Tag Archives: middle grade

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

palace of stonePalace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery Medal-winning Princess Academy. I liked Princess Academy and appreciated how Hale played with our expectations of what was going to happen, but it wasn’t one I completely and utterly loved. I’ve also found that Hale’s sequels tend to be less impressive for me than her first books. All of that is to say why it took me so long to read a book by an author who I admire and generally enjoy.

As it happens, Palace of Stone is nearly a standalone. Events from the first book are referenced, and it certainly helps to have read Princess Academy, but the events are distinct enough that it could be read on its own.

Miri and her friends from the Princess Academy travel to Asland, to the flatlands where Britta is engaged to Prince Steffan. But they step into a world that they do not understand, where the nobles take and the Shoeless whisper against them. Miri and the other Eskelians must decide where their allegiances, both personal and political, lie.

The personal side of the story is the part I appreciated the most. Miri struggles to find her place in Asland, but her loyalty to her home and her friends remains central to her character. That her difficulties are reflected in a romantic tangle between Timon, a young man who has aligned himself with the Shoeless and their cause, and Peder, her old friend from Mount Eskel, is actually not something that bothered me too much. Maybe because I was never in any real doubt about what choice she would ultimately make.

I had a more mixed reaction to the political side. The situation is fairly clearly based in some measure on the French revolution. The abuses by the nobles against the Shoeless are shown clearly, and Miri has a lot of sympathy for them, as an outsider herself. On the other hand, Miri’s best friend is engaged to the Prince. That tension drives most of the book.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, both the depiction of the different groups and the solution are a little too easy. I know it’s a middle grade novel, and I appreciate that Hale is willing to take on the subject, but I wanted the end result to be a bit messier, to feel less emphatic and determined. (I will also admit that Frances Hardinge has given me perhaps ridiculously high standards when it comes to potrayals of revolution in middle grade books.)

So in the end, I’m glad I read this one, but it’s not my favorite of Hale’s books, nor do I think it’s quite successful in what it sets out to do.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2012, Bloomsbury; middle grade

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May and June 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston
Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Sun-kissed by Laura Florand
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Clair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds
The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Torn Away by Jennifer Brown
Pretender by C.J.Cherryh
A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Kirshnaswami
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
A Bride’s Story, vol 2 by Kaoru Mori
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
My Neighbor Totoro
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Melusine by Sarah Monette
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Other books
Blood Royal by Eric Jager: Non-fiction account of the murder and aftermath of Louis of Orleans. It’s an interesting book, engagingly written, and Jager manages to make his points without hammering them home too often. It’s also a slightly depressing story; justice was never really done, and the man who pursued it the most lost a lot because of it.

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan: I enjoyed my re-read of this a LOT, and yet I can’t help feeling that it’s fundamentally the first half of a story, that it needed the unwritten second book to really round it out. As it is, Mel is only just beginning to change, and I can’t quite see where that journey will take her. I know that things happen, and I do very much enjoy what we do have. Especially Kit.

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw: Bradshaw takes a what-if–what if Cleopatra’s son had survived the Roman invasion of Egypt–and weaves a very compelling story from it. The sense of a young man who has been used to complete privilege and who must now find his way in the world isn’t a new one, but Bradshaw treats it deftly, with both affection and enough distance to be convincing.

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb: I read the YA version of this last year and I wanted to see if the adult version presented a more complex version of events. It did and it didn’t–I certainly understood more of what was happening, but that’s simply because it’s a longer book with more information. For me, the most powerful moment is still Gideon Hausner’s spine-tingling speech at Eichmann’s trial.

Hild by Nicola Griffiths: Hild is a much more fascinating and complex book than I can convey here. I may have to come back to it, because I keep musing about a particular aspect. But for now, I’ll just say that it provides a marvelous counterpoint to certain fantasy sub-genres, and does so in a way that doesn’t refute so much as stand outside a certain viewpoint. I loved the first three-quarters unreservedly; the last quarter didn’t quite have the same weight for me, although I wound up still liking the book a great deal. There’s so much more I want to say, but I’ll just leave it at this: if pseudo-medieval fantasy epics always strike you as lacking specificity and reality, this is a book you’ll like.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith: For a book about psychic KGB spies, I found this one a bit tedious. Smith has done her research, but there were a few awkward moments that bounced me out of the narrative (as when Yulia mentions that Masha means Maria, a fact she would certainly know). I wonder if this would have worked better for me if it hadn’t been first person, if we had a little more narrative distance from Yulia’s perspective. Still, it’s overall fairly enjoyable.

Die For Love by Elizabeth Peters: I normally like Elizabeth Peters, but this one came across as less “loving spoof on romance readers and writers” and more “caricature of romance readers and writers.” Compared to, say, Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, which lovingly and accurately sends up scifi conventions, this one seemed a bit petty and unkind.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman: I wasn’t quite sure how I would like this one when I started reading, but I ended up liking it a lot. Gretchen came across to me as a young woman very much in her elders’ shadows–both her father, her brother, and her uncle Dolf–and her journey read as believable to me. It did happen very quickly, and I wished there had been a way to slow that down a bit, but overall I found it an interesting and engrossing book.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: Last Diana Wynne Jones book ever, I am so sad. I did like it, which I had worried I wouldn’t; I’m not terribly fond of Earwig. This felt like a return to classic Jones in a lot of ways, and while I wish she had been able to finish it, I am happy with what we got. Did anyone spot the join? I wasn’t quite sure where it came in.

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg: Perhaps because it’s a bit more focused, I enjoyed Delancey more than Wizenberg’s first book. While I did occasionally mutter about getting the point already, it is one that shows how we can have a changing relationship even to things we love, and have to re-find our way to them.

Swift by R.J. Anderson: The last in Anderson’s Knife series. I’ve really enjoyed these books, and I’m so sad they’re not being published over here. Swift seems especially complex and interesting. And I loved that a particular character quotes from Richard III–it fits so well with how {spoiler} is portrayed, as well as being a nice reference.

Curse of the Team Spirit by John Allison: I had read this before, when it was published on the Bad Machinery website, but it was so fun to see the little detectives in their infancy! And while it’s one of the weirder mysteries, it wasn’t at all annoying, which sometimes things are when you revisit them.

The China Garden by Liz Berry: My main reaction to this one was to feel a bit dated. It came out in 1994, when I was seven, but it feels very old-fashioned, in the romance and the attitudes about the world and environmentalism especially. It’s an extremely atmospheric read, but I didn’t find myself really liking it, or the characters very much. Not sure if the fault lies in me or the book–I suspect me as I probably would have loved it in middle school.

Render Unto Caesar by Gillian Bradshaw: I liked this one perhaps a little less than most Bradshaw books; it lacks some of the clear plotting that distinguishes the others, I think. But the setting and characters are, as always, compelling, and she remains practically unequaled in her ability to paint a picture of the ancient world.

The Bride’s Story, vol. 1 by Kaoru Mori
Lulu and the Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst
Saga, vol 2 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond
Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Forget You by Jennifer Echols
The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith

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The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

greatgreene This is in some ways a pretty easy book to talk up to people. Look at that cover. Do you think it looks awesome? A middle school heist book with a diverse cast sound like something you’d enjoy? There you go.

Personally, I do love a good heist story. Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Ally Carter’s Heist Society books–they all satisfy that part of me that likes a fast-paced story with some derring-do and slightly criminal activity. The Great Greene Heist is a fun example of the genre. Johnson clearly knows his stuff: snappy dialogue, main character who leads an unlikely team, betrayal, revenge, and a little bit of romance. He scales the normal heist story down so it fits in a middle school setting, but he never talks down to his audience. He expects them to follow the dialogue, to get the references.

And then there’s the setting. I started flailing on Twitter last night because no one had mentioned that The Great Greene Heist is set in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived from September 1993 to June 2006. Maplewood is a fictional school, but Easton Town Center, where Gaby goes with her aunt, and the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are not. (I loved the Whetstone branch because they had a little flower garden.) I am always happy when books are set in the Midwest, since it’s one of the less-valued areas of the country, even today seen as boring and full of farms. The reality of the Midwest is so much more interesting and complex than that and I love seeing authors choosing to show that in their books.

Johnson also chose to create an extremely diverse cast, and to consciously push back against stereotypes in several different ways. I actually prefer the second cover the book was given, because it shows more accurately what the story looks like, and because it makes it clear that Jackson is the main character but not the only character. The characters in the book are racially and ethnically diverse. They are also all firmly middle class; Jackson’s parents are professionals, and his mother is a professor at Ohio State. We don’t see many books written from this perspective, and it’s great to see it here.

At the same time, the characters also encounter casual racism, especially from Ms. Appleton, one of the school secretaries. Here’s the clearest quote, but it is echoed several other times in the book: “Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant when she said ‘boys like you.’ He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” I mean, can’t you just hear someone saying that? I know I can. It’s not a violent racism, but rather the assumption that brown boys will always be in trouble, that they’ll never get anywhere. And by middle school, kids will most definitely have encountered this attitude from someone. They’ll get it.

But diversity of race is not the only kind we see here. Megan is a blonde cheerleader, the punchline of innumerable jokes, except that she’s also very smart and talented with computers (and speaks Klingon). Gaby plays basketball and it’s clear that she–and the rest of the girls’ basketball team–is much better than any of the boys playing (when she’s playing Jackson she is relieved because at least she doesn’t have to hold back). All of the main characters are shown in multi-faceted, complex ways.

All of this adds up to something really interesting–a mixture of the excitement of the heist plot, and this detailed realism that keeps the story on an everyday level. Normally, heist stories take place against the backdrop of a huge city: New York, Paris, London. It’s part of their glamor. But Johnson sets his in Columbus, gives us a cast that accurately depicts the diversity of our world, gives them a goal that fits into their concerns. These are not teenage spies or jewel thieves; their goal is to get the right person elected as Student Council President. As much as I love the good old-fashioned heist story, this is exactly right. It gives the kids it was written for a chance to see themselves, a chance to feel understood and valued.

In case it wasn’t clear, I also loved reading it myself. It was just plain fun. I’d love to see a sequel or two (or three!) and I’m so glad the Great Green Challenge gave it a boost to my radar.

Book source: bought
Book information: 2014, Arthur Levine; middle grade

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Recent Reading: Short stories, romance, and middle grade

sun kissedSun-kissed by Laura Florand: A new short novel from Florand. This one is a bit different in that it 1) takes place in America and 2) focuses on the older generation, Mack Corey and Anne Winters. I really enjoyed the way Florand explores the different characters, who are more mature and self-confident than their children and their children’s peers in some ways, and yet still very vulnerable in others. I did miss the French setting a bit, but the sea-side is a lovely alternative. I loved the way Mack sees his daughters and sons-in-law; it was great to see some of the other characters from the Chocolat series through his eyes. All in all, this was a lovely endcap to Florand’s earlier stories (though if there are more in the future, I won’t be sad!)

conservation of shadowsConservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: A collection of sff short stories. Lee is Korean-American, and based several of the stories on incidents from Korean history. I found that the sensibility underlying the stories to be clear and beautiful; I can’t speak to how and what has been informed by her heritage, but there’s certainly an awareness of non-western based cultures that is refreshing. I loved the worlds Lee creates, and her characters–often caught between two duties or two loyalties. This is one of the most cohesive anthologies I can remember reading, which I greatly appreciated–while I love short stories, I often feel that collections lack coherence. If I have a complaint, it’s that occasionally the endings felt less forceful than I wanted them to be; not rushed, exactly, but compressed in a way that didn’t quite give me the follow-through I wanted. I don’t know if the fault is in the stories, or in me, but this happened often enough for me to notice it.

clair de luneClair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds: A middle-grade book, which falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism (the tone reminds me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux). I liked the characters and writing a lot, but felt some vague unease about the tidiness of the ending and an occasional hammering-home of points. In general, I think this is one I would have absolutely loved a few years ago; it’s probably a good one for the quieter, dreamy young girls.

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Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo-Song-Frances-HardingeFrances Hardinge is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers and has the page to prove it. Every time I read one of her books, I know it will be a wonderful experience. Part of that is the originality of the stories she writes–I have a hard time coming up with readalikes for her books because each of them is so unique.

So, when I heard that she had a new book coming out this year (UK only, I bought it through Book Depository), I was naturally very excited. I pre-ordered it sight unseen because, well, new Frances Hardinge!

I am happy to report that Cuckoo Song more than lived up to my expectations and is, in fact, at the top of my Favorite Frances Hardinge Books list, jostling Lost Conspiracy/Gullstruck Island for first. It’s a wonderful, eerie story, with a lot to say about identity and family. Fresh, unexpected, and wonderfully written, this is a book for both the die-hard fan and a good entrance for the new one.

This, like several of my other favorite books, is one that I struggle with describing, because part of its joy is the joy of discovery, finding out along with the characters what is happening. In this case, I will say that Cuckoo Song is the story of a young girl called Triss, who wakes up after an accident to find that everything is wrong. There are gaps in her memory, and her sister seems to hate her even more than usual. And she’s filled with a ravenous hunger that she cannot manage to stop, no matter how much she eats.

What follows starts off as a gloriously eerie, nightmarish story, as Triss struggles to make her memories match up, to find out what happened to her, and why strange things keep happening. Hardinge is really, really good at writing the just-barely-wrong details, the mirror world that doesn’t quite reflect true.

But things don’t end there. (I’m struggling to write this part without spoilers; even though I guessed the solution fairly early, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.) Instead of leaving us with a big revelation, Hardinge writes beyond that, turning the story into a beautiful examination of identity, of family and forgiveness, love and second-chances at life. The story is also set between the two World Wars, and there’s quite a bit about the memory of the Great War and the losses that people have suffered as a result; it haunts the story and underlies a number of choices made by the characters. And, as I’ve said before, I want more people to write like Hardinge does–great children’s books which are also aware of history, of politics and the implications of both. As in The Lost Conspiracy and the Mosca Mye books, Hardinge does not shy away from big questions, in this case about grief, loss, and the decisions people make.

Triss is a fantastic character, prickly and vulnerable, wrong and absolutely right. I loved the way Hardinge plays with the nuances of who she is, and who she chooses to be. Moreover, I loved the way her relationship with Pen develops, and the wonderful bittersweet hope of the ending.

I think this is the scariest of Hardinge’s books–the first quarter is one of those nightmare situations that when written well is incredibly terrifying–and yet, like The Lost Conspiracy, there are mostly not villains so much as people doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Against this is arrayed the strength of friendship, of sisterhood, of making a different choice than the ones you’re presented with. Ultimately I found it utterly compelling and beautifully written, and–as I’ve come to expect from Hardinge–a subtle, surprising look at the world and how we make ourselves in it.

Book source: bought through Book Depository (tragically not available in the US except as an ebook)
Book information: 2014, Pan Macmillan; upper middle grade/YA (Triss is eleven)
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Favorite Author page for Frances Hardinge

Other Cuckoo Song reviews:
The Book Smugglers
Ana @ Things Mean A Lot

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April 2014 reading list

Oh, such a thin one this month! Trying to comfort myself with the knowledge that there have been lots of other good things going on.

Books I’ve already talked about
Precursor by C.J. Cherryh
Defender by C.J. Cherryh
Explorer by C.J. Cherryh
The Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine
Serpent’s Egg by Caroline Stevermer
Death Sworn by Leah Cypress

Other books
The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler: I loved this collection of essays and recipes on food, cooking, and the way we think about both. The prose is also a joy to read, to the point that I was posting quotes on my (sporadically used) tumblr. Lovely boo, and one that will definitely inform how I approach food and cooking in the future.

The Seven Sorcerers by Caro King: A middle grade fantasy. I liked the characters a lot, and the world, and the motivation for the main characters, but I found that the pacing was kind of draggy, especially towards the end. I kept waiting for something to happen.

Not a Creature Was Stirring
Act of Darkness
Quoth the Raven
A Great Day for the Deadly
by Jane Haddam: I wasn’t feel well and inhaled several of these while lying on my bed, the couch, and my bed again. They’re lightish mysteries, with a somewhat old fashioned feel and a nice detective. Occasionally the holiday-related aspect seemed a little forced, and the descriptions of characters a little cruel (there was one in the first book that really made me wince), but overall they’re the perfect sick day reading.

Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples: I’ve been hearing good things about this graphic novel and they are definitely deserved. An epic story with a fun, slightly snarky voice and great visuals. Note that it is definitely more of an adult comic book–there’s some violence and sexual content, for people who want to avoid such things.

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski: I have a great many thoughts about this one, so I will try to come up with an actual post soon. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot to like about it, and some aspects I quibble with a bit.

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March 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry
Dragonborn by Toby Forward
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Hide and Seek by Ida Vos
Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken
Sun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
Binny For Short by Hilary McKay
Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery
Runemarks by Joanne Harris

Other books
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson: Rachel Neumeier suggested this one when I posted about books that give me feels. It’s a heartwrenching contemporary YA. I liked Lennie, the main character, a lot. I especially liked that the story gives her room to make mistakes without judgement. And I was happy with the way the romance was resolved.

Hob and the Goblins by William Mayne: This is an older book. It’s an odd little story, which I enjoyed but in a dreamy sort of way which doesn’t really lend itself to enthusiasm. It might work well for fans of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s books.

Rose by Holly Webb: This is a very lovely middle grade fantasy, which focuses on a different class than most books of its type. Rose is an orphan and then a servant, rather than a lady. I liked the historical setting and especially Rose, who is a lovely main character.

Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones: Another middle grade historical fantasy. For some reason, I didn’t like this one as much as I thought I was going to, and I’m not quite sure why. There were lots of nice elements, and yet somehow it never quite became amazing. Bah.

Charlotte, Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: Which I found, appropriately enough, on Charlotte’s Library. It’s a time-travel story, with an English boarding school feel. There’s a bit of heartache, but it’s not traumatic.

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar: This is a sweet middle grade romance with multi-cultural elements. It was nicely written, but at the same time I had niggling doubts about it. Perhaps something about how easy it was for Alex to enter into Bijou’s world? I don’t know.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: Tears of laughter.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: The Egypt Game was one of my favorite books when I was younger, so I decided to try The Headless Cupid. It turned out to be super creepy! I appreciate ZKS’s writing chops, but no. Just no.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle: I think I’m the only one who didn’t love this one as much as the first book. Maybe it’s just middle book syndrome, but so much seemed unresolved. I did like Nate’s romance, which was sweet and nicely done.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell: This is a nice classic-feeling middle grade fantasy. Like several other recent mg fantasies, it has a Scandinavian feeling to it (which makes perfect sense in Almhjell’s case). It doesn’t do new and exciting things, but it has the kind of comforting and old-fashioned feel of a good cup of hot chocolate.

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods: A biracial girl connects with the black side of her family, who she hasn’t met because her father died before she was born and they’re not on speaking terms with her mother. It’s not very subtle, but it’s a sweet story and well written, and does come organically from Violet’s experiences. And there’s a lot of nice bits about identity and family and forgiveness.

Real American Girls Tell Their Own Stories by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes
The Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman
A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

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