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Posts Tagged ‘middle grade’

skullI’m late to the party when it comes to fall books. I missed Halloween and most of the last month due to a series of unfortunate events. Books went unread, blog posts unwritten, e-mails unanswered. Now we’re catching up: Three books aimed at kids with crossover appeal for teens and grown-ups.

The Screaming Staircase, the first entry in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series about teen ghost detectives, was both frighteningly funny and wickedly smart. The follow-up, The Whispering Skull (Disney, digital galley) is all that and more, offering some genuine chills as Anthony, George and narrator Lucy pursue malignant spirits and evil grave robbers in an alternate London. The teens have the necessary psychic abilities — along with swords, silver chains and flash powder — to battle their supernatural foes, but they compete for business with larger, more established firms such as the Fittes agency. The rivalry is exacerbated when Scotland Yard puts both Lockwood and Fittes on the case of the mysterious “bone mirror,” stolen from the corpse of a Victorian doctor who tried to communicate with the dead. The doctor supposedly met a grisly end in a roomful of rats, but such rumors don’t explain the bullet hole in his head, nor the power of the mirror, which strikes such fear in onlookers that they go mad or die on the spot. While George researches the case, Anthony contacts an unusual source and Lucy tries to discern if a skull in a jar ever speaks the truth. Action and adventure ensue as the trio infiltrates a museum, eavesdrops on a midnight auction, leaps from rooftops and crawls through crypts. Don’t miss it.

sisterhoodI bet Julie Berry had fun writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook Press, library e-book), even with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. I certainly chuckled my way through this madcap murder mystery set in a Victorian boarding school for girls. The seven students, from Dear Roberta to Dour Elinor, are shocked and dismayed when their skinflint headmistress and her no-good brother both drop dead at Sunday dinner. They’re not so worried about a killer on the loose as the prospect of the school being closed and the girls sent home. Then Smooth Kitty proposes a scheme whereby they’ll cover up the murders, bury the bodies in the garden and run the school themselves. One lie leads to another as nosy neighbors keep dropping by, and before long Stout Alice is impersonating the late headmistress while her classmates go sleuthing. So clever. Such fun.

witchboyThe title character in Kelly Barnhill’s coming-of-age fantasy The Witch’s Boy (Algonquin, review copy) is also known as Ned, “the wrong boy,” because his mother’s magic saved him from drowning with his twin brother, Tam, and then bound their two souls together. Ned believes Tam should have been the one who lived; he grows up awkward, shy and unsure himself. In a nearby kingdom, the girl Aine is also suffering from the choices her father — the Bandit King — has made. Ned and Aine’s lives are linked by an ancient prophecy — “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his” — as well as by her father’s scheme to steal his mother’s magic. Assertive Aine and quiet Ned make for unlikely friends as they begin a quest to discover the secret of nine stone giants and prevent a devastating war. Barnhill’s lyrical language and use of classic fairy tale elements gives her involving story a magic all its own.

 

 

 

 

 

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exchangeIn Max Barry’s inventive futuristic thriller Lexicon, which I raved about last summer, words are weapons. In Alena Graedon’s futuristic first novel The Word Exchange (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), words prove dangerous, too, even life-threatening. Make that civilization-as-we-know-it threatening. Print is pretty much dead in Graedon’s not-so-distant digital age. Libraries, bookstores, newspapers and magazines are obsolete because everyone communicates with “Memes,”  intuitive personal devices that make smart phones look prehistoric. Imagine Siri as a psychic Big Brother and wish-granting genie, and you have an idea of  Synchronic’s best-selling product. Can’t remember a word? Your Meme will supply it, or find you another one on the popular Word Exchange.

But not everyone is enchanted by this brave new technology. Lexicographer Doug Johnson is famously anti-Meme at he works to finish the last edition ever of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. His daughter Anana has been working with him, but when he disappears — leaving the one-word clue “Alice” — she follows him down the rabbit hole and discovers a dangerous realm of conspiracies and secret societies. And then the virulent “word flu” begins infecting people, causing a deadly aphasia.  “The end of words would mean the end of memory and thoughts,” warns a resistance group. “In other words, our past and future.”

Graedon alternates chapters between Ana’s narrative and her colleague Bart’s journal entries. The structure works mostly, but sometimes Graedon’s ambitious, clever world-building falters, and she resorts to digressive info dumps. Still, The Word Exchange is trippy, provocative — and what’s the word I’m looking for?  Oh, yes, “cautionary.”

lavenderLeslye Walton’s first YA novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick, digital galley) is a strange and beautiful fantasy, a family saga that reads like a fable, a coming-of-age tale melded with magical realism. Narrator Ava Lavender looks back from the present to her teenage years in the 1950s  in a lyrical prologue, but then views family history through the eyes of her grandmother Emilienne and mother Viviane.

Born in 1904 France, Emilienne travels to New York with her peculiar family, whose romantic travails lead her to marry baker Conner Lavender because he can take her far, far away. They eventually settle in an isolated house in Seattle, where their daughter Viviane suffers her own heartbreak. Enter Ava, born in 1944, with “a slight physical abnormality” — wings.

Ava grows up considering her speckled wings a useless bother and agrees with her mother’s decision to keep her and her twin Henry close to home. “It was safer for us there. Dangers lurk around every corner for the strange. And with my feathered appendages, Henry’s mute tongue, and my mother’s broken heart, what else were we but strange?” But as Ava grows older, she likes pretending to be normal, and with her friend Cardigan, ventures into the outside world. There will be consequences — for Ava, her family and household, the ghosts that live with them, and the assorted neighbors who have failed to understand that strange is also special.

snickerNatalie Lloyd’s first novel for middle-graders A Snicker of Magic (Scholastic, digital galley) reads like a favorite folktale, what with its colorful characters, mountain setting, dueling magicians, a long-ago curse, a plucky heroine and homespun tone. Because her mama has a wandering heart, 12-year-old Felicity Juniper Pickle, her little sister Frannie Jo and their  dog Biscuit have landed in Midnight Gulch, Tenn. Once upon a time, it was a magical place, and Felicity, who can see words spelled out in the air, still detects a shimmer of magic. Make that a snicker.

After making friends with schoolmate Jonah, meeting an eccentric ice cream tycoon, and learning the town’s history, Felicity just hopes that they can live with Aunt Cleo for a long, long time and make Midnight Gulch home for good. Even though she suffers from stage fright, she has entered the school’s talent show, the Duel, where words will be her weapon. But first she and Jonah want to see if they can reverse the town curse, bringing magic back to Midnight Gulch and all its residents, including her sad mama.

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