Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

I’ve been on a middle-grade chapter book kick, and I’ve really struck gold with the three that I’ve read so far. It’s a fantastic time to be a kid, or a lover of children’s literature. There are so many good books coming out every day, it’s almost impossible to keep up. I was fortunate enough to read three absolutely wonderful books in a row.

#1: Monstrous by MaryKate Connolly

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This is a novel about Kymera, a little monster girl created in a lab for a very special purpose. She has a stinging tale, patchwork skin, and eyes that can switch back and forth between human and cat (for seeing in the dark). She lives with her father deep in the forests outside of the town of Bryre, and only enters the city at night after everyone is asleep. Though she is not allowed to have any friends, she meets a boy named Ren and is unable to resist his companionship. But both Ren and Kymera have deep secrets, and it tests their friendship and their trust for one another. When the town of Bryre faces danger, it’s up to them to reconcile their mistrust and work together to save their home.

This is an absolutely darling story. It’s fairly dark because it combines taboo science with wicked magic, but ultimately it tells a story about love, acceptance, family, and heroism in unexpected places. I recommend this book highly, as I think it’s a fairly unique story that combines the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein with the magical elements of beloved fairy tales. It’s a page-turner, sure to keep readers young and old engaged.

#2: Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume

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Julia barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Julia was seven years old. Now twelve, she faces a rapidly shifting world, as her grandmother, who is also her guardian, passes away, and her family’s debts are called in. Her aunt sells their ancestral home and most of their possessions, and Julia and her Aunt Constance set off on a road trip across the United States, following the rumors of Julia’s mother. With all of their remaining worldly possessions packed into their car (silver candlesticks, Oriental carpets, and some steamer trunks, to name a few practical travel essentials), they visit Greenwich Village in New York City, consult a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, go hunting in the dusty Texas desert, and continue all the way to California. Julia documents some of her adventures with her Brownie camera, which she carries everywhere.

I can’t stress enough how adorable this story is. Julia faces her changing circumstances with a positive attitude and a sense of adventure that one can’t help but love her for. She drags her camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything she sees (some of which are on display in the chapters of the book!). Most importantly, she learns lessons about finding family wherever she can, and about accepting herself and her slightly quirky personality. This is a truly lovely book that reminds me a bit of Matilda, but with its own sassy personality. Plus it encourages kids to travel, and that is incredibly important.

#3: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

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I picked up this book on a whim and I am so happy I did. That is sometimes the best way to find a book. As a bookseller, a lot of books get buzz, and I just don’t have time to read all of them. Nightbird is a book that deserves the time. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn’t put it down.

Twig lives in Sidwell, Massachusetts, which is a town with many secrets. Her mother doesn’t socialize, and though she is the most beautiful woman in town, she is also the saddest. Her mother bakes pies, which draw tourists from miles around, and Twig and her mother live in the orchard from which they harvest the fruit for the pies. Rumors and local legends say that a monster inhabits Sidwell, and Twig knows more about that than she lets on to outsiders. Like Kymera in Monstrous, Twig is not allowed to have friends. Her mother worries that their family secrets will emerge if she does. But when two girls close to her age move into the cottage beside their orchard (a cottage rumored to have once belonged to a witch), Twig is unable to refrain from becoming best friends with the younger sister.

Anything I try to say about this book will likely sound hyperbolic. I really thought that it was delightfully beautiful. It is rich with the joys and the headaches that local traditions and folklore can bring to a small town, and there are elements of hidden magic existing beside the everyday things people see with their eyes. The secrets that come out eventually have the potential to be disastrous, but Twig learns that people can be surprisingly generous, accepting, and loving.

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I highly recommend all three of these beautiful novels. These characters are strong and wonderfully themselves, and they make fantastic protagonists and role models for young girls (or boys!). Read these to your children, buy them for your classroom, or read them for yourselves!

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

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I expected to hate this book. Of Mice and Men was really overwhelmingly “meh,” and I’ve never had a particular fondness for American literature. So when I cracked the spine on this one and found that I was actually really drawn in by Steinbeck’s prose and the story of the Joads, I was sort of blown away with delight.

First, let me preface this by saying that, as a former literature major, I am the type of person who simply must read the introduction. I can’t skip it. It’s just not possible for me. The fact that this introduction was 46 pages long was really irritating to me, because I was ready to jump straight into the story.  However, if you read this book, I recommend reading whatever introduction might be included, no matter how long. It really helped with the reading of the book to learn so much about how he wrote it. For instance: I learned that Steinbeck spent years researching the book, spending time among migrant workers in run-down camps, learning what it was like to live their lives. He began several projects about the plight of the migrant worker before he finally sat down and wrote The Grapes of Wrath start to finish in a matter of a few short months. The introduction also prepared me for the structure and style that he wrote the novel in, and knowing that gave me a better appreciation for the novel.

Because there are so many things in this novel to potentially talk about, and because this is not a college essay, I will briefly mention some things I loved, and allow you to decide if you feel it is worth reading.

  1. The prose is a work of art. Even the dialogue,written in a very thick country dialect, has, at times, a surprisingly lyrical quality to it:
    1. “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials….She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.” 
    2. “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.’
      ‘But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
    3. “But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man – he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place – every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day – the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be a dead terror from it.”
  2. The story is important. More important today than it was back then, I would argue. I saw in this novel a primary document that describes the beginning of the decline in quality of our food in this country. When Big Ag began to take over, and the little guy got bulldozed or run off his land. By reading this novel, you are witnessing the course of history changing, ad you can still see its effects today.
  3. The structure of this novel is unique and keeps the story rolling. Each long chapter detailing the story of the Joads is separated by one or two chapters that described the larger situation in some way. These short, descriptive chapters set the scene for the migration from the Dust Bowl to California, or provided details of the squalor of Hoovervilles. They show the similar circumstances which forced families from their homes, or the underhanded dealings of the car salesmen who provided the broken-down trucks which they used to travel west. Steinbeck wrote these chapters in a very fable-like way, often using grand and mythic language to describe something truly awful.

This novel is beautiful. It’s full of sorrow, sacrifice, determination, love, and pride. It is the story of an American family who refuses to break. In some ways, it almost seems a precursor to the dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels that are so popular now. The Joads must face every obstacle with ever-decreasing resources, and dwindling hope. But their story is an inspiring one, sad as it is, and I highly recommend this novel to readers young and old.  

Flowers in the Attic

Flowers in the Attic

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While I’d stop short of saying I loved this book, I will say that it did keep me in thrall. I was skeptical about how any author could make the goings-on of one room interesting for 400+ pages, but Andrews accomplished this feat.

In case you’re late to the party, this novel recounts the story of four beautiful children, nicknamed “Dresden dolls” by their neighbors for their porcelain skin and fair features. Theirs is a charmed childhood, and until the events of the novel unfold, the worst thing narrator Cathy can imagine is that her new twin siblings will usurp her place in her parents’ affections. Early in the novel there are allusions to incest, like when one of the suspicious neighbors remarks that the parents look more like brother and sister than husband and wife. After an accident rips away one member of their perfect family, the mother moves her children to her family’s estate in rural Virginia in the middle of the night. There, the children are kept in an upstairs room, where they must stay quiet, tidy, and wary of “impure” thoughts.

The children stay in the attic for years. Years. While their mother cavorts about with her money and her new clothes and her jewels and her suitors, her children moulder in the attic, awaiting the day when dear trusted Momma wins her sick father’s affections, gets written back into his will, and they can live like kings with his money. Little by little, the reader comes to realize, as do the children, that something is rotten in the state of Virginia, and Momma hasn’t been quite honest with them.

Yes, this book has incest in it. Oh dear, just get your freak-out over now. While I’m by no means “into” that sort of thing (yeah, it’s pretty gross), there are worse things in this novel about which you should express your disgust, like religious fanaticism, physical and emotional abuse, and attempted murder.

The writing gets off to a rocky start. The sentences are simple and somewhat dated. Cathy makes exclamations of variations of “great golly lolly!” throughout the book and that gets annoying, but I think the point is to drive home how very naïve and innocent these children are. Their (frankly, psychopathic) grandparents consider them the spawn of the devil and expect them manifest evil from the start, but it’s fairly obvious that the evils that eventually happen do so because they’ve been locked in an attic and told they’re evil. As the novel continues however, and Cathy grows up with her siblings, the writing becomes more introspective and mature, and I think we as readers witness author’s maturation, as well as the characters.

This book is fascinating in the same way train wrecks and car pile-ups are. In true Gothic fashion it is melodramatic and horrifying in an immensely pleasurable way. The wicked kind of pleasure that kids get from pulling the tails of cats and adults get from look at someone’s life and saying, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” I felt guilty for even wanting to read this, but actually I think it’s an important milestone in the YA canon, and so deserves to be read by people who care about literature.

Out of the Easy

Out of the Easy

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I’m struggling with this book, but not for the reasons you might think. I struggle with it because it’s just SO GOOD, and, as a bookseller, I want to recommend the books that are JUST SO GOOD to all the teens that come in and ask me what to read. But this is how I picture this scenario going down:

Overprotective mom/aunt/grandparent: “I’m looking for something for my daughter to read on her vacation this summer. She likes historical books. Can you recommend something for her?”

Me: “SURE! This is a fantastic historical YA novel set in 1950’s New Orleans! I loved it!”

OPM/A/G: “What’s it about?”

Me: “A girl whose mom is a prostitute, whose guardian is a brothel madame, who gets caught up in a bit of trouble when there’s a murder, and oops, then the mob comes after her.”

OPM/A/G: *glares, shoves the books in my direction, and storms off, never to return*

Okay, so maybe that isn’t everyone I meet, but it seems like a lot of the time I’m recommending books to parents instead of kids, and it’s a rare occasion when one says to me, “I don’t care if there’s cursing and sex in it.”

There isn’t cursing and sex in this one. Let me just put that out there. For a novel about hookers and gangsters in one of the most notorious cities in the US, it’s surprisingly clean. This novel has a lot of beautiful things to offer: it portrays deep, abiding friendships; it’s headed by a heroine who wants to better herself for her own sake, and who doesn’t compromise her desires for the sake of romance; it stresses the importance of a college education; and it shows that lies just breed more lies, and if you want to maintain good relationships (not to mention safety and sanity), you should probably tell the truth.

Josie is a girl who basically raised herself. Her mother is a beautiful but vain “woman of the night,” who is in love with exactly the wrong sort of man, and whose dreams are to achieve Hollywood wealth and fame, stay young and beautiful forever, and have every luxury imaginable close at hand. Good role model, right? Josie somehow manages to grow into her exact opposite: she hates attention, she never buys new things, and she dreams of going to college and escaping New Orleans. New Year’s Eve and early 1950 is a turning point for Josie, when she meets two people who become the hinges on which her story swings.

Ruta Sepetys is one of the most underrated authors I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Both of her novels occur in periods and places of history that people often overlook because of other simultaneous events (in Between Shades of Grey, she tells the story of a Lithuanian family displaced from their homes during Stalin’s cruel regime; most people focus on the atrocities of the Nazis during the same period). And her novels are beautifully written, deeply emotional, and very well-peopled. Her characters are easy to get along with. I found myself wishing Josie were a real person, whom I could visit in her bookshop and have tea with around the corner in the French Quarter.

If you like good characters, read this novel. If you like a suspenseful plot, read this novel. If you like stories that make you cry, and then laugh, and then laugh while crying, read this novel. I cannot recommend Ruta Sepetys highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and put this author on your list.

Sabriel

Sabriel

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I am not good at remembering things. Maybe I “live in the moment too much,” or am just oblivious. Maybe there’s a little something wrong with me. Whatever it is, I have very few memories, when I compare myself to those people who seem to remember everything from their past very vividly. One of the things I do remember, and love remembering, is the way I felt when I first read one of my favorite books.

I therefore remember with great fondness my first reading of Sabriel by Garth Nix. It’s one of the books that served to cement my love of reading. I first read it in eight grade.  My parents had just split up, and the library was a refuge that felt consistent and safe when everything in life was (I felt) crashing down around my ears. These were the formative years, when I began to really understand what growing up meant: life is hard. I was going to have to eventually make tough choices. I was going to have to decide on a direction. I was going to have to say yes or no to bigger things than pizza for dinner. The books I read and loved at this point in my life were very important, and each one was a stepping-stone on the path to the person I am today.

Enter Sabriel: spine crackling with the plastic protection of hardbound library books, smelling faintly of dust and age. Only maybe seven years old, but already showing the first faint red spots of foxing. It would be very difficult to describe the way I felt when I first read this book. Perhaps it was the shiver at the first mention of the darkness of Kerrigor, or the swelling feeling of my own adventure and heroism as I read of Sabriel’s courageous exploits. Perhaps it was the first feeling of being a grown-up, seeing the words “penis” and “sex” written blatantly on the page. From the first page to the last, I loved Sabriel, the girl and the book, and have always held her in the back of my mind.

On a recent excursion to Half Price, I found a relatively nice mass market copy of Sabriel hiding on a shelf in the very top corner (being tall has its benefits), with the original gold foil title and gorgeous painting of the original cover. Immediately, seeing her name on the spine and Kerrigor’s dark form lurking behind her blue-garbed figure, I felt the shiver of adventure-to-come, and knew I had to have it. Just a day later I learned that Nix was just about to release the 4th book in the series, and I knew it was time to re-read.

The reading was twice as good as an adult. I’d forgotten all the details and nuances that make it such a lovely book, in the decade plus since I’d read it last. Mogget, the sardonic white cat who is much more than he appears. The stoic yet handsome Touchstone, the faithful Paperwing, and the ever-present buzz of fear that lurks with the dead in the shadows. The magic of the Charter. The perversion of necromancy, and the benevolently protective power of the Abhorsen. If you’re looking for an adventure that will stand out both for the beauty of its prose and the creativity of its story, this novel is a great place to start. And if you do fall in love with the world of the Old Kingdom, there are three more books to enjoy when you finish Sabriel. Good news for lovers of magic and adventure.

The Gone-Away World

The Gone-Away World

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I find it interesting that a review on the cover of this Nick Harkaway novel states that it “reads like a surrealist smashup of Pynchon and Pratchett, Vonnegut and Heller…” Considering that I hate 3/4 of those authors and have never even heard of the fourth, I was startled to find that I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK. It just goes to show that reviews mean nothing and I should probably stop writing.

There is nothing in this book to dislike. It’s got a brilliant plot and likeable characters, and it’s witty as hell.  The nameless narrator extrapolates endlessly, but somehow it doesn’t annoy. It’s always fascinating backstory and hilarious anecdotes. Yet despite all the hilarity, this book is dark. And sad. It leaves you feeling a little bit hollow because it makes you realize, better than most, how quickly the world can change and take everything that makes sense with it.

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and as much as I like the concept, a lot of it has begun to read the same. This book completely broke the mold and gave me something entirely new to explore. An apocalypse that involves ninjas, literal dream-monsters, and the most terrifying bombs you’ve ever heard of.  This novel can make you laugh out loud and the next moment be afraid to go to sleep. I plan on reading a lot more of this author’s work. He’s an excellent writer that deserves a lot of attention.

Because this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I’m not giving away anything about the plot. Just please trust me when I say that you absolutely must read it.

13.57 through 13.61

13.57 through 13.61

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13.57–Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This is a great book for video game lovers, but also for the rest of us as well.  It’s a fantastic sci-fi that’s extremely unique.  The world as we know it has been wiped out by climate change and war.  People live in extreme filth and poverty, with the exception of a few lucky, wealthy citizens.  In order to escape their harsh reality, most people spend all of their time in a virtual reality world called The Oasis.  When the billionaire creator of The Oasis, the richest man in the world, dies, he launches a massive “egg” hunt within The Oasis.  Whomever can solve his three riddles and find the treasure will win his entire fortune and take over his company.  One boy manages to crack the first riddle after years of no progress, and becomes the target of every wicked and greedy treasure hunter.  Suddenly, this game becomes life or death.

This novel (by a Texan! Woo!) is so incredibly well written.  Wade Watts is the protagonist and the narrator, and his voice serves the plot well.  He’s funny and smart, but a hopeless (and kind of adorable) geek.  His crush on the girl of his dreams leads him to form an alliance with her, and she’s a valuable ally and support for him.  It’s a great story of friendship and loyalty, and will please gamers everywhere with its references to popular and obscure games alike.

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13.58–Doll Bones by Holly Black

This is a nice, creepy story for middle grade readers.  Poppy is being haunted by a china doll, and when she and her friends investigate the doll’s history, they discover that it is inhabited by the restless ghost of a murdered child. The friends launch a quest to give rest to the child’s soul.  Though it’s nothing near as haunting as a Mary Downing Hahn book, it’s still a nice addition to the children’s horror genre, which is sadly lacking in new material.  I liked it and would recommend it to kids who are looking for a good ghost story.

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13.59–Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon

This book was terrible.  Don’t even bother.  It’s sad, because it’s about a kid with cancer, and it feels wrong to knock it, but…that’s life.  The narrator is poorly written and the plot was uninteresting.  It felt like it wanted to be The Fault in Our Stars, but it fell sadly short.

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13.60–Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr

This book draws attention to Norse mythology, which seems to have been overshadowed lately by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian.  The story is exciting and creative, and the character conflict adds an extra layer of intrigue.  The descendants of Thor and Loki, two boys who are rivals, must decide if they can work together to save the world, or if they are destined to destroy it as once their warring god-ancestors did.  Diction and syntax could have been better, but it was still a great story that I would recommend for kids (also middle-grade readers).

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13.61–A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

I really want to see more by this author. This is a wonderful novel for children told in multiple voices.  It truly is a tangled plot, but it’s wonderful how it all comes together in the end.  In a world where everyone has a Talent, one child wonders if she will ever discover her own, and another girl, an orphan with a Talent for baking who wonders if anyone will ever adopt her.  Their worlds collide and both will find more than they ever thought possible.  It is such a feel-good book it just warms you from the inside out.  The best part?  Between every chapter is a recipe for a delightful dessert. I’ve tried several and they’re all so yummy! I love hand-selling this one.  It’s a sweet novel that kids will love.