Last Day on Mars

by Kevin Emerson
First sentence: “Many hundreds of light-years from the solar system you call home, inside a spindly crystal structure floating at the edge of a great nebula shaped like an eye, a yellow light began to blink.”
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Content: There are some intense life-threatening situations and several deaths. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Imagine this: in the distant future, the sun starts to expand, eventually getting so big that it makes living on earth impossible. Thankfully, humans have had a bit of time to prepare, so they decamp to Mars, where they find a planet in a distant solar system that should support life, and work to create a terraforming system. But, now, the sun’s expansion has sped up, and Red Line — the deadline to leaving — has arrived.

I’m going to interject here that I was a bit suspect about this one. It starts with aliens, and it leaves a lot explained at first, but trust me: stick with this one. I read it in one sitting, once I got into it, and it was an incredibly intense experience. I could NOT put this one down.

It nominally follows Liam  and Phoebe the kids (not siblings) of the last scientists left on Mars. They’re on the terraforming team, and want to get a couple last experiments in before Red Line. Except what starts out as boring gets really interesting really fast when things start going wrong. And after Liam and Phoebe discover proof of alien life.  It’s up to them — for some very intense but plausible reasons — to get off the planet and to join the spaceship headed for the new planet. But things don’t go as planned.

This is a first in a series, and I’m totally on board with Liam and Phoebe and their adventures. So very good.

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Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo

by Stephen Bramucci
First sentence: ”
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Disclaimer: I spent a day taking Steve around to school visits. He’s definitely the coolest guy you’ve never heard of.
Content: There’s a bit of violence, and a couple of intense moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ronald Zupan’s parents are these huge adventurers, traveling the world looking for ancient artifacts. But, they made one promise: they will always be home for Ronald’s birthday. So, when he woke up on his 11th birthday, and they weren’t there, he immediately knew something was wrong. He ropes his trusty butler, Jeeves (real name: Thomas) and his pet King Cobra, Carter,  and his fencing nemisis Julianne Sato into an adventure to find his missing parents. Who just happen to have been kidnapped by pirates. In Borneo.

Yes, this book is just as silly as it sounds. But that’s the point. Ronald is delightfully dense (Jeeves/Thomas has corrections at the end of every chapter), and Julianne ends up being the brains of the operation, while Jeeves is the, well, worry wart. And yet, they figure out how to work as a team by the end of the book, in spite of everything that’s against them. It’s a fun adventure story as well: Ronald and the gang goes all sorts of places, and there’s all sorts of little tidbits  throughout the book. (Plus the illustrations are perfect for the book!)

Definitely a lot of fun, and perfect for those reluctant readers looking for a good book to dive into!

Ribsy

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Henry Huggins’s dog Ribsy was a plain ordinary city dog, the kind of dog that strangers usually called Mutt or Pooch.”
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Content: It’s pretty simple writing, so it’d be good for the younger kids. It’s in the classic middle reader section at the bookstore.

I didn’t realize, when I picked the books for my summer book group, that Ribsy was kind of a sequel to Henry Huggins. I don’t think you need to read that one first, but it helps to know how Ribsy came to be with Henry before starting this one. Because Ribsy, for better or worse, isn’t a dog that sits still and waits. And so, when he gets left in the car in the parking lot of a shopping center (first of: different times, because NO ONE would think of doing this now…),  he doesn’t sit still. He gets out of the car (by accidentally rolling down the window) and then he’s off looking for Henry. Of course he gets lost, and ends up in the wrong car, and is off on an adventure, trying to find Henry again.

It’s an adventure, and Ribsy meets quite a few characters before Henry is able to track him down and bring him home. It’s very much a dog book (so if you don’t like dogs…) and not a bad one at that. I think this one stands up to time better than Henry Huggins did. Definitely enjoyable!

One Trick Pony

onetrickponyby Nathan Hale
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Release date: March 14, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some scary bits, but it’s pretty tame overall. It will be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Aliens have invaded, and their primary goal is not to destroy the humans but to gather the technology. Everything and anything that can be considered tech — from forks and knives to guns to computers and robots — is gobbled up by the aliens, whom the humans have taken to calling Pipers.

On the outskirts of one of the “hot zones” (places where there is lots of piper activity) there’s a mobile community — the Caravan — of people whose main goal is to keep the tech — and thereby “civilization” — alive. Then one day, a few kids from the Caravan uncover a robot pony in the middle of the hot zone. Suddenly pipers are after them, and it ends in a confrontation that will either result in the loss of humanity or its salvation.

It’s an intriguing story, and I loved the way Hale told it. So very good.

The Matchstick Castle

matchstickby Keif Graff
First sentence: “It was supposed to be the perfect summer.”
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Content: It’s a whole lot of silly, and there are some big words, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd grader and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Brian has a good life in Boston. Friends, his family (consisting of Dad and two older brothers), soccer. Then this summer comes along and his dad gets an opportunity to go to Antarctica to look through this awesome telescope (which probably had something to do with his job, but I was never quite sure), and takes it. Brian’s older brothers can either stay with friends or are old enough to stay home alone, but Brian is farmed out to his Uncle and Aunt’s house… in Boring, Illinois. (At least it’s not Ohio or Kansas).

Brian and his cousin Nora are in for the most Boring of Boring summers: Uncle Gary is developing educational software and needs beta testers. He’s obsessively strict about it: “school” starts at 8:45 and goes until 4, and the kids aren’t allowed to leave the yard. (UGH.) But Brian breaks the rules and goes exploring in the woods and finds… this awesomely weird and crazy house with an awesomely weird and crazy kid, Cosmo, with his awesomely weird and crzy family He drags Nora into it (after there’s some grounding and a lot of lying on the part of the kids), and they end up having a couple of Adventures as they search for Cosmo’s missing uncle (turns out he was in the house) and fight against Boring’s Bureaucracy that wants to knock the house — the titular Matchstick Castle — down.

I liked that it was just weird and crazy and not Magical; everything unusual that happened had a rational, realistic explanation while still seeming fantastical.  It did have an old-fashioned feel (it’s interesting to see how authors get around the Modern Dilemma of hovering parents and technology; in fact, one of my favorite bits was the weird and crazy family interacting with computers, which they have avoided for lo these many years) to it, which was fun.

But, I wasn’t super wowed by it either. Uncle Gary was such a caricature of overbearing parents that it was silly. And, aside from Nora, there wasn’t any girls in it at all. (Well, Cosmo’s mom does make an appearance, and Nora does have a mom who kind of hovers in the background). And, honestly, Nora doesn’t do all that much, either. Which was disappointing.

It was fun enough, though, even if it wasn’t brilliant.

The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes

adventurersguideby Wade Albert White
First sentence: “At Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children, every orphan is treated with the same amount of disdain and neglect.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 13, 2016
Full disclosure: I had dinner with the author at Children’s Institute, and think he’s delightful.
Review copy provided by the publisher. I met the author at Children’s Institute 4
Content: There’s some biggish words, and a wee bit of violence, and maybe some of the humor will go over the heads of the younger kids, but mostly it’s just fine for the middle grade (3-5th) grade set, which is where the book is located at the store.

Anne has spent her whole life at Saint Lupin’s Institute, working and wishing she knew where she came from. She has a plan: when she gets to leave when she turns 13 (everyone is kicked out because the Hierarchy stops supporting them), she’s going to go adventuring and looking for her past. However, when her birthday comes, the Matron denies Anne the right to leave. That starts a chain of events that leads Anne to accidentally stealing a gauntlet (a metal hand thingy) and a prophecy medallion, that starts a Rightful Heir Quest (an unheard of Level 13!), which gives Anne and her friends Penelope and Hiro, four days which to fulfill. It’s not an easy thing: solving riddles, finding weird robots, traveling by fireball, but someone’s got to do it. And maybe save the world (and pass Questing 101) while they’re at it.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. It’s got the same sort of off-beat humor, full of puns and plain silliness. It’s different though; the world that Anne is on is one that isn’t fully fleshed out. It feels like an old-fashioned fantasy, but there’s robots and computer screens and elevators… and mention of an Old World. Is it scifi or dystopian?  I wasn’t sure. (Actually, I do have a working theory of the world, but I’m going to keep it to myself, until I figure out whether I’m right or not.) But, in spite of those questions, I enjoyed this one thoroughly. It was fun, it was funny, it was clever, and it was pretty much exactly what I wanted out of a middle grade fantasy.

I’ll definitely be picking up the next one when it comes out.

The Dungeoneers

bdungeoneersy John David Anderson
First sentence: “Colm Candorly had nine fingers and eight sisters.”
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Content: There’s some violence and it’s a little thick and somewhat intimidating for reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Colm is the son of a cobbler in a small town in this world. They’re struggling for money (9 kids is no walk in the park) and one day, Colm decides that he’s going to help out. He heads to the town square and proceeds to pickpocket those who look like they could afford it. His father is (rightly) appalled, and heads out to talk to the magistrate. Instead, he brings back Finn Argos, a rogue and a teacher at the training school for Thwodin’s Legions, a band of dungeoneers — those who raid the hoards of elves, dwarves, and orcs for treasure.

I really, really , really wanted to like this one. It’s essentially a Dungeons & Dragon’s adventure in novel form. In Colm’s little group where he’s the rogue, there’s a mage, a druid, and a barbarian (she’s pretty awesome) and together they work to become awesome. There’s another group that bullys Colm’s, and there’s predictable ups and downs at school. I ended up skimming the last third, because I just got bored with it. It wasn’t doing anything new and the characters weren’t enough to keep my interest. Which was disappointing.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)