Big Top Mysteries

I can’t seem to help being swayed by a good circus story. What is it about the circus that generates such good stories? In any case, here I present to you two different circus stories, one fiction, one non-fiction; one set in today’s time, one set in the 1940s; both fantastic mysteries.

51jetsaox2blGirl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond (2014)

Opening line: “I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters.”

Jules Maroni’s biggest dream is to walk the wire as well as her father. Part of a circus family, Jules comes from a long line of circus performers, but no one has ever been as good as her father on the high wire. The problem is, hardly anyone knows that because the Maronis never perform with the bigger circuses, all due to a generations-old feud between them and another ancient circus family, the Garcias. But Jules is determined to join up with the new Cirque American, set to start touring this summer, despite the fact that the Garcias have already signed on. After an act of a tricky teenage manipulation, Jules is able to bring her family on board, and soon, the Maronis take the road with the Cirque American.

Jules is sure the old feud has no merit — rumors of black magic and age-old superstition fill the air — but when she falls off the wire during practice one night (which hasn’t happened since she was the tender age of four), she starts to wonder if the rumors can be true. Is there really someone out there who is bent on taking down the Maronis? Anxious to uncover the sinister plot, she teams up with a person she’d never expect, Remy Garcia, cute teenage son of the Garcia clan. But can they demask the villain Scooby Doo Style before it’s too late?

511x91-ta1lBig Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth, by Laura A. Woollett (2015)

Opening Line: “You could almost hear the buzz of excitement in the air over Hartford, Connecticut, leading up to the arrival of the one and only Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

July 6, 1944 started as a fun and exciting day for hundreds of circus goers in Hartford. Many had already been to the sideshow attractions and seen the animals in the circus zoo, and were now looking forward to the clowns, trapeze artists, and lion tamers. But shortly after the Greatest Show on Earth began, a fire broke out in the Big Top, and within 10 minutes, the entire thing had burned to the ground, trapping 167 people inside. And the story doesn’t end there. Mysteriously, despite all the pairs of eyes in the tent that day, no one saw how the fire started, and although it was initially written off as accidental (due to a casually tossed cigarette butt on highly flammable hay), later investigation proved that to be highly unlikely. Additionally, one particularly precious victim to the fire, whose body remained almost entirely intact (unlike many of the other victims who were nearly unrecognizable), was never identified. Who was this sweet blue-eyed, curly-haired six year old girl, and why was she never claimed?

I just happened to read these right after each other, but they could easily be paired with purpose. I am on a kick now — I feel really desperate to get my hands on another circus story STAT.

2.5 stars, both.

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Horror in the Hollywood Hills

41qdvcova2l Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender (2014)

Opening line: “Nothing glittered.”

Hollywood isn’t quite like Willa was expecting. She and her mom have recently moved across the country to live with her new movie-producer stepfather, Jonathan, deep in the Hollywood Hills. In fact, Jonathan’s mansion was once home to another Hollywood hit, late actress Diana Del Mar, whose death may or may not have happened at home. Shortly after arriving in Tinseltown, Jonathan warns Willa about a recent murder, the fourth in a line of serial killings of young actresses. But since Willa isn’t an actress, no problem, right?

In the meantime, Willa’s been dabbling in some paranormal activity. Two years ago her father died after a sudden heart attack, one Willa is pretty sure she brought on. Since then, she’s been trying to contact her father to apologize. So far, she hasn’t been able to reach him, but when strange things start happening at the Del Mar Mansion, she begins to think she may have made contact with someone else. Someone who is trying to tell her something. Someone who knows something about the Hollywood Killer.

This is not something I would usually pick up. But it’s another SC Junior Book Award nominee, and one that I’ve had three students recently tell me was “SO GOOD, MRS. PATAKY.” While I probably wouldn’t use all caps in my description, I can understand why they would. Let’s just say I only read this one at night one time, because it LITERALLY KEPT ME AWAKE THE ENTIRE NIGHT even when I put it down after about 100 pages. (School was rough the next day, ya’ll.) Although there’s nothing particularly gruesome or “too-scary-for-middle-school,” I was so creeped out by this almost the entire time. Let’s be honest, my scare threshold is pretty low (the last horror movie I watched was a good 6 years ago), but I feel like what Alender does, she does well. In very cinematic scenes, the reader is there with Willa in her terror. I seem to be in to paranormal mysteries lately (see: The Screaming Staircase, The Diviners, The Name of the Star, all of which I loved), which seems strange to me. If someone asks me what genre I like to read, I usually say historical fiction, or dystopias, or fantasy. But never paranormal mystery. Here’s to branching out, exploring and getting hooked on new genres. May your reading life never get stale!

Creepy, engrossing, although without much depth. Great to hand to that constant barrage of students who want “something scary.” 1.5 stars

Pocket full of suspense

All Fall Down, by Ally Carter (2015)51ccdgnz5rl

Opening line: “‘When I was twelve I broke my leg jumping off the wall between Canada and Germany,’ I say, but the woman across from me doesn’t even blink.”

Okay, so that’s a great opening line, right? If that’s your first take at All Fall Down (having not read anything about it), you might be wondering if this is set in some future world where the landscape has shifted politically, if not geographically. And while that sounds like a book I might want to read, that’s not the case here. Instead, we soon find out that our main character, Grace, spent her summers at the U.S. Embassy in Adria, Italy, where her grandfather is the ambassador. Now, Grace is back in Adria, but this time without any other members of her immediately family. Her father is in the military and her mother died in terrible accident three years ago, or so everyone tells Grace. But Grace was there. She saw the man who shot her mother. And she’s going to stop at nothing to prove it.

The opening line and the dust jacket blurb (“Grace Blakely is absolutely certain about three things: 1. She’s not crazy. 2. Her mother was murdered. 3. Someday she is going to find her killer and make him pay.”) easily give you a sense of what this novel is going to be about: SUSPENSE. And it does that well. I had a sense of what was going on, but I really had to read to the end to figure it all out. And it definitely leaves you with a giant cliffhanger, leaving you ready for the second installment.

I also loved the exotic setting of Embassy Row, having all these teenagers from all over the world gathered in one place, making it feel almost like some sort of international summer camp. I don’t know how realistic it was, but the whole thing felt escapist anyway, so that doesn’t really matter. This one will be an easy sell to the seemingly endless line of girls lately who are asking me for “realistic fiction with some romance and mystery.” (New genre perhaps?)

Fun, enjoyable, actually might read the sequel. 1.5 stars.

Hello friend

51iiw2fcopl Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead (2015)

Opening line: “When she was eight years old, Bridget Barsamian woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she shouldn’t be alive.”

Bridge has two best friends, Em and Tab, and the three have been besties forever, partially because of their rule to never fight. But seventh grade has a lot of changes, including the policy that each student must join a club. However, the three musketeers have different interests, leading them to different clubs. Different clubs means different people, different people means less time for each other. And that might mean they might have to break their no-fighting rule.

One of the new people Bridge meets in her stage crew club is Sherm. Every few chapters we get a letter from Sherm written to his grandfather, a grandfather who used to be there, but no longer is, and the reader is really not sure why. And it’s not until we know more of Sherm’s backstory before the letters start making any sense.

And then we have a third narrator, a story of a teenage girl on Valentine’s Day, who, for some reason, is avoiding school. Or at least certain people at school.

These multiple perspectives weave in and out of each other, but without telling us directly how. On its own, Bridge’s story would have been a nice friendship/school middle grade novel. I probably would have enjoyed it. But it’s the multiple story lines that brings this novel up to the next level. The mystery and the various points-of-view (third person, second person, letter) the other two story lines provide bring this from a good novel to a great one. I loved it.

2.5 stars

X for eXcellent

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest (2015)

Opening line: “Libby Deaton and May Harper invented Princess X in fifth grade, when Libby’s leg was in a cast, and May had a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t run around the track anymore because her asthma would totally kill her.”

As this opening line tells us, when they were kids, best friends Libby and May created a princess. But this princess was not the kind to wait in the top of a tower or sing sweetly with birds and squirrels. She was the kind to kick ass and take names, while wearing red high tops. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the stories, and their princess, Princess X kept them busy for years. Until one night when Libby and her mom accidentally drove off the side of a bridge and died, taking May’s heart with them.

Years later, May is back in Seattle temporarily living with her father (after her parents’ divorce), still lonely after her best friend’s death, when one day she notices a sticker on the side of a building. And the girl on the sticker looks startlingly like Princess X.

May takes to the internet, desperate to find some answers, and she finds a webcomic that’s been going for a long time, filled with drawings just like Libby made them. The story is different though. The story tells of a framed car accident, a man with a gun, and a captured girl held hostage. And May can’t shake the feeling that the artist of this webcomic must be Libby.

I really loved this one, guys. There’s a lot going on here (comics, best friends, mystery, thriller, hidden identities), but it all ties in seamlessly. Like May, I found myself compelled to figure out what was going on. I hoped with her and despaired with her and had to keep reading (listening) until all the questions were answered. I’ll admit, the ending was a little too dramatic for my tastes, but overall, it did a lot of things right. I will definitely be talking this one up to my students.

2 stars

 

I didn’t catch this virus

51ugifn7pglVirals, by Kathy Reich (2010)

Opening line: “A gunshot is the loudest sound in the universe.”

As is frequently the case, this is not a book I would have picked up to read, but the audiobook gods provided it. so voila. We have it in my library, so I figured, why not? And since then, I’ve been successful at giving it to several happy readers.

It’s an easy sell. You can tell from the first line that this sucker is packed with action. There’s a generation-old murder mystery and a science experiment gone wrong and a team of creepy dudes following and shooting at our main characters,  AND an adorable puppy. Plus, it’s a spin-off of the author’s adult Temperance Brennan series (the inspiration to FOX’s Bones). Sure hit!

It’s got a similar feel to Maximum Ride, with shortish, sometimes choppy sentences and chapters, and main character Tory reminds me of Max (independent, rough around the edges, part of a science experiment). Unfortunately, I didn’t really like Maximum Ride that much. While it was an entertaining mystery, with some endearing elements, I just didn’t find I cared very much. I’m glad I read it, because it’ll help me with my job, but I don’t feel the need to read the next ones.

1.5 stars

From Death Eaters to Death Investigators

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbaith (2013)

Opening Line: “The buzz in the streets was like the humming of flies.”

I don’t read mystery thrillers too often (at least not adult ones), but everyone knows I can’t resist J.K. Rowling (the face behind the Robert Galbraith pen name). And she didn’t disappoint.

The plot revolves around the sudden death of supermodel Lula Landry, who fell from her apartment balcony one freezing winter night in London. Police ruled it a suicide, victim of depression and the wild whirls of fame. But when her brother comes calling at the offices of P.I. Cormoran Strike, he cries murder, and it’ll be up to Strike to prove it.

Strike is the character to pay attention to in this book. He’s the one who’s a mysterious mess, and while Lula’s death is certainly intriguing, she’s dead before the novel begins. We don’t get to know her hardly at all. Instead, we get to know Strike, the wounded veteran with a basically bankrupt detective agency and a woeful end of a love life, who — despite it all — is somehow a character I was instantly drawn to. Add to that, Robin, the assistant he can’t afford to pay, mistakenly sent to him from the temp agency. She’s the smartest and quickest assistant he’s ever had, and although she gets a permanent job offer from a different company before the week is out, she hesitates. Because working for Strike is the most exciting thing she’s done in a long time.

As happens quite a lot with me, this was an audiobook read, so I’m not sure if the clues to the Lula mystery were really there all along or not, but for me this one wrapped up much like an episode of Scooby Doo, with the mask ripped off and Strike explaining to the audience what really happened. To be honest, I kind of liked it that way, but this might be a turn off for some readers. If not, there are already two more Cormoran Strike novels waiting in the wings.

1.5 stars