Review: Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner (9781481495561)

AJ just doesn’t feel like he fits in with his two best friends anymore. They are always daring each other to do things and have fantastic lives where they take big risks and brag about them. In contrast, AJ feels short and dull. But then he decides to take a big risk and start talking to a girl he’s had a crush on for years. He’s just not sure how to get Nia’s attention. He knows she is way into vampire novels, so he starts to read them too. Perhaps all it will take is some fake blood around the gums to get her to notice him. However, when Nia does notice AJ, she thinks he’s a real vampire and she has dedicated her life to slaying them. What none of them can see though is that there is a real vampire in their midst! Something they might figure out too late.

This graphic novel for teens and pre-teens is just right for both Twilight fans and Twilight haters. Getting it into the hands of Buffy fans would also be a great choice. Gardner wisely plays on the tropes of vampire novels, using similar character names and book titles. Throughout there is a sense that the reader is in on the broader joke of it all, something that is entirely charming.

Readers will figure out that there is a real vampire long before the characters do and Gardner then lets that play out delightfully. There is no attempt to conceal it, either through the storyline or the art work. And the art work is excellent, offering large panels in a colorful vampire-filled world. It has a cartoon feel to it that makes it approachable and then the humor completes it nicely.

A great pick for fans and haters alike, this one would make a great graphic novel to book talk to middle-schoolers and teens. Appropriate for ages 11-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini, illustrated by Dan Williams (9780525539094)

The author of The Kite Runner has created a poetic work of short fiction that speaks to the plight of refugees around the world. Written as a letter from father to son, the book reflects on the beauty of the land they are leaving. The loveliness of life in Homs, Syria shows the vibrant world that was destroyed by bombs and war. As their lives crumble along with the buildings, they are forced to flee. The letter is written just as father and son enter the boat that will hopefully carry them to a new life in a safe country.

Hosseini was inspired to write this heart-wrenching piece by the death of the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was found on a Turkish beach. Throughout the short fiction, there is a sense of loss and grief, of a land lost and a future abandoned. Yet there is also a slim thread of hope, a hope that compels them aboard a small boat and out onto the sea.

The illustrations help make this a more approachable book for younger readers who will find themselves drawn to the emotions of the text and the desperation on its pages. Williams uses sweeping colors to convey both the beauty of Syria but also the dark haunting nature of war and being torn from your country.

A devastating piece of fiction appropriate for ages 8 and up.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen (9780735262751)

Felix loves trivia and his gerbil who is named after a famous Canadian game show host. He lives with his mother Astrid, who struggles to keep jobs and tends to tell lies whenever she wants. Living in Vancouver is expensive, so when Astrid loses her job and then offends the person who takes them in, Felix finds himself living in a camper van. It’s only temporary, so Felix starts school and doesn’t explain to anyone where he is living. Astrid uses her ability to stretch the truth convincingly to get him a place in the school he wants and to get them a mailing address. Still, living in a van is not any fun after awhile and as Felix makes new friends, he finds it hard to keep lying to them. But there is a way out, if Felix can win the junior version of a national game show, he might just have enough money to get them back on their feet and into a home.

Nielsen tells a story about the power of hope, the importance of friendship and the creation of a community of people who care. It is also the story of a mother who is struggling with depression and an inability to keep a job. Astrid is a great character, a mother who manages to continue to be sympathetic but also disastrous. She is complicated just like their story of homelessness is. This is not a flat look at homelessness but instead an in-depth exploration of how it happens, the trap of being in it, and the long climb back out.

Felix too is a wonderful character. He is bright, funny and written as a twelve-year-old boy. That means that his sense of humor is a little naughty and his sense of integrity and honor is strong. His voice resonates as that of a child his age, not reaching up to be a teen yet. The friends he makes are also depicted well, from his old childhood friend with the warm and messy home to the girl he likes, maybe, and her straight-talking hard-hitting journalism approach.

A nuanced and skilled look at homelessness with great characters to discover along the journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Tundra Books.

 

Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older (9781338268812)

Magdalys Roca lives at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York during the year 1863. It is a different world than the one we know, with dinosaurs still roaming the earth. While on a field trip to see a theater performance, riots break out in New York City. Magdalys and her fellow orphans are caught in the situation. As she helps her fellow orphans survive, Magdalys discovers that she has a strange ability to communicate with the dinosaurs around her. Discovering that the orphanage has been destroyed in the riots, Magdalys and several other orphans are taken in by New York freedom fighters in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where people of color have created a place of safety. Magdalys and her friends are soon involved in saving the other children from being taken into slavery.

Based loosely on real history, this novel has just enough historical reality to keep it grounded. Add in the dinosaurs and you have a wonderful novel of alternative history that will keep children enthralled. The pace is fast and becomes almost wild during fight and battle scenes. The children face real horrors of slavery, including a lynching, mobs of people intent of capturing or killing them, and a network of men working to send free people into bondage. The setting of a historical New York City is deftly woven into the story line as well.

It’s not often that you have children’s fantasy books that offer alternative takes on history. It is even more rare that those books have children of color as the main characters in the novel. Magdalys is a great heroine, full of bravery and a sense of purpose as she joins those trying to change the world. She is a natural leader though she views herself as a loner, something that others won’t allow her to be.

A rip-roaring read that will have children longing for a dactyl to ride. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier (9780735264359)

Released September 25, 2018.

Nan Sparrow is one of the only girls working in London as a chimney sweep and she’s one of the best that ever climbed a chimney. She works for a brute of a master who pits her against the other top sweep, dangling an apprenticeship in front of them both. The work they do is dangerous with possible falls, and tight spaces where children can get trapped. Even skilled Nan can get stuck and one day that happens to her and the chimney is set ablaze. As she burns alive, Nan is rescued by a mysterious creature, a tiny char she has been carrying in her pocket that was left behind for her by the Sweep, a magical man who cared for her as a baby and child until he disappeared. Nan and her creature live together away from everyone since they all think she died in the fire. They build a family with one another until the time comes for Nan to stand up for chimney sweeps throughout London.

My goodness, this book is remarkable. I loved the London that Auxier has created for us with all of its Victorian charms. He peels away the charming veneer though and shows us the brutality of child labor, the dangers and the cruelty of chimney sweeping in particular. He blends his fantastic golem into this world, adding a fantasy element to a world that desperately needs some magic to brighten it. Without Charlie, the golem, this book would have been too hard and cold to bear. The same goes for the Sweep, who filled Nan’s early years with care and love.

Nan is a remarkable heroine who is witty, intelligent and caring. She has a wonderfully tough exterior that allows only a few people inside her real life. And yet, she gathers an amazing group of people who care for her and she for them. Throughout the book, Auxier warns readers that Charlie will be leaving eventually and readers will see him start to change through the story. Still, even with that warning, expect the heartbreak of the end of Charlotte’s Web as you read the final chapters. Have tissues at hand.

A new children’s classic that reveals the dark underworld of London and the incredible magic of making your own family, monsters and all. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Puffin Books.

 

Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (9780763698225)

Released September 25, 2018.

The goblins and elves have found peace after a long war. Brangwain Spurge, an elf who studies goblin history, is catapulted into the goblin kingdom to deliver a gift to the strange being who rules the goblins. He is hosted there by Werfel, a goblin who studies elven history. Werfel is delighted to host Spurge, but that soon changes as Spurge is cantankerous, judgmental and hates everything goblin. He even detests an elven feast put on in his honor. Werfel also discovers that Brangwain is actually a spy, sending messages in images back to the elves. As the political intrigue grows, readers discover that Spurge is being used by his own government to start a new war, one that the elves will have the upper hand in thanks to duping him. But never doubt the ability of Spurge to ruin a solid plan!

What a pairing of master storytellers! Anderson writes the clever text, showing Werfel’s point of view and delighting in the slapstick comedy moments, the clashing of two cultures, and the dangers of hosting a guest. Meanwhile, Yelchin tells Spurge’s side of the tale through sly images alone, depicting what Spurge is sending back to the elves. The tales of course do not match and yet the also work together to tell a more complete story of misunderstandings, biases and prejudice more fully than words ever could.

The political pieces of the tale are particularly well drawn, showing how forces at work are not really in charge but may just be playground bullies who are being bullied themselves. The focus on differences and similarities is cleverly crafted into the story with the finale strengthening the connection and leaving no doubt that change is possible.

A timely look at political intrigue and getting beyond what holds us apart with plenty of humor to make it a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)

Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?

Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.

Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.

A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Otherwood by Pete Hautman

Otherwood by Pete Hautman

Otherwood by Pete Hautman (9780763690717)

After Grandpa Zach died in the storm, pages of his book strewn around him, Stuey and his mother packed his writing up and put it all away. Grandpa Zach had told Stuey that ghosts walk on the golf course that has now become an overgrown wood. It was where Stuey’s great grandfather disappeared along with the district attorney who was prosecuting him. The two were never seen again. Now when Stuey and his best friend Elly Rose go into the deadfall of trees that seems to form a sort of castle or ship in the woods, they hear voices and music. Stuey has even seen a figure like his grandfather appear. When Elly Rose disappears one day right before Stuey’s eyes, no one believes him. But Elly Rose is gone though Stuey can occasionally still make contact with her. It seems she has entered a different reality where Stuey is the one who vanished. In this splintered new world, how can the two of them restore their own reality?

Hautman beautifully combines a mystery with a ghost story with quantum physics in this ode to a woods. The woods itself, the overgrown golf course, is as much a character here as the two children. It is a woods from all of our childhoods, one that seems far larger than it actually is, one that invites you in, scares you a bit, and releases you back into reality. Hautman cleverly uses the woods as the way that people vanish, that hatred is fought and that people take a stand.

Stuey and Elly Rose are unlikely friends which makes the book all the better. Stuey has suffered great loss in his life with only his mother left. He is surrounded by his grandfather’s home and his grandfather’s secrets. Elly Rose is imaginative, playful and a bit bossy, deciding what games they will play together. Still, they are fast friends even as their reality splits apart around them.

Smart and sophisticated, this middle grade novel is a dynamic mix of fantasy and science. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

 

Review: And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina Cai (9780062860729)

Get ready for a tale that will literally turn your perspective upside down. This is a novel that takes Moby Dick and transforms it into something new and fresh. Bathsheba is a hunter, serving her Captain and hunting men. As whales, they have their own ships, pulled by their Captain and containing the spoils of war. Whales waste nothing, unlike men. There is one man, Toby Wick, who is legendary. Having taken a man hostage, they have him lead them to Wick. But Bathsheba finds herself connecting with their prisoner and she refuses to kill him, making excuses to keep him alive with them. They continue their hunt of Wick, all heading to their destinies.

Ness draws readers immediately underwater and into the gravity-defying world of the whales. There is no chance to catch your breath and find your balance, instead you must trust in the current and follow where Ness leads you. His storytelling is that of a master, offering brevity and clarity as he builds a marvelous world below the surface of the water. There is a richness to his writing even though it is so crisp too, emotions deep and generations long playing out on the page.

Bathsheba is a compelling main character, filling the page with her doubts and questions about prophecies and destinies even as the book draws her closer and closer to her own. Throughout the book there is a feeling of a tragedy playing out before you, the homage to Moby Dick is deftly done. Readers familiar with the classic will immediately see the strong connections and still it is also a fascinating read without knowing the classic at all.

Another tremendously original and marvelous read from Ness. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by HarperTeen.