See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

Caraval

caravalby Stephanie Garber
First sentence: “It took seven years to get the letter right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 31, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some domestic abuse and an almost-rape. If the reader is sensitive to those topics, then this probably isn’t for them. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I will say this straight up: this one is a hard book to sum up. There’s devoted sisters, the older — Scarlett — of which will do anything for the younger — Tella. There’s a controlling and abusive father who uses the sisters’ devotion against them. There’s a traveling game, Caraval, that is invitation only and that Scarlett has wanted to attend for years. There’s a history between Caraval’s master, Legend, and Scarlett’s grandmother. And then there’s Scarlett’s impending marriage.

And then Scarlett and her sister get invited to the game, the week before her wedding. And it turns out that finding Tella is the POINT of the game. One in which Scarlett must be prepared to risk everything to win.

I loved this. Seriously. No, it’s not lyrical and the writing isn’t the grandest, but it’s good, solid storytelling with an epic story to be told. I loved that the stakes were high. And the chemistry between Scarlett and Julian? When it was on, it was ON. I liked the use of magic in the game and the way it kept me in suspense about what was real and what wasn’t

I liked that the story wrapped up, mostly suitably, even though there was a bit left undone for a sequel. Definitely worth reading.

Audiobook: Three Dark Crowns

threedarkcrownsby Kendare Blake
Read by: Amy Landon
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Content: There’s some off-screen sex, and lots and lots of violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The premise of this one is weird and awesome: on the island of Fennbirn, every generation there is born a set of triplet queens. They are fostered out, according to their “powers”, and each one has an equal chance at becoming queen. The catch? The one who becomes queen has to kill her sisters.

Our queens are Arsinoe, a naturalist, said to have power over nature; Katharine, a poisoner, who can ingest the most lethal poisons and not die; and Mirabella, an elemental, who has control over the weather. Except, things aren’t always as they seem. And those who the queens have been fostered to have much more power than the queens.

It had a really slow start to it; there was a lot of exposition about the magic (which I didn’t mind) and the characters (I liked some better than others). There were a couple of love stories, and a love triangle (of sorts). (I kept rooting for one of the queens to be lesbian; I think one is, but not the one I suspected.) It took a long time to get going, and the only thing that kept me listening was the narrator, who was quite spellbinding. For one, there’s a lot of weird names of people and places in this, and it was nice to have someone else pronounce Arsinoe (ar-sin-oye) and Katharine (cat-er-eene), instead of trying to figure it out on my own. I think Blake tried to balance all three queens’ stories, but she ended up focusing more on Arsinoe more than others. (Or at least I felt she did.)

It wasn’t a stand-alone, as I had hoped. And I called one of the major twists fairly early on. But were a couple of things that surprised me, and I have hopes for the direction that the sequel should go (we’ll see). It wasn’t the best fantasy I’ve read, but it wasn’t bad either.

 

Jacob Have I Loved

jacobhaveilovedby Katherine Patterson
First sentence: “As soon as the snow melts, I will go to Rass and fetch my mother.”
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Content: It’s slow (it won the 1980 Newbery Award), and there’s not a lot of action. It’s perfect, though, for those 12 or 13-year-old kids who are trying to figure out themselves. And who like historical fiction.

A quick side note: it’s my 12th blogiversary today! I’ve fallen out of the habit of celebrating these, but I carved out this little corner of the internet 12 years ago today. Hard to believe, but there it is.

I wasn’t feeling much like reading new stuff the past couple of weeks, so I turned to a couple of rereads. One was The Blue Sword, which I’ve already given its own review. But the other, I only mentioned briefly, 12 years ago, so I thought it deserved its own post.

Sara Louise has spent her whole life on the small island Rass in the Chesapeake Bay. Her father works the water, crabbing in the summer, and harvesting oysters in the winter; her mother was a former schoolteacher and currently runs the house. Louise is mostly content, except… her younger twin, Caroline. It’s not that Caroline is mean or awful; in fact, it’s the opposite. Caroline is beautiful, Caroline is talented, Caroline is kind. Caroline is the joy of everyone on the island, and Lousie just can’t compete. She knows she should be supportive of her sister, proud of her sister. And she is. But she’s also jealous: she wants to be Noticed. But she’s not. She’s the backbone. The work horse. The awkward child.

There isn’t much of a plot; it’s Louise’s experiences growing up, and her (finally) figuring out what she wants out of life as an adult (which is nice). I spent this reread (it’s been a while) trying to figure out why this moved me as a pre-teen, why I have such a powerful attachment to it. I think it’s because everyone (well… me) can connect to being left out. To being looked over. To working and working and working and never feeling appreciated. To always being on the outside. And Patterson captured that feeling so very perfectly. She captures the awkwardness of the pre-teen years (I really don’t think anyone ever has things together the way Caroline does in the book; I’d love to see this story from Caroline’s point of view. It’d make her more human), the way they Want but don’t quite know how to articulate that want. The up and down feelings, the drama of just Living. It’s a perfect portrait of those years, and I think that’s what resonated.

Does it hold up as an adult? Yes, it does. It’s definitely historical fiction; it’s a picture of a small island in the 1940s, during World War II, and I found that interesting. I wanted to smack Grandma. Seriously, the woman had issues. I wished there was more about Louise’s mom; I would have loved to hear her story. I did enjoy it, even if I didn’t connect to it as deeply as I did when I was a pre-teen.

Definitely still worth reading, though.

Ghosts

ghostsby Raina Telgemeier
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 13, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s frank talk about death, so maybe it’s not for the younger kids (that depends on your kid). Otherwise, it will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Cat is resentful (and feels guilty about it). Her younger sister has cystic fibrosis and the climate in northern California is going to be better for her. Plus she’ll be closer to better doctors. But that means Cat has to upend her life and move. And she doesn’t want to have to start over. Especially since their new town seems to be a bit… obsessed… with ghosts.

But, as she settles in and makes friends, she discovers that maybe things aren’t always as they seem (and maybe sometimes they are), and that maybe she and her family can find a home here.

I love Telgemeier’s work. I love that she took something as series as a sibling with an incurable illness and made it not only accessible to kids but entertaining. She uses the Dia de los Muertos celebrations to talk about those we love who have died, and how we can honor and celebrate their lives. There’s also the usual pre-teen adjustments: making friends, handling school, boys… And it all balances out to an absolutely delightful graphic novel.

Highly, highly recommended.

Mighty Jack

mightyjackby Ben Hatke
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher because Ben’s coming (September 30th)!
Release date: September 6, 2016
Content: There’s some intense magical violence, but other than that, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s geared towards the 10 and up crowd, but will probably be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

It’s summer, and Jack is stuck at home taking care of his autistic sister, Maddy, while his mother juggles two jobs. It’s not any fun, especially since Maddy doesn’t talk (much). But one day, at a local fair, Jack and Maddy meet some traveling strangers (and a nice Easter Egg for Zita fans!) and end up trading their mother’s car for some seeds.

(Yes, this is a nice twist on Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m glad you noticed.)

The seeds turn out to be magical, which sets off a chain of events that leaves Jack more than a bit wary. Along with a new friend, Lilly, the three kids try to figure out just what they’ve unleashed on their world.

Just a heads up: this is definitely a set-up for a new adventure. You learn about Jack, Maddy, and their mother. You find out a bit about Lilly (who is awesome. Period.). But, other than that, there’s a lot of mystery. The seeds are definitely Dangerous (and attract dragons!), and the conflict comes from Jack, Maddy, and Lilly’s disagreement over whether or not they should keep the garden going. Jack comes down on no, the girls vote yes. And it’s that conflict which sets up the adventure for books to come. (And here we are, again, waiting for sequels!)

I adore Ben Hatke, love his art style, and think he’s a great story teller. This one is definitely great for fans of Zita, as well as a good entry point for others (those who are hesitant to read Zita?). Fantastic!

The Trouble with Twins

troublewithtwinsby Kathryn Siebel
First sentence: “And so it begins in front of the fire, the story of two twin sisters.”
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Content: There’s some neglectful treatment of kids and some awful parenting, but nothing physically harmful. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Arabella and Henrietta are twins (in some distant past). Arabella is the beautiful, smart, sweet one and Henrietta is… not. (Before I get too much further, the better sister story, if maybe a bit more mature for this age group, is Jacob Have I Loved which is one of the more powerful reading memories I have as a child.) Henrietta is neglected, ignored, unloved. And so when she tries to get attention by cutting Arabella’s bangs off (they seem a bit old for those kind of shenanigans, but maybe that’s me projecting), she’s banished to Great-Aunt Priscilla’s house. Where she’s basically Cinderella. That is, until Arabella decides she misses her sister and goes looking.

It’s kind of a Lemony Snickett/Roald Dahl feeling book, where there’s bad adults (but not quite as bad as Dahl) who are neglectful and hate children and it’s the good, long-suffering child who gets the reward in the end. And in that light, it’s a good little book. The thing that got me was the intrusive narrator. Usually, I don’t mind them. But, this time the framing conversation between a mother and daughter just grated. I think it was meant to be cute, but it just didn’t work for me, and as a result the whole book fell flat.

I think I’ll see if any of my Dahl kids are interested in this one; maybe it’s just me being overly sensitive.