Monday, May 7, 2018

Reviews from the Children's Section - Ghosts of Belle Isle and The Secret of the Staircase

One of my favorite genres and one that is the easiest for me to push aside is middle grade fiction. This year to make sure I get a little more children's and young adult fiction I thought I would designate the first Monday of every month Middle Grade Monday.  While a lot of my picks this year are classics I am trying to branch out a little bit and read new or at least recent releases. 
Last May I read the first two books in the Virginia Mysteries and knew I had to read the other two books.

Ghosts of Belle Isle (Virginia Mysteries #3) by Steven K. Smith (Goodreads)

Description:  Legend says that the haunting lights over the rapids on the James River at night are the ghosts of long-dead soldiers still fighting the Civil War. Just past the water lies historic Belle Isle, the former Union soldier prisoner-of-war camp, now a city park filled with crumbling ruins and dark wooded trails. When brothers Sam and Derek explore the island and local monuments to Richmond’s past on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with their friend Caitlin, some ghosts may be more alive than they expected! Join the adventure as the kids face a confederate biker gang led by the notorious Mad Dog DeWitt, explore suspended bridges, hidden hideouts, and secret graveyard ceremonies.

My Thoughts:  This wasn't my favorite of this mystery series.  The previous two books had a clear cut mystery and purpose while this was a little bit looser.  The boys are on their own for most of the book thanks to a lax babysitter and parents who are on the trip of a lifetime.  During this time they learn quite a bit about the Civil War and what it was like in Richmond during the 1860s.  While Smith is still able to deliver the information without making it feel like reading a history book the information was a bit disjointed and without as clear of a focus as the previous books.  This was still an entertaining adventure story that I think would appeal to 7 to 11 year olds but it did feel a bit like a place holder until the next book.

Secret of the Staircase (Virginia Mysteries #4) by Steven K Smith (Goodreads)

Description: Something's lurking beneath the famous staircase at The Jefferson, Richmond's historic downtown hotel. Back in 1895, when the hotel opened, real alligators roamed free in the courtyard fountains. That was ages ago ... or was it? When young brothers Sam and Derek arrive at The Jefferson for an elegant wedding weekend with their parents, they love exploring the old hotel. But when the wedding rings go missing and Sam is blamed, the boys and their friends must hunt down the truth no matter where it leads. If they're not careful, they might become dinner for the hotel's most unusual guests.

My Thoughts: I liked this better than the previous book.  The mystery was much more concrete - just why are things going missing in The Jefferson Hotel and are the descendants of the alligators who used to live in the fountains still wandering the halls?  I had never heard of The Jefferson Hotel before but after reading this book it's definitely where I'll be staying if I ever go to Richmond, Virginia.  It was fun seeing it from a kid's point of view - even if the kids are two boys who don't really want to be attending a wedding.  I liked how Caitlin is worked into the story and her relationship with Sam is sweet but she can hold her own against Derek too.  Sam and Derek argue quite a bit but it seems pretty fitting for two brothers aged ten and twelve and they always help each other out when it really matters.  I thought the ending resolved things nicely both in the form of the mystery and with a difficult situation with a new friend.  The history isn't as strong here as it has been in previous books but I did really enjoy that the hotel that the kids are exploring is a real place.

As a parent I really think this is a strong series.  There's a lot of history but it isn't told in lecture form and instead is written into an adventure and I really think it would appeal to children in the 7 to 10 range.  My favorite in the series is the 2nd book - Mystery on Church Hill - which partly takes place in Williamsburg.  I'm hoping to use it to make the Tornado (age 8) more interested in a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia!


  1. These look like fun, and it's nice how they incorporate history into the actual mysteries.

  2. I love the sound of the books and the covers too! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have heard of this series but I've never read it. I'm sorry that Ghost of Belle Isle wasn't as amazing as some of the other books. I do really like the cover of these books, though.

  4. I love the history aspect and would have gobbled these up as a kid. Will keep these in mind for the Royals.

  5. I love history so I really like that this series features a lot of history in a way that would be exciting for kids. Great review!

  6. I'm always a fan of anything that allows children to access the past in an intriguing and enjoyable way:). Thank you for sharing these delightful books, Katherine.

  7. I wish I'd known about these when Robin was little. Since we're in Virginia, they would have tied in nicely with the year their class studied Virginia history. But looking up the first in the series, they weren't published until the year Robin went to college. Oh, well! I wonder if Virginia teachers are using them now. Anytime you can use stories to teach or enrich history (or any other subject), it becomes more fun and more relatable. Nice reviews!

    PS. I had to chuckle when I saw the photo at the top of this post. I own (or at one point owned) almost every book in that stack, in the same editions.

  8. I would have loved these! I wonder if Mouse will like them when she's a bit older . . .

  9. I just realized how many Middle Grade books are mysteries, ha ha. Weird, but I loved The Hardy Boys and The Bobbsey Twin Books back in the day. Maybe it's dead bodies I don't like now. I should try to find a mystery about a lost treasure or something. :)