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.

 

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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.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Tween Reads

Castle in the Stars – a steampunk space race!

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice, (Sept. 2017, :01FirstSecond), $19.99, ISBN: 9781626724938

Recommended for readers 10-14

Seraphin is a young boy who loses his brilliant scientist mother, Claire Dulac, on her aether-seeking expedition. He’s being raised by his genius engineer father, Archibald, when the summons comes from the Bavarian king: he’s building a ship and he wants it powered by aether. Seraphin and his father narrowly duck a kidnapping attempt at the train station, arriving in Bavaria to discover a king who secludes himself from his people, consumed by his obsession, and betrayal within the castle walls.

This first volume of Castle in the Stars spends time setting up the story and developing characters. It’s nice to see both parental figures involved, with a female character every bit as intelligent and accomplished as the male character. The art has a touch of manga inspiration, particularly with the character, Hans, who’s drawn to communicate his mischievous side.  There’s a Jules Verne feel to the story; intrigue mixes with the race to explore the unknown, and with Seraphin’s heartfelt belief that his mother is still alive, we have a bit of mystery thrown in.

Beautifully illustrated, and a fun book for steampunk and aviation fans. Castle in the Stars was first published in French in 2016.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen

Radium Girls meets YA fiction with Glow

Glow, by Megan E. Bryant, (Sept. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807529638

Recommended for readers 12+

Julie should be starting college in the fall, but she used up all her savings to bail her mother out of debt. Frustrated and embarrassed, especially when her friend drops money on crazy shopping trips while Julie counts every cent. They wander into a thrift store where Julie discovers an antique painting that reveals a hidden, glowing image in the dark. Locating the rest of the paintings becomes Julie’s obsession; as she tracks down the paintings and the painter’s identity, she discovers that the paintings were made by and tell the story of the Radium Girls – young women who worked in factories, using radium paint to make glow-in-the-dark watches for the soldiers in the trenches of World War I.

The dual narrative keeps the novel moving at a fast pace, but it is Liza and Lydia’s story – the Radium Girls – that gripped me even more than Julie’s. If you haven’t yet read Kate Moore’s Radium Girls, I highly recommend it; the story of the women who were slowly poisoned over time is heartbreaking and infuriating, but so important to read and know. Glow is a great introduction to the subject on a middle school/YA level; the letters from Lydia to her betrothed, Walter, a World War I soldier, give readers the full horror of radium poisoning. These girls – some as young as 13 – were led to believe that the radium paint was safe, even beneficial – one floor manager brags about mixing some into his pudding for health reasons; girls paint their nails, their faces, even paint jewelry on their bodies before they go out on dates. Hindsight, for the reader, is 20/20; I wanted to shriek at them as Lydia described each detail.

That said, there are some moments I felt could have been stronger. I didn’t love the romance that felt pushed into the narrative to make it more attractive to teen readers, and the subplot tension between Julie and her mother feels like it’s there just to make readers understand why Julie would be shopping in thrift stores. The driving story here is Lydia and Liza’s story, though; that’s what will stay with you long after the story has ended and you’ve closed the book. An author’s note at the end talks about the Radium Girls and the indignities they suffered when they became ill and tried to come forward.

This one is going on the shelves at my library, and I’ve already told my son’s girlfriend that she has to read it the second it hits shelves. Glow has a powerful, heartbreaking story at its core that you should not miss.