ARC Roundup: YA Novels

Today's ARC roundup is all about the latest YA and middle grades novels. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following books from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via Goodreads.com.

This post, the latest in my series of ARC roundups, is focused on some of the YA and middle grades novels I’ve read lately. (There are more to come in a future post–be on the lookout!) Hopefully you’ll find a book in this list to enjoy.

The Girl from Everywhere

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard The Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question . . . Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything.

I’ve been seeing this book everywhere lately, and I must say, the cover is gorgeous. I haven’t read any other bloggers’ reviews of The Girl from Everywhere because I wanted to form my own unbiased opinion, so here it is: This is a fascinating YA novel. Although they are probably out there, I’ve never read a book with this kind of time travel via boats and maps, and I thought it was really interesting.

Nix is constantly battling with her father over his life’s obsession to find his way back to her mother. Nix knows that if they ever find the perfect map to take them back to that year, she might very well cease to exist, a fact which seems to escape her single-minded father. But when the crew of the Temptation end up in Hawaii just a few years after their intended date, Nix starts to learn more about her mother, her father, her crewmates, and herself–and she might even learn how to Navigate using maps, as her father does.

I loved the various places that Nix and the crew traveled, from 21st-century New York to 1800s Hawaii to lands only found in mythology. Nix’s best friend Kashmir, for example, is from the world of Arabian Nights, and the crew sometimes spends time searching for magical items (like a bottomless bag) to make their lives easier. But I also enjoyed Nix’s complicated relationship with her father and her growing romance with Kashmir. All the characters and settings were well drawn, and I’m definitely interested in seeing what other adventures the crew of the Temptation go on.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy

Amanda Lester wouldn’t be caught dead going into the family business. Her ancestor, Sherlock Holmes’s colleague Inspector G. Lestrade, is a twit. Nevertheless her parents refuse to see his flaws, and she’s going to a secret English detective school for the descendants of famous detectives whether she likes it or not.

When Amanda arrives at the dreaded school, she considers running away–until she and her new friends discover blood and weird pink substances in odd places. At first they’re not sure whether these seeming clues mean anything, but when Amanda’s father disappears and the cook is found dead with her head in a bag of sugar, they’re certain that crimes are taking place. Now Amanda must embrace her destiny and uncover the truth.

The book opens with Amanda and her dreams of becoming a filmmaker. These dreams, however, are interrupted when her parents tell her the family is moving to England so Amanda can attend a prestigious (but secret) school for detectives. Amanda pouts her way through the first few days of school, trudging her way through classes about how to create a good disguise, the psychology of criminals, and how to create a detective “mystique.” But Amanda starts seeing weird things around the school, and she’s not sure if they are part of a school project or if they have something to do with the sudden disappearance of Amanda’s father.

This book definitely leans more toward middle grades level than YA. The mystery is silly, and Amanda creates a lot of problems for herself by being super stubborn and not open to criticism. Your pre-teen may enjoy it, but it’s definitely forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bad Luck

At Earth Ranch, things can get a little magical (some might say strange). Intrepid readers will discover a runaway boy, fishy cruise ship, strange cave paintings, dragon-like footprints, and other mysteries that Clay and his friends need to solve. Danger, adventure, mischief, mystery, llamas, and a delightfully irreverent and hilarious narrator make bestselling author Pseudonymous Bosch’s anticipated new novel irresistible.

This book is the second in the Bad Magic series, and I have not read the first book. Still, I wasn’t too lost to enjoy the book. If you’ve read any of Pseudonymous Bosch’s other books, you’ll already have a good idea of what to expect from this one–silliness, magic, over the top villains, and precocious kids. (I think this series is tangentially related to the author’s previous series, but I haven’t read enough of that series to know for sure.)

This is not a bad choice if your kid loves crazy, silly, over the top stories with a bit of magic thrown in. I’m interested to see where this series goes next.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: 1932

A quick review of Calico Bush, one of the 1932 Newbery honor books. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Calico Bush

Left orphaned and alone in a strange country, thirteen-year-old Marguerite Ledoux has no choice but to become a servant girl. She promises her services to the Sargent family for six long years in return for food and shelter. But life as a “bound-out girl” is full of more hardship than Maggie ever could have imagined. Living with the family in an isolated part of northern Maine, Maggie struggles through the harsh, hungry winter of 1743, the constant threat of Indian attacks, and worst of all, the loneliness she suffers knowing that her own family is lost forever. Will the Sargents’ house ever feel like home? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Calico Bush is another historical fiction Newbery book that I read as part of my homeschool curriculum. (Thanks, Sonlight!) Although it is written by Rachel Field, author of Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, this book is nothing like her early Newbery book.

The main character of this book, Maggie, gives the reader a window into early colonial life, complete with all its hardships. You’ll read about indentured servants, harsh weather, illness, death, and conflict with Native Americans (remember that this book was written in 1932, and thus has all the insensitivity you would expect from a book of that time). Although I don’t remember being traumatized by this book as a child, it is definitely for a middle grades audience.

Books like these are why I still count myself a fan of historical fiction, even though I find most adult historical fiction novels a bit dry. I would love to read this book again someday and refresh my memories of it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

2016 Newbery Books

The 2016 Newbery books are all incredible! Read as I team up with my sister to review this year's winners. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
Photo via Kaboompics.com

I was so excited when the 2016 Newbery books were revealed several weeks ago, and I immediately started checking them out from my library. I’ve recruited my sister Melanie (you can see her previous posts here, here, here, and here) to help me review them. (Spoiler alert: all of this year’s books are really, really good!)

Last Stop on Market Street
(review by Melanie)

I was surprised and impressed to discover that Last Stop on Market Street won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. After reading it, I believe both awards are well deserved. The artwork is simple, perfectly integrated with the text to add details that immerse the reader in the story, rather than distracting from it. The story itself is uplifting without being preachy, as a grandmother teaches her grandson a new way of looking at life, gently changing his perspective of everything they encounter. In just a few pages, the author creates multidimensional, interesting characters that are both relatable and engaging. My favorite part was the ending, which inverted my expectations but was shown only through the illustration.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Echo
(review by Melanie)

Echo is uniquely structured as a frame narrative containing three distinct stories, with the connection between them revealed only at the end. Each story climaxes with the protagonist facing a seemingly overwhelming problem, and then immediately cuts to the next story. It felt almost like reading three half-novels, but fortunately all three characters are compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest in their story, even as you are preoccupied with the previous story.

The ending that brings all three stories together is satisfying, if a little rushed. The power of this book is that each story is engaging individually, but together they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

It is yet another book set in World War II (as Monica discussed), but with subtle inversions of the tropes typical of these books. The main character of the first story, set in pre-WWII Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power, is in danger not for being Jewish, but for having a facial birthmark, deemed a “physical deformity” by the Nazis. The second story is set a few years later in America, where two orphans are affected by the Great Depression, without even mentioning the War. The girl in the third story, set in California during the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, is not Japanese, but Hispanic, and faces racism against herself as well as her Japanese friends. Though World War II provides the context, each story focuses more on the specific struggle of the protagonists, rather than the wider consequences of the war. As a result, the stories are suspenseful, but much more lighthearted than many other YA books that focus heavily on the war.

(Side note from Monica: I also read this book, and I had many of the same thoughts about it. The ending is a bit too tidy, but if I had read this book at eleven or twelve, my mind would have been blown. Echo provides a refreshing look at the all-too-typical WWII story.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The War that Saved My Life
(review by Monica)

The other WWII-focused book in this year’s set couldn’t be more different from Echo. This dark yet hopeful story turns completely on the fact that it is set in WWII-era England. Ada is a 9-year-old girl with an untreated club foot, being alternately abused and neglected by her mother. Ada has rarely set foot outside of her London apartment and has barely learned how to walk when she sees her opportunity for escape. A large group of children from the local school is being evacuated to the countryside for fear of bombings in London, and Ada takes her younger brother and leaves with him. Although she is guarded and fearful and their new guardian is reluctant to take them in, Ada starts to open up and grow in her new surroundings. But with her abusive mother still in London and the war raging on throughout Europe, things are not as easy as they start to seem.

This book is a compulsive read, athough at times it is sickening to read about the abuse Ada had suffered and how her brother Jamie picked up on it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing, but ultimately hopeful look at a young girl’s growth against the dramatic backdrop of World War Two.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Roller Girl
(review by Monica)

I just realized that this graphic novel was written and illustrated by the same person, and I’m totally impressed. The story, which focuses on a young girl who decides to join the youth roller derby team just as her best friend seems to be distancing herself, is really good, and the illustrations are awesome. Astrid isn’t perfect, by any means; in fact, she’s one of the most flawed MG characters I’ve read in a while. She’s selfish and impulsive and vindictive, but that doesn’t make her unlikable. She’s just struggling to figure out how to grow up when her closest friends seem to be moving on without her. And the setting of roller derby, something I know very little about, was pretty cool, and I think a lot of kids (boys and girls) will agree.

(On a kind of silly side note, this book made me realize just how important it is to represent varied skin colors, backgrounds, and life experiences in our literature. When I saw the cover with Astrid’s blue-dyed hair, I was already predisposed to like the book because of my own blue braids. And I’m nearly 25 years old! Can we really deny the importance of diverse books, especially for MG and YA?)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Roundup: January Edition

The latest and greatest (and maybe not so great) from NetGalley this year so far. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following ARCs from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via NetGalley.com.

I mentioned to my newsletter subscribers (not one of them? You can sign up here) that I recently went a little crazy requesting and reading a bunch of NetGalley books. I’ve read and enjoyed a bunch of them already, so I’ve rounded up a few of my most recent reads in these mini reviews. Hopefully you’ll find something that will get your 2016 reading off to a good start!

Under the Dusty Moon

Victoria Mahler is the sixteen-year-old only daughter of rocker Micky Wayne, whose band, Dusty Moon, took the world by storm when Micky was just a teenager. The band broke up under mysterious circumstances, but, after years spent off the road being a mom, Micky’s solo career is finally starting to take off.

Will Vic be able to maintain her newfound sense of self amidst the building thunder of Micky’s second chance at stardom? And through it all, will Micky still really be her best friend?

Victoria, daughter of the lead singer of cult favorite band, Dusty Moon, is just trying to live a normal life. Get together with a new boyfriend, work on a summer project with her best friend, and get along with her mom, if possible. But she feels the need to keep her life compartmentalized–her mom is too famous in certain circles, and Victoria wants to be known as her own person. Micky is a quirky and fun character, and despite Victoria’s numerous missteps and Micky’s sometimes too carefree outlook on life, the mother-daughter pair gets along pretty well and is a lot of fun to read about. Their relationship is a bit reminiscent of Lorelai and Rory on Gilmore Girls, if Lorelai was a world-traveling, almost-famous singer and Rory was a bit less straight-laced.

A fun read, if you don’t mind a bit of (briefly described) teenage sex and experimentation with alcohol.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blue Bottle Mystery

This graphic novel version of Kathy Hoopmann’s best-selling Blue Bottle Mystery brings this much-loved fantasy story to life for a new generation of readers. The hero is Ben, a boy with Asperger Syndrome (AS). When Ben and his friend Andy find an old bottle in the school yard, little do they know of the surprises about to be unleashed in their lives. Bound up with this exciting mystery is the story of how Ben is diagnosed with AS and how he and his family deal with the problems and joys that come along with it.

I am passingly familiar with Asperger Syndrome because of my college education classes, and as far as my limited knowledge goes, this book does a great job of depicting a kid who has AS. Ben really wants to please his family, his teacher, and his classmates, but he seems to be constantly misunderstanding them and doing things wrong. When he and his friend Andy find a bottle at school, strange things start to happen. Ben has to adjust to new things along the way, and his family learns better ways to help him with the transition.

It sounds kind of preachy when you describe it, but the graphic novel format keeps the book from being a thinly disguised manual for kids. It’s short and sweet, pretty fun on its own merits, but even better because it teaches about a group of kids on the autism spectrum who are often misunderstood.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Finding Hope

Hope lives in a small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. With a drug addict for a brother, she focuses on the only thing that keeps her sane, writing poetry. To escape, she jumps at the chance to attend Ravenhurst Academy as a boarding student. She’ll even put up with the clique-ish Ravens if it means making a fresh start.

At first, Ravenhurst is better than Hope could have dreamed. She has a boyfriend and a cool roommate, and she might finally have found a place she can fit in. But can she trust her online boyfriend? And what can she do after her brother shows up at the school gates, desperate for help, and the Ravens turn on her? Trapped and unsure, Hope realizes that if she wants to save her brother, she has to save herself first.

Yeesh, this book was intense. Hope lives in a tiny town where she is continually overshadowed by her brother–a former star hockey player and a meth addict. Throughout the book, the author alternates between Hope’s POV and her brother’s. We see Hope as she enters a new boarding school and is almost immediately alienated by her fellow students, and we watch her brother do desperate and disturbing things to feed his meth addiction and try to forget about the reason he became an addict in the first place.

Although I’ve never been close to a drug addict, this book taught me some of what it might feel like, to struggle between loving and wanting to give the person what they need and trying to provide the tough love to straighten that person out. This book is not for kids, in case that wasn’t clear. Besides the meth addiction descriptions, there is also a large amount of swearing, a bit of sex, and a lot of just plain disturbing situations. Still, if you’re up for it, it’s a pretty powerful look at addiction and the effects it has not only on the addict but on the people around them.

Rating: Good but Forgettable (or rather, Good with Caveats)

Saving Montgomery Sole

Montgomery Sole is a square peg in a small town, forced to go to a school full of jocks and girls who don’t even know what irony is. It would all be impossible if it weren’t for her best friends, Thomas and Naoki. The three are also the only members of Jefferson High’s Mystery Club, dedicated to exploring the weird and unexplained, from ESP and astrology to super powers and mysterious objects.

Then there’s the Eye of Know, the possibly powerful crystal amulet Monty bought online. Will it help her predict the future or fight back against the ignorant jerks who make fun of Thomas for being gay or Monty for having lesbian moms? Maybe the Eye is here just in time, because the newest resident of their small town is scarier than mothmen, poltergeists, or, you know, gym.

This was a pretty fun book, if a bit offbeat. Montgomery is the daughter of two lesbian moms, and she is constantly on guard against those who might make fun of her, especially the new kid at school. She and the other members of her Mystery Club, which explores unexplained phenomena, are the oddballs of their school, and as the book goes on, Montgomery starts feeling isolated even from them. I found Montgomery a bit moody and annoying at times, but teenagers, I guess? Your enjoyment of this book will probably hinge on your views on homosexuality, since that is the crux of the book, or possibly on whether Montgomery is a rightfully angry, mostly normal teen or a moody, irritating kid who pushes everyone who loves her away.

Rating: Good but Forgettable (or, again, Good with Caveats)

The Greatest Zombie Movie

After producing three horror movies that went mostly ignored on YouTube, Justin and his filmmaking buddies decide it’s time they create something noteworthy, something epic. They’re going to film the Greatest Zombie Movie Ever. They may not have money or a script, but they have passion. And, after a rash text message, they also have the beautiful Alicia Howtz- Justin’s crush- as the lead.

With only one month to complete their movie, a script that can’t possibly get worse, and the hopes and dreams of Alicia on the line, Justin is feeling the pressure. Add to that a cast of uncooperative extras and incompetent production assistants, and Justin must face the sad, sad truth. He may actually be producing the Worst Zombie Movie Ever…

This was silly, but a lot of fun. Justin wants to make the best zombie movie ever made, but on a budget of $5,000, he and his friends are struggling to make it just okay. From writing the script to casting the movie to finding places to film, everything that can go wrong eventually does. It’s pretty hilarious. Not something I’ll revisit in ten years or push on all of my friends, but certainly something I enjoyed reading.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

A Scone to Die For

When an American tourist is murdered with a scone in Gemma Rose’s quaint Oxfordshire tearoom, she suddenly finds herself apron-deep in a mystery involving long-buried secrets from Oxford’s past.

Gemma sets out to solve the mystery—all while dealing with her matchmaking mother and the return of her old college love, Devlin O’Connor, now a dashing CID detective.

But with the body count rising and her business going bust, can Gemma find the killer before things turn to custard?

This is the only “adult” book on this whole list, and of course it is a cozy mystery. And I really enjoyed it. Cozy mysteries are often all the same–likable but single female MC, murder taking place nearby MC’s home/place of work, often involves food or baking, almost always a pushy mother trying to set up her almost-ineligible daughter with some well-meaning but boring doctor or lawyer–but somehow this book put a new spin on a worn formula.

Gemma is a lot of fun to follow, and her romance (of course) with her first love (now a detective) doesn’t move too fast. The setting, I think, has a lot to do with making this mystery seem fresh. I’ve read many mysteries set in England, but never one that took place specifically in Oxford. I loved all the scenes when Gemma explored her old college stomping grounds and explained some of Oxford’s old traditions. Definitely worth a look if you’re into cozies.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

 

Review Copy: The Great Time Lock Disaster

A fun but forgettable time travel adventure for kids. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a digital copy of this book through Masquerade Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Becoming a wizard is hard work. For Pete Riley it’s almost impossible. He tries to follow the rules, but he’s impatient and being impatient only leads to trouble. Big trouble.

He messes with a time spell when he shouldn’t, and he and his bookish friend, Weasel, are swept into Victorian England, where they will be trapped forever if that wizard-in-training can’t find a way to reverse his bad spell by the next full moon. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I truly wish I had been able to read the first book of this series before I read this one! There are talking alligators, magic galore, and tons of relationships that I didn’t quite get because there wasn’t much backstory explained. Still, I gathered enough to enjoy the book for what it was.

Pete, an impatient young wizard-in-training, messes up a spell that he should have left alone and ends up transporting himself and his reluctant friend, Weasel, back to Victorian-era England. Once there, they get into all sorts of trouble, from being kidnapped to using the skills of their new friend to help them find the mysterious Dr. Dread Wraith. Even Pete’s alligator familiar (who is somewhat creepily referred to as Pete’s “special friend”) gets in on the act as Pete and Weasel attempt to fix the timelock and get back home.

I didn’t much enjoy this book for myself, as I found it pretty shallow in terms of plot and characters. However, it was a fun read, and one that I think middle grades kids would definitely enjoy. So if you’re a teen or adult, you’re probably better off skipping this one, but feel free to pass it on to your younger kids. They’ll enjoy Pete’s antics and his adventures through Victorian England.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

P.S. If you’re looking for time travel books more suited for adults, check out Blackout and All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and The Mine.

ARC: Keegan’s Point

Keegan's Point is a cute but unrealistic middle grade mystery. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Summary via NetGalley.com.

Charlie Parker is obsessed with KEEGAN’S POINT, the island estate of reclusive billionaire Marcus Keegan, who died the year Charlie was born. The mystery Keegan left behind—hidden rooms, twenty unexplained passports, and stories of treasures—has fascinated Charlie for years.

Twelve-year-old Charlie would give almost anything to visit the estate. He gets his chance—unwillingly—when he overhears a plot to steal something off the island.

Our “Good Bad Guy” Nick has a problem. Does he scrap the once in a lifetime chance to find the answers he seeks or take Charlie along for the ride?

Join Charlie on his adventure as he discovers just who Marcus Keegan really was, and learn the real truth behind Nick’s quest that has forced his and Charlie’s paths to collide.

This is another of my recent string of NetGalley requests. I’ve been on a kick of fun mysteries (more reviews to come soon), and Keegan’s Point was a great addition to that list.

Charlie is a young boy, obsessed with the mysterious Keegan’s Point. This abandoned mansion on an island off the coast of Florida has been sitting empty for years, and no one seems to know what really happened to the billionaire who owned it. Charlie would like nothing better than to explore Keegan’s Point, and he soon gets his chance. Unfortunately, that chance comes in the form of kidnappers who fear he has overheard too much of their plot to steal something from the mansion.

Charlie makes himself useful because of his deep knowledge of the mansion, so the kidnappers don’t kill him. This is one of the things I disliked about the book–it’s very unrealistic in the way the kidnappers treat Charlie. First of all, their reasons for kidnapping him are pretty flimsy, and if they were so afraid of Charlie revealing what he knows, why did they keep him alive? This “good bad guy” thing bothered me through the entire story and kept me from enjoying the book as much as I might have otherwise.

Still, despite this (major) problem, I enjoyed discovering the secrets of Keegan, the mysterious billionaire. I’m a big fan of abandoned buildings and uncovering lost history, and this book certainly provided that. It may not be the best book to pick up as an adult, but middle grades kids will probably enjoy it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

31 Days of All Things Books by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The Casson Family Series

The tales of the Casson family are funny, sweet, and charming. | A book review from Newberyandbeyond.com
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When I was a kid, I read Saffy’s Angel, not knowing that it was the first book in a series. So when I discovered the rest of the series a couple months ago, I promptly checked them all out from the library and consumed them over the course of a few days. The Casson family series is comfort food in book form. This British family is delightfully silly and sweet, and despite their individual problems, they are each lovable in their own ways (with one possible exception…). I’m not going to review each individual book, since they’re all so short (and because there is a prequel that I have not yet been able to get my hands on!). Instead I’ll provide an overview of the Casson family, which beyond any plot or events that may happen is the real focus of these books.

  • Cadmium, called Caddy, is the oldest of the family. She’s a bit scatterbrained and can’t seem to stay focused on one thing, but she is the loving older sister (who just happens to let her hamsters and guinea pigs run wild through the house and yard).
  • Saffron, or Saffy, is the next oldest. She is sarcastic and fiercely protective of her crazy family. She and her friend Sarah take care of business, whether Saffy’s siblings want them to or not.
  • Indigo is the third child and the only boy. He is quiet and introspective, and he loves reading and music.
  • Rose is the baby of the family. She is artistic like her parents (although she tends to use unusual mediums and canvases for her work), and she is strong willed in a way that many readers dislike, but I don’t mind at all. Rose tends to cause trouble, so thank goodness her older siblings are willing to go to bat for her.
  • Eve is the mother. She is an artist who tends to be scatterbrained and sometimes lives in her painting shed for days on end. Despite her shortcomings and her utter lack of cooking ability, her children love her dearly.
  • Bill is the father, and he is the one character in these books who comes off as absolutely terrible. Bill is disdainful of his wife, her inability to cook or keep the house in order, his children’s escapades, and especially Eve’s art, which he deems “not exactly art” as compared with his own Art that he paints in London. Bill has basically deserted his family, only coming back on the weekends (and later in the books, not at all) and always being glad when he can leave his messy, crazy family. Later on in the series, some even more questionable information about Bill is revealed, and I think he is forgiven far too easily. What a jerk!

 

If you can get past Bill’s bad, irritating behavior, I think you’ll find a lot to love about this series and the family that populates it. Great for a rainy afternoon, a sick day, or anytime you want some sweet, comforting, slightly quirky characters to keep you company.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Review Copy: The Dragon of the Month Club

When two kids find a magical book that invites them to conjure a different dragon every month, they are sucked into another world--literally. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

On the thirteenth of every month a new dragon conjuring spell is revealed and the two friends attempt to summon the latest Dragon of the Month. The varieties are almost endless: Air Dragons, Paper Dragons, Fog Dragons, Waterfall Dragons, Rock Dragons, Tree Dragons – not to mention special bonus dragons for all the major holidays, including a particularly prickly Holly Dragon for Christmas.

But one day when a conjuring spell somehow goes wrong Ayana and Tyler find themselves unexpectedly drawn into a fantastical world of adventure based on the various books scattered all across Tyler’s messy bedroom. Travelling from one book-inspired world to the next with nothing to rely on but their wits and a cast of strange and exotic dragons at their disposal they must try to somehow find their way home again. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I’m excited to tell you about this new series from Iain Reading, author of the Kitty Hawk mystery series (see those reviews here, here, and here). In The Dragon of the Month Club, Ayana and Tyler discover a magical book that enrolls them in a special club for conjuring dragons. I love the idea of conjuring a new dragon every month! Each different dragon, from the sand dragon to the paper dragon to the fog dragon, is so creative.

But there’s more than just dragons in this book. When something goes wrong with a spell, Ayana and Tyler are suddenly transported to a different world, in which they must make their way through various stories and settings from the books scattered on Tyler’s floor. It has kind of a Wonderland feeling as the kids travel through their book world. This includes old-fashioned fairy tales, the sci-fi classic Dune, and the world of Sherlock Holmes. Any book lover will enjoy the mixture of favorite old stories and brand-new dragons. So neat!

Although I really enjoyed this book, I’m even more excited about the next in the series. I can’t wait to see what new kinds of dragons await!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Serafina and the Black Cloak

This historical fiction mystery is dark and interesting, but it needs more meat. #spon | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a free ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. (Summary via NetGalley.com)

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember. She has learned to sneak and hide.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must not only face her darkest enemy, she must delve into the mystery of her own identity.

This historical fiction mystery was fun and dark, but I wanted more content. I loved the setting at the Biltmore, and I wish the author had done more with that setting. I also wanted more of Serafina’s pa (how did he feel raising Serafina in the basement of a fancy house? What were some of his struggles?), the young master Braeden (what was his life like moving into the Biltmore?), and the Vanderbilts themselves.

So, short review even shorter, although Serafina is an interesting character–she’s good at catching rats, climbing, and seeing in the dark, and she loves to sneak around the Biltmore at night–there was not enough meat on this mystery. Disney is creating a whole line of similar mysteries and fairy tale retellings, so I’m interested to see if I enjoy those better.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Joint Review: Navigating Early and The Mostly True Adventures

In this review, my sister and I compare two stories of a boy's journey to find his brother, despite the difficulties of war. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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In this review, my sister Melanie and I will be reviewing two different middle grade books that both focus on quests, brothers, and war. (You can see my sister’s earlier posts here and here.)

Navigating Early (Melanie’s review)

Alone in a new school, mourning the recent death of his mother, Jackie does what any young protagonist would do: he accidentally befriends the school loner, Early. Jackie soon discovers that Early is more than a loner, he is a synesthete who sees a story in the infinite numbers of Pi.

Jackie does not intend to join Early’s fall break quest, but when his father lets him down, he impulsively finds Early and joins him. Early is searching for his older brother, Fisher, obstinately refusing to believe the official reports of his heroic death in a battle in World War II. He associates his story of Pi with Fisher, and believes that if he follows the steps of Pi’s journey, it will lead him to his brother. Early holds on to his belief that his brother is alive with all the tenacity of someone whose world will fall apart if he lets go. He never wavers from his purpose, never doubts that he will succeed in finding his brother and bringing him home (forget the implausibility of finding anyone on the Appalachian Trail, let alone someone who died in Paris). Jackie is understandably skeptical of Early’s tenacious, desperate optimism in the face of the facts (and is unkind and often patronizing to Early for almost the entire book), yet he gets caught up in Early’s story as their journey begins to take on strange similarities to the mythological story of Pi.

Unusually for historical fiction, WWII is almost an afterthought in this book, a setting more than a theme. Because of their young ages, Jackie and Early are affected by the war only through their father and brother, respectively. Rather than focusing on the war, the book emphasizes the tension between military and civilian life, as Jackie and his father struggle to relate to each other, and how difficult it is for a soldier to come back home.

To me, the most fascinating part of this book is how Jackie and Early’s journey parallels the mythological story of Pi. The line between reality and fiction blurs as what happens to Jackie and Early grows more and more similar to the tale of Pi. It starts off a little slow, but by the end I was just as caught up in the story as Jackie was. The ending is extremely satisfying, bringing closure without being unrealistically happy.

(Note from Monica: This book was written by Newbery-winning author Clare Vanderpool, and though I haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend her Newbery book, Moon Over Manifest.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (Monica’s review)

In this Newbery Honor-winning page-turner, twelve-year-old orphan Homer runs away from Pine Swamp, Maine, to find his older brother, Harold, who has been sold into the Union Army. With laugh-aloud humor, Homer outwits and outruns a colorful assortment of civil War-era thieves, scallywags, and spies as he makes his way south, following clues that finally lead him to Gettysburg. Even through a hail of gunfire, Homer never loses heart–but will he find his brother? Or will it be too late? (Summary via Amazon.com)

This book was much funnier than the one my sister read. In it, Homer traverses the country in search of his older brother, who was forced into the army to fight in the Civil War. He meets some colorful characters, from the owner of a medicine show to a kind but eccentric Quaker man. All the while, Homer relies on his ability to tell convincing falsehoods in order to keep one step ahead of everyone around him–crooks, authorities, and well-meaning adults alike.

Homer’s devotion to his brother, his only living relative, was touching without being sappy. When Harold is taken away, Homer springs into action without a second thought–even though a second thought probably would have told him it was stupid to go charging into the bloody battlefields of the Civil War without any clue of where his brother had been taken. Homer’s ability to outwit the adults around him was pretty hilarious, and with all the bumbling grownups wandering around this story, you can hardly blame him for not trusting any of them to help him.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Though both of these stories contain a journey to find a brother lost in the midst of a terrible war, Navigating Early is definitely much more serious than the madcap adventures of Homer P. Figg. Both would be worth a look if you’re interested in sibling bonds and long journeys.

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