Penelope March is Melting

by Jeff Michael Ruby
First sentence: “Years ago, scientists spotted a strange iceberg floating a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.”
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Review copy sent by the author.
Content: There’s some bullying and a couple of intense situations. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Penelope March lives a quiet, ordinary life in Glacier Cove. Her brother leaves her riddles, her father goes and works as a turnip farmer (they’re the only food that grows on an iceberg). She goes to school, but doesn’t have many friends. She reads a lot though, and wishes for an adventure. Until, one day, she goes into the ramshackle house of  the town eccentric, and learns that an evil force is trying to take over the ocean, and is planning on melting Glacier Cove. And it’s up to Penelope (and a team of ice penguins) to stop it.

On the one hand, this was a unique premise. Not many middle grade fantasies being set on a town build on an iceberg. And, the penguins were truly amusing. There was the same old dead parent (mom this time) and the grieving remaining one (out of touch father). There was the Skeptical Boy (the brother, who didn’t really get on board until the last part of the book) and the Misunderstood Friend. And the buildup to the whole evil magic thing at the end just didn’t work for me. That said, it wasn’t a terribly written book, and I think there are kids — specifically ones who don’t mind a bit of magic with their adventure — who will enjoy this one. I just found it to be a bit… too basic and banal for my tastes.

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York: The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.”
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Content: It’s long, and there are some challenging vocabulary words, as well as a few intense moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to any adventuresome 4th grader and up.

I’ve been looking at this book since before it came out in May, thinking, “I really need to get to this one.” And so I was overjoyed that it ended up on the Cybils list. Even so, I put it off… perhaps thinking it wouldn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard surrounding it.

Boy, was I wrong! This is a difficult one to describe: it’s an alternative New York City, one in which there were genius twins — the Morningstarrs — in the 19th century who invented steampunk-like machines (many of which are still in use “today”), and then, when they disappeared mysteriously, left behind a Cipher to be figured out. Except in the intervening 160 years, no one has figured it out. That is, until a different set of twins, Tess and Theo Biedermann, and their friend Jaime Cruz, get a mysterious letter and set about following a whole new set of clues, in the hopes of saving their apartment building. Following the clues leads them on an increasingly dangerous path, full of wonders and betrayals, all the way to the end. Or perhaps: just another beginning? (Yes, it’s a first in a series.)

I was talking about this to A the other day, and trying to explain it, and she looked at me like this was crazy. And in a way, it is. But it’s SO very good. The characters are fun (Cricket needed a larger role!) and Ruby keeps the plot moving along. I have heard some say that it’s complicated, but I think she manages to mesh the mystery and the steampunk elements (plus good, if distracted, parents) quite seamlessly. I’m definitely on board for their next adventure!

Turtles all the Way Down

by John Green
First sentence: “At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time — between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m. — by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.”
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Content:  Lots and lots of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This is a book about OCD and anxiety. This is also a book, I think (having followed John Green for at least 7 years or so on YouTube/Podcasts/Social Media), that channels John Green the best out of all of them. The plot, really, is almost incidental: it’s about a girl, Aza, and her friend, Daisy, who decide that they’re going to find out what happened to this developer who was on the lamb. The catch: Aza knew the developer’s son, Davis, when they were eleven. Mostly, though, it’s a chance to be inside Aza’s head, to experience first-hand what it’s like to be someone with OCD, with anxiety, and how crippling it can sometimes be.

I’m not sure if it’s “good” or not; it made me cry at the end, and I think that it’s probably a more mature book than his other ones. (There really aren’t any pretentious, super-smart teenagers here; everyone, even Davis, seemed relatable and not annoying.) But there was also a disconnect to it that I hadn’t felt in his other books. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable; it was. Green knows how to craft a story, and throw in asides that don’t really feel like asides. But, I didn’t feel totally immersed in it (which may be me more than anything). Still, worth a read.

Spirit Hunters

by Ellen Oh
First sentence: “‘Harper! Come quick!'”
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Content: There’s an abusive relationship, and it’s quite scary in parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t give it to the faint of heart.

Harper and her family have recently moved from New York City into a Washington, D. C. house. It’s nominally for her parents’ jobs, but it’s also because Harper had a couple of incidents — at school and at the mental health hospital — that were kind of sketchy. However, she can’t remember anything about the fire at school that landed her in the hospital. And now, her younger brother is acting unlike himself, and no one can quite figure out why.

(Though you can probably guess from the title!)

This was SO good! I loved the characters, even the clueless/controlling/close-minded parents, and I loved that the main character not only figured out the problem, but also solved it, with the help from her friend and her estranged grandmother. I liked the historical detail that Oh wove into the book, and I loved the suspense that she built throughout the book. An excellent ghost story.

 

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!

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power

by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated Brooke Allen
First sentence:”It was a gorgeous day.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild adventure. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

The Lumberjanes are back! And when they find a mysterious mountain, of course they have to climb it. But what happens when they get stuck at the top?

I wanted to like this one, because I love the Lumberjanes. But. Something is missing in the translation from graphic novel to novel. The humor tried to be there, but fell flat (for me). All the characters were there, and I enjoyed interacting with them, but they were… off… which made me sad.

This one would be a good introduction to Lumberjanes, for those who don’t like graphic novels or haven’t read them yet. But, honestly? Get the graphic novels. They’re better.

Invisible Emmie

by  Terri Liebenson
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Content: It deals with crushes and middle school awkwardness, so younger kids might not be interested. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Emmie is quiet. That’s really her defining feature. She doesn’t speak much, except to her friends. And everyone (from her friends to her parents) is always trying to get her to be more outgoing. But she’s (mostly) okay with being quiet. Until one day, when she writes a note to her crush and then drops it, where it’s picked up by another kid. All of a sudden, Emmie’s no longer invisible.

There’s a secondary story, one that involved Katie, a super popular, put together girl, that’s told in panels (as opposed to Emmie’s story, which is more narrative-driven with side illustrations). The two stories intersect near the end, and do so in an interesting way (though K didn’t like how they resolved).

It’s a good look at fitting in and making friends. I liked the way Libenson told the story (I liked how it resolved), and I felt for Emmie. It’s hard being the youngest (K should know!) and feeling overshadowed a lot. I liked how Emmie found her footing and figured out how to being to make her place in the world.

A good book.