Sweep

sweepby Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “There were all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning.”
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Content: There are some scary moments, and some talk of death. Plus the prose just feels “older”. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it could easily go older as well.

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep her whole life. She started out with a man she called Sweep, until one day he just didn’t come back, and so she took up with her current master, Crudd. He, if you can’t tell from his name, isn’t terribly nice.

Then one day, the worst thing that can happen to a sweep happens to Nan: she gets stuck. They try to get her out, but nothing works, and so they try the Final Option: burning her out. She blacks out, and when she wakes up… she’s rescued. And there’s a creature there. She ends up calling him Charlie — he was made from a small piece of char that the Sweep left her — and it turns out he’s a golem.

It has a tough beginning, but after Charlie comes into the story, it settles down into small adventures: Nan tries to keep from getting caught — she is supposed to be dead, after all — and tires to find out more about Charlie and his purpose as Charlie himself learns more about the world. It’s very atmospheric (in all the best ways), as Nan and Charlie end up relying on each other. There is a couple of small sub-plots, dealing with the horrid conditions of chimney sweeps in Victorian England (and they are horrid) and with Crudd’s vengeance for Nan “escaping” her indenture. But, mostly it’s a charming little tale of Nan and Charlie and their friendship.

Auxier, when he was here for school visits, said that he considers himself more of a storyteller than a writer, and that shows: although his writing is elegant, it’s the storytelling that comes through. He knows how to tell a story to keep a reader reading, and to make the characters come to life. It’s a strange, sweet story and I adored every moment of this one (even the ending, which made me cry).

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Rules for Thieves

by Alexandra Ott
First sentence: (I’d put it here, but I’ve misplaced my copy of the book!)
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Content: There’s some intense moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Twelve-year-old Alli Rosco has a problem: she’s in an orphanage (which she hates and has tried — unsuccessfully — to escape from) and doesn’t want to be adopted (she tried that, too, and ran away because the family was so awful). So, when faced with another adoption day, she takes the most reasonable alternative: she runs away (again). And gets caught (again)… but this time, things go differently. She gets hit with a magic curse, and then a boy helps her escape. His name is Beck, and he tells her that 1) the curse she was hit with is deadly, and that she has about 10 days to live and 2) the Thieves Guild is real and can help get her the money it will take to heal her curse.

The catch? She has to pass a trial to become part of the Guild.

The other catch? She’s not a great thief to begin with.

But, with Beck and the Thieves Guild, she finds a family that she can be a part of, and even though the trial is obscenely difficult, she is game to do the best she can for her friends.

The thing that impressed me most about this was the world building. Ott created something familiar, yet wholly its own with patron saints and 53-day months, and unusual creatures and technology and magic. It sucked me into the story, which I also enjoyed. Alli is a headstrong character, willing to go out on a limb for those she came to care about, and willing to risk everything to save her own life. It’s a decent heist and a good adventure story, and it wraps up quite nicely at the end, while leaving a thread open for the sequel. I’m definitely interested in where Alli’s story is going.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart
First sentence: “In a city called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.”
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Content: It’s a bit long, and somewhat involved, so maybe it’s not for reluctant readers though I think it would make a good read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I was pretty sure, when I picked this one for my mystery book club this summer, that I had never read it before. But, about a third of the way into it, I realized if I hadn’t read it before, it must have been a pretty predictable book, since I basically knew (most of) what was going to happen. So, I will err on the side of bad memory and say I’ve read this one in the past (sometime) and not that it’s predictable (though maybe it is, a little bit).

The basic story is this: Reynie (and four others: Sticky, Kate, and Constance) is an orphan who answers an ad looking for gifted children to take a test. Once he (they) pass the test, he finds himself working for Mr. Benedict on a secret project: someone has been transmitting subliminal messages to the public (read by children) and Mr. Benedict needs them to infiltrate The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (or LIVE) where the messages are coming from and stop them.

From there, Reynie and his friends embark on a dangerous mission to fulfill Mr. Benedict’s wishes and stop LIVE (or is it EVIL?) from taking over the world.

On the one hand: this was kind of fun. It was nice to see Reynie and company working together, using each of their own strengths, to overcome the bad guys. It took a while — this book takes place over months, not days — but they eventually work together to solve the ultimate mystery. But, on the other hand, did it really need to be this long? And while I got that the mystery was figuring out who was sending the messages and then how they worked and how to stop them, I felt a bit disconnected from the whole book. Usually, with mysteries, I like to be aware that (if I am clever enough) I could possibly solve the puzzles and mysteries as well as the characters can. But this time, I felt like Stewart was just laying everything everything out for us, walking us through each step and not leaving readers any chance to solve the mystery on their own. Which made me a little disappointed in the book.

Still, not bad overall.

The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle

by Christina Uss
First sentence: “The front door to the Mostly Silent Monastery was missing.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 5, 2018
Content: It’s got a few fantasy elements, but is more realistic fiction. It’s probably longer than emerging readers can mange, but I think it’d make a great read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

This book, for a myriad of reasons, is highly implausible. A 12 year old girl biking alone across the country? Making friends with  a ghost? Ending up with a super high-tech bicycle? Attending the Kentucky Derby for free? All probably not going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean this first book by Uss, an avid biker herself (she biked across the U. S.!) any less enjoyable. Bicycle is a delightful character to spend a book with as she branches out (maybe in an overly extreme way) and tries to make friends and experience things for herself. Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t want to be sent to the Friendship Farm, either. It’s incredibly charming and ultimately heart-warming and inspiring as Bicycle (and Uss) finds the best parts of this vast country.

(One small quibble: if Bicycle was going through Kansas in late May/early June, she wouldn’t pass fields of sunflowers… that’s more an August/September thing. At least it wasn’t corn fields, though.)

Hand this to anyone who wishes they had the time and freedom to see the country the slow way.

 

Jane, Unlimited

by Kristin Cashore
First sentence: “The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog.”
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Release date: September 19, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are six (or so) f-bombs, some mention of sex (none actual). It will be in the Teen Section (grades 9+).

Jane’s guardian, her Aunt Magnolia, made her promise one thing before Magnolia left for Antarctica (and then subsequently died): don’t turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens, the home of the eccentric millionaire Octavian Thrash. Jane promises, and so when her former tutor, and Thrash child, Kiran invites Jane to a gala the mansion, Jane agrees to go, unsure of what she’ll find.

At this point, the book reads like your typical YA novel: a girl who’s trying to find herself, a dead “mom”, a mansion with secrets. But, at one point, Jane is asked to make a decision of which person to find and talk to: Mrs. Vanders (the housekeeper), the little girl (whom Jane has seen around the mansion), Kiran, Ravi (Kiran’s twin), or Jasper (the basset hound). And from there the novel diverges into incredibly unique territory. Jane is allowed, throughout the course of the novel, to make each of those decisions, and in doing so, lives five different versions of the day.

I’ll be frank: it took a bit to settle into this. But, as the different versions went on, I caught on to what (I think) Cashore was exploring. One version of “reality” bled into the next, and it got more and more fascinating as it went on. I liked the exploration of the idea of multiverses, I liked seeing how Jane reacted to each of the situations she found herself in. And I found myself getting caught up in each version. Of course, Cashore’s writing is impeccable, and while I caught the Jane Eyre and Winnie the Pooh references, I missed the biggest homage: to Rebecca. (Which means, I should reread this one!)

It really was a delight to read.

Audiobook: Orphan Island

by Lauren Snyder
Read by: Kim Mai Guest
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Listen on Libro.fm!
Content: There’s some mild violence, and some underlying darkness (that I may have noticed because I’m an adult) and some more mature themes (like growing up). It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) at the bookstore, but is probably better for the upper ends of the age range.

Nine orphans live on this island. No less, no more. And once every year (or so) a green boat mysteriously appears, bearing a new young orphan, and the oldest one on the island, the Elder, is supposed to get on the boat and leave, while the new oldest takes care of the new little one. When the book opens, Jinny is saying goodbye to her best friend, Deen, and hello to her Care, Ess. It’s a bittersweet opening: Jinny doesn’t want to say goodbye to her friend, and Ess isn’t happy about being there. And yet, they must go on.

The book covers a huge swath of time, but Snyder does it incredibly elegantly. Jinny struggles with teaching Ess the things she needs to know, and struggles with being the Elder.  In short: she doesn’t want to grow up. For that’s what this book is: an extended metaphor for that transition through childhood. It’s elegant and lovely, and sometimes frustrating and sad (Jinny breaks the rules, and has to deal with the consequences, which aren’t pretty) and annoying. But it’s always a lovely, lovely book.

And the narrator was spectacular. I don’t know what the text is like, but with the narrator, I could not only tell each of the nine kids by her voices, but she caught Ess’s transition from little kid to slightly older one. It was an absolute delight to listen to and one I would recommend.

Thornhill

by Pam Smy
First sentence: “I knew it was too good to last.”
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Release date: August 29. 2017
Content: It’s creepy and the bullying gets intense. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful giving it to overly sensitive kids.

It’s 1982, and Mary is an orphan at Thornhill, in its final days. The orphans are being sent to other places, or place in foster homes. That is, except Mary — who has a form of selective mutism; she mostly can’t talk because of anxiety — and her nemesis, a girl we only know as “her” (I can’t remember ever reading a name, and as I went to find one, I couldn’t). Mary is bullied by her: psychologially, mostly, but also physically. But because she’s subtle about it, and because Mary is so terrified, she is never caught.

In a page taken from Brian Selznick’s books, Smy also tells a contemporary story, in which Ella and her father move into the house next to Thornhill, which has been closed for 30+ years, ever since a mysterious death of one of the orphans. Ella sees a girl in the window one night, and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is (Mary, of course!) and how she died.

This is a completely creepy book. Seriously. Not just the color palate; done in stark black and white, it adds to the sense of foreboding that is in the text. It’s got ghosts and dolls and psychological elements. It’s pretty intense. Which, if you like that sort of book, is a good thing.

The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes

adventurersguideby Wade Albert White
First sentence: “At Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children, every orphan is treated with the same amount of disdain and neglect.”
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Release date: September 13, 2016
Full disclosure: I had dinner with the author at Children’s Institute, and think he’s delightful.
Review copy provided by the publisher. I met the author at Children’s Institute 4
Content: There’s some biggish words, and a wee bit of violence, and maybe some of the humor will go over the heads of the younger kids, but mostly it’s just fine for the middle grade (3-5th) grade set, which is where the book is located at the store.

Anne has spent her whole life at Saint Lupin’s Institute, working and wishing she knew where she came from. She has a plan: when she gets to leave when she turns 13 (everyone is kicked out because the Hierarchy stops supporting them), she’s going to go adventuring and looking for her past. However, when her birthday comes, the Matron denies Anne the right to leave. That starts a chain of events that leads Anne to accidentally stealing a gauntlet (a metal hand thingy) and a prophecy medallion, that starts a Rightful Heir Quest (an unheard of Level 13!), which gives Anne and her friends Penelope and Hiro, four days which to fulfill. It’s not an easy thing: solving riddles, finding weird robots, traveling by fireball, but someone’s got to do it. And maybe save the world (and pass Questing 101) while they’re at it.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. It’s got the same sort of off-beat humor, full of puns and plain silliness. It’s different though; the world that Anne is on is one that isn’t fully fleshed out. It feels like an old-fashioned fantasy, but there’s robots and computer screens and elevators… and mention of an Old World. Is it scifi or dystopian?  I wasn’t sure. (Actually, I do have a working theory of the world, but I’m going to keep it to myself, until I figure out whether I’m right or not.) But, in spite of those questions, I enjoyed this one thoroughly. It was fun, it was funny, it was clever, and it was pretty much exactly what I wanted out of a middle grade fantasy.

I’ll definitely be picking up the next one when it comes out.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

girlwhodrankby Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “Yes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Although this is masquerading as a middle grade novel, it’s really an upper-middle-grade/mild YA novel. There’s not much, content-wise, that would be inappropriate for the younger set, I’m just not sure how well they’d follow the plot. It’s either for those contemplative readers who want to immerse themselves in a slow story, or older readers who are looking for something lyrical.  It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore (though it could easily go in our YA — grades 6-8 — section).

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. There’s a girl — Luna — who was a baby left beside the road by a town that believes unless they sacrifice one baby, the witch will destroy their village. There’s a witch — Xan — who has been rescuing the babies from the village for years, depositing them in homes where they are cared for. She takes Luna, and decides to raise her. There’s a Perpetually Tiny Dragon and a swamp monster. A madwoman in a tower, and a  young man who defies the town council. There’s a lot going on in this novel, and yet, there also isn’t a lot. It’s a very small story about home and family and doing what’s right over what’s convenient. But it’s a larger story, as well: about home and family and doing what’s right over what’s convenient.

I do have to admit that while I found the language beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, I did keep wondering what sort of kid was going to pick this one up. It’s so different from the standard Middle Grade fare (probably for a good reason): much slower, much more contemplative. I do hope it finds an audience, because it really is a beautiful story.

The Fog Diver

fogdiverby Joel Ross
First sentence: “My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.”
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Content: There’s some intense moments, and it’s a bit difficult to follow plot-wise, but it’s great for grades 4 and up. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s the distant future, and the nanites that the world had designed to clean up the smog went crazy and created a fog that is inhabitable for humans. They’ve moved up to the tops of mountains to survive and have developed a whole society up there. Chess and his friends are at the bottom of the totem pole, being junk divers: they troll the Fog in their airship and it’s Chess’s job to dive in the fog to find relics of the lost age. The reason why Chess is so good at this is because he was born in the fog and his eye is swirling with nanites. He’s in hiding, somewhat, from the evil Lord Kodoc, who will take Chess and work him to death if he ever finds out he exists.

Huh. I’m not sure if that does this justice. (Probably not.) It’s a fantastic, wild weird world that Ross has created. My favorite part? The obscure references to pop culture. Harry Otter, or the X-Wing Enterprise or skycatchers (instead of skycrapers), all made me smile. It’s was a wink to current times without being too trendy and it was perfect. I also loved the supporting characters. Chess was pretty great, but so was the captain Hazel, the pilot Swede, and the gear girl (who had shades of Kaylee from Firefly) Bea. They worked well as a team and I ended up loving all of them equally.

I do have to admit that this took me a bit to get into. It’s slowish to start, but once it gets going, it’s a LOT of fun. And fun is just what I needed right now.