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The Books of Beginning: The Fire Chronicle by John Stevens (2012)

Kate looked at Michael and their eyes met.
“Remember,” she said, “whatever happens, take care of Emma.”
“But-“
“Remember your promise.”
And then she and the creature both vanished (p 24).

In this sequel to The Emerald Atlas, Michael finds himself responsible for Emma and for finding the second book of beginning – the Fire Chronicle – when Kate uses the Atlas to deal with a Screecher and fails to return. Michael comes into his own and into adolescence as the power of Life itself is granted to him. Meanwhile, Kate lands in 1899 New York City days before the planned Separation – when those with magic will conceal themselves from nonmagic folk. There, she forges a bond between a group of orphans and the young man, Rafe, who protects them, forever changing future events.

Playing with time is always tricky but Stephens handles it deftly. While the characterization is wonderful – infused with veracuty and occassionally humor – some of the magic realities (as I call them) felt disjointed. The Dire Magnus’s dead but undead state for one. I don’t want to give too much away but there were some thin plot points. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and look forward to the conclusion.

Netgalley ARC | 448 pages | Expected publication: October 9th 2012 | Knopf Books for Young Readers | ISBN 9780375868719 | Ages 10+

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The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (2012)

Feathers fell from the sky.
Like black snow, they drifted onto an old city called Bath. They whirled down roofs, gathered in the corners of alleys, and turned everything dark and silent, like a winter’s day (Prologue).

In a world slightly distorted from our own – where magical creatures like faeries mesh in realistic and gritty fashion with our own world, similiar to Suzanne Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a novel I love love love) - a young changling, part human, part faerie, named Bartholomew is forced to hide his existance. Meanwhile, a bumbling, well-meaning member of Parliment, Mr. Jelliby, becomes unwittingly entangled in an investigation into the murder of nine changling children. When Bartholomew is tagged as number ten, he must take action to save himself and his changling sister.

With shades of Jonathan Stroud and Suzanne Clarke and a conclusion reminiscent of Pullman’s Golden Compass, Bachmann just succeeds in making this novel his own. The writing is fluid though the story alternates settings. I would have liked more attention spent on the relationship – both political and social – between the magical creatures and the humans. The atmosphere was well-developed with strong details so that I didn’t find myself skipping small chunks (as I sometimes do when the writing is poor). I was also surprised when it ended on a cliff-hanger, finding myself simultanously disappointed but also interested in the sequel (sequels?). There are characters I’m intrigued to learn more about (Mr. Lickerish) and others that skewed the rhythm (the faery woman living in a meadow in the middle of nowhere, supposedly Lickerish’s sister?).

Advance Reader Copy from BEA | Greenwillow Books | September 18, 2012

 

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Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go (p 3).

August has many facial deformities. Coddled by his parents and protected fiercely by his older sister, August has been homeschooled until now. With his unique features, Auggie’s transition to middle school begins with a series of bumps: the kids stare at him, no one will touch him, and one boy is particularly cruel. But friends emerge and Auggie is ultimately glad of his decision.

Palacio uses various narrators to tell Aggie’s story giving it a wholesomeness I enjoyed. But as I read this as part of my system’s Mock Newbery club, I judge it by higher standards. It did not move me the way Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now did nor did the writing impress me as Dead End in Norvelt did (both were last year’s contenders for our group). I do believe it will resonate with middle grade readers. While the main character’s condition is rare, all will relate to the awkwardness of middle school, social anxiety and parental troubles explored in these pages.

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The Tapestry: The Maelstrom by Henry Neff (2012)

Neff adds another page turning adventure to his Tapestry series. Max has just returned from Bliss to find many refugees seeking shelter outside Rowan Academy. Astaroth has been weakened by David Menlo but according to Elias Brom (David’s father), Astaroth is still the biggest threat to this world. Meanwhile, demon hordes are gathering, attempting to consolidate power in Astaroth’s absence. Prusias is the greatest of these threats.

The fate of Rowan is in the hands of David, Max and Mina – the young girl Max saved in the previous book. Can they turn away the thousands of demons intent on destroying Rowan Academy and enslaving its students? With the Workshop helping Prusias, how can they thwart the combined demon/technology threat? Or must they turn to Astaroth who is prepared to help, for a price. And Max’s great destiny is alluded to but not fulfilled. What power lies dormant in him?

Eagerly awaiting the next book, coming Fall 2013.

Netgalley ebook | October 23, 2012 | Random House Children’s Books | 480 pages | ISBN 9780375957079 | Ages 10 +

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His Fair Assassin: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (4/3/2011)

I narrow my eyes at him. Does he truly think I do not know his plan? That I will sit quietly in my toom while he talks of kingdoms and traitors with these friends of his? Well and so, if he is that stupid, let him think I will do exactly as he bids (p 125).

Set in Brittany in 1485, seventeen-year-old Ismae is rumored to be a daughter of Death. Unwanted by her human father, she escapes an arranged marriage to a brutal man when she is whisked away to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of Death. Tasked with preserving worship of the old gods, especially Mortain, the women at St. Mortain’s help maintain Brittany’s independence from the ever-threatening France. These handmaidens of St. Mortain are trained assassins, carrying out Mortain’s will.

Ismae dedicates herself to this new purpose where her curse is considered a gift. She is resistant to poison, heals quickly, and can see the mark of death on her victims and others at Death’s door.

Her early missions lead her straight to the upper echelons of the court where she finds the political maneuvering far more sophisticated than her convent led her to believe. As she struggles to determine who to trust and who is betraying her country, she also learns Mortain is more complex than she ever believed. Adding to her troubles are her strong feelings for Duval, the duchesses half-brother, and Ismae’s companion.

This is the second fantasy book I’ve read recently that relies on a strong tie between mission and theology. The Girl of Fire and Thorns (read my review) is the first. Like Pricess Elisa, Ismae’s hand is guided by her divine mission, though the connection is only slightly understood. While the political scene and scope is not nearly so intricate or wide as Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock nor so subtly woven as Turner’s The Thief, it’s romanic element rings true and strong. I look forward to the sequel, Dark Triumph, told from the handmaiden Sybella’s point of view coming Spring 2013.

Read Alikes:

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Blood Red Road by Moira Young (2011)

I seen them squiggles before, I says to him. On landfill junk. I spit on the ground. That ain’t nothin special. Bloody Wrecker tech.
Oh no my dear, it’s good Wrecker tech. Noble even! From the very beginnings of time. Those squiggle, as you call them, are letters. Letters joined together make words. And words tell a story. Like this one (p 121).

Sometime in the future, the world has been devastated by the Wreckers and their technology. Along the banks of a dried-up lake, Saba lives with her twin brother, Lugh, her father and her younger sister, Emmi. Since their birth, Saba and Lugh have been inseparable.  

Then some men ride into town on the heels of a dust storm, snatching Lugh away and killing their father. Saba sets out to find Lugh, accompanied by a persistant Emmi. Together, the pair brave the cheats, robbers, and slavers of Hopetown – the nearest settlement – where they learn Lugh was taken by a man who calls himself the King. They are helped by a handsome rogue named Jack and a band of female fighters called the Free Hawks.  Along the way, Saba discovers she is a ferocious fighted herslef and she forms a bond, albeit reluctantly, with her sister and Jack.

The minimalist style of this novel appealed to me immediately. Saba’s dialect (she is illiterate) was also a welcome change. These two factors led to a quick reading of this seemingly long novel. The action starts immediate and rarely slows.

It wasn’t until the later episodes, when I believe the world building was crossing over to improbable, that my adoration wavered. Giant, flesh eating worms with claws? Too Tremors and where the heck did it come from. No other mutant animals until this point. Lugh’s (easy) rescue and the Tonton’s actions? Where was the basis for that? I was left scratching my head. Even the casualties seemed required and unnatural (and the King’s death – ridiculous!).

When Jack rode away, I thought of the poem “My love is like a Red, Red Rose” (read it on WikiSource). Oh, he loves her so much! Then he rides away leaving only promises. Hum. Highly suspect.

Lots of adventure, well-written and it includes the steamy but brief romantic scenes adolescent girls love. I think this will be enjoyed by both boys and girls.

Read other reviews:
Ms. Reader Pants
Hitting on Girls in Bookstores
LA Times

ARC | Margaret K. McElderry Books | June 7, 2011 | ISBN 978-1442429987  | 464 pages | Ages 13 and up | $17.99

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The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson (2011)

It was always Kara, Jenna, and me. Or at least it seemed that way. We were only friends for a year and a half before the accident, but for me it was a lifetime. We were instantly bonded. Maybe it was because it came at a turning point in our lives-just the right window where our worlds were all aligned, all needing something, maybe just the same thing, maybe one another. We lifted one another up. Strengthened one another. We held hands. We crossed a line. We made one another braver (p 15).

Two hundred and sixty years in the future, Kara and Locke are given new, illegal bodies by Dr. Gatsbro who is exploiting them for profit. In bodies that will last over four hundred years and in a United States divided along ideological lines and not geographic boundaries, Kara and Locke escape to California in search of their only living acquaintance, Jenna Fox.

But two hundred sixty years inside a digital world has changed Kara. She is unstable and disconnected. When the two are separated on their journey, Locke becomes anxious, certain Kara is seeking revenge. Hunted by Dr. Gatsbro and desperate to reach Jenna before Kara, Locke finds allies in a taxi driver robot with a soul and a windowed revolutionary.

The Fox Inheritance explores several themes: the meaning of humanity, friendship, the role of memory in creating reality, and technology’s role in defining our world but fails to match its predecessor’s readability. Locke’s first person narration is overly explanatory, the pacing uneven, and the world building incomplete. More fascinating aspects of the story, like Dr. Gatsbro’s alterations to Locke’s body, were neglected.

I am grateful Jenna didn’t act like a teenager while Locke was clearly still a teen, mentally. Pearson also successfully captured and projected the despair of isolation and imprisonment. I felt positively claustrophobic at some points.

Read other reviews:
A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
Karin’s Book Nook
Tales of the Ravenous Reader

Advance Reader

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Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (2011)

A boy got a splinter in his eye, and his heart turned cold. Only two people noticed. One was a witch, and she claimed him for her own. The other was his best friend. And she went after him in ill-considered shoes, brave and completely unprepared (p 155).

Hazel does not fit in at her new school. Most of the children treat her differently though she doesn’t understand why. At home, her mother struggles to provide for her after her father left. Her one happiness is her best friend, Jack. Jack does not belittle her thinking differently and imaginatively. Instead, they are partners in adventure. But Jack also befriends the very boys who tease Hazel, splitting his time deftly between her and them.

One day, a shard from an enchanted mirror enters through his eye and goes directly to his heart. Jack changes. He is mean to Hazel. Then he disappears all together.

Now it is up to Hazel to enter the woods and rescue her friend, Jack, the Prince of Eternity.

Breadcrumbs is, in many ways, a book about books. I counted references to at least ten different titles including: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Golden Compass, The Snow Queen, Harry Potter, The Keys to the Kingdom, When You Reach Me, and Coraline. Hazel is described as a reader and the author pulls from these sources to describe her experiences.

There was a Nithling in her stomach, chomping away at everything around it. Tears filled her eyes, and she squeezed them away (p 74).

Nithlings are fearsome animal-like creatures formed from nothing in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series. For well-read children, these references will add a layer of understanding and connect prior emotional experiences to the current pleasure.

The first part of the story is (too) slow to unfold. It focuses on Hazel’s friendship with Jack, her tense relationship with her mother, and her unhappiness at her new school. We also learn of a mischievous troll-like creature named Mal and his twisted mirror. His magic mirror “took beautiful things and made them ugly, and it took ugly things and made them hideous” (p 70). When this mirror shatters high above earth, a shard falls into Jack’s eye, changing him.

Part Two picks up the pace with Hazel entering the woods. Here we see shades of Anderson’s other fairy tales and here Ursu explores a variety of themes. Her maticulous exposition pays off (for the most part) as Hazel struggles with identity and Jack weighs the painful reality of his distressed home life vesus the cold serenity of the Snow Queen’s palace. I couldn’t put the book down once Hazel entered the woods.

Read other reviews:
Book Smugglers
Fuse #8
Good Books Good Wine
Jenn’s Bookshelves
Kirkus (starred)
Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

Breadcrumbs | Advance Reader Edition | September 27, 2011 | HarperCollins Childrens | ISBN 978-0062015051 | 336 pages | Ages 8-14 | $16.99

The Snow Queen | Hans Christian Anderson | retold by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Christian Birmingham | $18.99

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The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill (2011)

Someone watched him.
She had been sleeping – a long, troubled sleep. And something – She did not yet know what – had woken Her. Partially. She couldn’t move, though. Not yet (p 65).

Jack has always felt invisible and lonely. When his parents split up, he is taken to his Aunt Mabel and Uncle Clive’s house in Hazelwood, Iowa. His arrival does not go unnoticed.

Frankie was the first to notice. Four years ago, Frankie went missing. Some people in town began to forget that he ever existed. But not his sister, Wendy. She clung to his memory even as pictures of him began to fade. Then Frankie, disfigured and mute, was found and returned by Clive. But his scars have memories and he knows things.

Clayton Avery notices too. His ears are ichy, like there’s a bug in them. But he doesn’t understand why and his father, the richest man in town, dismisses him angrily. Then it becomes clear Mr. Avery would like to Jack dead.

The Mostly True Story of Jack is a good first offering by debut author Kelly Barnhill. The opening sequence gripped me but my attention waved as the novel lengthened and the foreshadowing was too thickly laid. The underlying themes of friendship and storytelling (i.e. knowing most of the story) were well done, but the magical elements were poorly developed compared to other fantasy books I’ve enjoyed. I didn’t feel transported to a magical community.

Is it Newbery worthy? Not according to Nina Lindsay. While it is a book I could easily booktalk and recommend, I’d also say it falls short of Newbery standards.

Read other reviews:
Geo Librarian
The Boy Reader

Advance reader copy (print) | August 2, 2011 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | 336 pages | Ages 9-12 | ISBN: 978-0316056700 |$16.99

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (9/13/2011)

Outside, the wind picked up and rustled through the leaves on the giant trees surrounding the house. Voices droned from Robby’s CB radio, which he insisted stay on all night. It didn’t bother Ben that much. Being deaf in one ear had it’s advantages: he could sleep with his good ear on the pillow to block out all the noise. Ben used a similar trick in school. He’d lean his good ear on his hand when he wanted to tune out his teacher or his classmates. It made it easier to read the books about outer space that he hid in his desk (p 17).

Brian Selznick’s follow up to the convention-defying The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which went on to win the 2008 Caldecott medal) is another novel told in words and pictures.

Two stories, set 50 years apart unfold. In words, we meet Ben Wilson, an orphan living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977. A book called Wonderstruck and a book mark are the only clues that might lead to his father, a man his beloved mother could never bring herself to talk about.

Set 50 years prior and told through pictures, we learn about Rose, an isolated, lonely girl who dreams of New York, visible to her from her bedroom window on the other side of the Hudson River. As both stories unfold and settings overlap, readers begin to see the connection between these two curious, courageous young people.

Those who loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret (and really, who didn’t love it?) will not be disappointed. Wonderstruck is every bit as amazing as Hugo Cabret. Even better. Selznick does his research. His illustrations are beautiful. His story is tight.

Finally, I’ll have something to hand patrons who ask for something “just like” Hugo Cabret! Relief! Can we consider this for a Newbery, please? We could get to work on correcting this. You can read a bit more and see an illustration at GalleyCat.

Read Nina Lindsay’s take on Wonderstruck‘s Newbery/Caldecott chances or head over to Fuse #8 for a great review. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review.

Advance Reader Copy | September 13, 2011 | Scholastic | 640 pages | ISBN 978-0-545-02789-2 | $29.99