Despite her extraordinary magical abilities and sleuthing skills, Oona Crate’s detective agency has failed to take off. Bu a new challenge captures her attention—The Magician’s Tower Contest. Held every five years, no one has completed the array of dangerous tasks (such as racing on flying carpets or defeating a horde of angry apes). As the competition commences, a case emerges. A rare punchbowl—one with unparalleled magical powers—has disappeared from the carnival surrounding the Magician’s Tower. If Oona can find the culprit, she could use the bowl to answer her questions about her mother’s and sister’s tragic deaths so many years ago—was she really at fault?
The Magician’s Tower is an underwhelming sequel to The Wizard of Dark Street. As much as I had my problems with the former, I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the latter. The main problem, to me, is that Odyssey didn’t seem to have a set goal in mind for the sequel, so he cobbled together a few random things and threw in some old villains and ridiculous capers. The thing that redeemed The Wizard of Dark Street for me was the mystery; The Magician’s Tower mystery was set aside for some strange contest and its weakness showed in the rushed and contrived way it was explained, investigated, and solved.
That’s not to say I disliked The Magician’s Tower. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t want to stop reading it. But I thought Odyssey was simply rehashing a lot of things that had already been accomplished in the first book, and the villain reveal felt forced. Not to mention Oona seemed slightly less likeable in this book, or maybe I simply got more impatient with her “I know everything and only I can do things the right way and I won’t accept help” attitude.
I liked the eventual connection to the world and plot revealed in The Wizard of Dark Street, but I was hoping that Odyssey would do more with that than what he did. I wish there had been more overall setup to the contest as a whole, rather than a very rushed explanation at the beginning of the book. I wish that the entire book didn’t feel like some magical escapade meant to be funny but failing, with a weak mystery trying to thread its way through the nonsense. Most of all, I wish that The Magician’s Tower felt less like a sequel written because the first book was popular and more like a sequel that actually wants to continue the story and expand on it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Oh, now, Samuligan, look what you’ve done,” said the Wizard, who had been drenched with tea and dribbled some of his pie down his beard.
True to form, Samuligan reached into his pocket and pulled out an entire mop, which he proceeded to use to clean up the spillage.
“Is that what you are brooding about?” the Wizard asked Oona as Samuligan dabbed at his beard with the mop head. The Wizard swatted it away. “That business with the missing crystal ball?”
“It wasn’t a crystal ball,” Oona said irritably. “It was called the Punchbowl Oracle.”
“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.
Train travel! Murder! Librarians! A Series Finale! On all other nights, the train departs from Stain’d Station and travels to the city without stopping. But not tonight. You might ask, why is this night different from all other nights? But that’s the wrong question. Instead ask, where is this all heading? And what happens at the end of the line?
I thought it appropriate to finish this series out today since I also finished A Series of Ufortunate Events on Netflix (an excellent adaptation. They also reference this book series in it).
“Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” was a little disappointing, which perhaps I should not have found surprising considering my problems with The End. However, I enjoyed the previous two books enough that I was hoping for more than what this final book gave me.
I enjoyed the semi-tribute to Murder on the Orient Express that this book gives, and more than anything I enjoy the way Lemony Snicket is fleshed out from a shadowy, mysterious figure in A Series of Unfortunate Events to a real-live person in these prequels. The choices he has to make, particularly in this book, are not easy, and the results of those choices are not easy to deal with. I wish that the “am I a villain?” doubting path had not been taken, though, since Violet, Klaus, and Sunny wonder the same thing in ASOUE and it only reminded me how these books pale in comparison.
Above all, this book is mostly too predictable and strange to make me feel great about it. It was blindingly obvious who Hangfire was, as though Snicket had gotten tired of throwing out obscure clues and had given up even attempting to hide Hangfire’s identity in this final book. And the thing with the Bombinating Beast at the end was strange and didn’t really fit the nature of these books, at least in my opinion. Also, I’m still mad at what that implies about what happens to the Quagmires in The End.
Overall, I thought All The Wrong Questions, as a whole, starts out weak, has good parts in the middle, and ends weak, with many questions resolved but almost no satisfaction in their resolution. Also, I thought for sure that Snicket’s obsession with Ellington would mean she would be revealed to be Beatrice at the end, but maybe that was just supposed to be a precursor or a hint at Snicket’s future and how he acts around certain people.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
“But what will you do when he’s here?” I asked, after a sip of fizzy water. “Ornette’s creation looks very much like the real statue, but once it’s in Hangfire’s hands he’ll know it’s a fake.”
“Once Hangfire comes aboard,” Moxie said, “he’ll be caught like a rat in a trap. The Thistle of the Valley won’t stop again until it reaches the city, where all the prisoners on board will be brought to trial. I have all our notes on what Hangfire’s been doing in this town. Once the authorities read my report, they’ll arrest Hangfire, and Dashiell Qwerty will go free.”
“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?
“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+
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.”
“I should have asked the question ‘How could someone who was missing be in two places at once?’ Instead, I asked the wrong question — four wrong questions, more or less. This is the account of the second.” In the fading town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, young apprentice Lemony Snicket has a new case to solve when he and his chaperone are hired to find a missing girl. Is the girl a runaway? Or was she kidnapped? Was she seen last at the grocery store? Or could she have stopped at the diner? Is it really any of your business? These are All The Wrong Questions.
“When Did You See Her Last?” is a surprisingly delightful little mystery—after the problems I had with “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” I was expecting the worst. But this second “Wrong Question” was not nearly so jarring as the first book, possibly because I was already prepared. I still think these are not nearly so memorable or as subtly brilliant as A Series of Unfortunate Events, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Lemony Snicket (or Daniel Handler) is good at absurdist humor and makes an absurd world (mostly) work.
For once, I didn’t really question the incompetence of all adults in this book—I think I’ve finally accepted that in Lemony Snicket world, children are the people who get things done and adults are either villainous, incompetent, useless, or plot devices.
I’m very curious to see if Beatrice makes an appearance (or Olaf!), if we find out what Kit was stealing in the museum (the sugar bowl, possibly?), and if these books will turn more towards “let’s reveal lots about VFD” rather than just have VFD as the shadowy organization where you never find out what it’s about or what it wants. And to be honest, I kind of hope it keeps up the mystery of VFD because it fits better with this series than it did with ASOUE. Probably because these books are much more film noir.
Also, it took me far too long to realize that “Partial Foods” was a play on “Whole Foods.”
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
Hungry’s was a small and narrow place, and a large and wide woman was standing just inside the doors, polishing the counter with a rag.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
I said the same thing.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Well, you’re probably in the right place.”
She gave me a frown and a menu. “No, I mean I’m Hungry. It’s my name. Hungry Hix. I own this place. Are you hungry?”
Oona Crate was born to be the Wizard’s apprentice, but she has another destiny in mind. Despite possessing the rare gift of Natural Magic, Oona wants to be a detective. Eager for a case she is determined to prove that logic is as powerful as wizardry. But when someone attacks her uncle—the Wizard of Dark Street—Oona is forced to delve into the world of magic.
The Wizard of Dark Street has a good mystery and, although it suffers a little from infodumping and occasional melodramatic description, it’s got enough intrigue to it to make me want to pick up the next book. The world is interesting, even if a lot of information about it is tossed out all at once and the flow never quite seems natural, and Oona, though one of those “brooding, occasionally snarky and perceived as an outsider” protagonists, has her positive moments.
One of my problems with mysteries as a whole, which I also saw in this book, is that there is always some sort of clue that it seems the protagonist should simply not be able to guess based on the information given. Perhaps that’s a mistake in the author’s description, but whenever the novel lingers on gears turning in the mind and puzzle pieces clicking into place, I’ve noticed that what the protagonist figures out because of that is always just a little too perfect. There’s always that one little bit of information that is always assumed that the protagonist has no reason to assume—that is, no reason except that the plot requires it. There was one moment in the book where Oona thinks, “Ah-ha, this! Assumption this! Therefore, assume this and yes, it’s correct!” when there was no reason, that I saw, for her to make any assumption of the sort. Or maybe I’m simply bad at solving mysteries and all the clues make perfect sense and there’s no reason why Oona wouldn’t think and assume what she did based on what she knows…but it still seemed off to me.
The other thing that held this novel back, in my opinion, besides the logical leaps and the infodump worldbuilding, was the incredibly melodramatic descriptions whenever Oona faced something that shocked/terrified/upset her. One point at the end of the book is particularly bad. Perhaps a middle-grade audience needs to have it hammered into their minds with a brick that Oona is feeling this particular way for this particular reason, but for an older reader, that sort of thing grates like mad. That’s the problem with reading middle grades as an adult, I suppose—although I’ve read multiple middle grade books that don’t do this, so really, it’s a writing thing, not an audience thing.
However, despite my complaints, I did come away from The Wizard of Dark Street with a positive impression. It’s a pleasant fantasy mystery, and although I wish the mystery could have been delivered better, I admit that I am perhaps spoiled by the Agatha Christie books I’ve been reading. The humor, on the other hand, was great, especially the broken hip running gag. I’d pick up the sequel just for the promise of something similar.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy, Middle Grade
Presently, the well-dressed, chubby New York boy spoke up. “What precisely does the document say?” he inquired.
“And you would be?” asked Mr. Ravensmith.
“Lamont John-Michael Arlington Fitch the Third,” the boy said. He stared at the document on the table. The contract was so long that it had been rolled into a thick scroll, with only the bottom portion showing, where the applicants were to sign their names.
“I’ll tell you what it says,” said Isadora Iree. “It says if you do not sign it, you won’t get the job.”
After leaving Lockwood & Co. four months ago, Lucy has become a freelance operative, hiring herself out to psychic investigation agencies that value her ever-improving skills in locating Sources and shutting down Visitors. Her new life of independence, complete with her own studio apartment, would be fine if it weren’t’ for having to work with incompetent agents and answer to meddling supervisors. And it does sometimes get lonely, even though she has the skull in the jar to annoy her with his leers and sarcastic jibes. One day Lucy receives a surprise visit from Lockwood, who tells her he needs a good listener for a tough assignment. Penelope Fittes, the leader of the giant Fittes Agency, wants them—and only them—to locate and remove the Source for the ghost of a legendary cannibal. Throughout this very dangerous undertaking, tensions remain high between Lucy and her former colleagues. What will it take to reunite the team?
I’ve enjoyed each book in the Lockwood & Co. series more and more, and I ate up The Creeping Shadow. Creepy ghosts (seriously, the cannibal one is the creepiest yet), intriguing developments, and cute awkwardness between Lucy and Lockwood led up to an ending that I can say I truly did not see coming—and took the series in a whole new direction for the grand finale fifth book.
I said it in The Hollow Boy and I’ll say it again here: adding Holly to the picture and making Lucy leave Lockwood & Co. was truly a good thing for the series, which felt a little stagnant to me after the second book. I was ambivalent about Lucy in the first two books, grew to like her in the third, and now am vehemently behind her in the fourth. And her camaraderie with the skull (who I’ve found annoying in the past) works, so that her going after it made complete sense character-wise.
The plot revelations in this book were good, too—and reminded me strongly of Stranger Things, as any book with other dimensions will now do—and although I knew who the villain would be based on what happened in the third book, I was not expecting the Big Reveal at the end—and it was a fantastic whammy of an ending, too.
The supernatural/horror genre really is not my cup of tea, so it’s a testament to just how good Stroud is that I’m enjoying Lockwood & Co., in all of its spooky element, so thoroughly. I can’t wait for what the last book will reveal for these characters that I’ve grown to love.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)
He was here! Why was he here? Excitement and incredulity kept smashing together, like waves colliding at a jetty. There was so much noise going on in my mind that the first priority—making small talk—was a bit of a problem.
“How’s business with Lockwood and Co.?” I asked over my shoulder. “I mean, I see you in the papers all the time. Not that I’m looking for you, obviously. I just see stuff. But you seem to be doing okay, as far as I can gather. When I think about it. Which is rare. Do you take sugar now?”
He was staring at the clutter on my floor, blank-eyed, as if lost in thought. “It’s only been a few months, Luce. I haven’t suddenly started taking sugar in my tea…” Then he brightened, nudging the ghost-jar with the side of his shoe. “Hey, how’s our friend here doing?”
“The skull? Oh, it helps me out from time to time. Hardly talk to it, really…” To my annoyance, I noticed a stirring in the substance that filled the jar, implying a sudden awakening of the ghost. That was the last thing I wanted right now.
At almost six feet tall, twelve-year-old Truly Lovejoy stands out in a crowd where she likes it or not. (She doesn’t.) So when her family moves to teeny-tiny, super boring Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, Truly doesn’t stand a chance of blending in. But when helping out at the family bookstore one day, Truly finds a mysterious letter inside an old copy of Charlotte’s Web and soon she and her new friends are swept up in a madcap treasure hunt around town. While chasing clues that could spell danger, Truly discovers there’s more to Pumpkin Falls than meets the eye—and that blending in can be overrated.
Absolutely Truly is a decent middle grade mystery, although I prefer mysteries to be a little more complicated and less “let me tell you about all the thinking my character is doing complete with comparison to fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle until it all clicks together.” Frederick relies a little too much on overused mystery tropes and the entire thing stands on very shaky ground for me. I don’t believe that an envelope survived for twenty-ish years taped to a bridge, exposed to the elements as it was (and if the bridge was covered, how did Truly fall off of it anyway?).
The family aspect of the plot was okay, although I wish Truly’s dad hadn’t been the stereotypical military dad type and that Frederick had dwelt a little more on how Truly feels about her place in the family. There are several times where she feels unappreciated and invisible, but it’s never resolved or brought up again at the end. The end bit with her dad was nice, though, if a little cheesy.
Absolutely Truly isn’t that bad of a book—it just didn’t hit the right notes for me. The mystery was too simple and unoriginal, a lot of the elements of it didn’t make sense to me from the start, and overall it felt merely average. A good book for kids, but I would give them better mysteries to read.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some implied PTSD and mentions of IEDs.
Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade, Realistic
It was sealed shut, and as far as I could tell had never been opened. Why would someone leave a letter stuck in an old copy of Charlotte’s Web? Had they meant to mail it, and forgotten? Or had they left it there deliberately for someone to find? There wasn’t an address on the envelope, or even a real name—just the capital letter B. But the envelope had a stamp on it, like it was all ready to send.
“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Company.
The adventure began in a fading town. Far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket started an apprenticeship for a secret organization shrouded in mystery and secrecy. He asked questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read. Not even by you. Seriously, we recommend that you do NOT ask your parents for this, the first book in his new ALL THE WRONG QUESTIONS series.
As I understood before actually reading the book, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is a prequel of sorts to A Series of Unfortunate Events which delves deeper into V.F.D. and some of the mysteries that were left unanswered in the aforementioned unfortunate book series.
After reading the book, I’m not quite sure what to feel. On the plus side, it’s got some of the things that I loved about Unfortunate Events, such as the definition of words and the absurdist humor. On the minus side, I’m still not fond of the “every adult is incompetent” running joke because I don’t find it funny, and the answer to the “What is that giant question mark in the sea?” that rose up in The End is particularly dissatisfying and made me a little irritated, actually.
So, basically, I found “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” a middling book at best, a blatant “let’s beat this dead horse, only in a slightly different way than before” book at worst. I’m glad that it’s not a carbon copy of Unfortunate Events, but there’s enough similarities that this book pales in comparison. As I said, it’s a middling book—a forgettable, average, slightly-familiar, mysterious book that is almost not worth the trouble at all. Good for fans of Unfortunate Events, but not very welcoming to those unfamiliar with those 13 unfortunate books.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Mystery, Children’s
“This will be an easy case!” she crowed happily. “It’s not often that a client gives us the name of the criminal. You’re bringing me luck, Snicket.”
“If Mrs. Sallis knew who the burglar was,” I asked, “why wouldn’t she call the police?”
“That’s not important,” Theodora said. “What we need to figure out is how the Mallahans broke in through the ceiling.”
“We don’t know that they broke in through the ceiling,” I said.
“The windows were latched,” Theodora said. “There’s no other way they could have gotten into the library.”
“We got in through a pair of double doors,” I said.
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.
“When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one—neighbors, parents, teachers—is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth, they must draw on their powers of intuition, their problem-solving skills, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has left even the FBI baffled?”
Another fond memory of my childhood reading, Chasing Vermeer is part mystery, part clue quest, with fabulous illustrations by Brett Helquist and a rich depth of history. It’s also probably the most well-known of Balliett’s work, and for a debut novel (for children) it’s a good one.
Unfortunately, as I was rereading it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I remember enjoying it as a child. That’s only to be expected—I’ve read so many books that my tastes have expanded and I’ve gotten much more familiar with what I like and what I don’t like. And I don’t like the way Chasing Vermeer solves its mystery.
See, I do like my clue hunts to be more, well, clue hunts rather than “random thoughts and feelings and impressions” hunts. It bothered me to no end that Petra and Calder solved most of this mystery through random thoughts that popped into their head or feelings that they got as they passed through a room. I simply didn’t buy it.
Another thing that bothered me was that Balliett hides some important information inside of coded letters, and I know that it’s all the rage to include the key and have the reader decipher it for themselves, but decoding it takes up valuable reading time, and I can see many readers skipping it because they don’t want to take up the time to decode it—and then they miss out on important information (Balliett does include a summary of the contents, but it doesn’t really suffice). So the ending becomes even more abrupt and strange than it already is.
So, yes, I’m not as impressed with Chasing Vermeer as I was as a kid. In fact, I’m not impressed at all. Helquist has fantastic illustrations and I did like the history into Vermeer and the speculation behind him and his paintings, but I didn’t like the quality of the mystery nor the way it was solved. Too much “ooo, strange things happening” and not enough good solid clues.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: The last part of the novel may be scary for younger readers.
Genre: Mystery, Realistic, Middle Grade
“I was going to ask you—you see, my grandma gave me a box with that guy, I mean that painting, on the over, and I was going to try to find out who did it—and I just did some homework that describes it—that’s so strange, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Sharpe sniffed and handed Calder the check. “Well, not really. That’s a print of a Vermeer painting called The Geographer. There must be thousands of them around.”
“Oh! Who was Vermeer? I know I’ve heard his name, but—you know.” Calder, still surprised, was warming up to the situation.
“He was Dutch, and painted in the seventeenth century.” She paused, looking thoughtfully at Calder’s enthusiastic grin. “I’m sure you could find a book in your school library that told you something about him.”
Disclaimer: Murder Comes by Mail, by A. H. Gabhart, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.
Deputy Sheriff Michael Keane doesn’t particularly enjoy being touted as the hero of Hidden Springs after pulling a suicidal man back from the edge of the Eagle River bridge in front of dozens of witnesses—a few of whom caught the breathtaking moments with their cameras. But the media hype doesn’t last long as a new story pushes its way into the public consciousness of Hidden Springs’ concerned citizens. Photos of a dead girl arrive in the mail, and Michael becomes convinced she was murdered by the man he saved. With a killer one step ahead, things in Hidden Springs begin to unravel. Now Michael must protect the people he loves—because the killer could be targeting one of them next.
Murder Comes by Mail is a pretty decent mystery novel, combining small-town life with its predictable quips and quirks with a string of murders that suitably cause the characters to freak out. It’s no Agatha Christie, and it lacks a bit of the oomph and tension that I love in murder mysteries, but it’s good.
My main quibble is that the murderer is way too obvious. I also don’t like the inevitable moustache-twirling conversation the murderer has with Michael when Michael solves the mystery. It is very, very difficult to pull those sorts of things off without sounding ridiculously hammy and cheesy, and while Gabhart did an okay job of it, it still reeked of triteness.
One positive is that, although this is the second book in a series and I did not read the first, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. Maybe a little more introduction for Alex would have been nice, but I didn’t feel like anything was missing just because I hadn’t read the first book. That’s hard to do in an interconnected series, even if each book has a different plot, and kudos to Gabhart for never making me feel lost with the characters.
Murder Comes by Mail lacks the sort of in-depth, tense mystery that I love, but what it has is pretty good, if simple. The villain was the black spot, as that over-the-top “I’m crazy” conversation at the end was too much, and the plot as a whole is predictable, but I generally liked the characters, the “small town” feel of it, and the ease with which I slipped into the world without having been introduced to the characters in the first book.