In this month’s between the bookends, Sophie and Scott share seven books they read in the month of February across a wide range of genres.
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Delicates by Brenna Thummler
Sophie’s first book for this month was one she actually read back in January for the #Winterween Readathon. Delicates by Brenna Thummler is the sequel to Sheets which Sophie read and loved back in 2018. In that book, thirteen-year-old Marjorie discovered that her family’s laundromat was being haunted by a sheet-wearing ghost named Wendell.
In this sequel, summer is coming to an end and Majorie is headed into eighth grade. She has somewhat befriended a group of popular girls but struggles to accept their often bullying behavior, especially when it comes to Eliza, a girl in Majorie’s class who has been held back a year. As she tries to balance holding onto new friends with being kind to the increasingly depressed Eliza and not letting anyone learn about Wendell and the other ghosts, Marjorie realizes that by trying to fit in, she might be partly to blame for a lot of misery to others.
This is a powerful story with trigger warnings for bullying, depression, and suicide. The whole story moves along at a strangely languid pace and makes you feel almost otherworldly as you read. Sophie felt strongly for the social outcast Eliza, but also for Marjorie, who fears being ostracised once again if she rocks her newfound popularity boat too much, even while struggling with actually wanting to stay aboard now she has witnessed what her new “friends” will do for fun.
The ghosts themselves played a much smaller role here than in the last book and acted more as metaphors for what the human characters were experiencing, which Sophie considered to be a bit of a letdown, but the ending was sweet and Sophie still hopes for more from this beautifully illustrated universe in the future.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold
Next up for Sophie was The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold, a middle-grade, magical realism novel set in Haiti and New York City. Born and raised in a poor, Haitian village, Gabrielle has always considered America to be a paradise where the streets are literally paved in gold and everybody is always happy. However, when she is given the opportunity to move to New York and live with her uncle and his family, she quickly realizes this is not the case. Separated from her parents, Gabrielle is lonely and miserable as she experiences bullying at the hands of her classmates who mock her accent, poor English, and old clothes.
When she is approached by a witch who offers to solve all her problems, Gabrielle quickly becomes tempted despite being advised to stay away by her only friend, a talking rat named Rocky who desperately wants to be a rabbit. The witch assures Gabrielle that the only cost to the three wishes she is offering is that Gabrielle will lose something inconsequential and eventually, she takes the plunge. Almost immediately, however, Gabrielle realizes she has been tricked. Now it’s down to Gabrielle, Rocky, her Haitian immigrant teacher Mrs. Bartell, and her new friend Carmen to stop the witch from destroying all the diversity in New York City.
The first half of this book was great, painting a powerful picture of the isolation experienced by a young immigrant girl rapidly discovering that the dream come true she thought she found isn’t nearly as wonderful as she had imagined. It’s easily believable that Gabrielle would be seduced by the witch’s promises, and Sophie also immediately fell in love with Rocky the rat. Unfortunately, the second half felt rushed and often ridiculous. Plot points that deserved multiple chapters were over in just a few paragraphs, and the finale was so ridiculously contrived as to be laughable – Sophie doesn’t think she’s ever read such a heavy-handed metaphor in her life.
This could have been a fantastic book but was sadly a letdown, although Sophie would happily read many more books starring Rocky.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
Sophie’s next book was The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex. Based incredibly loosely on a true story, this locked-room mystery begins in Cornwall, England in the 1970s.
Lighthouse keepers Arthur, Bill, and Vince have been working out on The Maiden – a completely isolated sea tower 15 miles from the Cornish coast – over Christmas. Now the weather has improved, boatman Jory is tasked with ferrying Bill’s relief. However, upon their arrival, none of the keepers appear to greet them. Instead, after breaking the door down, the men find the tower locked from the inside, the table set for just two, and the clocks all stopped at the same time. All three men have seemingly vanished into thin air.
Twenty years later, a bestselling author plans to uncover the truth about the mystery and sets out to interview the women who were left behind. Over the years, rumors have circulated, and every explanation from alien abduction to accidental drowning has been postulated. However, as the author digs deeper, the wives reveal more and more secrets that begin to shed light on those final days.
With its dual timeline that switches POV between the keepers in 1972 and the women left behind twenty years later, plus the subtle hints of the paranormal, Sophie was reminded at times of Home Before Dark by Riley Sager. The author does a fantastic job of building up the suspense and keeping you guessing about the men’s fates right until the very end and even beyond because while the book does have a satisfying (if not mind-blowing) conclusion, there are certainly many questions left unanswered.
It’s that fact that prevented Sophie from rating this a five-star read despite its brilliant beginning; there are simply so many threads left dangling and trails that lead nowhere. A huge fuss is made about a certain character’s true identity and when it was revealed, Sophie’s response was, “is that it?” She came away from this one still feeling slightly confused with a lot of “but what about…” questions racing around her head so while she thoroughly enjoyed the read, she couldn’t help but feel ambiguous about it all after the fact.
A Universe of Wishes Anthology, Edited by Dhonielle Clayton
Next for Sophie was an anthology. A Universe of Wishes is a sci-fi and fantasy anthology from the We Need Diverse Books project and includes stories by many popular names including V.E. Schwab, Rebecca Roanhorse, Samira Ahmed, and Mark Oshiro. Sophie had been looking forward to diving into this due to loving books by many of the authors included here but instead, found herself feeling disappointed.
Sophie has been making a point of reading more diversely of late and has come across many great stories by doing so, but the stories here often felt that the authors were under so much pressure to make them Diverse with a capital D that they ended up feeling forced. A few were so bad that Sophie found herself DNFing them and moving onto something else with a sigh of relief. Several of the stories felt derivative or were set within other, established universes and so made little or no sense to someone unfamiliar with that world. Worse, they often simply stopped what felt like halfway through with the expectation that those familiar with the characters would be able to fill in the gaps.
There were, of course, some exceptions. ‘The Coldest Spot in the Universe’ by Samira Ahmed was probably Sophie’s favorite from the collection – a dual timeline with two characters living 1000 years apart but brought together by the same tragedy. Its climate change message was a little heavy-handed, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that even such OTT messages are often not enough to get through to those who need to hear them most. ‘Liberia’ by Kwame Mbalia was another standout – a beautifully written piece of afro-futurism set on a spaceship crewed by teens transporting part of their heritage to a new world.
Hopefully, others will find more to enjoy here but for Sophie, A Universe of Wishes was filled with more misses than hits, and she doubts it’s one she will pick up again in the future.
Point Roberts by Alexander Rigby
Sophie’s penultimate book this month was Point Roberts by Alexander Rigby, a thriller set in the strange little town of Point Roberts on the US/Canadian border. Between 1987 and 1989, the town became the target of a serial killer who attacked five victims every February. After the third year, the town’s mayor decided to lock Point Roberts down every February. No one is allowed in or out and it is illegal to discuss the murders or the fifteen victims with masked patrols always listening out for rule-breakers. There have been no deaths for nearly 30 years but the townsfolk have long suspected that the mayor knows more than he is letting on.
One February, five people decide to defy the order and finally solve the case. A teenage orphan named Liza, author Theodore, newly-arrived baker Colette, elderly recluse Maude, and fisherman Grant. All have their own personal connections to The Fifteen: Theodore was the husband of the town’s sheriff, Maude lost her husband to the Point Roberts Slayer and Grant lost his grandfather. As they begin to dig, they each receive a call telling them that they will be one of the next five victims. The Slayer appears to have returned.
This was a strange book that had endless twists and a whole boatload of serendipity as well. The resolution was a little absurd – if not the most ridiculous Sophie has ever come across – but the thing that made her rate the book only a two-star was the writing. Every page was filled with the most flowery of purple prose, metaphors that constantly had Sophie rolling her eyes, and unnecessary descriptions that treated the readers as if they were children. Clearly, this is not an author that has heard of the concept, “show don’t tell”.
Point Roberts did a great job of making Sophie want to visit this beautiful part of the world, but it also put her off reading any more books by this author!
Greyfriar’s Bobby by Michelle Sloan, Illustrated by Elena Bia
Sophie’s final book this month was another title from Kelpies – a small Scottish publisher that prints traditional Scottish tales. Greyfriar’s Bobby by Michelle Sloan is an early reader’s book about the legendary dog who lived in Edinburgh during the mid 19th century.
Bobby was a Skye Terrier who befriended and was eventually adopted by a police constable named John Gray. He is most famous for spending 14 years sitting by Gray’s grave at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (churchyard) after his owner passed away, however, this most famous part of his story is only touched on as an afterthought in this version. Instead, the book focuses on Bobby’s life as a street dog prior to his adoption by John Gray, how the pair came to meet, and his life as the constable’s dog.
This does seem like a slightly odd approach to a very well-known story, to effectively exclude the part that people usually resonate the most with, however, it does allow for a very different telling. As it happens, however, that new telling does seem to have been entirely made up by the author which again, seems like a very odd approach for a publisher who specializes in sharing traditional folktales.
Because this book excludes the familiar story that most people will be looking for and expecting and instead, replaces it with a story that has almost no basis in the original tale beyond a few familiar locations, Sophie struggles to recommend this one. It’s a lovely story, yes, but it’s not really the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby.
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud
Jonathan Stroud has much to live up to after writing Scott’s favorite book series of the last decade – the critically acclaimed Lockwood & Co – so it was with a great amount of excitement that he dove into the first book of his new series: The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne.
Set in the distant future following a cataclysmic event that has fragmented England into fortified towns and settlements, we meet Scarlett McCain, a daring teenage outlaw of infamy and renown. While on the run following an audacious bank robbery, Scarlett happens across a crashed coach and discovers one survivor in the wreckage; a strange, hapless youth called Albert Browne. Against her better judgment, Scarlett agrees to help Albert but it is not long before Scarlett discovers there may be more to Albert than first appears and that he has a dark and dangerous secret. Events soon spiral and the pair end up in a breathless pursuit across a deadly landscape by relentless enemies.
This is a riotous adventure which although set in England takes a lot of influence from the American Wild West. Stroud’s usual witty banter and repartee are in evidence throughout and he hooks you in by drip-feeding clues and hints as the story progresses so you know there are deeper secrets and revelations to come. There are excitement and tension throughout, a nice balance of world-building and story pacing, and the sense that there is yet more to learn about Scarlett, Albert, and the wider world in future books.
While aimed at teenage readers, as with all of Jonathan Stroud’s novels, his writing style is easy and flowing, witty and engaging, so it will appeal to a wide range of readers. Scott can’t wait for the next Scarlett and Browne adventure.
GeekMom received copies of all books for review purposes.