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Book Review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

When Susan Arkshaw moves to London shortly after her 18th birthday in the spring of 1983, she expects to find work in a pub, cheap lodgings, get acclimated before her art program begins in the fall, and begin looking into the mystery of who her father is. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of what seems to be a supernatural sting operation when a young man bursts into her uncle Frank’s apartment, sticks a silver hatpin into him, and he dissolves into a pile of sand. This admittedly odd series of events is quickly followed by the young man, who calls himself Merlin, pulling out a large revolver and dispatching an enormous louse making its way up the stairs before leading Susan through the window on a mad rooftop escape dash. Followed out of the apartment by a mysterious, super-creepy fog, she finds herself in Highgate Wood in the middle of the night, treading back and forth on the Old Road with Merlin, trying not to look at the creature in the fog, and trying to get some answers.

In this case, though, answers lead to more questions. Merlin is a bookseller, of the left-handed variety (there are also right- and even-handed booksellers, in case you were wondering!), part of an ancient group that keeps the New World separate, safe, and happily oblivious to the Old World lying just beneath. Unfortunately, Susan seems to be the focus of a great deal of Old World interest – which Merlin believes is probably related to her unknown father. Together with his sister, Vivien, the three set out to solve the mystery of Susan’s parentage. With only a faded library reading room ticket, a silver cigarette case, and a small list of possible names mentioned by her mother over the years, they don’t have a lot to go on – but as the supernatural stakes grow ever higher, Susan, Merlin, and Vivien find themselves in a race for their lives.

Garth Nix is a fantasy powerhouse all on his own, but the best way I can think of to describe this clever, laugh-out-loud, fast-paced novel is Terry Pratchett meets Susan Cooper, with a little Neil Gaiman and Dr. Who thrown in for fun. Chock full of old legends, bookshops, incredible magic, chase scenes, weird British food (Google stargazy pie!), and all things London, this is exactly the book I needed to get me out of a serious pandemic reading stall-out. I also have it on good authority that the audio book is amazing, so it would also be a good companion on a fall color weekend drive to the pumpkin patch, as well as reading well into the night curled up under cozy blanket with a cup of hot tea. No matter how you choose to enjoy it, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is sure to make your October a little lighter!

Book Review: One Summer Up North by John Owens

Sometimes, you discover a book that is all kinds of serendipity! This lovely, wordless picture book follows one girl’s trip to the Boundary Waters with her parents. Adventure with them through Minnesota’s own unique wilderness area as they paddle, portage, camp, fish, forage (mmmmm… wild blueberries!), and stargaze. Watch for wildlife too – there are all sorts of hidden surprises on each page!

Having just returned from a week up north in the BWCA, Minnesota author illustrator John Owens’s book felt just as perfect and peaceful as an evening spent watching the sun go down and the stars come out in all that inky vastness of sky. Each page took me right back to one of my favorite places in the world – that lo-o-o-ng portage, those funny mergansers, and those soft, misty mornings on the water. For anyone who dreams of pines and aspen, loon calls echoing over the water, and a warm campfire and a good meal at the end of a long paddle, One Summer Up North is a must-savor by adventurers of all ages!

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Seventh grade is not turning out to be such a great year for Sweet Pea DiMarco (her real name is Patricia, but nobody calls her that except her eccentric advice columnist neighbor, Miss Flora Mae).  Her parents are recently divorced – but decided that the best way to keep things normal for Sweet Pea was for her dad to rent the house on other side of Miss Flora Mae’s and make everything look identical to her mom’s house, which, to be honest, kind of creeps Sweet Pea out.  Her cat, Cheese, must think so too, because he refuses to spend the night at her dad’s new house.  Her ex-best-friend, Kiera, now sits in front of her in class, which is definitely not awesome.  And Miss Flora Mae just cornered Sweet Pea on the sidewalk and announced that she’s going out of town and needs Sweet Pea to collect her column letters and water her plants – and then swore her to secrecy.  The last thing Sweet Pea needs is more secrets.

At least she has her forever best friend, Oscar.  They share a love of America’s Most Haunted, which they’re burning through on Netflix, and Oscar always has Sweet Pea’s back, no matter what.  Even when there is an unfortunate, um, incident, involving too much pizza, cake, and a trampoline at Kiera’s birthday party, which Sweet Pea sorta kinda crashes.  And even if she’s keeping secrets from Oscar – secrets she doesn’t want to keep, but Miss Flora Mae made her promise.  And secrets seem to lead to more secrets.

When Sweet Pea accidentally discovers a Dear Miss Flora Mae letter with very, very familiar handwriting while gathering up Flora’s mail, she makes a decision that will change her family and her friendships even more than they already have – she decides to answer it.  Sometimes, change is good, and sometimes, it’s not-so-good.  It turns out you always have to deal with it, though – and it’s how you decide to deal with it that defines who you are.

Author Julie Murphy has already proved her awesomeness with her young adult knockout novels Dumplin’, Puddin’, and Ramona Blue, and Dear Sweet Pea rocks the middle grade scene just as fabulously as her older sister novels (there’s a even a great nod to the world of Dumplin’ and Puddin’!).  Sweet Pea is funny, full of heart, and a great little human, even when she’s muddling through trying to figure out what the best way is to be a friend, a daughter, and an almost-eighth grader.  Oscar is a staunch and stalwart friend, and who doesn’t love a cat named Cheese?  Brimming with family, friendship, life advice, and a whole lot of love, middle grade readers, no matter how old, won’t want to miss Julie Murphy’s latest.  Check it out at the library!