newsprintsby Ru Xu
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 31, 2017
Content: The story line is a bit complex, but nothing that a 10+ year old could handle. It’ll be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novels section of the bookstore.

Blue is an orphan girl who disguises herself as a boy to deliver newspapers. There’s a war going on, and she loves working as a newsie for the Bugle, but she worries that once people find out she’s  a girl she’ll be out of a job. Then, she discovers an absent minded inventor and a boy that’s a lot more than he seems, and all of a sudden people discovering she’s a girl is the least of her worries.

It took me a while to get into this (possibly because it was an advance copy and in black in white; I’ve discovered I like graphic novels better in color), but once I did, I was hooked. Blue’s a great character, and the world that Xu has created is this futuristic-retro thing. There’s a war between fictional countries, and there are robots and flying ships and super fast trains, and… newsies. It’s weird and wild and fun.

And I liked the friendship between Blue and Crow, the boy she meets, and how Blue’s willing to do just about anything to defend him. Also, the underlying feminism: Blue’s questioning of the way the system is, why she needs to disguise herself, and wanting the system itself to change.

It’s definitely only a start of a series, but it’s a strong start and a series I’ll definitely be paying attention to.



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.

The Inventor’s Secret

by Andrea Cremer
First sentence: “Every heartbeat brought the boy closer.”
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Content: There’s a couple of intense romantic moments, and the characters talk of “wanting” each other, but no actual physical contact takes place other than kissing. There is talk of an affair a character’s dad had, and there is quite a bit of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) but I wouldn’t blink at giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

It was the cover that caught my eye. The steampunk dragonfly with the explosion in the background promised really cool things. And since I hadn’t read any Cremer before (she of the Wolf series), I wasn’t really expecting anything.

So, I was more than blown away when I was pulled into an alternate history where the American Revolution failed, Boston converted to a maximum security prison, and the “traitors” were hanged for their crimes against the crown. And they were the lucky ones. In the years since the failed revolution, the Empire has just become stronger and more stratified. The elite live in the Floating City, New York City, in levels rising up into the sky. The lower you are, the worse off. There’s still a rebellion, out in the woods outside of the city, where the adults are trying to topple the Empire. And the children? They’re in the Catacombs, underground, safe from harm until they turn 18 and go to join the rebellion.

The Catacombs is all Charlotte remembers. She and her older brother, Ash, have been there since they were 5 and 7, respectively. And now, at nearly 18, Ash is in charge. This is where the plot gets a bit tricky to describe. Too much, and it sounds silly. And maybe it is.  I do know there was more romance than I was expecting, and it was a bit hackneyed and overwrought as well. But I loved the world. I loved the combination of history and mythology and technology. I loved how the class issues were at the forefront. I loved the imagination that Cremer put into the book, the cool little things — like mice bombs, or Pocky the gun — she littered everywhere.

No, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it IS fun. And that’s exactly what I needed right now.

Mark of the Dragonfly

by Jaleigh Johnson
First sentence: “Micah brought the music box to her on the night of the meteor storm.”
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Review copy handed to me by one of my bosses, who told me to “get on it”.
Content: There’s some violence (none of it fatal), and a bit of an innocent crush. But no language. The reading level is probably a confident 3rd grader/4th grade level. It’s happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section at the bookstore.

Piper is a scrapper. She lives in a scrap town at the edge of the Meteor Fields, and runs out after storms, looking for salvageable items — things that have come through from other worlds to hers — in order to sell for pennies. She wants more from her life, especially after her father’s death in the Dragonfly Terrritories’ factories, but she doesn’t quite know where to start.

Then, after a particularly violent meteor storm in which her best friend, Micah, is seriously injured, Piper finds a girl. She’s not-quite-dead and bears the Mark of the Dragonfly, which means she’s protected by the king. Piper revives her, and when a sinister man (whom the girl, Anna, calls “the wolf”) comes looking for the girl, she and Piper escape. Only to find themselves on the 401, the main train connecting the northern Marrow kingdom with the southern Dragonfly one.

Once on the train, though, Piper’s and Anna’s problems don’t go away. They meet a whole host of characters and are being chased by slavers and raiders (and the wolf) on their quest to figure out who Anna is, and what Piper’s budding powers can do.

I know I didn’t do the book summary justice. I’m not sure, however, if anyone can. There’s a lot going on in this book. It does have things going for it: Piper is a complex heroine, stubborn and intelligent, a combination of drive and pluck that made her very likable. My only complaint is that Johnson chose to introduce a romance element (however slight) with a boy. I felt it was unnecessary to the whole story, and it didn’t add anything. However, I thought the relationship between Piper and Anna was incredibly well-written. It became a sisterly bond and one that was very realistic and interesting. And the world — from the objects falling from the sky, to the cool train — was fascinating. The book did feel incomplete — is it the first of a series? — and there were many threads left hanging, but it was a good, solid contribution to middle grade fantasy.

The Rithmatist

by Brandon Sanderson
First sentence: “Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.”
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Content: It’s pretty mild; there is some talk of murders, and some intense situations by the end and a mild romance. It’s only upper middle grade because of the length. I’d give it to my 10 year old, if she showed interest. It’s shelved in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore because of the length. That, and the publisher’s recommendation was 15+, which I disagree with.

Imagine a future where some unforseen disaster splits the US into several island country/states. Imagine a future where there are people — Rithmatists — who can draw with chalk and make it come… alive. Imagine a future where wild chalkings — two-dimensional chalk drawings that are sentient, somehow — can attack and kill a person. It’s in this world that Joel, a chalkmaker’s son, exists. His father used to be the chalkmaker for a prestigious Rithmatist training school, before he died. Now, Joel and his mom are scraping by. Joel would love to be a Rithmatist, but they’re chosen at age 8, in a mystical/religious ceremony, and Joel wasn’t Chosen. That hasn’t stopped his passion for Rithmacy and the history. He’s pretty much shunned until one of the top professors, Fitch, is toppled from tenure by a young upstart. And then, top students start disappearing. With another not-so-great student, Melody, Joel works at figuring out just what is threatening the students.

This was slow-going at first. I didn’t quite grasp the idea of the world, or the importance of the illustrations. Which, in many ways, is a drawback: if you can’t grab a kid in the first chapter or two, then in many ways you’ve failed as a book. But this one is worth the slog in the first couple of chapters. It takes a while, but as the mystery develops, and things become more intense, and more about the Rithmastist world is explained, Joel — and especially Melody — come into their own. The final couple of battles are quite intense and very much worth the while. And even though I kind of called the mystery, there is a bit of a twist that I didn’t see coming, which was very satisfying. And as I came to understand the illustrations — which admittedly were off-putting at first — I found them at least as fascinating as the story. If Sanderson wants to write a guidebook for the Rithmatist world, I’m sure there’d be a market for it.

I do wish — and I know that I’ve said this before — that people would stop writing series books. This one worked quite well as a stand-alone, even with a few threads hanging. I do appreciate that (even though the last three words are “To Be Continued.” ARGH). But overall, it was a fascinating world to immerse myself in.

(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.)

Clockwork Angel

by Cassandra Clare

ages: 14+
First sentence: “The demon exploded in a shower of ichor and guts.”
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You don’t have to read The Mortal Instruments series first, but I think it helps.
Tessa Gray is an orphan on her way to London to be with her older brother when she’s kidnapped by a couple of women calling themselves Dark Sisters. They force her to wake up a latent power she has, called Changing, saying they’re prepping her for the Magister. She manages to escape with the help of a couple of Shadowhunters — Will Herondale and Jem Carstairs — who take her back to the Institute in London. Where Tess learns about the whole Shadowhunter world, and the fact that no one knows quite who she is. Oh, and that the Magister isn’t going to give up looking for her. 
There’s more to this — of course there is — including a wicked cool twist I didn’t see coming. I enjoyed seeing the Shadowhunter world from the perspective of Victorian London. And the smattering of steampunk with the automatons was a nice touch.  In fact, in many ways, I liked this one better than the Mortal Instruments. It’s funnier, it’s more intense, and it’s got a more interesting plot. Oh, and Tessa is a WAY better heroine than Clary. Sure, it’s kind of confusing: you never find out what Tessa is, or why the Magister wants her. And the beginning leaves your head spinning. But the end is completely worth it.
On to the next one.

Etiquette & Espionage

by Gail Carriger
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegose was taking tea.”
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I’m going to say this up front: I was drawn in by the cover and by the back, which has a very catchy and kind of awesome blurb on it:

It’s one thing to curtsey properly
It’s quite another to learn to curtsey & throw a knife at the same time.
Welcome to Finishing School.

But I couldn’t finish it. In fact, after about the first paragraph, I was questioning my desire to read it at all.

From what I can gather, Sophronia (Really? REALLY? What a terrible name. Then again, all the names are terrible) is a 14-year-old tomboy in 1850-something.  It’s a steampunkish world, with machinery and robots, but there’s also paranormal beasties (you know: werewolves, vampires and the like). Because she’s such a handful, her mother’s neighbor (I think that’s who Mrs. Barnaclegoose is; I was never really quite clear on this), takes it upon herself to enroll Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School. Which, as it turns out, has a lot more to do with finishing than Finishing. (Ha.)

I never really got the rest of the plot, because after the attack of the flywayman (double ha) and the revelation that Mademoiselle Geraldine is actually a 17-year-old student named Monique (who has an Agenda), I lost interest. I wanted this to be awesome in the over the top but way cool sort of way,  but instead it ended up just being convoluted.

Orson Scot Card said once (I think it was him) (and I’m obviously paraphrasing here) that a good story needs more than one good idea. But that’s the problem with this one: a Finishing school for assassins is a good idea. A fellow student who has an Agenda is a good idea. A steampunk world is a good idea. Werewolves and vampires are good ideas. But all of them  together? Not so much. The book felt — and granted I only got about 70 pages in — cluttered.  Crowded. It made me feel claustrophobic.

And the writing? Sure, it’s the 1850s, but this is just banal:

“Your mother is occupied in an important private audience. I was going to await her leisure. But for this, I shall disturb her. It is 1851 and I believe we lived in a civilized world! Yet you are as bad a a rampaging werewolf, young miss, and someone must take action.” (3)

Dimity sidled up to Sophronia and whispered, “Isn’t he simply scrumptious?”
Sophronia pretended obtuseness. “The coachman?”
“No, silly. Him!” Dimity tilted her head toward their new escort.
“He’s a little old, don’t you feel?” (47)

(Much talk like Yoda, hmmm?)

“Oh yes, lead on, do. To the Squeak deck.”
“What-ho.” (73)

And that sound you hear? It’s the sound of my hopes being dashed.