The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

There are a few authors I could read all day, all week, and never get tired of their books, their characters, and their writing style. Whereas some authors I read and enjoy but then need a break—Dickens or John Grisham or even Tolkien. Others are so delightful and amusing and light-hearted that I could take a steady diet and not feel too over-filled or burdened. P.G. Wodehouse, Jan Karon, Agatha Christie (well, maybe not “light-hearted”), and Alexander McCall Smith fall into the latter category.

Mr. McCall Smith has written several series of novels set in various locales, and I’ve enjoyed at least a few of the books in each series:

Corduroy Mansions in London
44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, Scotland,
The Isabel Dalhousie novels, also in Scotland,
Professor Dr. von Igelfeld novels in Germany and other settings,
and of course, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency set in Botswana, Africa.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the latest, and perhaps greatest, of this best-selling detective series. I enjoyed the contrasting of modern ways and the old conservative ways of traditional Botswanan culture—and the compromises between the two. I enjoyed the two mysteries and their cozy solutions. I enjoyed the continued unfolding of the friendship between Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi. And Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni continued to work in this book as in others at loving and caring for his traditionally built and professionally astute helpmeet. The supporting cast in this series also make an appearance and add to the story, each in his own way: Mma Potokwane, Phuti Radiphuti, and the apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell.

A couple of quotes, just to brighten your day and give you something to think about:

On forgiveness:
“She had forgiven him, yes, but she still did not like to remember. And perhaps a deliberate act of forgetting went along with forgiveness. You forgave, and then you said to yourself: Now I shall forget. Because if you did not forget, then your forgiveness would be tested, perhaps many times and in ways that you could not resist, and you might go back to anger, and to hating.”

On beauty:
“You could be very glamorous and beautiful on the outside, but if inside you were filled with human faults—jealousy, spite, and the like—then no amount of exterior beauty could make up for that. Perhaps there was some sort of lemon juice for inside beauty . . . And even as she thought of it, she realized what it was love and kindness. Love was the lemon juice that cleansed and kindness was the aloe that healed.”

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.

Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.

A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.

The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:

“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—“

I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

If you liked the following books, you might like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery and a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin.
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin.
The Puzzler’s Mansion by Eric Berlin.
The Sixty-eight Rooms by Marianne Malone, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Candymakers by Wendy Mass.

Conversely, if you read Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and you want more, you might want to check out one of the books on the list above. Some of these books are at least alluded to in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, but they’re certainly not the only books that are mentioned. Book-title-name-dropping is pervasive throughout the story, a story that takes place in a magically enchanting library full of books, games, puzzles, displays, artifacts, and technological wonders. A few of the other books and authors that get a mention in Escape are: Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Rick Riordan, The Hunger Games, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, ewes Carroll, Geroge Orwell, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Pseudonymous Bosch, and the Bible.

Now that’s an eclectic list! Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library should keep 10-12 year old puzzle-lovers and mystery readers enthralled as they try, along with twelve other twelve year old characters in the book, to figure out how to escape from a library filled with both informational marvels and deceptive snares. Kyle Keeley, our protagonist, is all-boy, and he and his best friend Akimi, along with the other children, if somewhat stereotypical, are still engaging enough to keep the story moving. In a book that’s mostly plot and puzzle, the characters are not as important and can be allowed a little flatness.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library isn’t as good or as intricately plotted as a couple of my favorites in the puzzle fiction genre, The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game, but it’s a solid entry in a field that still has room for a few more good selections. I recommend it for library aficionados, reading addicts, and puzzle and game lovers everywhere. And could someone explain to me the puzzle mentioned in the Author’s Note at the end of the book? I’m not so good at solving unexplained puzzles that are hidden somewhere in some some unspecified part of the book.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

That’s how Ruta Sepetys’ second YA novel starts out, and that intro pretty much tells you whether or not this coming-of-age novel set in the 1950’s about a girl who’s desperate to get out of NOLA is the right kind of book for you. I liked it—with reservations.

Let’s get the reservations out of the way first. The obligatory homosexual subplot and gay minor character are forced and awkward. I’m tired of authors notching their figurative diversity belts by shoehorning in a gay character or an episode in which their authorial lack of homophobia is displayed. But I expect to see more and more of this sort of thing in books just as I’m seeing it in TV series and movies. Skim time.

Some of the other characters are rather stereotypical, too. Our protagonist, seventeen year old Josie, has a mother-substitute, since her own mother is a witch. Of course, the maternal figure is a brusque, sharp-tongued madam with a heart of gold. Maybe madams with hearts of gold exist in all “respectable” brothels, I wouldn’t know, but they are a little too cliche to be believed. Then, there’s the old quadroon servant/chauffeur, Cokie, who knows his place but turns out to be the the most intelligent and dependable person around. Again, possible but hackneyed.

Nevertheless, these drawbacks can be overlooked because Josie herself is such a wonderful character. She lives and works in a bookstore in the lower class part of New Orleans. She loves to read. She also cleans the cathouse every morning, and she knows she wants to do and be more than her mother, more than her friends in the NOLA underworld, and more than New Orleans can ever give her. When Josie gets the bright idea that she could apply to go to the prestigious Smith College in far-off Massachusetts, she gives the application and the preparations her best effort, even when her mother’s cruelty and criminal connections threaten Josie’s dream.

Out of the Easy was one of the books nominated for the 2013 YA Fiction Cybils Award, and I liked it a lot more than I liked the winning book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A–. Rose Under Fire was the best of the shortlisted books, by the way. What all three books have in common is the rough, filled with evil, poverty and hardship, settings. There’s not a whole lot to choose between the barrio, the New Orleans underworld, and Ravensbruck. OK, Ravensbruck is much worse, but on the other hand, Rose Under Fire is a much more tragic, and ultimately redemptive, story than either Out of the Easy or Yaqui Delgado. Anyway, I would recommend Out of the Easy with the above caveats, and if you’re able to stomach another book with a truly horrific mother.

Sidekicked by John David Anderson

Superheroes, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Samson and Gideon to Hercules to Beowulf to Superman and The Incredible Hulk—we weak mortals have always been fascinated with the adventures and exploits of men (sometimes women) with incredible talents, beyond human strength, and extraordinary intelligence. Superheroes are the stuff of legend and comic book—and nowadays middle grade speculative fiction.

John David Anderson’s Sidekicked takes one aspect of the superhero mythos, the Sidekick or assistant or superhero-in-training, and builds it into a snarky middle grade fictional essay on ethics. The moral of the story, however, is a little murky.

Andrew Bean, seventh grader and citizen of the city of Justicia, is a member of H.E.R.O., a secret organization of middle school students with exceptional gifts who are training, each under their own superhero mentor, to become Superhero Sidekicks. And there’s always the possibility that these junior heroes might even graduate to become Superheroes on their own someday. Meanwhile, Drew (aka the Sensationalist), his best friend Jenna (aka The Silver Lynx) and the other members of H.E.R.O. spend several hours a week training for their future as crime fighters in a secret room in the basement of Highview Middle School. Plus for everyone except Drew, there’s one-on-one training with their very Supers (special Superhero mentors). Drew has a Super, too, but unfortunately The Titan is a superhero of the washed-up variety, “going through a little identity thing”, and totally uninterested in mentoring, or rescuing, his erstwhile sidekick, Drew (aka The Sensationalist).

So, if you’ve got Superheroes, you also have to have Supervillains to match. And in Sidekicked the villains are coming out of the woodwork, and back from the dead, to attack and take over the city. Drew is committed to the Code, the Superhero Sidekick Code of Conduct, but things start to get complicated when the meaning of concepts like justice and honor and good and evil come into question. And when there’s a girl involved.

Like I said, this book is big on snarky, self-deprecating, middle grade humor (my favorite kind of funny) and confusing ethical discussions, but it’s a little short on answers. Which is OK. It’s the sort of book that entertains a lot while making kids think a little, and that’s the best kind, as far as I’m concerned.

Sidekicked is on the short list for the Cybils Awards in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced tomorrow, Friday, February 14th.

Superhero books that riff off the basic superhero model abound in middle grade fiction these days. Here are a few favorites:

Failstate by John W. Otte, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz.
Hero by Mike Lupica.
Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.
Dangerous by Shannon Hale, due out in early March, 2014.
Of course, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, recent winner of the Newbery Award, is a different kind of superhero story (squirrel superhero), maybe for a little younger audience than the above-listed. However, I enjoyed it immensely.

Do you have a favorite kid superhero novel?

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

Jinx is your basic, orphaned in the forest, boy hero, who becomes a wizard’s apprentice. Jinx’s curiosity is, of course, sometimes too much for his capabilities. It all reminds me of this scene from Fantasia:

I really enjoyed Jinx. It’s a story with lots of questions–and elements from various old stories:
Who is Jinx? Why and how does he “see” people’s emotions and “hear” the language of the trees in the Urwald (forest)?

Is Simon Magus, the magician to whom Jinx becomes a servant, evil or good? What about his wife, Sophie? Who is she? What is the place she comes from, Samara?

Why can’t Jinx read Dame Glammer the Witch the way he reads others’ thoughts and feelings?

What is the Terror that the trees of the Urwald are afraid of?

What is the curse that binds Jinx’s new friends, Elfwyn and Reven? And how can their respective curses be removed?

Is Jinx also cursed? How?

Who is the Bonemaster? Will he help–or is he even more evil than Simon?

Lots of questions. If you read to the end of the book, you’ll get some answers—and be presented with a new set of puzzles, a perfect set-up for the second book in the planned trilogy, Jinx’s Magic.

Jinx is one of the books nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils will be announced on Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Award for best children’s book of 2013. The announcement was made this morning, and I realized that I actually had the book, checked out from the library and waiting to be read on my shelf. So I read it.

Flora and Ulysses is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. For some reason, the story and the writing reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse, although for the most part it’s nothing like Wodehouse—except in their shared wackiness. Anyway, I’m exquisitely pleased that this partiular book won the Newbery Medal. I recommended it to Z-baby as soon as I finished it, and she’s reading it now. Let’s see . . . how to tell you what the book is about: a giant magical vacuum cleaner, a flying squirrel poet, a cynical ten year old girl named Flora Belle Buckham, dunking donuts, superheroes, nefarious malfeasance, and a vanquished cat. That ought to be sufficient to whet your appetite.

Young readers will also enjoy the interspersed graphic novel parts, the wisdom of our round-headed protagonist, Flora, and the intrepid squirrel. I liked it all. Who wouldn’t enjoy a book for kids that dares to use big, beautiful words like “capacious” and “preternaturally” and “positing” and “hyperbole”? And it’s a book that asks questions, lots of questions, such as:

What good does it do you to read the words of a lie?

Is gianter a word?

Who can say what astonishments are hidden inside the most mundane being?

Don’t we all live in our heads? Where else could we possibly exist?

So, now that the Newbery committee and I have built up your expectations to impossible heights, go read Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures with no expectations at all. Just think of it as possibly another boring award-winning book that those East Coast librarians and publishing-types have picked because it’s good for you.

Then be delighted.

Footnote: I must be prescient or something because I also have the Caldecott winner, Locomotive by Brian Floca, on hold at the library.

12 Best Middle Grade and YA Fiction Books I Read in 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, reviewed at Semicolon. What a delight! Navigating Early is just the kind of novel that the Newbery award-givers, who have already awarded Ms. Vanderpool’s first book, Moon Over Manifest, a Newbery Award, would love. And I loved it, too.

The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen, reviewed at Semicolon. The Runaway King is just as good as (or better than) the first book in the Ascendancy Trilogy, The False Prince, which was the Cybils award winner last year in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. In Book Two, Prince Jaren has become King Jaron, but his grip on the throne is none too secure. Both the neighboring kingdom of Avenia and the cutthroat Pirates are ready to attack

The Sound of Coaches by Leon Garfield, reviewed at Semicolon. This novel is an oldy-but-goodie, set in the 1700’s, published in the 1970’s. Garfield’s plot and characters and atmosphere owe a lot to Dickens. I was especially reminded of Great Expectations as I read this story of an orphan boy of mysterious parentage who is raised by a common coachman and his wife.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck, reviewed at Semicolon. I loved that fact that this book is full of repetitive motifs and running gags and just gentle humor. The mouse world itself is delightful to explore. Set down in the secret, hidden pockets of Victorian England where Queen Victoria is about to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee: Sixty Years Upon the Throne, the mice study in schools, sew costumes and uniforms, pledge service to the Queen, and generally keep themselves hidden from but indispensable to humans.

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan, reviewed at Semicolon. Even those of us who have never been persecuted or made to fear for our lives can identify to some extent with Habo, the albino protagonist of this novel, and his search for significance, his desire to see himself as more than just a zero-zero, the Tanzanian term for albinos.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, reviewed at Semicolon. Willow Chance is a twelve year old genius, but that one word isn’t nearly enough to encapsulate her distinctive voice and personality. Willow herself has a Voice that won’t quit. She’s a real person, maybe somewhat autistic, but fully engaged with the world. She gets hit hard by some of the worst stuff a child can go through in this story, but she is indefatigable. Great story, great characters.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, reviewed at Semicolon. This new companion novel to Code Name Verity is about 18-year old American pilot, Rose Justice, who joins the British Air Transport Auxiliary in order to help end the war. The story takes place in England, France, and later, Germany, as Rose’s flying assignments take her closer and closer to danger and destruction.

Orleans by Sherri Smith, reviewed at Semicolon. This apocalyptic YA novel is set in the future, sometime after the year 2025, after seven ferocious hurricanes have pounded the Gulf coast, after those hurricanes and Delta Fever, a deadly virus, have decimated the population, and after the United States has turned itself into two separate countries: the quarantined Delta Coast and the rest of the U.S., The Outer States, with a Wall in between and no travel between the two.

Love, Chickens, and a Taste of Peculiar Cake by Joyce Magnin, reviewed at Semicolon. Wilma Sue forms a bond with two rather peculiar and unorthodox missionary sisters, as she tries to figure out just what it is that makes the cakes that Ruth bakes so magical and what gives them healing properties.

The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle by Christopher Healy, reviewed at Semicolon. Prince Liam, Prince Frederic, Prince Duncan, and Prince Gustav are back, and they’re just as klutzy and heroic as they were in the first book in this series, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab, reviewed at Semicolon. This YA novel gave a good picture of a teenager who never really did think much about religion, and her own Catholic tradition in particular, until she was confronted with her older sister, a former nun, for whom the issues of religion and God were all-consuming.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan, reviewed at Semicolon. High schooler Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower

51FJbLEKjeL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Andi Unexpected reminded me of the simple mystery stories I read when I was nine and ten and eleven years old, nothing profound or even memorable, just a good solid mystery story for middle grade kids who like that sort of thing.

After the death of their scientist parents in the jungles of Central America, Andi and her older sister Bethany move in with their Aunt Amelie. While cleaning out the attic, Andi discovers a hidden closet and a mystery. Who is the mysterious Andora, who shares Andi’s name? Why does no one want to talk about her? Why are the local museum director and a history professor from the nearby college so interested in Andora’s story?

I felt as if a few of the plot points were a little rushed or unexplained. Andi says at one point that Andora is her great-aunt, but I wasn’t sure how she knew this bit of geneological information. I never understood how Andi’s parents decided to name her Andora after a mysterious woman that, according to the story, no one really knew by that name. Nevertheless, for fans of The Boxcar Children or series mysteries of that genre and reading level, Andi Unexpected may be just right. It looks as if Andi Unexpected is itself the beginning of a series.

Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner

51bBg4pRNuL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Quentin, Sarah, Ben and Cat are kids with one thing in common: they each experienced a head injury that brought them to the International Center for Advanced Neurology (I-CAN) to try to recover their brain and themselves. As Cat says, “The most terrifying thing about hitting your head so hard is when you wake up missing a piece of yourself. . . Things you could once do–kick a soccer ball without losing your balance, play air guitar with your best friend, climb in a kayak, or stand steady on the houseboat deck to pinch dead blossoms off the geraniums–all gone. Erased. Whole pieces of you are missing because your brain bumped against your skull.”

I still remember reading the best-selling medical thriller Coma by Robin Cook back in 1977 or 1978 when it first was published. It may have been that book plus a few personal experiences with doctors that made me lose faith in the medical profession. Since then, lots of “medical thrillers” have been written and consumed both by me and by the general reading public. And we probably trust doctors and the entire medical profession only a little more than we trust the government and politicians. All this to say, Wake Up Missing is not going to help the younger generation to become any more trusting than I was/am.

It’s a middle grade novel, but it is scary. “Something about this clinic isn’t right,” and Cat and her new friends may not be well enough in the brain to figure out what’s wrong before the evil mad scientist doctors mess up their brains for good. It’s a tad on the unbelievable side, but with some willing suspension of disbelief, it’s an enjoyable ride.

If you like this book, then I’d suggest:
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Stewart.

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester.

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen.

The Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith.