Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 1

I’ve been reading LOTS (well, not as much as some years) for the Cybils, and I haven’t had the time to write down reviews of all of them. Here are a bunch I enjoyed, but didn’t have the time to write a whole review of.

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
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Content: It’s a ghost story, but it’s not scary, and it’s short enough not to scare off reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Basic plot: there’s this town, Ingot, that doesn’t have ghosts. Which is unusual in this alternate world where ghosts are incredibly prevalent. Jasper, who grew up in Ingot, doesn’t mind, but Rosa, who just moved there, does. And so when ghosts start appearing at the Renaissance Faire, Rosa is ecstatic: appeasing the ghosts (not banishing!) is her family’s business, after all. And she enlists Jasper’s help to figure out the ghost problem in Ingot.

It’s a fun enough book; short and sweet and simple, and I could tell that Alexander wanted to make it diverse (props for that, but it felt forced) but it just wasn’t, well, interesting.

Dominion
by Shane Arbuthnott
First sentence: “They had been chasing the font for days, and Molly knew the engine was getting tired.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, and some intense moments. It’s not at the store, but if it was, it’d be in the YA (grades 6-8) section.

This book takes place in a world — perhaps our own? — that has been taken over by spirits. Except, these aren’t ghosts (I thought they were, at first). They’re more like djinn, except they don’t have magic powers. What the people of this world do is capture the spirits, and then force them into iron containers (so they can’t escape) and then use them to power airships and robots. Molly is the engineer on her family’s airship, when she realizes (over a course of a few events) that what they’re doing is essentially slavery. So, she sets out to stop it.

The thing I liked best about this was the world. Arburthnott has created a unique world where he mixes magic (of sorts) with steampunk technology, and then thrown in a capable and interesting heroine (whose main antagonists end up being her family, which was also interesting) and it turns out that this is a pretty fantastic speculative fiction adventure.

The Unicorn in the Barn
by Jacqueline K. Ogburn
First sentence: “My dad always told me, ‘Never surprise anybody swinging a hammer; something is liable to get smashed.'”
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Content: There’s one adult smoking and a hunting accident. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a charming little story about a boy and a girl, some woods, a unicorn, and a vet clinic that helps (among other animals) magical animals. It was very sweet and tender, and lovely, and would be perfect for the sweet, tender, animal-loving reader. I enjoyed the push-and-pull relationship between the main character and the daughter of the veterinarian, and I liked that the conflict happened in spite of the parents, not because of them. (They were actually really good parents.) I’m not much of a horse/unicorn lover (anymore; my 4th grade self would have loved this book), so I wasn’t completely enthralled, but I do like that there’s a charming, sweet horse story starring a boy out there.

The Great Hibernation
by Tara Dairman
First sentence: “The bear was dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s some bullying and sleeping parents. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This was a delightfully odd story about a northern town (maybe in the Yukon? Or northern Alaska?) which, every year, all the adults, 12 years and 4 months and 6 days old  and up eats bear liver to honor a long-ago event by their forefathers. It’s considered a punishable offense to not do so, and so when Jean throws it up, she’s worried. Until everyone who ate the liver falls asleep and the kids — especially the mayor’s kid, Magnus — take over. Then, it’s up to Jean to figure out why the adults are all asleep and stop the vote on the new thistleberry plant before it’s too late.

A highly improbably premise with a scientific solution, this one was silly fun. I enjoyed reading how Jean and her new Thai friend, Isara, figure out the truth behind the sudden “hibernation” and how to wake up the adults. It’s a clever mystery and a silly story, even if it is full of improbabilities.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands
by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “Don’t fall.”
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Content: There’s some intense moments with scary monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

As a general rule, I enjoy Sarah Beth Durst’s writing, and this one is no exception. She’s excellent with her world building — this one being a world of islands protected by a magical barrier which is sustained by a dragon — and her writing propels the reader forward. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twin sisters, daughters of the Emperor, and their journey to the dragon. I liked that Durst explored the nature of the stories we tell each other and ourselves, how a shared history can differ depending on where a person is from,  how perceptions can often be wrong , and how change is sometimes for the best. It was a delightful story, the only negative side being (and this may be a big negative) the vaguely Asian feel to it, which I think could have been done better by an Asian author. That said, overall, it was very good.

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.

 

Ghosts of Greenglass House

by Kate Milford
First sentence: “Frost was pretty much the worst.”
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Others in the series: Greenglass House
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a bit slow moving and long, so while appropriate for the age, probably not good for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s been a year since Milo has seen his ghost friend Meddy, and the adventures of the last Christmas. He’s mostly doing okay, except for a bit of a problem at school with a teacher who isn’t terribly sensitive (Milo is Chinese American, and adopted). But it’s Christmas break (again), and Milo is looking forward to a guest-free (mostly), teacher free break. That is, until his old friends Clem and Georgie show up (again), having robbed the legendary smuggler Violet Cross’s stash. Things kind of go downhill from there, with the arrival of the Waits, a group of traditional carolers, when they turn everything at Greenglass House upside down.

It’s a solid book. taking place over just a couple of days, with a strong mystery. It was fun to revisit the characters again (I don’t even remember the first book all that well, so it’s really not necessary to read it before reading this one), and I loved how Midwinter it was. There’s a whole subplot with the running of the deer, and the hobby horse, and the holly and the ivy that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was just a delightful story to read.

The Empty Grave

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “Want to hear a ghost story?”
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Others in the Series: The Screaming StaircaseThe Whispering SkullThe Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow
Content: Scary stuff and violence, of course. They’re in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I always make sure the kids can handle scary stuff before selling these.

There’s not much new to say about this series that I haven’t already said before. I adore Lockwood, Lucy, George (and now Holly and Kipps, too!). I love that Stroud knows how to pace a story, giving us smaller ghosts and mysteries that all link together in a big huge climax. I love that while this one feels like a good ending, it’s also a good story in its own right. I will definitely miss this world and this series and I’m SO glad I started it all those years ago. If you’ve been waiting until all the books were out to start this series, now’s the time. Go do it. You won’t be sorry.

 

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.

Creeping Shadow

9781484709672by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “I knew at once, when I slipped into the moonlit office and eased the door shut behind me, that I was in the presence of the dead.”
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Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy
Content: This  is not for the faint of heart, but rather for people who like to be scared. Still, lots of action, and if you don’t mind the scary stuff… It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lucy has left Lockwood and Co.

Let that sit in for a minute.

There was a poltergeist at the end of The Hollow Boy who told Lucy she would be responsible for Lockwood’s death, and that spooked her so much that she couldn’t stay. She didn’t really leave on the best terms, and since then she’s been freelancing for other firms. It’s not ideal. But she (and the Skull, who is really one of my favorite characters) is managing alone.

Until a case — of the ghost of a cannibal — comes that Lockwood needs Lucy’s talents for. She goes to help — as a consultant, only for a night — and they successfully catch and eliminate the ghost. But things go wrong from there. The skull is stolen, there’s a collector who is buying up strong sources, there’s a Creeping Shadow terrorizing a nearby town. And all those things lead up to something Very Big and Very Wrong. And Lockwood and Co are the only ones who are equipped to deal with it.

I feel like a broken record: read these! They’re awesome! The mystery is intriguing, the characters are fantastic, and it’s spooky without being gory. It’s fast-paced, and action-packed, with tons of funny elements. It’s just SO good. The whole series. I love how they’re all inter-connected, but also individual stories. And Stroud just knows how to tell a story.

Just read the series, already. It’s that good.

Ghosts

ghostsby Raina Telgemeier
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Release date: September 13, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s frank talk about death, so maybe it’s not for the younger kids (that depends on your kid). Otherwise, it will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Cat is resentful (and feels guilty about it). Her younger sister has cystic fibrosis and the climate in northern California is going to be better for her. Plus she’ll be closer to better doctors. But that means Cat has to upend her life and move. And she doesn’t want to have to start over. Especially since their new town seems to be a bit… obsessed… with ghosts.

But, as she settles in and makes friends, she discovers that maybe things aren’t always as they seem (and maybe sometimes they are), and that maybe she and her family can find a home here.

I love Telgemeier’s work. I love that she took something as series as a sibling with an incurable illness and made it not only accessible to kids but entertaining. She uses the Dia de los Muertos celebrations to talk about those we love who have died, and how we can honor and celebrate their lives. There’s also the usual pre-teen adjustments: making friends, handling school, boys… And it all balances out to an absolutely delightful graphic novel.

Highly, highly recommended.

The Key to Extraordinary

keytoextraordinaryby Natalie Lloyd
First sentence: “It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.”
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Release date: February 23, 2016
Content: It’s short(ish) and the words aren’t too terribly difficult, but there’s kind of a little romance, so maybe it’s not for the 3rd graders? It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The women in Emma’s family have had a long history of doing Extraordinary things. They have a dream, which they call their Blue Wildflower dream, and in that dream they are Shown Their Path, the way in which they’ll be extraordinary. At almost 13, Emma’s convinced that in spite of all this, her life won’t be that special. She lives in a smallish town in Tennessee, and while she loves her Grandma Blue and the cafe she runs, where Emma’s older brother is the baker, there really isn’t much else.

Then Emma gets her wildflower dream, and it doesn’t make sense.  Then developers start sniffing around the cafe, wanting to buy it, and suddenly maybe Emma can piece together some lost history and save the cafe while filling her destiny.

I liked Snicker of Magic quite a bit, and I like Southern Quirky (as Ms. Yingling calls it), but this one didn’t work for me.  I’m not sure I can pinpoint why, though. Maybe it’s a bit of a reading slump (I tossed aside about four books partially read before I settled on this one), maybe it’s that I’m a bit under the weather. Either way, Emma and her plight didn’t sit with me. It even had a Nice Moral at the end: follow your dreams and expectations and don’t let the accomplishments of the past make you intimidated (or at least I think that’s the message), but I kind of just shrugged and said, “Meh.”

Which is too bad. I did want to like this one more.

The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen

by Katherine Howe
First sentence: “The cafe in the basement of Tisch, the art and film school at New York University, was redecorated this year.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s talk of teenage drinking (and some actual), plus drug use. There’s also one almost-sex scene. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section at the bookstore.

There is no way to write this, I think, without spoiling the premise. If you choose to go into this without knowing what it is, then you should probably stop reading now.

Wes is at NYU for the summer film workshop for a reason: he wants to transfer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to NYU because Madison is, well, small. Constricting. The Same. He needs something different, and he Knows he can find it in New York City. (Well, can’t we all?) He’s out helping one of his friends, Tyler, film an art film at a seance when his life really changes: he meets Annie and Maddie. They’re edgy, they’re different, they are most definitely not from Wisconsin. And as Annie pulls Wes into her story (and he gets more tangled up with Maddie), he discovers that maybe the life-changing event he thought New York would offer him isn’t going to be in film school.

I’m going to say it, even though Howe danced around it: this is a ghost story. And, as such, it’s quite good. I liked not knowing that Annie was a ghost for a while — it took the whole first section for me to figure it out, though there’s a pretty big clue at the end of the prologue. I liked Wes’s discovering of her story, and how Annie flitted back and forth in time. I liked Howe’s historical detail; it’s most definitely something she excels at. And I thought the love triangle-ish thing between Wes, Annie, and Maddie was unique as well.

The only thing that really bothered me was that Howe refused to call a spade a spade. She never, once, admitted, in words, that Annie was a Ghost. She was a Rip Van Winkle. Every time it came up, they dodged the bullet. It got old. Just say she’s a ghost, please.

But, other than that, it was an intriguing weaving between past and present, and a unique way to look at ghost stories.

The Swallow

by Charis Cotter
First sentence: “There’s no place for me,”
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Content: It’s kind of confusing and a little bit creepy, though the chapters are short and to the point. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Polly is lost in a sea of siblings and foster siblings. Her father is a pastor and feels a need to rescue lost children, much to Polly’s dismay. Rose is lost as well, but for the opposite reason: she is the only child of very busy, distant parents who don’t spend much time with her at all. Its 1963 in Toronto, when these two meet, and because they both have an interest in ghosts — well, Rose can see them, so it’s not really an interest — they embark upon a mystery when finding a gravestone with Rose’s name in the graveyard behind their houses.

If that sounds convoluted and sort of strange, it’s because this book is, well, convoluted and sort of strange. I think Cotter was going for atmospheric, but for me it just came off as creepy and weird. And unnecessary. Perhaps it was just me; this was the last of the Cybils finalists that I read, and I was worn out on fantasy by this point. But, the characters seemed wooden, the parents unnecessarily strict or absent, the story too forced for my taste.

The twist that happens didn’t work for me, either.

Which is to say, this was my least favorite. Though, it’s probably just me, and there’s some kid out there who loves twisty ghost stories with shocking reveals.