The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid

whizmob

The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid
Colin Meloy, illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins
October 2017
Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Edition; all art not seen

When his divorcee mother decides to chase her dreams, Charlie is sent to Marseille in southern France to live with his father who serves as the American consul general there. Largely left to his own devices and bored of the high society parties his father drags him to, Charlie takes up with a group of young pickpockets known as the Whiz Mob. These aren’t any pickpockets though; they are highly trained career criminals working under the guidance of someone they call the Headmaster. Charlie is fascinated with the mob’s jargon (there’s a glossary in the back matter), their sketchy cafe hideout, and impeccable costumes that let them pull off elaborate grifts. Despite his lack of training, they take Charlie under their wing, but when Charlie’s best friend in the mob goes AWOL, it sets off events that leave Charlie choosing between his family and his friends. The story is set in the 1960’s but has a timeless feel. Challenging vocabulary and the Lemony-Snicket-esque narrator’s asides, seemingly addressed to adults, left me questioning what audience this book is meant for (publisher suggests grades 3-7). Nonetheless, more sophisticated middle-grade readers may be sucked in by the suspense, humor, and novelty of a gang of international children of mystery and will appreciate the mid-book plot twist, if they make it that far.

Child criminal read alikes

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Loot by Jude Watson

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NaNoReadMo: All the Light We Cannot See

all the light

All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Scribner
May 2014

The coastal city of Saint-Malo, France, is a stronghold of the Germans in the early 1940s. The book begins with the Americans dropping flyers and then bombing the city where blind teen Marie-Laure hides in her great uncle’s house. She possesses a priceless, possibly cursed gem that that the Nazis, one Nazi operative in particular, would kill to get their hands on. In another part of the city, Werner Pfennig, a orphaned teenage engineering prodigy in the Nazi army, is trapped in the basement of a hotel the Germans were using as a base. Their stories, which the reader gets in chapters alternating between their earlier lives as World War II ramps up and the 1944 bombings of Saint-Malo, couldn’t be more different but both have led them to Saint-Malo where they make choices based on years of loss, forced resiliency, unanswered questions, and questionable decisions but also hope and the possibility of setting things right.

The young characters’ nearly manic obsession with things was something that really stood out for me in this book. Marie-Laure learns about mollusks from her father’s colleague at the National Museum of Natural History, a subject that turns into an emotional and physical refuge when she and her father move to Saint-Malo and a grotto full of sea snails is the only place she can escape the fear that rules the city. Werner and his sister Jutta are captivated by radios – Jutta for their ability to let her hear news and broadcasts from around Europe, sometimes illegally, and Werner for the way they work, the engineering and physics that make radios possible. Werner has a charming but often bullied best friend, Frederick, who has extensive knowledge of and a relentless fascination with birds. It is incredible the amount of depth such singular passions bring to the characters. It also is a testament to the characters’ youth, the compulsion to collect and discover and tinker that many adults don’t allow themselves to give into, especially with war looming among the other pressures of adult life.

While the book was narrated in the omniscient third person, much of the book was focalized through Werner and Marie-Laure, and I just loved to read Marie-Laure’s experience with blindness. It was such an unusual, all-encompassing character trait. Calling it a “character trait” seems trite but I wouldn’t even call it a disability based on the book because it was rarely presented as a disability. With some help from her father, Marie-Laure was an incredibly capable young woman who had nary a shred of self pity about her loss of eyesight at an age when she was old enough to appreciate having been able to see. There were a couple of descriptive passages that were told through Marie-Laure’s experience but that read every so briefly as though certain objects were being seen. Otherwise I was very impressed by Doerr’s writing of a blind teenage girl and constantly reminded of the things I take for granted as a fully sighted person.

As you can tell from my book reviews, I rarely read adult books and even more rarely take the time to review them on this blog. All the Light They Cannot See may be written and published for adults, but I think there is a lot here that teen readers and readers of teen books can enjoy. It was also surprisingly “clean” for an adult book – limited swearing, almost no sex, and isolated instances of graphic violence, which is totally appropriate considering the time period. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ends up in high school curricula or at least on summer reading lists.

Read alikes:

Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers
Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

NaNoReadMo: His Fair Assassin series

hisfairassassin

Grave Mercy
Dark Triumph
Mortal Heart
Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2012-2014

In 15th century France, the devotees of the convent of St. Mortain carry out his will – death. Each of the books in the His Fair Assassin trilogy follows a different member of the convent. Grave Mercy introduces Ismae who has escaped an arranged marriage and sought refuge in the convent. She trains to become “death’s handmaiden” and is sent away to court by the abbess to spy on Duval, a man she believes is a threat to the duchess. When Isme falls in love with her target, will she be able to maintain her position with the convent? Or perhaps he isn’t who the abbess thought he was in the first place.

Isme’s friend, training mate, seductress, and confirmed head case Sybella is the focus of Dark Triumph. She comes from a well known noble family complete with abusive father, creepy incest-y brother, and innocent younger siblings that she had to leave behind in order not to go completely mad. The convent sends her back into the arms of her destructive family to root out a conspiracy against the duchess, but Sybella hopes it will be a chance for her to seek revenge against these people who hurt her so much. Of course, she finds love in an unexpected place – spoiler alert: not with her brother! Ew! – and he turns out to be the perfect compliment to both her inner rage and her deadly talents.

In the last book, Mortal Heart, Annith, a trainee who has lived at the convent her entire life but never achieved full death’s handmaiden status, is finally given an assignment, but rather than one that will send her to court like her friends, she will be locked away in the convent for the rest of her life. Unable to come to terms with what her life would be like, she runs away and becomes the prisoner/traveling partner to a band of brigands, the leader of which she happens to become quite fond of. Annith does eventually make it to court, only to find that everything she thought she knew about her life is basically a big lie. As enemies circle the duchess one last time, death’s handmaidens must decide where to place their loyalties and who will live and who will die.

I love these books so much. My attempt at summarizing them above doesn’t come close to doing them justice. The handmaidens of death are totally kick ass – specializing in everything from weapons to martial arts to poisons – and they have a sort of mystical ability to see a special mark on the people they are meant to kill. The romances in each book are unique and respectful and never force Isme, Sybella, or Annith into a position of weakness. Being a Game of Thrones fan (the TV shows; I haven’t read the books…yet!), I was also really into the political intrigue at court and the place of the abbess and the convent in politics. The convent’s loyalties are thrown into question quite a bit throughout the series, adding to the suspense of whether the convent and its devotees are killing for the right reasons and if their missions are truly divinely inspired.

Read alike:

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Seraphina Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman