Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'dIf you’ve been around the blog a while, you’ll know already that I have a love/hate, love to hate, hate to love relationship with Flavia de Luce, which is weird ’cause she’s twelve and also fictional, but what are you gonna do. It’s been an uneven series from the start, and the seventh book was really really terrible, but still as soon as I saw this eighth book up for grabs I was like, well, okay, I’ll read that.

Things that I love about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s precocious and a know-it-all and I might possibly have some experience with that and I like to imagine that my younger self could have gotten up to some serious Adventures if only, well, many things.
2) Bishop’s Lacey. I love this little town and all the people that Flavia bothers on the regular and I like that the characters change along with Flavia’s perceptions of them and become far more interesting as the series goes on.
3) The page count. These books are very short, 300 undersized pages or so, and they read fast, so you can get your fill of murder mystery and then move on with your life.

Things that I hate about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s often incredibly wrong and insufferable about it, and also she has aged only a year during these eight books when it reads like she’s aged about five.
2) Buckshaw. I like Flavia’s sisters all right, but they’ve been sort of cast off from the stories of late, and I used to like Flavia’s dad until he got weird, but really the awful person here is Flavia’s mother — who leaves an estate to an actual child and thinks that things will still be all right at home?
3) The body count. Did I mention that there have been more than eight murders in this town (and Canada, I guess) in LESS THAN A YEAR? And no one seems to bat an eye? Is this how Jessica Fletcher got her start?

This book really takes the cake on the murder thing, too, with a dead body that reminded me of the one in The Silkworm, all hung upside down and awful looking. Flavia, of course, finds this body and starts investigating and gets in all sorts of trouble for what, in the end, turns out to be a very strange and anticlimactic solution.

It also wins for the most dysfunctional home life storyline, as Flavia returns home from Canada to find out that her father is sick in hospital and unable to receive visitors, and somehow in the four seconds that she was in Canada her sister has become unengaged and both of her sisters can’t even work up the ability to properly hate her and so of course it’s no wonder she becomes obsessed with a murder case, I guess, but also, seriously, I have no idea how Mrs. Mullet and Dogger have been left in charge of this mess without Child Services stepping in.

The Canada shenanigans, surprisingly, make for the most interesting part of this book when Flavia calls upon Miss Bannerman to help with her murder investigations in London. Very little of the top-secret-hush-hush-whatever stuff is involved, just two chemists hanging out solving a mystery, which is much of what I initially enjoyed about the series.

I kind of wish this book had been more terrible, so that I could give up Flavia for good, but instead it was just about fairly decent and I’m going to have to wait for Bradley to end this series before I can stop reading it. At least they’re very short books.

Recommendation: Oh god don’t even start this series it is a roller coaster of emotions. But if you’re caught up in the series, you’re probably going to read this one no matter what, so go ahead.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenThis book and I have a bit of a history together. I first heard about it before it came out, when John Green (a college friend of Riggs) was spreading massive love for the book around the internets. Then it came out, and there was tons more love all over the place, but I was busy doing who knows what and didn’t get around to reading it. Then I was at my favorite beach book store maybe a year ago, and I was like, I want to buy books from you, what should I buy. This book ended up coming home with me but remained unread until my book club picked it to read. (Technically, my copy is still unread as I started reading the book on my Kindle and never switched over.)

And so maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known about this book and its fans for so long, that perhaps I had built up the awesome in my head too far, that I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to, for sure. It’s a book with a precocious kid who essentially finds out that magic is real, and also there’s bad guys and time travel, and really this book seems like a slam dunk. But it just… wasn’t.

If you also haven’t managed to read this book, the plot is thus: precocious kid has a grandfather who told him wild stories about his childhood that turned out to be pretty obviously made up when kid became teen. Grandfather becomes senile, thinks monsters are after him, dies horribly at the hands of what teen sees as, in fact, monsters, kid goes into therapy, therapist recommends a visit to the island grandfather told teen to visit with his last words, teen goes, discovers hidden time pocket where grandfather’s stories are true and grandfather’s childhood friends are still living as teens themselves, bad guys discover same pocket, teen and very old teens work together to defeat the bad guys.

This seems great! In fact, like Scarlett Undercover, my teen self would probably have devoured this book in minutes and loved it.

But cranky adult me sees what Riggs is doing and wishes he had done it better. The driving force behind this book is a set of pictures that Riggs collected that show mostly kids doing weird things — floating, lifting boulders, looking much older than they are, etc. These pictures became the titular peculiar children, and the pictures are actually printed in the book, which is cool but also annoying because you know every time a picture is coming because Riggs says something like, “I remember this girl, there was that picture where she was holding a chicken and there’s a long drawn-out explanation why she had a chicken so let me tell you what that is,” and I just don’t care. I don’t care why this girl is holding a chicken, I care about the fact that chicken girl and everyone else is in a time loop and also in trouble! This plot is interesting, let’s talk more about it!

The writing is also kind of confusing, with conflicting information given about the kids’ powers and the rules of the time loop and whatever, and everyone that’s not the main kid and his crush object get short shrift on character development. The dad is especially a letdown, since you can see where he could have been really integral to the plot but instead he gets left behind to drink all the beer while his kid goes off and has adventures.

Basically I think this book would have been better if it were Hollow Earth, which has weird stuff well explained and lots of characters with actual character. But again, teen me would have loved it anyway, so there’s clearly no accounting for taste.

Recommendation: For readers seeking weirdness that comes with pictures and those who appreciate the “kids with absent parents” part of most children’s books.

Rating: 5/10

Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustI just don’t even know what is going on with Flavia these days. I mean, I’ve always had my problems with these books, which have decently interesting mysteries and a delightful protagonist but which can’t decide if they want to drag on too long or not enough. But there was that short story a month or so back that just left me kind of cold, and then… this novel.

I was pretty excited about this book and the fact that we were going to get Flavia! In! Canada!, because seriously those graveyards in Bishop’s Lacey must have been overflowing after six books. And also because I was promised intrigue and secret organizations and general interesting new things. But what I got was confusion and more confusion and also some befuddlement.

So Flavia takes the boat to Canada, right, and then she settles into her dorm room at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy and then there’s a strange altercation and then there’s a dead body. In Flavia’s room. On day one. I’m not sure even Jessica Fletcher could do better. But this time Flavia doesn’t get to be terribly involved in this investigation because there are actual functioning adults around to take care of such things, and also because she has to, like, go to school and try to work out a dozen other mysteries of the campus.

Well, probably not a dozen. But there’s a lot. There are mysterious disappearances and faculty acting oddly, and then also there’s this whole thing about Flavia being in a society so secret that she apparently doesn’t even get to know who else is in it? Except that some other students are possibly dropping hints about it, but they’re so subtle they might not actually be hints, and then Flavia’s trying to drop hints and getting the stink-eye, and I am like omg wtf.

In the midst of all this Flavia does actually manage to solve that whole murder thing and also the disappearing students thing, but the solutions are both so ridiculous I don’t even want to talk about it except to say OMG WTF.

And then it gets worse! SPOILERS AHEAD: After Flavia solves these mysteries it is somehow determined that she no longer needs to be at the horridly named Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy even though she was there for like ten seconds and she gets shipped back to Britain to do God knows what. I wonder if Bradley realized his geographical mistake in the middle of writing the book, but having promised us Canada couldn’t take it back and this was his way of “fixing” things? Ugggggggh. (END SPOILERS)

It’s so awful. I mean, Flavia is still delightful, but the mystery is bad and so is the rest of the plot and I am just so disappointed. And yet you and I both know that as soon as the next Flavia book comes out I am going to read it, because I am a glutton for punishment and precocious eleven-year-olds. And really, it can only be better than this one. (She said, jinxing everything.)

Recommendation: For Flavia addicts only.

Rating: 4/10

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted ArchesIntriguing, Mr. Bradley, very intriguing.

At the end of the last book, we readers got the news that Flavia’s long-lost-in-the-Himalayas-or-wherever mother had been found, and I personally was like, OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG because I very much wanted to meet Harriet and I especially wanted Flavia to meet her and maybe stop feeling like such a red-headed stepchild around her siblings.

This book starts off with Harriet’s return home via train, with a huge entourage of soldiers and whatnot, but of course, spoilers for the incurably optimistic like myself, it turns out that this is a funeral train and it is Harriet’s body that has been found, actually. Frowny… face.

On the plus side, Flavia meets Winston Churchill, which is pretty awesome, but then on the minus side she witnesses yet another murder in her tiny town when a man with a cryptic message for Flavia’s father is pushed in front of the departing train.

Although we get this murder right up front, it turns out that this book falls right into the pattern of even-numbered installments being more about Flavia and her family and her history than some boring murder, although in this case I was extremely interested in this backstory. Flavia spends much of her time channelling Frankenstein and attempting to reanimate her mother, because that’s going to go well, but she also meets some new family members and finds an old film of her mother that gives Flavia new facts about her family’s past.

And what a past it is. We finally get a sense of why there are so many murders occurring near Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, and why Flavia is given such free rein to go off investigating, not to mention her forays into chemistry and poisons in her own personal lab. We even learn just why it is that Flavia’s sisters are so hostile to her, aside from, you know, being siblings.

The end of this novel brings with it a huge change for the series that will probably protect many rural English villagers but can only bode poorly for another set of citizens that Flavia has yet to meet. It will be very interesting indeed to see where Bradley takes this series and whether it will have the same delightfulness that I associate with Flavia and Buckshaw or develop a new and different (and perhaps better?) identity. As I said up at the top, I am intrigued.

Recommendation: For those who have read the rest of the series, which should be you!

Rating: 8/10

Rare Beasts, by Charles Ogden

Rare BeastsI saw a few books in this Edgar & Ellen series going out of my library around Hallowe’en, and when I picked up this first one and noted the phrase “fans of Lemony Snicket” in a blurb on the back, you know I was sold.

The premise is simple: Edgar and Ellen are twin kids left alone at home by their parents, who have clearly run screaming from their weirdo children. The twins are inveterate troublemakers and spend their days running around their giant house, playing a game of hide and seek in which the loser gets hog-tied, and their nights painting rude words on their village’s signs. When they get bored of all that, they venture out into the village to bother the normal folk.

In this book, the twins realize they have no money to fund their schemes, and so they scheme to sell exotic pets for outrageous sums. The pets are, of course, pilfered from all the villagers and decorated with glitter and whatnot, and also of course it proves difficult for the twins to sell these pets a) to people who are looking for their own missing puppies and cats and pythons and b) for thousands and thousands of dollars to people who live in a small village.

It is a super adorable story vaaaaguely reminiscent of the Snicket in that it shares the same sense of humor if not Snicket’s way with words. There are also some delightful references to Poe (of course) and an ending that is appropriate to the reality of the story, which I wasn’t quite expecting. I like that we are obviously supposed to sympathize with the twins’ boredom and sense of adventure, but not with their actions. Good lessons for small children!

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series unless I somehow run out of books to read at work (unlikely!), but I will definitely be recommending it to a few short people I know.

Recommendation: For your favorite trouble-making child.

Rating: 8/10

Who Could That Be At This Hour, by Lemony Snicket

Who Could That Be at This HourSpeaking of kids with no parental guidance who are measurably smarter than the adults around them…

Man, I love Lemony Snicket. I’m not sure how this book got past my radar last year, but there must have been something really exciting going on, because otherwise I would have tripped over myself to get in line to read this first book in a series about the childhood of one Mr. Snicket, the writer of many fine books about my favorite orphans.

So it turns out that as a child, Snicket was part of some shadowy organization (of course) doing shadowy things (of course), and as we meet him he has just graduated Shadowy School or whatever and is off to train as an apprentice to a chaperone called S. Theodora Markson, who we find out is ranked last on the list of chaperones (of course). Snicket chose her to further his own mysterious plans, but her one accomplishment is ruining said plans, so he’s stuck with her on a shadowy-organization-approved case involving the retrieval of a maybe-stolen maybe-valuable object. Theodora bumbles her way through the case while Snicket, of course, learns the true facts, but if you’ve ever read Snicket’s work you know things don’t wrap up in a nice neat bow at the end.

The series is titled “All the Wrong Questions,” and as such there is a recurring theme in the book of Snicket asking questions and then remarking from the future that that was entirely the wrong question, and here are some questions he should have asked, or possibly here are some questions of equivalent worth that have nothing to do with anything. It is both dryly humorous and also a great way of getting the reader (or at least me) to think a little harder about this book that is just flying by and see those clues that Snicket is planting. Snicket also pulls in the “[word], which here means [meaning]” phrase from his previous books, except in this one he actually has his characters speak this phrase, which is ridiculous and wonderful.

I loved this book. It’s sarcastic and funny and pulls in a lot of references that the kids who read this book will hear of as adults and think, ohhhh, that’s where that came from. Even my usual complaints about books for kids fail here, because Snicket takes those stories’ failings to extremes that make them hilarious. Basically, this book was written just for me, and I couldn’t dislike it if I tried.

Also, fair warning, Snicket has given me my new catchprase: “Don’t repeat yourself. It’s not only repetitive, it’s redundant, and people have heard it before.” Thanks, Snicket! My friends are going to love you!

Recommendation: For people who like happiness, if happiness can be defined as complete insanity wrapped in sarcasm.

Rating: 10/10