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.

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Posted in Fiction, Horror, Media, Middle Grade, Non-Fiction, Realistic Fiction, TV Shows, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

Part Lois Lane, Part Nancy Drew… Introducing Cici!

Cici’s Journal: The Adventures of a Writer in Training, by Joris Chamblain/Illustrated by Aurelie Neyret, Translated by Carol Burrell, (Nov. 2017, :01FirstSecond), $16.99, ISBN: 9781626722484

Recommended for readers 8-12

Cici’s dream is to become a novelist. She journals her thoughts and ideas, and constantly people watches, much to the chagrin of her mother and friends. Cici doesn’t see it as being nosy; she figures that you need to understand what’s inside of people in order to write about them. But when she starts digging further into people’s lives and expecting her friends to lie to her mother to cover up her “investigations”, they let her know that they’ve had enough. Can Cici learn to be a good friend and an attentive writer?

Originally published in France under the French title Les carnets de Cerise (2012), this is Cici’s first English translation and includes two stories. In the first story (title), Cici discovers an older man walking through the forest every Sunday, covered in paint and lugging cans of paint back and forth. In Hector’s Journal, she tries to get to the bottom of a mystery involving an older woman who takes the same library book out every week. Both times, Cici goes after her subject with gusto, but is often insensitive to her friends and mother. It isn’t until her mentor, a local author, steps in to have a heart to heart with Cici that she finally understands that she’s been using people, and starts taking others into consideration. Kids will recognize themselves and their friends in Cici, especially as she goes through the frustration of disagreeing with Mom and falling out with friends.

The graphic novel is a mix of graphic storytelling and journaling, with doodles, scrapbook pieces, comments, and notes throughout the book. The art is realistic with a soft touch, and Cici has a very fun and eclectic style that will appeal to middle graders. She complains about her friends throughout the book, and with seeming good reason: one girl is in a perpetually bad mood, and Cici herself can be exasperating (mind you, I say this as a 46 year -old mother of three, not a tween). In short, kids will identify with or see their friends in these characters, and dive into Cici’s adventures – and maybe start journaling on their own.

In my neverending quest to create programs that I can booktalk with, Cici’s Journal is a nice fit with a writer’s program I want to test out. Put this one with your Dork Diaries, Amelia’s Notebooks, Wimpy Kid books, My Dumb Diaries, Kate the Great, Origami Yodas, and Popularity Papers.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Night Garden puts a little spark of magic into WWII-era Canada

The Night Garden, by Polly Horvath, (Sept. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374304522

Recommended for readers 9-13

Franny Whitekraft lives with her adoptive parents, Sina and Old Tom, on Vancouver Island while World War II rages overseas. They live a pretty quiet life until their neighbor, Crying Alice, shows up – crying – and asks to leave her three children with them while she goes to stop her mechanic husband, Fixing Bob – stationed at a military base – from doing something dumb. Zebediah, one of the children, knows what it is, but he’s not talking, and he’s not sharing the letters he gets from their father with his brother and sister, Wilfred and Winifred. Things take a sharp turn when Fixing Bob puts his plan into action, and The Night Garden seems to be everyone’s only hope in making things right. Can a garden really grant wishes? Franny and her friends are about to find out.

The Night Garden didn’t really come together for me. There are several plotlines that kind of wander in and out of the book, like Sina’s witnessing a UFO. Narrated in the first person by Franny, there’s humor throughout the novel, but overall, the story took a little too long to get there and meandering plots may keep some readers from fully committing to the book. I enjoyed the sense of humor that kept the book moving, and the characters, on their own, were a fun bunch that I enjoyed my time with. An additional purchase for collections where you have devoted magical realism readers.

Polly Horvath is the Newbery Honor and National Book Award winning-author of Everything on a Waffle. Her author website offers more information about her books, awards, and news.

 

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

Blog Tour: Broken Circle, by JL Powers and MA Powers

Broken Circle, by JL and MA Powers, (Oct. 2017, Akashic), $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-580-4
Recommended for readers 12+

 

Fifteen year-old Adam Jones just wants to be a normal teen, but the chances aren’t looking so good. He’s got a monster chasing him in his sleep, and he can tell a person’s character by seeing what kind of shadow they cast. His dad is almost never around, his grandfather is a little nuts. He’s expected to take on the family business – but his father won’t tell him what that business is. Is he a mafioso? After a couple of incidents at school, his father makes the decision to send him to a special boarding school where he’ll learn how to be part of the family business – whatever that is. Adam arrives at the school to discover that he’s part of a special group of “soul guides”: grim reapers. They’re all around us; they’re from different clans, with different territories, and there are TONS of rivalries. No wonder Adam’s dad told him not to tell anyone where he’s from. If only that were the end of Adam’s problems, right? But he’s still got the monster chasing him, he’s got some strange characters stalking him, and he’s learning about himself and his family while having to keep it all a secret from his new friends AND the ones he left behind.

I LOVED Broken Circle. It’s a first-person narration by Adam, the main character, with periodic half chapters that fill in crucial backstory, told in third person through meetings of the synod: an assembly of Soul Guide leaders. Adam’s chapters are written with a wicked sense of humor – he’s 15, and just found out he’s a grim reaper, after all – and a deepening sense of pathos and fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of the things he discovers as he moves through the book. There’s a diversity of characters in the book as we meet soul guides from different cultures and ethnicities. You won’t want to put this one down: it’s Hogwarts for soul guides, with family rivalries and developing powers aplenty. The writing flows and the characters have a rich depth to them, even with their own secrets that we may or may not find out before this volume ends. Thank goodness it’s the first in a series; I have more to look forward to and so will you. Give this to your Gaiman fans, for sure; hand it to your Potterheads that are ready to meet a new group of friends. Give it to your readers that enjoy seeing life from a different point of view.

Watch this space: I’ve got a vlog entry from the authors!

J.L. POWERS is the award-winning author of three young adult novels, The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina. She is also the editor of two collections of essays and author of a picture book, Colors of the Wind. She works as an editor/publicist for Cinco Puntos Press, and is founder and editor of the online blog, The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Skyline College in California’s Bay Area, served as a jurist for the 2014 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and is launching Catalyst Press in 2017 to publish African writers. Broken Circle is her first novel written with her brother, M.A. Powers.

 

M.A. POWERS is J.L.’s “little” (but much taller) brother. He has a PhD in the oncological sciences from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He is currently a stay-at-home dad and lives in Maine. Broken Circle is his first novel written with his sister, J.L. Powers.

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

Invictus violates the Prime Directive and it’s brilliant!

Invictus, by Ryan Graudin, (Sept. 2017, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), $17.99, ISBN: 9780316503075

Recommended for readers 13+

I’m a big Doctor Who fan, so when I saw Ryan Graudin talking about her then-upcoming book, Invictus, at BookExpo earlier this year – and talked about Doctor Who‘s influence on the show – I knew this was going on my TBR. I was not disappointed.

Farway Gaius McCarthy is born outside of time, the son of a time-traveling Recorder (think researcher with a video camera) and a Roman gladiator from 95AD. All Far’s wanted to do is explore history, but someone’s set him up, and he fails his final time-traveling exam. He’s contacted by a shady operation with a offer he can’t refuse: he gets his own ship, puts together his own crew, and gets to travel through history to steal treasures from the past. He recruits his cousin, Imogene, as historian: the brains of the operation, putting together costumes and researching historical eras; his girlfriend, Priya, as the medic; and his friend and game fiend, Gram, as navigator. They get a cut of the payday and vacations in between missions. It’s all good – until a mission on the Titanic puts Far up against the very woman that caused him to fail his final exam. Eliot is a woman with secrets, but she needs Far, for some reason. She cajoles her way onto his crew, leading them on a mission back in time that will have huge consequences not only for Far and his crew, but for the universe.

I loved Invictus! Not only is is loaded with amazing little Doctor Who references – don’t worry, if you’re not a fan, you won’t miss out on anything – it’s a space opera with humor, adventure, and a devil-may-care hero who could have DNA from Captain Kirk and Han Solo. Far is a brash swashbuckler who hates not having all the info, but he also knows how to play his cards right. He’s got his own demons: his mother’s disappearance haunts him, as does his expulsion from the academy, and he takes the responsibility of protecting and keeping his crew safe and happy very seriously. Eliot is a colossal monkey wrench thrown into his works, and he has no choice but to stick with her and get to the bottom of things. There are wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey subplots (that’s a Doctor Who reference) and intrigue that will keep sci-fi fans turning pages. Prime Directive? (That’s a Star Trek reference.) Pfft, what’s that? That’s for academy kids.

History-hopping, time-jumping, big drama, a sense of humor, and a diverse cast of characters make Invictus such good sci-fi reading. More, please! Invictus has starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and VOYA.

Ryan Graudin is an award-winning YA author. Her Wolf by Wolf duology was a 2017 Carnegie Medal nominee and won the 2017 Sequoyah Book Award. Check out her author page for more information her books, her appearances, and sign up for her newsletter.

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 Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Dam Keeper: from screen to page

The Dam Keeper, by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, (Sept. 2017, :01First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626724266

Recommended for readers 8-12

A young pig learns from his inventor father how to maintain the dam that keeps their village in Sunrise Valley safe. When Pig’s father disappears, it falls on Pig to keep the dam intact and the village safe. He’s an outcast at school, teased and ridiculed, but he never strays from his task. But a black fog is coming, threatening the Valley and the dam. Pig, with his new friend, Fox, and the reluctant Hippo, come together to answer the threat and discover what’s on the other side of the dam.

Based on the 2015 Oscar-nominated short, The Dam Keeper, this adaptation by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi – cofounders of the animation studio Tonko House – is breathtaking. They manage to give a graphic novel a stunning landscape, where the art comes alive for readers and the empathy for their main character is bottomless. Kondo and Tsutsumi create deep characters with Pig, Fox, and Hippo; one can’t help but fall in love with them and root for them.

You can rent The Dam Keeper online through YouTube and sign up for e-mails at the Tonko House website. It’s a beautiful little film that the graphic novel expands upon and enhances. A definite must-add to collections; I can’t wait to see what happens in Part 2.