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

ARC Roundup: Mysteries

The latest mysteries and suspense novels for teens and adults--some great, some forgettable. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received free digital copies of these books from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via NetGalley.com

My love of mysteries is no secret; N&B’s archives are full of cozies, thrillers, and whodunits. Thus, this collection of ARC mysteries and suspense novels. Some I recommend, but others are best left alone.

Love, Lies and Spies

Juliana Telford is not your average nineteenth-century young lady. She’s much more interested in researching ladybugs than marriage, fashionable dresses, or dances. So when her father sends her to London for a season, she’s determined not to form any attachments. Instead, she plans to secretly publish her research.

Spencer Northam is not the average young gentleman of leisure he appears. He is actually a spy for the War Office, and is more focused on acing his first mission than meeting eligible ladies. Fortunately, Juliana feels the same, and they agree to pretend to fall for each other. Spencer can finally focus, until he is tasked with observing Juliana’s traveling companions . . . and Juliana herself.

The idea of this novel is awesome. It’s touted as homage to Jane Austen and her spunky heroines, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as well. Unfortunately, the execution does not live up to the idea.

Juliana is supposed to be intelligent, unconventional, and impertinent, but mostly I found her bland and forgettable. Her and Spencer’s romance takes up most of the plot, rather than the mystery that you would expect from a “spy” novel. If the concept of this novel intrigues you, sit tight–one of the books below executes it in a much more interesting way.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Murder of Mary Russell

Mary Russell is used to dark secrets—her own, and those of her famous partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes. Trust is a thing slowly given, but over the course of a decade together, the two have forged an indissoluble bond. And what of the other person to whom Mary Russell has opened her heart: the couple’s longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson? Russell’s faith and affection are suddenly shattered when a man arrives on the doorstep claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son.

What Samuel Hudson tells Russell cannot possibly be true, yet she believes him—as surely as she believes the threat of the gun in his hand. In a devastating instant, everything changes. And when the scene is discovered—a pool of blood on the floor, the smell of gunpowder in the air—the most shocking revelation of all is that the grim clues point directly to Clara Hudson. Or rather to Clarissa, the woman she was before Baker Street.

This book is the latest in Ms. King’s series of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mysteries, and as I read it, I was startled to realize that I actually read the first book of the series (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) several years ago. Although I definitely don’t recommend that you pick up this book without having read the rest of the series first–there’s very little talk about Sherlock and Mary themselves, as the book mostly focuses on Mrs. Hudson’s backstory–it was still an enjoyable read.

The most frustrating part, to me, was the fact that so much of the book took place in flashbacks–most of the first half, in fact. Especially if you haven’t read the rest of the series first (see my note above), the book focuses very little on our two main characters, instead exploring the dark secrets of the housekeeper’s past. Once you get into the second half of the book, things move quickly, but the first half is a bit of a slog.

Verdict? If you’ve read and enjoyed the rest of the series, I see no reason why you would be disappointed with the latest installment. If you haven’t, start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and then decide if you want to continue.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

These Vicious Masks

Evelyn has no interest in marriage and even the dashing Mr. Kent can’t make her want to live up to society’s expectations. She’d much rather assist her beloved sister Rose in achieving her radical dream of becoming a doctor. But everything changes the night she meets Sebastian Braddock – not only is the reclusive gentleman both vexing and annoyingly attractive, he’s also quite possibly mad, and his interest in Rose is galling. So when Evelyn wakes up to discover that Rose has disappeared, she immediately suspects Sebastian.

But then she discovers that Sebastian’s strange tales of special powers are actually true, and that Rose’s kidnappers have worse in mind for her than simply ruining her reputation. Surrounded by secrets, lies, and unprecedented danger, Evelyn has no choice but to trust Sebastian, yet she can’t help but worry that Sebastian’s secrets are the most dangerous of all…

I’ve been hearing good things about this book for months, and after reading it, I can see why. This is what Love, Lies and Spies (see above) should have been but wasn’t. Evelyn is, in fact, impertinent and unconventional, and she pulls this off without being irritating or bland. And the romantic subplot never takes over the story–something I greatly appreciate in a YA novel.

The science (or magic) of the special powers some of the characters have is never quite clear, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a fun story with interesting characters and a unique way of spicing up the Jane Austen era. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation

It’s the summer of love in late 1960s England. Basil D’Oliveira has just been dropped from the English cricket team before for a test series in apartheid South Africa; the war in Biafra dominates the news; and the Apollo 11 astronauts are preparing to land on the moon. In the midst of all this change, Sidney Chambers, now Archdeacon of Ely Cathedral, is still up to his amateur sleuthing investigations.

A bewitching divorcee enlists Sidney’s help in convincing her son to leave a hippie commune; at a soiree on Grantchester Meadows during May Week celebrations, a student is divested of a family heirloom; Amanda’s marriage runs into trouble; Sidney and Hildegard holiday behind the Iron Curtain; Mrs Maguire’s husband returns from the dead and an arson attack in Cambridge leads Sidney to uncover a cruel case of blackmail involving his former curate.

I requested this one on a whim after seeing that it has been made into a BBC series (I can’t resist the BBC!). Unfortunately, this is the fifth installment in the series, so I was a bit confused as to who each character was and how they knew Sidney, the archdeacon and amateur sleuth.

I was also disappointed that each chapter was a short story in itself. There was no overarching mystery to tie them all together, so most of them came off a little flat. Maybe prior installments were one long mystery, and they probably gave a better introduction to each character, but just based on this one book, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: Meh

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