Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The Gray Twins reunite in The Whispers in the Walls

Scarlet and Ivy: The Whispers in the Walls, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492634065

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we left Ivy Gray at the dismal Rookwood School, she had just found her lost twin, Scarlet; hidden away in an asylum by the tyrannical headmistress, who told her family that Scarlet was dead. Masquerading as Scarlet, Ivy attended Rookwood and discovered the truth about a great many secrets. The Whispers in the Walls picks up just as Ivy reunites with Scarlet and they go home, only to have their spineless father and cruel stepmother send the two girls back. Back to the school that hid one daughter in an asylum and lie about her death. Their father drops them off with a “But it’s different now, it’s still a very good school with a new headmaster”, and has the nerve to tell them he loves them after that, securing a Father of the Year award sometime in the future, I’m sure.

Things aren’t wonderful back at Rookwood. Penny, Scarlet and Ivy’s tormenting nemesis, is still there, and she’s worse than ever. Violet, Penny’s best friend, and bullying accomplice, the girl who was also hidden away at the same asylum, is sent back to Rookwood, but is quiet, withdrawn, and now rooming with Ariadne. Scarlet is insufferable to such a degree, Ivy finds herself distancing from her twin. The headmaster, the sinister Mr. Bartholomew, is a fanatical disciplinarian whose punishments go beyond reason.

The girls are thrown back into this maelstrom, with most of the student body none the wiser. But there are new secrets discovered at Rookwood; secrets about Mr. Bartholomew himself; a secret group of students from the past that may include Scarlet and Ivy’s mother, and another girl rescued from the asylum, hiding in the school.

The Whispers in the Walls is a good follow-up to The Lost Twin, but Scarlet is nearly insufferable. She’s difficult for the mere sake of being difficult, and may put off readers as much as she does her twin sister. Ivy remains a strong character who continues developing through the story; I hope she rubs off on Scarlet for future adventures. The new headmaster, Mr. Bartholomew, continues the tradition of awful school management – Rookwood seems set to go through headmasters and headmistresses like Hogwarts goes through Defense of the Dark Arts professors. There are several story threads presented in The Whispers in the Walls, only a couple of which are resolved; I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book takes us.

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

Sleeping Beauty, reimagined: Spindle Fire

Spindle Fire (Spindle Fire #1), by Lexa Hillyer, (Apr. 2017, HarperTeen), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062440877

Recommended for ages 14+

This Sleeping Beauty reimagining gives us parallel narratives of two sisters: Aurora and Isabella, the princess and her bastard sister, and Belcoeur and Malfleur, fairies whose longstanding feud may bring down the kingdom. It starts like the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty, with a twist: in this world, fairies may bestow gifts upon you, but it’s a tithe – ain’t nothing for free. Aurora’s parents, the king and queen, give up Aurora’s sense of touch and ability to speak in order to receive her gifts. Malfleur, like the fabulous Maleficent, storms in and puts the spinning needle curse on Aurora, but this time around, a fairy offers to mitigate the curse not out of the goodness and kindness of her heart, but for another tithe: sight. The queen offers up Isabella – called Isbe – bastard daughter of the king, as tithe. So we’ve got one sister who can’t speak or feel, another who can’t see, but they communicate with a language all their own.

There is a lot of story here: there’s turmoil in the kingdom; Isbe runs off while the Aurora falls victim to the spindle. Malfleur is getting an army ready to march and take over the kingdom as Isbe tries to wake her sister; Aurora wakes up in an enchanted world, meeting a woodsman that she eventually falls in love with. There are moments where Spindle Fire is really good storytelling, but there are moments where there’s almost too many threads; too much going on to get the proper gist of the story. I liked the interactions between Aurora and Isbe, and I really loved reading the backstory between the two faerie queens: more of that, please! The ending leaves readers with no question: there will be a sequel (and GoodReads has this listed as Book One).

If you have reimagined fairy tale readers, this is a good add; romance readers will enjoy the chemistry between each of the sisters and their paramours.

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

Dance like your life depends on it: Spin the Sky

Spin the Sky, by Jill MacKenzie, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1510706866

Recommended for readers 14+

Eighteen year-old Magnolia Woodson and her older sister, Rose, have to live with the sins of their drug addict mother, who abandoned them after a tragedy a year before. Living in a small clamming town in Oregon, everyone knows who they are and what happened; the only folks who seem to think differently are Magnolia’s childhood best friend, George, and his mother, who’s taken care of the girls whenever their mother fell short. To change the way the town sees Magnolia and her sister, she decides she need to win the reality dance show, Live to Dance. She and George head to Portland to audition, but they make it! Now the real work begins: will the competition be too much for Mags? Will her friendship with George survive the stress of the show, and will she be able to live in the fishbowl that is reality television, especially with a secret she doesn’t want made public?

Spin the Sky has a strong premise that isn’t afraid to tackle some hot-button topics like drug addiction, sexuality, abortion, and miscarriage. Some of your more conservative readers may shy away from this one; steer them toward books like Sophie Flack’s Bunheads, Lorri Hewett’s Dancer, or Sarah Rubin’s Someday Dancer. Magnolia is a tough character to crack: she’s consumed with what other people think of her, and obsesses over winning the competition, seemingly just so that the town will accept her and her sister. She has a complicated love-hate relationship with her mother (understandably), and she has an unrequited crush on George, who she thinks is gay – and is really upset when it seems that isn’t the case. The other contestants all have their own issues that the author briefly touches on throughout the novel.

If you have readers who love reading about dance and are interested in reality television, Spin the Sky is a good backup for your shelves.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen

The Well of Prayers continues the Temple of Doubt series

well-of-prayersThe Well of Prayers, by Anne Boles Levy, (Aug. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781634501934

Recommended for ages 13+

The second book in Anne Boles Levy’s Temple of Doubt series picks up soon after the events of Temple of Doubt. Hadara, now 16, works as a healer’s apprentice. Her father has been promoted to portreeve, a local official. The Azwans are keeping an eye on Hadara and her family, and they’re also cracking down on the community. Homes being searched for heretical items – strictly in the eye of the beholder – and anyone branded a disbeliever is punished severely. Hadara is horrified when she sees one of her neighbors in custody, and tries to think of ways to hamper the culling and mass punishments.

She also discovers that Valeo, the guard she thought dead, is very much alive; it brings up feelings that she thought she successfully pushed down. This, mixed with her continuing suspicion of the god Nihil, and her own concerns about the demon they may or may not have destroyed at the end of Temple of Doubt help set plans in motion that could put Hadara, her family, and possibly all of Port Sapphire in Nihil’s sights.

I really enjoyed the second book in the Temple of Doubt series. I felt more comfortable with the characters, the setting, and the overall faith structure running throughout the book, something that confused me a bit in the first novel. The continuing struggle over who decides what is “faithful enough” vs. “sinful” is all too relevant today; teens will be sucked right in, particularly with Hadara’s mixed emotions about herself and her place in this world, her feelings for Valeo, and her questions about her faith. Give this series to your high fantasy fans and booktalk Hadara with other positive female protagonists like Katniss, Celaena (from Throne of Glass), and Greta from Scorpion Rules.

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Preschool Reads

What was your Worst Breakfast?

worstbreakfastThe Worst Breakfast, by China Miéville/Illustrated by Zak Smith, (Oct. 2016, Black Sheep/Akashic), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1617754869

Recommended for ages 3-8

Two sisters sit down one morning to talk about the worst breakfast they’ve ever had. It gets progressively worse, from burnt toast, to unbaked, uncooked, unclean baked beans, a steaming, slick tomato hill oozing into rancid swill. Can it get worse? It has to get better… doesn’t it?

This book is just too much fun to read by yourself or a room full of kids, who will squeal with awful glee as the awful breakfast the two sisters describe gets grosser and grosser. Award-winning author China Miéville, best known for his fantasy and science fiction tales, is brilliant as he constructs a hilarious, rhyming tale, told as a conversation between two sisters remembering the worst breakfast ever made. Building on each other’s memory, the sisters one-upping each other and – illustrated in full repulsive glory by Zak Smith – create a mountain of food so terrifying and awful that you have no choice but to squeal and giggle uncontrollably at memories of terrible meals past. And then… a glimmer of hope? Maybe breakfast can be saved, after all.

I love this book. I hope Miéville and Smith have more stories to tell, because this will be a storytime mainstay for me. This would be great for a food storytime. Pair this one with Kate McMullan’s I Stink!, where a garbage truck narrates a stomach-churning alphabet of the “food” he eats on his shift. I’d also pair this with Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen for a surrealist story session; I was reminded of Sendak’s book often as I read The Worst Breakfast. I enjoyed the back and forth between the sisters, and the different British-American references, like the differences in the pronunciation of words  like tomato and bravado: “You can’t rhyme TOMATO and BRAVADO!” “I can if we’re English. Almost. Tu-MAH-toe, bruh-VAH-doe.” I love the pictures that Miéville paints with his words and Zak Smith’s wild interpretations that give the words life on the page.

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This is a fun tale that’s sure to get the kids interacting during a storytime. If you’ve got readers who enjoy gross humor – and who doesn’t? – this will build their vocabularies and make them howl with disgusted delight. The Worst Breakfast has received a starred review from Kirkus.

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

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is quietly powerful

soldier sister_1Soldier Sister, Fly Home, by Nancy Bo Flood/Illustrated by Shonto Begay, (Aug. 2016, Charlesbridge), $16.95, ISBN: 9781580897020

Recommended for ages 10+

Thirteen year-old Tess is struggling with her identity. As someone who’s part white and part Navajo, she feels too white when she’s on the rez, but she’s called “Pokey-hontas” and “squaw” at the white school she attends in Flagstaff. Her older sister, Gaby, whom she adores, has joined the military in order to get money for college; when she comes home to tell Tess that she’s being deployed – shortly after Tess and her family have attended a memorial service for Lori Piestewa, a member of their community and the first Native American woman to fall in combat – Tess is devastated. Gaby asks Tess to take care of her stallion, Blue, while she’s gone; it’s a challenge, to be sure, as Blue is semi-wild and doesn’t gel with Tess, but over the course of the summer, Tess learns more about herself from Blue than she could have imagined.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is a quietly tender novel about family, identity, and loss. Lori Piestewa, whose memorial service opens the story, was a real-life soldier who was killed in Iraq and was a member of the Hopi tribe. From Lori’s tale, Ms. Flood spins the story of Tess and Gaby and Native American identity. Their grandfather is a veteran, a World War II Code Talker; they live in a community of proud warriors, descended from warriors. Tess is frustrated as she tries to embrace a cultural identity: but which culture to identify with? Her grandmother is a guiding force here, as is Gaby, who loves and reassures her younger sister, even from a world away. Blue, the stubborn and half-wild horse, teaches Tess patience and helps her recognize her own inner strength throughout the book.

The book includes notes and a glossary on the Navajo language, a note honoring Lori Piestewa and her service, and a reader’s group guide. Writing prompts are available through the publisher’s website, as is a link to a seven-page excerpt.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It is a beautiful story and an important addition to all bookshelves.

Nancy Bo Flood was a research psychologist and studied brain development at the University of Minnesota and the University of London before writing books for children. Additional books include recognized and award-winning titles, such as Warriors in the Crossfire (Boyds Mills) and Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo (WordSong).

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

The Lost Twin: A boarding school whodunit

the lost twinScarlet & Ivy: The Lost Twin, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2016, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $16.99, ISBN: 9781492633396

Recommended for ages 9-13

Ivy is still grieving the death of her twin sister, Scarlet, when the letter from the school comes: a spot has opened up, and she can expect to be picked up immediately. Ivy is indignant – how rude and cold, to be referring to her sister’s death as an “opening” – and it only gets worse once the imperious headmistress, Miss Fox, comes to collect her. Miss Fox tells her that Ivy’s expected to become Scarlet – a face-saving measure for the school. Once at the school, Ivy finds herself in the thick of a few mysteries, all having to do with Scarlet and her disappearance from the school. Can Ivy unravel all the mysteries surrounding the school and learn what really happened to her sister?

Scarlet and Ivy: The Lost Twin is a well-paced, consuming boarding school mystery, set in 1935 England. The characters are interesting and the intrigue keeps pages turning, while getting readers riled up at the injustices Ivy endures. There are so many little mysteries entwined with larger ones – once a thread gets pulled, you’ll be consumed with following it to see where it goes. Fox is an awful human being that loves corporal punishment a bit too much to be in charge of children; Ms. Cleverly has given us a truly hissable villain here (she and Professor Umbridge would get along swimmingly). You’ll root for Ivy and her friend, Ariadne, and the ending leaves you bouncing up and down with the knowledge that we’ll be getting more adventures in the future.

According to Sophie Cleverly’s Twitter, the third Scarlet & Ivy book is out – pretty sure it’s only out in the UK, but let’s be really, really nice to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Ms. Cleverly, so they’ll bring the further adventures of Ivy, Ariadne, & Co. to us here in the States.

The Lost Twin is a good summer reading choice for middle grade readers who enjoy a good mystery with a few well-placed plot twists. I’ve got a lot of kids asking me for good mysteries, so I’ll add this one to my booktalks, along with The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee and Audacity Jones.