Book Reviews: Colombiano by Rusty Young, Abby in Wonderland by Sarah Mlynowski and Otherwise Known As Possum by Maria D. Laso @SarahMlynowski @Scholastic

Colombiano
Rusty Young
Havelock & Baker, August 2017
ISBN–AU 9780143781547
Havelock & Baker, February 2020
ISBN–US 978-0648445319
Trade Paperback

You can’t truly know what someone else is going through without walking in his shoes. Unless Mr. Young writes about it. In Colombiano, those of us fortunate enough to be far removed from any war zone, see exactly what living amid battles entails; in day-to-day life, as well the overall impact it has on absolutely everything.

Certainly, most people know that the Guerilla evoke evil with their aggressive cocaine manufacturing and distribution. The gross misunderstanding is that the Guerilla are fighting the army and law enforcement; not citizens. Leading to the false conclusion that, if folks go about their business, there’s no real reason for this pesky fighting to bother them. The carefully controlled propaganda supports this theory. Even having the place of worship utterly obliterated by “errant” fire is only an unfortunate consequence.

Pedro has listened to placates until he thought his head may explode. Papi made sure he contained, or at least properly channeled, his rage. There was Camila to consider. Rounding out the small group of people close to Pedro is the somewhat goofy, undeniably adorable, Pallilo. Pedro can push his anger aside for them.

Right up until the Guerilla descended on his father’s farm. In front of his disbelieving eyes, Papi is surrounded as accusations are hurled. The feisty fifteen-year-old cannot watch the depraved tirade and hold his tongue. Boldly, stupidly, Pedro demands an explanation. His father’s crime was revealed with a hint of glee. The farmer had the audacity to allow soldiers from the army to drink water from his well.

The resulting punishment is a defining, dividing moment for Pedro. There are men like Papi. Those who believed, as people of God, it was never right to deny a thirsty man a drink. And there are monsters masquerading as men—the Guerilla.

The situation that Pedro is forced to face is tragic. His retaliatory actions, atrocious. And yet…the author manages to demonstrate how a furious and yes, frightened, adolescent can morph into a ruthless mankiller—all the while reminding the reader that Pedro remains, essentially, a boy.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2019.

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Abby in Wonderland
Whatever After Special Edition #1
Sarah Mlynowski
Scholastic, Inc., October 2018
ISBN 978-0-545-74667-0
Trade Paperback

Sustaining a series is no simple task. Inserting a special edition story that is somehow as fresh and fun as the very first book seems insurmountable. Except to Ms. Mlynowski.

This fairy-tale-esque fantasy adds adventure and humor absolutely appropriate for younger readers, while maintaining a subtle, something-more; making it compelling and quirky enough for older audiences as well.

I enjoyed being the proverbial parrot-on-the-shoulder as four friends share a day off from school. Per usual, Penny’s parents are not around, but her house is huge and her nanny is happy to host. Penny has planned the entire day and she is not going to let a little cold air or a brisk breeze ruin the card game on the patio.

But when the wind whipped a card across the yard and into the neighboring golf-course, Abby abruptly abandoned the game to give chase. The other three follow until Frankie falls into a hole. Penny’s agenda is pushed aside. The girls have a real problem to solve.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2019.

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Otherwise Known As Possum
Maria D. Laso
Scholastic Press, August 2018
ISBN 978-0-545-93196-0
Trade Paperback

Possum, to me, is kind of a country Pippi Longstocking. Both young girls are wise to the ways of the world, if not properly educated. Tough, fiercely independent with lasting loyalty and a heart bigger than her small body should be able to hold, Possum is another exemplary young lady.

Certainly a smile-through-tears kind of story combining spunk, mischief and intuitive, undeniable kindness, I thoroughly enjoyed the bitter-sweet reflections from the late 20th century in this captivating Juvenile Fiction from Ms. Laso.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2018.

Book Reviews: Overturned by Lamar Giles and The Histronauts: An Egyptian Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke @LRGiles @Scholastic @HistoriaFrankie @JollyFishPress

Overturned
Lamar Giles
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-81250-4
Hardcover

I am always seeking books that will immediately intrigue ‘my’ students. Many times, I’ve been sucked into a suspense-filled, action-packed, heart-pumping mystery…surrounding a subject they could not care less about. Aptly, of course, young adults are not the intended audience—I am.

But.

Young adult readers deserve thrilling books.

Mr. Giles seems pleased to provide. And now, I may be the only person looking forward to school starting. I cannot wait to share Overturned.

The setting: the very casino where 16-year-old Nikki Tate works…as well as resides, stimulates the reader’s senses. At a blush, that life-style—for a high-school student—sounds kinda fabulous. And it was. Once.

Without her dad around to run things, the responsibility falls straight through her mother’s trembling fingers into Nikki’s own hands. She can handle it. Has to. Knowing, with her whole heart, that her father is not capable of murder doesn’t keep him off death row. Someone has to support the family—not just the three of them; the trusted and treasured employees of Cosmos matter, too.

Otherwise, she would never consider running her own after-hours, under-the-table card games. Which were not really a big deal. There’s only one human better at poker than Nikki and he’s not here right now. Gavin may still be in his teens, but his bulk makes him the perfect bouncer. Maybe he has a few butterflies when her invitations are extended to some shady characters, but Nikki knows she’s got this.

Until something even odder than the initial arrest and murder charge. New evidence, and an attorney more than pleased to represent Mr. Tate, appears. Conviction overturned and Mr. Tate is head of his casino once again.

Nikki’s delight with his return was fleeting. She once believed he was always there when she needed him. Now, his presence is so far past smothering, she seethes when they share the same space. Determined to make up for the lost time, and hoping to find the sweet, happy Babygirl he remembers; her dad dives deeper into her life.

Although Nikki doesn’t see it at first, Mr. Tate is not as angry as he is horrified and frightened by what he finds. As dad works diligently to get his daughter out of the quick-sand she doesn’t know she’s standing in, Nikki consistently (albeit unintentionally) blocks his way with a combination of teen-age infatuation and obligatory rebellion.

Overturned by Mr. Giles is absolutely every single thing I wish for when I want to wow ‘my’ students with a Book Talk.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2019.

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The Histronauts: An Egyptian Adventure
Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke
Jolly Fish Press, January 2019
ISBN 978-1-63163-239-6
Hardcover

I don’t know if Ms. Durkin and Ms. Cooke colluded to create a tiny tome that would call to all; from the self-dubbed non-reader to the basic bookworm, but that’s exactly what this groovy graphic-novel does.

Filled with fascinating facts, in the same way a teeny car contains a multitude of clowns, this was a particularly pleasing read for me. An at-a-glance timeline from 5,000 BC through 30 BC took up only a tiny portion of a page, but was packed with information. I had no idea that Egypt was divided and reunited so many times! Nor could I have fathomed the complicated process of turning papyrus into paper.

The “novel” is in the narration. The Histronauts, a quirky crew, complete with a cat, needed an indoor activity on a rainy day. Their museum visit morphs into an adventurous Egyptian exploration. As the kids take in the sights and ask amazing questions, I am completely captivated, learning about ancient Egyptians and their way of life. And if all of that isn’t enough, there are even activities through-out. From making jewelry to flatbread or simply solving puzzles, these were engaging additions.

I believe that reluctant readers will enjoy this because of the tantalizing trivia and the graphic-novel-format seems to be more appealing for shorter attention spans. I think avid readers will be reeling from the intriguing information. I was totally into it. And truly, who knew there more than 2,000 ancient Egyptian gods? Or that music was such an imperative part of their lives?

The Histronauts also embark on a Roman adventure and I am already looking forward to joining them.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2018.

Book Review: A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

A Handful of StarsA Handful of Stars
Cynthia Lord
Scholastic Press, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70027-6
Hardcover

Simply stated lessons about friendships, both fleeting and forming, blend beautifully with little lessons about tiny blue bees and Wabanaki blueberry legends.

A mature little girl, Lily (because “Tigerlily” is a weed, not a name) spends her summers helping in her grandparents’ general store….which is to say the only store in a blueberry-harvesting Maine town busy with migrant workers, locals and tourists from America and Canada. Painting bee houses at her very own table, Lily earns money for an operation that may help her cherished Lucky see again.

“People want us to come and work, but they want us to be invisible.”

The beloved bond built on the unconditional love between girl and dog is artfully illustrated in this book. It is a vibrant thread throughout pulling Lily to Salma, the young migrant worker who shares the affinity for dogs and the sorrow of loss. The girls aren’t exactly alike. Lily’s bee houses are carefully stenciled where Salma’s are impulsive and colorful.

“That’s what I like about art. It lets me become more like myself, not more like everyone else.”

Lily is engagingly open-minded and inclusive with a bit of a stubborn streak. Her growth, while not monumentally exponential, is enlightening and reassuring. Realizations are sluggish; but sweet and hopeful, like a slowly waking rose bud bursting open to brilliancy.

While this is clearly a compelling, captivating story for young readers, it should not be pigeon-holed as a “children’s” book. I honestly and truly believe that every single person deserves to experience the magic of an unapologetically honest, delightful friendship and the benefit of shifting perceptions.

“(Tigerlilies are weeds) only because somebody said so. Lilies are proud and sassy. They don’t know they’re weeds.”

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2015.

Book Review: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

A Snicker of MagicA Snicker of Magic
Natalie Lloyd
Scholastic Press, February 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-55270-7
Hardcover

Felicity is an intense happiness, a particular kind of joy….a wondrous joy, and the most fitting name for the charismatic main character of this happy, hopeful little tale. Having accepted the gypsy life-style as her mural-painting mom carries her and her young sister Frannie across the country; Felicity was surprised by the tug she felt entering Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, “A Proper Place to Call Home”. Granted, she knew this was her mother’s home and that they’d be bunking with her mother’s siblings, but it was more than that.

While most townsfolk will say that Midnight Gulch “used to be” a magical place, a few insist that a snicker of magic remains. A century-old curse holds that leftover magic dormant, until the riddle that evoked it has been solved. That snicker gently tugs at Felicity, seemingly soliciting her assistance. As she is inexplicably smitten and eager to bring back the Rain Conjurers, Shadow Catchers and families that could turn themselves invisible or bake secrets into pies, that made sense.

The splendiferous town captivated Felicity, but The Beedle mesmerized her. For half of a century, the anonymous do-gooder was a local hero, covering payments when someone fell behind, lifting spirits with kindness and spreading good-will. When The Beedle reveals himself to her, an immediate friendship is formed. Awe-struck and amazed by all of his good deeds, Felicity feels timid because her only talent is “catching poems”.

As some folks see auras, Felicity sees words. Whirling around, captured in thought bubbles, jumbled on top of one another; she collects the most appealing ones, just as someone else may collect marbles or baseball cards. Ironically, the very thing she treasures the most, stays stuck inside of her. When she opens her mouth to speak, her cherished words betray her. Not with Beedle, and certainly not when Uncle Jonah played his banjo, but still often enough for apprehension to envelop her.

Joy is quickly replaced by concern. Felicity spots the signs that warn: her wandering mother isn’t keen on staying. Desperate to establish roots, Felicity resolves to solve the riddle, unleash the magic and make a permanent home. Not just because she feels happy here; but her tiny family, Florentine with her bag of burdens ….every single person and the community as a whole, would benefit greatly. With the sweetest intentions and commendable selflessness, Felicity is utterly inspiring.


Ms. Lloyd
perfectly placed the irresistible Felicity as our narrator and in doing so, gleefully snatches the reader from reality straight into the heart of Midnight Gulch. The faint tinkling of wind-chimes will tease, a whiff of sugar wind tantalizes and the bluegrass music taps toes. Reading A Snicker of Magic is like visiting the grooviest small town you can think of…..noshing local delicacies, dancing “free as a mountain girl”, and discovering a secret….and my favorite part: “It’s possible to have a happy ending, even if the ending isn’t what you imagined.”

While this book is appropriate for and certainly appealing to third/fourth grade readers, it would be more than a disservice to limit the audience. I can’t imagine the reader (regardless of his age) that wouldn’t find this delightful, inspiring story worthy.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2015.

Book Review: Spirit Animals: Hunted by Maggie Stiefvater

Spirit Animals HuntedSpirit Animals
Book 2: Hunted
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic, Inc., January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-52244-1
Hardcover

The orphaned, scruffy, wise-cracking Rollan; the painted, oft expressionless warrior Meilin; and Conor, the shepherd boy, had been tossed together without a choice. The small group was wary, at best. Abeke, with her bizarre elephant hair bracelet; had been “tricked” into aligning with the power-hungry Conquerors, and was not a welcome addition to the trio.

The four youngsters had only one thing in common, but it was paramount. Having recently come of age, sipped the sweet Nectar Ninani, each bonded with, not just any spirit animal, but one of the Four Fallen. There is but one tiny task. To save the world.

The success of the mission hinges on the cohesiveness of the team. The multi-faceted concept of trust is brilliantly displayed as Abeke must earn the trust of the group; Rollan must learn to trust, and Meilin must choose whether to trust her spirit animal or her own intuition.

This action-packed, mystery-filled adventure is completely captivating with colorful characters and carefully hidden life lessons. Ms. Stiefvater’s delightful descriptions of the determinedly cheerful Lord of Glengavin paints the picture of a red-bearded giant whole-heartedly, enthusiastically and unabashedly, displaying his wide range of emotions from toddler-like temper tantrums to giddy joy.

Hope springs eternal as feisty Dawson, young sibling of the horrible Devin, craftily displays whose side he is truly on. His abrupt, almost apologetic, kindness is endearing and serves to soften the utter rottenness of his fellow Conquerors.

The mysterious, heavily tattooed Finn is the honey on this November-Cake of a novel. The burden of scouting for the quarreling new Greencloaks doesn’t seem to rattle him. He patiently teaches them how to code; sending messages by pigeon. Gradually and quietly, his story is revealed. Subtle mentoring moments threaded throughout the adventure tie perfectly together at the story’s end.

Of course the last sentence isn’t true. The author is Maggie Stiefvater. And Spirit Animals is a series. As Hunted answers some questions, many mysteries remain unsolved, new quandaries have appeared and…..well, let’s just say the reader will be ecstatic to know that Blood Ties (Spirit Animals #3) is available.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2015.

Book Reviews: The Third Door by Emily Rodda and Damocles by S.G. Redling

The Third DoorThe Third Door
The Three Doors Trilogy #3
Emily Rodda
Scholastic Press, September 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-42994-8
Hardcover

I sometimes question my reasoning and decision-making skills when I dive into a trilogy. Particularly concerning are the times that I make this huge Leap-of-Faith commitment with the release of Book 1. Knowing myself well enough to accept the facts that I am not patient and I detest waiting; good sense would have me holding out until all three books are released, and I can purchase them simultaneously to even read them one after the other, in a row…if I so choose.

My restlessness aside, there is one more very valid reason to pause. The third book is so very risky. It has the power to make or break the whole trilogy, and it can happen at any point within the final book. So much hinges on this one book. I’ve clearly enjoyed the story, thus far. I’ve been with it since the beginning, and I’m here for the end. This means, of course, that I’ve chosen these books over hundreds of titles calling to me from my To-Read List. The third book cannot let the reader down.

In this case, the third book met and exceeded my expectations.

The Third Door is so much more than a fabulously written conclusion to an engrossing and intriguing trilogy. Mysteries that had been slowly, tantalizingly, revealed previously may now be solved; however, new questions abound. Shocking revelations peppered this final adventure and surprises were plentiful without becoming gratuitous.

Having quickly been captivated by Rye in the The Golden Door, I was not surprised to become completely enamored in the last and most consuming journey. This trilogy began with Rye listening in as his two older brothers discussed the attacks plaguing their walled city. The occupants would not survive the barrage of winged, blood-thirsty creatures much longer. Brave boys would need to leave the only place they’d ever known in a potentially useless and quite possibly suicidal mission to find the dwellings of these beasts and destroy it. Rye knew that he was the one that could accomplish this goal.

Ms. Rodda’s writing is compelling. Her words are so alluring that, at times, paragraphs are almost lyrical. These characters are rich and interesting with honest relationship portrayals. The adventure is exciting, the mystery intriguing and the individuals learn, grow and mature along the way.

This trilogy is marketed to our 8 -12 year old readers; and while I agree that it is a spectacular children’s trilogy, it is certainly too good to be limited to a genre. Ms. Rodda has written an amazing story and readers of all ages are sure to enjoy Rye’s incredible journey.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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DamoclesDamocles
S.G. Redling
47 North, May 2013
ISBN 9781611099652
Trade Paperback

Brilliantly refreshing!

Some days, I need to be reminded that, more often than not, people are filled with wonder and curiosity. We possess the desire to learn, so that we may better ourselves, individually and as a community.

Damocles is such a reminder. This book rocks my socks.

Imagine going to a place where no one speaks your language. Take it a step further. There are no translation books, programs or apps. No documentation of social graces, gestures, or potential hierarchy exists. Add to that. You’ve appeared unexpectedly, as an unknown entity. There are only four companions with you; you are surrounded and exponentially outnumbered. Although you’ve come in peace, with only a desire for edification, there is no way that the odd-looking humans warily regarding you can know that.

This is how Meg meets Loul. As the human-relations-language expert among astronauts, Meg is more than instrumental when she and four members of her crew are forced to abandon their damaged vessel and lone captain. While the sole crew member remains in orbit, vainly attempting to repair Damocles for the group’s return to Earth; Meg and crew must work quickly to establish rapport with the humans on Didet.

WAIT! Please, don’t dismiss this as a “Sci-Fi” thing. It is so very much more than that. Ms. Redling’s extraordinary talent creates a cast of characters that are simply delightful. The conversations among the crew members are sharp, witty and often hilarious. The arguments and bouts of irrational and misplaced anger add a realistic touch.

I am amused and charmed to have found the most genuine, honest and real emotions captured within the works of fiction. While the story is not true, the hopes, dreams, trust and desire for advancement are very, very real. We only need to look, to see the Megs and Louls among us. Thank you, Ms. Redling, for this reminder.

I never expected to say this, but; with the right person (hint, hint Oh, Danny Boyd) this would be a remarkable film. Generally, when I love a book this much, the thought of it becoming a movie saddens me. I fear that the story may be cheapened. I worry that much will be lost in the translation. I am often convinced that actors will not be capable of capturing the person I envisioned and related to when I read the book.

I feel differently about Damocles for one reason only. I like the story so much, that I genuinely want it to reach as many people as possible. This story deserves to be told. I want to hear Ms. Redling discussing it with Terri Gross on Fresh Air and watch it climb best-seller lists.

p.s. The cover is bad-ass.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013.

 

Book Reviews: Forevermore by Cindy Miles and Summer of the Woods by Steven K. Smith

ForevermoreForevermore
Cindy Miles
Point, July 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-42622-0
Trade Paperback

Ah, the quintessential love story.  This is the Hershey’s chocolate bar.  It is the song that makes you grin, pump up the volume and dance.  It is, in a word, awesome.

Ripped from her home in sultry South Carolina to start a new life in an ancient Scottish castle, Ivy exhibits courage and strength as she grimly strives to accept her fate.  This reader couldn’t help but fall in love with this spunky, violin-wielding character.  She is pretty much everything I wanted to be as a teen-aged girl.  Her admirable qualities include confidence, a remarkably open mind and a quiet, but unmistakable, resolve as she is forced to face unknown adversaries.  Who doesn’t want to be a tough, cool chick with a huge (hidden) romantic streak?

Speaking of romance, enter Logan Munro.  From the author’s amazing descriptions, I know he is no less than dreamy.  With his rugged good looks, charming Scottish brogue and fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Ivy, I fell for him immediately.  Of course, life is never so simple.  Despite the obvious attraction and compatibility, Logan and Ivy know that they can never be together, in a conventional sense.  Ivy is alive and well and Logan is…………not.  Being young, they don’t fight their feelings, they simply strive to accept the companionship that they can have…..at least for as long as Logan’s soul is lingering in limbo.

This unique relationship is not the biggest problem Ivy faces.  The malevolent force that seemed determine to destroy her has shifted its focus to her beloved mother.  Ivy must stop the evil quickly or she will lose her mom forever.   Figuring out how to end the black madness is one thing; knowing that her success may cost her Logan is quite another.

With her enchanting words, Ms. Miles paints a gorgeous picture of Scotland and its magnificent architecture.  Feeling emerged in the scenes, the story seemed to wrap around me….almost like falling into a dream.  This is the only book that I can recall that warmed my heart as is simultaneously chilled me to the bone.

**Sidebar regarding Labeling:  I appreciate that this book falls into the Middle Grade genre, as it is most certainly appropriate for that age group; however, I fear that this limits the potential audience.  I have celebrated my 40th birthday (and then some) and I often dig into very serious and heavy non-fiction, “adult-themed” books.  This does not preclude me from enjoying a great story that is told amazingly well.  Forevermore is such a story.   Please, put the label aside and enjoy.**

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2013.

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Summer of the WoodsSummer of the Woods
Steven K. Smith
MyBoys3 Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-0-9893414-1-7
Trade Paperback

If Mr. Smith’s first book is an indication of things to come, he will quickly become one of my son’s favourite authors.  Mine too, actually.  Although The Boy, an 8-year old 3rd grader, loves to read on his own, he still indulges my Mommy Moments and allows me to occasionally read a book with him.  To me, Summer of the Woods is the ideal book for this, because it has something for adults, as well as for children.

As if by magic, Mr. Smith presents the perfect combination of nostalgia and modern day.  This exemplifies the summers I remember.  Freely roaming all around, turning over rocks in creeks, exploring woods and caves while our imaginations provided limitless adventures.  Kids being kids.  Good times, good stuff.

On the other hand, there are some pretty cool tools that we, as parents, have today, that I bet my folks would have welcomed.  Google.  Oh, how I love Google, as a mom.  Kids will always be curious, and the “new” advantage of quickly answering their questions with information and pictures at your fingertips allows their little minds to just keep going and going.  Which is why they are so darn smart, as brilliantly demonstrated in this story.

Two young boys move to Richmond, Virginia; into a large, old house, backed by woods and a winding creek.  So, yes, I am a bit biased, but only because Mr. Smith captures the essence of my home so accurately and vividly.  In no time at all, young Sam finds an old wheat penny, which leads them to the discovery of the legendary mystery.  Supposedly, a valuable and rare coin collection was stolen from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts many, many years ago and was never recovered.  As all good boys would do, the brothers make it their mission to solve the crime and recover the treasure.  What follows is a classic adventure that you simply must experience.

I admit that I went into this book with high expectations.  Not only was I not disappointed, but I was quite surprised to find so many things that I love about this book.  The dialogue and teasing among the family is spot-on.  The mystery was fun, interesting, and authentic.  The boys’ emotions and actions are more than credible—these are typical 8 and 10 year old boys.  The story flowed so smoothly that I actually read this in one sitting, although that wasn’t my plan when I picked it up.

**Sidebar:  For the 3rd consecutive year, all of the students in my son’s elementary school (K-5) will be reading the same book, at the same time, with their families.  The first year was E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and last year was George Selden’s The Cricket in Times Square.  Both books were fine, but not necessarily captivating.  Neither The Boy nor I had any desire to quickly seek out more books by these authors (because I had already read Charlotte’s Web about 100 times).  Summer of the Woods is this year’s book.  Yes, I cheated.  I read ahead, and on my own.  I am not even sorry.  But, there is one issue that I foresee.  With the other two books it was very easy to read one chapter each day and then put the book down.  I don’t see that being the case with this page-turner; but, as a reader, I honestly can’t see that as a bad thing. 

I can’t wait to see what the kids think of this story, and I’m already very excited about Mr. Smith’s next book: Mystery on Church Hill. **

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013.