Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
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Others in the series: Seraphina, Shadow Scale
Content: There are many allusions to sex (including rape). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

As a head’s up, while this one references Seraphina and Shadow Scale, it’s a completely separate story, and you can probably get away without reading them if you’re not interested. (I didn’t re-read them, and so really didn’t remember much, and still enjoyed Tess.)

Let me say this at the start: I love Hartman’s writing. It’s not elegant like Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater, but Hartman knows how to tell a story in such a way that you lose yourself in it. Tess is a human girl — Seraphina’s half sister — who just wants to be intellectually challenged. But raised in a strict household (they’re paying for Seraphina’s “sin” of being a dragon), what’s expected of her is to marry well. But Tess messes that up when she gets pregnant (at age 14!) and has a baby. And now, when she’s 17, faced with the prospect of raising her twin sisters children or going to a convent she does the unthinkable: she disguises herself as a boy and takes to walking the road, ostensibly to help her quigutl (a sub-species of dragon) friend find the World Serpent.

This is such a remarkable book: a heartfelt and emotional tale as Tess’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but also an adventurous one, as we experience Tess and Pathka’s adventures on the road. It’s a deeply feminist book as well, as Hartman explores the consequences of not teaching your kids sex ed or discouraging girls from getting an education, if they want. It’s all about expressing anger and compassion and helping others out along they way and redemption and forgiveness.

And it’s left open-ended, so we may (or may not) get to join Tess for more adventures.

It’s wonderful.

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.

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.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent  bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Razzle Dazzle Unicorn

razzledazzleby Dana Simpson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the Series: Phoebe and her Unicorn, Unicorn on a Roll, Unicorn vs. Goblins
Content: Simple, fun, colorful, and funny, these are perfect for kids in 3-5th grade. They are also perfect for anyone who likes a little silliness in their life.

I feel a little silly still writing reviews of these; it’s not a story (really; though there is a bit of an arc, it’s more like Calvin and Hobbes than an actual story) that needs to be updated. But every time I see a new Phoebe and Marigold collection, I pick it up, because I can’t get enough of them.

It’s a lot like the other ones: there’s holiday magic, there’s struggles at school (the best is when Phoebe gets in trouble for taking journaling a little too seriously), there’s summertime fun, Phoebe goes to music camp again. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s pure delight.

If you’re not reading these, you are missing out.

Hunters of Chaos

huntersofchaosby Crystal Velasquez
First sentence: “My muscles burn as the thick green jungle vines speed by in a blur.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The characters are in high school and there’s some bullying and a little bit of romance (he like likes me!) but otherwise, it’s appropriate for the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ana is an orphan (oh no!) living with her aunt and uncle, who happen to be enthusiastic scholars and collectors of Mayan artifacts. It’s their heritage, as well as Ana’s, and they’re incredibly proud of it. Even though Ana misses her parents, she’s incredibly happy. Then, the summer before high school, Ana gets a letter admitting her to to her parents’ alma matter, Temple Academy. Her aunt and uncle are a bit wary, but they send her off anyway.

At first, Ana tries to fit in with the super rich, super popular girls, which includes her roommate, Nicole. But, she soon finds out that fitting in costs way too much (both financially and morally). She ends up being friends with Doli, who’s Navajo, and Shani, who’s Egyptian. It turns out that the three of them — four with Lin, who’s Chinese, and a bit of a bully at first — are part of something bigger, something more ancient than any of them had ever expected.

It’s so hard for me not to spoil this book because it really was awesome. Not only are four of the main characters people of color (and descended from ancient civilizations which the author respects, I think) but they do some awesome things. There’s a whole scene near the end of the book that just had me cheering. There was a bit of a bullying dynamic and the love triangle-y stuff was a bit much (More adventure! More magic! Less love!), but it wasn’t enough to get me to dislike this. There’s just so much to love.

Give it to all those kids who are reading the Warrior books. They’d love it.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

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.

Boys of Blur

by N. D. Wilson

First sentence: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some intense moments, some violence, and some reference to abuse. It’s pretty intense, so while it’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, I’d hesitate giving it to the younger part of that age range.
There’s so much going on in this slim book, that it’s difficult for me to know where to start. 
There’s Charlie Reynolds, who had an abusive father, but whose mother was strong enough to leave and who found Mack, a former professional football player from a small town in Florida, to help keep her and Charlie safe. They got married and had an adorable little girl, Molly.
There’s Cotton Mack, the homeschooled son of one of Mack’s cousins, whom Charlie meets when he’s in Florida to attend the funeral of Mack’s former football coach.
It’s after that funeral that things start getting weird for Charlie and Cotton. Like ancient mythical men on mounds wielding swords weird. Like panthers that are tame and the zombie-like Stank (aka Gren) who feed off of envy and greed. And somehow it falls to Charlie and Cotton (well, mostly Charlie) to stop the Gren from rising and destroying their town.
In many ways, this one is reminiscent of The Dark is Rising: an ancient force pitted against a boy, who didn’t know he had it in him to face that ancient force. The difference is that this one is very southern, and is liberally scattered with African Americans. Which brings me to my one problem: why did the white kid have to be the one to save the world, in the end? Why did Cotton have to be taken out of commission? Although I really liked the book, with its mix of football and mythology and family, I was disappointed by this.
I don’t know how much that affected my enjoyment in the end, because Wilson does know how to pace a book, and he’s incredibly tight in his timing, and he knows how engage a reader. So, overall, I’d consider this one a win. 

Magic Marks the Spot

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book 1

by Caroline Carlson
First sentence: “Ever since the letter had arrived from Miss Pimm’s, Hilary had spent more and more time talking to the gargoyle.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils
Content: There’s a couple of swordfights where no one gets injured. For a pirate book, it’s really quite tame. It’s shelved in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.
Hilary Westfield has one dream: to become a pirate. Unfortunately the league of pirates in Augusta has one rule: no girls. Girls are sent to Miss Pimm’s finishing school, because that’s Where Girls Go. Thankfully, Hilary has Pluck and Determination and doesn’t let the Rules stop her. (This book insists you talk about Things in Capital Letters.) As soon as she gets a chance, she runs away from Miss Pimm’s and finds a pirate — Jasper, the Terror of the South Seas — who doesn’t care that she’s a girl. 
There’s more to this book — magic and treasure and an Enchantress and a Wicked Parent — but really, what I loved most about this book was that Hilary set out to be a pirate and succeeded ON HER OWN TERMS. No dressing up like a boy. No bowing to Tradition. No Resigning Oneself to her Fate and Making the Best of It. Nope. Not for Hilary. She (and her talking gargoyle, whom I really loved) decided that they wanted to be pirates, and Dang It, they became pirates. 
I liked this one an awful lot, mostly because of the above reason. But — aside from the unnecessary letters that were written in cursive, which is a real turn-off for kids These Days; the book got much better after I started skipping them — I really enjoyed all of it. There was humor (Miss Greyson, the governess/chaperone, was hilarious), sword fighting, a wee bit of romance (but not overstated; it was between the adults), and most of all Hilary being Awesome.
Yeah, it was a bit slow at the start, and I really don’t like that it’s yet another one in a series, but I thought the story wrapped up well enough, and I’d be willing to see where Hilary’s piratical adventures take her. 

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Garden Princess

by Kristin Kladstrup
First sentence: “Princess Adela laced her fingers under a clump of creeping Charlie and pulled, enjoying the satisfying crackle of roots ripping free of soil.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Aside from your usual witches being Bad and princesses not wanting to be princesses and talk of Marriage for a 16-year-old, there’s not much here. It’d happily belong in the middle grade (3-5) section of the bookstore.
Review copy sent to me by the publisher for the Cybils

Adela, like many princesses in books like these, does not like being a princess. She would much rather muck around in the garden, creating landscapes, finding new plants. So, when the handsome gardener (whom she prefers hanging out with) gets invited to a garden party thrown by Lady Hortensia, Adela finagles her way along, mostly so she can see Hortenisa’s famed gardens. However, when she gets there, she finds that the gardens aren’t, well, normal. And Hortensia’s a witch, something Adela thought didn’t exist. It turns out that Hortensia’s plants are all actually beautiful girls. And Adela’s determined to set them all free.

So far, so good. It’s pretty run-of-the-mill, but nothing horrible. I actually kind of like Adela, and it’s not very often you get a princess obsessed with gardening. But, once at the garden, it went south for me. It got very lecture-y about Outer Beauty (which is bad!) and Inner Strength (which is good!), but I could deal with that. No, my problem came with the climax. See, Adela, for all her Heroism, doesn’t actually Solve the Problem. Nope, that goes to the guy/love interest in the story. And that bothered me. I wanted Adela to be Strong Enough and Smart Enough to beat the evil witch, but it turned out that she was only Good Enough to inspire the guy into figuring things out.


But other than that, it was a perfectly fine little fantasy.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

EMGSF Smallish Books

The Lonely Lake Monster
by Suzanne Selfors
First sentence: “Pearl smacked the alarm clock until the loud beeping stopped.”
Content: Nothing objectionable or difficult at all. My only problem is deciding whether or not it’s happiest in the middle grade (3-5) section or the beginning chapter book (grade 1-2) section. It could go either way.
Others in the series: The Sasquatch Escape

I really liked the first one of the series; and this was more of the same. It wasn’t bad; Pearly got to shine as her own heroine, saving her friend Ben from a lonely lake monster. She came up with and executed a solution on her own, which I was very proud of and grateful for. It just lacked substance, which is just me as an adult talking. It’s perfect for the target age group.

The Ghost Prison
by Joseph Delaney/Illustrated by Scott M. Fisher
First sentence: “For pity’s sake, get up, lad.”
Content: Lots of ghosts. Would sit in the middle grade (3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a ghost story. For kids. It’s got (duh) ghosts, and kid-eating monsters, and atmosphere coming out the wazoo. Except, it wasn’t scary. At all. Even the twist at the end wasn’t a surprise. Perhaps it was because I am an adult, and it’d be terrifying to a 7-year-old. But, honestly? You want something scary? Read Coraline.

Mickey Price: Journey to Oblivion
by John P. Stanley
First sentence: “Every great adventure starts with a moment.”
Review copy sent to me for the Cybils.
Content: Seventh-graders being put in dangerous situations. But other than that, nothing. Would reside in the middle grade (3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mickey Price — confusingly telling this story to his kids when he’s older — is a seventh grader who gets chosen to be a part of a super-secret astronaut program in 1977. They get sent to the moon and Save The World. There’s science and math because, you know, they’re Useful. And I spent the entire book alternately wondering WHY this was in the Speculative Fiction category — was it because it’s unrealistic to send seventh graders into space — and wishing Stanley had gotten a better editor. Good idea, lousy execution.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)