Review: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

September 10, 2013 / 5 Comments / Review, Uncategorized

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt (website)

Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno 

Source: eARC from publisher on NetGalley
Publication date: September 10th 2013 (today!)
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads synopsis:
Max Starling’s theatrical father likes to say that at twelve a boy is independent. He also likes to boast (about his acting skills, his wife’s acting skills, a fortune only his family knows is metaphorical), but more than anything he likes to have adventures. Max Starling’s equally theatrical mother is not a boaster but she enjoys a good adventure as much as her husband. When these two disappear, what can sort-of-theatrical Max and his not-at-all theatrical grandmother do? They have to wait to find out something, anything, and to worry, and, in Max’s case, to figure out how to earn a living at the same time as he maintains his independence. This is the first of three books, all featuring the mysterious Mister Max.


If you grew up in the eighties and nineties, you probably came across a Cynthia Voigt book or five in your school library. I even remember having Homecoming read to me in sixth grade – a book about the astonishing Tillerman family, four kids (the oldest one was just eleven), who, after being abandoned in a parking lot, have to figure out a way to stay together and fend for themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. 

At the time, I was amazed by how Voigt could make such a crazy situation so rational and real. The sequels to Homecoming, especially Dicey’s Song (which won the Newbery Medal), were brilliant in how they took such a crazy experience as a jumping off point for how people function and react in crises.

The Book of Lost Things is similar in that Max is thrown into just as implausible a situation and left to fend for himself. Max is a twelve year old from a theatrical family at the turn of the century. His parents, William and Mary Starling, own a theatre company in an unnamed town in England. They’re what you expect of a theatrical family – dramatic about everything – and Max has spent his entire childhood watching and learning from them, helping out in the theatre, and living out some fun, crazy adventures.

When William and Mary get a mysterious letter inviting them to India, they quickly decide to close their theatre and take Max to learn something new. But disaster strikes, the Starlings leave without Max, and their parting becomes sinister. Max must learn to deal with their absence, follow the clues left to him to try to find them, while learning to be independent.

The Book of Lost Things feels somewhat similar to an Encyclopedia Brown book, in that Max becomes a sort of detective in order to survive. But it’s also structured with short chapters that are called “acts” within the individual mysteries. And between that, you have the overarching mystery of Max’s parents and Max himself trying to learn how to be. The structure is pretty great, and adds a lot to the book.

There is a cast of characters wide and hilarious. There’s the brilliant, if a little too bossy Grammie, Max’s grandmother, the pastry shop protege with a wonderful knack for baking and a broken heart, the local “richest woman on earth” who secretly has a decent heart, the frazzled, single-minded painter…the list goes on. While I enjoyed these characters, they did feel a touch one-dimensional to me – characters that served a purpose to get the hero on his way.

That said, it’s hard to argue with the way that Voigt wrote this middle-grade historical, because this is a book about Max, and to be in the headspace of Max is quite a delight. Voigt’s writing is precise, deftly and magically guiding you through Max’s very realistic thoughts and feelings while adding excitement and fun to his adventures in learning to be independent.

Reading Mister Max now, almost two decades after I first picked up Voigt’s Dicey books things really stood out to me as Voigt characteristics: 1) quirky, smart-ass grandmothers are totally her thing 2) she loves to create young people who are fiercely independent 3) she is fascinated by family – both blood relations and the family that you create around you.

While Mister Max is a mystery (with mysteries within mysteries), at it’s heart, it’s a book about the tension between independence and being part of a family. Even though Max desperately wants to be able to fix things and find his parents alone, as the story progresses, he slowly acquires more and more people who who like him and want to help him on his way. These people form a sort of family unit around him, teaching him that independence without people is just loneliness, and that even the most self-sufficient person needs a favour once in awhile. 


From the beginning of the book – (c) Iacopo Bruno
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: I haven’t seen the final illustrations on everything yet, but I suspect that the hardcover version of this book is worth owning. The drawings that I’ve seen are SO much fun and really evoke the period. They kind of remind me of The Invention of Hugo Cabret!

The Final Word

If you’re a fan of Voigt’s books, you will probably be delighted with The Book of Lost Things, a book that feels to me like a cross between Homecoming and On Fortune’s Wheel, with a big daub of Encyclopedia Brown. As an adult, Mister Max’s adventures feel a touch predictable, but the charm and delight of the tale still prevail and capture the magic of finding things – and finding things out about people, and yourself.

Are you a fan of Cynthia Voigt? Will you be picking up THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS? Do you like books with mysteries? How about books about acting and art? How do you feel about books with illustrations? Sound off in the comments!

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5 responses to “Review: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

  1. I never heard the name of Cynthia Voight when I was a kid. In my country, the author that was famous when I was a kid are Enid Blyton, E Nesbith, and Roald Dahl.

    Thanks , now I found another great children books author 🙂

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