Monday, November 17, 2014

Balance Keepers: The Fires of Calderon by Lindsay Cummings

11 year old Albert thinks he's going to have a boring Summer in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. He isn't expecting a super intelligent dog to lead him through the woods, into a steampunk cave and then to a rollercoaster which takes him and some new friends to a magical academy deep within the earth. 

Yes, this is basically the plot of Harry Potter, but there is a lot of invention here. Some wonderful new magical creatures, family connections between the students and teachers and a clever way to link the magical and real worlds. A fun new magical adventure series starts here.

Published by Katherine Tegan Books September 23, 2014

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

They've been best friends since the age of six but Althea has just realized she's in love with Oliver. Oliver isn't sure he feels the same way, then he falls sick. When Althea goes off the deep end, drunk, high and messing around with a hopeless boyfriend, Oliver leaves town for a special hospital and doesn't even tell her. 

There is so much originality in this story, Oliver's sickness is far from conventional and Althea's downward spiral really doesn't end where you think it will. Yes, this is a love story and so much more.

Published by Penguin October 9, 2014
Review first published in meetYA@DIESEL newsletter November 2014

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn't Fly by P T Jones

Maria is at a tedious family party when a strange 15 year old boy runs through the backyard, climbs a tree and then floats into the sky. The next day, her baby brother starts floating too, Maria knows she has to find the stranger and get some answers. But it's not as simple as that, there's also a kidnapped little brother, a rapidly spreading plague, a little romance, death defying feats of stupidity and some serious snark. 

I have never read a book like this before. This strange story is worth going off the beaten track for.

Published by ChiTeen November 1, 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman

Three bear brothers live with their mother in a picture perfect house by the ocean. One day these squabbling siblings accidentally break their mother's favorite shell, so the boys set sail to find another. On their big sea adventure, they visit some magical islands and meet some wise sailors, see an enormous whale and a survive a terrifying storm. But they don't find a shell like their mother's favorite one. Will they make it back to the house? And will mother bear forgive them?

This is a truly charming picture book with beautiful and accomplished watercolor illustration by Soman (who is the co-author of Ladybug Girl) . Despite it's nursery-rhyme-like title the book is actually for slightly older children. There are a lot of complex themes here; how families come together in adversity, how a mother will always forgive her children and that there's no place like home. I also think it has an excellent last line.

All of which makes it a perfect holiday gift book for ages 5-7.

Published by Dial May 20, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The seven young ladies of St Ethelreda's School are somewhat dysfunctional. Nevertheless, none of them is responsible for the murder of their headmistress and her odious brother. The girls are not eager to be separated and return to their families, so they concoct a plan to cover up the deaths. A plan which unravels with hilarious consequences. 

Julie Berry creates a Victorian whodunit with plenty of surprises, twists, slapstick, thwarted love and social niceties. The ensemble cast of characters is really brought to life, by their appropriate nicknames, such as Dour Elinor, Smooth Kitty and Disgraceful Mary Jane. The Scandalous Sisterhood is very silly and a lot of fun.

Published by Roaring Book Press September 23, 2014
Review first published in meetYA@DIESEL newsletter, September, 2014.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Rhyme Schemer by K A Holt

Kevin is an aggressive boy, with a difficult life and a lot of anger, which he happily takes out on his classmates. Secretly, he loves to write poetry, but even while he's creating his poems he's destroying the library books where he finds his words. Eventually his poetry makes him a target for another boy out for revenge and Kevin hits rock bottom.
This is a novel in verse and contains some of the best kids poetry I've read. Take this for example:

By the way,
this isn't even poetry.
It's just thoughts
on paper
rapid fire
with not as many words
as usual thoughts

Rhyme Schemer is a great story that really makes you think about the use of language, humor and real life experience in poetry.

Published by Chronicle Books October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale

Princess Magnolia is having cocoa with a Duchess when the monster alarm rings. She needs to make her excuses fast, get into her ninja outfit, saddle up her unicorn and defeat the monster threat to her kingdom. Will she manage to keep her identity a secret from the nosey Duchess and the clever goat herd? Will she drive the monsters away from her kingdom? It's certainly no tea party being this princess.

With 15 short chapters and fun friendly illustrations by LeUyen Pham The Princess in Black is great for new readers or for younger children who want to hear a long story. If you've ever wished there was a princess story that didn't start with a pretty dress and end in marriage. Or wished for a superhero story with a strong female character. Then this is the book for you and your kids.

For ages 4-8.

Published by Harper Collins October 14, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

Egg & Spoon, is like The Prince and the Pauper on a train, but with girls, in Tsarist Russia. 

It's a reinvention of Baba Yaga as a wisecracking time traveler bound by her own peculiar set of social conventions. (Doctor Who much?)

It's a very Russian tale of tortured intellectuals, hunger and fear.

It's a very Russian tale of imperial pomp and courtly excess in which a Faberge egg can be lost in a treasure room and life sized Matryoshka Dolls can be discarded to float down the Volga and find lives of their own.

It's a cavalcade of Russian myth from Baba Yaga's chicken legged house to the Ice Dragon of the North via The Firebird.

It might also be a parable about global warming and positive action and the redemptive power of kindness.

In short, it is epic in scope, rich in everything, funny, clever and thought provoking.

Just read it, it's extraordinary.

Egg & Spoon is being marketed as a teen book, but there's not much here that an advanced middle grade reader couldn't handle. Although be advised it may put them on the road to Dostoyevsky.

Published by Candlewick September 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Twin siblings, one boy and one girl, each have half the story of a family tragedy which has left them emotionally distant from one another. We hear this story at different times in their lives. Noah is 13 years old, but Jude is 16. Their voices are authentic and raw with loss and fear. Noah and Jude are both artist's and it's their development as artists that leads to their eventual reconnection and redemption. In the meantime, their artistic sensibilities allow us to see things with their strangely altered perceptions.

This book is an incredible work of magical realism with a strong emphasis on nascent sexuality and a plot that you will never fully foresee.

A truly beautiful book for teenagers.

Published by Penguin September 16, 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Loot by Jude Watson

Twelve year old March McQuin has not had a normal childhood. His father is a jewel thief and has taught him every trick in the book. But when his Dad dies, falling from a roof, March has to work to unravel the puzzle of his last words "find jewels". What follows is a middle grade heist book with circus skills, crooked cops, eccentric millionaires and a daring escape from a juvenile care home. Unbelievable high adventure for ages 10+.

Published by Scholastic June 1, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes

Anika Dragomir is a pretty confident teen and she's number two in school popularity, standing right behind Becky Vilhauer, who is totally evil. Slowly but surely Anika breaks away from Becky, by overturning a rumor and dating an unpopular guy she starts a train of events that ends in both triumph and tragedy.

Anika is one of the best characters I've ever read in a YA book. She is completely off-hand about so many outrageous things, not least that she feeds her McJob boss ground up Valium to mellow him out during her shift. And yet, she's far from shallow or stupid. Anika's voice is hilarious and really sweeps you up in the plot. Then the plot makes you think.

There's an author note at the start of the book which says:

"This is a novel based on my ninth-grade year of junior high. I wrote this story because I wish I could go back in time and give this message to myself."

Which also makes you think. 

For Ages 12+

Published by HarperTeen, September 2, 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Ellie is struggling with middle school, everything is different and she's finding it hard to fit in. Then one day her Mom brings home a 13 year old boy who turns out to be Ellie's scientist grandpa! He just discovered the secret to eternal youth and he's desperate to replicate the experiment. Scientific discovery makes incredible things possible, but what happens when the desire for discovery goes too far? A surprisingly complex moral question tackled well in this funny book for ages 8-12. 

Published by Random House August 26, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan

Pat and Dom are 16 year old twins in Ireland in 1974. When their senile grandmother burns down the family home they are forced to relocate to the seaside holiday cottage they used to rent for a week every summer. But the house is not the same as they remember, it's rundown, creepy and the boys and their young sister suffer from horrific nightmares. Then one night their nightmares become hideously real and one of the twins is lost in the grey. His brother must unravel family history and supernatural mysteries to bring his brother back.

Into the Grey is a literary ghost story which is extremely creepy without being sensationalist. The characters are well rounded and believable. I particularly loved that the elderly grandmother's dementia is an important plot device.

This is not an easy book, it's really scary and the historical context may require some additional research. But it is absolutely worth it.

Published by Candlewick August 26, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle by George Hagen

Gabriel is an orphan who lives in a strange house in modern day New York with his seemingly mad aunt. He discovers he has a magical connection with a raven fledgeling which leads him into an adventure where he uncovers secrets about his family, about a long raging battle between ravens and valravens and about the hidden city of Aviopolis. Along the way he makes friends with some other unusual children, many unusual birds and solves the riddles that the ravens love so much. 

The author's love of words and language is clearly apparent from the very first paragraph. Every pun and riddle is a cherry on top of the delicious descriptive prose that make this thrilling magical adventure book such a treat.

Bonus points for having a really good cover!

For ages 10-12

Published by Random House August 26, 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Conversion by Katherine Howe

A top private high school struggles to keep mysterious and horrible physical symptoms from manifesting in the female students. While outlandish explanations, media frenzy and rumor create a fever pitch in the community, one girl's extra credit assignment about the Salem witch trials is suddenly very meaningful. Not really a book about witchcraft. But definitely a book about the pressures of high school and it's more real than you might imagine.

Published by Putnam July 1, 2014

Review first published in Meet YA@DIESEL newsletter August 2014.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The League of Seven by Alan Gratz

Electricity can be dangerous stuff, particularly if you live in an alternative universe where the use of electricity allows monsters called Mangleborn to rise from their underground prisons. The original League of Seven were great legendary heroes who trapped the monsters, but when Archie Dent's parents become mind controlled by newly escaped Mangleborn, he has to be a hero to protect himself, his new friends and save his parents.

The League of Seven is set in a great steampunk world, with wonderful clockwork robots and airships. But what really makes this adventure stand out are the set pieces, like the mob attack on the girls school (which ends spectacularly badly for the mob). There's a real sense of victory every time Archie and his friends overcome another obstacle. But are they the new League of Seven? How can they be if there's only three of them?

Special extra points go to this book for a cameo from Nikola Tesla. Who is always entertaining.

For ages 10-12

Published by Starscape August 19, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Young World by Chris Weitz

A mysterious sickness has wiped out anyone not in the midst of puberty and it continues to kill people as they reach the age of 18. A tribe of teens living in Washington Square think they may have found a clue to the cause of the sickness and five key members set out from the safety of the square to investigate.

Of course, this is just to set the scene for a roadtrip through post-apocalyptic New York. It's all here, the tech cult who live in the library, the hippy kids ominous neverending drum circle, a gang of misogynistic jocks who seem to run the town and the smart black kids who actually do. It's like all the cliques of high school went truly tribal.

This is not a new plot, there are references to Lord of the Flies throughout and there are many parts that remind me of Gone by Michael Grant. But what I love about The Young World is that it is so simple. Weitz has limited himself to the least possible number of survivors (there are no adults, but also no little kids), each tribe has a really simple set of rules and the journey of discovery allows us to see all of them. It's pure and simple. 

Of course if you're looking for some deep truths or a satisfying end, you're looking in the wrong place. This is fast, violent, a little disturbing and strangely fun. 

Published by Little Brown Books July 27, 2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Life on Mars by Jennifer Brown

Arty comes from a family of space nuts his Dad is an astronomer, his full name is Arcturus, even his younger sister used to love Space Camp, before she became obsessed with Cheer squad. His own personal obsession is finding life on Mars. He has a signaling system that uses a powerful torch and mirrors and he sends signals to Mars every night from the roof above his room. So far Arty hasn't received any messages from Mars. Although he and his friends think maybe their new neighbor is a zombie.

Everything is thrown into chaos when Arty's family has to suddenly move to Las Vegas and Arty meets that scary neighbor face to face.

There are many things to love about this surprisingly realistic book. The characters are great, funny, truthful and sometimes ugly, but always very real. The book is peppered with scientific facts, but because the characters are so rich and their voices so distinct it never feels like encyclopedia definitions have been shoehorned into the text. The plot is tender and funny and also sad.

But my favorite thing about Life on Mars is that there are no traditional happy endings, although we close the book with a sense of hope.

For age 8-12

Published by Bloomsbury August 5, 2014

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Piece of Cake by LeUyen Pham

Mouse has made a birthday cake for Little Bird, he just needs to deliver it. Unfortunately there are a lot of animals on his way who want to trade something for a piece of cake. The cake runs out before Mouse can get to Little Bird, but that's ok, because Little Bird is clever and he has some trade ideas of his own.

A Piece of Cake is an original idea with a surprisingly unpredictable plot. We expect that Squirrel will want to trade nuts, Bear will trade honey, Chicken will trade an egg and Cow will trade milk. But we have to wait to be proved right. The characters are hilarious and vibrant, Mouse's kindness gets him into a difficult situation, Little Bird's intelligence get's them out of it. And the expressions used by the other animals, including "Yummers" and "Gadzooks" keep us laughing while we're thinking.

But of course, it's the illustration which makes this book so amazing. LeUyen Pham is expert at making charming and dynamic artwork that tells many stories within the story. For this book she recreates the 1960s Little Golden Book style of illustration that subconsciously alerts us that we are about to learn an improving lesson. A lesson which does not come in exactly the way we expect it to.

I love this book, it is one of my favorite picture books of 2014.

Published by Balzer + Bray May 27, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve

Ten year old Oliver does not have an ordinary childhood, his parents are explorers and he has followed them to lost cities, high mountains and mysterious marshes. Oliver is not really the adventurous type so he's delighted when his parents decide to give up their exploring and settle in Deepwater Bay. But Deepwater Bay has a secret, a collection of Rambling Isles, sentient islands that move around. Of course when Oliver's parents want to explore the islands, things go wrong and soon Oliver has to rescue them. What he isn't expecting is that one of the Rambling Isles, a mermaid, a particular seabird and some sea monkeys will help him, whilst in search of the perfect sea wig.

A fantastical tale, with lots of fun silliness and beautiful quirky illustrations that add so much to the story. Great for new readers aged 6-10

Published by Random House July 22, 2014

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hexed by Michelle Krys

A teenage cheerleader, suffering from falling popularity discovers that she's a witch. Not only that, but her family has been charged with protecting an essential magical book, which was recently stolen. Add in a hot young bad boy warlock who's not as helpful as he thinks he is and some seriously creepy bad guys. The result is a really fun book with great dialogue and a truly bizarre prom.

I enjoyed this mostly (I think) because it reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although thankfully, there are no vampires.

For ages 12+

Published by Doubleday Canada, June 10, 2014

Review first published in Meet YA@DIESEL newsletter June, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

 It's the near future, past the "Tipping Point" when global warming can no longer be reversed. Seventeen year old Nat's parents have elected to die to ease the carbon footprint of mankind. They've bought a contract which allows a corporation to manage their death during one Final Week of luxury in Hawaii. Nat takes the mood altering pharmaceuticals on offer and mocks the meaningless language used by their resident therapist. But her hacker brother Sam has been doing some research and he has a different plan.

Gorgeous, literary sci-fi, in which our decaying world is fully realized and not too far from reality. It is a very bleak vision, but one with a hopeful ending. Definitely a book for independent thinkers. 

For ages 12+

Published by Akashic Books June 10, 2014

Review first published in Meet YA@DIESEL newsletter, July 2014

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin

There are some pretty scary looking monsters in this book. But appearances can be deceptive. No matter how frightening these creatures might be, there is something that scares them. Something round, light, shiny and terrifying. Bubbles.

Everyone gets scared sometimes, but if you really investigate what scares you, it might not be so bad after all.

For ages 3-6

Published by Clarion Books May 6, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light

We are searching for a lost dragon in New York. Where could he be hiding? Maybe in the water? Or on the rooftops? Maybe he's at the playground or helping to deliver packages in a tall building? 

This is a beautiful counting book. Each illustration is in black and white except for the things we are counting. So the boats, birds or packages jump of the page and are easy to find, unlike that dragon who is often well hidden. There is so much to share and see in this book, more than just counting from 1 to 20. And my favorite part is that the illustrations are printed on thick matt paper, which is asking to be colored in.

For ages 3-5

Published by Candlewick Books, April 8 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang

Somewhere on the West coast of America in the 1940s Hank's family own a store in Chinatown. Hank's mother is depressed, America was not all she dreamed it would be when she was a girl in China. Strangely, his mother finds a new lease of life only after she is rescued from a bank heist by a superhero called The Anchor of Justice. Hank finds himself the recipient of his mother's new found energies as she tries to turn him into the first Asian American superhero. Will her crazy ideas ever work? Can Hank become a superhero on his own terms? Or does his quiet father hold the key to The Green Turtle's destiny after all. 

Inspired by a short lived wartime comic book about possibly the first Asian American superhero, this graphic novel packs an historical, visual and emotional punch. 

For ages 12+

Published by First Second July 15, 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pigsticks and Harold by Alex Milway

Pigsticks comes from a distinguished line of successful Pig ancestors and he thinks it must be time for him to make his mark. He declares that he will be an explorer, only he doesn't want to carry the bags. Enter Harold an unsuspecting Hamster who is persuaded to join Pigsticks in this difficult and dangerous expedition. Harold is promised cake, otherwise he wouldn't agree to come. 

This is a truly delightful story for beginning readers. The humor is extremely dry and in places just plain silly, with some great visual jokes provided by the cartoonish illustrations. But the plot is sweet enough that it will appeal to parents too. 

In the end this is a funny book about two real characters. Pigsticks is spectacularly confident and utterly incompetent. Harold is stalwart and easily bribed. I would like to see more adventures with this mismatched duo.

Age 6-10

Published May 27, 2014 by Candlewick Press

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

When we meet Molly and her younger brother Kip they looking for work in the Victorian English Countryside. Molly is 14 years old and the driving force behind their search. She knows the truth about what happened to their parents, but she's not ready to share that with Kip. 

They find work with The Windsor family, even though the local people are superstitious about the sourwoods surrounding the Windsor's home. The Windsor's seem sickly, the house is in disrepair and money is tight. There is something evil in the house and it wants to give you your heart's desire.

When I picked up this book, I was expecting a fairy story. What I got was a terrifying fairy tale in the true Grimm tradition. The writing is as twisty as a tree root, pulling the reader through many emotions toward an exciting and satisfying ending. 

Not every kid is going to love this book, but I can imagine that it will be very meaningful for some people. 

For ages 11+ (one of those rare books that effectively stand on the cusp between middle grade and teen)

Published May 20, 2014 by Amulet Books

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Saba Khan is a good student, a fierce tennis player and a creature of habit, but her life is destroyed when her family's home is the target of an arson attack. The family are unharmed, but the fire leaves them with nothing. The community at Saba's exclusive Chicago school pull together to help her family by organizing a fundraising auction. Events take a turn for the truly strange when a highly valued work of outsider art is found, donated and stolen in the run up to the auction.

The Art of Secrets is told in the voices of the main protagonists, so we read diary excerpts, emails, text messages and press interviews as we put the story together and assemble the clues. And there are plenty of mysteries to solve here; who burned down the Khan's home. Where did the paintings go? Why is the class president suddenly so interested in Saba? And what is the Principal up to?

A clever young adult mystery from the award winning author of Love Drugged. The story is fun with plenty of surprises and an emphasis on the theme of the Outsider, in art, in school and in life.

Published April 22, 2014 by Algonquin Books

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer

Selwyn Academy is an Arts School, where the pupils excel in dance, drama, art and music. Some of those pupils are stars of a reality tv show called "For Art's Sake" which is filmed at the school.

Our hero Ethan is a mediocre trumpet player and has no confidence in himself or his ability to draw. He is not one of the reality tv stars and neither are any of his small group of friends.

An English class on Ezra Pound incites Ethan and his friends to a secret rebellion against the administration and the tv production company who may or may not be controlling them.

This all seems like an unlikely set of circumstances and yet the characters really hold it together. There's a great mix of different outlooks from this group of friends which underpins the theme of the perceptions of reality. A theme which works so well, in fact, that the three different beginnings and three different endings all make perfect sense.

I really enjoyed this book, a youthful stirring of dissent makes a refreshing change from kids trying to survive in alternate worlds or kids battling apathy in this one. 

Ages 12+

Published April 8, 2014 by Knopf

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

Rye, Folly and Quinn are kids who live in a small town with a medieval feel. Girls are not allowed to read, the Earl and his soldiers are always interfering in people's business and oh yes, there are a myriad of sinister magical creatures around. Wirries are easy to trap, but Bog Noblins are terrifying violent creatures and one has been seen on Mud Puddle Lane. 

Can the kids and their families keep the village safe from the monsters? Particularly when there are so many monsters to choose from, not just the Bog Noblins, but also the Earl and the Luck Uglies; a band of mercenaries lauded for their skills at Bog Noblin fighting, but feared for their indiscriminate cruelty.

There are many things I love about this book. I love that whole families are in this together and that the families are so different. I love the world building, which is far deeper and more complex than I've seen in a middle grade novel for a while. I love that no-one is all good and no-one is all bad. I love the language, especially how every name is chosen with care and joy, from the cat (Shady) to the Earl's twisted daughter (Malydia)

There is always something happening in this brilliant, fast-paced adventure. There are clues to solve, connections to make and a new path to forge. One of the most satisfying books I've read in 2014.

Age 8 -12

Published by Harper Collins April 29, 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Little Poems for Tiny Ears by Lin Oliver

Babies love poetry. They love the sound of human voices, the musicality of rhyme and rhythm and they love those easy to remember lines. Parents know this and instinctively recite nursery rhymes to their small children. But sometimes Baa Baa Black Sheep can get a little repetitive. Thankfully Lin Oliver has written a charming alternative.

Little Poems for Tiny Ears is primarily a picture book, Tomie dePaulo's illustrations of round faced babies in soft bright colors are gentle and sweet. There are also parents in the illustrations, one poem is about Daddy's beard which we see from a toddler's eye view.

Lin Oliver's original poems are short and have jaunty rhymes. But it's the choice of subject matter in the poems which really makes this book interesting. There's a poem about toes, as all babies are fascinated by those things on the ends of their feet. Another poem is about pulling everything out of low kitchen cupboards, which is the most favorite game of many two year olds. I read poems from this book at story time in the store and the response is often the laughter of recognition. These super simple poems touch on small truths for the little ones and their parents.

An excellent choice for a baby shower gift, whether the parents read poetry or not. Because, babies love poetry.

Published February 11, 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Review first published in April, 2014 Diesel Newsletter

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Space Taxi - Archie Takes Flight by Wendy Mass and Michael Brawer

Wendy Mass has written some seriously great middle grade novels including The Candymakers and A Mango Shaped Space. Her newest book Space Taxi is for new readers age 7 to 9 and it's just as good.

Archie Morningstar is 8 years, 8 months and 8 days old and tonight he gets to ride along in his Dad's Taxi. Archie is excited, but deep down, he knows that the most interesting thing will probably be going through a pothole and losing a hubcap. That's before he realizes that the first pick up is a bit further than just the next town over.

This is a wonderful early reader, it's short and easy to read, but not simple. There's a full plot with some mild peril and a few space facts thrown in. I'm looking forward to more adventures with Archie in Water Planet Rescue, which is published in September.

Published by Little Brown April 1, 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

We Were Liars by E Lockhart

Normally, a book review would begin with a summary of the plot. But I can't offer you that for We Were Liars, because each reader will come to understand this book at different times in its narrative. I must be careful.

Here's what I can tell you. We Were Liars is about three highly privileged wealthy teenagers and their one less wealthy (and less Aryan) friend. Every Summer they holiday, with their parents and younger siblings on a private island owned by their Grandfather. The four friends are The Liars. They are not likable people and their families are occasionally revolting. But we have some sympathy for our narrator Cadence, who suffers from crippling headaches. She had an accident at the island in the Summer before her fifteenth birthday, but she doesn't remember anything about it and her memory of that whole Summer is fragile.

We Were Liars contains some of the most heart crushingly beautiful prose I've ever read in a Young Adult novel. Some lines are poetic and float free of the standard constraints of the page. Other parts are told as short fairy tales. Sometimes there is circling repetition. Sometimes it reads like a teenager's diary. Incredibly, it all comes together perfectly. I was continually astonished by the technical genius of E Lockhart's writing.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone over the age of 15 and I do mean teens and adults alike. We Were Liars is a sophisticated novel that deserves to find its audience.

Published May 13, 2014 by Delacourt Press

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Time Out of Time; Beyond the Door by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Timothy Maxwell leaves the door open to adventure when he is visited by Herne the Hunter and The Greenman on a stormy night in Spring. He soon discovers that he has an integral part to play in the coming battle against The Dark. A battle which will endanger not only himself, but also his family and friends.

Well paced and lyrical writing sets the scene perfectly in this adrenaline fueled ride through British mythology and middle school.

This is exactly the kind of book I loved when I was in middle school and let's be honest, I love them still. Kids books that draw on mythology, especially more obscure mythologies and bring those ancient stories up to date are very important. There is an incredible wealth of oral tradition underpinning this book, not just in the legendary figures of British mythology that stalk it's pages, but also in the stories that Timothy's babysitter tells him, stories which may ultimately save his life.

Ages 10-14

Published March 18, 2014 by Amulet Books

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera

Star Mackie starts a club, to help her make friends at a new school. The club turns into a poetry club and becomes a lifeline for her and some other students. But that's just the plot.

Star is the kind of ten year old heroine we all love, she's bright, enthusiastic, empathetic and determined. She's also poor. Star lives in a trailer with her Mom and teenage sister, they use food stamps and her hair was cut by a family friend who needed some practice.

This story is told from Star's perspective and her voice is written with incredible authenticity. As a result Star's family are drawn with differing levels of clarity, depending on how close she is to them or how well she understands them. I'm pretty sure that Mom's best friend is actually Mom's girlfriend, but that doesn't cross Star's mind. There's also a lot of ten year old thinking behind Star's actions, for example she does her homework, but she never hands it in, because her teacher expects that she hasn't done it.

Of course Star is marginalized, bullied and pre-judged by students and teachers alike. Nevertheless, the hope and conviction felt by Star Mackie could fuel a rocket to the moon. That energy gives this book an appeal that could not be achieved by an otherwise earnest plea for recognition of child poverty.

At the end, things are taking a turn for the worse in the trailer and although Star has found a friend she can rely on and has got over the idealization of her absent father, this is no happy ending.

Hope is a Ferris Wheel raises some difficult questions and doesn't attempt to answer them. But because we now have the character of Star Mackie, we have springboard to discussion about social poverty. A difficult but really rewarding book that I imagine will be taught in schools in years to come.

Published March 11, 2014 by Amulet Books

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Half Bad by Sally Green

Nathan is a half blood, the son of a White Witch mother and a Black Witch father and he doesn't belong in either of their worlds. Barely literate and unable to sleep indoors, he also cannot pass as human among the Fain, those who don't even realize that witchcraft is under their noses.

He has been abandoned by his father and blames himself for his mother's suicide, he is loathed by his half sister and beaten and bullied by Whites his own age. Meanwhile the Council of White Witches is determined to control his fate, by force. It doesn't take Nathan long to understand that he must make his own way, be his own moral compass and his own best chance of survival.

There is a lot of hype about this book, but to my mind, that hype is justified. There is so much to love in Half Bad. The language, effortless pacing, contemporary setting and tantalizing hints of the story yet to come are all marks of quality this book carries with ease. Nathan's voice is street smart and tough as hell, but he has a strong moral code, (I suspect this is the source of the Hunger Games comparisons).

My favorite thing about this book is the treatment of magic. Magic is something subtle in this world, no flying cars or magical dragons. Instead, magic is described as a gift, different from witch to witch in type and strength, there are healers, potion makers, shape shifters and some with less common gifts. It makes magic seem more believable and is an obvious limit to the extent of any one character's power.

A teen book with guts and heart, plenty of action and some touching moments. Bring on Book Two!

Age 14+

Published March 4th, 2014 by Penguin

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Tyrant's Daughter by J C Carleson

Until recently, Laila and her family lived in a palace in an unnamed a middle eastern country. Her father was king and although they lived under threat from violent rebel factions, Laila believed her father was a good man in a difficult situation. A few weeks ago he was shot dead in a coup and Laila was removed to America by the CIA. Now she lives in a small apartment in Washington DC, with her hysterical mother and younger brother, "the king of nowhere".

Laila has to make adjustments to her world view, not just to fit in at the local high school, but also to make sense of the father she loved and the tyrant she now knows he was.

Her mother is intent on taking back the country, making deals with the CIA and rebel factions back home. But this all occurs in the background as Laila recreates herself as a Western teenager. She learns to drive, makes out with a boy and goes to a school dance. But Laila knows she wants to go home and after spying on her mother, she thinks she may know how.

This is a taut and clever story about the innocent and not so innocent families behind the news reports. Laila's perspective not only shifts, but actually stretches to accommodate all the different people she needs to be. The ending is very satisfying and surprisingly hopeful.

An interesting and different coming of age novel, with fascinating insights into international relations.

Ages 12+

Published February 11, 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Review first published in Diesel, a bookstore's Newsletter March 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Secret Box by Whitaker Ringwald

Jax is 12 years old and a bit of a rebel, she's been in trouble for everything from shoplifting a candy bar to creeping backstage at a magic show to find the hole in the stage.

Ethan is her sidekick. He knows he's a sidekick, he calls himself Caution Boy. But he just can't seem to walk away from Jax and her ill advised schemes.

When Jax receives a mysterious box for her birthday from an Aunt she's never even heard of, she has to get it open no matter what. Unfortunately, the box has a special puzzle locking mechanism and apparently there are some other people who want to get their hands on the contents just as desperately as Jax does.

Add in Ethan's truly obnoxious older brother Tyler as a driver and you have all the ingredients for an exciting and funny adventure.

What I loved most about this book is the voice of Jax. She is so reckless and headstrong that you know she'll be leading us somewhere interesting and probably bad. Luckily her voice is tempered by that of fact-loving Ethan, who offers us a respite in tone and pace. 

Great for kids who love to be larger than life and who long for adventure.

Ages 8-10

Published February 25, 2014 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My Humongous Hamster by Lorna Freytag

What if your hamster ate all his food in one gulp and became humongous? It might be a bit scary, it might be a bit fun, it might even be useful.

This is a wonderful book about unleashing your imagination and letting it run wild through the city like a Godzilla sized hamster. There's no plot, just a series of situations that a giant hamster might find himself in.

There are two things I love about this book, one is that Lorna Freytag's text consists of short matter-of-fact sentences. This leaves your children plenty of opportunity to explore their own ideas about the fantastic illustrations. And that's the other thing I love about this book, the illustration is photo collage, but I have never seen that technique used better. The level of detail is extraordinary and great care has been taken to add shadow, sky and overlap to make it look real.

I'll leave you with an example of the artwork taken from Lorna Freytag's blog. How cool is that?

Published February 11, 2013 by Henry Holt and Co.
Ages 2-6