Mega Roundup: Kid Lit and YA

This mega roundup is jam-packed with all the kid lit, middle grades, and YA fiction I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I tend to get behind in my reviews over the holidays. But since I don’t stop reading (of course not!), I always have a few books to catch up on reviewing. Or in this case, a lot of books. If you like kids’ books or YA, with an emphasis on fantasy, today’s mega roundup is for you! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read a Diana Wynne Jones book. Howl’s Moving Castle is a very enjoyable, fun fantasy. It’s a treat to read. I needed some lightweight, quirky, sweet books to get me through the holiday season, and this book hit the spot. I can’t wait to read more DWJ now!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Vol. 2

You might remember my review of the first volume of rebel girls stories. This follow up is just as wonderful. It’s jam packed with lovely illustrations and tons of new, inspiring women and their stories. A great book for girls (and boys!) of all ages.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Josh Baxter Levels Up

Video game lover Josh Baxter knows that seventh grade at a new school may be his hardest challenge yet, but he’s not afraid to level up and win!

Josh Baxter is sick and tired of hitting the reset button. It’s not easy being the new kid for the third time in two years. One mistake and now the middle-school football star is out to get him. And Josh’s sister keeps offering him lame advice about how to make friends, as if he needs her help finding allies!

Josh knows that his best bet is to keep his head down and stay under the radar. If no one notices him, nothing can touch him, right? But when Josh’s mom sees his terrible grades and takes away his video games, it’s clear his strategy has failed. Josh needs a new plan, or he’ll never make it to the next level, let alone the next grade.

He’s been playing not to lose. It’s time to play to win.

Josh gamifies his life when his mom takes away his video games and forces him to focus on improving his grades, making friends, defeating a bully, and winning a video game competition at school (because of course).

I was worried this book would be gimmicky–or possibly not interesting for those of us who don’t play many video games–but it wasn’t. It was a fun MG novel with a video game spin, but its focus is on those timeless, relatable aspects of growing up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

First Class Murder

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

Hazel and Daisy are back, and their latest mystery takes place on the famed Orient Express. But this time, Hazel and Daisy’s investigations are hampered by Hazel’s father, who wants the girls to stay as far away from murder as possible.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in this series, you’ll like this follow up. I missed Daisy and Hazel’s school friends, who are such fun side characters in the previous installments, but this is still a fun MG mystery.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

TodHunter Moon trilogy

Seven years after the events of the original Septimus Heap series, a young PathFinder named Alice TodHunter Moon—who insists on being called Tod—sets out from her seaside village to rescue her friend Ferdie from the malevolent Lady.

She receives help from ExtraOrdinary Wizard Septimus Heap and Ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, but the Lady’s brother, the Darke Sorcerer Oraton-Marr, has a plan that will put everyone Tod holds dear in danger. To save her people, Tod must embrace her identity as a PathFinder and navigate the often dangerous Ancient Ways.

I was so excited to discover that Angie Sage had written a trilogy set in the world of Septimus Heap! This series picks up seven years after the events of the original series and focuses on Tod, a young PathFinder who discovers she has the ability to combine Magyk and PathFinding to explore the Ancient Ways.

We get to visit with Septimus, Jenna, Marcia, Beetle, Lucy and Simon, and several other characters from the original series, but the star of this spinoff series is definitely Tod. Tod and her friends (new and old) have to save the people from Tod’s village and eventually the Ancient Ways themselves.

This is a fun series, but I found some of the characters irritating, and I kept wishing we could see more of Septimus, Jenna, and Marcia. These books just didn’t grab me the same way the original Septimus Heap series did.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

After a year at the king’s palace, Miri has learned all about being a proper princess. But the tables turn when the student must become the teacher!

Instead of returning to her beloved Mount Eskel, Miri is ordered to journey to a distant swamp and start a princess academy for three sisters, cousins of the royal family. Unfortunately, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting and fishing than becoming princesses.

As Miri spends more time with the sisters, she realizes the king and queen’s interest in them hides a long-buried secret. She must rely on her own strength and intelligence to unravel the mystery, protect the girls, complete her assignment, and finally make her way home.

This book is the final installment in the Princess Academy series. I’m always impressed with how Shannon Hale creates memorable, flawed, smart female characters in a stereotypical role, and the sisters in this book are no exception.

However. As much as I enjoyed the backwoods princesses and their unusual way of life, I was so disappointed in Miri! In the original Newbery book, Miri and her friends are set apart from the rest of the kingdom because of their mountain ways and rugged lifestyle. But in this story, Miri has apparently been softened by her time at the palace, and the princesses are constantly looking down on her fancy clothing and her inability to hunt with them. I wished we had more of Miri the mountain girl.

I’m not sorry I read this book, but compared to the first two books in the series, it was a weak finish.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Save Me a Seat

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

This is a cute MG story about two boys, Ravi and Joe, who are having a hard time fitting in at school (Ravi is from India and Joe has a learning disability). Both are bullied and have to learn to band together despite their differences.

All of the events take place in just one week, so the scope of the story is small. Still, it’s sweet to watch Ravi learn humility and Joe learn to stand up for himself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Last Dragonslayer series

I love Jasper Fforde’s writing, and his YA series is a bit less strange but no less wonderful than his adult fiction. I read the first book years ago, and I finally got around to reading the rest. The second book is great, but the third book in the Last Dragonslayer series pulls off something that I think is very difficult: introducing new lead characters into the mix that we don’t hate. The spoiled princess proves herself to be a surprisingly intelligent and sassy character, and Addie the 12-year-old tour guide is resourceful and reliable. Still, Jennifer and Perkins’ quest to find the Eye of Zoltar and figure out what the Mighty Shandar is up to takes center stage. With characters and a plot that continue to be fun and quirky, I can’t wait for the next book in the series to be released!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Witch’s Vacuum

Poor Mr Swimble is having a bad day.

Rabbits are bouncing out of his hat, pigeons are flying out of his jacket and every time he points his finger, something magically appears – cheese sandwiches, socks . . . even a small yellow elephant on wheels!

It’s becoming a real nuisance – and he’s allergic to rabbits.

His friends at the Magic Rectangle can’t help, but the mysterious vacuum cleaner he saw that morning may have something to do with it . . .

Fourteen fantastically funny stories from master storyteller Sir Terry Pratchett, full of food fights, pirates, wizards and crooks!

These funny, sweet, fantastical short stories are only my second foray into the works of Terry Pratchett (third if you count the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman). I enjoyed these quick stories, and they made me more excited to read some of Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

These Ruthless Deeds

England, 1883. Still recovering from a devastating loss, Evelyn is determined to use her powers to save other gifted people from those who would harm them. But when her rescue of a young telekinetic girl goes terribly wrong, Evelyn finds herself indebted to a secret society devoted to recruiting and protecting people like Evelyn and her friends.

As she follows the Society’s orders, healing the sick and embarking on perilous recruitment missions, Evelyn sees her problems disappear. Her reputation is repaired, her friends are provided for, and her parents are newly wealthy. She reunites with the dashing Mr. Kent and recovers the reclusive Mr. Braddock (who has much less to brood over now that the Society can help him to control his dangerous power). But Evelyn can’t help fearing the Society is more sinister than it appears…

I really enjoyed this sequel to These Vicious Masks. Mr. Kent’s power to make people tell the truth when he asks a question is used for great comedic effect, but Evelyn’s struggles to decide whether or not to work with the Society of Aberrations and whether or not to kiss Sebastian keeps things tense. Secret powers + romantic tension + possibly evil societies + Victorian England = a YA series I can get behind, even if I don’t usually like romantic tension or paranormal plotlines.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Wonder

Ten-year-old August Pullman wants to be ordinary. He does ordinary things. He eats ice-cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary – inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Born with a terrible facial abnormality, he has been home-schooled by his parents his entire life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, Auggie’s parents are sending him to a real school. Can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, underneath it all?

So sweet and sad and wonderful! I can see why this is such a classic already. Auggie is a great character, and each of his friends and enemies are interesting and complex. There are a few cliche moments, but on the whole, this is a heartwarming story of a boy who faces bullying over his facial abnormality alongside typical school problems with courage and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Series I’ve Finally Finished Reading!

All of the latest book series I've finally finished reading (some of these are all-time favorites!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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There are so many book series that I’ve enjoyed and yet took forever to finish reading, and I’ve finally decided to make finishing some of those series a priority. Okay, some of these series are ongoing, but I’ve read all the books that have been published, so I think that’s close enough!

(Please note that, because I’m providing a quick summary of many or all the books in a series, there will be spoilers!)

Flavia de Luce

I’ve read a couple of these books previously (reviews here and here), and I was glad to pick them up again. Flavia is as precocious and irritating as ever, which depending on your point of view is either the whole charm of the series or the reason you hate it.

The latest books in this series are Speaking from Among the Bones, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. I found Speaking from Among the Bones a particularly great continuation of the series, as Flavia actually starts connecting with her sisters, Feely and Daffy, as their lives start changing and Buckshaw is sold.

Unfortunately, I thought the quality of the series started to decline with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Flavia is still a wonderful character, but (*spoiler alert*) the fact that she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is secretly training her to be a secret agent feels like an unrealistic twist to a *mostly* realistic mystery series.

In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns to England, where she finds her father in the hospital and a corpse hanging from a door, and the series gets back to normal. I’m hoping that further installments in the series will follow that trend, rather than the out-of-left-field twist in As Chimney Sweepers.

Incorrigible Children

This series is one of my favorite reads of 2017! Penelope Lumley, a young governess in Victorian England, is hired to care for three children with a unique problem–they were literally raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has high expectations for her pupils, and she lovingly guides them through learning both table manners and epic poems.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the Incorrigible children, and possibly Miss Lumley, too. As the children and their governess (along with the oblivious Lord Ashton and his spoiled wife) travel throughout England and face various strange and hilarious perils, we uncover more and more of the mystery behind these children.

This series has been described as Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of narration which is very charming, and the series puts a fun twist on Gothic elements. If you like silly, strange MG novels, you’ll like the Incorrigible Children series.

Miss Peregrine

I had to look up a synopsis of the first book before reading the rest of the series because it has been so long since I read it. In case you, like me, need a quick review, here it is: After the dramatic events of the first book, in which Jacob finds out that he is one of a group of peculiar children and discovers that he can see the hollowgasts that are trying to hurt him and his new friends, Jacob and his friends have to fight off hollowgasts and wights in order to get Miss Peregrine back to her human form.

Am I glad I finished this series? Yes, although I won’t remember these books a few months from now. The books are quirky and strange, and the photographs are always a highlight, but I wish they had been a bit more memorable. Still, the sweet ending was worth it for me.

Septimus Heap

Ahhhh I loved this series so much! After reading the first book years ago, I was finally inspired to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series, and I’m soooo glad I did! To me, this was a more lighthearted, MG take on a Harry Potter-esque series. But don’t let that scare you off–there’s enough of a difference between that series and this one that Septimus Heap doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

As the story progresses from Magyk, in which Septimus finds out who his true family is and becomes the apprentice to the wizard Marcia, we go through Flyte, in which Septimus has some growing pains as a wizard; Physik, when Septimus gets sent back in time and Jenna, Nicko, and Snorri attempt to save him; Queste, in which Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle have to rescue Nicko and Snorri from the House of Foryx (and Septimus gets sent on a deadly queste); and Syren, when Septimus, Jenna, Beetle, Wolf Boy, and Lucy all end up on an island with a syren and Tertius Fume tries to release an army of jinn.

So many things happen in those books that it’s difficult to provide a summary–you’ll just have to read them yourself! But the last two books were my favorites by far. in Darke, Septimus and his estranged brother Simon have to team up as a Darke Domaine takes over the Palace and tries to enter the Wizard Tower, despite Marcia’s best efforts. Merrin, Beetle, and many other characters from past books make an appearance as Jenna accidentally joins a witch’s coven and Septimus completes his Darke Week by exploring the Darke Halls and searching for Alther’s ghost. And finally, Fyre, the finale of the series. I loved having all the gang back together, and Septimus gets to finally resolve some of the plot threads that have been hanging for books.

If you like magic, dragons, quirky characters, and plot threads that continue throughout the series and are resolved in a most satisfying fashion, you have to read the Septimus Heap series. I can’t recommend it enough.

Mini Review: Magyk

Magyk, the first book in the Septimus Heap series, is a fun, magical adventure for middle grades kids. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The seventh son of the seventh son, aptly named Septimus Heap, is stolen the night he is born by a midwife who pronounces him dead. That same night, the baby’s father, Silas Heap, comes across a bundle in the snow containing a new born girl with violet eyes. The Heaps take this helpless newborn into their home, name her Jenna, and raise her as their own. But who is this mysterious baby girl, and what really happened to their beloved son Septimus? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the first in the Septimus Heap series, a series that seems to have become popular right after I stopped reading MG books. This is a sweet magical adventure. I think of it almost as Harry Potter for younger kids. It’s funny and snarky, it has great characters, it’s lighthearted, but it doesn’t have the angst and drama of HP. The plot twists are a bit predictable (at least, they were to me, an adult reader), but that doesn’t take away from the fun of the story.

I’m very glad I picked it up this summer, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Septimus Heap series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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