Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Discover the secrets of Winterhouse!

Winterhouse, by Ben Guterson/Illustrated by Chloe Bristol, (Jan. 2018, Henry Holt & Co), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250123886

Recommended for readers 8-12

Elizabeth Somers is an 11-year-old orphan, living with her awful aunt and uncle. She has vague memories of the accident that took her parents’ lives, and a pendant around her neck, given to her by her mother. But a mysterious benefactor has paid for Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle to go on vacation over winter break, and she’s sent off to the Winterhouse Hotel, owned by the odd but kind Norbridge Falls. There, Elizabeth makes her first real friend – an inventor named Freddy, whose family sends him off to Winterhouse every winter break – and discovers a strange book in the library. She learns that the Winterhouse has some very deep secrets, but she’s not the only one trying to discover them: there’s a very creepy married couple that seems to be trying to figure things out, too. And why are they inviting her to tea? Mysteries abound in the first story of a new trilogy.

Winterhouse is loaded with puzzles for readers to piece together as they go. You’ve got a bookish heroine, a kid inventor who loves word puzzles almost as much as our heroine does, and a mystery code that will make or break our characters. There’s an awesome librarian, if I may say so myself, and a quirky proprietor whose secrets run deep: in short, a wonderful and group of characters that readers will enjoy adventuring with and discovering more about. Angular black and white illustrations by Chloe Bristol add interest to the book’s surroundings, and the beginning of each chapter provides a word ladder to introduce readers to a fun pastime that comes up throughout the novel. Other word games include anagrams, ambigrams, and a Vigenere Square – a code that holds the mystery to the story. Author Ben Guterson explains the puzzles and codes on his webpage. There are some great book references in Winterhouse, too: some of Elizabeth’s favorites include good readalike suggestions, like The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. (I’d also add Jennifer Chambliss’ Book Scavenger and Greenglass House by Kate Milford.)

 

A fun beginning to a new middle grade series. Give this one to your code breakers, for sure.

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

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is amazing!

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling, (Sept. 2017, Sterling Children’s Books), $14.95, ISBN: 9781454923459

Recommended for readers 9-12

I was lucky enough to attend a children’s author dinner at BookExpo this past year, and got to hear several authors, including Dusti Bowling, talk about their upcoming books. As Ms. Bowling spoke about the work she put into her book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you could just see the passion she poured into her story of Aven, a kickass middle grade heroine of a new kind: she’s an adoptee, so, yay!; she’s headstrong, smart, focused, and she’s witty. And she happens to have been born without arms. She loves to tell people wild stories of how she lost her arms: an alligator wrestling match is my favorite, but she’s got a few doozies.

Aven starts the novel as the new kid in town. Her parents have moved to Arizona, where her dad accepted a job running a floundering western theme park called Stagecoach Pass. Now, Aven gets stared at. She’s different. She relies on her feet like most people rely on their hands. She’s eating lunch in the bathroom, because she can’t stand to have anyone stare at her eat with her feet. But she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s, and Zion, who’s shy about his weight, and things start looking up. The friends lean on one another, drawing and giving strength to each other.

That alone would be a great storyline, but throw in a mystery – a BIG mystery – at Stagecoach Pass that Aven is determined to unravel, and you have an incredible book in your hands. Aven, Connor, and Zion are kids that I want to know; Bowling breathes beautiful life into them and makes readers care about them. She provides positive, complex, realistic portrayals of kids living with disabilities and how they meet those hurdles every day, every hour, every minute. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus has numerous accolades and received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness.

I adored this book and can’t believe it took me this long to finally get to it. Give this to your Wonder fans, display and booktalk with books starring smart middle grade heroines, like Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, and of course, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Check out Dusti Bowling’s author webpage for a free, downloadable discussion guide and to read up on news and updates.

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

An unexpected mystery and a group of Ghastlies: Death and Douglas

Death and Douglas, by J.W. Ocker, (Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-2457-0

Good for readers 8-12

Twelve year-old Douglas Mortimer gets Death. His family runs the local funeral home in a small New England town named Cowlmouth; he learned how to tie a tie by putting them on the corpses before viewing. There’s a morgue downstairs in his home. Dressed in his suits and impeccable ties, he’s ready to take over the family business one day. For Douglas, death is just part of life: he’s more comfortable with it than most adults are, let alone kids. Until the murders begin. Someone is killing people in Douglas’s sleepy little town, and carving letters into the victims’ faces. Douglas understands death, but murder is just unnatural. It’s wrong. And it scares him. He and his best friend, Lowell – the police chief’s son – and his new friend, Amber – an ambulance driver’s daughter, decide they need to get to the bottom of this mystery. Calling themselves the Ghastlies, they start their own investigation, which could put them right in the killer’s sights.

Death and Douglas is fascinating – not many middle grade novels are going to be this frank about death and its place in the natural order of things. It’s a relief; it addresses the routines and rituals involved in passing, as part of Douglas’s parents’ work, with no overwrought emotion. In fact, when a group of  self-nominated “guardian angels” try to suggest that Douglas’s upbringing is unwholesome, his father fires back, stating that his understanding allows him the strength to help others who have lost loved ones. His family may shelter him from some of the grimmer parts of the business – he is only 12 – but Douglas’s parents are very forward about death as a part of life. The characters are well-crafted; believable, and equal parts hilarious and conflicted – kind of like real kids. I’d love to see what the Ghastlies have in store for the future. Until then, I’ll just have to settle for foisting this book on the kids in my library. Give this one to your mystery fans for sure.

Author JW Ocker’s site, Odd Things I’ve Seen, is truly worth a look.

Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Supernatural thriller: We All Fall Down

We All Fall Down, by Natalie D. Richards, (Oct. 2017, Sourcebooks Fire), $10.99, ISBN: 9781492654384

Recommended for readers 13+

Part fated romance, part supernatural thriller, We All Fall Down is the story of Theo and Paige; two friends who are haunted by a night on an old bridge, where an argument between Theo and another classmate turned into a fight; Theo took a swing, but it was Paige who was injured.

Four months later, they’re each trying to move on, but something at the bridge refuses to let them forget. Paige and Theo must work together to stop whatever energy is coming from the bridge.

I had higher hopes for All Fall Down, to be honest. It’s an interesting look at two characters with varying mental illnesses – Theo claims to have “ODD, ADHD… I’ve got to be forgetting some letters here”, and Paige suffers from severe anxiety. The story didn’t really need a supernatural element added to it to be compelling; Natalie Richards had great material to work with, had she gone deeper into the characters, their relationship, and the repercussions of the night Paige was injured. It’s an interesting thriller that started strong, but could have been unputdownable with just a slight change in focus.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Florian Bates is back, still using TOAST!

Vanished! (A Framed! Novel), by James Ponti, (Aug. 2017, Aladdin), $16.99, ISBN: 9781481436335)

Recommended for readers 8-12

Tween sleuth Florian Bates is the youngest member of the FBI, all thanks to his TOAST way of working: the Theory Of All Small Things. He sees things most people may miss, and it helps him solve crimes. His newest adventure takes him and his best friend, Margaret, to an exclusive Washington, DC school, where some pranks have gotten a little out of control – and the President’s daughter may be a suspect. Together, Florian and Margaret will discover secret societies and a possible international kidnapping plot. Will TOAST keep Florian and Margaret safe this time?

The Framed! novels are enjoyable, fast-paced, and always give readers a good adventure. The first Framed! novel – Framed! – introduced us to Florian and let us follow along as he busted an art theft ring. Now, he’s got to worry about dinners at the White House, navigating middle school, and figuring out the delicate world of international diplomacy. Mystery fans will love the plot twists, fiction fans will enjoy the character development, everyone will love the TOAST way of looking at things.

Vanished! has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

A new sleuth: Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge

Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge, by Susan Vaught, (Aug. 2017, Simon & Schuster/Pamela Wiseman), $16.99, ISBN: 9781481486835

Recommended for readers 9-12

Max is a 12 year-old girl living with her grandfather, Toppy, who also happens to be the chief of police in their town of Blue Creek. Her mother, an artist, lives in California, which is just fine with Max – ever since she and her mother were in the car accident that left Max wheelchair-bound at 4 years old, her mother has had trouble fitting Max into her life. She and Toppy lead a pretty happy life together; that is, if she’d stop getting in trouble for tinkering with her wheelchair to give it more power! When a cyber-bully starts a Facebook page and Twitter account slandering her grandfather and the town mayor, Max and Toppy try to blow it off, but things ramp up quickly, and the bully starts causing trouble for local businesses, too, all under the guise of an old town legend, Thornwood’s Revenge. Thornwood Manor is an abandoned mansion right next door to Toppy’s house, and it carries a lot of history with it, not all of it good. Is the bully really the ghost of Hargrove Thornwood, come to take his revenge, or is it someone with a grudge against an entire town? Max is going to get to the bottom of it.

I’m a Susan Vaught fan, so I was thrilled to read one of her middle grade books (I’ve only read her YA to date) and I’ve only read her heavier subject matter. This was good mystery reading all around. She’s got a very likable group of characters; I loved Toppy, gruff but lovable, whose disciplinary methods are creative and hilarious. Max is willful, complicated, and strong, like a middle grade heroine should be. She may be in a wheelchair, but she’s no victim: she’s an engineering whiz who loves to tinker in her eternal search for more power. Her relationship with her mother is complicated, and I liked Vaught’s exploration of that relationship. Max is driven by her desire to appear strong, not weak, not dependent; often to the point of frustrating her friends and family. She deals with her anger issues by reciting the names of Marvel and DC superheroes in alphabetical order, adding a nice geek check to the mix. I’d like to see another book or two starring Max and friends, and I think mystery fans will like this new supersleuth.

 

Susan Vaught is the Edgar Award-winning author of Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy (2016), and Trigger, which received three starred reviews and was an ALA Best Books for Young Adults. She is also a neuropsychologist at a state psychiatric facility, specializing in helping people with severe and persistent mental illness, intellectual disability, and traumatic brain injury. Her author website has more information about her books, essays, and links to her blog.

Posted in Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Bad Girl Gone: Revenge beyond the grave?

Bad Girl Gone, by Temple Mathews (Sept. 2017, Thomas Dunne for St. Martin’s Group), $17.99, ISBN: 9781250058812

Recommended for readers 13+

Echo is a 16 year-old girl who wakes up in a dark room; no idea where she is, no idea how she got there. She soon discovers that she’s in a place called Middle House; think of it as Limbo for teens who met brutal and unfair ends. Each of the teens has a special gift to help them bring their killers to justice; only then can they head toward the light. After Echo finally accepts that she is dead, and that she was murdered, she sets out to find out who killed her and why, while also helping her boyfriend, Andy, move on with his life.

This is an absolute teen revenge fantasy. Echo discovers that she wasn’t the nice girl she thought she was in life, and her boyfriend is so devastated after her loss that he contemplates suicide to be with her, and she gets to have a cute fellow ghost boy fall for her, too. All the teen residents of Middle House have paranormal gifts to help them get back at their murderers so they can move on to the afterlife, righting the ultimate wrong – but Echo gets a different choice. I didn’t love Echo or any of the characters in Bad Girl Gone, but it works for a light paranormal fiction reader. Bad Girl Gone is a quick read with an interesting plot twist, good for an additional purchase where you need more fiction.