attitude, obsession with Kittenball (the sport of young Fluxers; professional-level is Tigerball), and belief in healthy foods makes him a caricature at first. He’s excited about having Nory’s dritten on the Kittenball team and ignores Bax at first. But he quickly becomes a more nuanced character, with real insights and compassion for Nory and Bax. This character development stands out in the series, and by comparison other characters seem like sketches.

Lilah gives this book all the stars for creativity, but I’m rating it only okay. Maybe the third book will improve on the limited worldbuilding and lack of character development, but I’m not optimistic. Great idea and message, so-so execution.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Reviews With Lilah: The Ninja Librarians: Sword in the Stacks by Jen Swann Downey


Lilah (age 9) and I read this sequel to THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND out loud. For me, it took a while to get moving, but it held Lilah’s interest from the start. Here’s what happens when you buck middle-grade fantasy tradition, which prefers dead, absent, or oblivious parents: the observant and involved parents have to be convinced to allow the heroes to pursue their fantastical adventures. This takes the first two chapters, which dragged a bit for me but sums up the backstory and first book well. Then the third chapter is getting through the public library, and then we’re finally back in Petrarch’s Library. From this point, we were constantly disappointed when it was time to put the book away for the night, and we stayed up too late more than once.

Dorrie is poring over the available practicums, including “Swords, Daggers, and Coffee Can Tops: A General Survey of Sharp Edges and Their Uses,” “Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Communication Maddeningly Secret,” and “Damp Dungeons, Desolate Moors, and Dreary Parties: How To Survive Inimical Environments With Style,” when she learns she won’t be apprenticed to Savi, her beloved sword fighting tutor. Instead, she’ll spend the term assisting the Archivist, a crazy old man who reads excessive quantities of oranges out of books. But she, Marcus, and Ebba are too busy for Dorrie to dwell too much on this: they have an Athenian musician whose fate they are sort of responsible for, a secret or two hidden away in a new library, and an anti-suffragette newspaper to save. Meanwhile, the Foundation is gaining power it plans to use to take control of the written word in all wherens (time-places).

The sibling relationship between Marcus and Dorrie is believable and often funny. Marcus’s crush on Egeria adds plenty of comic relief in the midst of serious adventures. There is a really interesting discussion of means and ends–in the context of whether to torture a prisoner to save other lives–that was quite well done and sophisticated for a middle-grade fiction book. There is also a discussion of the importance of defending all writing, even abhorrent writing, that runs through one of the main plotlines. And another theme involves the true meaning of courage in the face of fear, so the comic relief is very welcome. 

Downey balances the lighter “magical boarding school” elements nicely with the “fighting evil” plot. Dorrie, Matcus, and Ebba get away with really impressive amounts of rule breaking with few consequences, and I occasionally found myself thinking the library needed a McGonnagal or a Snape patrolling the corridors, but this is a minor quibble. We couldn’t wait to read the end, and then we were sad it was over. One last plot twist at the very end should wind up being very important in the third book, and Lilah and I actually gasped at the revelation and then sighed over having to wait another year or so for the third book.

Highly recommended, but it’ll be more fun if you read THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND first.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title via NetGalley.

Reviews With Lilah: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey


Obviously, I was going to read a book called THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, and Lilah (age 9) was excited about reading it aloud. She wanted to make sure I put in my review that it’s awesome, so: it’s awesome.

Downey starts off the story telling the reader how ordinary twelve-year-old Dorrie is: “thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.” Dorrie is unusual in one way, though: she longs to fight with a sword in real life, not just at Mr. Louis P. Kornberger’s Passaic Academy of Swordplay and Stage Combat. She also lives in one wing of an old mansion owned by her great-aunt Alice, who has mysterious visitors, with her parents, her fourteen-year-old brother, Marcus, and her four-year-old sister, Miranda, whose habit of stealing shiny things will affect the story. After agreeing to duel with snotty Tiffany (a real fencer) at the Pen and Sword Festival, Dorrie ends up chasing a mongoose named Moe into the public library and, with her brother, plunges through a supernatural portal into Petrarch’s Library, a library outside space-time with archways leading to “spoke” libraries at many different “wherens” (points in space-time). The lybrarians (with a Y) of Petrarch’s Library use these archways to defend the written word from all who would suppress it, particularly the Foundation. Several lybrarians and apprentices are suspicious of Dorrie and Marcus, but they are allowed to train while they wait for the new opening they fell through to cool off so they can return home.

It’s a complicated setup, but Downey introduces it gradually and with great attention to detail. We learn as Dorrie and Marcus do, so the worldbuilding is integrated into the story and doesn’t feel overly expository. And it’s a fun premise. The lybrarians execute missions in different wherens to protect the written word and defend those whose words are censored. But there’s a traitor in their midst, and Marcus and Dorrie (along with their new friend, Ebba, an apprentice) will have to find out who it is while searching for a missing page to the History of Histories and trying to get an ancient Greek musician acquitted of blasphemy. Dorrie wants to help her sword fighting tutor win the woman of his dreams, and Marcus is mooning after the lovely Egeria, so the plot is jam-packed.

Downey works plenty of historical figures and literary references into the book (with a helpful reference guide at the end). The strong anti-censorship mission is irresistible, and the plot moves quickly enough to make it a difficult book to put down. Lilah and I both recommend it highly.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond by Jayne Barnard


I find the details of steampunk irresistible; if they’re done well, I overlook deficiencies of plot or character development. So imagine my delight at a fun steampunk novel that also provides a memorable heroine and an absorbing mystery AND is surely the start of a series.

Maddie Hatter is the alter ego of Madeleine Main-Bearing, wealthy daughter of a Steamlord. Maddie is a fashion writer in Egypt hoping for a story that will give her more meaningful reporting jobs than what gloves the ladies in Cairo are wearing, when her potential big break falls from the skies–Baron Bodmin has disappeared while seeking the Eye of Africa, a priceless diamond. If Maddie can find either the baron or the diamond, her career will skyrocket. But when the mystery leads her back to England, she has to tread carefully–revealing her identity would incur her powerful father’s wrath.

The steampunk world Barnard has created is rich in detail. Maddie’s clockwork bird in particular is inspired, and even steals a scene or two. There are nods to Agatha Christie, Clue, and Indiana Jones (and Alice in Wonderland, of course), which add to the fun. Maddie is an engaging heroine, and her decision to abandon her birthright in favor of adventure and a career makes her a sympathetic one. She’s smart and capable, but asks for help when she needs it. There are plenty of clues and red herrings to keep Maddie and the reader guessing until the end.

A throughly enjoyable steampunk mystery.

Source disclosure: I purchased this e-book.

Reviews With Lilah: Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher


If I were into one-word reviews, this one is “charming.” If I’m allowed a second word, it’s “utterly charming.” But I’m rarely so concise. This is the delightful story of Madeleine, whose neglectful parents send her to her uncle’s restaurant to work every summer. Madeleine loves to cook, but Uncle Lard (characters have food-related last names, which adds to the fairy-tale feel) treats her as Cinderella. One day, he sends her on an errand to buy more pate, and she stumbles upon Madame Pamplemousse’s otherworldly shop, which is filled with exotic delicacies. Monsieur Lard becomes obsessed with finding out Madame Pamplemousse’s secrets and sends Madeleine as his spy. What will she find out and, more importantly, how will she use the knowledge?

This reminded me of a shorter Roald Dahl book. Even the little drawings are reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s illustrations. It has a timeless feel, a larger than life villain, a discovery of something magical, and a plucky heroine. Lilah and I both loved it. Character last names are a bonus treat for anyone with a little knowledge of French, and Paris is beautifully evoked. This was a delightful read-aloud, both sweet and a little gross (just like Dahl).
Source disclosure: This book was received as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein


I gave this one three stars on Goodreads because Lilah (age 9) loved the first one and was happy to return to some of the same characters. There’s also a plotline about banning books that, while simplistic, spurred a good conversation about censorship. But the sequel lacks the charm of the first book, has fewer puzzles to solve, and suffers from a less compelling plot, all of which makes the flat characters and lack of character development harder to ignore.

Kyle Keeley and his friends are enjoying the fame they attained in the first book, but all across the country, kids are complaining that it’s unfair and they could have done better. Mr. Lemoncello decides to organize the first Library Olympics to pit carefully selected students from various parts of the US against Kyle and his teammates in a series of challenges, with college tuition as an incentive to win. The most memorable competitor is Marjory Muldauer from the Midwest team, a snotty know-it-all with the Dewey Decimal System memorized, determined to take down Kyle and friends. Meanwhile, Charles Chiltington and his mother are trying to take control of the fantastic library and make it boring.

There are too many contestants (32) and too many games (12), and the fun is simply stretched to the breaking point. In the first book, Mr. Lemoncello is the Willy Wonka of books; in the second book, he was so over-the-top that he annoyed me (but not Lilah). The Olympics kicks off with a book cart relay race, which wasn’t particularly fun to read about, and progresses to a few interesting games along with others like paper airplane folding and video games that fell flat for me. A couple of the games are just summarized. Very few of the contestants have any real presence in the book, so I’m lost as to the reason for including so many. One character from the first book is abruptly removed. There are some ridiculous plot twists at the end to wrap things up neatly, if somewhat predictably. 

There is an emphasis on banned books and freedom of expression that partly overcomes these disappointments, however. And the portrayal of books and libraries as fun places is always a good thing. Lilah wants me to write that the book was really fun, and she’s in the age range for it, so perhaps I’m overly critical. But there are middle grade books I love reading aloud, and others I can’t wait to be done with, and this was the latter.

We will definitely be checking out Flora and Ulysses, which plays a prominent role in this book.

Source disclosure: This book was received as a gift.