Jane, Unlimited

by Kristin Cashore
First sentence: “The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

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Audiobook: Orphan Island

by Lauren Snyder
Read by: Kim Mai Guest
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head

curiosityhouseby Lauren Oliver (and H. C. Chester)
First sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up and don’t be shy.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s murder and some adult smoking and drunkenness. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have basically grown up in Dumfrey’s Dime House, a place where unusual kids like them — Philippa is a mentalist, Sam is a strong man, and Thomas is a super-math-genius — are welcome. But, soon after Max (knife thrower extraordinaire) arrives, Mr. Dumfrey’s prize shrunken head goes missing and then people around the city start dying. It’s up to the four kids to figure out what is going on. And, in the process, figure out who they Really Are.

I found the mystery end of this delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the four kids as they learned to work together and puzzle out who exactly was the person behind the killings. I figured it out before they did, but not much before, and I loved that the clues were there for anyone to pick up. Even the big twist ending wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s only vaguely speculative fiction (mentalist abilities and all that), so it’s perfect for those who don’t want much magic or ficitonal places. The only complaint is one I remember Ms. Yingling having: I wish the historical context was more explicitly put out there. Like her, I was able to figure it out, but I’m not sure that kids would get it (in fact I know so: this is one that my kid review group at work read and they didn’t even notice). Though that’s probably not something that would bother them.

At any rate, it’s a lot of fun.

(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.)