The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

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 Secret Keepers

secretkeepersby Trenton Lee Stewart
First sentence: “That summer morning in the Lower Downs began as usual for Reuben Pedley.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher. Full disclosure: I had dinner with the author at Children’s Institute, and think he’s delightful.
Release date: September 27th
Content: There’s a few scary moments, and it is long (500+ pages), so it might be intimidating for young/reluctant readers. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Reuben has perfected the art of being invisible. He can sneak in and out of places, and knows just how to go unnoticed in a crowd. And then, one summer day, he climbs up to a ledge (just because he can) and discovers something Wonderful: an antique pocket watch shaped like a globe in a wooden box engraven “Property of P. Wm Light”. It’s cool enough as it is; but once Reuben (accidentally) discovers that it can actually turn him invisible, he’s thrilled. Except the watch is wanted by the big mob boss in town, a man known as The Smoke. And suddenly Reuben isn’t quite so invisible anymore.

So Reuben sets off to solve the mystery of the watch: where it came from and why does The Smoke want it so badly. And in doing so, he not only makes several friends for life, he discovers that he is much more than he originally believed.

Even though this is a big book, and starts slowly (I’m not sure we needed Reuben’s entire backstory, as well as the backstory of the watch, but I’m not the editor here…) I was hooked by the middle and sold by the end. (The end, especially.) Stewart knows how to write a puzzle that readers want to solve, and how to keep them guessing along the way. I honestly didn’t know what would happen, at times, and I thoroughly enjoyed finding out. And the best part? It’s not a series (yet). Definitely a fun read.

The Piper’s Son

piperssonby Melina Marchetta
First sentence: “The string slices into the skin of his fingers and no matter how tough the calluses, it tears.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs and some talk of sex (nothing graphic). It has a more adult sensibility than I was expecting, and although the library has it in its Teen section, I’d be tempted to put it in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Two years after the death of his favorite uncle in a terrorist bombing in London, Tom’s dropped out of university, living with some crap flatmates, and basically a mess. Then, hitting rock bottom, he finds his way back to his Aunt Georgie (who’s been knocked up by her ex-boyfriend) and begins to piece his life back together.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven, and this one is the latter. There’s not much plot-wise — mostly it’s the ways in which Tom and Georgia (and the rest of the McKee family) are dealing (or not dealing) with the crap in their life — but the characters make this book worthwhile. Tom is brash and abrasive at first, but he grows so much that by the end, I was sobbing. And Georgia gives the book a heart that otherwise would be missing. This family is so messed up, but so fierce in their love for each other; it’s truly one of those books that show how families really do come in all shapes and sizes.

Technically, this is a sequel to Saving Francesca, but you can definitely read it as a stand-alone. And it’s so very worth it.

Nothing Up My Sleeve

nothingupmysleeveby Diana López
First sentence: “Z could always find a reason to feel cursed.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s bigger font on small pages, so even though it looks thick it goes fast. It reads very much like a Wendy Mass story, with short chapters, alternating viewpoints, and a lot going on. There’s a slight not-quite-romance (a couple of the boy main characters “like” the girl, but it goes nowhere). It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Z, Dominic, and Loop have been friends for a long, long time. Which means their friendship is one part they like each other and one part competitive. And so when, one hot Texas summer, they discover a magic shop and enter a competition, it becomes somewhat of a tension-creator. They spend the summer working on their magic tricks, but what starts out as just fun becomes more tension-filled. Will their new hobby ruin their friendship?

The good things first: this is full of diversity. Yay for making Texan kids Latin@! And giving them real-world problems: Dominic’s parents are divorced, Z is the youngest of a big family and is always getting ignored, and Loop just found out the man he thought was his biological father isn’t. Plus the way López writes about magic is really neat. She explains the tricks, so you can get a sense of what’s going on, but she doesn’t give away any (well, not many, anyway) of the secrets of the trade.

My big problem was that I felt sorry for Z, who was pathetic, and I felt Dominic was a bit annoying, but Loop and Ariel (she’s the daughter of the magic shop owners) were so annoying I wanted to smack them. Maybe I should give López props for making me care enough to want to smack the kids, but I found them annoying. Which means I really didn’t care too much about how it all resolved. I finished it — it wasn’t really bad — but I didn’t love it. (It really wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great either.)

Maybe I just wasn’t the right person for it.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

aintsoawfulby Firoozeh Dumas
First sentence: “Today’s Sunday and we’re moving, again.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s no swearing (well, maybe a mild one) but the subject matter — middle school and the Iran Revolution in 1978 — might be a little mature for the younger set. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section (or the YA — grades 6-8 — section, I haven’t decided) of the bookstore.

I was in third grade in 1981 when the American hostages in Iran were released and I have a vague memory of it. Nothing substantive, just some hazy images of me seeing the news on TV. I don’t know much else about that, and even though I’ve read a bit about the Iranian revolution, that’s one aspect that I didn’t know much about.

Zomorod Yousefzadeh is in America because her father has a job with an oil company in California. They’ve been here before, when Zomorod was younger, but now she’s going into 6th grade, and she wants to turn over a new leaf. Be more American. So, she changes her name to Cindy and sets out to make new friends. It’s not easy being Iranian in California in the late 1970s (most people either think she’s Mexican, or ask her if she owns a camel. The answer is no to both), but eventually, Cindy figures things out. And then the Iranian revolution happens, and suddenly the home she and her parents thought they could go back to is no longer there. Add to that, Americans were taken hostage, and suddenly Cindy and her parents find themselves subjected to anti-Iranian sentiment. Her father loses his job. Garbage is left on their doorstep. Kids at school tell her to “go home”. It’s not easy.

Loosely based on Dumas’ life, this novel not only captures a slice of history (fairly accurately, but without being kitschy) but also manages to be timely as well. I found myself thinking about how Americans reacted to Muslims after 9/11 (or now, really). Or how immigrants are treated in general. It’s a good thing to see American life from the perspective of an immigrant, and to find out that we’re equal parts good and bad. (Which really isn’t a surprise.) Dumas also manages to capture the awkwardness of middle school with grace and humor. There were some actual laugh-out-loud parts. She definitely understands middle school, with all its ups and downs. And it was delightful to read a book where the parents weren’t bad or sick or dead.

It’s definitely an excellent read.

Allie, First at Last

alliefirstby Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “Blame it on Junko Tabei.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment. G
Content: It’s a great book for middle readers, short (but not dumbed-down) with no romance or awkward situations. It’s in the Middle Grade (3-5 grade) section of the bookstore.

Allie comes from a highly competitive family. Her great-grandfather was the first World War II Veteran to get a Congressional Medal of Honor. Her mother has won best anchorwoman four years running. Her big sister is a national debate champion. Her big brother is a soccer star, and her younger sister is an aspiring actress. However, Allie feels like she’s just a string of flops. She can’t win anything, most recently the Science Fair. So when the Trailblazer Award comes along — with a fancy trophy and a $200 prize — she’s determined to win.

This was a cute, inter-generational book without the whole mystical Mexican thing. (Mexicans, yes, but not mystical at all.) I liked Allie’s relationship with her Bisabuela, and how he was able to guide Allie through life experience and stories. I liked that there was a nice moral at the end, but the book itself didn’t seem preachy at all. (I didn’t like that all the kids seem to have cell phones and were super-privileged, but that seemed to fit into the story okay, so by the end I let that go.)

It really is a sweet little story.  Plus: the author is from Kansas, which is nice.