The Map to Everywhere

by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis
First sentence: “Fin crouched behind a rack of bootleg flavors, trying hard to ignore the taste of rat fur and broccoli juice seeping from the grungy bottles.”
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Content: It’s kind of long, there’s some difficult made-up words, and it does take a bit of time to get into, so not really for a reluctant reader. Then again, there’s some great illustrations… Either way, it’s i the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Marrill has lived a life of adventure, following her parents around the world. Now, what was supposed to be a temporary stop in Arizona has become (mostly) permanent: her mother has cancer, and they need to stay close to doctors. But the prospect of school and a stable home doesn’t make Marrill happy.

Across the universe, Fin is the opposite: stuck in the Khaznot Quay, where he was dropped off as a baby by his mother (who then disappeared), Fin has become a master thief, mostly because he’s the guy who can’t be remembered. Literally: people look at him and as soon as they look away, they don’t remember him anymore. It’s very convenient when you tend to steal things.

But when Marrill’s and Fin’s paths cross — it has something to do with the Pirate Stream (a magical time/space continuum thing; you can sail a ship almost anywhere in the universe on it) — they end up teaming up to stop a rogue wizard from destroying the stream, and therefore the universe.

This is a perfectly fine fantasy adventure, once it got started. The main problem for me was that it took too long to get started. I almost put it down several times as I was waiting for the adventure to start, wading through the new world, and how everything connected. However, once the people and things were in place, I really did enjoy Marrill and Fin’s adventures.

I’m not sure if I’m invested in the series, but I think the kids will like it.

The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw

by Christopher Healy
First sentence: “Outlaws have too many feathers in their hats.”
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Others in the series: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your KingdomThe Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle
Content: There’s some kissing, a bit of violence (and almost violence), and it’s long for a middle-grade novel. It’d be in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore; don’t let the length fool you; it goes fast.

I don’t even remember what our Fair Heroes were doing at the end of the second book. But, honestly: it doesn’t matter. I fell right back into the silly stupidity (and I say that with all loving kindness in my heart) of this book, snorting and giggling as The League of Princes (and the Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters — or FFFF) try to save the Thirteen Kingdoms from Lord Rauber’s (who they thought they killed in the last book) evil plan to take over the world.

The point to the book, I think, is not the plot. Sure, there is a plot: The whole gang is branded as outlaws because they were supposed to have murdered Briar Rose (sure, she’s annoying, but they wouldn’t literally kill her. Only figuratively) so everyone’s on the run and trying to prove their innocence. But the point is for the guys to be dorky (ah, Duncan), the girls to be awesome (bonus: pirate captain Jerica! Double bonus: Gustav trying to flirt), and for super-silly jokes and asides (like the prisoner Val Jeanval. Get it??). Yes, it was stupid. But, I love it.

Full of action (and stupid jokes), and perfect for just about anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of fairy tale adventure.

Five Kingdoms 1: Sky Raiders

by Brandon Mull
First sentence: “Weaving down the hall, Cole avoided a ninja, a witch, a pirate, and a zombie bride.”
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Review copy downloaded from Net Galley
Content: There’s some intense action, but it’s pretty tame, after the kidnapping scene. And there’s a lot of talk about “liking” girls, but it’s pretty innocent. It’s happily situated with the rest of Brandon Mull’s books in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Cole is your average run-of-the-mill 7th grader in your average run-of-the-mill American suburban town. He has a crush on a girl, he has friends, he gets decent grades. Nothing spectacular. Then on Halloween, he and his friends go to a haunted house and end up slaves on a different planet. (Actually, his friends get kidnapped.. Cole goes down the hole after them, hoping to save them. And ends up as a slave.) The world is the Five Kingdoms, and Cole (and his friends) are on the Outskirts. And once you’re there, they find, it’s practically impossible to leave.

One of the best things about this new series by Brandon Mull is the world. The Outskirts is a fascinating place. Part magic, part dreams, part vicious, part insane; it’s a crazy, wild ride of a world. And while this one is basically your typical first in a series, introduction to the world book, the world that Mull creates is a fantastic one.

Cole finds himself sold to the Sky Raiders: a group of pirates that go out over the Brink — an endless chasm — and raids floating castles for anything they can sell. The thing is: the floating castles are dream-like, filled with semblences — lifelike beings that are somewhat sentient, but not entirely. They’re dangerous, and it’s Cole’s job, as the bottom of the totem pole, to scope out the castle, and make sure that it’s not dangerous before the raiding crew comes in. Their parting words before Cole’s first mission? Die bravely.

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that; there’s a girl (there always is) who turns out to be something more than you think (again, kind of predictable). And there’s more adventure than you can shake a stick at, even though the plot kind of felt like one vignette after another all strung together. There is an overarching plot, and once we get to the point where the plot of this one begins to advance the overall plot, it loses some of the vignette quality. But the thing that kept me reading was the world. It really is that imaginative and wild.

The rest of it was good, enough that I’ll keep an eye out for the sequel. Which is a good thing, I think.

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.”
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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.)

Fortunately the Milk

by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young
First sentence: “There was only orange juice in the fridge.”
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Two things up front: First, this is a tall tale. Second, because it’s a tall tale (and because it’s meant for beginning(ish) readers), there’s not much substance to it.

That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable; it is. I enjoy Gaiman’s stuff normally, but I really do think I prefer his whimsical works for younger kids. This one is basically the tale of a dad who went out to get milk for the morning cereal, and had a wild adventure getting back home. There are hot air balloons (or rather “Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier”), pirates, piranhas, aliens, time travel, and even sparkly ponies. Of course, the kids don’t believe the dad, because he’s obviously telling a story. Or is he?

As I said, this is delightful. The illustrations are brilliantly funny, and I laughed aloud at many parts. My only problem with the book is that I would have liked it better if it had been a true middle grade novel, and one of the kids had had the adventure, rather than their father doing all the cool, fun stuff.

But that’s such a minor quibble. I’m going to hand this one to K to see what she thinks. I have an inkling that she’ll like 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.)

Treasure Hunters

by James Patterson, Chris Grabenstein, and Mark Shulman; illustrated by Juliana Neufeld
ages: 8+
First sentence: “Let me tell you about the last time I saw my dad.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at work.

The Kidd family — parents and children (in order) Tommy, Storm, and twins Bick and Beck — are treasure hunters. Which means, they go around the world looking for, and mostly retrieving, sunken treasure. Think of them as the Indiana Jones of the sea. Then one fateful day, in a Perfect Storm, Dad goes missing. Mom was already missing — kidnapped in Cyprus — which left the four kids on their own. To figure out what their father was doing, and how to get their mom back. All while figuring out whom to trust. And that’s not even mentioning the ninja-surfer-pirates.

On the one hand, this was non-stop action. Starting with the storm, we get pirates, sharks, creepy underworld antiques dealers, more pirates, CIA agents, more pirates, creepy underworld antiques dealers, and the Pirate King. It’s a packed book. (It also comes in at 450 pages, but the type is big and it’s liberally littered with illustrations.) While it was fun enough, sometimes I felt like the three men who wrote this just sent texts back and forth:

JP: “I think there should be pirates.”
CG: “Yeah. But they should be surfer pirates. The kids would really go for that.”
MS: “How about NINJA surfer pirates. THAT would be AWESOME.” (Okay, so MS is about 10 in my imagination.)
JP and CG: “Yeah. Totally rad.”

It was so over the top that it felt hackneyed to me. And on some level it made me sad: this isn’t really a book. (And to be honest, I only picked it up because I loved Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library so much. I tend to avoid Mr. Patterson’s collaborations.) It’s a movie script. It a pile of events one on top of the other that tries to be a book. Sure, there’s a plot (of sorts), and characters (I did kind of like the twins, but the stereotypical “fat, but she’s smart so we don’t mind her weight” Storm grated on me). But it lacked any kind of… elegance that it needed to be a book.

Either that, or I’m just WAY too old for this.

The Runaway King

by Jennifer Nielsen
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I had arrived early for my own assassination.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The False Prince
ARC brought back from ABA Winter Institute for me by my co-workers.

Obviously, there will be spoilers for The False Prince. If you haven’t read that yet, you should. 

Sage — now King Jaron — has had a month to settle into his new life. To be frank about it: it’s not going well. His regents don’t really like or trust him (the feeling’s mutual), he’s not really getting along with the princess he’s supposed to marry, and his chief captain is not exactly helpful. Things just come to a head on the night of his family’s funeral with a (failed) assassination attempt  by the pirates.

Which leaves Jaron — who is convinced war is coming, even if his regents refuse to see it — with one option: go to the pirates and deal with them head-on.

And, because he’s Sage, that means things won’t go exactly as planned. (Not that there was a plan to begin with, mind you.)

I didn’t reread The False Prince first, so I was a little worried I wouldn’t remember enough to keep up with this story. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case: I immediately fell back into Neilsen’s world was thoroughly taken with Jaron/Sage’s story. There’s a lot of action and adventure here as Jaron tries to keep his kingdom from thoroughly collapsing, from the thief camp to the pirate camp and back again. One of the things I liked most about this was the way Nielsen kept Sage/Jaron’s personality pretty much the same (from what I remembered) as in the False Prince, enabling the book to have a sense of levity to it, while giving him the weight necessary to be a good ruler. (Yes, he still reminds me of Gen.)

On the other hand, there is also a lot of posturing by the minor characters (how many times to they have to say “Don’t do that” before they realize he’s just NOT going to listen!), not to mention all the growling of the Big Baddies. (Especially the pirate king. He was just a bit too stereotypical thuggish.) And I do have to admit that Roden’s motivations weren’t always consistent or clear, both of  which did get a wee bit annoying.

But not enough for me to dislike the book. For the most part, I found myself immersed in the book, not willing to put it down, wanting to know just how Jaron was going to make everything work for him.