Category: Middle School

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley (9780525428442, Amazon)

Released August 29, 2017.

This second book from the author of Circus Mirandus takes readers deep into the Okefenokee Swamp. Blue has known his entire life that he is cursed. He can’t win at anything, no matter how hard he tries. His most recent loss was when his arm was broken standing up to a bully at school. Now his father, who always wins, has dropped him off for the summer at his grandmother’s house. The mystical red moon is rising this summer and Blue will have the chance to break his curse if he can reach the golden alligator before anyone else. But it’s complicated as his grandmother may need her curse broken more badly than anyone else and the entire family is there to compete for the right to head into the swamp. Meanwhile, Blue meets Tumble, a girl desperate to be a hero and who wants to save Blue from his delusion of always losing. But is it a delusion or is it ancient magic at work?

Beasley has written a wonderful second novel that tells a fascinating story of greed and sacrifice even as it speaks to the importance of losing sometimes in life. The book reads easily even as it deals with deeper issues of family, betrayal, love and heroism. It is far more complex than readers may expect as different themes weave beautifully together to form the whole tale. The ribbon of clear magic that swirls throughout the book takes it directly into fantasy even as it is firmly rooted in the real world too. It’s a winning mix.

The two main characters are fascinating. Blue struggles with his constant losing and yet never quite gives up to it. He continues to try to run faster, is willing to attempt to break the curse in different ways. He is a hero who is easily related to, taken in by extended family and looking for home. Tumble is a girl who has lived in an RV for most of her life. Her problems becoming a hero are indications that she too may have a curse she has never realized is there. Even though she fails regularly at being a hero, she too perseveres and is resilient in the face of her challenges.

A vibrant and strong story of failure and heroism. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante (9781338042962, Amazon)

When Pippa and Jack’s mother died six months ago, everything changed. Their father who had been holding everything together during the last months of her illness, suddenly disappeared into his work. Pippa hasn’t spoken since her mother died. Jack has taken on the responsibility that his father has dropped. Meanwhile, their electricity is being cut off and the children discover that their father has lost his car sales business. Their lives become more complicated as Jack is drawn into his father’s desperation for money and a dangerous scheme. Pippa suspects what is happening and is also struggling at school with her silence. It’s going to take fresh strength as a family for them to come out of this dark time.

Galante has created a multilayered novel that is complex and yet not overly long. She wisely layers in other characters who struggled with loss in their lives too, showing the various ways that people can react to grief. This allows readers to see the response of the father in the book as strange and confusing, much as it seems to Pippa and Jack. The book celebrates the power of family even as it is about one that is entirely falling apart. It is also about the love that makes people do stupid things to keep a family together just as those same decisions tear it further.

Galante tells the story from the points of view of both Pippa and Jack in alternating chapters. This is also a clever choice, showing the internal struggles of both children and allowing readers to see the pain that both of them are experiencing and yet displaying it outwardly in different ways. Throughout the book, the setting is vital and important, the lake itself becoming a reflection of emotions and a way to connect to life.

Beautifully written and intelligently crafted, this novel is a remarkable look at grief and families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker

Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker

Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker (9780425288504, Amazon)

Felix’s life changed when he was caught in an accident in his father’s lab at three years old. A fourth dimensional being named Zyx was fused inside him. Now the time is coming when Felix and Zyx have to be separated or they will both die. Felix begins a secret blog where he shares his experiences of being fused with Zyx and the days leading up to the Procedure. There are details about normal things like his family, bullies at school, and his crush on a cute boy at school. Then there are the Zyx related aspects that draw Felix to the beauty of jazz music and immensely gifted chess playing. Even as Felix hopes to be able to fix the physical manifestations and pain brought by being with Zyx, he wonders about what his life will be like without him and if they will both potentially die as they are separated.

Bunker has created an exceptional book for middle grade readers. She has seeped it full of diversity of the LGBT community. Felix himself is gay, his mother is bisexual and his grandparent is gender queer. The beauty is that this is not the focus of the novel, just background information, a matter-of-fact look at what openly queer families can be.

The real focus of the book is Felix himself, caught in a unique situation that makes him the target of bullies. He still connects with others, his crush on a boy growing with natural pacing. He speaks in a voice that is witty and rich, his writing filled with small details of his life but also with humor. There is a sense of an impending ending but also the slim possibility of a future as well that keeps this book steeped in the small wonders of life but also immensely hopeful.

A dynamic mix of LGBT, science fiction and growing up, this novel is entirely unique just like its main character. Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from ARC received from Viking Books for Young Readers.

 

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold.jpg

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (9781681194011, Amazon)

Released July 4, 2017.

This novel for middle grades combines fantasy with a touch of horror. Frank’s best friends are away for most of the summer, so she doesn’t have much to do. Her father is always sending her out of the house to play, unaware that she has been targeted by a group of boys and is being bullied. When they toss her backpack into a patch of nettles, another boy steps in. Nick has always been teased at school and doesn’t have any friends. He’s bigger than the other kids and talks almost like an adult. Frank isn’t sure she wants to be friends with Nick, but when she visits his home she hears strange music that makes her feel stronger and better. Frank snoops enough to find out Nick’s secret, one that is dangerous and puts them both at risk.

Harrold’s writing is exceptional. He writes about bullying with deep perception and understanding. The bullying scenes are intense and underscore the feeling of powerlessness combined with cruelty. Harrold also captures the way that one can think one thing in the gut in another in the head. Frank has a lot of difficult choices to make in the book, ones that put her own well-being before that of others. It’s particularly nice that Frank is not a great heroine. She manages to betray people, think of deserting them, wonder whether she should just walk away, and yet in the end is exactly the heroine that we all need to be. She is often not really likable either, and that makes the book work particularly well somehow.

Pinfold’s illustrations are swirls of darkness and shadow on the page. They menace and threaten, just like the bullies in the neighborhood. There’s an aspect of danger to all of them. They manage to be both intimate and distant, a dance of being the victim or the observer.

A novel that combines horror and fantasy into one dark summer, this book is simply amazing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Bloomsbury.

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman

The Adventures of John Blake Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman, illustrated by Fred Fordham (9781910989296, Amazon)

This is Philip Pullman’s first graphic novel and what a way to start! It is the story of the Mary Alice, a ship that is caught traveling through time. Her crew is from all over the world and from all parts of time. But they are in danger as one of the most powerful men in the modern day is searching for them because the boy on board the Mary Alice, John Blake, knows his secret and could ruin him. When an Australian girl falls off of her family’s boat, she is rescued by John and taken aboard the Mary Alice. Now she has a chance to save them in return, if she can.

Pullman’s graphic novel reads like a film script. It is full of guns, explosions, and fights that make it a wild read. Then there is the historical piece to it, something that slows the intense momentum and makes the book warmer and more vital. Add in the touch of ghostly science fiction that moves the ship through time and you have a rich mix of genres that is impossible to stop reading.

Fordham’s art is done in full color, rich and vibrant on the page. His art is clear and precise, offering children reading this book a real feel of adult graphic novels. There is no cuteness here, just a realistic science fiction ghost story that is exactly what will lead young readers to search for more graphic novels and comics to read.

Get this into the hands of children who love super hero comics and they will fall hard for John Blake and the Mary Alice. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

 

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby (9780062306937, Amazon)

This first book in a series introduces readers to an alternative New York City, filled with amazing machines built by the Morningstarr twins in the 1800’s. There are servant robots, skyscrapers, elevators that don’t just go up and down, beetle-machines that clean the roads, and many more. The Morningstarrs left behind a cipher to be solved that would lead to treasure, and even though people have worked for cipher for over fifty years, no solution has been found. Tess, Theo and Jaime live in one of the Morningstarr buildings that is unfortunately slated to be torn down. While their families scramble to find somewhere new to live, the three of them discover a potential new cipher that may lead them to the treasure and save the building they love. Now they just have to solve it.

Ruby has beautifully weaved an alternative New York City in this novel. She imagines it filled with amazing technology that has a magical element to it. It’s rather like magic-powered steampunk. She combines this with riddles and ciphers, puzzles to work out and then provides distinct villains to fight as well. The result is a book that is entirely delightful to read and impossible to put down as one new discovery immediately leads to another.

The three main characters are strongly written and offer a diverse cast. Tess keeps up and surpasses the boys at times, offering a strong feminist take on events as she does so. All of them are exceedingly bright in their own way, from being logical and sometimes robotic to looking at the world through art. There is a celebration of different intelligence types here that is great to see.

This mix of magic, technology, mysteries and ciphers is exceptional and just right for summer reading. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Walden Pond Press.

 

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (9781419724848, Amazon)

Neverfell was discovered as a child in the depths of Grandible’s cheese caverns. She had no memory of where she came from and for the next seven years spent her time solely with Grandible who insisted that if they did have a rare visitor that she cover her face. Neverfell knew she was hideous in some way, so she complied. Then one day, she discovered a way out of Grandible’s caverns and into the larger world of Caverna, a subterranean city whose wealth came from the magical items that could be produced there, like Grandible’s cheeses, perfumes that would make you irresistible and wines that could alter memory. Neverfell found herself in a world of people with faces that were taught and learned and that did not express the emotions they were feeling. Neverfell’s own face though did not do that, her expressions shifted with her feelings, something that made her unique and valuable, but also a threat.

This book was nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2013 and has finally made its way to the United States. A new book from Hardinge is always a treat with her impressive world building and immense creativity. Entering Caverna is an adventure and the details and wonders found inside are wildly inventive and amazing. There is an intense richness to the writing, one that serves to suck you deep into the caverns and not want to emerge again for a long time. Hardinge mixes so many elements here that it’s amazing that it continues to be a story that not only makes sense but is entirely riveting.

Neverfell is an incredible protagonist and unique in the story. Still it is the world building here that kept my attention throughout the book. From the dark corners of cheesemaking to the green satin of the wealthy of society, from the menace of a master thief to the dominion of those who will retain power at all costs. From the insanity of the man who will not sleep to the slavery of the drudges. It is so complicated and so incredibly well done.

A masterpiece of fantasy writing, this book is rather like the True Delicacies of the novel, something that may change your life forever. Appropriate for ages 11-15.

Reviewed from library copy.