The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The first book in a trilogy, this fantasy is dark and marvelously filled with monsters. Rye has grown up in the worst part of Village Drowning. Her mother owns a shop in the market section of town where Rye helps out. Together with her two best friends, Rye begins to piece together the story of her family and her father. It all has to do with the monstrous Bog Noblins, creatures that are considered extinct but that Rye is convinced have returned to the village. The problem is that the only people who can defend the village against the monsters are the illegal Luck Uglies, a troupe of villains who had been driven from the village and are considered just as evil as the monsters. But all is not what it seems in Village Drowning as Rye is soon to discover.
Durham has crafted a fabulous fantasy for middle-grade readers. The book is filled with moments of real fear and true danger, making it ideal for that age. It also has plenty of humor along the way, usually involving Rye’s friends and family, allowing a lightness in the novel that is very appealing in such a dark novel. Durham has created a world in this book that is unique and fascinating but also pays homage to more traditional tales. This book slips neatly into European tales of monsters and goblins, yet still manages to be telling its own story.
Rye is a wonderful heroine. She is bright and inquisitive and immensely brave particularly when someone she loves is in danger. At the same time she is fully human, frightened at times, holding on tight to her own viewpoint, and learning to trust too. She is certainly not without flaws, but she is immensely likeable and exactly the person you want when the Bog Noblins return.
Dark, dangerous and delightful, this book is a strong new fantasy series for middle-grade readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
The Thickety by J. A. White
Kara saw her mother killed for being a witch when she was just six years old. Ever since then, she and her sickly little brother have been treated horribly by the village they live near. Her father played a role in accusing her mother of witchcraft, and now he cannot function well at all, spending his days writing the same thing over and over again in a notebook. So Kara at age 12 takes care of her brother and tries to keep their small farm functioning and her family fed. The entire village lives in fear of the Thickety, a deep woods nearby. So when a strange crow leads Kara deep into the woods right to the heart of the Thickety, she almost doesn’t follow. There she discovers a book of spells that seems to promise great power, a book that will mark Kara as a witch in everyone’s eyes. What is a witch’s daughter to do?
White creates a book that is just as dark and tangled as the Thickety itself. Her writing is a treat to read, focused on creating characters that are complicated in their motivations in a world that is lush and vivid. She doesn’t shirk away from truly frightening scenes in the book, including the opening scene of the mother’s death and Kara being accused as a small child of witchcraft. That scene alone warns you of the horrors to come, horrors that are scary in a deep, dark way but ones that are also appropriate for the middle grade readers.
Kara is a strong heroine. She is an outsider from a young age, shunned by her peers, beloved by her younger brother. Even the adults in the community have abandoned their family, leaving them to fend for themselves. Speaking of the community, it is another strength in this novel, a tight-knit and fanatical community on an isolated island that shuns magic. White manages to stay away from any sort of Salem-type setting while still maintaining clear links to that puritanical rage.
Well written with a strong protagonist and impressive world building, this dark fantasy is ideal for middle grade readers. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Feral Child by Che Golden
Maddy’s parents died recently, so she is sent to Ireland to live with her grandparents. She misses London and her friends dreadfully and doesn’t like her cousins or the town of Blarney. Though she has been told not to enter the grounds of the castle in town, she does anyway one evening because she is so angry and just doesn’t care. She stays longer than she means to when her grandparent’s dog George runs off. It is then that she meets a strange boy. That same boy returns to her house later, tapping at the window and asking Maddy to join him, but she refuses to go to the window at all, because she has realized that he is not what he seems to be. When the boy goes to her neighbor and steals their little boy from out of his bedroom window, Maddy sees it all. But with a changeling in the little boy’s place, no one even knows he is actually missing. It is up to Maddy, her cousins, and George the dog to save him, because no one else can. They must enter the faerie realm to do so and face incredible dangers on their quest.
Golden manages to not actually modernize the faeries and their world, which is quite refreshing. Instead what you have in this middle-grade novel is a modern girl thrust into the strange and timeless world of the faeries. She takes the most menacing and amazing parts of folklore and brings them fully to life, creating a dazzling array of faeries and beasts as the children travel. The dangers are brutally displayed and there are times when death is so close, readers will be amazing that the characters survive.
Maddy is not a particularly likeable character at first in the novel, nor are her cousins. Maddy is the main protagonist and undergoes a believable transformation into heroine as the novel goes on. The same can be said for one of her cousins who comes out of her shell and into her own. The other cousin, the bully, has too easy a transformation and it happens a bit to early in the book as well. But that is a quibble in an impressive faerie tale.
Faeries, Ireland and an amazing quest all come together to create a book that is frightening, riveting and a rip-roaring read. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Quercus.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death, she can’t believe it since she is certain he is innocent. But this is what happens when someone tries to stand up to the company that owns the entire town. It’s also the company that owns Judge Biggs. The only way that Margaret can see to save her father is to change Judge Biggs’ mind. According to Grandpa Josh, her best friend’s grandfather, Judge Biggs used to be a good person until his father was accused of murder and hung himself. The only person who can change the course of time is Margaret who has to use her family’s forbidden power of time travel. But history resists change and Margaret only has a few days before history rejects her to make the necessary changes to save her father.
De los Santos and Teague have written a book that takes on time travel in a very refreshing way. The idea that history actively resists change and that there is a physical toll on the time travelers makes for frustrating time travel. Yet it feels right and also creates tension in the story at just the right moment. The authors also explore company towns and how workers tried to stand up to unfair business practices. Here there is plenty of action in that fight, including murder and gunfire as well as quiet desperation.
Margaret is a winning character, one who travels in time very reluctantly but is given little choice when she is the sole person who has a chance of saving her father. The story dives into complexity, never making things easy or simple. One aspect of this is the way that redemption is viewed. Characters are seen as changeable, able to be rescued from what happened to them even in their elder years. This book is about getting chances to make the right choice in the end, forgiveness for poor choices earlier, and friendships that stand through time and betrayal.
A rich and vibrant look at time travel, this fantasy will also appeal to history buffs. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
Marni lives with her Gramps on the edge of the woods where they grow flowers that the wealthy lords and ladies from the castle come to buy. The woods is not just a normal woods, it is filled with small creatures and a lady who has sung and knitted with Marni since she was a child. Marni doesn’t speak with the creatures of the forest anymore, but she had spent many hours as a child with them. Marni is not just any peasant girl, she is the daughter of the sister of the king, and her Gramps was once king himself. The current king, her uncle, killed her mother and now may be turning his attentions to Marni. After all she is not just human, she is half dragon, and her dragon father is expanding his woods to find her.
A large part of the delight of this book is uncovering secrets along the way. Hahn plays with this in her many-layered story, slowly revealing things that the reader may have guessed at. Startling readers with revelations at other times, ones that make perfect sense and click into the story with a neat precision. Told in a series of parts, the book takes place in three distinct locales. There is the hut that Marni lives in with Gramps and their odd but also stable life together. There is the king’s court where Marni is not only out of place but also targeted and unsafe. Finally, there is the world of the dragon, the lure of the woods and its dangerous beauty.
At the heart of all of this is Marni, also called Tulip, who finds herself a princess raised as a pauper. She is separate from the royal court but not entirely, still connected through her flowers and through her mother and the violent act that killed her. She is a girl who is strong enough to deny the fairies in the woods what they want, smart enough to survive at court without understanding the politics, and determined enough to find her father when she needs to. She is one of those heroines who is vulnerable and real but also startling and incredible.
Complex and rich, this debut novel gives us a new voice in high fantasy for teens. One who is definitely worth exploring and reading. Get this into the hands of fans of Seraphina. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HMH Books for Young Readers.
The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove
Released June 12, 2014.
The first book in a new fantasy trilogy by a debut author, this novel features incredible world-building and an amazing young heroine. The world changed when the Great Disruption happened in 1799. When the Disruption occurred different points of time were merged together into a single world. Now almost 100 years after the Disruption, Sophia lives in Boston which is part of New Occident. She lives with her uncle after her parents disappeared while exploring other eras when she was a child. Her uncle is one of the best map makers and map readers in the world, a skill that become necessary when the world changed. But then her uncle is kidnapped and their home ransacked. Sophia finds herself journeying to Nochtland with a boy she just met following a clue her uncle left her before he was taken. Her journey will lead her to different times and different places in the company of many different characters. Little does she know, but it’s a journey to save the world.
Grove’s novel brims with details about this new world she has envisioned. The world is a unique one, unlike anything I have ever read before. It’s a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction and adventure. The addition of the different eras in time makes for a book that is surprising and great fun to read. It also offers all sorts of new and varied adventures for the subsequent books in the trilogy.
I must admit to not being a huge fan of books with lots of traveling and quests, but Grove maintains the brisk pace of the novel throughout and the travel is an important part of the story itself. Grove brings her world fully to life, making sure to fill it with characters that readers will embrace and enjoy spending time with. Sophia is a girl with lots of brains and plenty of bravery, but one who has been sheltered much of her life. My favorite character though is the villain of the story, Blanca, who steals memories from people using sand. She is incredibly creepy and frightening, yet has her own motivation and goals beyond just stealing memories.
Get this into the hands of fans of complex fantasy like The Golden Compass, they will find a whole new world to love here. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illustrated by Terry Denton
This sequel to The 13-Story Treehouse tells the story of each of the main characters and how they all met. Most of it’s even true! But it’s not that straight forward either because emergencies keep happening, like the sharks in the treehouse’s shark pool eating Terry’s underpants and getting very sick. Thank goodness that Jill can come over and try to have them feeling snappy again soon. Then of course no story is complete without a villain and Captain Woodenhead, the evil pirate makes a great one. Set aside your disbelief heading in, because this rollicking and very funny book will have you believing in plenty of nonsense by the end!
After the first book, I knew there would be more adventures of Terry and Andy, but I hadn’t expected double the number of floors on the treehouse! This book is more of the merry adventures of Terry, Andy and Jill. The flying cats return and many other favorites from the first book make an appearance, but this is a fresh story too, perfect for fans to get even more of the humor and silliness of the series.
Looking for a new series for Wimpy Kid fans, this one has illustrations that break up the text, a similar amount of funniness, and plenty of gross outs too. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel & Friends.
The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell
King Neptune’s 50 daughters are all special and talented in their own ways. All except for Minnow who tries to be like her sisters, but only manages to ask lots and lots of questions about things. Minnow did not fit in with her sisters at all, often drifting alone on her own. Then one day, she found a remarkable object in the water, a red shoe. She tried asking her sisters what it was for, but none of them knew, so Minnow headed out to answer her own questions and find out what the red object was for. Minnow swam closer and closer to shore, discovering answers to some of her other questions like why crabs don’t have fins. Then she found out exactly what shoes were for and headed home to tell the others. In the end, Minnow not only discovers the answers she is looking for, but she discovers exactly what her special talent is too.
Campbell, author of the uproarious Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters, returns with a quieter book that shows the same sort of depth as the first. This book beautifully wrestles with deep questions about one’s purpose in life and how to remain true to oneself rather than give in to external pressure. Disney’s The Little Mermaid comes to mind throughout the story, but in the end this is a unique mermaid story that holds up well against the Disney version.
The illustrations are rather haunting. They pair the darkness of the deep water with a near glowing brightness of the mermaids. The mermaids have drifting white-blonde hair that moves with the currents, fish tails that look like real fish, and small seashells to cover their chests.
Beautiful, quiet and deep like the ocean, this book will find readers in Little Mermaid fans who may just have found a new favorite mermaid to adore. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Kids Can Press.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
A book sure to create some shivers, this is a thrilling gothic horror book for children. Molly and Kip are two Irish children abandoned by their parents as their family fled to England due to the Great Irish Potato Famine. No one will hire Molly as a servant until a man hires them to work for his family at their isolated and decrepit mansion. It quickly becomes apparent that things are not what they seem in this family. Molly finds a painting done of the family a year earlier, and they have changed considerably with their hair turning black and dull to their skin losing all color. Perhaps it has something to do with the locked green door in the house, a door that Molly yearns to find out what is behind. But opening that door unleashes a terrible force, one that answers your wants but destroys you in the process. How can two children stand up to a centuries old curse?
Auxier’s storytelling skill is incredible. He weaves a world of darkness, creeping misery and despair so cleverly that readers will feel the chill on their skin before it reaches their thoughts. The children are steadily drawn into the strangeness surrounding the house and family, succumbing to the temptation of safety, the illusion of a home, and not seeing the proof around them of what is happening. For the reader, this is a book that steadily builds and builds as the tension mounts and the nights get more frightening. It is a wonderfully creepy read, one that simply can’t be put down.
The themes of the book are beautifully crafted. The book speaks to the importance of love and family, but even more so it is about what happens when greed becomes consuming, literally. It also is about the power of storytelling and stories, the way that they can teach, terrify and soothe. And finally about the terror when a story comes to life right in front of you.
An extraordinary horror novel for children, this book will be enjoyed by young readers but maybe not right before bed. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Astri lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and younger sister until she is sold to the cruel goat farmer. He takes her to his home, refuses to ever let her bathe, has her do drudge work, and doesn’t let her ever return to see her sister. Then Astri discovers another girl kept locked in a storage shed, who spins wool into yarn all day long. Astri escapes the goat farmer, taking his book of spells and his troll treasure. She heads off with the other girl to find her younger sister and then all three flee, heading to find their father in America. But it is a long trip to get to the sea and an even longer trip from Norway to America. Along the way, the goatman continues to pursue them, they meet both friendly faces and cruel, and the story dances along the well-traveled roads of folk tales. Astri slowly pieces together her own story and then resolutely builds herself a new one with her sister by her side.
An incredible weaving of the gold of folktales with the wool of everyday life, this book is completely riveting. Preus has created a story where there are complicated villains, where dreams are folktales and folktales build dreams, where girls have power and courage, and where both evil and kindness come in many forms. It is a book that is worth lingering over, a place worth staying in from awhile, and a book that you never want to end.
Astri is a superb character. Armed with no education but plenty of guts and decisiveness, she fights back against those who would keep her down and separate her from her sister. As the story progresses and she escapes, she becomes all the more daring and free spirited. Her transformation is both breathtaking and honest. One roots for Astri throughout the story, fights alongside her and like Astri wills things to happen.
A wondrously successful and magical story that is interwoven with folktales, this book is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.