The Darkdeep

by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
First sentence: “The ground lept up to smack Nico in the face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 2, 2018
Content: There are some intense and possibly scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nico’s father is a park ranger in their small town in the Pacific northwest and made a decision which cost people jobs and made Nico a target at school. And so, when he and his friends are off at Still Cove — a cliff over a cove that “everyone” says is haunted — and the son of the mill owner comes along, Nico is not surprised that he’s targeted. The result of that target, though, is that Nico slips off the cliffside and discovers an island in the cove and an abandoned houseboat on the island. And when his friends Emma and Tyler, and one of the bully’s cronies, Olivia, join him, they decide to explore the houseboat.

What they find is a weird portal that brings all their subconscious manifestations alive. At first, it’s fun: BB8, a centaur… silly stuff like that. But everyone’s subconscious contains a little darkness, and as the darkdeep (as they start to call it) gains in strength, the manifestations begin acting on their own accord. And soon, the town’s in trouble, and Nico, Olivia, and their friends are the only ones who know why.

This was so much fun! I suppose I shouldn’t say that about an adventure/mystery/horror-light book, but it really was. I loved the creation that Condie and Reichs came up with, and the voice they found together (they worked for a single voice rather than alternating chapters, and it really works well) is just spot on middle grade. I loved the friendships they had between the four, though the focus was more on Nico and Olivia and their struggle to become friends (I mean: who wants to be friends with one of the people who was formerly bullying you?) and to trust each other. I liked the way it was plotted, letting suspense build and giving the kids the keys to the next part of the mystery as they went along. It definitely has everything it needs for kids to really enjoy this one.

I sure did.

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Ask the Passengers

by A. S. King
First sentence: “Every airplane, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it.”
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Content: There’s almost sex, references to pot smoking (by an adult), and a number of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

Astrid Jones’ parents moved her from New York City to Union Valley, a wealthy small town somewhere in Pennsylvania (or Ohio; I never quite figured it out) when she was 10. In the seven years since, Astrid has felt like an outsider, and so, as her family slowly dissolves — her father off smoking his pot, her mother to her job, her sister to being popular — Astrid spends her time surviving, trying to figure out if she’s gay, and sending her love to the airplanes that fly above.

Of course there’s more to the story than that: Astrid has a girlfriend she’s keeping secret from everyone, she and her friends get busted for being underage at a gay bar, she explores the philosophy of Socrates, and she and her family try to (maybe) figure out how to be a family.

The thing that struck me most — and this is just because of who I am and my personal experiences — is that King nailed the feeling of being on the outside. Especially when you’re on the outside in a small, conservative, wealthy town. Where everyone knew each other from the time they were little and then you move in and they never really — even if you do have a couple of friends — accept you for who you are because you don’t fit their idea of “acceptable”. There was  LOT in here about appearances and labels and fitting in and caring what other people think of you, and that’s what resonated. I think, especially since this was published seven years ago, that our ideas of LGBT and labels about sexuality have changed (mine have,  at least) and so the fact that Astrid felt that she needed to come out as definitely gay was a bit off-putting: everyone around her pushed her to label herself, whereas I think now we might be more open to her saying “I’m in love with a girl” and not making her label herself as “gay” because of that. But maybe I’m wrong.

At any rate, this gave me a lot to think about. I loved it.

The Terrible Two Get Worse

terribletwogetworseby Mac Barnett and Jory John
First sentence: “Welcome back to Yawnee Valley, its green hills and cows, cows, cows.”
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Others in the series The Terrible Two
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Content: It’s silly, but (mostly) harmless. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Niles and Miles are back, pranking the poor unsuspecting citizens — well, mostly one — of Yawnee Valley. They have gotten so bad, that the principal of their school gets fired — well, put on indefinite, unpaid leave — and his super-strict father takes over the school. He cancels everything, and effectively puts a stop to Niles and Miles’ pranks. (The best way to do that is to pretend the prank doesn’t happen. It’s the reaction that makes it a prank.) In essence, he makes Miles and Niles into “normal” students. But, because that would be a boring book, Miles and Niles team up with their former arch-enemy to kick the current principal out, and get their mojo back.

Huh. Writing that out, I sounds ridiculously stupid. (Maybe because it is…) But that’s the point, really. It lacks the cow facts of the first one that I really enjoyed, but other than that, the stupid, stupid humor of Barnett and John are back. I’m not sure it’s as funny as the first one (I liked the prank war that escalated, mostly), but it had it some moments that were pretty funny. It’s a good addition to this silly series, and I know it’ll appeal to those Wimpy Kid fans who are looking for something different.

Bone Gap

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name.”
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Content: There’s some intense situations, some creepiness, and some on-screen, tasteful sex. It’s also pretty mature in its themes. For those reasons, it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Bone Gap is one of those places that everyone knows everyone else’s business and opinions once formed aren’t so easily changed. So, everyone knows that the Rudes are hopeless and mean. That Charlie Valentine is just plain weird. And that Priscilaa — who insists upon being called Petey — is homely. And that Sam and Finn are okay without their mom, who ran off, but they could be better. And that the strange newcomer, Roza, is the most beautiful girl ever.

They also know that Finn’s not the most reliable person; he’s kind of spacey, like his mom, and so when he says some guy in a black SUV took Roza, no one believes him. They chalk it up to “women are always leaving those boys”. They assume that Roza wants to go. But Finn? Finn knows different. So, he sets about trying to find Roza, not because he loves her but because his brother does and his brother can’t quite bring himself to find her. Little does Finn know that looking for Roza will change everything.

I have been sitting here, staring at the screen, trying to figure out what to say about this book. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I didn’t love it like I felt I should.

My favorite part?  The women. I loved them. I loved Roza and her desire to be Seen for herself and not for her beauty. I loved Petey and her fierceness. I wished there were more women to love, because Ruby knows how to write them whole and complex, people rather than stereotypes.  I liked that they saved themselves, even though the men weren’t worthless louts or even helpless. It was something that was just Done, that they rose up and just did that. They were my kind of women. I also loved the idea that what we assume about other isn’t always the Truth. That there’s more to people than what we see.

But aside from that, I didn’t really love it. Maybe it was the whole magical realism thing; that genre and I have never really quite gotten along. I think I prefer my magic overt: if there’s going to be something strange going on, then give me magic with Rules. I didn’t understand what was going on until the book was nearly done, and that left me feeling, well, stupid.

So, I didn’t enjoy it as much as others on the interwebs, but I still think it’s a novel worth reading.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

by Kelly Johnson
illustrated by Katie Kath
First sentence: “My great-uncle Jim had your flyer in his barn.”
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Review copy swiped off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some tricky words, and I’m not sure whether or not the epistolary format will turn off reluctant readers or encourage them. There’s a lot of fun illustrations and some good chicken facts, though. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably give it to a confident 2nd grade reader.

Sophie Brown and her parents have just moved from the bustling city of Los Angeles to a farm in the middle of nowhere California. It was a move partially because of necessity — her dad lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one — and partially out of happenstance — Sophie’s dad’s uncle died and left him the farm. So, they’re trying to figure this whole thing out. And it’s not going terribly well. That is, until Sophie discovers a catalog for “exceptional” chickens. Turns out, that Uncle Jim was not only a farmer (he had a vegetable garden and some grape vines) but he raised, well, unusual chickens.

The chickens are not quite magical, and they’re based on real chickens, but they’re not quite normal either. (One lays glass eggs, for example.) Sophie is given instructions by the person who runs the catalog on how to catch and care for the chickens, but someone is trying to steal Sophie’s chickens. The question is: will she figure out how to keep the chickens (without divulging their magical properties)? And can she stop the thief from stealing her chickens?

The cleverest thing about this book is the format: Sophie’s story spills slowly over the course of the book through letters she writes to her dead abuela, dead great-uncle Jim, and the chicken place. (It’s kind of unusual her writing to dead people, but it works. She doesn’t really expect an answer back.) It’s a very one-sided story, and we only get snippets of things other than chickens: her mother’s free-lance writing, or her father’s failing search for a job. But, the tone is light, and there is a mystery to be solved with the chicken thief. But what really comes through is Sophie’s voice. She’s a determined child, someone who is willing to figure things out and solve problems. She’s spunky. And she’s half Latina. All of which makes for a charming book, a fun read, and a book worth checking out.

The Darkest Part of the Forest

by Holly Black
First sentence: “Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin.”
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Content: There’s a few f-bombs and some teen drinking at the beginning. And some intense kissing, not to mention violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Siblings Hazel and Benjamin have grown up in Fairfold, where they know that faeries are in the forest. They know not to mess with the fairies, but since Ben was blessed (cursed) to make gorgeous music as a child and Hazel has always been drawn to the forest, they really didn’t listen. They made up stories about the prince that was in the glass coffin, they fought some bad faeries, and Hazel even made a bargain with the Alderking to help with Ben getting some musical training.

But all that was in the past. Hazel, now 16, is reckless with boys’ hearts and Ben stopped making music years ago.

And now the prince in the coffin is awake and Hazel’s life is falling apart. The question is whether or not Hazel can figure things out before her life is completely destroyed.

I love Black’s storytelling. Wholly and completely. She pulls you into the world she creates, and makes you believe everything she writes. I loved Hazel in her brokenness, and her relationship with Ben. I loved that there were faerie characters and human characters in all shades of the rainbow (both in terms of skin color and morality). I loved the myth she spun around the town and these characters, and the way she worked with the whole idea of the fey.

I just loved the book. Period.

Moonpenny Island

by Tricia Springstubb
First sentence: “Transparent.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty basic, language-wise, with short chapters and simpler words. Good for anyone who likes friendship stories. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Flor and Sylvie have been best friends forever. Growing up on a small island in the middle of Lake Erie (it’s doesn’t exist, but it’s possible, though I had to look it up) on the Ohio side, they were pretty much all they had. Which was just find with Flor. Then things change: Sylvie is sent to Cleveland to live with her aunt and go to school there. And Flor’s mother leaves as well, and they don’t know when — or if — she’s coming back.

With her life falling apart, how can Flor cope?

Once I got over my annoyance about the whole there’s an island in Lake Erie by Toledo thing… I found I really liked it. It’s not magical quirky, but it does fit with the whole small-town quirky thing. I liked how Flor knew everyone on the island, and was willing to stick up for the less “acceptable” members of their community. I liked how Springstubb introduced a scientific-minded, homeschooled girl into the mix, and how she wasn’t weird or unusual or super-religious. I felt like Springstubb tackled everything — from problems at Flor’s home to problems with her friends — with an evenness that suited her audience.

The only thing that bothered me, really, about the story was that it had the feel of a first person narration, but it wasn’t. For the most part, I was able to flow with it, but every once in a while, it pulled me out of the story.

But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise good book.