Friday Barnes, Girl Detective

fridaybarnsby R. A. Spratt
First sentence: “Friday Barnes was not an unhappy child.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s some biggish words, and a bunch of swoony 7th-grade girls, but other than that’s it’s aimed toward the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Friday Barnes excels in going unnoticed. In fact, she prefers it that way. She prefers just sliding through school, being little noticed. She also is incredibly observant, so when her uncle (who’s a private investigator) needs some help solving a bank robbery, she helps, solving it. Which means she received the $50,000 reward money. She uses that to go to a posh boarding school, mostly because she wants a change.

What she gets is a brilliant but absent-minded roommate, some ditzy teachers, and a few mysteries to solve (she makes a tidy profit doing so, too.)

It’s not a bad book. I like that Friday is a girl, and that she uses deductive reasoning to solve cases (kind of like Sherlock Holmes, or Encyclopedia Brown). And while the mysteries were run-of-the mill, I didn’t catch the clues enough to solve it myself, so they were pretty smart. That said, the stereotypes drove me nuts. The absent-minded smart girl with the dumb jock brother. The silly 7th grade girls who swoon over a hairy mystery guy in the forest because “hairy guys are cute”. The super hot boy who’s got it out for Friday. Yeah, it’s all supposed to be funny, but it kind of just fell flat. I’d love it if authors stopped using silly stereotypes for humor.

So, in the end, while I like the idea of this one, I didn’t really like the book.

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.)


Mars Evacuees

marsevacueesby Sophia McDougall
First sentence: “When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s several mild swear words and some violence (including bullying). It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s sometime in the future, and the Earth has shared its home with an alien species, the Morrors. The problem? The Morrors are changing the nature of the earth, freezing it over, and that’s got the humans mad. So, they started waging war against the Morrors, trying to kick them out. But it’s not working, mostly because they’re invisible to the human eye.

So, the humans are resorting to evacuating a select group of kids to Mars to train for combat. Alice Dare, whose mother is a star fighter pilot in this war, is one of those kids.

At first, it seems to be like any other boarding school: there are bullies, and Alice makes some friends — another English girl named Josephine and an annoying boy named Carl and his younger brother Noel — and everything seems to be going okay. Then, one day, all the adults disappear.

Most of the school goes haywire, but Josephine and Alice (along with Carl, Noel, and their robot teacher Goldfish) decide that what they really need to do is go find the adults. What they end up finding is a whole lot of trouble.

Oh. My. Gosh. I know the summary didn’t do this justice because it was the most awesome I’ve read in a long time. It’s smart, it’s funny, there’s fantastic characters, it’s packed with adventure, it’s diverse. It kept me hooked from page one through the conclusion. (And while there’s a sequel, this one stands on its own.) It was just so. much. fun.  Seriously.

(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.)

Hunters of Chaos

huntersofchaosby Crystal Velasquez
First sentence: “My muscles burn as the thick green jungle vines speed by in a blur.”
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Content: The characters are in high school and there’s some bullying and a little bit of romance (he like likes me!) but otherwise, it’s appropriate for the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ana is an orphan (oh no!) living with her aunt and uncle, who happen to be enthusiastic scholars and collectors of Mayan artifacts. It’s their heritage, as well as Ana’s, and they’re incredibly proud of it. Even though Ana misses her parents, she’s incredibly happy. Then, the summer before high school, Ana gets a letter admitting her to to her parents’ alma matter, Temple Academy. Her aunt and uncle are a bit wary, but they send her off anyway.

At first, Ana tries to fit in with the super rich, super popular girls, which includes her roommate, Nicole. But, she soon finds out that fitting in costs way too much (both financially and morally). She ends up being friends with Doli, who’s Navajo, and Shani, who’s Egyptian. It turns out that the three of them — four with Lin, who’s Chinese, and a bit of a bully at first — are part of something bigger, something more ancient than any of them had ever expected.

It’s so hard for me not to spoil this book because it really was awesome. Not only are four of the main characters people of color (and descended from ancient civilizations which the author respects, I think) but they do some awesome things. There’s a whole scene near the end of the book that just had me cheering. There was a bit of a bullying dynamic and the love triangle-y stuff was a bit much (More adventure! More magic! Less love!), but it wasn’t enough to get me to dislike this. There’s just so much to love.

Give it to all those kids who are reading the Warrior books. They’d love it.

(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.)

The Marvels

by Brian Selznick
First sentence (which comes about 400 pages in): “Joseph was lost.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 15, 2015
Content: It’s a huge book, which will be daunting. But 2/3 of it is pictures. And the text section may be a big confusing for younger readers. There is some smoking by adults, but other than that, there’s nothing that would stop me from giving this to a precocious 9- or 10-year-old. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I don’t usually like to write about books months before they come out. But, since this is the first one I finished for the 48 hour book challenge, I figured it was okay.

I’m also going to be coy and not tell you too much about the book. I knew very little about it going in, and I think that’s the best way to experience it.

That said, I liked this one nearly as much as Hugo. It’s about the theater and family and truth in storytelling. Selznick’s art is gorgeous, as always, and even though the text section starts out a bit confusing, stick with it. It’s completely worth it at the end. Oh: and read the afterword. It makes everything that much better.

There’s really not much else to say, except: I can’t wait to share it with everyone else.

Ms. Rapscott’s Girls

by Elise Primavera
First sentence: “Attention, Busy Parents!”
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Release date: March 10, 2015
Review copy handed to me by the publisher rep.
Content: It’s a good mix of illustrations and print; while it’s out of the beginning chapter book phase, it’s a good one for reluctant readers. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ms. Rapscott likes things rough. An orphan at an early age, she figured out how to make her Way in Life. And this is a skill she wants to give to young girls. Especially young, neglected girls of Extremely Busy parents. At the start of this summer school term (though you wouldn’t know it by the weather at the lighthouse that serves as the school; it’s always storming), five girls are on their way — arriving by pre-paid post (yes, in boxes) — for Ms. Rapscott to mold. There’s angry Beatrice, lazy Mildred, timid Fay, and competent Annabelle as well. And, of course, Dalhlia, who was so tiny (and her parents so absent-minded) that she fell out of the box and went missing.

At first glance, it’s easy to call this one a modern-day Mary Poppins. Ms. Rapscott serves as a kind, but firm nanny (or boarding school mistress) who gives the girls cake and ice cream for dinner and pie for breakfast, and yet demands tidiness and hard work. There’s a slight magical element — flying boxes, for one, but also her assistants, two dogs who handle the day-to day operations. It definitely feels like one of those books. (I felt chastised, reading it as a busy parent, for not being more attentive to my kids. And I’m pretty attentive. Maybe I was just having a down day when I read this.)

But it’s more than that: Ms. Rapscott doesn’t just straighten up these unruly daughters of busy parents; she helps them learn to be parents. I’m not quite sure what kids will think of this — I need to get K to read it — but as a parent, I saw that Primavera was advocating for the need for variety in a kid’s life: too much pie is bad, but some pie is good. Too much TV and staying in PJs all day is bad, but sometimes, it’s what is needed. Adventure, exploring is good, and can be Learned From. But, mostly, being helpful, cheerful, and optimistic is the best. And, perhaps, that’s something we all need to be reminded of.

It’s a delightful little read.

The Iron Trial

by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
First sentence: “From a distance, the man struggling up the white face of the glacier might have looked like an ant crawling slowly up the side of a dinner plate.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some intense violence at the start, but nothing worse than, say, Harry Potter. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. We’ll see how the series goes; it might change.

Callum has grown up believing that magic is bad, that the mages at the Magisterium only put their interests in front of the students, that his leg which was injured as a baby and never healed right was the fault of the mages. His father — once a mage himself — has told Call this among other things. So when Call gets summoned for the Iron Trial — the selection process for the Magesterium — his father tells him to throw the entry. And, because Call is only 12 years old, he tries. And fails. He gets into the Magesterium and is exposed not only to the dreaded magic, but also the story of his past that his father never told.

I’m just going to come out and say it: it’s Harry Potter. The similarities are really numerous — a boy raised as an outsider finds out he’s magic, he has a special calling, he was at the death/disappearance of the Enemy and has a connection to him (um… bit of a spoiler, there. Sorry.), the story takes place over a school year, he has two friends (a boy and a girl), there’s a rich snob bully boy, and on and on.

Except, for all the similarities, it works. I’ve been looking for a (good) Harry Potter read-alike for years, and this one — Black and Clare are superb writers in their own right — fills the bill. The world building is solid, the magic interesting. And there’s a bit of a twist that caught me off guard. So, even though there’s solid Harry Potter similarities, it’s definitely worth reading.


by Andrew Smith
ages: 14+
First sentence: “I said a silent prayer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at ABA Winter institute for me. Yes, I have taken that long to get to it.

Ryan Dean (yes, that’s his whole first name) West has a lot going for him: he’s a junior at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for troubled rich kids (his dad’s a high-powered Boston lawyer) in the Pacific Northwest. He is first string winger (think running back in football, but more intense) for the rugby team. He’s pretty smart.

But there are some downsides: he got transferred into O-Hall this year because he was caught hacking into a cell phone account at the end of last year. And, to top it all off: hes only 14.

And when you’re in O-Hall with all the delinquent football and rugby players? It’s not going to be a stellar year.

Add to that some major girl drama (he’s in love with his best friend, Annie, but snogging his roomate’s girlfriend), late night poker games (let’s just say that Ryan Dean is not a good drunk), and lots and lots of testosterone-induced fights. Let’s just say, I was impressed that Ryan Dean — who was decent human being underneath all the 14-year-old boy nonsense — survived until Thanksgiving.

I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I can sum it up in two words: sex and rugby. Actually, the sex is all in Ryan Dean’s mind: he’s incredibly immature, and objectifies EVERY girl, and EVERY situation becomes about sex. In other words: he’s a normal 14-year-old boy. But unlike Carter’s Unfocused One-Track Mind which I couldn’t get through (and which is the best comparison to this one), I found myself endeared to Ryan Dean. Maybe it was the underdog element. Maybe it was because although he was annoying, he was almost mostly harmless. Maybe it was because he really did mean well, in the end.

Because, I found myself compelled by this. I was invested in Ryan Dean’s drama. I loved the camaraderie of the rugby team. I enjoyed Ryan Dean, dork that he was.

My only real problem was with the ending. See: Ryan Dean becomes good friends with the rugby captain, Joey, who also happens to be gay. Joey’s sexuality isn’t a big deal for Ryan Dean (though he feels the need to comment that he isn’t a lot), but it is for other guys in O-Hall. And in the last 20 pages of the book, it takes a sharp left turn and stops being a fun boarding school drama, and becomes Something More. Not that I minded something more, it was the sharp left turn that threw me. It didn’t work. I didn’t feel pain, or anguish, or anything at all at the end, because I was flabbergasted that a fun and entertaining book so suddenly became Serious. It came off as bad pacing and lack of focus rather than anything more substantial.

It didn’t ruin the book for me, but it did take some of the shine off. Which is too bad, because I was having fun with it before then.

Anna and the French Kiss

by Stephanie Perkins
ages: 14+
First sentence: “Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Copy given to me by the lovely Vasilly

So, this one has been getting a lot of hype, all of it saying how wonderful, how great, how supremely perfect this was.

M, when she finished it said, “Well, that was cheesetastic. Good cheese, but so cheesy.”

The basic story: Anna Oliphant is the daughter of a Nicholas Sparks-type author, who, not wanting to be outdone by all his Posh Hollywood Friends, ships Anna off to a Posh boarding school in Paris. (Oh noes.) She doesn’t know a lick of French, doesn’t want to leave her comfortable life in Atlanta, doesn’t want to leave her blossoming almost-relationship with Toph. But, to Paris she goes.

Where she bumps into — literally — Étienne St. Clair.

(cue dreamboat music)

What ensues is a lot of romantic push-and-pull. Anna obviously St. Clair, but she has a double problem to deal with: he’s got a girlfriend though she’s kind of out of the picture, and Anna’s friend Mer likes him as well. Then there’s the question of whether or not St. Clair likes her? Sure, they’re friends, and they hang out all the time. But does he like her?

(Because, you know, we ALL want to know that.)

That’s not to say this is a bad book: it’s predictable, sure. But I did enjoy the relationship between Anna and St. Clair, it’s heights and valleys, and it’s inevitable, swoon-worthy resolution. It’s not a simple book, and much like Maureen Johnson’s work, Perkins knows how to write a romance that deals with more even while putting the relationship front-and-center.

Update, 2018: I can see how I thought it was cheesy, but for whatever reason (time, place, etc.), I found it to have a lot more depth this time. There were themes about communication and assumptions that touched me, and a reminder that while my children are my responsibility, they are also their own people with their own dreams, and it’s not up to me to control their lives. Also: I missed the subtext that Americans really can be awful (en masse) the first time around. Still a very good book.

Not perfect, b I ut delightful.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

by E. Lockhart
ages: 12+
First sentence: “I, Frankie Landau-Banks, hereby confess that I was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.”

When I picked this book up Monday, I was totally enthralled with Frankie. Totally loved her, the narrator, the references to Wodehouse, the neglected positives. (Gruntled. Mayed. Ept. Cracked me up.) I got about halfway through (right after she discovered the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds) before life got in the way, but I thought a lot about the issues it was addressing: of feeling valued, not for something people impose upon you, but for something inherent in yourself. Or, the need to feel accepted and part of a group. Or the stupid hierarchies of boarding schools. (Or high school for that matter.) And I adored the voice of the narrator; it felt like a defense lawyer was patiently taking us through the evidence of Frankie’s character, explaining, so we, at least, will understand, will get what Frankie is about. And that she’s not a mere misanthrope. (Does that mean an anthrope is someone who is respectable in society?)

But, when I picked it up yestrday, it had lost a bit of its luster. Maybe all the fun is in the anticipation of the planning, but not the execution. Either that, or if you keep reading it in one sitting, the momentum builds and keeps you in the world that Lockhart has spun. In its defens: I did love the pranks. So very Drones Club. So very brilliant of Frankie (what a mastermind). I liked the social commentary aspect of them. But it was, in many ways, anticlimatic. Sure, she could show up the boys, but the actual act of showing them up wasn’t important. It was that she could.

I think, in the end, what I really liked was that Frankie felt familiar. If I were at a boarding school, and my mind tended just a little more that way, yeah, I could see myself doing what she did. I always thought that boys were more interesting than girls, anway. I can understand why it wasn’t enough to just start a secret girls’ club, why Frankie needed to prove herself good — no, better — than the boys. And I can understand why she did it for a guy, to try to prove to him that she was better than he assumed he was. And that it all backfired on her in the end was quite, well, understandable.

So, yeah, I thought the book was uneven, and the ending just kind of ended. (I do think the ending fits the book, even though Frankie doesn’t go out and do anything spectacular; that’s not the point.) I liked it, though, mostly for Frankie, and the ideas that Lockhart was addressing (whether she intended to, or not). Frankie did something big; she proved something to herself — and to her family — that she can do something. Sure, they reacted badly, but then, most people react badly to people who think outside the box. Even if that box is something as simple and silly as a secret boys’ club at a posh boarding school.

So, here’s to the Frankie’s of the world: the girls who think outside of the box. Who invent neglected positives, and need people to understand (not just talk at) them. And here’s to the books that celebrate them.