The Eight, by Katherine Neville

Mireille is a novice at Montglane Abbey in France. It’s 1790, and the French Revolution is well under way, so the Mother Superior is closing the abbey before the army arrives. But it’s more than just the nuns she is trying to save: the abbey has long been the hiding place of the Montglane Service, a chess set once belonging to Charlemagne himself. Massive, exquisitely wrought pieces encrusted with gems, the board a meter square and made entirely of silver and gold, the service inspired greed and rage in nearly all who saw it. So it was hidden away for a thousand years, safe from the evils of the world. But with the Revolution seizing the contents of all convents and monasteries, it’s only a matter of time before the Montglane Service comes to light again. Unless she can smuggle it out, piece by piece, dispersed with her nuns across the length and breadth of France. And Mireille is a perfect candidate to help protect the pieces…

It’s New Years Eve, 1972, and Catherine Velis is late for a party. When she finally arrives, a bizarre fortune-teller rambles something at her about her hand being foretold, not trusting anyone, and an endless battle of white. A bit confused, she shrugs it off. After all, she’s only got a few months left in New York before her company ships her off to Algeria, and she wants to enjoy it. But an acquaintance is pestering her about finding a rare, extremely valuable chess piece while she’s there, and there’s something…off…about his request. And the weirdness keeps mounting: the strange man on the bicycle, the shooting at a chess tournament, the body on a slab at the United Nations. And the job in Algeria doesn’t seem quite right, either.

As Mireille struggles to protect the pieces, as Catherine comes closer to uncovering the secret of the Service, can they succeed against rising odds and mounting violence?

The Eight is best described as a quest novel, told in two concurrent timelines (Don’t worry, eventually they meet up). It’s a riveting thriller taking readers from New York to Algiers, France to Russia. Mireille and Catherine are engaging heroines, bound by fate to protect the Montglane Service. If you’re looking for a thrill, some history, some chess, or just something a little different, I seriously suggest giving The Eight a try.

Favorite Line:

“How did you know which [car] was the secret police?”

“I didn’t.” Lily gave me a smug smile as she took off down the street. “So to be safe, I drilled them all.”

Don’t read if: you get uncomfortable about chess, Rolls-Royces, historical figures in fiction, or the French.

The Unexpected Mrs Pollifax, by Dorothy Gilman

Sometimes, achieving a childhood dream can take you to the strangest of places…

Mrs Emily Pollifax (of New Brunswick, New Jersey)is at a bit of a loose end. Long since widowed, her children grown and gone, she doesn’t see much reason or meaning in her life. Oh, sure, she volunteers for various worthy causes and is active in the local Garden Club, but none of it is terribly enjoyable any more. But one day, asked if there was ever anything she had truly wanted to do, she admits that she’s always had a secret desire to be a spy.

Then it hits her: why not? Why couldn’t she be a spy? So she packs a bag and travels down to Langley, Virginia, and presents herself to the CIA as a volunteer. No one there is entirely sure what to do about it–after all, who volunteers for a job as a spy? But the unorthodox head of the most unorthodox department takes one look at her and realizes that she’s exactly what he needs.

The assignment is simple: Travel to Mexico and play tourist, and on a certain day go into a certain bookshop to pick up a package of some sort. So simple, in fact, that it quickly goes very, very wrong.

I want to be Mrs Pollifax when I grow up. She’s amazing–elderly and inexperienced, she takes on trained spies, double agents, and evil men–and wins, on her terms, and makes the unlikeliest of friends along the way.

An enjoyable romp through Mexico and [spoiler redacted], the Unexpected Mrs Pollifax is an engaging spy novel that reminds us all that maybe, just maybe, our childhood dreams aren’t as impossible as we think.

Favorite Line:

I don’t know what country you work for, General Perdido, but your taxpayers would certainly have every right to be furious if they knew.

Don’t read if: you have anything against flowered hats, sinister shopkeepers with gold teeth, talking parrots, or goats.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

For my first review here (no pressure!) I’m looking at the book that, in many ways, started it all. I’d read about a book in another book, and it sounded interesting, so I went to the local library to see if they had it. They did, and the rest, as they say, is history…

The Phantom Tollbooth is a book about Milo, a boy with plenty of time. He comes home from school every day to a room filled with every toy imaginable and is far too bored to play with any of them. One day, though, he comes home to find a very large package addressed to him, and (having nothing better to do) opens it. It’s…a tollbooth. A purple, undersized tollbooth, to be sure–but it’s very definitely a tollbooth. A bit bemused, but still feeling like he has nothing better to do, he hops into his toy car, drops some change in the booth, and finds himself–

Somewhere else. It’s an entirely unfamiliar world, but he soon acquires two companions to help him on his way–a faithful watchdog named Tock (who goes ticktickticktick) and a slightly unpleasant, rather unhappy fellow named the Humbug. Tasked with rescuing two lost Princesses and saving the land from encroaching doom, they travel throughout the Kingdom of Wisdom, and meet strange people (Officer Shrift,  Dr Kakofonous A. Discord, and the Everpresent Wordsnatcher) and see even stranger places (Dictionopolis, the Island of Conclusions. and the Forest of Sight), along the way.

This book is fantastic. It’s one huge metaphor taken very, very literally, and it’s full of clever–well, I hesitate to call them puns, because they go so far beyond a simple surface play on words, but that’s the best I can manage.

I loved it as a kid; I thought it was a great adventure story. I love it even more now that I actually get all the references and little asides. For any kid who finds chapter books a little too easy, and for anyone beyond–hop in Milo’s little car and join in on the adventure.

Favorite Line:

Being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it’s a matter of not knowing where you aren’t–and I know perfectly well where I’m not.

Don’t read if: you don’t like fun, or adventures, or literal interpretations of abstract concepts.