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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | thrillers

The Magic Misfits

The Magic MisfitsI’m one of those people that often reads a celebrity-written book because I’d like to find one that defies the odds. How about you? Did you get over the wondering at a certain point? Or do you still give a new star-powered book a try?

Sadly, I don’t often find a celebrity book I can recommend. This time, though, I’m practically shouting: Read this book! It’s that good.

Neil Patrick Harris wrote The Magic Misfits. As president of the Academy of Magical Arts from 2011 to 2014, I suspected the “magic” might be more than a word for fantasy. It’s an integral part of this mystery, woven deftly into the story. What’s more, there are magic tricks after many of the chapters, providing step-by-step instructions and tips for making the illusions seem real. And Harris introduces the book by letting readers know there are codes and ciphers within the text. Pay attention!

Carter Locke is a young boy who loves magic … and he’s taught himself to be good with illusions. When he’s quite young his loving parents disappear, after which he goes to live with his uncle … who is a crook! Sylvester “Sly” Beaton is selfish and cruel. He demands that Carter act as his shill in confidence games. Carter learns all of Uncle Sly’s moves but Carter makes a firm rule that he will never steal. He has a strong compass for right and wrong. Life is intolerable with Sly and Carter runs away, without having any idea where he’s going.

Riding the rails, he ends up in Mineral Wells (There’s a MAP! I love maps.) where he meets Mr. Dante Vernon, which is a very lucky happenstance. Carter is introduced to five other young people his age, all of them practicing some form of magic. They are the Magic Misfits, the first friends of his young life.

Mineral Wells is currently caught up in the fervor over B.B. Bosso’s Carnival Spectacular. Tempting people with circus acts, sideshow oddities, and promises of prizes, Carter quickly realizes the show is all based on fakery. When Bosso invites him to be a part of the Spectacular because of his magic skills, Carter feels uncomfortable. He refuses. Carter and the Magic Misfits are determined to save Mineral Wells from Bosso’s spell. There’s a strong sense of danger in Harris’ story. He’s written a true page-turner.

I enjoyed the way the author speaks directly to the reader. From the beginning of Chapter Two:

“Surprise! It’s time for a flashback!

“I understand how frustrating it is to pause a story right in the middle of the action, but there are a few things you should know about Carter before I tell you what happens next. Things like: Who is this kid? And why was he running? And who is the man he was running from? I promise we’ll get back to Carter’s escape soon enough. And if we don’t, I’ll let you lock me up in a tight straitjacket with no key. Oh, the horror!”

The book reads like a movie: Lissy Marlin’s illustrations are peppered throughout, helping the reader visualize just enough. Her characters’ faces contribute depth to the story.

I hope this book wasn’t ghost-written. I want to know that Harris wrote the whole thing. I could hear his voice throughout the story, so I’m choosing to believe this is a celebrity-written book that far surpasses other star-powered efforts. It’s a solid middle-grade book. It’s charming, funny, compelling, and a testament to the power of friendship. And I can learn magic. Magic Misfits: The Second Story comes out in September 2018. I already have it on order.

Magic Misfits
Neil Patrick Harris
Little,Brown Books for Young Readers
November 2017
ISBN 978-0316391825

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Capers and Cons

When you (or your students) want a book that keeps you turning the pages for your weeknight and weekend reading, here are some suggestions for books with that nimble pacing and what-are-they-up-to plots. Many of them are just right for middle grade or avid younger-than-that readers, with a couple of teen titles added. (And, of course, all are suitable for reading by adults.)

Adam Canfield of the Slash  

Adam Canfield of the Slash
written by Michael Winerip
Candlewick Press, 2005

This book is by turns funny and serious, but Adam Canfield is always interested in discovering the truth. Written by a New York Times columnist (on education) who won a Pulitzer Prize, Winerip knows what his readers will find interesting. Adam reluctantly accepts the position of co-editor of their school paper. He’s skeptical when a third-grader uncovers a possible scandal. Adam and his co-editor, Jennifer, take the story to the principal, who forbids them to investigate. Adam and Jennifer can’t help themselves and they’re soon uncovering secrets.  Even though school papers are mostly digital now, this book will motivate readers to be truth seekers.

Con Academy  

Con Academy
written by Joe Schreiber
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015

For teen readers: Senior Michael Shea has conned his way into one of the country’s elite prep schools. He’s an old hand at cons, but he’s unprepared to meet Andrea, his competition. When the two of them set up a competition to con the school’s Big Man on Campus out of $50,000, the stakes are high. One twist after another, a full crew of grifters brought in to effect the con … this book reads cinematically and moves along quickly.

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant's Tomb  

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant’s Tomb
written by Marcia Wells, illustrated by Marcos Calo
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016

Having just finished the third book in the series, I’m a fan of the youngest investigator working for the NYPD. There’s a back story for that, of course, but Eddie has an eidetic memory and a quicksilver mind … he’s good at solving crimes. The police are always reluctant to involve Eddie because he’s only 12 years old, but the kid’s good at what he does. In this installment, it appears that Eddie is being targeted for serious consequences by international art thieves whom he’s foiled before. The thieves are stealing valuable items from well-known landmarks. Can Eddie psych them out before they catch up with him?

 

Framed!

 

Framed!
written by James Ponti
Aladdin, 2016

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

Illyrian Adventure  

Illyrian Adventures
written by Lloyd Alexander
Dutton Books, 1987

This is the first of six books about 16-year-old Vesper Holly who, in 1872, in the company of her guardian, Binnie, travels to Illyria on the Adriatic Sea to prove one of her late father’s theories. She’s a girl with modern sensibilities set against Binnie’s conservative concerns. Vesper gets caught up in fast-paced intrigue with a rebellion against the king, all the while managing to search for the legendary treasure. With Mr. Alexander’s characteristic humor, and a touch of romance, this series is fun to read and definitely qualifies as a turn-the-page adventure.

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush  

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush
written by Peter Lourie, illustrated by Wendell Minor
Henry Holt, 2017

Teens will enjoy this one. When Jack London turns 21, the Gold Rush of 1897 compels treasure seekers from around the world to trek through life-threatening conditions to get to the gold fields in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Jack is swept up in the excitement, assembling a team of adventurers and supplies to withstand the cruel journey. That someone this young could command respect and camaraderie speaks loudly about his character. This true story serves as an excellent companion books for Call of the Wild and White Fang, Jack London’s Klondike stories. A real page-turner.

Magic Misfits  

Magic Misfits
written by Neill Patrick Harris, illus by Lissy Marlin
Little, Brown Books, 2017

This thoroughly enjoyable book follows Carter when he runs away from his crooked, thieving uncle to the New England town of Mineral Wells, a surprisingly welcoming place. Convinced that magic isn’t real, and yet a talented street magician, Carter is soon befriended by a group of Magic Misfits who set out to expose a circus that’s a front for a well-orchestrated, and dangerous, team of grifters. Adventurous, funny, heartwarming, this will capture readers’ imaginations. 

Mighty Jack  

Mighty Jack
written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2016

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2017

In the first book, Jack’s sister Maddy persuades him to trade their Mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds … and the adventure begins. These are not, of course, ordinary seeds. They grow strange, otherworldly creatures and the kids, including next-door-neighbor Lilly, are challenged to deal with creatures run amok.

In the second book, an ogre snatches Maddy into another world with Jack and Lilly determined to rescue her. Along the way, we meet goblins (good) and ogres (bad) and Lilly fulfills a prophecy. It’s all very exciting and well-told with vibrant, engrossing illustrations.

Parker Inheritance  

Parker Inheritance
written by Varian Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic, 2018

In modern-day Lambert, Candice discovers a mystery in her grandmother’s letters. In the 1950s, her grandmother left Lambert in shame, but it’s soon apparent to Candice and her friend Brandon that racism was behind those events … and they reflect that things haven’t changed that much. Reading this book will bring your creative problem-solving skills into play. There’s intrigue, humor, and a lot to think about in this story. 

Player King  

Player King
written by Avi
Atheneum, 2017

In 1846, young Lambert Simnel slaves away in a London tavern, completely unaware of the politics of the land.  When he’s purchased in the middle of the night by a friar, he’s astounded when the man reveals, “You, Lambert, are actually Prince Edward, the true King of England!” King Henry VII has just claimed the throne of England, but only after Prince Edward, who has a truer claim, disappears. Could Lambert be the real prince? How could he not remember this? Based on a blip in history, this is a fascinating look at a confidence job planned by politicians whose lives are at stake.

Riddle in Ruby  

Riddle in Ruby
written by Kent Davis
Greenwillow Books, 2015

In an alternate history colonial Philadelphia, Ruby Teach is training to be a thief and a guardian of secrets. It isn’t until she meets young Lord Athen that she begins to understand that her entire life has been kept secret from the powers that be. In this world, those powers use alchemy to fuel the Industrial Revolution. It’s a fast-paced, funny, and compelling book, the first of a trilogy, with The Changer’s Key and The Great Unravel providing the rest of the story.

Supernatural Sleuthing Service  

Supernormal Sleuthing Service
written by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe,
illustrated by Glenn Thomas
Greenwillow Books, 2017

Stephen and his dad are moving cross-country so Dad can be the new executive chef at the New Harmonia, a New York City hotel for supernormals (read: monsters!) It isn’t long before Stephen discovers he’s part supernormal himself! When Stephen is framed for stealing a valuable heirloom, he teams up with two new friends to prove his innocence. It’s a spooky story, filled with humor and hijinks, and there’s a second book, The Sphinx’s Secret. You know the right reader for these books!

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Lisa Bullard

Lisa BullardIn this interview with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked nine questions to which she gave heartfelt answers. 

Lisa, thank you for your willingness to share your writing process and your thoughts about mysteries with us. Mysteries have rabid fans and you’ve written a book that’s not only smart and funny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appreciate having such a good book to read and to share with other fans.

Turn Left at the CowAt what point in writing your novel, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank robbery?

That’s a great question—it makes me think back to the whole exciting process of how this story evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actually imagined it as a murder mystery for adult readers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chapters written, I was revising the opening to the story, and a completely different voice marched in and took over the first-person narration—and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy, and I could “hear” him so clearly, that I knew this was truly his story to tell. And of course he wanted to talk to other kids more than he wanted to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many other elements of the novel to instead make it a story for young readers.

I thought it seemed unlikely that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a murder investigation in a way that felt realistic, so I brainstormed other possible mysteries. At about the same time, I read a newspaper article about a man who was convinced that infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper was actually his brother. I used one of my greatest writing tools—the question “What if?”—and started thinking along the lines of “What if my character discovers that one of his relatives was involved in a notorious robbery?”

You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rural town. Trav’s grandma lives in a cabin on a nearby lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this story should be in this locale?

This location was at the heart of this story from the very beginning; it stayed the same no matter what other details changed, and to me, this setting speaks so loudly that it’s like another character in the book. It’s based primarily on the location of my family’s lake cabin, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Minnesota towns, Spicer and New London), in west central Minnesota. Since my family moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve consistently returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cabin originally belonged to my grandparents, and I’ve spent some of the most important times in my life there with family and friends. It’s even where my parents had their honeymoon, so I’ve truly been visiting there my entire life! But of course, my story is fiction, so I did take some liberties with the setting—for example, I gave the town in the book a (nonexistent in real life) giant statue of a bullhead (fish), because many of my other favorite Minnesota towns feature giant statuary.

Parade in Spicer

Travis, your protagonist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong motivation for him running away from his mother in California to his grandmother in Minnesota. Does your sure-footed knowledge of Trav’s motivation come from your own experience?

I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each other like we did when I was a little kid and a teenager. But many of the people I’ve been closest to throughout my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with several people who lost their father when they were quite young, and my closest uncle died the summer I turned nine—so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I needed to “share” my dad with them.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my greatest writing tools is the question “What if?” It challenges me to expand my stories beyond my own personal experiences and to live inside the experiences of a character who is very different from me. One of the biggest “What if” questions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t happen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decided that this story was the place for me to try to imagine what it might be like for someone to desperately crave a relationship with a lost father.

Readers are fascinated by the “red herrings” in a whodunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mystery. At what point in writing the story did you consciously work with (plant your) red herrings?

walking catfishI love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the story: for example, there’s a human head carved out of butter, a walking catfish, and a game where the winner is chosen by a pooping chicken. But I don’t want to give away any clues to readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my story, so I’m hesitant to tell you here which details are red herrings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red herrings were in place before I wrote a single word of the story, some of them wandered in out of the mysterious depths of my subconscious as I was writing the first few drafts, and others were things I created quite deliberately when I was revising and reached a point where I felt I needed to mislead readers from figuring out the solution too easily.

Since that’s a really vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the story, feel free to visit the contact page on my website (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any questions you have about the specific red herrings in my story—I’d be delighted to send you an answer!

Your story is very tense as it approaches its climax. Did you have to re-work your manuscript to achieve this?

Yes, absolutely! The entire story required many rounds of revision, but I received some key advice that really helped me make this section more dramatic and suspenseful. The novel took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in particular was very productive. During that year I took a series of classes from mystery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feedback from her and the other students in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, choppy sentences when you want to create a scene that feels chaotic and quick-moving. Those short sentences push the reader forward through the story more quickly because they read more quickly. In my first draft, I had included lots of long and meandering sentences, and those had to be broken up or deleted altogether.

No time to think!I had also written a lot of reflective passages in those tense scenes—paragraphs where my character was doing a lot of thinking along the lines of “How did this even happen?” But in real life, when something really high-action and stressful is happening, a person usually doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard—they only have time to react and keep moving. Stopping to figure out exactly where things went wrong comes afterwards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my character was “over-thinking,” and just had him responding to the danger of the moment as best he could.

When you write a mystery, how do you know that it’s mysterious enough?

Wow, that’s another great question. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exactly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mystery stories are puzzles: as the writer, your job is to hand the reader all the pieces of the puzzle, but to do it in such a way that the puzzle isn’t overly easy to solve. So for example, I’ve never liked mysteries where the answer is something the reader couldn’t possibly have figured out—when there’s some important clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detective says something like, “This letter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 minutes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Villain!” As a reader, I want a fair chance to put together all the puzzle pieces for myself—and if the writer still fools me after playing fair, then good for them!

Clue MapSo when I was writing this mystery, I knew I had to play fair—I had to give the reader all of the important clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was totally okay if I mislead the reader into thinking that some of those clues weren’t as important as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puzzle pieces together to get the right answer—I trust my readers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!

As far as the actual writing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the story at intervals so there would be clues all throughout. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to heighten the suspense and to make the puzzle more exciting. Finally, as I was writing, at any point where I felt like the story was slowing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is something really unexpected or surprising that could happen to my character next?”—and that approach provided some additional clues.

I also worked to think of metaphors and setting details that would add a spooky atmosphere to the whole story, and I tried to put my character into situations that seemed dangerous. After all, another big part of mysteries is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!

Do you read mysteries? How old were you when you began reading them? Can you remember some of the first mysteries you read?

Three InvestigatorsI love mysteries! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remember reading. When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be given a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my older girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mystery series, some of them pretty old-fashioned but still wonderful. The different series included Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mysteries and suspense stories by Mary Stewart. As a kid, I loved mystery stories so much that I made up my own mysteries and forced my brother and friends to “play” Three Investigators in our basement—we even wrote secret messages in invisible ink (lemon juice) and then decoded them by holding them over the toaster.

What is there about a mystery that you think appeals to kids?

puzzleIt’s fun to get that little spine-tingly feeling that comes when something is a little bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mysteries are action-packed and fast-moving (rarely boring), so that’s another part of it. But I think a big reason is that working to put together the puzzle of the story is kind of like a game—and if, as a reader, you manage to figure out the mystery before the story’s detective does, then you also feel pretty darn proud of yourself, and smart!

Can you share with us what you’re working on now? Is it another mystery? (We hope so.)

I’ve written several nonfiction books since Turn Left at the Cow was published, and now I’m wrestling with another mystery. My writing process is pretty slow when it comes to novels (and my life in the last few years has been really complicated)—plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actually hits paper—so there isn’t a whole lot actually written down yet. But I can tell you that this story is set in the north woods of Minnesota, and like Turn Left the mystery has to do with a complicated family story and a lot of quirky small-town characters. Including Bigfoot, by the way—now there’s a mystery for you!

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Gifted: Up All Night

My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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