THE DEATH COLLECTOR by Justin Richards

Posted on Updated on

“Four days after his own funeral, Albert Wilkes came home for tea.”  This sentence begins a novel that is part mystery, part historical fiction, part science fiction, and part horror–with a healthy dose of Victorian London fog.  Although few people believe the widow who claims her dead husband came home for a visit, Albert’s coworker George soon begins to suspect that someone murdered the old man to get their hands on a fragment of a scientist’s diary.  A top-secret organization recruits George to help them investigate the situation, but George begins doing some sleuthing on his own as well, with the help of a theatrical young woman named Elizabeth, who met when they both had their wallets stolen by a plucky young pickpocket.  Eddie, the pickpocket, of course gets mixed up in the mystery as well.  The trail of their individual investigations always seem to lead back to the same sinister old man in his mansion.  And there may be more than one zombie on the prowl.  The question is: can they figure out what is really going on before the maniac’s henchmen catch up with them?

The premise of this book is admittedly outrageous, but the story is truly engaging.   I definitely recommend it to those readers who are willing to put the absurdity aside and enjoy a great steampunk suspense story.  I know I did!

I listened to the audio book, narrated by Steven Pacey, which was a great performance!


Posted on Updated on

On her fourteenth birthday, Enola Holmes discovers that her eccentric mother has vanished. Even her older brother Sherlock cannot find the marquess. As her eldest brother, Mycroft, makes plans to send her away to boarding school, Enola discovers a series of clues that her mother left specifically for her, and she begins to realize that the mystery may not be quite what it seems.  Her investigation and her desire to avoid boarding school at all costs prompt Enola to flee from her brothers and seek refuge in the city of London.  With the help of her analytical mind and her gift for disguise–traits which she shares with her brother Sherlock–Enola is determined to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and any other mysteries she stumbles across along the way.  And nothing–especially not her being a girl–will stand in her way.

Springer builds a vivid and detailed picture of life in Victorian London, the poverty of the East End, and the challenges of being a woman in the nineteenth century.  Add a brilliant, snarky narrator, hilarious disguises, codes to crack, clues to unravel, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes as a rival and adversary and you have one of my favorite children’s mystery books!  The only down side to this wonderful mystery series is that its reading level is a bit more difficult than its interest level.  It is best for advanced upper elementary readers, (possibly also middle school readers) and will probably be of most interest to girls.  I highly recommend it!

Five books follow The Case of the Missing Marquess in the Enola Holmes series:
2. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3. The Case of the Bizarre Bouquet
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan
5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
6. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye


THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

Posted on Updated on

Literary detective Thursday Next lives in the strictly regulated police state of England and spends much of her life struggling under the shadow of crimes of her relatives–her fugitive time-traveling father and her dead brother who allegedly led an ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade that left England and Russia locked in the Crimean War for over a century.  But when the manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by the elusive, murderous, and perhaps insane Acheron Hades, Thursday finds that her own work is almost more than she can handle.  After killing several of Thursday’s comrades–and nearly Thursday herself–Hades kidnaps the detective’s uncle and steals his Prose Portal, a unique invention that allows a human to travel into a work of literature.  The villain uses it as a means of extortion, kidnapping characters from the original manuscripts of classic works of literature and threatening to murder them–forever altering the literary work–if his monetary demands are not met.  For Thursday, this case is beyond personal.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book!  I found the literary allusions hilarious and loved the way they were woven into the plot and this sci-fi world.  I also really liked the premise of her father’s work with the ChronoGuard of government time-travelers and wish we had gotten to see more of that.  The rest of my book group had more ambivalent feelings about the book.  Most enjoyed the literary allusions, but many disliked the sci-fi elements.  I don’t think they were fans of sci-fi in general.  It is worth noting, however–for any hard sci-fi fans out there–that there is not much description of the “sci” behind the “fi” in this one.  Still, I would personally recommend it to anyone who likes quirky mysteries and classic literature.  It’s a lot of fun!


Posted on Updated on

Junior was born with “water on the brain,” an excess of spinal fluid which caused brain damage and physical problems, including having an abnormally large head, occasional seizures, and very poor eyesight.  Despite these disadvantages and the poor treatment he receives from many of the other kids on the Reservation, however, Junior has a witty sense of humor and great talent at expressing himself through his cartoon drawings.  He is also very intelligent and frustrated by the inferior education he receives in the poverty of the Rez.  When he has the opportunity to attend a school off the reservation, Junior suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar environment where everyone else is white.  As he struggles to fit in with his new classmates and make peace with the traditions, pressures, and familial dysfunction he faces on the Reservation, Junior comes to a better understanding of his own identity and the new potential he sees in his future. 
Alexie’s novel is a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy.  Based on his own experiences growing up on an Indian Reservation, he paints an harsh and unapologetic portrait of teenage life amid poverty, alcoholism, and racism.  But it is the narrator’s endearing and sarcastic sense of humor that makes the novel irresistible.  I highly recommend this book to teens and to adults!
There is an audio book read by the author; the story is enhanced by Alexie’s great performance, but also somewhat lacking, since the cartoons illustrations which appear throughout the novel cannot be experienced in the audio format.


Posted on

When art historian Robert Langdon gets an urgent phone call claiming that an ancient cult of anti-Catholic scientists have resurfaced, he believes it is a hoax.  But when he sees a picture of a dead scientist with a symmetrical Illuminati symbol branded on his chest, he quickly realizes that the danger is real.  Max Kohler, the director of the scientific research facility where Leonardo Vetra was murdered, enlists Langdon’s aid in discovering the Illuminati’s motivation.  When Vetra’s daughter Vittoria arrives and reveals what the Illuminati stole, however, their objective becomes clear:  the Illuminati plan to use a canister of anti-matter as a bomb to destroy the Vatican in the midst of the Papal Election.  Langdon and Vittoria rush to Rome, only to discover that the Illuminati assassin has also abducted the four Prefereti cardinals, candidates for the papacy, who they plan to publicly murder in four different churches across the city.  As the Swiss Guard search Vatican City for the anti-matter bomb, Langdon races to decipher the ancient trail of the Illuminati and find the assassin before he strikes again.

If you like fast-paced plots with unexpected twists and turns, this is a gripping thriller that is difficult to put down!  If you read for rich characters and character development, however, you may be disappointed as Dan Brown sacrifices the consistency of his already somewhat flat characters in order to create the unpredictable plot twists that drive his novel.


Posted on Updated on

Rapunzel’s mother, Gothel, raised her in a beautiful home surrounded by luscious gardens–the product of Gothel’s growth magic–and a high stone wall which separated them from the outside world.  When Rapunzel grows old enough to wonder what lies beyond the wall, she disobeys her mother’s orders and climbs to the top.  There she sees the barren wasteland outside her mother’s protected garden, land stripped of all fertility by the witch’s powers and peopled by laboring peasants, Gothel’s slaves.  Rapunzel also learns that one of the peasants is her true mother, from whom Gothel stole her in infancy.  When Rapunzel confronts the witch with her new knowledge, Gothel takes her to a far off forest and imprisons her in the hollow of a tall, tall tree.  Gothel expects that her “daughter” will eventually come to her senses and choose to support the system of slavery that keeps them living in luxury.  Instead, Rapunzel grows increasingly bitter in her isolation.  Gothel’s growth magic that made the tree tall also makes Rapunzel’s hair grow quickly and soon she has enough to create a lasso to help her in her escape.  Teaming up with a young thief named Jack, Rapunzel adventures across the desert countryside, trying to devise a plan to destroy Gothel’s empire and using her hair to bring vigilante justice to the lawless towns she passes through.

This adventurous Wild West retelling of Rapunzel is tons of fun.  The graphic novel format is perfect for the story’s fantastic action sequences.  Plus, it is very, very funny!  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers.

The sequel Calamity Jack came out recently and I am very excited to read it!


Posted on Updated on

Henry and Eva have been best friends since childhood, and they have bonded over their intense, over-involved parents.  Eva’s mom, Rhonda, is classic nightmare stage mother whose idea of supporting Eva’s ballet career sometimes involves slashing the tires of a director who didn’t cast Eva as the lead.  Henry’s father, Mark, works her hard practicing tennis and doesn’t hesitate to trash-talk her opponents in tournaments.  But when both girls have opportunities to attend summer camps–Eva at the New York School of Dance and Henry at a tennis school in Florida–they leave their parents behind and get to do the activities they love full time, with no one looking over their shoulders.  Although the girls work hard to maintain their friendship across the distance, Eva begins struggling with an eating disorder, and Henry can tell that her friend is hiding something from her.  Henry must decide which is more important: her development as a tennis player and her new boyfriend in Florida or the friendship she left behind in New Jersey.

Although this book has a somewhat awkward, fluffy beginning, it ends up painting an accurate picture of tense relationships with parents, competitive sports, dating, and eating disorders.  The chapters alternate between Henry’s and Eva’s perspectives and sometimes the chronology can be a little bit confusing.  But if you like chick-lit about sports and friendship, it is an engaging story.


Posted on Updated on

Wim and Marie took a great risk welcoming Nico into their home.  Although most people in Holland disapproved of the Nazi occupation, to hide a Jew was a particularly dangerous form of resistance.  But after only a year, they discovered that the only thing more challenging than hiding a live Jew is disposing of a dead one.

Comedy in a Minor Key identifies itself as a “black comedy,” but that label might be misleading.  The novella presents a heartrending situation bluntly with a cold, bitter irony that highlights the absurdity of the situation.  The brief story begins with Nico’s death, then uses flashbacks to provide glimpses of prior events, the challenges, the growing relationships, the emotions and motivations, and the community that developed around hiding a Jew.  It is a short and thought-provoking read that isn’t quite as dark and horrific as much World War II fiction.


Posted on Updated on

When Hugo’s father perished in a fire, Uncle Claude took Hugo into his apartment in the train station and taught him how to care for the clocks.  Now that Uncle Claude has disappeared, Hugo takes care of the clocks himself, hiding in the walls of the train station, stealing food when he can, and avoiding the Station Inspector.  As soon as the clocks have been tended to, Hugo turns back to the secret project that keeps him going: the automaton man at the writing desk that Hugo’s father had been repairing when he died.  Hugo is sure that if he can fix the automaton, the mechanical man will write a message from his father.  Using his father’s notebook as a guide, he steals toys from the station toy booth and uses their parts to replace the missing and broken pieces.  But one day, the toy maker catches him.  When he sees Hugo’s notebook, he seems horrified and confiscates it immediately.  Although Hugo follows him to his house, he cannot convince the toy maker to give it back.  But he does meet Isabelle, the toy maker’s goddaughter, who seems to have secrets of her own.  Together, she and Hugo try to get the notebook back and to decipher the automaton’s mysterious message.

This book has a very interesting premise that was inspired by a true story.  It is told in words and pictures, switching back and forth between pages of prose and full-page drawings.  As you discover later in the book, the format is very intentional for this particular story.  I found it a bit challenging to get into because the transition between words and pictures was somewhat jarring (very different from reading a graphic novel!).  But once I got into the rhythm, and deeper into the story, I was grateful for the story-telling images.  The book deserves its Caldecott Medal.

Side note: Martin Scorsese is directing a film adaptation, which will be released in November 2011, and which I am very excited about–not least of all because the toy maker will be played by Ben Kingsley!  I have very high hopes for this film, and you will definitely be hearing my opinions on it in November!

RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke

Posted on Updated on

After his father disappeared, twelve-year-old Jacob sneaked into his study searching for answers.  Instead he found a magic mirror.  For twelve years, Jacob journeyed back and forth from his own world to the Mirrorworld, a parallel dimension where dark fairy tales became real: questers can sell magical objects on the black market, dangerous fairies seek human lovers, and sleeping princesses decay in eternal sleep, waiting for princes who never arrive.

For Jacob, the Mirrorworld is an escape from everything that he does not want to face in his own world.  But when his younger brother, Will, follows him and is wounded by a stone Goyl, everything changes.  As Will begins to turn to jade stone, Jacob and the fox-girl who loves him have to guide Will and Will’s fiancee, Clara, through his dangerous world, hoping to find a cure, though he is fairly sure none exists.  Meanwhile Goyl army, led by the Dark Fairy, race to find the jade Goyl who has been prophesied to protect their king and lead them to victorious dominion over the human empire.

Based in a German fairy tale tradition that is already fairly dark, Funke’s Mirrorworld is chilling and grotesque.  The book is marketed for teens, and will certainly appeal especially to an older teen audience, although adults who enjoy these kinds of twisted fairy tale fantasies will find the characters very accessible as well.  I enjoyed reading this book very much.  

If you liked Reckless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (both for a slightly younger audience).