Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle & the Hollowbones

Information

Goodreads: Beetle and the Hollowbones
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Beetle longs more than anything to be a sorcerer, but her grandmother keeps her practicing goblin magic. So Beetle is excited when her old friend Kat comes back to town after attending a school for sorcery. But Kat’s aunt has plans to tear down the local mall–the place where Beetle’s best friend Blob Ghost is tied to for eternity. Now Beetle and Kat have three days to figure out how to release Blob Ghost before they are destroyed forever.

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Review

Beetle & the Hollowbones is a beautifully-drawn graphic novel that evokes a spooky, autumnal feeling even as it tells a feel-good story about finding one’s self and standing by one’s friends. The deep orange and blue hues draw readers into Beetle’s Halloween-esque world, a world where goblins, skeletons, and ghosts all mingle–sometimes doing things as normal as going to the mall, sometimes fighting each other with magic for survival. Readers who enjoy middle-grade fantasy comics will love Beetle & the Hollowbones.

The juxtaposition between the everyday and the macabre is part of what makes this story so unique. Our heroine Beetle is a goblin who wants to perform sorcery, but she can’t attend school and her grandmother is committed to teaching her goblin magic instead. Beetle spends most of days hanging out at the local mall, where her friend Blob Ghost lives. They do things any teenager would do, window shopping, getting snacks, and so on–but always with a slightly spooky twist that makes it fun to see what will happen to Beetle and Blob Ghost next. It is only when Blob Ghost’s existence is threatened by the demolition of the mall that Beetle and her friends have to band together to figure out what is keeping Blob Ghost from leaving.

The actual plot of the book is somewhat simple. Even the reasons for the destruction of the mall remain nebulous–maybe something to do with family heritage, maybe a family secret that must remain hidden. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Blob Ghost is in danger and Beetle would do anything to help her cute, shape-shifting friend. Their relationship lies at the heart of the story, along with Beetle’s friendship and budding romance with longtime friend Kat–an undead skeleton. They will have to work past self-doubt, jealousy, crush drama, and teenage angst to solve the problem. Their journey is both engaging and uplifting. I think readers will fall in love with all three of our heroes.

Beetle & the Hollowbones is an enchanting middle-grade novel that is darkly atmospheric but more charming than scary. Readers who like autumn and all things Halloween will want to pick this one up, but so will readers who enjoy character-driven stories with lovable protagonists and a feel-good ending. Let’s hope there is a sequel to come!

5 stars

5 Retellings of Little Women

Retellings of Little Women

Little Witches: Magic in Concord by Leigh Dragoon

In this historical fantasy, the March sisters are growing up in Civil War Concord–but they are also witches. Then Mr. Laurence and his grandson more in next door, and they just happen to be witch finders! A graphic novel retelling aimed at middle grade readers.

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Jo: A Graphic Novel by Kathleen Gros

In this contemporary retelling, Jo is a thirteen-year-old who anonymously runs a blog about her family and starts to discover more about herself as she develops feelings for the girl editor of her school newspaper, Freddie Baer.

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More to the Story by Hena Khan

More to the Story

Few retellings have come close to capturing the spirit of the Little Women like Hena Khan’s More to the Story. While it can be tempting to try to deliver the exact same plot line as Alcott, just updated with modern references, Khan goes beyond this to create an original work that is clearly inspired by Little Women, but does not try to be Little Women. And that is its magic. More to the Story emphasizes family relationships, friendship, and self-discovery to create a work that pays homage to Alcott with its depiction of modern girlhood, while still delivering its own compelling narrative.

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Littler Women: A Modern Retelling by Laura Schaefer

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March receive a modern makeover in this retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic. They attend school dances, go to sleepovers, and have jobs babysitting. As they grow up, they hope to make their father, on active duty overseas as part of the National Guard, proud upon his return.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy is a Little Women updated for a modern audience.  This means not only setting the story in modern-day New York City and featuring the Marches as a blended family, but also espousing contemporary values.  Where Louisa May Alcott’s original novel may be said to have promoted virtues such as humility, hard work, and cheerfulness, Rey Terciero’s re-imagining promotes values of inclusion, diversity, and feminism.  In many ways, this feels like the Little Women many readers have wanted all along. A graphic novel.

Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Hollowpox

Information

Goodreads: Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow
Series: Nevermoor #3
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts, and control the power that threatens to consume her.


But a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realizes it’s up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she ever imagined.

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Review

I cannot say enough good things about the Nevermoor series. Book one captured me with its lovable characters, its action-packed plot, and its whimsical and magical world. Each book in the series has built upon the last, keeping the same magic, but revealing new aspects of the world, so that every installment has felt fresh yet familiar. Hollowpox once again works its charms to invite readers into a land where seemingly anything can happen. But, though danger goes hand-in-hand with wonder, readers know that our bold protagonist Morrigan can handle anything thrown at her, with the help of her friends. Readers who have loved the Nevermoor series thus far will not want to wait to pick up a copy of Hollowpox.

Part of the challenge of a series is to keep writing books that do not repeat themselves, but still seem interesting and worthwhile. Hollowpox rises to that challenge. Jessica Townsend effortlessly manages to keep revealing things about Morrigan’s world that are new and novel, but also seem fitting. In this third book, readers get to watch Morrigan try to grow into her power, even though her own school and classmates fear it. The concept of “ghostly hours” neatly solves the problems of Morrigan’s lessons, while also providing pertinent background information in a way that will keep readers’ interest.

The best part of the Nevemoor books may very well be the worldbuilding. Townsend has a created a place readers will long to visit, from its tricky trap streets to the wondrous Hotel Deucalion and the breathtaking Christmas festivities. Every day in Nevermoor seems like a kind of celebration, and the book practically seems to exude joy. Presumably, Morrigan does not always feel the same way. She has to attend school and such. But…it is a magic school! And ever ordinary days in Nevermoor are really never ordinary.

Each wait between a new Nevemoor book can feel like an eternity. Having to leave its magical streets always comes as a bit of a shock. But the wonderful thing about Nevermoor is that it is always waiting, and the books never grow old. I am excited for the next installment of the series. But I know I’ll be returning to the first three books in the meantime.

5 stars

Maker Comics: Draw a Comic! by JP Coovert

Maker Comics Draw a Comic

Information

Goodreads: Draw a Comic!
Series: Maker Comics
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Maggie wants to start a comics library in memory of her grandfather, but a greedy businessman says he needs $500,000 within the week, or he will turn the building into a parking lot! Can Maggie and her dog find her grandfather’s long-lost treasure to save the library? Along the way, Maggie will teach you, the reader, how to make a comic!

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Review

After reading Grow a Garden! I knew I wanted to start reading through all the Maker Comics. What could be better than learning how to do new things, while also having fun with an entertaining storyline! While Grow a Garden! has an engaging story, however, Draw a Comic! does not present as strong as a plot. The main idea is that you, the reader, are assisting a woman build a comics library and, as payment, she teaches you how to make a comic. The information is simply not well integrated into the story. However, presumably readers picked up something called Draw a Comic! in order to learn about how to draw a comic, not for a strong plot, so perhaps many will not care.

Draw a Comic! is interesting in that it breaks the fourth wall, having the protagonist stare out of the frame and directly at the reader in order to address them. The protagonist assumes that the reader has answered an ad for a library assistant wanted, a position mainly about shifting books about it seems, but one that is strangely enough paid in tutorials on comic making. Projects include writing a comic script, drawing a comic script, choosing art materials, drawing and printing a one-page comic, and folding/binding the comic together.

The projects focus a lot of the material aspects of making a comic. So, for example, the book covers different types of pencils and paper, inking options, how to cut and fold pages to create a mini booklet, and how to choose the best scanning or printing option for quality. Readers looking for storytelling information will find the basics: different types of speech bubbles, emanata, the existence of the gutter, and so forth. But if they are looking for something more in-depth, they may have to consult one of the references provided at the end.

Draw a Comic! skews more towards a younger audience, which makes sense. The series is part of the middle grade market. However, this means that older readers looking for more in-depth information will have to look elsewhere. The book covers the main idea of drawing panels and then filling them with one-action per panel, but doesn’t progress much beyond that in terms of storytelling tips. This is kind of strange because the book recommends fancy inking brushes and other expensive art materials, which makes it seem like it wants to address people who are really serious about starting to draw their own comics, and not just kids who are looking for a fun afternoon drawing activity and who will be easily enchanted just by the process of folding their panels into proper book form. The does a nice job of laying out the basics, but it doesn’t really seem like a book that will grow with the reader.

3 Stars

Enola Holmes: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Serena Blasco, Nancy Springer

Enola Holmes: The Case of the Missing Marquess

Information

Goodreads: The Case of the Missing Marquess
Series: Enola Holmes Graphic Novel #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

On her fourteenth birthday, Enola discovers that her mother has gone missing, leaving only a few clues in the flowers she left behind. Now Enola’s brothers Sherlock and Mycroft want to send her to boarding school. But Enolas has other plans. Donning a disguise, she runs away, determined to find out what happened to her mother–and to have a few adventures of her own.

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Review

This graphic novel is based on the books by Nancy Springer, which I have not read. So my review is based solely on the graphic novel as a graphic novel, rather than an adaptation. My verdict? The story is a pleasant, if unremarkable, read, beautifully illustrated in watercolors.

When I began reading The Case of the Missing Marquess, I was first struck by how low the page count is (my e-book said 68 pages). Since the graphic novel is based on another book, I could only imagine that this meant that the story had been incredibly streamlined, adapted so that the plot flowed quickly with any “extraneous” details or characterization removed. However, this did not hinder my enjoyment of the book at all. Rather, I think having read the graphic novel, I now see no need to read the original books at all.

The issue is that the plot is not actually that mysterious and therefore not engaging enough for me to want to relive it a second time. The first part of the book is largely concerned with establishing Enola’s need for independence and her desire to have adventures and become a detective like Sherlock. Initially, the plot seems to suggest that she will do this primarily by searching for her missing mother (hence, the title of the book). Instead, Enola somewhat unintentionally finds herself “investigating” a completely different case, which she solves in about ten minutes. It’s…not that exciting.

Part of the charm of the original Sherlock Holmes stories is that they are difficult to solve, and that the reader must go with Sherlock on a fairly extended journey to try to find and decipher clues and suspects. Seeing Enola walk in on a crime scene and breezily announce the solution without even trying barely counts as entertainment. It certainly does not require the reader to think in any capacity. I felt rather thankful that the graphic novel had seemingly condensed this story for me, since it does not seem to warrant a lengthier treatment.

The more enjoyable aspects of the book are Enola–who is a rather charming protagonist–and the illustrations, which are done in beautifully evocative watercolors. This is somewhat unusual for a graphic novel, so the style really stands out. It seems to fit the work, however, by giving a nod to Enola’s mother, who goes on long rambles to paint with watercolors.

The Case of the Missing Marquess does not strike me as a particularly remarkable book, but it is enjoyable and fun enough for me to be willing to give the second volume a try. I imagine the target audience may be more easily pleased than I, however, perhaps not desiring a more intricate mystery, but, rather, satisfied with seeing a fourteen-year-old go on adventures and solve cases her brother Sherlock may not be able to. There’s really not much to lose by giving the book a chance. It is, after all, under 70 pages.

3 Stars

The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Córdova

The Way to Rio Luna

Information

Goodreads: The Way to Rio Luna
Series: Not listed as a series, but has an open ending
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Two years ago, Danny and his older sister Pili were separated at the foster home. She said she’d see him again, but then she disappeared. Danny believes that Pili went to the magical world of Rio Luna, the land of their favorite storybook, just like they had imagined. But no one believes him. Then one day, Danny finds a magical book–and it has a map to Rio Luna. Can Danny solve the clues and be reunited with his sister?

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Review

The Way to Rio Luna is a homage to classic fantasy books, featuring familiar tropes such as the orphaned boy seeking for a home, the portal into a fantasy land, and the quest to defeat an ancient evil. It will appeal to readers who enjoy books that contain things like talking jackalopes and travel by star. However, the book admittedly does not distinguish itself among other, more original works, and I was not inspired to read the sequel, should one be published.

I believe part of my disappointment originally stemmed by the expectations raised by the cover jacket. The summary on the book made me believe that the story would involve the protagonist Danny travelling to a magical world and attempting to find his sister there. However, the book is actually just one main setup to get Danny to the world of Rio Luna. In actuality, he spends the book travelling around the globe to collect map pieces that will, ultimately, open the magic door. I’m not really a fan of quests that involve collecting multiple pieces. It feels to me more like a video game conceit than a plot line I want to read. I’m also not a fan of books that are merely preludes to another book. I would have preferred if Danny had finished his quest in this book, instead of barely starting it. So the entire conception of The Way to Rio Luna just does not match my reading preferences.

Aside from that, the merits of the story prove a bit uneven. Danny is a likeable protagonist, and he is joined by the spunky Glory and an obnoxious, yet still endearing jackalope prince. One really wants to root the misfit trio on, even if the steps of their quest prove not to be that intricate or dangerous, and even if the surprise twist at the end is not that surprising. I would say, actually, that the characters are the best part of the book. They do their best to make up for the disappointing worldbuilding, which was not detailed enough to really make me believe that Rio Luna exists.

Still, The Way to Rio Luna is a solid read. I imagine the target audience will be less critical than I, and that they will be happy to read about kids who go on dangerous adventures and find portals to other worlds. The ending is left wide open for a sequel, since the plot line in this one remains unresolved, so fans who enjoy this book can potentially look forward to another.

3 Stars

Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Ghost Squad

Information

Goodreads: Ghost Squad
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Luna can see ghosts–the spirits of her ancestors that mostly appear as fireflies in a tree in her yard. But then her ancestors start getting restless, saying something dark is approaching. Can Luna and her friend Syd save Luna’s family by reciting a spell to waken the dead? Or will they only make things worse?

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Review

Ghost Squad was one of my most anticipated reads of fall 2020, so I was disappointed to discover that the book is badly in need of editing. From seemingly missing scenes to illogical plot points to numerous internal contradictions, the book just does not make a lot of sense. It may satisfy readers looking for a mindless spooky read, but I think there are better selections out there for fans of scary middle grade.

Initially while reading, I thought I must have missed something or misunderstood something, because I kept reading things that did not make sense. Eventually, however, I realized that the extent of the oddities I was noticing meant it was not just me. Here is a selection of a few of the inconsistencies and illogical plot points I noticed (possible spoilers):

  • Syd mentions that she knows the bridge to her grandmother Babette’s place has been enchanted to look old and unstable. But later on, she and her friend Luna both seem to think that Babette just sells fake stuff for tourists. Towards the end of the book, however, we learn that Syd has been begging to be taught how to be a witch. Does Syd know about Babette’s powers and their true extent or not?
  • Luna can see the spirits of her dead ancestor–they mainly hang out in her tree as fireflies, but can take on human form to do things like eat. They are all eating Luna’s dad’s food, even though her dad is running short on cash and might have to sell the house. He hopes to make extra money on his ghost tour business as Halloween approaches. But, even though he has a family full of real ghosts–and we know that people can see them moving objects even if they can’t see the ghosts–he relies on Luna to hide behind tombstones and play a tape recorder to make tourists think the city is haunted. His dead ancestors seem kind of responsible for his money problems?
  • Luna’s ancestors inform her an unknown evil is approaching. They don’t know what it is. But then Luna receives a vision of her ancestor ghosts fighting a monster and winning. This seems to be the same evil now approaching–but they don’t know what it is anymore? They also inform Luna that her family has a long tradition of being a powerful group that protects the city. But then they tell her they don’t know what to do about the monsters approaching and that she’s on her own. So what were they doing all these years to protect the city if they are actually both clueless and powerless?
  • The ghosts tell Luna an evil is approaching. But then Syd and Luna read a spell that supposedly wakens the dead. They think they’re the reason for the evil threatening the city–even though it was already being threatened? Luna’s ancestor tells Luna the spell is not responsible. Syd’s grandmother Babette tells the Luna and Syd that the spell is responsible and that they have to reverse it by finding the counter-spell. Where did the evil actually come from?
  • (Spoilers for the ending!) Syd’s grandmother says Luna and Syd must read the counter-spell to reverse the original spell and save the city. They can only find the first two lines, however, so they just make up the rest. Why wouldn’t they have made one up in the first place, then?
  • Babette says she’s part of an ancient order of witches and she can call on them and their powers to help protect the city. Why didn’t she do that in the first place? Why did she wait until the last minute when everyone was almost doomed?

These are just a few of the problems I found within the text. It also has a tendency to reference things that I didn’t remember happening or to assume knowledge I somehow didn’t have. For instance, several times, Luna and Syd go on a great ghost hunting expedition with homemade ghost catchers and it’s all a little random since they seem to be fighting both monsters and ghosts, and it’s not clear what the difference is or why they thought a catcher would work in the first place or why they thought they needed one. I still don’t understand fully what was happening in the plot, the role of Luna’s ancestors, how magic works in this world, or anything else.

On a positive note, I thought the familial relationships were strong. I like Luna’s dad and her grandmother, as well as Syd’s grandmother and her no-nonsense attitude. Unfortunately, these bright moments were overshadowed for me by a truly confusing plotline. I think an editor should have made suggestions for revision, but that doesn’t seem to have happened here.

Ghost Squad has a great premise and an endearing cast of characters, but the confusing plot line makes this one a pass for me. I think readers would do better to look for supernatural fare elsewhere.

2 star review

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Genesis Begins Again

Information

Goodreads: Genesis Begins Again
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Thirteen-year-old Genesis has a list of 100 things she hates about herself, including her skin color and her hair. Her family doesn’t help. Her father keeps coming home drunk and he doesn’t pay the rent, so they have to keep moving. Now Genesis is in a new school once again. She thinks she might enter the talent show, but she’s not sure she has the confidence. But what if her singing finally makes her father love her? Genesis will have to look deep within herself if she is going to find something she likes. But maybe, just maybe, she will finally have the courage to start over.

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Review

Genesis Begins Again is an important, if heavy, book that tackles colorism and internalized racism. Thirteen-year-old Genesis has learned to loathe herself both because of the teasing she gets at school and because her own family often says things to indicate to her that they consider it more desirable to have light skin. The book chronicles Genesis’ journey as she adds to a list of thing to hate about herself, and goes to increasingly extreme methods to attempt to lighten her skin. Readers will find their hearts breaking as they root for Genesis to to stop listening to the negative voices surrounding her, and to realize that she is beautiful, inside and out.

This is the kind of book that adults undoubtedly recognize as necessary and important, the kind of book that reveals damaging ideals so that they can be fought. Even so, the topics it covers may understandably give some parents and educators pause, since they may want to address some of these issues more in-depth. The book is targeted towards middle school readers, and, so, reading about a girl who soaks in a bathtub with bleach and water may cause some adults to worry that young readers might get ideas (especially since the book suggests that the bleach was not physically harmful). However, I think adult readers should also recognize that many young readers may already be grappling with the issues raised in this book. They may experience their own form of self-loathing, their own desire to change the body they are in. Williams’ book, for those readers, is simply acknowledging those feelings, and making those readers feel seen. It is reflecting a reality that many readers already live. But I have included some more notes about the book’s contents, for adults who wish to know more about what to expect going in.

Importantly, however, the book is not all doom and gloom. It is a hard book to read, and I gasped and cried through Genesis’s journey, I was so afraid she was going to hurt herself. But Genesis has a loving (if imperfect) mother and two very good friends, who constantly encourage her to believe in herself and to recognize how wonderful she already is. The book is ultimately about Genesis’s growth, and it ends on a mostly hopeful note.

Genesis Begins Again is a wonderfully written book that draws readers into Genesis’ story, and make them understand why she makes the choices she does, even when those choices seem dangerous. I think many readers who have doubted themselves will be able to see a little of themselves in Genesis, and want to give her a hug and tell her that she is beautiful. This is a strong debut. Hopefully we see much more from Alicia D. Williams!

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Parental Notes

Parents may want to be aware of certain issues that arise in the book, so they can discuss them with their children. (Note this section will contain spoilers.)

The book is narrated by Genesis, a girl who has learned to loathe herself and the way she looks by listening to the taunts of her classmates and the verbal abuse of her family. Throughout the book, Genesis attempts different methods to lighten her skin such as rubbing herself with lemons and a scrubbing sponge (which leads to serious cuts across her whole body), bathing in bleach (which the book presents as not physically dangerous, if ineffective), and stealing her mother’s credit card to purchase bleaching cream (which the book does note can cause cancer).

The book also touches upon Genesis and her mother’s relationship with her father, a man who gambles and frequently comes home angry and drunk. He lies about his job and frequently does not pay rent, forcing the family to move repeatedly. Genesis’s mother admits she can’t find the strength to leave him. Genesis, too, repeatedly tries to win her father’s favor, even though her verbally abuses her. This issue is left semi-unresolved by the end of the book. Genesis realizes that her father is suffering emotional wounds from childhood, and seems inclined to forgive him once again, even though there is no promise that his behavior will change.

Finally, of course, the book deals with colorism, showing how Genesis learns to hate herself because her classmates call her names, because her father says he hates that she didn’t turn out light-skinned like her mother, and because her grandmother tells the story of how their ancestors tried to “marry up” by marrying only light-skinned individuals. Members who did not do this were disowned. Genesis internalizes this, learning to judge others by how dark or light-skinned they are and by whether or not they have “good hair.” Ultimately, however, Genesis learns that everyone is hurting and that everyone has things they wish they could change, but she has to learn how to love herself the way she is.

4 stars

Finally, Something Mysterious by Doug Cornett

Finally, Something Mysterious

Information

Goodreads: Finally, Something Mysterious
Series: None (so far)
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Paul Marconi and his two best friends, Shanks and Peephole, love solving mysteries–but they have never had the chance to solve a real one until the day hundreds of rubber duckies show up in Mr. Babbage’s backyard. The adults dismiss it as a prank, and the police don’t seem to think it’s a real crime, but Paul and his friends are determined to find the culprit. Could it be someone who wants to take Mr. Babbage’s title as champion of the annual bratwurst competition? The kids are on the case!

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Review

Finally, Something Mysterious is a quirky middle grade mystery sure to appeal to its tween audience with its somewhat unusual sense of humor. The main premise is that hundreds of rubber duckies have appeared in a neighbor’s backyard over night, but the police do not seem too interested. So Paul and his friends Peephole and Shanks set off to solve the case, which they suspect may be related to their town’s annual bratwurst cooking competition. Along they way, they uncover a number of suspects, including a dancing tuba player, the chief judge of the bratwurst competition, and a shady deliveryman. The duckies are weird all right, but so is the town. Still, Paul and his friends love their community and readers may just fall in love, too.

At times, Finally, Something Mysterious admittedly tries just a little too hard to be quirky. Paul’s sense of humor is not one I share, and having him as the narrator at times made the story less enjoyable for me than it otherwise might have been. However, I recognize that I am not the target audience of this book. It is written for a middle grade audience, probably specifically tween boys, and Paul’s jokes will probably land more successfully with other readers. Ones who enjoy this kind of fare and actively seek it out will not doubt be pleased.

The mystery, at least, proves engaging, as the protagonists keep uncovering more suspects, each one who seems pretty likely to have done the deed. Meeting the suspects, many of whom seem a little unusual, was vastly entertaining. I did guess the culprit early on in the hbook, but I suspect this is because I am a more seasoned reader of mysteries. Middle grade readers who have not yet been exposed to a number of mystery formulas may very well be surprised by the twist ending.

Finally, Something Mysterious will appeal primarily to readers who like quirky middle grade mysteries. It has a wacky premise, a host of odd characters, and a narrator who loves to crack jokes. The quirkiness does at times seem a little forced, but tween readers will probably not mind very much. It is a solid, if not memorable, read.

3 Stars

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked by Shannon Messenger

Unlocked

Information

Goodreads: Unlocked
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities 8.5
Source: Purchased
Published: 2020

Summary

The first 500 pages of the book contain encylopedic matter about the characters, lands, animals, and vegetation of the Lost Cities, as well as some other additional content. The novella at the end follows Keefe as he wakes up trying to determine his mother’s legacy for him, and serves as a bridge from book 8 to book 9.

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Review

I wanted to love this book because I have been an enthusiastic (if not obsessed) fan ever since I read the first Keeper of the Lost Cities books. I have introduced a number of my friends to my series, and I love being able to talk over the latest installments, to argue Keefe vs. Fitz, and to guess what the next book will bring. But even I have to recognize that the series has been getting ridiculously unwieldy, in a way that some more cynical readers might even view as a blatant cash grab. Readers didn’t need book 8.5. They needed book 9 so this bloated series can finally end. And then maybe we can get a spinoff series instead of the repetitive story that never ends.

Part of my dissatisfaction with book 8.5 is how the book was marketed as a sort of must-have special edition for fans, the vague wording implying that there would be new bonus materials included. If that was not enough to lure them in, however, the marketing team clearly explained that the book also contains a novella that links books 8 and 9, so readers of the series actually have to buy this book if they want to know what is happening. Messenger famously ends every book with a dramatic cliffhanger, so of course readers would want to grab this latest installment. Unfortunately, it turns out that the novella is the one part of this volume worth having, even for hardcore fans, so releasing a 700-page volume and asking fans to hand over twenty dollars seems a little rude.

The first 150 pages of this volume are allegedly “registry files” for each of the main characters. For those who do not know, elves in the Lost Cities wear trackers around their necks so the Council always knows where they are. A registry file implies a list of times and locations, but what Messenger writes is actually a recap of the entire series so far, along with completely inappropriate musings (from adult Council members!) on things like the love lives of tweens and teens. It’s highly unofficial and a little disturbing. Not to mention boring. No one wants to start off their new book in a series with 150 pages of recap!

The rest of the bonus material is not much better. A lot of it is encyclopedia-type entries on everything from plants and animal life in the Lost Cities to lists of locations and of faculty members at Foxfire. There are lots of charts explaining what color jewels and what animal pendants everyone wears. Unfortunately, none of this information is new. It is all available in the previous eight volumes.

New content mostly includes a few personality quizzes, an Iggy coloring pages, some recipes, and some full-color portraits. A section from Keefe’s memory book with his scribblings about his feelings for Sophie will delight fans of that particular ship. But was all this worth paying for the full cover price? I don’t think so.

The novella itself is fine. It’s basically a standard Messenger plot with Keefe and Sophie worrying about things they can’t really control, Sophie going on a mission, the characters facing a dramatic climax, and then the standard cliffhanger ending. Sadly, however, this is all getting redundant, especially the “twist” ending, which is more upsetting than shocking because it is such a spectacularly bad idea. Messenger claims she had to do it this way because she needed to write Keefe’s POV, but his POV does not sound much different than Sophie’s, and I think she could have easily integrated this little interlude into book nine.

So the final verdict? This book is basically an encyclopedia of the Lost Cities that someone had the brilliant idea to attach to part of the series in the middle, instead of publishing it separately after book nine, because now fans have to buy it if they want keep up with the story. If they had published the encyclopedia on its own…well, no one needs to pay twenty dollars for information that’s already available in the other books, do they?

I have loved the Keeper of the Lost Cities series for years. But even good things have to end–especially if they want to remain good things. Publishing a book 8.5 instead of just ending the series already doesn’t really respect the fans and the time and love they have invested in Sophie’s journey. I don’t understand why Messenger doesn’t just wrap up this series and start another one in the same world. That way the story could stay somewhat intact, fans are happy that new content is still coming, and no one feels like they’re being milked for cash for a book that isn’t worth it.

2 star review