Magical YA and MG Books!

I’ve read a lot of YA and middle grade books this summer that can be summed up with the word “magical.” From wonderful plots and characters to actual fantastical elements, all of these books are magical in one way or another. I hope you find one on this list that you will love. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

There’s a murderer on the loose—but that doesn’t stop the girls of St. Etheldreda’s from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

One of the best books I’ve read this year. The girls are all flawed but lovable and interesting, and even when they work together to hide two murders so they can keep their freedom, the book remains funny and lighthearted and sweet (and a bit gruesome). You will enjoy this book if you like books about boarding school, Victorian England, teens solving mysteries, or independent girls.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Greenglass House

It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.

This might actually be my favorite book I’ve read this year so far! It’s stocked with fun, engaging characters, including Milo (a kid whose identity as an adopted child is part, but not all, of the focus of the story) and Meddy (the only other kid in a houseful of strange and mysterious guests), and Milo’s parents, who are kind and trusting and not oblivious (a rare quality for most children’s fiction). If you like books about odd characters and kids solving mysteries, plus the great atmosphere of an old inn at Christmastime, this book is a must read.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Book Scavenger

Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold’s attackers make them their next target.

Reminiscent of The Westing Game, this is a fun story about two kids searching for books, solving puzzles, and getting caught up in a game that is much more dangerous than it seems. I’d love to have a real life Book Scavenger game! I’m not sure if I’ll finish reading the series, but I enjoyed this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways

Far to the south of the land of Ingary, in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, there lived in the city of Zanzib a young and not very prosperous carpet dealer named Abdullah who loved to spend his time daydreaming. He was content with his life and his daydreams until, one day, a stranger sold him a magic carpet.

That very night, the carpet flew him to an enchanted garden. There, he met and fell in love with the beauteous princess Flower-in-the-Night, only to have her snatched away, right under his very nose, by a wicked djinn. With only his magic carpet and his wits to help him, Abdullah sets off to rescue his princess….

AND:

Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great-Uncle William’s tiny cottage while he’s ill should have been easy. But Great-Uncle William is better known as the Royal Wizard Norland, and his house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places—the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains, the past, and the Royal Mansion, to name just a few.

By opening that door, Charmain has become responsible for not only the house, but for an extremely magical stray dog, a muddled young apprentice wizard, and a box of the king’s most treasured documents. She has encountered a terrifying beast called a lubbock, irritated a clan of small blue creatures, and wound up smack in the middle of an urgent search. The king and his daughter are desperate to find the lost, fabled Elfgift—so desperate that they’ve even called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, can the Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer be far behind?

I read Howl’s Moving Castle a while back, and I finally finished the other books in the series. The two books have a very different feel from one another. Castle in the Air is fun, but not quite as good as the other books in the series. It’s almost an Aladdin retelling, complete with magic carpet and an Arabian setting.

House of Many Ways, on the other hand, was wonderful! It’s almost as good as Howl’s Moving Castle–or maybe even better? I loved Great-Uncle William’s wizard house with the many mysterious rooms, and Charmain was a fun character. And Sophie and Howl play a sizable role in this book, which I enjoyed as well.

Rating: Good but Forgettable, Pretty Darn Good

Ghostly Echoes and The Dire King (*spoilers ahead!*)

Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly lady of 926 Augur Lane, has enlisted the investigative services of her fellow residents to solve a decade-old murder—her own. Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, Detective R. F. Jackaby, dive into the cold case, starting with a search for Jenny’s fiancé, who went missing the night she died. But when a new, gruesome murder closely mirrors the events of ten years prior, Abigail and Jackaby realize that Jenny’s case isn’t so cold after all, and her killer may be far more dangerous than they suspected.

AND:

The fate of the world is in the hands of detective of the supernatural R. F. Jackaby and his intrepid assistant, Abigail Rook. An evil king is turning ancient tensions into modern strife, using a blend of magic and technology to push Earth and the Otherworld into a mortal competition. Jackaby and Abigail are caught in the middle as they continue to solve the daily mysteries of New Fiddleham, New England — like who’s created the rend between the worlds, how to close it, and why zombies are appearing around. At the same time, the romance between Abigail and the shape-shifting police detective Charlie Cane deepens, and Jackaby’s resistance to his feelings for 926 Augur Lane’s ghostly lady, Jenny, begins to give way. Before the four can think about their own futures, they will have to defeat an evil that wants to destroy the future altogether.

If you haven’t read the Jackaby series yet, be warned: there are spoilers ahead!

I greatly enjoyed the first two books in this series for their Sherlock-meets-Doctor-Who mysteries, but as we get into the last two books, the feeling turns much more Supernatural. Jackaby and Abigail begin by attempting to uncover the truth behind Jenny’s death, and what they find leads them to a much bigger and more dangerous mystery.

The last book wraps up the series with Jackaby and Abigail, along with their human and non-human allies, fighting the titular Dire King and his army. It was a good ending, but I missed the smaller, cozier mysteries of the early books. Still, if you enjoyed the previous books, you should stick around for the spectacular ending.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good, Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1946

All summaries via Goodreads.com

Medal Winner: Strawberry Girl

Strawberries — big, ripe, and juicy. Ten-year-old Birdie Boyer can hardly wait to start picking them. But her family has just moved to the Florida backwoods, and they haven′t even begun their planting. “Don′t count your biddies ′fore they′re hatched, gal young un!” her father tells her.

Making the new farm prosper is not easy. There is heat to suffer through, and droughts, and cold snaps. And, perhaps most worrisome of all for the Boyers, there are rowdy neighbors, just itching to start a feud.

This book has a bit of the feeling of Laura Ingalls Wilder–it’s filled with the details of running a farm (and, of course, picking strawberries). I wish I could remember more of the book, as I remember enjoying it a lot as a child. I’m putting Strawberry Girl on the list of Newbery books to re-read someday.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Justin Morgan Had a Horse

In 1791 a Vermont schoolmaster by the name of Justin Morgan comes home with a two-year-old colt named Little Bub. Taken as payment for an outstanding debt, the little colt doesn’t seem like he is worth much, but the kindly teacher asks one of his students, Joel Goss, to train him. Joel knows the horse has great potential, and soon word about Little Bub spreads throughout the entire Northeast for his ability to outwork, outrun, outtrot, and outwalk any horse in the area.

This is the extraordinary tale of a little workhorse, who, after being born in obscurity, becomes one of the greatest breeding stallions of all time.

Ah, Marguerite Henry, the queen of the horse stories (Misty of Chincoteague is probably her most famous novel). Unlike other girls my age, I was never fascinated by horse stories, but this one was pretty enjoyable. However, I don’t feel the same need to re-read this book as I do with Strawberry Girl.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

2018 Newbery Books

It’s June, and I’m finally getting around to reviewing this year’s Newbery winners! I loved the diversity of the 2018 Newbery books. From a picture book for younger kids to a novel of free verse for teens, these books feature great characters, interesting (sometimes heart wrenching) stories, and a look at some of the most difficult parts of growing up.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

Crown is a picture book about black hair and feeling good about yourself when you look in the mirror. I can imagine that this book will give black children more self-confidence, and for those with all kinds of different hair, the book offers beautiful art and a fun, upbeat message about loving your personal look. I would love to have this book in my future child’s personal library.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Long Way Down

This book is quick to read, but its message is intense. It’s a free verse story about a 15-year-old boy whose brother was shot. On his elevator ride down to shoot the guy he thinks shot his brother, the boy talks to the ghosts of family and friends who died by gun violence. I’m not generally a big fan of free verse novels, but this one is powerful and (sadly) relevant for today’s teens. It will stick with you long after you read it.

Rating: Good (but definitely not forgettable!)

Piecing Me Together

I really enjoyed this book. It takes an unflinching look at race and privilege and reflects upon how even the most well-meaning people can make problems worse if they don’t truly understand the people they’re trying to help. The main character and her friends learn and grow as they appreciate each other’s perspectives and learn to use their voices to make themselves understood.

If you want a story about growing up that’s fun to read but doesn’t skimp on the complex issues that many teens face, you should check out Piecing Me Together.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hello, Universe

The 2018 Newbery winner was so fresh and fun and sweet, and it is chock-full of likable characters (both the three MCs and all the side characters). There is also some great representation in the characters (although their diversity isn’t quite as emphasized as in the other Newbery books this year), as the main characters include a Deaf girl as well as other, racially diverse characters. Hello, Universe is not as heavy as Long Way Down or Piecing Me Together, but it is certainly worth your time if you’re looking for a sweet MG read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Roundup: April 2018

It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to blog that a lot of really wonderful ARCs I’ve received lately have gone un-reviewed–until today! Today’s roundup includes books about friendship, science fiction, and (of course) murder mysteries.

Death at the Selig Studios

The next book in the Emily Cabot series is set in 1909 and involves the blossoming film industry. Interestingly, Emily is very judgmental of the actors and actresses, thinking that the films are tawdry and for the working class. When Emily’s brother Alden, who is involved in the movies (and possibly with one of the actresses), is accused of murder, Emily is torn between her desire to vindicate her brother and her desire to make him face the consequences of his choices.

I like how the historical setting in this book made such a difference in the characters’ actions and attitudes, making it different from many historical fiction mysteries I’ve read in which the time period stays firmly in the background. If you enjoy the combination of historical fiction and murder mysteries, you might want to give this series a try.

Strawberries and Strangers

Dumped by her cheating husband, Jenny King is trying to build a new life in the small seaside town of Pelican Cove. Locals are lining up at the Boardwalk Café for her tasty cakes and muffins. But when her aunt is accused of killing a stranger, Jenny is forced to set her apron aside and put on her sleuthing cap.

Jenny battles with the cranky local sheriff and quirky local characters to get to the truth. Aided by her new friends, she will move heaven and earth to find out who the dead stranger was and what he was doing in Pelican Cove.

If you like cozy murder mysteries with friendly small towns, scenic settings, yummy food and a touch of romance, you will like Strawberries And Strangers. (Summary via the author)

Romance and mystery abound on a small island on the East Coast. After a murder at one of the most exclusive parties in this small town, Jenny splits her time between wrangling with the sheriff, whom she can’t seem to meet without arguing, and trying to prove the innocence of her aunt.

I enjoyed the island setting–you know I love a cozy mystery with a good setting–and the interesting characters who populate the island. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, so I didn’t care much about Jenny’s love life in the book, but I am curious about where it will go in future installments. If you prefer a modern cozy mystery over a historical one, this is a light, relaxing read.

Belong

This book about friendship was lovely; much better than I anticipated. The design of the book is beautiful, and the advice contained within goes far beyond the usual tips for making friends. Agrawal suggests that you go IN first and gently deal with your own baggage, discovering what kind of friends you’re looking for and what kind of friends you need to distance yourself from, before you go OUT and find these people in the real world. Some of her advice wasn’t great (I couldn’t fathom why the author is so against identifying as an introvert or extrovert when this can be such a helpful tool in understanding personality, especially since both types clearly want and need friends), but on the whole, I greatly enjoyed the book. If you want a book about making friends that avoids cliches and has a lovely design, I highly recommend this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fresh Ink

I really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories. Some are SFF, some are stories set in the real world, and all feature diverse characters of all kinds by many wonderful authors. I would love to read some full-length books by these authors (and, in fact, I have several of their novels on my TBR list!).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Apple Strudel Alibi

This book is a fun addition to the Oxford Tearoom series, in which Gemma and the Old Biddies go to Vienna and must solve a murder which takes place in their hotel. I missed the usual Oxford setting (always one of my favorite parts of the books in this series), but it was fun to see Gemma and some of our other favorite characters in a new setting. As always, the mystery and the characters are fun and lighthearted. If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, you’ll like this one too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bob

Bob is a fun, short story of a girl rediscovering a childhood friend–who might just be a zombie. But this middle grades book isn’t scary. It’s fun and sweet and heartwarming and a little magical. It hasn’t stuck with me, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inventors at No. 8

George, also known as Lord Devonshire, is living in a crumbling house with only an old manservant for company, after the unlucky deaths of both his parents. When he reluctantly tries to sell his grandfather’s map, he meets up with Ada (a young Ada Lovelace) and Oscar, who loves painting and adventuring with his orangutan. They go on a wild adventure across Europe in order to find George’s lost family treasure, find Oscar’s pirate father, and save Ada from the organization who wishes her harm.

I liked Ada and her flying machine, but I found both orangutan-owning Oscar and curmudgeonly George to be irritating. Still, the group’s adventure was fun, and their friendship despite the frequently insensitive or hurtful comments they made to each other was a lot more realistic than most friendships in MG books.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup: March 2018

I’m continuing to request all the oldest Newbery books through our amazing interlibrary loan, but since it takes time to get each book shipped to my library system, it has been slow going. These three books are the latest (oldest) Newbery honors I’ve been reading.

Jane’s Island

I enjoyed Jane’s Island a lot more than I anticipated. Ellen is hired to care for Jane, a free spirited girl spending the summer with her family in a scientific community on the water. Their summer is full of adventure, swimming, fishing, exploration, picnics, and science experiments. If you like old-fashioned children’s adventures like The Penderwicks and Swallows and Amazons, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Out of the Flame

This historical fiction novel was all right, but I must say it took me a while to get into the story. In fact, I thought it started out really boring. The book follows Pierre, a page in the French court, who goes on adventures and tries to befriend Prince Henri. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I knew more of the actual history behind Pierre, the young princes, and the royal family in general.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Boy of the South Seas

This one was… okay. This book covers the adventures and travels of a Polynesian boy, but these are not very exciting. After accidentally stowing away on a boat, the boy is dropped off on an island near Tahiti, where he makes his home and learns more about the ways of both the island’s colonizers and his own people. The book is short, and not much happens. I can’t see many of today’s children becoming engrossed in the story.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Reviews: 1945

Quick reviews of the 1945 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today we’re going back in time again, this time to review the Newbery books of 1945! (Book summaries via Goodreads.com)

Medal Winner: Rabbit Hill

It has been a while since Folks lived in the Big House, and an even longer time has passed since there has been a garden at the House. All the animals of the Hill are very excited about the new Folks moving in, and they wonder how things are going to change. It’s only a matter of time before the animals of the Hill find out just who is moving in, and they may be a little bit surprised when they do.

I remember this as a very cute animal story by Robert Lawson (and as longtime readers know, I usually don’t like animal stories). This is a fun book for younger kids, but I’m not sure I would re-read it as an adult.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses won a Newbery Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.”

In this Newbery classic, Wanda is constantly bullied and teased by her classmates, and it isn’t until she leaves the school that her classmate Maddie learns the truth about Wanda. This is a sad but sweet and touching story with beautiful illustrations. Eleanor Estes wrote several Newbery books, but I think this is her most memorable. I would definitely recommend you give this short book a read (or a re-read).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Reviews: 1944

Quick reviews of the 1944 Newbery winner and honor books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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[All summaries via Goodreads.com]

Medal Winner: Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain, a young apprentice silversmith, is caught up in the danger and excitement of 1775 Boston, just before the Revolutionary War. But even more gripping than living through the drama of Revolutionary Boston is the important discovery Johnny makes in his own life.

This historical fiction novel about a boy growing up during the Revolutionary War was one of my favorites from childhood. It’s well-written, interesting, and also very sad–I’ll never forget when Johnny pours liquid-hot silver over his hand and the excruciating recovery that followed. The rest of the details have faded from my memory, but I wouldn’t mind re-reading this classic sometime in the future.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

These Happy Golden Years

Fifteen-year-old Laura lives apart from her family for the first time, teaching school in a claim shanty twelve miles from home. She is very homesick, but keeps at it so that she can help pay for her sister Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind. During school vacations Laura has fun with her singing lessons, going on sleigh rides, and best of all, helping Almanzo Wilder drive his new buggy. Friendship soon turns to love for Laura and Almanzo in the romantic conclusion of this Little House book.

The main plot point of this book is the budding romance and eventual marriage between Laura and Almanzo. As a child, I was shocked at how young Laura was when she married! As always, although I enjoyed the Little House series, it doesn’t hold a nostalgic place in my heart as it does for many readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Fog Magic

Greta had always loved the fog—the soft gray mist that rolled in from the sea and drifted over the village. The fog seemed to have a secret to tell her. Then one day when Greta was walking in the woods and the mist was closing in, she saw the dark outline of a stone house against the spruce trees—a house where only an old cellar hole should have been. Then she saw a surrey come by, carrying a lady dressed in plum-colored silk. The woman beckoned for Greta to join her, and soon Greta found herself launched on an adventure that would take her back to a past that existed only through the magic of the fog.

Every time Greta steps into the mist, she is transported back in time. What’s not to like about that kind of adventure? I thought this book was fun (you know I love a good time travel story!), and again, I wouldn’t mind re-reading this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Rufus M.

You’ve never met anyone quite like Rufus Moffat. He gets things done, but he gets them done his way.
When he wants to check out library books, Rufus teaches himself to write…even though he doesn’t yet know how to read. When food is scarce, he plants some special “Rufus beans” that actually grow…despite his digging them up every day to check on them. And Rufus has friends that other people don’t even know exist! He discovers the only invisible piano player in town, has his own personal flying horse for a day, and tours town with the Cardboard Boy, his dearest friend-and enemy.
Rufus isn’t just the youngest Moffat, he’s also the cleverest, the funniest, and the most unforgettable.

This is another cute Moffat family story. The family is sweet and loving, and it’s fun to read about the old-fashioned adventures the kids get into. I haven’t read the books in a while, but I bet they’d stand the test of time.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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

Newbery Roundup: December 2017 (Part Two!)

It's the last Newbery roundup of the year! Here are all the Newbery books I read in December 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading a lot of Newbery books this month (you might have noticed) because I’m trying to finish reading 75 points worth of books for my Newbery book challenge. With the books in this post, I’ve just made it! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People

Clara Ingram Judson presents Lincoln in all his gauntness, gawkiness, and greatness: a backwoods boy who became President and saved the Union. Judsons careful reading is enlivened by her visits to his home and vivid descriptions of the Lincoln familys pioneer life. She reveals the unforgettable story from his boyhood and days as a shopkeeper and lawyer, to Lincolns first elected offices and his election as president, the Civil War, and assassination.

This book was okay, but I, like most Americans, know a lot about Lincoln already. This is nothing special, although it’s perfectly acceptable as a children’s introduction to Abraham Lincoln.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Winterbound

The story of young people from the city adjusting to a winter in the Connecticut hills.

I really liked this story of four siblings making their way through their first winter in the country of Connecticut. The story is sweet and old fashioned–it reminded me of the Penderwicks. I would gladly read a sequel to this book if there was one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

This book about the creation of the atomic bomb is interesting and informative, but also horrifying. I kept asking myself, Is this book really for kids? If you want to be terrified about the future of nuclear war (as well as learn some admittedly fascinating history of the international race to create the ultimate weapon), this book is for you–no matter what your age.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Perilous Gard

In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book! The beginning was slow, as Kate’s bubbly sister accidentally gets Kate sent to a country estate known as the Perilous Gard, but as Kate meets the mysterious residents of the castle and the surrounding village, she finds that there is something strange going on. Kate’s interactions with the Fairy Folk, who are treacherous and heartless, just get more and more enthralling as the book continues. If you like dark-ish books about magical beings, you might enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

One Crazy Summer

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.

I read this book several years ago (for the Newbery challenge I participated in, it’s acceptable to re-read books you read as a child, and that’s what I did here). As I read through, I remembered most of the events, but I got even more nuance out of it than when I read it the first time. It’s a quick read about a family of sisters who spend a summer with their poet mother and the Black Panthers. Interesting and sweet.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Reviews: 1943

Quick reviews of the 1943 Newbery books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: Adam of the Road

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

And Adam, though only eleven, was to remember his father’s words when his beloved dog, Nick, was stolen and Roger had disappeared and he found himself traveling alone along these same great roads, searching the fairs and market towns for his father and his dog.

Here is a story of thirteenth-century England, so absorbing and lively that for all its authenticity it scarcely seems “historical.” Although crammed with odd facts and lore about the time when “longen folke to goon on pilgrimages,” its scraps of song and hymn and jongleur’s tale of the period seem as newminted and fresh as the day they were devised, and Adam is a real boy inside his gay striped surcoat. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I really enjoyed this book when I first read it, probably 15 years ago. It’s an interesting story set in medieval times, and both the story and the characters are enjoyable. I wouldn’t mind re-reading this one sometime and seeing if it holds up to my memories of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Middle Moffat

Who is Jane Moffat, anyway? She isn’t the youngest in the family, and she isn’t the oldest-she is always just Jane. How boring. So Jane decides to become a figure of mystery . . . the mysterious “Middle Moffat.” But being in the middle is a lot harder than it looks.

In between not rescuing stray dogs, and losing and finding best friends, Jane must secretly look after the oldest inhabitant of Cranbury . . . so he can live to be one hundred. Between brushing her hair from her eyes and holding up her stockings, she has to help the girls’ basketball team win the championship. And it falls to Jane-the only person in town with enough courage-to stand up to the frightful mechanical wizard, Wallie Bangs.

Jane is so busy keeping Cranbury in order that she barely has time to be plain old Jane. Sometimes the middle is the most exciting place of all. . . (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I really like Estes’ books. They capture the feeling of being a child in the 1940s so well. This is the second book in the Moffat series, and as you can tell from the title, it focuses on the middle child, Jane. The book is jam packed with cute, old fashioned stories about growing up.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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