You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

You Go FirstYou Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard balanced an unopened Dr Pepper upright on her hand and thought: This is what it feels like to hold my dad’s heart.

She’d read online that the heart weighed about twelve ounces.

Same as the Dr Pepper.

(Somebody should probably mention to Charlotte that there’s a difference between ounces (mass) and fluid ounces (volume). Although Google tells me that a 12-ounce can of soda weighs about 13-14 ounces, so it’s pretty close!)

I’d been especially looking forward to this book since reading Kelly’s Newbery-winning Hello, Universe in February. This book has much of the charm of that book, with its painfully realistic middle-schoolers, but without the magical realism that was a part of Virgil’s story.

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard is dealing with her dad’s sudden health problem and the way her best friend seems to be drifting away from her now that they’ve started the seventh grade. Eleven-year-old Ben Boxer has just found out his parents are divorcing, and he doesn’t know how to talk to them about the troubles he’s been having fit in at middle school. Charlotte and Ben play online Scrabble against each other regularly. It’s their only interaction: Charlotte lives in Pennsylvania, and Ben lives in Louisiana. They’ve never met in person. But they have more in common than they think, and they might just be able to help one another.

Kelly captures the agonies of middle school perfectly – as a mom myself, I just wanted to hug both Charlotte and Ben. Their struggles are so familiar. At an age when they’re just starting to figure out who they are, the world seems to be suddenly rearranging itself all around them. The chapters alternate perspective between Charlotte and Ben, revealing the parallels in their lives to the reader before they really connect with other as more than word game adversaries. They’re both smart and awkward, and there are a lot of kids who will recognize themselves. Like in Hello, Universe, there isn’t a lot of action on the page; the development is emotional and psychological rather than physical. For those who enjoy character-driven stories, though, it’s a gem.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Challenges: None.

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Round-Up Review: The ScotShop Mysteries

A Wee Murder in My Shop (Scotshop Mystery, #1) A Wee Dose of Death (ScotShop Mystery #2) A Wee Homicide in the Hotel (ScotShop Mystery #3)

A Wee Murder in My Shop by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Dose of Death by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Homicide in the Hotel by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with the Gethsemane Brown books, I’m putting up one review for all three of these. I read all three of the span of five days, so they’re sort of a single entity in my head at this point.

Those Gethsemane Brown books seem to have sent me down a major rabbit hole of cozy mysteries, by the way. Specifically, it seems, cozies with ghosts in them. I did not see that coming, frankly.

Peggy Winn lives in Hamelin, Vermont, where she runs the ScotShop, selling all things Scottish to tourists. She makes regular visits to the Perthshire town of Pitlochry to purchase authentic Scottish wares for her stock. At the opening of the first book, she’s particularly glad to get on that transatlantic flight, because she’s just discovered her (now ex-)boyfriend in bed with her (now ex-)best friend. While in Scotland, she happens upon a strange shop and purchases a lovely tartan shawl, which she soon discovers comes with a genuine Scottish ghost. Macbeath Donlevy Freusach Macearacher Macpheidiran of clan Farquharson, deceased circa 1359, to be precise. She nicknames him Dirk.

Peggy returns to Hamelin, ghost in tow, to discover her ex-boyfriend is now her late ex-boyfriend – he’s been murdered overnight inside her shop. In the grand tradition of cozy mysteries, Peggy takes on the task of unmasking the murderer, since the local police chief is not exactly pursuing all leads.

In the second book, the local police chief is still thoroughly unhelpful, and Peggy (and Dirk) take on the task of figuring out who killed a local college professor in a deserted mountain cabin. Once that mystery is solved, the third book brings the Highland Games to Hamelin, along with (yet another) murder for Peggy and Dirk to investigate.

This appears to be a three-book series, without a fourth installment on the horizon. Which is a bit of a shame, since it seems poor Dirk will never actually get to reunite with his own Peigi or otherwise get to rest in peace.

I found the series charming, with its slightly eccentric small-town characters. The interactions between Dirk and Peggy, fraught with communication difficulties due to the seven centuries of linguistic development between their respective versions of English, in addition to cultural differences, are entertaining. Peggy’s relationships with the secondary characters round out the story and provide some interesting glimpses into parts of her life not revealed on the page. It is some of the loose ends of those threads that have me rather hoping for another sequel.

Also, I kind of want a Scottie dog now.

Source: Checked out the first book as an e-book from my public library via Libby; borrowed the second and third in paperback form from the library.

Reading Challenges: None. I’m ignoring the glares coming from Mt. TBR over there.

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Round-Up Review: Teapot Collector Mysteries by Amanda Cooper

 

Tempest in a Teapot by Amanda Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shadow of a Spout by Amanda Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Grim Steeper by Amanda Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thelma Mae Earnshaw peeped through the lacy curtains that adorned the side window of La Belle Epoque, her quaint(ish) inn and tearoom. She was trying to figure out what had her archenemy and business competitor, Rose Freemont, in such a fuss.

Another cozy mystery round-up review!

The Teapot Collector Mystery series is centered on Sophie Taylor, who at age 29 has just been through the rise and failure of her own New York City restaurant. Her father is eternally traveling on business, and her mother would like her to marry a nice (wealthy) young man already and turn into the sort of Society Lady Sophie has never wanted to be. Instead, Sophie heads upstate to Gracious Grove, a tiny town with more interest in tea than seems reasonable (maybe because the town also happens to be dry). There, her octogenarian grandmother, Rose Freemont, runs Auntie Rose’s Victorian Tea House and could perhaps use a hand. Next door, Thelma Mae Earnshaw runs a rival tearoom, because her entire life seems to revolve around trying to get even with Rose for a supposed slight decades ago. Her business never quite gets the upper hand, and it isn’t helped any when Thelma’s granddaughter’s mother-in-law-to-be dies suddenly right there in the tearoom. Soon, Sophie is trying to untangle the web of connections between families and businesses in Gracious Grove to figure out who could have murdered the woman and why.

In the second book, Rose and her business partner (and best friend) Laverne go to the annual International Teapot Collectors Society convention together for the first time, since Sophie is still in Gracious Grove to mind the shop. Their jaunt takes a nasty turn when the state ITCS president is murdered in the night… after a public argument with Rose over identification of a peculiar teapot. Since said teapot is found next to the body, Rose quickly becomes the suspect everyone is watching. Sophie drives up to assist in finding the real killer.

At the opening of the third book, Rose has had a health scare, and Sophie wants to help out in any way she can. The town’s annual Tea Stroll is coming up, there’s some sort of scandal going on at the local college, and – eventually – a man turns up dead on the Auntie Rose’s Victorian Tea House property.

This is a fun series, with a cast of quirky recurring characters who get into each other’s business the way people will in a small town. While Sophie grew up in a moneyed family, with luxuries like a vacation house in the Hamptons and an education at private boarding schools, all she wanted as a teenager was to stay at her grandmother’s house in Gracious Grove with the kids she was able to hang out with during her visits. A number of those kids are now the adults of Gracious Grove, and Sophie runs into a few bumps trying to fit back in. The narrative shifts between characters: while it returns frequently to Sophie, the scenes are sometimes viewed through the eyes of Rose or Thelma Mae. The sections told from Thelma Mae’s point of view are particularly interesting, making a character who could have been a flat stereotype of a cranky old lady into someone more real. I could understand why she does some of the things she does, even as I would like to tell her, “No! Don’t do that! Just go talk to Rose!” It’s a good thing the characters are interesting in their own right, since it takes a while to get the mystery in each book, especially the third one. There’s also a very slow burn romance developing for Sophie, which is very sweet. And each book includes tips on tea and a recipe for a little treat. I hope there will be more installments in the series.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Reading Challenges: Um, none. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Guide, #1)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.

This novel reminded me of reading Voltaire’s Candide in an English translation in college. What I remember most about that is that it was one adventure after another, a sort of Energizer Bunny of a story that just… kept… going. I recently did a little digging to figure out if what I remembered was accurate, and I ran across the term “picaresque novel”, for which the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms provides this explanation:

In the strict sense, a novel with a picaroon (Spanish, picaró: a rogue or scoundrel) as its hero or heroine, usually recounting his or her escapades in a first-person narrative marked by its episodic structure and realistic low-life descriptions. The picaroon is often a quick-witted servant who takes up with a succession of employers. […] In the looser sense now more frequently used, the term is applied to narratives that do not have a picaroon as their central character, but are loosely structured as a sequence of episodes united only by the presence of the central character, who is often involved in a long journey[…].

Okay, so The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t strictly meet the definition, but it’s pretty close. It’s set in an unspecified year sometime in the eighteenth century. The first-person narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, is the eighteen-year-old Viscount Disley, a lad pretty committed to a daily routine of drinking, gambling, and romping with assorted girls and boys. His father, the earl, has been vocal (and physical) in his disapproval of Monty’s habits, especially the “mucking about with boys” that was a major factor in Monty’s expulsion from Eton.

Monty is looking forward to one last hurrah of a Grand European Tour with his best friend (and the boy he’s been in love with for years), Percy, before returning to England, where his father expects him to settle down and learn how to handle estate he is expected to inherit. Monty is disappointed to discover that, in addition to bringing his fifteen-year-old sister, Felicity, along for a portion of the tour, he and Percy have been assigned a “bear-leader” who pledges to keep them on the straight and narrow.

That doesn’t last past Paris; events at a party at Versailles quickly lead to Monty, Percy, and Felicity – separated from their supposed guardian – finding themselves in a flight from city to city, trying to keep one step ahead of some dangerous pursuers. Secrets of all sorts are revealed as one challenge follows another, and Monty learns quite a lot more than he bargained for.

Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all realistically complicated characters. Monty is a rogue who has trouble seeing past his own privilege, but his biracial best friend and science-minded younger sister can (eventually) get through to him. The difficulties Percy and Felicity face are realistic edges in a story that verges on the fantastical.

This book is, most of all, fun. Monty’s attraction to boys as well as girls isn’t an issue for him (other than the fact that it drives his father’s vicious treatment of him); his problem is that he isn’t sure how to tell the boy he likes that he, well, likes him. Having a crush on your best friend that you’re afraid to confess because you can’t bear the thought of losing that friend? That’s a problem teenagers across time, space, gender, and orientation can all understand. This is a picaresque (hey, there’s that word!) adventure novel and a romance, so you know that despite the obstacles (and more obstacles… and more obstacles) they face, our heroes will get to their happy ending.

And Felicity is getting a book of her own, slated for October 2018. I am so looking forward to The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. I can hardly wait.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

Reading Challenges: Um, none. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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A Study in Lavender by Joseph R. G, DeMarco (ed.)

A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is Sherlock Holmes homosexual? Is Watson? Should we even be asking these questions?

DeMarco opens the Introduction to this collection of short stories with these questions. The following stories look at many facets of queer life in Victorian London as they touch on the lives of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and various original characters. In most of the stories, the (identified) queer characters are people other than Holmes and Watson themselves. Indeed, Holmes and Watson are all but entirely absent in at least two stories.

As with any anthology, the style varies between contributors. Most of the tales are written in traditional pastiche style, modeled on the Canon stories and narrated by Watson. One story is in third-person, one story is narrated by Holmes himself, and one story is a first-person narration by an original character.

I enjoyed the stories overall. There were a few that I just didn’t connect with, and the very first one surprised me with (content warning and spoiler alert!) references to incest. That topic is a Hard Pass for some readers, and I personally find it problematic in context. But that’s my personal engagement with the book, and yours is bound to be different.

If you are looking for Holmes/Watson romance, this is (mostly) not your book. If, however, you are looking for thoughtful, well-written explorations of the challenges faced by queer people in Victorian London, with a little Sherlockian flair, then this is the book for you.

Source: Purchased new

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Official TBR Pile Challenge and Mount TBR.

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Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, UniverseHello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade.

It’s the beginning of summer vacation, and the lives of four middle-schoolers are about to cross in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is small and quiet in a family of loud, large personalities. Kaori Tanaka is determined to use her gift of the “second sight” to help other kids. Valencia Somerset loves nature, but doesn’t really want to spend as much time alone as she does. Chet Bullens wants to impress people, especially his father, and believes to make himself bigger he must make others small.

I hadn’t heard about this book before it won the Newbery (though I did have Kelly’s two previous middle-grade books on the shelf at my library), so I really didn’t know what to expect.

I loved this book. It’s sweet and funny, and it captures so much of what it means to be at that age, just on the precipice of teenager-hood, when you’re figuring out who you are and what you believe.

The characters are diverse in a way that feels totally natural, and none of them are one-sided. The perspective rotates among Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet, giving the reader a wealth of information not available to the individual characters. Valencia’s chapters are written in first person, while the other three are all third-person. (I am curious about that choice!) Chet’s chapters, in particular, were a little heart-breaking to me as an adult (and the parent of an eleven-year-old). While the book is very much centered on the kids, I thought the glimpses of the adults in their lives were really interesting. And Lola is just fabulous.

The action of the novel takes place over just a day or two, so a lot of the “action” is internal, with the characters confronting their own ideas. There’s more than a touch of magical realism, too, giving the book an added dimension, but not drawing the story over the line into fantasy. Are these converging events nothing more than coincidence, or is the universe trying to get the characters’ attention?

This is a lovely little book that touches on big themes – friendship, bullying, standing up for yourself and others. If things seems to wrap up just a little bit too neatly, well, that’s the universe for you.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Newbery Reading Challenge (Medal Winner: 3 points).

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The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

The Grownup

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

That’s our introduction to our unnamed narrator, who has recently started posing as a fortune-teller who reads auras (in the front room of the same establishment where she has been providing orgasms to lonely men in the back room). She’s a clever young woman who grew up a grifter and relies on her keen observation skills to provide just the right story to the right person to part them from their money. But her skills at reading people might not be quite enough in this creepy, twisty tale.

This is a skinny little book at just 62 pages, a hardback the size of a thin paperback. It was originally published as a short story in George R. R. Martin’s Rogues anthology under the title “What Do You Do?” (Which is a really excellent title for this story, actually.) It won the 2015 Best Short Story Edgar.

The narrator (I really wish she had a name) is a compelling character. She’s so sure of herself – a confidence woman in multiple senses. I was reminded a bit of Selina Dawes in Sarah Waters’ Affinity, brought up into the 21st century. She’s flawed in ways she recognizes and in ways she doesn’t. She should be one of those “unlikeable” characters, but you want to like her.

I haven’t read Gone Girl, even though it seems like everyone else has. I really enjoyed this little taste of her writing, so I can see why everyone’s been buzzing about her novels.

Source: Book of the Month club

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder (Task 15: A one-sitting book), Mount TBR

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Sounder by William H. Armstrong

Sounder

Sounder by William H. Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tall man stood at the edge of the porch. The roof sagged from the two rough posts which held it, almost closing the gap between his head and the rafters.

Somewhere in the deep South, a young black boy lives with his family in a small cabin. One morning, he is surprised to discover pork sausage and ham cooking. For a family of impoverished sharecroppers, this is an unexpected luxury. Even their hound/bulldog mix, Sounder, gets a treat. The joy is short-lived, however, as the white Sheriff and his deputies arrive at their door and take the boy’s father away in chains. The boy grows into a young man with Sounder by his side.

I’ll start by noting the elephant in the room: this book, published in 1969 (and winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal), is a story about a black family written by a white man. The book opens with an author’s note beginning, “Fifty years ago, I learned to read at a round table in the center of a large, sweet-smelling, steam-softened kitchen. My teacher was a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away from where we lived in the Green Hill district of the county.” This would have been in the late 1910s; Armstrong was born in Virginia in 1911. He goes on to explain that his teacher told him many stories, including “the story of Sounder, a coon dog.” This book is, says Armstrong, “the black man’s story, not mine.”

Perhaps that is why none of the characters, other than the dog, are given names. For that matter, the place is never specified. Or maybe the vagueness is intended to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination.  In any case, our protagonist is always referred to as simply “the boy” – which feels a little awkward and uncomfortable. The particular racist use of the term is touched on in the novel itself: “‘Stick out your hands, boy,’ ordered the second man. The boy started to raise his hands, but the man was already reaching over the stove, snapping handcuffs on the outstretched wrists of his father.”

Throughout the short novel, we see the institutional and casual racism of the place and time through the boy’s eyes. He’s led a fairly sheltered life, rarely leaving the warm circle of his own family. His interactions with the people he encounters over the years reflect the prevailing attitudes.

I think this would be a great book to read with a group (a classroom or a book group) paired with an Own Voices book like Linda Williams Jackson’s Midnight without a Moon or Sharon M. Draper’s Stella by Starlight.

Source: Checked out from the public library

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Old School Kidlit Challenge (published 1969), the Newbery Reading Challenge (Medal Winner: 3 points), and Read Harder (Task 11: A children’s classic published before 1980).

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Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes, #2)Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls? A great many accounts have been written but it seems to me that all of them have left something to be desired — which is to say, the truth.

It is 1891, and Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have just had their confrontation at the side of the Reichenbach Falls. The novel opens with a brief account of a murder in London before joining our narrator, who identifies himself as Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, at the Meiringen police station. He tells us that he is on the trail of an American crime boss named Clarence Devereux. It seems that Devereux was planning to join forces with Moriarty. Chase was trying to prevent such a merger, and now he wants to take the opportunity to put a stop to Devereux’s activities in London for good. He teams up with Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones – a name recognizable to readers of The Sign of Four. Jones and Chase go back to London, where they follow a grisly trail to unmask Devereaux. Jones attempts to fill the gap left by the loss of Sherlock Holmes, with Chase as his Watson. But Chase has his own agenda, and things are much more complicated than they appear.

This is another book that I’ve had on my shelves for a long, long time. It was a selection from the Mysterious Bookshop’s Historical & Traditional Crime Club. I think it was the first book I received, actually. At the time, I hadn’t yet read House of Silk, so I put this book on the shelf. I eventually that one from the library, but found it rather darker than I was expecting, and I wasn’t in a hurry to drop back into that particular vision of Victorian London.

As it happens, the subject matter in this book was easier for me to handle, but there’s a twist in the book that I found more irritating than thrilling. Plus, queer coding a villain (along with our narrator letting us know that he “had seen his type many times before and felt revolted”) feels like a cheap shot.

Source: Purchased from the Mysterious Bookshop (New York, NY)
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Book Review: The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match by Elizabeth Eulberg

The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match (The Great Shelby Holmes, #2)
The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match by Elizabeth Eulberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what worried me more: that there was something the great Shelby Holmes didn’t know, or that she marched right up to the new teacher and dropped to the floor to start examining him from the shoes up.

Synopsis: It’s been three weeks since eleven-year-old John Watson moved to Harlem with his mom and met their nine-year-old genius neighbor, Shelby Holmes. It’s also the first day of school at Harlem Academy of the Arts, where they are both starting the sixth grade. While John is trying to settle in, get a handle on his homework, and spend at least a little time playing basketball or video games with some other guys, Shelby senses a mystery that needs solving. Someone needs her help, and John is immediately in for the adventure (and the material for his writing class). It quickly seems he’ll get more than he bargained for, as the case is more complicated than it appears, and it looks like there might be someone in the world who is a match for even the great Shelby Holmes.

Review: Like the first book, this novel is told in first person from the perspective of John Watson, an eleven-year-old African-American boy who has recently moved to New York. After a lifetime of moving from base to base as a military brat, he is adapting to life in a city apartment with his mom and adapting to life apart from his dad, who has remained in Kentucky. He has a strong narrative voice, witty and often self-deprecating, an average kid who finds himself in some not-so-average situations. He is a likeable, friendly kid, and his friendship with Shelby – which could seem very unlikely indeed – is understandable when seen through his eyes.

The story is peppered with Canonical references, from character names to plot twists. As an adaptation of the Holmes stories for kids, this is a knock-out. The characters are more diverse, the setting is modern, and the cases tend to involve fewer murders, but Holmes and Watson remain Holmes and Watson. Eulberg nails the friendship between Shelby and John, making it clear why these two opposites will always come back to each other.

Personal Thoughts: I adore this series. A third book is said to be in the works; I can’t wait!

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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