Tag Archives: middle grade

Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.

out of the woods

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.

The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.

In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.

 

Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.

 

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July 2016 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson
Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan
False Hearts by Laura Lam

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other books

Little White Lies by Brianna Baker and F. Bowman Hastie: I’ve been going back and forth about this one, and at a certain level I think I’m just not quite able to say from my own background whether it successfully does what it’s setting out to do. I’m glad to see exciting, timely YA contemporary fiction about a Black teen, but here it seems undercut a bit by the other point-of-character, who’s a middle-aged white man. It just–seems like a weird contrast and I’m not sure how it sits with me. If you’ve read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Far From Fair by Elana K Arnold: Middle-grade contemporary. It’s a quiet look at family dynamics and end-of-life issues. While I can’t say my personal views align with the characters’ at all, I do think it could be a valuable book for the right reader. Overall, I thought Odette was really well drawn; as an adult reader I got a little impatient with her at points, but I suspect the target audience won’t.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach: This is a look, not so much at the history of the space program, as at the history of the stuff needed to go into space. By and large, Roach has an easy breezy, readable style that is quite engaging. However, occasionally it’s a little at odds with her subject. And in one place I noticed a transition that came across as really, really racist (PRO TIP: don’t talk about how black women are ideally suited to being astronauts and then switch to black bears. Just don’t. This is why we need more diversity in publishing across the board.)

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks: Sometimes you just really need to reread a favorite, delightful book. This basically always means rereading Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, because it’s pretty much the definition of delightful.

Change Places With Me by Lois Metzger: YA scifi, a quietish book with some strong worldbuilding and characters. I can’t say much about the plot, because uncovering what happens is part of the fun, but I really liked it. I suspect that for the right readers it could be really great, and I hope it finds them.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Plamer: reviewed here
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey: reviewed here
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus: (review coming soon)
The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: (review coming soon)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: (review coming soon)

TV and movies
Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, go see Ghostbusters. It’s so fun and lovely and yes.

I also have been watching The Great British Bake Off because it is on our TV screens once again! You should be able to watch it on PBS.org right now.

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Recent reading: 7-13-2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos: YA mystery about a girl whose father disappears. It’s a quiet-ish book that’s less about the mystery as such and more about Imogene’s journey as she tries to find out the truth about her parents. Podos grapples with the complexities of family and identity, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. There’s also an understated romance and an important friendship, which really help to round the book out. This is a debut, and I look forward to seeing what Podos writes next.

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly: This is Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade book, about two sisters trapped with an actual evil stepmother. There’s a colorful cast of characters, but the heart of the book is really centered on Sol and Ming. From an adult perspective, I felt frustrated with the ending, and yet I can also see the realism there. Not every story ends perfectly, but this one does end well.

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson: For me, I think this is the standout of the recent crop of YA titles about fandom. I really saw the involvement with fandom, the relationships and how life-changing they can be. The last, oh, third? of the book took a turn away from this with some twists and revelations. I didn’t mind these, but I also wasn’t that invested in them. I’m also curious because I feel like several reviews and comments downplayed any romantic tension between Gena and Finn, and I saw quite a bit. Am I alone here?

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan: A YA fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, set in an alternate world where New York City is divided into the Light city (with Light magicians) and the Dark city (with Dark magicians). Lucie Manette becomes the main character, and we see the story unfolding from her point of view. SRB did a great job overall of engaging with the source text in interesting and resonant ways. However, this fell pretty flat for me at the end, when the plot seemed rushed and constrained by the original; I wanted to understand what this meant, for Lucie and for the other characters. I wanted to really feel something, and I almost did–but not quite. All in all, this is a really fascinating book, although maybe not for the reasons that I expected.

False Hearts by Laura Lam: Lam has written a couple of YA books, I believe, and this is her first adult. It’s set in a futuristic San Francisco, as Taema must rush to save her twin, Tila. They were once conjoined twins who were born into a cult and after their escape they were surgically separated. If that sounds like a lot to fit into a story, I had the same concern. But Lam pulls it off, by keep the focus pretty squarely on Taema, and weaving in the different strands around her. I also liked that Lam shows the shadowy side of San Francisco’s society, with its insistence on being perfect and blemish free, as well as conveying the very complicated relationship the twins still have to the cult. This rang pretty true with accounts I’ve read from cult survivors; that you never ever want to go back, and yet you still miss the good things about it. All in all, this was a fast, immersive read that pulled me in right away.

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2015 Favorites: middle grade

pocket full of murder akata witch murder is bad manners gone crazy in alabama
A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson: This was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it totally lived up to my expectations. Isaveth is a great character, and the plot is exciting and engaging. Plus, the story takes a thoughtful look at religion and class. AND there are some quiet references to Golden Age mysteries.

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste: Baptiste’s second book is a perfectly scary one for this age level, drawing on stories from her background in Trinidad. I loved Corinne’s strength and stubbornness, and the way she learns to reach out to others, as well as coming to terms with her family’s past and her heritage.

Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry: I debated on whether to put this one in YA or middle grade, but in the end I stuck it here because I think that the right 13-14 year old reader is going to adore this story. It sounds sort of awful to say that I laughed the whole time, since it opens with a double murder, but I did. I loved the relationships between the girls and the mystery, and just the whole thing.

The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall: It’s no secret that I love the Penderwicks, and I was curious and apprehensive about how this one would go, since it jumps several years time-wise. I ended up loving it just as much as the others–maybe even more so–although it’s also more heartbreaking.

Jinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood: The third book in the lovely Jinx trilogy. I’ve enjoyed spending time in the Urwald and with the characters in this series so much. Jinx himself is a great protagonist, but add in Sophie, and Simon, and Elfwyn, and the whole book becomes so much richer. Great mg fantasy which kids love!

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay: This had been on my TBR for awhile, but when my friend Chachic hosted a month-long promotion of Filipino books and authors, I knew I had to pick it up. Told in alternating narratives between Andi and her half-brother Nardo, it focuses mostly on family and what happens when your definition has to change. I really liked the way Gourlay portrayed both Nardo and Andi, as they learn to find their own strengths.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson: While they are totally understandable (and even correct), the comparisons to Raina Telgemeier’s books shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this is a delightful story in its own right. I really appreciated the way Jamieson shows Astrid’s struggle as she tries to find her place when her world is changing around her. I also liked that she’s not instantly good at roller derby, and the nuances of her friendships.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones: An epistolary novel, as written by Sophie. Sophie has just moved with her parents to her great-uncle’s small farm, and isn’t happy about this. But then she discovers a mysterious chicken and strange events begin to unfold. This is a lovely example of magical realism, both funny and heartwarming. I truly enjoyed Sophie’s adventures and hope she’ll be back for more.

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye: Nye’s quiet realistic story of a young boy who is moving to the US from Oman was a total joy. It’s a book that should be savored, and it’s one that takes the interior life of children seriously. Nye’s language is beautiful (not surprising as she’s also a poet) and the fears and hopes of moving are nicely drawn.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: It took me so long to actually read this one, and I’m glad I did and sorry I waited. Sunny’s journey as she comes into her powers and herself is a really wonderful one, and I loved the relationships between her and the other magical students. I’m hoping there will eventually be a sequel.

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross: Sometimes I find mg dystopia stories a little bit simplistic, but this one is smart and engaging. Although Chess is the narrator and main character, I really did feel that the story was a shared one. The idea of the Fog is an interesting one, and the way it’s used in the story worked really well for me.

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens: A middle-grade murder mystery set in a 1930s English boarding school, narrated by the wonderful Hazel Wong. This is a UK import and I had been hearing good things about it. It’s ended up being one of my favorites of the year by far. I love Hazel and her funniness, her fierceness and introspection, as she attempts to navigate being Daisy’s best friend, being from Hong Kong–and also solving a mystery. The second book is just as good!

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon: An utterly delightful fantasy. Molly is a witch who needs a castle, and Castle Hangnail is a castle that needs a master or mistress. But neither of them get quite what they expect. This is wickedly funny, but it’s also about choosing our paths and finding our places.

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia: The last book in the Gaither sisters trilogy! I can’t say how much I love Delphine, and Vonetta and Fern. I felt that each book was deep and complex, and this one really looked at the shadows that family history can cast. The sisters gain a different understanding of Big Ma, and of themselves.

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October 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott
Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn
The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Other books
The Sleeping Partner by Madeleine E. Robins: The third (and last?) in the Sarah Temperance series. I really liked all three of these, although perhaps the first one a bit more than the second two. I was hoping for a slightly stronger resolution here, but the story that we got is great.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett: The last Tiffany Aching book, which just typing that makes me want to cry. There were many, many tears shed over this book, which was a perfect leave-taking for Tiffany and Pratchett himself. Even the dedication made me cry. Tiffany was my entrance into Pratchett’s books, so it seems extra-special to say good-bye to him with this one.

Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens: The second Wells & Wong book, which I loved just as much as the first. These books are a great combination of enjoyable and thoughtful, as Hazel reflects on her friendship with Daisy and her own place in England. I bought this one from the UK because I’m impatient and am strongly considering doing the same thing with the third book.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy: I loved this one! It’s been getting a fair amount of buzz and praise, as well it should. Willowdean is a great character, and the story is the perfect combination of thoughtful and fun.

Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry: I had been meaning to read this one since last year and when the third book in the trilogy was nominated for the Cybils, I knew I just had to do it. McCarry’s prose is marvelous, and while I often felt somewhat impatient with Maia, I also felt like she was a real person making real decisions.

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon: A futuristic middle grade retelling of Robin Hood–I liked the way Magoon wrote a new story while also including nods to the original. Robyn is a fun heroine, and I think this is one middle grade readers will really love.

Prairie Fire by EK Johnston: Cybils book. Sequel to The Story of Owen, from last year. As with that one, this is a quiet book that builds to a really emotional climax. Which is to say: I cried. I loved the way Siobhan looks at the world, and I think her character is really nicely developed in this one.

About a Girl by Sarah McCarry: Cybils book. Third in the trilogy starting with All Our Pretty Songs. I think this might be my favorite book in the series, and I think all three are very strong. I loved Tally and her way of looking at the world, her strength and impatience. McCarry does a great job showing her metamorphosis via voice here, and the prose in the book is just gorgeous.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: Cybils book. This is a very solid YA SF book, set in a base on the Moon. There’s some nice diversity (I personally read Phaet as non-neurotypical and both she and the people she encounters come from a variety of Earth cultures) and the story is engaging.

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey: Cybils book. I think the strength of this is the set-up, and the plot which is fast-moving. I liked it more than I think I might have in a different mood, but I enjoyed the way the conflict played out.

Medicus by Ruth Downie: I’m not actually entirely sure if I liked this book, but it was just what needed for a day when I felt awful and just wanted to lie on the couch and read.

Captain Marvel: Down by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Material Girls by Elaine Dimopolous: Cybils book
Daughter Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics: Cybils book
Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George: Cybils book
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Other posts
Links 10-28
Book wishes
Favorite YA mysteries

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A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

pocket full of murderThere are some books you just know you’re going to love as soon as you start reading them. For me, A Pocket Full of Murder was one of these.

Isaveth Breck’s family has been struggling for awhile. She, her father, and her sisters are still grieving for her mother. Without her spell-making abilities, they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Then Isaveth’s father is accused of murder. If Isaveth wants to save him, she’ll have to count on the help of a new friend named Quiz. But Quiz has his own secrets, and Isaveth will have to deal with the fall-out.

I’ve loved all of R.J. Anderson’s books to date, but A Pocket Full of Murder miiiight be my favorite. It’s basically all of my favorite things: great characters, interesting magic and worldbuilding, mysteries, complicated families. While this makes it sound busy, the emotional heart of the story is definitely centered on Isaveth and her quest to save her father and her family. She’s a brave, tenacious heroine, and she makes mistakes and also learns from them and moves past them.

I also liked Quiz quite a bit–although I’m not entirely sure if this is simply due to his snarky charms (definitely possible) or if there’s a bit of reflected glory there. There’s a subtle homage to a Certain Golden Age Mystery woven through this story–one which I am Very Fond of. If the reader doesn’t get the references, the story will certainly stand on its own, but for the reader who’s also a fan, picking out the subtle references is very fun. At any rate, Quiz is definitely his own person, with different emotional beats and backstory.

It’s also worth mentioning that Isaveth and her family are a religious minority–I read them as a minority sect of the major religion in this world–and that this plays an important part in the story. I didn’t feel that this was in any way preachy. The Brecks have different relationships to their faith and this was shown in a natural and organic way. But because they are Moshite, there’s a great deal of prejudice against them, which only hurts Isaveth’s father.

And there are more divisions in this world, particularly between nobles–who have access to a certain kind of magic–and commoners–whose magic is more mundane and less flashy. Isaveth is talented at this kind of magic, taking up her mother’s legacy to keep her family alive and together. I loved the descriptions of the spell tablets she bakes, which are such a unique and interesting way of approaching magic.

In terms of the mystery, I guessed who, but not how or why. Isaveth and Quiz’s attempts to uncover the truth of what happened are well drawn out, and I think would be engaging for a younger reader. Quiz’s secrets play a part in the solution as well, and while I guessed most of them, I think the target audience might not.

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed this one from start to finish, and my only complaint is that I wanted more!

(Disclaimer: I’ve known RJ online for a number of years now; however, I’m also genuinely a fan of her books in general and this one in particular.)

Book source: bought it as soon as I heard about it

Book information: 2015, Atheneum; middle grade fantasy/mystery

Other reviews:
Brandy

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