York Book 2, the Clockwork Ghost by Laura A. Ruby; Walden Pond Press, 446 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.
With "The Clockwork Ghost," National Book Award finalist Laura Ruby continues her brilliant "York" trilogy set in an alternative New York City, weaving a fascinating tapestry of historical personalities and places with a steampunk overlay of brilliant fictional architects, the mysterious Morningstarr twins, and the city they built of towering skyscrapers, amazing machines and an "Underway" underground train. When the Morningstarrs disappeared in 1855, they left behind the Old York Cipher, a puzzle built into the very structure of the city itself. This second book continues the action in the "present day," just weeks after Biedermann twins, Tess and Theo and their friend Jaime Cruz followed the secrets of the cipher and destroyed their apartment building. Now the Biedermanns and their chimera cat Nine are living with their Aunt Esther in Queens; Jaime and his grandmother (and tricycle-riding friend Cricket and her raccoon-cat Karl) are living in a brand-new apartment building ("spacious, new and terrible") in Hoboken. As the children continue to try to solve the cipher, they must figure out all manner of odd puzzles and codes as they encounter a frightening array of villains including evil Dr. Munsterberg and his creature experiments, power-hungry developer Darnell Slant, his evil fixer "Duke" Goodson and an army of blond lookalikes in red dresses led by scheming, diabolical Candi.
Among the places included in the story are the New York Public Library, Greenwood Cemetery and the grave of composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk and North Brother Island where Typhoid Mary was quarantined. The children also discover a stone tunnel, part of the Underground Railroad, leading to the clothing shop founded by African American Thomas Jennings, abolitionist and inventor of dry cleaning.
It's not every children's book that starts with a Baudelaire quote. Before switching to the present day, the action begins at an 1844 dinner party held by the eccentric Morningstarr twins for guests including Eliza Hamilton and Edgar Allan Poe. A sample of Ruby's prose: "If money could buy happiness, then the very richest New Yorkers should have been among the happiest people in the whole city. Or the whole world. Instead, they were often the most dissatisfied – those with the biggest and best things are always clamoring for something bigger and better. They scrambled for properties with the best views of the river, tickets to the best performances, meals in the best restaurants, invitations to dine with the most important people."
Ruby is a gifted writer, and her book is a delight with its intricate plot, thrilling suspense, wondrous fantasy elements, intriguing historical references and smart cultural commentary. Readers will eagerly anticipate Book 3.
Spencer Quinn, author of the amusing Bowser and Birdie mystery series (narrated by Bowser the dog) ups his game in the laugh-out-loud first book of a new mystery series, alternating narrators between arch rivals Arthur the dog and Queenie the cat. As he did in Bowser and Birdie, Quinn - a pen name for mystery writer Peter Abrahams – shows a real flair for inventing a mystery scenario that allows his animal detectives to credibly unearth clues (say, chewing up a wallet, thus exposing a fake ID) to point their humans in the general direction of solving the crime.
While Arthur and Queenie intensely dislike each other, they adore 11-year-old twins Harmony and Bro and their divorced mom, who runs the struggling Blackberry Hill Inn near the Canadian border. A rude guest arrives shortly before Christmas (cat and dog both instantly dislike him), bearing an old map and a handgun and insisting on hiking a treacherous trail on nearby Mount Misty. When he fails to return, the incompetent local sheriff arrests the twins' cousin, sending the family and their pets on a quest to find the real perpetrator. Harmony uses Queenie's charms to cajole clues out of the cat-loving local librarian and an elderly nursing home resident. Arthur has his own role to play, which includes a stint in the local pound and some heroic tracking. The narration by scheming cat and clueless hound is hilariously spot on. Queenie observes: "There's a quiet dignity about me that I'm sure goes unnoticed by nobody." And here's Arthur: "Yes, my growl for sure, low and rumbly. Grrr. Grrr. The party on the other end of that growl must have been shaking in his boots. I wondered who it could be." Appealing characters, a vivid setting and a well-crafted plot inspired by booze-smuggling of the Prohibition years make this series launch a winner.
An Invisible Thread: Young Readers Edition by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 194 pages ($17.99) Ages 10 and up.
This young readers' edition tells the true story of Maurice Maczyk, who was a hungry 11-year-old boy panhandling on a New York street corner when he met Laura Schroff, an advertising executive who took him to McDonald's for a cheeseburger. The friendship that blossomed helped save them both. This poignant true story - the two met in the mid-1980s - includes many photographs at the end of Schroff and Maurice Maczyk and his wife and kids.