“Shouldn’t You Be in School?” by Lemony Snicket

“Shouldn’t You Be in School?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. It is the sequel to “When Did You See Her Last?”.

Is Lemony Snicket a detective or a smoke detector?
Do you smell smoke? Young apprentice Lemony Snicket is investigating a case of arson but soon finds himself enveloped in the ever-increasing mystery that haunts the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Who is setting the fires? What secrets are hidden in the Department of Education? Why are so many schoolchildren in danger? Is it all the work of the notorious villain Hangfire? How could you even ask that? What kind of education have you had? Maybe you should be in school?

Rating: 4/5

“Shouldn’t You Be in School?” is another good addition to the Wrong Questions series, a series that I’m enjoying more with each book. It almost makes me want to reread “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” because I might enjoy it more than I did the first time.

Beyond cameo appearances and explaining more about VFD, this book really cemented in my mind the fact that the Wrong Questions series is really just to show how incredibly clever and resilient Lemony Snicket is. It’s a wonder he never caught up to the Baudelaire children at all (except for possibly The Penultimate Peril, if you believe the theory that he was the taxi driver and took the sugar bowl away from Hotel Denouement) because as a thirteen-year-old he’s outsmarting, in some way, his enemies and his friends. The whole blank-book-library at the end kinda blew my mind a little, even if it didn’t really accomplish anything in terms of giving the protagonists a leg up on Hangfire.

This book also brings back some old, tried-and-true issues: who can you really trust? How far will someone go to protect/find someone they love? How incompent are the adults, anyway? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how meaty these books have been, despite their silliness. And the mysteries in them are good, as well.

I’m still a little worried that the series will end without complete resolution in terms of the Bombinating Beast, Hangfire, Ellington Feint’s missing father, and all the other numerous little mysteries (Kit! The secret in the library! Ink! The music box! Books!), but I think at this point I’m too invested (and too aware of how these books go) to ultimately care much if it happens. I simply hope that the last book is as fun and as enticing of a mystery as I found “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Children’s

“The arsonist is a moth-hater, all right,” Sharon said, sipping limeade, “and my new best friend Theodora was telling me that she knew just who it was.”

“We saw him this morning,” Theodora said, “swatting moths as usual.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “Dashiell Qwerty is a fine librarian.”

“I’m as shocked as you are, Snicket,” Theodora said. “In our line of work we’ve learned to trust, honor, and flatter librarians. But Qwerty is clearly a bad apple in a bowl of cherries.”

“Dashiell Qwerty wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Moxie said.

“You’re not listening, girlie,” Sharon said. “He’s hurting moths.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ipMHcH

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi, was published in 1990 by Orchard/Scholastic.

In 1832, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is returning from her school in England to her family in America. Charlotte’s voyage takes place on the Seahawk, a seedy ship headed by a murderously cruel captain and sailed by a mutinous crew. When Charlotte gets caught up in the bitter feud between captain and crew, she winds up on trial for murder…and is found guilty!

Rating: 4/5

I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle once more than ten years ago and it stuck pretty well with me all these years. Though some of the details were muddled in my mind, I remembered very vividly one of the last lines in the book and the overall gist of the story.

It’s not that this book is particularly complex or amazing, which is usually the sort of book I remember well these days. It’s incredibly straightforward and simplistic, and Avi doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop much of the other characters beyond Charlotte. We don’t know much about anything about Charlotte’s family except that they’re pretty stereotypically Victorian upper-middle-class, which means they’re prim and proper and gasp in horror at their daughter’s adventures, and we don’t know or learn much about any of the crew members that Charlotte meets, except for Zechariah.

Yet somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter. There are no frills, no bells and whistles attached to this book. It is, as Charlotte herself will tell you, a detailed description of what happened to her—and it works, or at least it did for me. Though things happen quickly, they happen realistically. They make sense. Charlotte’s trust in Jaggery at the beginning of the book makes sense, as does her increasing unease, her heel-face-turn (and, subsequently, the crew’s), and her ultimate loyalty to the ship. I don’t even mind how it ends, because everything that came before it made sense.

I also think that Zechariah’s character is a pretty interesting one, in that he’s not the (stereo)typical portrayal of a black man in Victorian England or America. He’s the most eloquent, which I think is a good contrast for a lot of black characters we see in historical fiction that speak in dialect. It shows a different side and I like that.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a simple story, but it’s one that’s stuck with me as I grew up, and one that I expect will continue to stick with me in the years to come.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“Begging your pardon, miss,” the man murmured, his look more hangdog than ever. “Barlow’s the name and though it’s not my business or place to tell you, miss, some of the other’s here, Jack Tars like myself, have deputized me to say that you shouldn’t be on this ship. Not alone as you are. Not this ship. Not this voyage, miss.”

“What do you mean?” I said, frightened anew. “Why would they say that?”

“You’re being here will lead to no good, miss. No good at all. You’d be better off far from the Seahawk.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2hW2FfY

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, was published in 2013 by Harper.

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors. She particularly enjoys defying authority, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags. Girls belong at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, learning to waltz, faint, and curtsy. But Hilary and her dearest friend, the gargoyle, have no use for such frivolous lessons—they are pirates! (Or very nearly.) To escape from a life of petticoats and politeness, Hilary answers a curious advertisement for a pirate crew and suddenly finds herself swept up in a seafaring adventure that may or may not involve a map with an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a rogue governess who insists on propriety, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas. Will Hilary find the treasure in time? Will she become a true pirate after all? And what will become of the gargoyle?

Rating: 4/5

Despite the dreaded “girl defies propriety and runs away” plot trope, I really enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot. It has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it that’s quite funny (if a tad hard to swallow at times) and Carlson has a deft enough hand that I enjoyed the atmosphere of “not-quite-taking-itself-seriously” that the book displays. Sometimes those are hard to get right, but this book does it quite well.

I did find the plot a little predictable, though, and while some of the reveals may be surprising to younger readers, I doubt they would surprise older ones. I’m also disappointed at the way Hilary and Admiral Westfield’s relationship was handled—I would have liked a little more nuance and depth there rather than the ho-hum, apathetic approach we got. I doubt any girl would be able to so casually accept the things that happened as Hilary did, although maybe the tongue-in-cheek nature of the book has something to do with it.

So, even though I find the main plot trope used in this book stale and annoying, I did enjoy Magic Marks the Spot, mostly because of its humor, its cleverness (though the plot overall was predictable, there were some clever bits), and its ability to make me not care so much about the obviousness of some of the tropes used. This is a series I would like to come back to.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Miss Greyson smiled for the second time that day—the world was getting stranger and stranger by the minute—but Philomena didn’t smile back. “I’m terribly sorry,” said Philomena, “but Miss Pimm doesn’t receive visitors. You can leave Miss Westfield with me, and the porter will collect Miss Westfield’s bags.” She raised her eyebrows as the carriage driver deposited the golden traveling trunk on the doorstep. “I hope you have another pair of stockings in there.”

“I do.” Hilary met Philomena’s stare. “I have nineteen pairs, in fact. And a sword.”

Miss Greyson groaned and put her hand to her forehead.

“Excuse me?” said Philomena.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2hNWZzU

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, was published in 2015 by Henry Holt.

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone….A convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes…Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Rating: 4/5

Six of Crows is a little bit like Ocean’s Eleven crossed with Bardugo’s Grisha universe and some romance mixed in. It’s not necessary to have read Shadow and Bone or the other two books before reading this one, but they do help to fill in some of the gaps in the worldbuilding and some of the information about Ravka in this book is easier to understand and grasp the significance of if you’ve read the Grisha trilogy.

I loved the action and the complexity of Six of Crows, though it did get a bit tiresome at the end when Bardugo pulls the “here’s what a character did but oh, wait, you don’t know the full story and the ingenious thing they just pulled off until a little bit later.” I do like a limited narrator, so it was only the repetitiveness that grated at me a little, not the concept itself. The ending of the plot was a little obvious, but the reveals were good and even the parts that were obvious were gripping and suspenseful.

I do wish the romance would have been a little bit better, and I say that knowing that many people (according to reviews on Goodreads) loved it. I felt that it was a little predictable (six characters=an obvious three pairs of couples) and though the fan-favorite couple seems to be Nina and Matthias, I must admit that theirs was the most cliché, overused romance in the book, in my opinion. I’ve read maybe thirty different variants of the “I hate her but I love her” romance in various young adult novels. I much preferred the romance of Kaz and Inej, which is, if not less overused, at least less obvious about it.

I really enjoyed Six of Crows, flaws of predictability in romance and in some aspects of the plot aside, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else is in store for Kaz and his crew. Maybe an appearance by another character from the Grisha trilogy? One can only hope!

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, mentions of drugs and prostitution, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Twenty million kruge. What kind of job would this be? Kaz didn’t know anything about espionage or government squabbles, but why should stealing Bo Yul-Bayur from the Ice Court be any different form liberating valuables from a mercher’s safe? The most well-protected safe in the world, he reminded himself. He’d need a very specialized team, a desperate team that wouldn’t balk at the real possibility that they’d never come back from this job.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2iq7mhA

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, by Laura Amy Schlitz, was published in 2006 by Candlewick.

On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That is the day that Maud—“plain, clever and bad” girl of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans—is adopted into a real family, surprising even Maud herself. The elderly Hawthorne sisters, led by the charismatic Hyacinth, think that Maud Flynn is absolutely perfect, and Maud follows them eagerly into a brand-new life, expecting to be pampered and cherished beyond her wildest dreams. Once she settles in with Hyacinth, Judith, and Victoria to live out an orphan’s fantasy, however, Maud learns that “perfection” has more to do with the secret role she can play in the high-stakes and eerie “family business” than with her potential as a beloved family member. Not one to give up easily, Maud persists in playing her role in the hopes of someday being rewarded with genuine affection. But the burden of keeping secrets and perpetuating lies grows heavy even for Maud, and she must ultimately decide just how much she is willing to endure for the sake of being loved.

Rating: 4/5

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is a heartwarming novel about a girl who just wants a family and the lengths she will go to in order to feel loved. While the plot was obvious, it was well-written and I didn’t mind so much that I knew how the novel was going to end.

While I found Schlitz’s other novel, Splendors and Glooms, strange and unlikeable, this one, while containing some slight supernatural elements, was much more subtle about it and everything was integrated nicely into the plot. In addition, Maud is not the character type that I tend to like, but I liked her—Schlitz shared just enough of her feelings and of her past that I understood her and I appreciated the time spent in the characterization of Maud, as well as the other characters, especially Victoria, Anna, and Mrs. Lambert.

I also appreciated that Schlitz shows how Maud has an accent without actually writing out the dialect. Writing in dialect sometimes doesn’t come across very well, so I’m glad that the improper English was implied rather than directly stated whenever Maud opened her mouth. A strange thing to appreciate, I know, but dialects can very quickly become too over the top and Schlitz avoids that all together.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is sweet, at times sad and a little disturbing, and ultimately heartwarming. I enjoyed reading it and I’m glad that the somewhat cheesy subtitle (A Melodrama) does not take away from the novel in the least bit.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Hyacinth squeezed her again. “You really are a darling girl,” said Hyacinth Hawthorne. “Isn’t she, Judith?”

Judith didn’t answer. The elder Miss Hawthorne had turned to face the window. Her profile was hawklike, with its sharp eyes and Roman nose. Maud had a feeling that Judith didn’t talk about “darlings” very much. A little daunted, she glanced back at Hyacinth.

Hyacinth was smiling faintly. Maud relaxed. It was Hyacinth who mattered, after all—and Hyacinth thought she was a darling girl.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2gPRSSw

The Shattered Vigil by Patrick W. Carr

Disclaimer: The Shattered Vigil, by Patrick W. Carr, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Their victory over the dark forces during the feast of Bas-solas should have guaranteed safety for the continent. Instead, Willet and the rest of the Vigil discover they’ve been outsmarted by those seeking to unleash the evil that inhabits the Darkwater. One of the Vigil has gone missing, and new attacks have struck at the six kingdoms’ ability to defend themselves. Worse, a deadly new threat has emerged—assassins hunting the Vigil, men and women who cannot be seen until it’s too late. To thwart the perilous new risk, the church makes the drastic decision to safeguard the Vigil by taking the surviving members into protective custody. But there are secrets only the vigil can unearth, and so Pellin makes the heat-wrenching choice to oppose the church in a race to turn back the evil that threatens an entire continent.

My rating: 4/5

While I remembered very little from The Shock of Night, I only found The Shattered Vigil hard to understand at the beginning. Then, Carr gave enough reminders and my memory of the first book came back just enough that I was able to cross that initial divide of “Oh my goodness I don’t really remember anything that happened; who are these people again?” and go back to familiar territory.

The Shattered Vigil is an improvement over the first book, in my opinion. I found the plot more interesting, the confusing parts less prominent, and the pace quicker. And although it was a little jarring to keep switching from 1st to 3rd person, I also liked the character switches as well, especially those involving Toria Deel and Bronwyn. Carr has definitely seemed to settle into his stride here, getting the shaky and weak bits over with the first book. Perhaps some of my praise here comes from the pure refreshment of a decently written fantasy as opposed to the normal historical romance that I receive from Bethany House, but I’m also not a frequent reader of adult fantasy so I don’t know enough to compare.

I also really enjoyed both of the ending twists—the one I guessed right as it was unveiling itself before my eyes and the other was a pretty delightful way to end the book, even if it did make it a cliffhanger. But Carr manages to wrap up enough of the loose ends of the plot that the book doesn’t feel as if it stopped in the middle of the act. It’s not a stand-alone, but it’s more of a stand-alone than a book that only shows the first part of a two-part plot.

The Shattered Vigil, to me, was better than The Shock of Night, and I really enjoyed it reading it. It did have its dull moments, and there were times when I was a little confused, but those moments were few and far between to the overall interest and appeal of the book. I’m quite looking forward to the next book, especially after the ending of this one.

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2f9fZri

Larger-Than-Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Larger-Than-Life Lara, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

‘This isn’t about me. The story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least htat’s what Mrs. Smith, my teachers, says.’ But the story is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class—Lara Phelps—whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies—until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

My rating: 4/5

Dandi Daley Mackall wrote some of my favorite book series growing up: Winnie the Horse Gentler and Horsefeathers, back in the day when stories about horses composed 80% of my reading. Seeing another book of hers pop up on the Tyndale Blog Network intrigued me, even if this book is technically a republication (Larger-Than-Life Lara was originally published 10 years ago, in 2006).

Larger-Than-Life Lara is a short, but wholesome, book. Laney is a wonderful protagonist, and the hints at her home life never reveal too much or hide too little. Her voice is funny and the crafting of the story is smart—as a teacher, I found myself reading and thinking, “This is a perfect book to read to help explain story elements.”

It’s also a perfect book to discuss with a younger audience. Lara’s actions, Laney’s feelings, and the entire attitudes and behaviors of the class, are rich for discussion. The story is poignant, sweet, and heartbreaking in turns, and it’s just as much about Laney as it is about Lara and her effect on the fourth-grade class.

My favorite aspect of the book, though, is that Larger-Than-Life Lara communicates so much of the Christian message without even mentioning God once. Lara’s actions are beautifully Christ-like, with her capacity to forgive, her willingness to take fault when she herself did nothing, and the transforming effect her actions have on her classmates. There’s so much there for young readers to think and talk about. Larger-Than-Life Lara was a joy to read, and it’s nice to see that even if the works I read by Mackall as a child have worn old over the years, there are still some of her works that delight me.

Warnings: Alcohol abuse, hints at a bad home life, bullying.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2ebJ2i6

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2008 by Greenwillow. Fun fact: it’s marketed as the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, but really it’s a sequel to Castle in the Air (the true sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle).

Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great-Uncle Williams’ tiny cottage while he’s ill should have been easy. But Great-Uncle William is better known as the Royal Wizard Norland, and his house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places—the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains, the past, and the Royal Mansion, to name just a few. By opening that door, Charmain has become responsible for not only the house, but for an extremely magical stray dog, a muddled young apprentice wizards, and a box of the king’s most treasured documents. She has encountered a terrifying beast called a Lubbock, irritated a clan of small blue creatures, and wound up smack in the middle of an urgent search. The king and his daughter are desperate to find the lost, fabled Elfgift—so desperate that they’ve even called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, can the Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer be far behind? Of course, with that magical family involved, there’s bound to be chaos—and unexpected revelations. No one will be more surprised than Charmain by what Howl and Sophie discover.

Rating: 4/5

House of Many Ways is, in my opinion, more fun than Castle in the Air, but sacrifices some plot intricacies and worldbuilding in the process. The plot is just one step shy of being fully developed; some revelations feel too fast and too out-of-nowhere to feel like a tightly-crafted plot. I felt it a bit strange and contrived that a lot of the conflict revolved around one solitary creature that was revealed to have his fingers in many of the character’s pies, but I suppose for a short fantasy novel for middle graders it’s an acceptable plot to use.

I do love Howl, though, and he’s in top form for this book. Sophie, however, is nagging and irritated at Howl every time we see her, so that’s a disappointment. Yes, I do realize that she spends most of her time in Howl’s Moving Castle doing that, but we’re in her head then and we get to see other “faces” of Sophie at the same time. In House, there’s only the one and it’s disappointing to see Sophie reduced to a “Howl! Stop doing that!” broken record.

Charmain is also a decent protagonist and I like that she’s the lazy sort who has some flaws to overcome. It gives her something else to do besides “figure out the mystery” and it’s fun to see her and Peter struggle to figure out the house’s magic.

House of Many Ways is still nowhere near as good as Howl’s Moving Castle, and though it’s a fun, decently-developed book, it nowhere reaches the height of intricacy and development that earlier Jones’ books have. I felt that some things came a bit out of nowhere and I was sad to see some great characters sidelined to one-dimensional sidekicks. The problems I had with the plot are probably why I prefer her older books to her newer ones, actually. But in any case, House of Many Ways is a decent sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, as was Castle in the Air before it. The only real problem with it is that it’s not nearly as good.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Charmain jumped to her feet and smiled terrifically, so broadly and welcomingly that she thought she might have sprained her face. “Oh, hallo!” she said. “I didn’t hear the door.”

“You never do,” said Aunt Sempronia.

Mrs. Baker peered at Charmain, full of anxiety. “Are you all right, my love? Quite all right? Why haven’t you put your hair up properly?”

“I like it like this,” Charmain said, shuffling across so that she was between the two ladies and the kitchen door. ‘Don’t you think it suits me, Aunt Sempronia?”

Aunt Sempronia leaned on her parasol and looked at her judiciously. “Yes,” she said. “It does. It makes you look younger and plumper. Is that how you want to look?”

“Yes, it is,” Charmain said defiantly.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2dd38UN

The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin

The Runaway Dolls, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, was published in 2008 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Meanest Doll in the World.

Best friends Annabelle Doll and Tiffany Funcraft have stumbled upon an unexpected visitor, a new doll named Tilly May. She’s arrived in a mysterious package…but she looks so familiar. Could she be Annabelle’s long-lost baby sister? It’ll take a runaway adventure to find out for sure. Are the dolls ready for life on the road?

Rating: 4/5

The Runaway Dolls is the best Doll People book so far—miles better than The Meanest Doll in the World and even better than the original The Doll People, at least in my opinion. For one thing, it’s much longer, so a lot more time can be devoted to development of characters and world. For another, it gets Annabelle and Tiffany out of the Palmer’s house and into some new adventures. It’s the most Toy Story-ish of all the Doll People books so far, too.

While Annabelle has some frustrating moments in the beginning, for the most part I like her much better than in Meanest Doll. And the grand scale of the adventures help detract from her attitude problems, too. Again, getting away from the Palmer’s house was the best decision to make on the part of Martin and Godwin. And the best part of the book was Brian Selznick’s fabulous illustrations, and for fans of his, yes, his story-telling-through-pictures can be found inside the pages!

There were a few rough patches to the book; I felt that the beginning, the incentive to get the dolls in “runaway” mode, was forced and the entire scene with the author note of “Skip this if you’re scared!” preluding it was a waste of time, in my opinion, since it established virtually nothing and brought back an annoying character for no reason.

But despite the little bumps, The Runaway Dolls is a grand adventure, and in many ways even better than the first book. It has a wide cast of characters, but there’s never too much going on at one time, and you get to see how harrowing the life of a doll can be away from the safety of home (again, think Toy Story). The Meanest Doll was a rough book to get through, but this book was worth it.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Children’s

They searched up and down the bank for more than an hour, but didn’t spot a single track or footprint.

“Finding the wagon tracks was the first step toward going home,” said Annabelle dully. “We’re not off to a very good start.”

“And now it’s almost dark,” said Bailey.

“I think,” said Tiffany, “that we’re going to be spending the night in the woods after all.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2czk9Jk

Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rossell

Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rossell was published in 2016 by Atheneum.

High on a cliff above the gloomy Victorian town of Withering-by-Sea stands the Hotel Majestic. Inside the walls of the damp, dull hotel, eleven-year-old orphan Stella Montgomery leads a miserable life with her three dreadful Aunts. Stella dreams of adventuring on the Amazon River—or anyplace, really, as long as it isn’t this dreary town where nothing ever happens. Then one night Stella sees something she shouldn’t have. Soon she finds herself on the run from terrifying Professor Starke and his gang of thugs. But how can one young girl outwit an evil stage magician, much less rescue his poor, mistreated assistant? Perhaps with the help of a mysterious maestro and his musical cats, not to mention a lively girl named Gert…

Rating: 4/5

Withering-by-Sea was a surprisingly charming book. Surprising because I wasn’t expecting the turn it took but I liked it anyway. I especially liked the ordinariness of it amidst the more fantasy elements, like Stella walking around with a book on her head. It’s got just the right combination of normal and odd, and manages to be cheeky and funny at the same time.

Perhaps my biggest complaint is that I wish the ending wasn’t so clearly a hook to get you to read the next book. I would have liked some answers about Stella’s past and to me it didn’t seem necessary to make Withering-by-Sea a starting point rather than a stand-alone novel. Maybe a peek at some of the unanswered questions might have made me like the ending better, but the novel ends very abruptly and that was probably the most jarring part of the whole book.

Also, Withering-by-Sea’s pictures and words were done in blue and I have no idea why.

However, despite the weakness of the ending, Withering-by-Sea is quite a pleasant book, with some charming characters, a great interweaving of fantasy with ordinary, and a lovely underlying humor. I was surprised and pleased by it, and even the slightly worn-out trope of “theater troupe” seemed fresh and new. Maybe I’ll pick up the next book when it’s published and find out more about Stella.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some scary scenes and images.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Grade

There was a shout and an enormous crash from the other end of the conservatory. The Chinese urn lay smashed on the tiled path. Two of the masked men dropped to their knees and scrabbled amongst the broken pieces.

“Go, go, child,” whispered Mr. Filbert. He raised himself up on one elbow. “Go now. Hide it. Keep it safe. Promise me.”

Stella nodded. “I will.”

“Remember…” He started to say something more, but then he collapsed and his eyes closed.

Stella crept out of her hiding place.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2bJdHCm