Fullmetal Alchemist

by Hiromu Arakawa
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Content: There’s violence and some mild swearing as well as some graphic injury images. It’s in the manga section at the bookstore.

So I read this one kind of weirdly… I could only get my hands on volume 2 at the bookstore,  so K suggested I watch the anime to catch me up on the story, and then I read volume 2 (and put a hold on volume 3, but volume 4 isn’t available at the library, so maybe I’ll just finish the story watching the anime, because — believe it or not — I’m invested in this one…) Maybe that’s the way to go — watching the anime before reading — because I found myself more invested in this manga than I have in the past ones I’ve read.

This one’s the story of the Elric brothers, young, talented alchemists who had a devastating accident while attempting to use alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead. Edward (he’s the actual boy) lost a leg but his brother, Alphonse (he’s the armor), lost his entire body. Edward was able to save Alphonse by putting his soul in the armor, but it cost him his arm. And so, now, they’re searching the world for something — possibly the Philosopher’s Stone — to make them both (but mostly Alphonse) whole again. On their adventures, they meet dangerous people (not the least of which are the seven deadly sins personified, though I’ve only met Lust, Greed, and Envy so far) and fight to keep together.

Oh, I really liked this manga (K finally recommended one I really, really liked!). I liked the relationship between the brothers, and I liked the side characters. This is a huge, complex story that just got huger and more complex, and even though I’ve only read one, I’m dying to know what happens and how it all plays out. If it just means watching the anime, I definitely will finish this one.

 

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Rhyme Schemer

by K. A. Holt
First sentence: “First day of school.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: October 14, 2014
Content: Aside from the bullying (which made me uncomfortable), there’s nothing difficult about this book. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kevin is the youngest of five brothers who are all a lot older than he is. He likes some of his brothers; others, not so much. His parents — both doctors — are gone a lot. So, somehow, he’s become that guy at school who laughs when people fall down. He’s the kind that gets in trouble for tripping a Loser. And he does, often.

But he has a softer side: one that writes free-verse poems (which is the format for this book). He keeps them in a notebook, that he takes with him. He also rips pages out of library books, creating poems by circling words, and sticks them up around the school.

Then his world comes down around him. The kid he usually bullies finds his notebook, and uses it against him, slowly making Kevin into the kid being bullied.

It’s a quiet little book, but one that packs a punch. I appreciated seeing Kevin from both sides: the bully-er and the bullied. It was interesting to see his transition, and to realize that all people are just that: people. And with the backstory — his parents really aren’t the greatest — it was easy to see where the bullying came from.

But what I loved (LOVED!) was the way the librarian (!) saw past everything Kevin was doing and made him feel like a person. Yay for librarians!

Compelling and engrossing and all those other good adjectives.

The Witch’s Boy

by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There really isn’t anything objectionable. The pacing is slow, however, which is something that might turn more reluctant readers off. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ned has been “the wrong boy” since the fateful day when he and his twin brother, Tam, tried to sail to the sea and ended up drowning in the river. Or nearly drowning, in Ned’s case. See: his mother is the witch of the village, and she has been the keeper of the magic — dangerous, unruly magic which Ned is never to touch — for most of Ned’s life. And although she couldn’t save Tam, she saved Ned… by sewing Tam’s soul inside of Ned.

Fast forward a few years — ones in which Ned doesn’t have much strength, where he has a stutter, and where he can’t read — to when the Bandit King comes into their lives with the intention to steal the magic for his own. This is where Ned does something remarkable: he takes the magic into himself, and sets off on an adventure. One in which he’ll meet a friend — his first since his brother died — and change the course of the world.

It’s a slow, quiet book; one that reminded me strongly of Anne Ursu’s books. That’s a good thing, except it’s not one for people who are expecting Grand Action and Adventure. Much of the book is spent inside Ned’s head (mostly because he can’t talk, though I did like Barnhill’s methods for portraying Ned’s stutter), which doesn’t lend itself to fast reading. That said, given time, this book is really a fantastic read. I loved how Barnhill portrayed the magic; it had its own personality, one that can be controlled by it’s “owner”, provided the person is strong enough. And I really enjoyed seeing Ned come into his own. Yes, he was pushed around by (some of) the adults in his life (I loved his mother; she’s fantastic), but it’s a true middle grade novel in that Ned (and his new friend, Áine) face the conflict on their own, without adult help.

Speaking of Áine: she’s a remarkable character, too. Self-sufficient, yes, and strong, but she also finds it in her heart to be a friend and a true companion.

I think this is one that will stay with me for a while.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

by Dana Alison Levy
First sentence: “Eli sat on the wooden porch steps, crammed in with his brothers, while Pap fiddled with the camera.”
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Review copy given to me by our Random House Children’s rep.
Content:  The typeface is pretty big and the words are simple without being simplistic. Also, there’s a hint of liking girls, but no real romance. I’d say it’s pretty happy in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ve been sitting here thinking about how to pitch this one (especially in conservative Kansas), and I think I’ve come up with it: it’s The Penderwicks, but with boys.

The similarities are there: a classic, homespun feel; a family of four siblings ranging from the cute young one (Frog, age 6, in this case) to the wise, older one (Sam, just starting 6th grade); simple, true-to-life challenges, rather than huge conflict; and a charming, whimsical feel that just makes you smile when you’re done reading.

The book follows the Fletcher family — Dad, a history teacher; Papa, who stays at home and does consulting work while the boys are at school; and their sons, Sam and Frog (who is Indian, by the way), but also Jax (age 10 and African American) and Eli (also age 10, but Jax is older by some months) — through the course of a year. As I said, none of the conflicts are huge and overarching, (except, perhaps, their grumpy neighbor Mr. Wilson) but rather small, realistic ones. Eli deals with a starting a new school for “scholarly minded” students and realizes pretty early on that he hates it. Jax deals with a best friend who is growing up and whose interests are changing. Sam is dealing with being on the cusp of teenager hood as well as the idea that something he discovered he likes — acting — may not be “cool”. And Frog has to deal with his family not believing him when he says he has a new friend whose name is Ladybug.

It’s a charming, sweet little book, one that I think will be able to reach a number of readers. In fact, the diversity of this one is my second favorite thing about it (my first favorite being the old-fashioned feel). I loved how Levy had a hugely diverse cast and showed how everyone is just. like. me. (Duh.) But she did it in such a way that wasn’t preachy. And I loved that.

In fact, I want to hand this one to all the kids and say: “You know that person who is different from you? This will help you understand them.” I’m not sure that will sell this book, so I may just have to stick to “Penderwicks with boys.” I just hope kids read this one.