Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Can our favorite Book Scavengers figure out The Unbreakable Code?

The Unbreakable Code (Book Scavenger #2), by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, (April 2017, Henry Holt & Co. BYR), $16.99, ISBN: 9781627791168

Recommended for readers 8-12

The sequel to Book Scavenger (2015) continues the adventures of friends, code breakers, and bookworms Emily and James. Emily’s parents have put a hold on their state-hopping, giving Emily a feeling of permanence she missed terribly. She and James find themselves in the middle of another mystery when they notice their teacher, Mr. Quisling, acting strangely; they follow a trail of encrypted messages in Book Scavenger-laid Mark Twain books. The messages are an attempt to break a legendary, historic puzzle known as the Unbreakable Code, which leads to either a treasure or a curse. As mysterious and suspicious fires pop up around them, Emily and James are worried that Mr. Quisling is the arsonist – unless they can figure out who his mysterious Book Scavenger messenger is.

The Unbreakable Code is loaded with the adventure, mystery, and code-breaking fun that made the first book so enjoyable. There are mysteries within mysteries, and a real sense of urgency as the tweens try to get to the bottom of the arsonist on their trail. There’s a very good subplot about the history of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush that shines a light on a part of history that doesn’t get as much discussion as it should. Ms. Chambliss also presents a very different Mr. Griswold, changed by the events in Book Scavenger. He’s withdrawn, hesitant, apprehensive; his buoyant style is toned down, and he surrounds himself with his assistant, Jack, and the company of dogs to guard him. Emily and James’ secondary mission is to nudge Mr. Griswold back to his former self.

A fun follow-up and a fun accompaniment to coding and spy programs. Introduce kids to coding with Book Scavenger and Gene Luen Yang’s Secret Coders! Kids can play their own game of Book Scavenger at the Book Scavenger website and sign up for the newsletter.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade

Magic, madness, and a cow-ostrich romance!

The Emperor’s Ostrich, by Julie Berry, (June 2017, Roaring Brook Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781596439580

Recommended for readers 8-12

A zany fantasy romp with a dairy maid in search of her lost cow puts readers on the path to an adventure that will introduce them to a self-described romantic hero, a spoiled emperor on the run, and his ostrich, who forms a bond with the runaway cow. Begonia, the dairy maid, is a responsible young woman who helps her mother care for the family farm and her younger sister; when her cow, Alfalfa, meanders away, Begonia sets out to find her and ends up on a magical quest that will put the responsibility for saving the emperor and the kingdom squarely on her shoulders. Thank goodness she has help from Key, a wandering young man who describes himself as a romantic hero; and two magical beings, who oversee the adventure from a distance.

The story is a fun fantasy adventure with nods to magic, corruption, feminism, and commentary on overindulged wealth. Readers will enjoy the lovestruck cow and ostrich, the banter between Key and Begonia, and the host of characters they encounter on their adventure. Booktalk this with Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy novels: author Julie Berry calls The Emperor’s Ostrich her love letter to his books.

Julie Berry’s book, The Passion of Dolssa, is a 2017 Printz Honor title. The Emperor’s Ostrich received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal.

Posted in Adventure, Espionage, Middle School, Tween Reads

Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series: a good series for Alex Rider fans

As pop culture phenomenons get younger, the need for these teens can only increase. From pop stars and young stars and starlets to trust fund kids and scions of political powerhouses, everyone is a potential target. Now, imagine if there were an elite team of teens that receive Special Forces training to be that next line in defense. They’re trained to blend in with the crowd, to be a member of an entourage; they’re trained to protect. The teens of Guardian are a private, elite force, and Connor Reeves is their newest member.

Bodyguard is an interesting series. Part Alex Rider, part Jack Bauer from 24, it’s the story of 14 year-old Connor Reeves, a new recruit to the Guardian organization. Most of the first book chronicles Connor’s recruitment and training, with an interesting subplot that frames the series on a larger level. There’s a big terror plot afoot, and a Yemeni group is behind it, creating havoc on each of Connor’s missions as they progress toward their as-yet unknown greater goal. The first four books chronicle Connor’s first two missions; each mission spans two novels. In the first two books, Recruit and Hostage, Connor is sent to protect the US President’s headstrong, rebellious daughter; in Hijack and Ransom, he and a fellow Guardian protect an Aussie media mogul’s daughters as they vacation on their luxury yacht.

   

The writing is fast-paced and action-packed, with interesting characters and the potential for an exciting conclusion to this building subplot. I had some issues with the author’s initial descriptions of the terrorists, though: it’s a bit discomfiting, especially for someone like me, who works in one of the most diverse library systems in the country. Happily, Bradford puts more emphasis on plot development as the novels progress. Connor tends to come across as a white knight, and Bradford needs to let his female characters breathe a little more, but overall, this is a good middle school-level series for kids who wants to read a series similar to Alex Rider.

Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series was originally released in the UK; the first four books are available in the States now, with three more to come. The Bodyguard series webpage offers a rundown on the books, plus audio excerpts; bodyguard training tips, and a teacher’s guide for the series.

Want a shot at winning your own BODYGUARD set? Enter my raffle by filling out this Google Form! Good luck!

Bodyguard: Recruit, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524736972
Bodyguard: Hostage, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524736996
Bodyguard: Hijack, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524737016
Bodyguard: Ransom, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524737030

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult/New Adult

New fantasy YA brings a together a group of Royal Bastards

Royal Bastards (Royal Bastards #1), by Andrew Shvarts, (Jun 2017, Hyperion), $18.99, ISBN: 9781484767658

Recommended for ages 14+

This new fantasy series follows a group of Royal Bastards – illegitimate children of royals – as they try to save a royal princess’ life and prevent a war. Sixteen year-old Tilla is the bastard daughter of Lord Kent of the Western Province; she lives in comfortable accommodations, but her father has held her at arm’s distance ever since his legitimate wife bore him two daughters. Tilla’s half brother, Jax, from a different father, lives on Kent’s lands as a stablehand. While Jax is happy with life as it is, Tilla longs for legitimacy and a better relationship with her father; two things he’s withheld from her thus far. She’s invited to her father’s banquet honoring the visiting royal princess Lyriana, and sits at the bastard table with Miles, a bastard from neighboring House Hampsted, and Zell, a trueborn son-turned-bastard from the warrior Zitochi clan of the North. Lyriana insists on sitting with them and getting to know them, and ends up tagging along on what was supposed to be an evening out between just Jax and Tilla. While out at the shore, the group stumbles upon a horrific and treasonous episode that puts every one of their lives in danger: in Miles’ and Tilla’s cases, even from their own parents.

The group of teens is on the run, hoping to make it back to Lyriana’s kingdom before the combined forces of Lord Kent, Lady Hampsted, and the Zitochi clan can catch them. The bastards have to stay alive, prevent a mage slaughter, and a civil war that will claim thousands of lives – can they get along long enough to survive the journey?

There’s a lot of story to unpack in this first book. The biggest stumbling block for me was the contemporary language used in the high fantasy setting. It’s off-putting and took me out of the flow of the novel. Vernacular aside, Royal Bastards is a fast-paced adventure, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and teen romance. I like the world-building: a fantasy world where bastards are recognized and can gain legitimacy if their parents choose to bestow it upon them; a major coup in the works, and plenty of intrigue and betrayal to keep things interesting. There’s rich character development, particularly in the relationship between Jax and Tilla and Tilla’s growth throughout the novel. There’s some diversity in the characters, although some fantasy tropes pop up here; most notably, the clueless royal who wants to meet “the little people” and the brooding, fur-wearing savage.

YA fantasy fans will dig in and enjoy this one. I’d booktalk Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules as an interesting counterpart that looks at the relationship between royals and their children and war. Talk up the Game of Thrones books to readers that may be familiar with the HBO series. Give a copy of Joshua Khan’s Shadow Magic and Dream Magic books to younger siblings who aren’t ready for this one yet.

Posted in Adventure, Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

The Nocturnals Return in The Fallen Star

The Nocturnals (Book 3): The Fallen Star, by Tracey Hecht/Illustrated by Kate Liebman, (May 2017, Fabled Films Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781944020057

Recommended for readers 8-12

The lovable group of Nocturnal sleuths is back in their third adventure, this time with high stakes: the forest’s pomelos have been poisoned, and the flowers that cure the sickness are disappearing! As the group watches a star fall one evening, they meet a mysterious aye-aye, Iris, who declares that the forest is being invaded and monsters from space have poisoned the pomelos! Dawn, ever the thoughtful and skeptical fox, is suspicious, and seeks a more down-to-earth reason, but things become more tense when they discover that animals in the forest are getting sick, including poor Tobin, who’ve all eaten pomelos. The blue flowers that help cure the sickness are disappearing, and a strange blue glow shows up right before the flowers start disappearing. This sounds like a job for the Nocturnals!

This third book in the animal friends series takes no prisoners: things are tense, with the friends racing against time to help their sick friends and find out the truth behind the poisoned fruit and disappearing cure. Bismark is in full narcissist with a heart of gold mode, proclaiming he speaks alien (and then slipping and admitting it was gibberish) and wooing Dawn every chance he gets. Dawn is still the most focused and perceptive member of the group, and sweet, gentle Tobin is the source of possibly the greatest fart joke in the history of children’s literature, giving readers much-needed comic relief throughout the white knuckle moments The Fallen Star is filled with.

We also meet some more animals in this book; most notably, an Aye-aye named Iris, and the woylies, a group of small marsupials who pitch in to help the Nocturnals. You can find more information about Aye-ayes at Zooborns.com, and Whiteman Park, a conservation center in Australia, has a downloadable fact sheet available on the endangered woylie.

This Aye-aye has its eyes on you! (source: Zooborns.com)
Woylie: Now say it with an Australian accent! (Source: whitemanpart.com.au)

Teamwork, friendship, and determination sees the friends through this latest adventure, and there’s a lovely message about tolerance that is especially important reading.

Things have started taking off for Nocturnals since the first book published last year!  The Nocturnals World website offers Boredom Busters, face painting tips, and a wealth of educational resources for classrooms and libraries, and the New York Public Library, in conjunction with Fabled Films, launched a read-aloud writing program in New York City public schools.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Secret Societies, Angels, and Demons: Toward a Secret Sky

Toward a Secret Sky, by Heather Maclean, (Apr. 2017, Blink YA), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-310-75474-9

Recommended for readers 12+

Seventeen year-old Maren Hamilton is an orphan; her father dead for years, her mother, the recent victim of a freak accident. Sent to Scotland to live with grandparents she’s never met, she discovers much more about her parents than she could ever have realized. They weren’t systems analysts, as she’d always thought; they were members of a secret organization that fought demons. Real demons. Now that she’s discovered her mother’s secret journal, she’s a target for the demons – and so is everyone around her. Luckily, she’s got Gavin, her literal guardian angel, to help her, but against all the rules, she finds herself falling in love with him and is pretty sure the feeling is mutual. When Maren’s friends and grandparents find their lives in danger, it’s up to Maren and Gavin to save them all.

I thoroughly enjoyed Toward a Secret Sky. There’s some DaVinci Code-level action, with secret societies, code-breaking, and angels fighting demons over the United Kingdom skies. It’s also got a solid set of characters and good world-building, and an ending that left me excited for another installment. YA romance fans will love the burgeoning forbidden love between Maren and her angel, the gorgeous, Scottish, Gavin (and I don’t even have to feel like a cougar because he’s over 200 years old). The book teases us, giving little hints about not only The Abbey; the secret organization Maren’s connected to, but about Maren’s own heightened abilities. It’s the perfect amount of information to keep us guessing and reading. It’s a fast-paced, wild ride that YA fans will love, and it’s a solid book to put in your more conservative readers’ hands, too.

Definitely add this to your Summer Reading TBR, and match it with proper romances like Duels & Deception and Jacob Gowans’ A Tale of Light and Shadow duology. There’s also a good 2016 article from Bustle with YA DaVinci Code readalikes that fit nicely with this one.

 

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The Kaitan Chronicles #1: Shadow Run

Shadow Run, by Michael Miller and AdriAnne Strickland, (March 2017, Delacorte Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780399552533

Recommended for readers 13+

Nev is the newest crew member aboard the starship Kaitan Heritage, a ship that “fishes” for Shadow, a volatile energy harvested from space. The crew is a ragtag collection of misfits, and their captain, a teenage female named Qole, is the youngest ever to pilot her own ship – she’s hard as nails because she has to be. She’s from a desolate world where Shadow poisoning killed her family, except for her brother, Arjan, a member of her crew. Nev has his own secrets: he’s a prince from a world that wants to examine how Shadow binds to organic material, ostensibly to make the galaxy a better place – and help their own interests, naturally. But Nev has to get close to Qole first, before he can reveal who he is and convince her to come back to his homeworld with him.

Nev isn’t the only one who knows about Qole and her ability to channel the Shadow inside her, though. A rival royal family is onto them, and they’re not nearly as concerned with the greater good as Nev is. As Nev tries to win Qole’s trust, and the trust of everyone aboard the Kaitan, he must navigate the rough and tumble spacefaring world and the world of privilege he’s grown up; he may also learn that not everything on his home world is what it seems to be, and his own family’s intentions may not be as honorable as his are.

Shadow Run is the first book in the science fiction series, Kaitan Chronicles. There is a lot of solid world-building here, but the first half of the book just didn’t catch me. Once the story hit its stride, though, it was a solid pulse-pounder, loaded with diplomatic intrigue, betrayal, and action. The characters are well thought out; revelations happen throughout the course of the book, so it’s worth sticking with it.

Shadow Run‘s been compared to both Firefly and Dune. I see more Firefly than Dune; the rivalry between the royal families is the only facet tying it to Dune. This is more space opera/western, like Firefly, with a diverse crew of characters that have much more going on than meets the eye. I liked the chemistry between Qole and Nev, and I liked the relationships that each of the supporting characters had to Qole. Their reactions to Nev were honest, visceral, and I appreciated that; no “magic friendships” or melodrama popped up here and I respect the writers for it. There’s gender fluidity that truly brings this novel into the 21st century and beyond, too. Stick with Shadow Run: you’ll be happy you did.