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!

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.

13.17–The Night Circus

13.17–The Night Circus

I am so excited to review this one. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a thing of beauty. If there was a single flaw, I was completely unaware of it. It is a magical, captivating novel, and I adored every second I got to spend with it.

Goodreads Summary

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

The novel is set in the Victorian Era, but has no coherent timeline. Almost every chapter is set in a year different from the previous chapter, so that the reader has to put the story line together on his or her own, a trait which I loved.  It made the novel just as elusive as the Cirque itself, and it caused me to devour every page faster than the last so I could find the next piece of the puzzle.  The time period in which it sets is part of what makes it so incredibly beautiful.  Sumptuous silks, brocades, and velvets; dancing flames and primitive electricity; trains; cities just beginning to bustle with industry; opera; theater; elegant parties and dinners…the world of the circus performers is glamorous with an undercurrent of repressed sexuality and magic.  The setting itself, even without the plot, is wholly unique and captivating.

There is something so impossible about the circus itself that makes it difficult to describe in any review.  It is more than just the fact that it opens only at night and is deserted by day, or that everything within it is black and white, and it’s full of people who can work real magic, rather than just sleights of hand.  It’s more than the two powerful magicians who oversee the work of their students.  Perhaps it’s the romance of the “love letters” that Celia and Marco create for each other, or the fact that each member of the circus is suspended in time, as is the circus itself.  Whatever it is, the pervading air of somethingness, of otherness, about Le Cirques des Rêves truly invites you in and makes you comfortable.  I found myself simultaneously wanting to find out how it would end and wishing it would never end so I could stay inside the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves as long as possible.

Speaking of ending, I loved it.  It was perfect.  Morgenstern sets up a horrible situation that it was difficult to imagine a way out of for Celia and Marco.  Yet one forgets that in this world of Morgenstern’s creation, magic is possible and the possibilities go on forever. I enjoyed her solution to the conflict.  It wasn’t perfectly happy and it wasn’t piss-your-reader-off tragic.  It was just right.  Literally everything about this novel was perfect from beginning to end, and I truly applaud Morgenstern for writing one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life.

Sadly, I’ve discovered that it’s going to be made into a movie.  It’s only of those novels that is so incredibly perfect, and so much fun to imagine for yourself, that I don’t even want to see the trailer.  I don’t want any director’s limited vision ruining what Morgenstern has so perfectly created in my imagination.

13.12–The Child Thief

13.12–The Child Thief

This book is CRAZY.  Based (loosely) on the story of Peter Pan, this novel written and illustrated by Brom is insane, dark, and a little bit terrifying.

A word to the wise: do not read this if you have a weak stomach.  Brom is really fond of violence and gore.  I wished that he’d toned it down a bit, but it really wouldn’t have been the same story without it.  The Child Thief is the story of Peter and his quest to save his home.  In this tale, which takes place in the mythical land of Avalon, rather than in Neverland, Peter cannot fly.  He is lightning quick, having been suffused over his lifetime with the magic of Avalon.  But Avalon is threatened by a race of creatures called Flesh-eaters–beings that used to be human, but whose evil, cruel nature, combined with Avalon’s magical air, has warped them to reflect the demons they are inside.  Peter recruits children from the human world, taking in the runaways, homeless, and unwanted youth and turning them into his own private army to save Avalon.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages because the blurb on the jacket made me incredibly curious.  The book was awesome, but not in the way I was expecting.  The beginning dragged for me a bit, but a little way into it the story picks up and it’s nearly impossible to put down.  Brom’s prose is engaging but nothing special; at times it feels a little youthful and inexperienced.  Perhaps it was simply his subject, as most of his characters are under 12 years old.  And Peter…

Peter takes some getting used to.   He isn’t the boy we know and love from popular culture. Brom includes an afterword that gives some idea of what inspired him, including a bit about a more violent, much darker story that was the precursor to the Peter Pan story that is common today.  The first glaring difference is that Peter cannot fly.  He is grounded, and though he is extremely quick, both on his feet and with a blade, he is still subject to the same weakness as his band of Devils.  Though Disney has much altered the way most people think of Peter, in the book he is actually rather selfish. In this respect, Brom has Peter pinned.  This Peter is extremely egocentric and self-serving. His sole purpose for living and striving to save Avalon is to save the Lady, or the queen of Avalon.  He is smitten with her, seemingly both as a mother figure and as an object of lust (odd), and over the centuries has sent hundreds of his Devils to their deaths for the sake of one woman.  Granted, if she dies, all of Avalon dies as well, so it’s a valid goal.  But his single-mindedness is the cause of death and destruction for the children he tricks into Avalon.  The reader has a difficult time deciding to love or to hate him.  At times he seems a worthy leader, and at others reveals himself as the selfish child he truly is.  Despite this, he inspires incredible loyalty in his band of Devils, for having saved them from their tragic lives in the human realm  and for giving them a purpose.

The plot is drawn-out and complicated, but incredibly worth reading to the end.  Events escalate quickly, and the final battle for Avalon between the Devils–aided by the magical creatures of Avalon–and the Flesh-eaters takes a turn no one would expect.  All the while, Peter must also protect himself and his Devils from a man with a burning hatred for Peter–a man who, though of Avalon, would bring his own world down around his ears to destroy Peter.  Brom takes the conflict much farther than the reader would expect, diminishing almost all hope in the reader for a happy ending.  Rather than there being one plot twist, there are several, and the reader cannot help but devour the book, desperate to know what happens and with a wretched desire for things to somehow end well for Avalon, Peter, and the Devils.

Parts of the novel made me grimace in disgust, but for the most part it was a wickedly delightful novel.  Brim-full of magic and suspense, it’s nearly 500 pages of gripping intensity that sucks its reader in and leaves them reeling with wonder.  And Brom’s illustrations only add to the delight of reading it.  I highly recommend it to fans of both horror and fantasy, for it is an expert blending of both genres.


12.33–Days of Blood and Starlight

12.33–Days of Blood and Starlight

Laini Taylor does it again! I was hesitant about Days of Blood and Starlight because I didn’t like the way it began. I was really nervous about the theme of the book.  Where Daughter of Smoke and Bone is extremely romantic, Blood and Starlight is all about war.  It’s tough to read, absolutely fraught with emotion, and it’s definitely a nail biter.

For character, Taylor delivers.  Karou unfolds further as a character with untold layers.  It is so easy for the reader to get invested in her.  In this installment, she comes dangerously close to being broken and defeated, but pulls through to find her true self, ten times stronger and more passionate before.  With her people threatened like never before, she must stand against all the forces allied against her–forces she finds in unexpected places.  Her friend Zuzana is as irrepressible and hilarious as usual.  Her recently-acquired boyfriend adds a new element to her hilarity as well. Their banter is some of the best (and only) comic relief in this extremely heavy, war-torn novel.  And Taylor has brewed up a whole new cast of baddies for the reader to hate.  Taylor is a masterful creator of characters, and this novel is no exception.  Can someone please turn me into Karou? Give me some of her spunk? Thanks :)

For plot, I still can’t say much, because I don’t want to give anything away about this book or Smoke and Bone.  I’ll just say that it kept me on the brink of a lot of things the whole time: screaming, crying, throwing things, pulling out my hair, laughing hysterically in public, etc.  In addition to a stunning ability to create engaging characters, Taylor then sticks those characters in situations for which the reader can’t possibly dream up solutions.  She is constantly taking her reader by surprise and giving them new reasons to turn the page.

There is no end to the things I could say about Laini Taylor.  I really haven’t encountered a series I’ve felt this passionate about or affected by since The Hunger Games.  Once again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.  I encourage everyone who doesn’t have this on their TBR list to get it on there, and those who do have it to bump it to the top. Now.

12.28–Wicked

12.28–Wicked

I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it.  I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:

Not as pretty

Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years.  For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW).  In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City.  From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate.  She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics.  By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.

I remembered virtually nothing about this novel.  In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.

It’s pretty fabulous

Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are.  For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz.  The novel, conversely, is not.  For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical.  There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting.  Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political.  There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand.  There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.”  In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close.  No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.

Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time.  I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative.  But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer.  The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life.  Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!

Still, as I said, it is a masterful work.  Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful.  It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency.  Maguire also creates wonderful characters.  Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity.  She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her.  She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage.  The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining.  They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other.  Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.

I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical.  Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line.  But where the musical is fun, the novel is important.  It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today.  If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!

Or she’ll get you


12.27–Daughter of Smoke and Bone

12.27–Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I finished this book this morning and I’ve been freaking out ever since. It is insanely amazing.  I have heard nothing but good things about it, and when I picked it up at BookPeople on Sunday I couldn’t put it down.

Karou is an unusual girl, currently living in Prague, who was raised by a strange clan of inhuman beings.  Her world is shattered when her connection to her family is severed, and a mysterious stranger simultaneously appears to whom Karou is magnetically drawn.  He is the key to her true identity and is the only being who can reveal the secrets of her past.

This is one of the most wildly creative books I’ve ever read. Yes, the basic narrative arc has been done a million times (which arc hasn’t?), but the premise is entirely unique. Karou’s story takes place (mostly) in our world, but it is a world that somehow also exists outside of the reality of most human beings.  Her sketchbooks are filled with fantastical characters which everyone believes are figments of her imagination, while only she knows that they are actually entirely real.  She lives a double life, and the creatures with which she interacts are a welcome break from the out-of-control vampire/werewolf/zombie craze.

Taylor has created some brilliant characters.  Karou is gorgeous, rebellious, and mysterious. She is strong and prickly on the outside, but inside she is lonely and vulnerable, searching for the truth about her identity and her unknown origins.  And she has blue hair! Permanently blue hair! I’ve always wanted blue hair.  Her best friend Zuzana is, in a novel full of “best parts,” one of the best parts.  She is hilarious, creative, and the perfect complement to Karou.  Taylor does a fantastic job of capturing the sarcastic, cynical voices of extremely intelligent teenagers.  The rest of the characters are incredible as well, but I would prefer not to give anything about anyone away, even though readers have probably seen reviews with more information in them.  Still, I won’t be the one to blab!

I highly recommend this novel.  It is well-written, funny, extremely emotionally and sexually charged, and enthralling from beginning to end. Being a teen series, it didn’t have any sort of substantial ending–just that transition from one novel to another–but at this juncture I don’t even care.  I’m a rabid, ravenous beast for the next novel, and I’m actually excited about the wait. Sometimes a little anticipation makes the resolution that much better. There is a huge slap in the face at the end, a major plot twist that I didn’t see coming and cannot possibly see the author being able to create more story out of.  But there’s a second novel in the works, and I cannot wait to see what Taylor does with Karou and the rest of the gang.

Oh my GOD you must read this book.