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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Book Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

MooMoo by Sharon Creech
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The truth is, she was ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to a n y b o d y, and selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust, and moody: you’d better watch it or she’d knock you flat.

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Reena has always been a city girl, and she doesn’t know what to expect when her family moves to rural Maine. She certainly doesn’t expect, along with her seven-year-old brother, Luke, to be volunteered by their parents to help out a cranky elderly lady. Mrs. Falala lives alone, except for a pig, a cat, a parrot, a snake, and a cow. The cow is Zora, and Reena and Luke are tasked with grooming her for an upcoming fair.

Review: There are a few short chapters written in prose, but most of the book is in free verse and concrete poetry. This writing style, packed with sensory details, brings the reader well into Reena’s experience. Reena and Luke are believable city kids plunked down in an unfamiliar rural setting, and Reena’s thoughts and feelings will resonate especially with (sub)urban kids who are curious about life in the country. It’s a quiet book, focused more on emotions and personal growth than action. The poetic style and short chapters make it a faster read than it appears at first glance. There is a good deal of gentle humor, but be prepared for some realistic sad moments.

Personal Thoughts: I wanted to read the book based on some information given at a Book Buzz segment at an ALA Conference. By the time I got it, I mistook this book for another book that I also heard about at the same presentation, with left me a little bit confused for a chapter or three! But I was quickly engaged by Reena’s story. I grew up in the suburbs, and I clearly remember the first few times I encountered a real, live cow; Reena’s reactions rang true. I also loved the moment Reena and Luke realize where hamburgers come from, as well as the follow-up discussions with local boy Zep, their tutor in things livestock-showing-related, and with their parents. This would be a great choice for a parent-child book club.

Source: Borrowed from my public library.

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Book Review: Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret

(This post is part of the blog tour for Paula Berinstein’s newest book in the Amanda Lester series.)

Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks' Secret (Amanda Lester, Detective #4)

Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret by Paula Berinstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What was Nick Moriarty, her ex-best friend, now her mortal enemy, doing in her bedroom? And why was that old red Formica table there, and that tiny oak cupboard, and that awful yellow beanbag chair?

Synopsis: Waking up on board the Moriarty family’s boat face-to-face with Nick – once her best friend and now her sworn enemy – is just one more confusing thing for Amanda Lester to cope with. The split between the factions of teachers at Legatum Continuatum sent half the instructors to Scotland to establish a new school, and the headmaster, several students, and Amanda’s cousins are missing. The acting headmaster is hiring new instructors, and Amanda’s mother is among the applicants. As if that’s not enough going on, her filmmaker idol is coming to England, her mother is dating a new guy, and her complicated feelings toward Scapulus Holmes are compounded by his relationship with her friend Amphora. Then there are the rare all-blue peacocks who have become mysteriously ill and an archaeological discovery that may turn the public against the detectives. Amanda and her friends have to keep a running list of the problems they need to solve!

Review: The fourth book in the series is packed with a lot of things happening at once. Background information is provided in the first few chapters, but it’s probably best not to jump into the series with this volume. The relationships between the characters take on great importance, whether they are bonds of family, friendship, or romance. The main characters all gain some development over the course of the novel. Ivy’s family plays a significant role in the story, providing details to round out her character. The perspective of the novel occasionally shifts away from Amanda, giving the reader a chance to glimpse what else is going on. The cliffhangers at the end of the book ensure that readers will be eager for the next installment! The Q&A section with the author in the back matter provides links to further information about the scientific facts that play a part in the story.

Personal Thoughts: Okay, I’m hooked. In my not-so-humble opinion, Berinstein’s writing gets better with each book, and I can hardly wait to see what she comes up with next.

Source: Kindle e-book courtesy of Lola’s Blog Tours

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Book Review: Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle

(As part of the blog tour for Paula Berinstein’s newest book in the Amanda Lester series, Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret, this week I’m reviewing the second and third books as well as the new one.)

Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle (Amanda Lester, Detective, #3)

Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle by Paula Berinstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who would have thought a little twerp like David Wiffle could bring an entire detective school to its knees?

Synopsis: Things have gone from bad to worse at the secret detective school, Legatum Continuatum. David Wiffle has disappeared after apparently destroying the school’s most precious artifact. Editta Sweetgum is also missing, having run away with the Moriarty family after the showdown involving that artifact. And two other students are also missing, presumably with the Moriartys as well. The teachers are dividing into factions, lawsuits have been filed, and the entire school seems ready to fall apart. In some areas, it’s ready to literally fall apart, as earthquake damage is still under repair. Amanda’s family seems set to self-destruct, too, now that her father has taken off for Tibet. Then things get really weird, with rainbows appearing in the sky in the wrong color order, and zombies appearing in town.

Review: The third book of the series picks up right where the second left off, so some space in the first chapter is given over to recapping the events leading to this point. After that, events pick up pace, with Amanda and her friends tasked with solving a whole bunch of problems that the adults are unable to handle. The point of view remains in close third-person, so the reader gets a good idea of what Amanda thinks of things, though other characters sometimes act in seemingly inexplicable ways (simply because Amanda has no idea of the explanation). The interpersonal relations are realistically thorny, as the teenage characters cope with emotional and physical challenges. The story ends with some open questions readers will want to find the answers to in future installments of the series. Like the previous book, it has a Q&A section at the end with author that includes pointers to more information about some of the scientific curiosities that play a part in the action.

Personal Thoughts: I enjoyed this book more than the previous one. I feel there’s a bit of a Roald Dahl influence, especially in the larger-than-life characteristics of the adults versus the more realistically drawn young people.

Source: Kindle e-book courtesy of Lola’s Blog Tours

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Book Review: Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis

(As part of the blog tour for Paula Berinstein’s newest book in the Amanda Lester series, Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret, this week I’m reviewing the second and third books as well as the new one.)

Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis (Amanda Lester, Detective Book 2)
Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis by Paula Berinstein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Life was already weird enough at Legatum Continuatum, the secret school for descendants of famous detective, in England’s Lake District. After the events of the last few months, including her father’s kidnapping, two murders, a teacher’s disappearance, an explosions, and a criminal plot to corner the world’s sugar market, she was battered, fed up, and downright depressed, especially since one of the kidnappers had turned out to be the boy she thought was her best friend.

Synopsis: As classes resume at Legatum Continuatum after the Spring Holiday, Amanda and her friends are joined by a new student: Scapulus Holmes. Nearly everyone is impressed and/or intrigued by him, much to Amanda’s disgust. But she has other things on her mind, too, as she overhears the teachers panicking over a missing object, her filmmaking idol Darius Plover asks for her input on his new film, and one of her classmates is several days late returning from the break. And then there is an earthquake, causing extensive damage and revealing some unusual orange crystals and a skeleton. Amanda and Scapulus are going to have to find a way to work together to keep the crystals out of the hands of the Moriarty gang and maybe help the school recover the mysterious missing object.

Review: The second book in the Nancy-Drew-meets-Harry-Potter-minus-magic series picks up the loose ends from the first volume and weaves them right in to a new adventure. The characters are realistically flawed, and their interactions ring true to anyone who has spent time around tween and early teens. The cast of characters is diverse without feeling forced, which is refreshing. Less refreshing is the fat-shaming that occasionally pops up in the close third-person narration, which generally reads as Amanda’s internal voice. All of the characters are facing challenges and hiding secrets, sometimes putting them at odds with each other just when they need to come together, and sometimes making their character development uneven and unconvincing. Berinstein brings in some interesting scientific ideas, taking understandable artistic license, and includes pointers to more information in the Q&A section at the back of the book.

Personal Thoughts: I want to like this book more than I did. At one point, Amanda explains that, “Voiceovers are stupid. You’re telling rather than showing the audience what you want to get across.” That rather summed up one of my issues with the book, which is that too much is told flat-out in the narration rather than revealed through dialog or action. Still, I like the world and the characters too much to stop reading.

Source: Kindle e-book courtesy of Lola’s Blog Tours

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