Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

What’s hiding under The Suffering Tree?

The Suffering Tree, by Elle Cosimano, (June 2017, Disney-Hyperion), $17.99, ISBN: 9781484726594

Recommended for ages 14+

After her father’s death and her family’s eviction, Tori Burns, her mother, and younger brother, Kyle, move from Washington DC to Chaptico, Maryland; a small town with a lot of history. She’s received an inheritance of a house and land from a man named the patriarch of the Slaughter family, one of the oldest families in the area – she’s never met him, never heard of him – and his family are none too happy with it. Tori is miserable in the new house and with the Slaughter family, who seize every opportunity to be spiteful to Tori and her mother. Tori learns more about the Slaughter family’s dark history – and the history of the mythical Chaptico witch – when Nathaniel Bishop claws his way out of a grave under the oak tree in her backyard. It’s no zombie movie: Bishop was an abused, indentured servant for the Slaughter family in the 18th century, and he’s been brought back for a purpose that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Tori shelters him in the shed on her property as she struggles to make sense of the weird dreams she’s having. As she and Nathaniel unravel their histories, Tori uncovers the Slaughters’ secrets, finding herself a part of the mystery.

The Suffering Tree is a paranormal mystery that hinges on self-harm. There’s blood magic throughout the book, and the entire plot is set into motion once Tori – who self-harms – spills her own blood on the property. With references to rape, abuse, racism, and slavery, this is a novel that tackles some very big issues. Tori emerges as a strong character who struggles with cutting as a way to deal with the pain of her father’s loss and more recent stresses as the novel unfolds. Her mother isn’t a strong character at all, preferring to handle her daughter’s psychological issues by asking her if she’s okay and suggesting therapy throughout the book.

Teens are going to love this one. There’s suspense and the pace is intense. Booktalk with historical YA mysteries, like the Jackaby series from William Ritter; Stefan Petrucha’s Ripper, and Stephanie Morrill’s The Lost Girl of Astor Street.

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

Call Me Sunflower explores alternative families

Call Me Sunflower, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin, (May 2017, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510711792

Recommended for ages 9-13

Sunflower Beringer can’t stand her first name, so she has everyone call her Sunny. And she really can’t stand that her mother uprooted her and her sister, and left their dad, Scott, back in New Jersey to run his bookstore while she attends grad school in North Carolina. Now they’re living with a grandmother they barely know, and she’s the new kid in school. Ugh. Sunny has to do something, so she creates Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”: a can’t-miss list of ways to bring her mom and Scott back together, including making playlists of Scott’s favorite songs and getting her mother a makeover. While she works on a family album that will remind Scott and Mom of when they were in love all over again, though, she discovers a picture that changes everything. A strong subplot involving animal rights activism and Sunny’s relationship with her grandmother really gives Call Me Sunflower depth.

I’m becoming a Miriam Spitzer Franklin fangirl. I loved Extraordinary (2015); in Sunny, I found many similiaries to Pansy, Extraordinary‘s protagonist. Both stories are realistic fiction, told in the first person, about girls dealing with big life changes. They have complicated friendships and they have both There are humorous moments, and each has a unique voice, a unique point of view; Ms. Franklin captures the frustrations, the fears, and the unique experience of being a tween in a relatable voice that readers will gravitate to. I love that she created an alternative family structure with an adoptive family outside the traditional husband-wife setting and gave us a family unit that is working it all out. I admit to being a little confused with Sunny’s birth story – she is adopted, but has pictures of her mother holding her at the hospital – but that’s likely because my own adoption experience happened differently. All in all, a bittersweet, tender look at families. Pair with realistic fiction like Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm, and Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.

 

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

Bridget returns in Spy to the Rescue!

bridgetwilderBridget Wilder: Spy to the Rescue, by Jonathan Bernstein, (May 2016, Katherine Tegen Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062382696

Recommended for ages 9-13

Middle school spy-in-the-making Bridget Wilder is not having a great re-entry to “normal” society after being recruited by her former super-spy biological father in Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training. The agency that recruited her? Fake. Her super spy dad? Retired, and wants a “normal” relationship with his daughter (read: BORING). Her obnoxious brother is dating someone even more annoying, her best friend has moved across the country, and she’s being framed by someone for stealing cheerleading secrets AND ruining the birthday party of the season! Bridget senses something amiss, though; her spy instincts kick in and she decides to investigate.

Just when you think you’re about to read a fun, fluff middle school drama about mean girls, though, Jonathan Bernstein hits you with the real story: Bridget’s dad goes missing, and she’s pulled back into the spy game. Mean girls have nothing on an international crime syndicate, and Bridget’s going to need all of her skills, plus some new ones, to save her dad, her family, and herself.

I LOVED this book. Written in the first person from Bridget’s point of view, we get a narrator who’s 100% tween/teen girl: smart, funny, sarcastic, and a good kid who cares about her often wacky, extended family. I also love that we get an adopted heroine – yay for adoptees! – who refers to her parents and her siblings as her parents and her siblings, not her “adoptive family” like we see ad nauseum (I’m looking at you, Olympic coverage of Simone Biles and her family). Bridget has her family, and when her long-last dad reappears, he wants a relationship with her, but it’s her choice, and it involves her whole family; it’s not this long last dad appears, daughter runs off with him like the family who raised her never existed scenario, and I am grateful to Jonathan Bernstein for giving us a great, positive portrayal of an adoptee’s relationship to her family. Her entire family. It’s a bit of a touchy spot, being an adoptee myself, so when I find good writing, I applaud it.

But back to the story. Spy to the Rescue is fast-paced and fun. There’s some intrigue, there’s a lot of action, great dialogue, and continued strong character development. I booktalked Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training to my Corona Kids during my Spy Week program at the library, and they loved it, especially coming off the Spy Kids movie day, when they were empowered to be spies and save the grownups for a change. Wait until I put this one on the shelves, and let them know that a third book will be coming next year.

If you have action fiction fans, spy fans, or kids who enjoy a good book with a nice dose of girl power, add Bridget Wilder to your collection. Check out Jonathan Bernstein’s author webpage for more about Bridget and her author, Jonathan Bernstein.

Check out the book trailer for Spy in Training right here:

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, mythology, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

Zaria Fierce returns in the Dragon Keeper’s Golden Shoes!

zariaprologue-360x570Zaria Fierce and the Dragon Keeper’s Golden Shoes, by Keira Gillett, (Jul. 2016, Keira Gillet Books), $14.99, ISBN: TK

Recommended for ages 10-13

Keira Gillet’s Zaria Fierce trilogy comes to a huge conclusion with the final book in her adventure, Zaria Fierce and the Dragon Keeper’s Golden Shoes. Picking up where Zaria Fierce and the Enchanted Drakeland Sword left off, Zaria and her friends need to rescue the Stag King’s son, Hart, stop Koll and his fellow dragons, and save Zaria’s birth mother, Queen Helena. No pressure, Zaria.

Zaria also feels the crushing weight of these responsibilities – and the part she played in them, when tricked by the dragon, Koll – and it’s taking its toll on her. Thankfully, her friends aren’t going to let her confidence flag; they’re there for an adventure, and they’re not going to let anyone, be it a dragon that personifies fear, or a fierce water-wyvern, stop them.

That’s the great thing about the Zaria Fierce trilogy: adventure is fast, furious, and loaded with Norse mythology, but the friendship between Zaria and her group of friends is the heart that drives this story. They won’t give up on Zaria, even when she’s ready to give up on herself; in turn, she will do anything to keep her friends safe. Even fight a dragon.

There are so many wonderful moments in this book, but to start talking about them would lead to spoilers. Suffice to say that Keira Gillett takes us on a hero’s journey, in the guise of a young girl whose entire life is upended one morning as she crosses a bridge to get to school. Zaria Fierce and the Dragon Keeper’s Golden Shoes brings us to the end of one story, and a wish to return to this universe soon.

Recommended for middle grade collections where fantasy is popular. I’d book talk this with other hero’s journey tales like CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson/Magnus Chase series; they’ll have a firmer frame of reference when you present the series with these popular fantasy tales. Talk up Zaria as a strong female character who overcomes her fears and self-doubts to outwit monsters, and save herself and her friends!

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Cat’s Maw gives middle graders a good, creepy story!

catsmawThe Cat’s Maw, by Brooke Burgess (2015, CreateSpace), $10.99, ISBN: 9781500971656

Recommended for ages 10-16

Billy Brahms has luck, all right – it’s all bad. He’s an accident looking for a place to happen, and an easy target for bullies. His parents don’t know what to do with him, but they don’t seem to try too hard to connect with him, either. When he’s struck by a car and risks losing his leg, they’re all at the end of their respective ropes. One day, though, Billy wakes up to discover a cat has adopted him – he just shows up at Billy’ bedside. His mother puts up a fuss, but the neighborhood cat lady manages to talk her into letting Billy and the cat have some time together to bond, saying it will be good for poor Billy, who’s stuck in a cast all summer.

That’s when the dreams start. He’s talking to cats, he’s hearing talk of Watchers, Shadows, and the Enemy that Awakens. He’s been given a mission, a mission that will remove the curse he seems to have hanging over him – will he finally be able to be a “normal” kid? Billy knows his parents will never believe him if he tells them that he’s communicating with his cat, and they’ll never let him go anywhere by himself, especially with that cast on his leg. He’s got to figure out how to break this curse, and he turns to the local veterinarian’s daughter for help.

The Cat’s Maw is one of those books that’s better read when you can talk about it with other readers. There’s a lot going on, and you need time to sit, read, and work things out to really appreciate the book. It’s a narrative that builds, never really giving anything away – rather, it gives you little peeks here and there, little glimpses, building toa tense finale that leaves you waiting for the next book. And there will be one; this is the first in the Shadowland Saga by Burgess.

Billy is a sympathetic kid. His parents are fairly awful, even though you get the feeling that they don’t want to be. He’s a bully magnet. Even his friend, the vet’s daughter, is happiest when she’s bossing him around. You want to see things work for Billy, and if a link to a cat is the key to this, let’s go there.

The ending left me with more questions than answers, which means that I need to read it one more time, and that I need the second book in the series to come out soon.

The Cat’s Maw is available in eBook, audiobook, or paperback.  Check out the author’s website or information about his other books, and more information about The Cat’s Maw.