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Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They'll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.

Duet

If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe's classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.

Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor. 

As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek's. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she's studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina's house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.

Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle's avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family's nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author's note that explains how the conclusion of the novel's mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.

At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians' focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin's ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother's best friend's bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who's holding riddles number two and three. 

Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester's dad's way of communicating that he's in trouble and needs Chester's help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester's dad. But could Chester's reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?

Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel's larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles' true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that's as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.

Diversity is a part of Chester's world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester's town's various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family. 

Join young detectives on quests for answers that may be hiding in plain sight.

Following a breakup with his fiancée, “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Conor Knighton sought distraction in travel. He spent a year touring the nation’s 63 national parks, and in Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, he provides a funny, fascinating account of his trip. Knighton, who started his trek at Acadia National Park in Maine, shares hilarious anecdotes from the road and provides insights into the history of the park system. Reading groups will enjoy digging into themes of nature, conservation and the allure of travel.

In The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, Elizabeth Letts chronicles the extraordinary travels of Annie Wilkins. In 1954, Wilkins learned that she had only a few years to live. Determined to see the Pacific Ocean, a lifelong dream of hers, the 63-year-old set out on her horse, Tarzan, riding from Maine to California and attracting national attention along the way. Letts brings Wilkins’ adventures to vivid life in this unforgettable book.

Mark Adams’ Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier is a spirited tribute to one of America’s most idiosyncratic states. Inspired by Edward H. Harriman’s famous 1899 exploration of the Alaskan coastline, Adams (Turn Right at Machu Picchu) traveled the same route as Harriman and his crew. He documents the ways in which Alaska has changed in the intervening years and crosses paths with an array of colorful characters, providing astute observations about environmentalism, Alaskan history and the oil industry in the process.

Kate Harris was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford and MIT when she set out to travel the Silk Road by bike, an excursion she recounts in Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Harris, who had long dreamed of exploration, was accompanied by her best friend, Mel. Together, they cycled their way into Turkey, India, Nepal and China, traveling for nearly a year. Harris mixes history, geography, travel writing and personal reflection to create a richly detailed narrative that’s a testament to the transformative power of travel.

These true stories of national park-hopping and continent-traversing will inspire reading groups.

★ Rock of Ages

Junior Bender, burglar by profession but crime solver by avocation, doesn’t get much of a chance to pursue his ostensible career in Timothy Hallinan’s wildly entertaining Los Angeles-set caper Rock of Ages. Junior’s sleuthing skills are requested by nonagenarian gangster Irwin Dressler, which in Junior’s world is akin to being summoned by God. Dressler has invested in a rock ’n’ roll revival tour, but now none of his co-investors, who are also criminals of note, are returning his calls. Sensing that he is about to get stiffed, Dressler hires Junior to ascertain whether his worries have merit and, if so, to stymie the efforts of his potentially larcenous partners. No salary is mentioned for the gig; it is a simple exchange of favors, with Dressler’s favor to Junior being Junior’s continued existence. Hallinan worked in the music industry for years before becoming an author, and his insider familiarity with the LA music scene shines through in Rock of Ages. Those of us who remember classic rock when it was just “rock” will be amused to recognize the real-life stars Hallinan’s fictional doppelgängers represent. As a special added attraction, Junior’s smart and sharp-tongued daughter, Rina, plays a more central role than previously in the series, and she is seemingly poised to follow in her dad’s furtive footsteps.

★ Last Call at the Nightingale

At first blush, Vivian Kelly, the protagonist of Katharine Schellman’s Prohibition-era mystery, Last Call at the Nightingale, displays little in the way of sleuthing credentials. By day, Vivian is a seamstress in what we would now consider a sweatshop, and by night she is a regular at the Nightingale, a Manhattan speakeasy of some note among Jazz Age cognoscenti. She dances, she flirts without gender bias, she drinks, and for a while each evening, she forgets about her daytime drudgery. But when Vivian stumbles upon a dead body in the alley behind the club, the speakeasy’s hitherto bon vivant ambiance begins to melt away, revealing something altogether more sinister. Vivian is hauled off to jail in a police raid that happens soon after she discovers the body, and Nightingale boss Honor Huxley puts up her bond. In return for this kindness, Vivian agrees to have a quiet look into the murder of the man in the alley. She discovers early on that she possesses quite a knack for investigating, though she is often oblivious to the dangerous ripples she’s causing. The well-developed supporting cast is diverse in race, gender and sexuality, and the suspense will keep readers guessing until the end.

★ Wild Prey

Wild Prey, the second book in Brian Klingborg’s series featuring Chinese police inspector Lu Fei, takes him from his home in the northeastern corner of China to the steamy wilds of Myanmar. The story starts with Tan Meirong, a doggedly persistent teenage girl who insists that her sister, Meixiang, has gone missing. Meixiang worked at a gangster-owned restaurant that provides rare foods for wealthy clients to gorge on, ostensibly for medicinal purposes. (People in China have long consumed parts of bears, rhinoceroses, tigers and more, often for use as aphrodisiacs.) Lu launches an investigation and soon comes around to his supplicant’s way of thinking: Something is clearly amiss. However, Lu excels at incurring the wrath of his superiors, and this time is no exception. He gets pulled off the case, then suspended. Soon afterward, he is quietly approached by a Beijing bureaucrat who asks him to spearhead an undercover operation targeting a wild-game preserve in Myanmar. The bureaucrat believes the preserve is central to the illegal exotic animal trade into China, so perhaps this investigation will help Lu find Meixiang as well. Klingborg nails the atmosphere of Myanmar—the longyi, the flip-flops, the works. Lu is well drawn, world-weary but not beaten, and he has markedly upped his game in this second adventure.

★ Razzmatazz

Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Razzmatazz, is the wild card of this group: It’s a mystery, to be sure, but one with snippets of folklore, science fiction and the supernatural, all blended with the author’s legendary irreverent humor. For example, very few noir novels have ever begun with a tongue-in-cheek minihistory of China’s Qing dynasty. (“The sky is black with the smoke of burning villages, and it is widely agreed throughout China that the soup of the day is Cream of Sadness.”) Also, to my recollection, zero noir novels have ever featured a dragon that wasn’t just a tattoo. As this sequel to 2018’s Noir opens in 1947 San Francisco, bartender and “fixer” Sammy Tiffin has been tasked with a couple of jobs: 1) tracking down the killer of Natalie Melanoff, aka Butch, a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub who was found floating faceup in San Francisco Bay; and 2) locating a mysterious dragon statuette that went missing some 40 years prior and is now an object of keen interest to the Chinese criminal underworld. Much of the story centers on Jimmy’s Joynt, the club where Butch worked, which is a relative oasis of joy in an era not noted for its acceptance of LGBTQ people. Racism rears its ugly head as well, particularly toward the Chinese community that, then as now, constitutes a significant portion of the population in the City by the Bay. Moore provides a warning in the preface about the period-correct dialogue, noting that “the language and attitudes portrayed herein regarding race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time, and sadly, all too real.” Be warned, but know that Moore and his merry band of miscreants are firmly on the right side of history—and they will make you laugh until it hurts.

Let loose at a rock 'n' roll tour or a fabulous nightclub—just try not to get murdered. Plus, Brian Klingborg ups his game with his second Inspector Lu Fei mystery.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood

Louis lives with his determined, free-spirited grandmother. When neither she nor City Hall can tell him how many dogs live in their neighborhood, Louis takes Grandma's advice to heart: “Sometimes if you want something done you've just got to do it yourself.” 

Louis decides to go door to door to take a census. Along the way, he learns a lot about his neighbors and their pets. Two corgis named Wilbur and Orville enjoy bird-watching, while a small white terrier named E.B. “dreams of writing stories.” Such clever references elevate the story, even if younger readers might not immediately grasp their meanings. An older man tells Louis that he has learned many lessons from his dogs, Aesop and Fable, while a house in which musicians practice saxophone and flute is also home to a pair of hounds named Thelonious and Monk. All of these touches are artful and light, just there for the taking.

Meanwhile, Grandma is occupied with a project of her own, as she's unsatisfied that the city has fenced off an abandoned lot. Her efforts and Louis' dovetail pleasingly, and there's a lovely surprise for Louis in the end.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is an easy book to fall in love with. Philip C. Stead's writing is exquisite, and illustrator Matthew Cordell's artwork portrays a delightful menagerie of humans and their four-legged friends. Stead (author of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee) makes every word count, while fellow Caldecott Medalist Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) brings the bustling sidewalks of Louis' neighborhood to life. His signature loose, expressive lines have fabulous energy and personality reminiscent of the work of Quentin Blake and Jules Feiffer.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is a memorable story about energetic grandparenting, the importance of being a good neighbor and the fruits of civic engagement.    

The Pet Potato

Move over, Sophie's Squash: Albert's potato has arrived. In Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf's beloved 2013 picture book, a young girl befriends a squash she finds at the farmers market. Josh Lacey and Momoko Abe's The Pet Potato pays similar tribute to the power of imagination through the story of Albert, a playful boy with circular red glasses and a mop of curly hair who longs for a pet but whose parents have squashed all of his suggestions.

Despite his parents' firm stance, Albert pleads unrelentingly until, one day, his father hands him a small wrapped package, which turns out to contain a potato. “You wanted a pet,” Dad tells Albert. “It's a pet potato.” Albert sets the potato aside, then notices that it looks sad. The next day, he gives the potato a ride on his train set, and soon the pair are inseparable.  

British author Lacey is no stranger to unusual pet tales; he's also the author of the Dragonsitter chapter book series. Here, he employs excellent comic timing as he describes Albert and the potato's adventures at home, on the playground and even at the library, where, “for some reason, the potato particularly liked books about pirates.”

Abe's illustrations capture it all, from Albert and the potato palling around on the playground to Albert drifting off to sleep at night, the potato resting on the pillow next to him. A limited color palette of greens, reds, yellows and browns allows Albert's and the potato's facial expressions to shine. Using minimal linework and an arsenal of adorable potato-size hats, Abe creatively animates the potato, who becomes an intrepid safari explorer, a railway engineer and more.

Of course, like all pets, potatoes don't live forever, and Lacey crafts a satisfying ending that leaves everyone happy, including Albert. A final spread portrays a diverse array of neighbors discovering how much fun a pet potato can be.

With great style and gentle humor, The Pet Potato demonstrates how a vivid imagination can transform an ordinary spud into an extraordinary buddy.

The Surprise

When Kit receives a guinea pig as a surprise birthday gift, her household's other animals are perplexed by the creature. Bob the pug, Dora the cat and Paul the bird pronounce, “If you're not a cat or a dog or a bird, you're an oddball.” Co-authored by award-winning novelist Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and her husband, Nick Laird, The Surprise is a spirited celebration of the unexpected. In the world of this story, anything can happen—and it does. 

The Surprise (as the newly arrived guinea pig is called for most of the book) is dressed for judo, which she loves, but her new companions abandon her to watch TV, leaving her feeling sad and lonely. As she experiments with ways to fit in, the Surprise winds up in big trouble. Fortunately, she is rescued by a fellow oddball, an older woman named Emily Brookstein who lives in a flat below Kit's. “Life's too short not to be an oddball,” Emily advises.

Illustrator Magenta Fox's artwork is well suited to this tale of anthropomorphized animals. The guinea pig is an immediately adorable and sympathetic protagonist. Ginger-haired, exuberant Emily Brookstein and loving new pet owner Kit make perfect foils to the disapproving trio of Bob, Dora and Paul. Fox excels at facial expressions, whether it's a smug yet puzzled look on a bespectacled pug's face or the Surprise's downcast eyes as the other animals talk about her as though she can't hear them. There's plenty of action, too, including an airborne guinea pig and a dynamic series of panels that depicts an exciting elevator journey. 

When Kit returns home from school, she finally christens her new pet Maud. It's clear that Maud will fit right in with the animals and humans of her new family, but she has also gained an appreciation for what makes her stand out, too. 

There’s nothing quite so wonderful—or as challenging—as bringing a new pet into the family. These three picture books showcase the happiness that these companions add to our lives.

Every year, the BookPage editors must once again ask the question: What, exactly, does “summer reading” even mean? Here are our definitions, in literary form.

The Season

I devour lighthearted, escapist romances and mysteries during the summer. Basically, if it can hold my attention despite all the distractions of a packed pool or a sunny park, it’s going in my tote bag. However, to keep my brain from snapping in half when I inevitably turn to more challenging books in the fall, I also make sure to reach for a few weightier yet still seasonably appropriate titles. Kristen Richardson’s history of the debutante is my gold standard. Impeccably researched but unabashedly glam and gossipy, The Season describes gorgeous gowns and high society queen bees with the same inquisitive rigor it applies to unpacking the intersections of race and class. In its various permutations, the debutante tradition encapsulates cultural ideas about femininity and its value; depending on the context, it can be regressive or liberating, stifling or affirming. (The chapter on African American debutante balls alone is worth the price of admission.) Make this your afternoon poolside read, and you’ll be the most interesting person at dinner later that night.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Deacon King Kong

When my yard is alive with bugs and birds, when they’re screaming and singing and zipping through the trees, I want a book that crackles with that kind of electricity, like Deacon King Kong. Set in 1969 Brooklyn, James McBride’s seventh novel opens in the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing projects where, in broad daylight, a 71-year-old alcoholic church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer. That seemingly gritty opening leads into an affectionate village novel that follows a multitude of characters, including congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, a lovelorn police officer and an Italian mobster known as the Elephant. As readers learn the truth about Sportcoat’s actions, they also follow foibles and treasure hunts and slapstick party scenes. No one’s the “bad guy,” not even the mob bosses or dirty cops. The dialogue is some of the best you’ll ever read, and many scenes are gut-bustingly funny. Summer is a joy, and so is this book.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Group

I am not a great lover of summertime. The heat, the dirt, the bugs—all of it sends me indoors with a glass of lemonade. This makes a book like Group by Christie Tate my perfect summer read. I tore through this book on vacation last year, using every moment alone in the empty, air-conditioned house to fly through a few more chapters while everyone else was outside. Tate’s memoir of the years she spent in an unconventional group therapy setting ranges from salacious to vulnerable to truly touching. All she has to do, her new therapist tells her, is show up to these group sessions and be honest—about everything. Sexuality, food, relationships, family, death—everything. As Tate slowly opens up to her fellow group members, she builds real friendships for the first time and learns to defuse the shame and low self-worth that had kept her from making authentic connections during her first 26 years. Perfect for a weekend trip or plane ride, this book’s got heart, hope and enough juicy confessions to keep you turning the pages at lightning speed.

—Christy, Associate Editor

All That She Carried

Whether I’m traveling across the world on a plane or installed under an umbrella on the beach, summer adventures inspire me to decenter screens and their attendant distractions. This means I have the capacity to focus on books that reward a reader’s careful attention, like Tiya Miles’ National Book Award-winning All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Miles, a historian and MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient, uses a single artifact—a simple cotton sack given to a 9-year-old child named Ashley by her mother when Ashley was sold to a different plantation—to offer insight into the often undocumented lives of Black women. As she traces the journey of Ashley’s sack from its origins in 1850s South Carolina through the Great Migration and to its eventual discovery at a Nashville flea market, Miles honors the strength of family ties and finds creative ways to fill gaps in the historical record. This book will make you both think and feel, providing a reading experience to remember.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Diviners

There is nothing I want more in the summer than a big honking series. (Especially if it’s complete. No cliffhanger endings for me!) I want to dive into a fictional world for as long as possible before coming up for air, and Libba Bray’s quartet of novels about supernaturally gifted teens solving mysteries in New York City during the Roaring ’20s fits the bill to a T. The series opener is replete with positutely delicious period vernacular and horrors both imagined (a murderous ghost resurrecting himself with body parts carved from his victims) and all too real (“color lines” at jazz clubs where Black Americans perform on stage but aren’t allowed to enter as customers). The Diviners is exactly the sort of tale I love to stay up into the wee hours of hot summer nights reading—which is good, because in Bray's talented hands, some scenes are so terrifying that I wouldn't be able to turn off the lights anyway.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Any book can be a beach read if you put your mind to it.

Discover your next great book!

BookPage highlights the best new books across all genres, as chosen by our editors. Every book we cover is one that we are excited to recommend to readers. A star indicates a book of exceptional quality in its genre or category.

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