The Agony House

by Cherie Priest
First sentence: “Denise Farber stomped up the creaky metal ramp and stood inside the U-Haul, looking around for the lightest possible box.
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils. 
Content: There is some violence, but it’s not bad. And some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. 

Things I really liked about this: I liked that it was set in New Orleans, post-Katrina, and that white people moving into underdeveloped neighborhoods and displacing the black population was an issue, if only in passing. I liked the subtle feminism in the story, as well as the fact that the parents were really good. I liked that Priest highlighted a New Orleans that wasn’t voodoo or jazz music. And I liked the way she wove the graphic novel into the story.  

Things I didn’t like: it just really didn’t work terribly well as a ghost story, for me. I never felt terribly threatened or scared by the ghosts, or even terribly worried for the characters (even though the ghosts were causing a LOT of damage to the house). I also didn’t like that the main character was balancing her new life in New Orleans — her mom and step-dad moved her there right before her senior year — and her old life in Houston. It was realistic, sure, but it felt unnecessary to the overall plot (which was the ghost story). 

It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. 

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All’s Faire in Middle School

by Victoria Jamieson
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Release date: September 5th, 2017
Content: There’s some mild bullying and some kissing by background adult characters. It will be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Imogene has grown up in the Florida Renaissance Faire. Literally: her father is an actor in the permanent troupe, and her mother runs a shop. Imogene has been homeschooled up until now, but has decided that she wants to give middle school a try for sixth grade.

Possibly predictably, Imogene finds out that middle school isn’t a nice place. She’s teased for being homeschooled, for wearing her hand-made leather boots every day. She starts to make friends, but it’s with the “in” group. Which means (also predictably) that there will be conflicts when their desires conflict with the values Imogene has been taught.

Back at the Faire, Imogene has been promoted to be a squire, which means that she’s part of the “show”. Sure, it’s just to scoop poop in the joust and to wander around interacting with the guests, but Imogene loves it. And it seems that she’s making a friend of one of her classmates who comes every weekend.

Sure, the plot is predictable — I’ve read this same story a hundred times before — but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Jamieson has a way with art and words and I cared very much about Imogene and her story. (Though I think I liked the minor characters — her parents and younger brother especially — better.) It was fun to read, and fun to see a little inside the workings of a permanent Renaissance Faire.

The Best Man

bestmanby Richard Peck
First sentence: “Boys aren’t too interested in weddings.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There’s some bullying and it’s not really action-heavy. But I’d give it to a 4th grader and up. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Archer Magill is just trying to figure things out. As a 5th (and then 6th) grader, he’s kind of clueless. About girls, about friends, about life. And so, he’s looking for role models and he’s found three: his dad (who’s a really great dad), his grandpa (who’s pretty awesome), his Uncle Paul (who’s incredibly cool). And then, a student teacher, Mr. McLeod comes into his life.

Actually, this isn’t a book about an awesome male teacher, thank heavens. Event though there’s an awesome male teacher. No, it’s more about Life, and Figuring Things Out, and Friendship. And how other people’s lives intersect with ours. And the Chicago Cubs.  It’s a Slice of Life novel, one that is full of charming characters and a great family. And one that, refreshingly, treats a LGBT relationship as something that’s to be celebrated. No, our main character isn’t gay, it’s not a coming out book for kids. There’s no angst in this book. It’s a story where the LGBT relationship is a part of who the people are, and that’s okay.

It’s a funny, sweet, refreshingly charming novel, and I adored it.

Wolf Hollow

wolfhollowby Lauren Wolk
First sentence: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”
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Release date: May 3, 2016
Content: There’s some death and bullying and one pretty intense injury scene. Probably not for the younger set. It will probably go in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the fall of 1943, and Annabelle is living a happy, quiet life on her farm in Pennsylvania. Sure, the war in Germany is raging, seemingly without end, but it doesn’t really touch Annabelle’s life. What does touch her is Betty, the new girl who has moved in with her grandparents. Betty has decided that Annabelle is her target, and demands things from her. And when Annabelle refuses to give in, Betty turns her ire on bigger targets. Like Toby, the World War I veteran who Annabelle’s family has taken care of for the past few years. And so when Betty goes missing, it’s Toby who gets blamed.

On the one hand, this really grew on me. It took about 100 pages, but I finally got to where I was invested in Annabelle’s story, and curious about the direction it was taking. The writing is excellent; Wolk really does know how to spin a story. And I thought that, even though it’s a work of historical fiction, the themes of acceptance of others and defending the innocent were incredibly timely.

My problem with it? It’s not really a children’s book. Our narrator is reflecting back on her childhood, so everything is kind of infused with adult sensibilities. (At least: I thought so.) I appreciated that the parents were good parents, helping out when Annabelle confessed the bullying to them. But, it just doesn’t feel like a book I can give to a kid (maybe that special, precocious kid? The 9-year-old who likes Harper Lee, maybe.). Maybe I’m being too sensitive, dumbed down by Diary of a Wimpy Kid-like books. Maybe this is like Pax, which I had a viciously violently negative reaction to, but it turned out it was just me.

Though I didn’t have a negative reaction to this. I liked it, I thought it was well-written and the story incredibly powerful. I just don’t think it’s really a kids’ book.

The Luck Uglies

by Paul Durham
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s a lot of death — most of it off screen — and some pretty intense moments. Throw in a lot of difficult names of places and people, and this is not for the younger set, unless they’re pretty strong readers. Even so, it’d be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Rye O’Chanter has spent her life roaming the streets of Village Drowning, from her home in Mud Puddle Lane to her mother’s store to her the in her friend owns across the village. It’s not been a tough childhood, even though her father has been gone for years, but life in Village Drowning under the protection of the strict, and somewhat cruel, Earl Longchance hasn’t been a walk in the park, either.

The one day, the village is threatened by a beastie that everyone thought was extinct: the Bog Noblin. It had passed into lore: beasties that will eat you if you go outside after dark. The thing is, though: they really do. And when this one brings a heap of trouble on the village (partially because of the stupid Earl), it’s up to Rye — sort of — to stop it.

But she can’t do it on her own. Thankfully, a helpful stranger she calls Harmless shows up at just the right moment.

I’ll say this to start: I ended up liking this book more than I did in the beginning. I had a lot of unanswered questions at the beginning; almost too many for my taste. It was frustrating that I didn’t know the why, or who, or what. Then again, neither did Rye (because of information her mother held back). But, once I started getting answers — almost halfway through — the book picked up for me, and I actually enjoyed the adventure. There was a moment when I was afraid that Rye wouldn’t be allowed to be the hero of her own book (and that the guy was going to Save the Day), but Durham pulled through and allowed Rye to do what needed to be done.

The other thing is that even though there’s going to be a second book, this really is a stand-alone story, and that’s refreshing. I enjoyed Rye and the relationships she had with those around her (her younger sister, Lottie, is adorable). I loved how Durham showed a happy family with caring relationships, and yet Rye was a clever and capable and brave and tough girl. That was definitely something I liked.

So, in the end, this was a really solid fantasy.

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau
First sentence: “Graduation Day.”
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Content: It’s violent, but not graphically so. And there’s kissing, but no sex. Which means it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. However, much like Hunger Games, I’d be wary of more sensitive readers liking it.

This book has been out for two years now, and I’ve been putting it off for just as long. Mostly because the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre has been SO overdone, that I really didn’t want to read yet another one.

Then we scheduled Charbonneau to come to the store — they’ve been working on it since the first one came out and the rep mentioned it was set in a futuristic Wichita — and I was tasked with reading and reviewing the book before she gets here. And so I did, smacking myself when I finished for waiting too long to get around to this one.

Sixteen-year-old Cia Vale has just graduated from her colony’s small school near the top of her class. She’s excited: in this post-Seven Stages War America, now called the United Commonwealth, that means she’s likely to be chosen to attend The Testing in the capitol, Tosu City (aka Wichita, though it took me nearly the whole book to figure that out). Except her father — a former Testing candidate and University graduate himself — doesn’t want her to go. However, once Cia’s been chosen, she can’t say no; refusing the Testing is an act of treason, punishable by death.

So, Cia travels to Tosu City with her father’s warning — TRUST NO ONE — echoing in her ears, and discovers what he meant. The Testing is not just high-pressure and high-competition for the twenty university slots. It’s deadly.

While the plotting and writing isn’t as tight as Suzanne Collins’s, it’s still a quick, engaging read. Charbonneau sets the stakes high right away, with Cia’s roommate committing suicide, and doesn’t let up until the final pages of the book. There are twists and turns — some of which I saw, some of which I didn’t — and Cia is a good, strong narrator to carry this story on her shoulders. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic; Charbonneau cleverly gave us a brief history of how this country came to be in a series of short written test questions early on. The dystopian part is harder to see — Cia comes to hate the Testing officials, and the government as an extension, but I’m not sure I ever felt the way she did about the officials. Unlike, say, President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Yes, comparisons are inevitable.) I do think, on the other hand, that it’s a tighter, more interesting story than Divergent (yes, there’s a love interest, which I think was mostly unnecessary).

But the best thing about waiting to read this one is that the whole series is out already. And I don’t have to wait to read the second one. And I’m invested enough in Cia’s story that I’m quite curious to find out what happens next.

Thursdays with the Crown

by Jessica Day George
First sentence: “‘You are not leaving me behind,’ Celie repeated.
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Others in the series: Tuesdays at the Castle, Wednesdays in the Tower
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, really. It’s a good book for both readers who love fantasy, and for struggling readers — lots of white space, and short chapters — who need action. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we last left Celie, Rolf, and Lila, they had just disappeared from Slene (along with Lulath and Pogue). No one knew where they went or why the castle sent them away.

As the book opens, Celie and her intrepid siblings and friends are stuck in a place they didn’t know existed. And they need to find the Glorious Arkower, the head magician, to go back to Slene. Except, things aren’t that simple. They discover that Rufus (Celie’s griffin) isn’t the only one; he’s got parents. Who happen to be the king and queen of the Royal Griffins. The motley crew manages to find and hatch a couple more griffin eggs (one for everyone!) and discover that the Glorious Arkower is… not so glorious. And things aren’t as simple. The question is: can Celie figure out a way to return back (and wake up!) the castle she loves?

This is such an adorable series, though I think it might be one that’s better read in one sitting. Sure, I fell pretty fast into the world (I haven’t read the other two in a while). But, I think I would have liked it more had I read them all in quick succession. Even so, Celie’s delightful, Lulath’s still my favorite, and I’ll happily spend time in Slene with them for as long as George wants to write about them