Middle-Grade Review: Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano

Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano
By Marthe Jocelyn
Published February 4, 2020 by Tundra Books

Publisher’s Summary:
Aggie Morton lives in a small town on the coast of England in 1902. Adventurous and imaginative but deeply shy, Aggie hasn’t got much to do since the death of her beloved father . . . until the fateful day when she crosses paths with twelve-year-old Belgian immigrant Hector Perot and discovers a dead body on the floor of the Mermaid Dance Room! As the number of suspects grows and the murder threatens to tear the town apart, Aggie and her new friend will need every tool at their disposal — including their insatiable curiosity, deductive skills and not a little help from their friends — to solve the case before Aggie’s beloved dance instructor is charged with a crime Aggie is sure she didn’t commit.

Filled with mystery, adventure, an unforgettable heroine and several helpings of tea and sweets, The Body Under the Piano is the clever debut of a new series for middle-grade readers and Christie and Poirot fans everywhere, from a Governor General’s Award–nominated author of historical fiction for children.

Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano is a great start to a middle-grade mystery series. It’s based on the early life of the real-life mystery queen Agatha Christie.

Agatha (Aggie) Morton is a 12-year-old girl who chafes at the restrictions placed on a young girl in Edwardian England. At her nervous mother’s insistence, she still has a Aggienursemaid who accompanies her everywhere. She’s still grieving her father’s recent death. Her only distraction is a new friendship with a young Belgian immigrant named Hector Porot. The two inquisitive children become fast friends after Aggie discovers a body in her dance studio, and they decide to solve the murder themselves.

This is a really delightful book. Aggie and Hector are great characters. The mystery is well done and very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s stories. (I did guess the murderer about halfway through, but I’ve read a lot of mysteries and I think readers in the targeted age group will be thrilled with the big reveal.) There’s some examination of class and privilege. Aggie’s family is struggling a bit financially since her father’s death, but she still leads a very privileged life and is shocked to learn that a family servant is living in an unheated shack. Hector is an immigrant living on charity, so he’s treated with some suspicion by the town. There’s also some discussion on social changes, as Aggie’s dance teacher, who ends up being a suspect in the murder, is a suffragette and doesn’t believe that women need to be married.

This is a really fun book for middle grade readers, and it was an entertaining read for this adult too. It’s the sort of book I wish had existed when I was a kid, just starting out on reading Agatha Christie.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Middle Grade Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone
By Jaclyn Moriarty
Published October 9, 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books

I’m a big fan of Jaclyn Moriarty’s young adult books. She’s a clever and very funny writer, and I jumped at the chance to read her new middle-grade book. The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a wonderful, clever, and entertaining book that’s good for kids and adults alike.

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates.

This did not bother me as much as you might think–I hardly knew my parents.

When she was still in a pram, Bronte Mettlestone’s parents left her with her Aunt Isabelle Bronteso they could go off and have adventures. Bronte hasn’t seen her parents since then, so the announcement of their death isn’t as devastating as you would expect. Much more troubling is her parents’ will, which leaves very detailed instructions for Bronte: she has to visit her father’s 10 sisters and bring them each a gift. She has to follow the instructions to the letter, because the will is trimmed in Faery cross-stitch, which means that if she doesn’t complete all the provisions as directed, something terrible will happen. And thus begins a long and adventurous journey.

Bronte visits a farm, saves a baby from drowning, gets caught in an avalanche, learns about dragons, attends a magical convention, and survives a pirate attack on a cruise ship. Her adventures are magical and funny. Moriarty is a master at plotting. Even the smallest detail means something, and I love seeing how all the pieces fit together in a fascinating puzzle.

There’s a lot going on in the book. Bronte’s journey is an adventure and a puzzle to be solved, but she’s also learning all about her father’s family and her mother’s mysterious past. Bronte is a practical child who handles all the adventures she encounters with aplomb:

I suppose I should tell you about the avalanche. I was thinking I could use that short chapter to skip straight over it and onto the next aunt. But no, that would only be annoying of me.

Reading middle grade books as adult can be dicey. What appeals to the younger reader may not work so well for an adult. I was quite pleased to find that the book was so entertaining and never felt as if it were written at too basic a level. Moriarty never underestimates her audience, and I think young readers will enjoy the rollicking adventures and dry wit of this book. It would be a great choice for parents to read along with their kids.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts
By Victoria Schwab
Published August 28, 2018 by Scholastic

Victoria/V.E. Schwab is a prolific writer, with multiple adult and YA books, and now she’s turned to middle-grade fiction with City of Ghosts. I really enjoyed City of Ghosts, and I know my ghost-obsessed 10-year-old self would have LOVED it.

Cassidy sees ghosts. She almost drowned and was pulled out of the water by a ghost named Jacob, who becomes her best friend. She and Jacob can travel back and forth across the veil, a sort of gray area inhabited by ghosts. Even before she almost died, Cassidy knew a lot about ghosts because her parents are paranormal researchers who hunt ghoCity of Ghostssts and have a successful series of books about the subject. This leads to the parents being offered a ghost-hunting TV, which takes them to the seriously haunted city of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is wonderfully vivid in the book. Because her parents’ work takes them to the city’s most haunted places, Cassidy is confronted with many more ghosts than she’s even seen in one place, and she finds that the veil is very different here than what she’s used to. She also meets a another girl, Lara, who can see ghosts, and she begins to learn what power and responsibility she has.

This book is genuinely scary. The ghosts are Edinburgh are often creepy and terrifying. The scariest of all is a woman in a red cloak, who’s said to have stolen children. Ever since her near-death experience, Cassidy has been drawn to the veil, but the pull is much stronger in Edinburgh, and although Lara admonishes her to avoid the woman the red cloak, Cassidy keeps crossing her path, with terrible consequences.

I liked the friendships in this book very much. Cassidy is a bit of an odd duck, an outsider at her school, but she doesn’t mind. She and Jacob are best friends who have each other’s backs, and she doesn’t need anyone else. But there’s some distance in the relationship too, as there are things Jacob doesn’t share with Cassidy, like how he died and why he’s still here. When she first meets Lara, the other girl is very dismissive of her, but once Lara realizes that she and Cassidy share their unique talent, they forge a somewhat testy relationship.

This is a great middle-grade book. As an adult reader, I enjoyed it, and I think kids in the target age group will love it.

I received an ARC for review from Amazon Vine.

Middle Grade Review: The Last Gargoyle

The Last Gargoyle
By Paul Durham
Published January 9, 2018 by Crown Books for Young Readers

The Last Gargoyle is an entertaining middle grade book with an interesting mythology and a creature that doesn’t get much fictional attention, gargoyles. Penhallow is a gargoyle (he prefers to call himself a grotesque) living in Boston. He’s one of three remaining gargoyles in the city, and the other two are killed off at the beginning of the book (it’s not much of a spoiler when you consider the title). Penhallow soon realizes that the city is facing a terrible threat, and he may the only hope of defeating this foe.

GargoyleWith his friends gone, Penhallow is the last of the city’s gargoyles, and it’s a lonely existence until he meets a mysterious girl named Viola. She’s cagey about who she is and why she can come and go as she pleases, but Penhallow finds himself warming to her and she’s his only companion in a lonely life.

The mythology is an interesting one. Gargoyles were carved by a Maker and they adorn various older structures in Boston. They were responsible for all inhabitants of the buildings they’re attached to, but all of the other gargoyles are just empty stones now. Penhallow can leave his gargoyle perch and take other forms to move around the city and to keep any eye on all the people who live in his building. He protects his wards from minor nuisances like imps, and the more serious threat of the netherkin, spirits of the dead who haven’t passed on to the next place (what exactly that next place is isn’t answered in the book because Penhallow himself doesn’t know).

This is a slightly dark middle grade book, since it deals with death and loneliness. Penhallow hasn’t been able to save everyone in his care over the years, and he bears the weight of that guilt. The nethekin are very creepy, and they want to steal children’s life force (what they’re stealing is never named, but the children who lose it are sad and troubled for the rest of their lives). Because of this, I would recommend this book for the older end of the age range.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.