Category Archives: Mystery

A Canine Charmer: The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

moscowdogsI’ve been reading a whole lotta dog books lately, mostly about how to train a terrier who is smart enough to open his crate from the inside using only his lips. We are all learning in our house (admittedly, some of us faster than others). So when Rachelle Delaney’s new middle grade novel, The Metro Dogs of Moscow, snuck to the top of my TBR pile, I was powerless to resist. A mystery… starring a dog… a terrier type dog? Of course I jumped at it (a little bit like a certain naughty hound I wrangle on a daily basis).

This quick read is chipper and charming, just right for young readers who are beginning to get their feet wet with longer chapter books. Here’s the premise. JR (short for Jack Russell) travels the world with his person, George, who works as a diplomat. Sounds exciting, right? JR doesn’t see it that way. Now that they’ve landed in Moscow, JR is beginning to get tired of the roving life. He wants to stay in one place, and more than anything, he wants to go off leash for a while and really have a chance to live a little. Then one night, all it takes is an open window and just like that, JR runs off into the city, leaving his drab days in the dust. He meets The Coolest Dogs Ever, aka the Metro Dogs of Moscow. These amazing, street-smart strays show JR the sites and they also fill him in on a mystery that is affecting their crew: strays are disappearing all over the city. JR doesn’t turn back, and soon enough, he is wrapped up in an adventure he will never forget.

It’s hard to resist a book with such a motley collection of canine stars. Before you can say Kroshka Kartoshka (delish stuffed hot potatoes), JR will skip his way straight into your heart, circle around a couple of times, and lie down there to stay for a while. The opening bit, when JR experiences some inner turmoil over having done A Very Bad Thing, completely cracked me up. Any dog owner knows how it goes. Dog does A Very Bad Thing. Dog feels Really Awful. You are Very Mad at Dog. Then, before you know it, somehow, said Bad Dog is curled up with you on the couch and you are holding his rawhide chew for him so that he can enjoy more fully. How? Why? Now that is a doggy mystery.

Joking aside, Delaney must be a dog person. Her dog characters are not just cute, they are nicely differentiated and memorable. The Russian setting comes to life as the hounds tear all over the city, racing to solve the mystery before more of their friends disappear. There’s a classic feel to this story. I don’t know if it’s the shape of the story that makes it seem like a timeless adventure for children, the warm atmosphere, or the lightness Delaney imbues throughout. Whatever the magic, it really works. You could put this in the hands of just about any young reader and chances are, they’d gobble it up. It is the kind of book I would have adored when I was nine or so. I will be finding many nine year olds to read it very soon.

FYI, JR made me think of two Jack Russell’s on film. Cosmo, from the most wonderful movie, Beginners, and Uggie from The Artist. Check out their cuteness:

Also, here’s a lovely interview with Rachelle by Vikki, over at Pipdreaming.

The Metro Dogs of Moscow is published by Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Canada.

The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows

Do you tend to like a book more, or less, if it reminds you of a beloved book? This is a question I’ve been pondering since finishing Jacqueline West’s debut MG mystery The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows. I think I’m in the “less” camp, but I haven’t really decided, and it might depend on the beloved book in question.

I ask this because The Shadows is incredibly Coraline-esque. Coraline is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. I love how whole-heartedly terrifying that book is in places. I double-love the cat, how sarcastic and gutsy and aloof he can be. Of course, I am blown away by the creativity of the premise, and the super-spookiness of the button eyes. I read Coraline to my class last year, and I remember being a bit uncertain about whether or not it would be too scary for some of them. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have given it a moment’s worry. Note to self: most kids love being totally freaked out.

So when I read the back of West’s book, and the caption said, “In the tradition of Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman, Jacqueline West weaves a tale at turn haunting, moving, whimsical, and darkly funny…” I knew I would have to read it, and immediately I had very high expectations. Verdict? While it was a pleasurable, speedy read that is sure to engage kids, I don’t think you can put it in the same category as Dahl and Gaiman’s stories. The series may develop to become more memorable as a whole, but at the moment, I think the main reason this book is being compared to Coraline is because they both share many plot points: an odd child with indifferent, busy parents moves into a creaky old house, girl discovers she can access an alternate world inside the house, evil force is out to get her, she has to save the day, and talking cats. When you look at that list of similarities, it’s no wonder that I was constantly waiting to be dazzled as I was when I read Coraline. Perhaps I kept on forgetting that I wasn’t reading Coraline?

Certainly West can write. There is some clever and evocative description, and moments that are sharply funny. The three cats are vividly drawn. I will read the next book in the series, because I would like to see where West goes with it, how she develops the story and the characters. The Shadows would be an excellent classroom read-aloud for its brisk pacing (also good for reading under the covers, I should think). I must mention the outstanding, creepy and atmospheric illustrations by Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene. You can steal a look at a couple of the illustrations at his blog, here. Wonderful.

Take a look at the trailer:

and there’s a slick website with much more, for kids to explore.

The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows is published by Dial Books for Young Readers.

The Agency

I was entirely pleased by Y.S. Lee’s The Agency: A Spy in the House. It has many elements that put together, make it exactly the type of book that I am inclined to devour: a well-crafted mystery, historical setting, and an amusing romance with a certain Darcy/Elizabeth quality. To tie up this satisfying package, it also happens to be the first in what will be a trilogy. Yes please!

Our heroine is Mary Quinn, an orphan who had the very good fortune to be rescued from the gallows to attend Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. At the Academy, Mary receives an impressive education and learns fine manners.  After completing her studies, her teachers offer her an unusual opportunity. She is invited to join the Agency, a secret organization of female investigators who work on high stakes cases. Mary chooses to accept the invitation and is sent out on her first job. She is placed in a position as a lady’s companion in a rich merchant’s house, where she is meant to investigate a possible case of international shipping fraud. What she finds is much more complicated and personal, and her work will take her into some of London’s seediest and dangerous parts.

Lee certainly succeeds in bringing London of this period to life. (Could this be due to the fact that she has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture? Likely). The novel takes place during a terrible heat wave, and you can practically smell the stink of the Thames. One of the highlights of the book is the relationship between James Easton and Mary, which has definite shades of Darcy and Elizabeth, as they show a similar cutting banter and the same swing from love to hate and back again. I liked that Lee manages to comment on the limited choices available to women during this time, without making it seem like she is pausing for an Important History Lesson in the middle of her story. This plot really moves, and the secondary characters are well-drawn.

I’m all set to see what Mary tackles next, in The Body at the Tower, coming August 2010 from Candlewick.

For a teaser, click here.

And for a nifty behind-the-scenes look at photos from the cover shoot for that title, take a look here.

Can Enola Holmes get any better? Maybe…

Oh Enola. Oh Nancy Springer. I hope even more readers discover you because of the current trendiness of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Why? Because you are both brilliant. This series is an instant ticket to my happy place. Partly because it reminds me of my childhood, when I read many of the original Holmes tales. Partly because the writing is just so darn good. (Read my previous Enola reviews here and here).

So I would have said it was impossible to make Enola any better. Impossible. Every book is just as good as the one before. Well, after listening to Katherine Kellgren read The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, I am not sure. Perhaps Enola Holmes can get better? Kellgren’s reading takes the audiobook experience to an entirely new level. She does all sorts of voices and accents – effortlessly. You picture each character – their appearance, their costumes, their movements, just through her voices. Every aspect of the drama is enhanced through the reading. An already outstanding book becomes even more outstanding. This audiobook would make it onto my Top 5 Audiobooks for Kids List (along with Sir Ian McKellen reading Wolf Brother, Neil Gaiman reading The Graveyard Book, Stephen Fry reading HP, and hmm… not sure what else). Can’t wait to hear what Kellgren does with this.

Three cheers for Enola! And Nancy! And Katherine! A trio united in perfection.

Interviewing Barrie Summy – Author of Mystery

I am delighted to be hosting the lovely and talented Barrie Summy for an interview today on the Shelf. Barrie is the author of two of my favourite tween mysteries: i so don’t do mysteries and i so don’t do spooky. She is plenty of fun and she’s here to give us the scoop of all things mysterious and writerly. Welcome Barrie!

If you had to sell i so don’t do spooky in a sentence, what would be your teaser?

I’m sorry to report that I am not very good at this! Below is my best shot.

Sherry’s baaack and detecting with her ghost mother: can they keep Sherry’s stepmother safe?

Now, Shelf Elf, if you allow me more than one sentence, here’s what I’d say:
Sherry’s baaack! Can Sherry and her ghost mother keep Sherry’s stepmother safe? There’s robotics, ghost hunting and some serious toilet papering. It’s scary. It’s spooky. It’s fun. Oooooo. (p.s. Of course, Josh is back too!)

One of the biggest compliments (of many) I can pay to your books is that they are just plain fun to read. They’re feel-good stories, exciting and funny and real all at once. If you had to name five books that you would call “just plain fun” to read, which titles would you choose?

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Laura Rennison; The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend; Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume; Schooled by Gordon Korman; One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

I have this idea that writing a mystery must be really, really hard, trying to work out the details of the plot, keep the suspense up, introduce enough characters to keep readers guessing, drop a few clues here and there, and create a satisfying and believable finish. Is it as hard as all this? What would be your essential tips for someone about to start writing her first mystery for tweens?

It is hard. For me, anyway. Sometimes writing a mystery feels like one big juggling act and one big puzzle, all mixed together.

Here are my tips:
1. Read a lot of mysteries. A lot. Until it feels like mysteries are flowing through your veins. Because, then, you’ll automatically know what works and what doesn’t work, what’s cheating and what’s playing fair with the reader.
2. Read a few books on writing mysteries. I particularly like How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (which is just a great book on writing, not on writing mysteries per se)
3. See below about the usefulness of a recipe box.

Will a poster board work to keep everything in order?

Yes. But not in my house. For i so don’t do mysteries, I divided a HUGE piece of poster board into perfect squares, used colored post-it notes for the scenes (different colors for different kinds of scenes (mystery, family, love life, etc.), and stuck it up on the office wall. It was organized. It was beautiful. It was a true piece of art.

Until Child #3 got it into his cute little curly, blond-haired head to play a joke on me. And rearrange ALL the post-it notes!

So, now I use a recipe box with colored note cards and dividers. And I do not leave it out in plain view!

Sherry is such a down-to-earth, roll-with-the-punches type of girl. She’s the sort of person I’d want on my team if I ever encountered anything remotely paranormal. What do you admire most about Sherry?

Her tenacity. It doesn’t all come easily to her. She has to work at it. There are times when she feels like throwing in the towel, but she refuses to give up. (well, for more than a few seconds, anyway!)

What’s it like spending time with a character over the course of a multi-book series? Has your understanding of Sherry changed much as you’ve written more about her? Does she continue to surprise you?

I love it!

Spending time with a character over the course of several books is like spending time with a good friend. If I have a tough day, I’ll write again in the evening when my house is calm and quiet, just so that I can hop into Sherry’s world and hand out with her for a while.

Sherry does still surprise me because she grows up a little each book. I get a kick out of the outlandish things she thinks and says. And I absolutely love how little character traits or incidents or friends pop up in one book and then again a couple of books later. For example, in i so don’t do mysteries, Sherry talks about how she and mother never missed watching the Academy Awards together. Well, in i so don’t do famous (the book I’m writing now), that little fact comes into play.

I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about spending time with a character over several books!

What are your favourite mysteries:
a) written for tweens/teens

the Chloe and Levesque series by Norah McClintock
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
many Sammy Keyes mysteries, but especially Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy by Wendlin Van Draanen
Nancy Drew mysteries, especially The Hidden Staircase

b) written for adults
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout
the Perry Mason series by Erle Stnley Gardner
the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell

In addition to her talent for all things spirit-related, Sherry loves fashion and being social and decorating her room just so. Besides writing mysteries, what else are you passionate about?

At the moment? Veiled chameleons! We have a male and a female. And NINETY THREE eggs in our incubators!

If you had to pick 4 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

My parents: They instituted this crazy meat-and-potatoes-dessert-book rule where I could only read a dessert book after reading at least one meat-and-potatoes book. It forced me to read books I would’ve ignored and turned me into a super eclectic reader.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Peter Magee: He somehow got me to see that I was creative and really could write.

Nancy Drew mysteries: This is the series that started me thinking, way back when, that I wanted to write.

A fellow student from the University of Toronto (whose name I have long forgotten): We had a long conversation about how the glass is always half full and how you should never ever give up on your dreams. This conversation has stayed with me for years!

So do you believe in ghosts?

My first inclination is to say no. But, I’ve been wrong about so many things in life that I think I should just leave this open.

Give us a hint, what’ll Sherry be getting up to next?

In i so don’t do makeup, (pub date is May 2010) Sherry cracks a case involving makeup sabotage at her local Phoenix mall.

In i so don’t do famous (pub date is May 2011), Sherry busts up a teen burglary ring in Hollywood.

It’s been a treat having you here today Barrie! Thanks so much for visiting and keep writing us Sherry stories!

I So Don’t Do Spooky

sodon'tdospookyI read lots of books that I love. These days, I don’t tend to waste my time with anything that doesn’t impress me or inspire me, or at the very least, entertain me. This said, not every book makes me happy. Barrie Summy’s books make me happy. Her Sherry Holmes Baldwin mysteries are feel-good stories. They’re clever and funny and utterly delightful (read my review of the first in the series, I So Don’t Do Mysteries here). This is why I am glad that Barrie is writing a whole bunch for us (right now, the third title, I So Don’t Do Makeup, is scheduled for release in May 2010). When I So Don’t Do Spooky showed up in my mailbox a few weeks back, I dropped all of the other books I had going (well, actually I just shoved them to the side for a while), and got straight into Sherry’s latest adventure.

Sherry’s first mystery experience was far from ordinary, because she solved the mystery with the help of her mom (who happens to be a ghost), and a wren (who happens to be her dead grandpa, in bird form). Good news for us that the kooky spirit of the first book is right back again in the second. Sherry’s mom is still enrolled in the Academy of Spirits (the main campus is located at a Dairy Queen in Phoenix), learning to watch out for and protect Sherry and the rest of the world. Sherry’s mom has also decided to enter the Annual Worldwide Academy Ghost Olympics, where she’ll compete against ghosts from academies all over the world, in the animal mind-control event. If her mom comes first in her division, she’ll win five minutes of “Real Time” – that’s five minutes of face-to-face time with anyone she chooses. Sherry is über-excited for her mom to win because there’s nothing she would love more than a few minutes to talk to her mother in person. But there is a lot of other stuff going on, which makes it hard for a girl to focus on one thing at a time. For example, Sherry’s stepmother Paula, aka “The Ruler,” is being stalked, and Sherry thinks it might be a student on a rival robotics team (since Paula is her school’s robotics coach). Then there’s Josh, her totally adorable boyfriend of two months, who just keeps getting cuter and cuter. In her second mystery, Sherry tries to juggle it all, even though she SO doesn’t do spooky.

Barrie Summy gets the voice pitch perfect once again, as Sherry is in so many ways a typical girl, with recognizable thoughts at the front of her mind such as, how to do better in school, how to make good choices when you’re keeping a few secrets, and how to look cute everyday. She’s sharp and relatable and once again, proves to be fast thinking and skilled in ghostly negotiations. The humour is just right and the pace never flags. It is a delicate thing to manage a plot that involves talking ghosts and animal spirits and still have it all come off as a narrative that readers will feel is rooted in a real girl’s life experiences, her ordinary and extraordinary struggles to make sense of everything that has been put on her plate. You’ll cheer for Sherry. You’ll laugh. You’ll appreciate the subtle poignancy Summy communicates in some of the scenes between Sherry and her mom, as they both wish things had turned out differently but know that they have to make the best of what they’ve got. Heartwarming, hilarious and quirky, this series is a sure pleaser for any mystery-loving tween.

I So Don’t Do Spooky is published by Delacorte Press.

WBBT: Meet Dani Noir, and debut author Nova Ren Suma

 

WBBTbuttonnova_headshot

Aren’t you the lucky ones, that today, for another fab stop on the 2009 Winter Blog Blast Tour, you get to meet the lovely Nova Ren Suma, debut author of the 100% wonderful Dani Noir (which I loved, muchly: read review right now).

I’m so excited to have Nova here, because she is a cool gal and a wonderfully talented fresh new voice in kids’ books. Welcome Nova! Thanks for hanging out with me here today.

I read in another interview that your motto is “What if?” How does this motto influence you as a writer?

First, before I answer all these great questions, let me take a second to tell you how thrilled I am to be interviewed here on Shelf Elf. I’m so glad you enjoyed DANI NOIR!

Now on to the interview… When it comes to writing, I can’t help but keep the question “What if?” in the back of my mind. Even when I’ve outlined an entire novel and think I know exactly what I’m putting down in every chapter, I still can’t be sure if I’ll follow it when the time comes. My characters tend to do things I don’t expect, and I wouldn’t want to stop them. What if she says this? What if she’s hiding that in her pocket? What if he saw? What if…? There are so many ways a story could go, and it comes most alive for me when I keep my mind open to the possibilities. DANI NOIR definitely has a lot of these “What if?” moments.

I ended up asking myself this question in my writing career, too, back when I was struggling to get an agent for an adult novel. It was hard, I won’t lie, but when it wasn’t working out I thought, What if I tried something completely different? And that’s how DANI NOIR came to be. The irony is that writing for tweens and teens turns out to be the perfect fit for me, so maybe I should ask myself the “What if?” question way sooner and far more often.

At the outset of your book, film is an escape for Dani. Later it helps to inform how she sees people and the world and leads her to recognize what is interesting about her own life. Then she is able to step back into real life and in a way, start fresh. How do you experience film – as an escape, as a window to the world, a mirror to your own life…?

Watching a good film is one of my only true escapes. When a movie is on, you usually stay put and watch it all the way through—everything else falls away and you see and hear only what’s up there on screen. When I’m stressed, I want to slip into a movie for a while and forget what’s bothering me. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been known to procrastinate up to the very edges of a deadline by taking a break to watch a movie.

I guess that’s why the movie theater is an escape route for Dani at the start of the story—it seemed so natural to send her there. Where else could she be so completely transported out of her boring small town where nothing ever happens (or so she thinks…) if not at the movies?

Name 3 films that have changed your life (and tell us why!)

Heathers: So in this cult classic, there’s a clique of three girls named Heather plus one lone Veronica who ends up taking them down. In school—I am not kidding—I did have three friends named Heather, and of course my name is Nova, so I didn’t really fit, but that was just a simple coincidence; “Heather” was a very popular name back then. Really, this movie taught me some meaningful lessons about being a misfit. I’ve learned that I’d rather NOT fit in than turn evil just to be part of the in-crowd. Actually, I don’t even want to be part of a perfectly sweet and non-evil in-crowd. I’d much rather be a Veronica.

Edward Scissorhands: (OK, someone really likes Winona Ryder.) I’ve always loved fairy tales—my favorites, as a kid, were “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Snow Queen”—and this movie brought to life a fantastical modern-day fairy tale in the midst of the suburbs. I love that kind of contrast. It’s movies like this that change me as a writer and inspire me to push boundaries, which is just what I’m doing in my next book.

Gilda: Clearly this movie changed my life because it’s what inspired DANI NOIR. I was floundering with the first chapter, not sure which direction the story should go in, when I saw Gilda, really saw it, for the first time. There was something about the moment when Gilda, played by the fabulous Rita Hayworth, first appears on screen that stopped me in my tracks—I remember standing in the middle of my living room, staring at the TV. All these emotions play across her face—an entire story in a few seconds. I was completely energized. Here’s that moment if you’re curious: http://www.youtube.com/user/novarensuma#p/a/f/0/tgdKgV9Y62w.

Describe Dani. What kind of girl is she?

Dani is thirteen. She’s got a little bit of an obsession with old black-and-white noir movies, and if she could be anyone in the universe she’d be a mysterious and glamorous femme fatale, like her favorite movie star Rita Hayworth. Only thing is… in real life, Dani’s no femme fatale. Not even close. She gets herself into messes and makes mistakes, says a whole lot of things she shouldn’t, and ends up grounded so she can’t even go out at night like any self-respecting femme fatale should. Dani’s trying hard to be someone she’s not, but in doing so she starts to figure out who she maybe really is. Continue reading