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

The Mountain calls.

61fvtvw74elThe Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Opening Line: “The mountain was calling me.”

I mean, I get it. One of the best things about my new living situation is that when I turn a corner I might get surprised by a sudden mountain view. And the mountain this opening line is specifically about, Mt. Rainier, is particularly noteworthy. I vividly remember the time my family went on perhaps the greatest roadtrip vacation ever, along the northern west coast, and had been at Mt. Rainier National Park all day without seeing the actual mountain because of clouds, and then, on our way out, we came around a bend and THERE IT WAS IN ALL ITS MAGICAL GLORY.

rainier

I mean, you see those “mountains” down at the bottom? That’s what we thought were the mountains before this bad boy came into view.

So, I get it. The mountain calls to me too. Not that I’m going to try to climb it, like Mark does in The Honest Truth.

Mark is a normal kid. As normal as a kid who has been through multiple cancer treatments, beating the odds, can be. But now the cancer is back. And Mark is out of options.

More than anything, Mark wants to follow his grandfather’s dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, but he knows his parents will never let him with his current diagnosis. And so, he sets off on his own, with just his beloved dog Beau, telling no one — with the exception of leaving a secret haiku for his best friend Jess.

While Jess struggles with whether to tell Mark’s parents where she’s pretty sure he went, Mark journeys across state lines with little Beau. Despite his well-orchestrated plans, things go awry, and the trip is much more difficult than Mark imagined. Still, his determination will stop at nothing to reach the summit.

This story is raw and honest and the reader feels the desperation Mark feels along the way. If you have readers like I do that “want something that’s going to make me cry”, suggest this. You will never feel sorry for Mark, but you will definitely feel for him (and bff Jess, unsure of what she should do to save her friend).

All heart, this one. 2 stars.

 

Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

2.5 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.

Lauren and Cheesy: a Love Story

51qxunmoamlThe Bridge from Me to You, by Lisa Schroeder (2014)

Opening line: “The house smells like / apple pie thanks to the / burning candle on the mantel.”

Lauren is new to the small town of Willow. She’s recently moved in with her aunt, uncle, and three young cousins, leaving a mom and baby brother back in Portland, for reasons she’s keeping close to her chest, reasons that make her sad, anxious, and a little bit angry. Colby is Willow’s golden boy, star football player about to start his senior season accompanied by his best friend in the world, Benny. Colby’s got a secret too; despite being really good at football, and despite his father’s dreams for him to get a football scholarship, Colby feels done with football. He wants to go to college to learn to build bridges, not score touchdowns. Both Lauren and Colby are feeling trapped.

When they meet at the local Jiffy Mart over a bag of Bugles, they seem to offer each other a breath of fresh air. Colby might be Lauren’s bridge out, and Lauren might be Colby’s. Things are suddenly looking up for them both. Until Benny’s accident, that is. One night, Colby’s best friend Benny is in a motorcycle accident, landing him in a coma, and Colby in the hospital waiting room, not knowing if Benny will ever recover.

I feel like I could just keep going with plot summary, because there’s no real good place to stop. Just picture the most recent sappy Nicholas Sparks movie, and you’ve probably got a good idea. I couldn’t hardly believe that one of the main characters is Colby, because this book was cheeeeesy. I think it’ll be one that my students will easily devour though, because there’s not much more you want as a thirteen year old than a perfect romance to cure all your problems. Which is basically how this one goes. The writing is equally as cheesy as the plot, probably not helped by the fact that all of Lauren’s chapters are written in verse, which the author took advantage of in a terrible sort of way. I usually love verse novels, but found this one trying way too hard.

Eh, not great literature here, folks. But not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.

1 star

 

 

All the cliffhangers

16101054SYLO, by DJ MacHale (2013)

Opening line: “It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.”

Oh boy. Let’s talk about a cliffhanger. Right from the very beginning.

Ninth-grader Tucker lives in a peaceful island town off the coast of Maine where no one is concerned with much more than lobster festivals and football games. In fact, it’s at one such Friday night game that the star of the football team drops dead moments after making a spectacular touchdown. Then later that night, Tucker and his best friend Quinn are out on a bicycle joyride to work off the weirdness of the evening, when they experience something out of this world. A strange shadow giving off an eerie melody hovers just off the cliffs where Quinn and Tucker watch, before it explodes.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy mess. Soon the President is putting the island under a quarantine and a special military unit called SYLO has taken control of the island. But no one is giving them any answers. And the answers they are giving don’t make any sense. As aggravating as this is for Tucker, I swear it was just as aggravating for me, especially when we reach the end of 400 pages with still no answers. This may appeal to fans of Maze Runner, as I got the same sense in that one and had to keep reading the whole gosh darn series, despite the fact that I didn’t really like it. I liked this one more, but still find it annoying that I am compelled to read the remainder of the series to figure out what the hell is going on. If someone wants to spoil it for me, that’d be fine.

1.5 stars