THE ACCIDENTAL ALCHEMIST by Gigi Pandian

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Look at that cover. Isn’t that an awesome cover? And it’s a sentient gargoyle who cooks delicious vegan food! I love Gigi Pandian’s Dr. Jaya Jones series, so this new series, centered on an alchemist and herbalist, should really be a no-brainer for me. But I can’t do it. I give up. After two weeks of putting this aside to read everything else available, from a ridiculous book about getting rid of clutter to the backs of cereal boxes, I’m letting this one go. At halfway through, I should care about at least one of the characters, and I should care how the story ends, and it’s extremely rare for me to put aside a book without finishing, but I just can’t keep going anymore. I don’t care who killed the guy. I don’t care what Zoe decides to do with her life.

Zoe Faust is a former alchemist who moves to Portland to start a new life. But when she unpacks the crates she had shipped from Paris, she finds a gargoyle. Who talks. And is an excellent cook. He needs her help deciphering an ancient scroll. Okay, I’m intrigued. Then a teenager breaks into her house, a dead body turns up on her doorstep, and she’s a suspect because although she’s over three hundred years old, she’s stupid enough to tell the police that she “smelled poison,” which is part of the “herbal sensitivity” we hear about CONSTANTLY. She also constantly makes smoothies and reflects on how attuned she is to the sun. Really, it’s a wonder I made it halfway into this book. It’s excruciating.

And that’s it! I feel so free now that I’ve stopped trying to read this!

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

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Summer Reads: COP TOWN by Karin Slaughter

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The sexism and racism in this book are seriously disturbing, but it takes place in the Atlanta Police Department in the 1970s, so they’re unavoidable. Maggie Lawson’s uncle and brother are also cops, but that doesn’t help her standing in the APD much. She does her brother’s laundry and endures patronizing comments and physical violence from her uncle. When her brother’s partner is shot, she knows there’s more to the story, but she’s stonewalled by the sexist cops. She’s mentored by Gail, who’s endured far worse than Maggie has in her tenure as a cop. Maggie in turn will mentor clueless Kate Murphy, a widow just starting as a cop. Women are not welcome in the APD. “The only reason they were in uniform was because the federal government had bribed the city with grants to hire them. The women weren’t exactly told to lie about their duties, but the grants dictated certain guidelines that the Atlanta Police Department was not going to follow–mixed assignments being primary among them”

Besides the rampant sexism, the department is racially segregated. Slaughter has set COP TOWN at the time Maynard Jackson is the first black mayor of Atlanta and “had finally managed to push out the old chief of police. Commissioner Reginald Eaves had taken over around the time of the Edward Spivey trial, which made a bad situation unbelievably worse. Eaves didn’t seem to care. He was on a mission to break the white power structure that had controlled the Atlanta Police Department since its inception.” What inspires racial unity on the force? Women. “As far as Maggie could tell the only thing the black and white male officers could agree on was that none of them thought women should be allowed in uniform.” As a bonus, there’s also rampant homophobia and a big dose of anti-Semitism.

Kate is incredibly naive when she starts work.

‘We’d better hurry before the colored girls get here.’

Kate glanced at the curtain splitting the room in half. She sounded horrified. ‘It’s segregated?’

‘They change back there. They can’t wear their uniforms to work.’

‘Why?’

Maggie felt her eyes narrow. She couldn’t tell if this doe-eyed look was an act or not. ‘You ever talk to a black person in Buckhead don’t have to come through the back door?’

To say that Kate and Maggie get off to a rocky start would be an understatement, but as they are shut out of the hunt for a cop-killer, they team up to follow leads the men refuse to acknowledge, risking their jobs and their lives to find a little bit of justice. Slaughter knocks this one out of the park. It’s gritty, well-researched, and realistic. She perfectly evokes a horrifying, ugly, gritty time in Atlanta without flinching once. This is a tough read, but a worthwhile one.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: The Lulu series by Hilary McKay

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Lilah and I really enjoy Lulu, a seven-year-old girl who loves animals. This early-chapter-book series features a different animal in each entry, with Lulu’s good intentions causing mayhem that’s resolved by the end. It’s a bighearted series, and though Lulu is naive, she means well, and she cares deeply about animals. Information about animal care is included in the books, and Lulu does her research so she can effectively care for each new kind of creature. The charming drawings by Priscilla Lamont are always sweet and often hilarious.

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In LULU AND THE HAMSTER IN THE NIGHT, Lulu rescues a neglected hamster from a “big girl” at her school, Emma Pond, who (like everyone) knows of Lulu’s animal rescue efforts and offers the hamster to Lulu. Since the alternative is Emma releasing the hamster into the wild, Lulu takes the hamster and immediately begins his transformation by improving his living conditions and conditioning him to accept kindness from humans. In the middle of this socialization process is Nan’s birthday. What Nan wants for her birthday is a slumber party with Lulu and her cousin Mellie. Nan doesn’t like hamsters. And she has three cats. But Lulu is reluctant to leave Ratty at home, so she sneaks him to Nan’s, disguised as a present. But Ratty escapes, leaving Mellie and Lulu to track him down before the cats do and without Nan finding out.

I enjoy reading Lulu stories out loud, and this was no exception. Lilah and I laughed quite a bit during this installment, which has the girls trying to find a way *inside* a wall, a suspicious neighbor calling the police, and trying to act casual around Nan despite their panic. The birthday party for Nan is lots of fun, with both the girls and Nan using their imaginations to create a memorable occasion. Lilah and I give this one all our thumbs up.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

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LULU AND THE HEDGEHOG IN THE RAIN has Lulu rescuing a wild hedgehog swept down the gutter by a heavy rainfall. Mellie expects Lulu to keep the hedgehog as a pet, but Lulu explains that she’s a wild animal. She makes a shelter in her garden and puts out food, but one day, the hedgehog starts trying to dig into the neighboring garden. The problem is that Charlie, who lives next door, never remembers to shut the garden gate, so Lulu is worried that the hedgehog will come to harm. And what if the hedgehog wanders into the garden beyond? She recruits several neighbors to join her Hedgehog Club, and they divvy up tasks to keep the hedgehog safe but still wild. When everyone else eventually loses interest, all the work falls to Lulu, but she perseveres.

Lulu is passionate about helping animals. She volunteers to take on extra chores to enlist her neighbors’ cooperation to protect the hedgehog, she reads up on hedgehogs in a book from the library and uses this knowledge to discourage the New Old Lady from putting out bread and milk, which make hedgehogs sick, and she doesn’t attempt to keep the hedgehog confined, no matter how much she worries. Lilah and I both enjoyed this book.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: THE THIRTEENTH MYSTERY by Michael Dahl

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Lilah and I read this one together, not realizing it’s third in a trilogy, but we weren’t at all lost and very much enjoyed it. We were both ready to go back and read the first two (OUT THE REAR WINDOW and TO CATCH A GHOST).

Nerdy Charlie Hitchcock and former bully Tyler Yu work together to solve the disappearance of Abracadabra, the founder of the Hocus Pocus Hotel, but soon Tyler disappears during a mystifying magic trick! Charlie is convinced he can find a way to the hotel’s hidden thirteenth floor and solve the mysteries.

This is a fun read, and the diagrams explaining the magic tricks are a huge part of the appeal. Lilah is fascinated by magic tricks, so the explanations for how the illusions worked were loads of fun. Tyler and Charlie are a fun pair: very different, but working together as an excellent team. There’s plenty of suspense and mystery, and the resolution had us cheering. Highly recommend this middle-grade chapter book series.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: CUPCAKE COUSINS by Kate Hannigan

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Cousins Willow and Delia are fourth-graders, too old to be flower girls. Unfortunately, Aunt Rose sees things differently, and has chosen poofy pink dresses the girls hate. In an attempt to get assigned a different job in the wedding, they bake their little hearts out.

Lilah and I both enjoyed this one, including the dessert recipes included. The girls are good-natured and they work together well. The family interactions are a lot of fun, and serious issues like job loss are touched on, but not in a heavy-handed way. Their creative approach to solving the “problem” of being flower girls makes for some funny moments.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: THE MYSTERY OF THE FALLEN TREASURE by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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This was Lilah’s first Boxcar Children mystery, and she really enjoyed it. It was a fun nostalgia trip for me, and it was fun to share it with her. The dog, Watch, is being trained as a Search and Rescue dog, and on one of his outings, he finds a backpack with jewelry in it! The Alden children must return the jewels and find out who the real thief is to clear their friend’s name.

Honestly, these are all the same. This is #132, and I’m not sure much distinguishes it from the others. These are cute, easy mysteries for the middle-grade set, and they’re just as fun as they were when I was a kid. I always enjoy the way the siblings work together and rely on each other.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: IVA HONEYSUCKLE MEETS HER MATCH by Candice F. Ransom

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This is a fun summer read for the chapter book set. Lilah and I both enjoyed Iva’s antics. Iva’s mother and aunt have decided to bring all the children (six of them!) to the beach for a week. Lilah has no idea why that made me laugh hysterically. Poor Sissy One and Sissy Two. I hope they’re well-stocked with cocktails. While the little kids do little-kid things and the teenagers do teenager things, eight-year-olds Iva and Heaven do what they do best – bicker. Iva is desperate for adventure, and yearns to prove the existence of Chessie the Chesapeake sea monster. While Heaven is off playing with a new friend, she takes her mother’s camera to document the monster…and drops it in the ocean. Her anxiety and guilt mount as her mother searches for the missing camera.

This is a funny, light, relatable read. Iva is a believable hero who reminds me a bit of Clementine. She isn’t well-behaved, though she’s a good kid. She makes mistakes, she gets too excited and doesn’t think before acting, and she’s not sure what to do when things go wrong. Her boundless enthusiasm is infectious, and her exasperation/love for her same-age cousin is endearing. Highly recommend.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

MURDER BELOW MONTPARNASSE by Cara Black

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I’d love to give this book, the thirteenth in Cara Black’s series about Parisian private investigator Aimee Leduc, five stars for setting and atmosphere but two stars for plot, character development, etc. It’s always a risk to jump in this late in a series, but the problem wasn’t that I was lost or confused; rather, I was disappointed by stereotypes and a plot that stretched credibility to the breaking point. Aimee meets up with a Russian who wants her to protect a painting (a Modigliani portrait of Lenin) and who apparently knows her estranged mother, but he is murdered and the painting missing. And then we’re off, with stereotypical Russian mobsters, stereotypical Serbian assassins, and stereotypical French art dealers all after this painting.

Aimee is unlikeable, but the real problem with her is ineptitude. How can a professional PI be injured on the job this many times? How can she be caught snooping almost constantly? There’s a subplot about her partner Rene moving to California that has no relevance to the plot, but may hold more interest for long-term series readers. One of the key plot twists was beyond absurd, and I figured out the solution ahead of time.

Still, Paris is nicely realized here, and the Russian history is fascinating. But this is a mystery novel, and as that it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: GOOD CROOKS series by Mary Amato

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MISSING MONKEY! is the first title in this series by Mary Amato. Billy and Jillian Crook just want to have a normal life and do good deeds, but their parents are crooks! After their parents steal a monkey to pick pockets for them, the siblings jump into action, donning disguises to return the monkey where he belongs. This is a high-interest early chapter book that would be great for reluctant readers. Many ridiculous antics cracked Lilah up, including monkey fingers up a nose. It’s a fun, light read with a nice message about the power of sibling love and the need to be true to yourself.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

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The Crooks are at it again! While Jillian and Billy hold a bake sale to raise money for the animal shelter, their parents steal a spoiled Hollywood poodle to hold it for ransom.  The kids going out in disguise (as old ladies) is hilarious, and of course, everything goes wrong when Jillian and Billy try to do right. Another fun entry in a high-interest early chapter book series. Lilah and I both had a blast reading this one.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: SECRET KINGDOM series by Rosie Banks

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ENCHANTED PALACE is the first book in this series by Rosie Banks. Lilah was riveted; I was a little bored. Three friends, Ellie, Summer, and Jasmine, find a mysterious box at a rummage sale. When they finally figure out how to open it, they are whisked off to a magic land where they must help Trixi the pixie save King Merry’s birthday party. The evil Queen Malice has sent thunderbolts into the magical world, and the girls must help destroy them.

The plot was pretty thin on the ground and the characters barely had two dimensions, much less three, but the magic ensured that Lilah would love it. Obviously, this is a series, since at the end we learn that the girls still have more thunderbolts to destroy. This is a perfectly serviceable fantasy quick-read marketed to girls, but nothing special.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

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UNICORN VALLEY is the second book in the series, and picks up right where ENCHANTED PALACE leaves off. The girls are after another of Queen Malice’s thunderbolts, this one in–you got it!–Unicorn Valley. Lilah would love to visit a place called Unicorn Valley, so she was once again enchanted. I was bored. Instead of King Merry’s birthday party, the event threatened this time is the Unicorn Games. This plot device gives us a deadline for destroying the thunderbolts, but also adds to the predictability. Another adequate entry in an adequate series.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.