I’ll Give You the Sun

I picked this up, a finalist in the Cybils Realistic Fiction for Young Adults, even though I don’t do much realistic fiction these days, because I needed an audiobook right then, it was there, I’d just been talking up all the Cybils finalists to a room full of teens, and I remembered some of my blogging people really liking (or I thought I did – now I can’t remember or find who that might have been.) Since then, it’s gone on to win the Prinz award and is on the Michigan Thumbs Up! Top 10 (voting now open for Michigan teens to pick a winner from that list.)

I'll Give You the SunI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Performed by Julia Whelan and Jesse Bernstein. Brilliance Audio, 2014.
Jude (a girl) and Noah (a boy) are twins whose relationship seesaws between devotion and rivalry. Noah introduces us to them in middle school, when Jude is wearing short skirts, bright red lipstick, and unenthusiastic about their mother’s plan for them both to get into CSA, a local art high school with a national reputation. Noah is long-haired, not really popular in school, but open about his art and doing everything he can to get into CSA. The two are each other’s best friends.

The chapters alternate between Noah telling the story of middle school and Jude telling their story starting three years later, when everything has changed. Their mother is dead; Jude is at CSA wearing baggy clothes and keeping everyone shut out while Noah is at the public high school with short, short hair and pretending to be straight. Now Noah is the popular one, with crowds of people around him, and Jude is on her own. They are not talking to each other.

Neither Noah in the past nor Jude in the future knows exactly what happened to their relationship, and it’s the journey of the book to figure it out and try to put it back together again. Noah knows from the get-go that he’s gay, but isn’t sure that his father will accept it. His slow romance with the baseball-playing, astronomy-loving boy across the street was so beautiful it hurt.

In between the two narratives is a host of complicated things that the characters have to work through. Just where was their mother going on the day she died, and what put her in such a state that she drove off the road? There’s lots going on with the characters, both of them needing to get to know themselves and each other better, both working towards hard-earned romance. Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost appears rather frequently to give Jude not always welcome advice. The supporting characters are wonderful as well, including a slightly crazy English art model and the middle-aged sculptor Jude wants to be her mentor. I don’t want to spoil it by telling too much – but this was one where I kept finding myself wanting to drive a little farther just so I could find out what happened next, wondering how things would work out as I was falling asleep at night. Yes, there’s a lot of sadness, but also the effects of truth and lies, forgiveness and love.

As is only right for such a book, Noah and Jude have separate narrators. Jesse Bernstein is excellent as always at a young male voice, while Julia Whelan gives Jude an assured, lower-pitched voice that sounds just right. I have to agree with the PW review that her Spanish accent – wasn’t really quite – but otherwise, both performances were spot-on. This is the kind of audiobook that takes an already great story and makes it even better, bringing the characters to life and sucking the listener into their world. It’s one that pulled my heart right out, just hoping that everything would turn out for the characters.

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Top 10 Re-Read Fantasy Books from Childhood

Once again, I’m ignoring the long list of reviews waiting to be written in favor of an interesting Top 10 Tuesday.  It’s hosted as always by the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish, and I was sucked into it this time by the lovely list put together by Maureen at By Singing Light.Top Ten Tuesday

The topic as originally presented could include teen books, too, and I might interpret it to mean new favorites that I’ve already read – but that list would get out of hand….  As a child, I was much more cautious about the books I read.  I read and reread, with favorites from my home library and the public and school libraries that I’d read every year.  Here are a few of those – some I’ve re-read and even acquired since, some I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t.  I’m feeling more inspired to do so after writing this!

beautyBeauty by Robin McKinley – As previously told, I discovered this at the library (oddly, with the fairy tales, not the youth fiction), and checked out every year until I bought my own copy in college.

bookof3The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander – A wonderful introduction to epic fantasy, though the scary bits were much scarier for me than for my son at the same age.

darkisrisingThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and The Children of Greene Knowe by L.M. Boston  – both of these are British fantasy books for winter.  They scared me to nightmares as a child, both of them, yet I reread them nearly religiously.

enchanted-castle-oldThe Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit – An annual summer read, featuring a group of children, an old English house, and a magic ring. I really need to read this to my kids soon!

DragonsongDragonsong by Anne McCaffrey – we wore out multiple paperback copies of more than one of the Pern books, and used to keep back-up copies.

linnetsandvaleriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge – The blissful ignorance of childhood!  I read this numerous times from my school library, without ever noting the author’s name or realizing that she was an award-winning author with other books I could try to read.  I haven’t reread it since the eighth grade, and I really need to fix that.  I just read The Little White Horse for the first time, though!

parsleysageParsley Sage, Rosemary and Time by Jane Louise Curry – I got this from the library without fail at least once every summer.  I think that Jane Louise Curry must have been my introduction to time travel – this one involves a danger-filled trip back to Puritan America.

steelmagic_medSteel Magic by Andre Norton – another book from the elementary school library, which I fondly reread one last time before graduation, but never thought to ask my parents to buy for me, though we had many of her adult books.  Another one to realize existed outside of that library, and could still be looked up today.  It even has sequels!

wrinkle50thA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I loved this so much that I refused to read the sequels for a couple of years, sure they couldn’t be as good, and still come back to it.

Were any of these your favorites, too? What else would you add?

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2014 Cybils Graphic Novels for YA Finalists

There were six finalists this year in the Cybils Graphic Novels for Young Adults category. One of them I’d already read – Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang. Two of them I was unable to find through my local libraries; the other three are reviewed here. All of these had been on my radar, but In Real Life was the only one I was really thinking about reading before this list came out – the others had been coded as “probably great, but not my thing.” I read them anyway, and am glad for the stretch.

In Real LifeIn Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang. First Second, 2014.
Anda, teen programmer and gamer girl, is new in Arizona and not fitting in. Then, she receives a school-led invitation to join an all-girls’ guild on Coarsegold, a new MMRPG. Joy! Friends! Adventure! When her guild leader offers to hook her up paid work that she can do in the game, she’s all in. The work turns out to be killing gold farmers, low-level characters who mine gold in the game to sell for real money to other players. It feels like helping to root out cheating in the game, and Anda finds it great fun at first. Then she gets to know one of the gold farmers, who goes by Raymond. He’s a Chinese boy just a little older than she is, working long hours for low pay in the least dangerous job he can find. Anda wants to help him – but even that goes awry as what had been a simple black-and-white situation explodes into horrible shades of grey. This is a nicely told story of Anda noticing injustice in her world for the first time, and I really appreciated that she wasn’t allowed to be the white savior of helpless natives. Jen Wang’s art work felt somewhere between Western and manga style, and bridged the real and the virtual world very nicely. I enjoyed this one lots, and was happy to see it come away the winner.

Harlem HellfightersThe Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks. Illustrated by Caanan White. Broadway Books, 2104.
This is a stirring story based on the true experiences of the 369th Infantry Regiment in WWI, an all-Black unit that terrified the Germans, won medals in France, and came home the most decorated American unit abroad ever, all in the face of horrific prejudice. This was a story that drew me right in, told in a way that made me believe it could have been a movie. Caanan’s black-and-white art work told the story clearly, and I really appreciated the lack of color for keeping the focus on the story rather than the copious gore. I confess that I usually have a hard time keeping the characters straight in war movies (so many people of the same gender dressed and hair cut identically!), but White did a fabulous job of keeping everyone distinct. An important story, for sure, but also one that works well just as a story. It’s a little old for my son yet, but I could see him devouring this in a couple of years.

Through the WoodsThrough the Woods by Emily Carroll Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014.
Horror is really not my thing and only my resolution to read all of the finalists that I could induced me to pick up this book. I carefully read it on break at work, so as not to risk too many nightmares by reading it before bedtime at home, or where my kids could see the pictures. The tales have a timeless folk feeling and brought to mind the time I accidentally read some of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales at the dentist’s office. (I still don’t know what that book was doing on the shelf next to the coloring books.. The art is beautiful, in saturated colors with lots of contrast, the text woven through – a ghost’s song written in trails of blood is particularly vivid in my mind. There are mysteries, ghosts, murders. Everything ends badly and there is no hope. I’m still not a fan of horror, but highly recommend this for those who are!

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The Demon Catchers of Milan and The Halcyon Bird

I was lucky enough to win The Halcyon Bird from Charlotte at Charlotte’s Library (in a rare-for-her YA book giveaway), which naturally meant that I had to go back and read the first one from my library’s copy.

demoncatchersofmilanThe Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer. Egmont USA, 2012.
American teen Mia is unexpectedly possessed by a demon, involving terrifying yet seductive out-of-body experiences and freakish displays of strength, cruelty and mind-reading. The Church says they won’t help a Della Torre – so previously unknown relatives fly out from Italy to help with the exorcism. These include the grandfatherly Giuliano and handsome cousin Emilio – on whom Mia would be crushing were it not for the super-embarrassing way they met, with her in a puddle of her own urine due to the possession. But the possession has left her vulnerable, so she’s flown out to her family’s magical candle shop in Milan, where she starts to learn the family demon hunting trade. This involves a crash course in Italian, lots of history, and meditations on the Virgin – despite the family’s uneasy relationship with the church. Tension builds as Mia grows increasingly bored with staying inside, but feels the demon waiting for her whenever she ventures outside. There are unquiet ghosts and lots of noisy and food-loving relatives.

My short take on this is that it’s Buffy meets Farmer Boy with a hefty dose of Italian food love and close-knit but sparring family members taking the place of the Scooby gang. There are a lot of well-drawn characters with varying opinions on the family business and the best course for Mia to take, including two women who’ve made themselves part of the historically male side of things, one a model and one a lawyer with a Rwandan fiancé. And while Mia is thrown into a strange situation – she hadn’t known about her family’s historic business previously – she also sees quickly that she can’t just sit around doing as she’s told and waiting for things to happen. There is a hint of romance, even as Mia knows it’s inappropriate.

halcyonbirdThe Halcyon Bird by Kat Beyer. Egmont USA, 2014.
In this sequel, Mia has gained a lot of self-confidence and her own demon-catching kit. She’s a full member of the team doing lots of research to help them defeat a “demon of place” that’s threatening a client. As this project involves building a door to the spiritual side of the house, Mia also meets a handsome and single young carpenter, Bernardo. Romance ensues, though happily not the exclusion of other plot elements or thoughts in her head, despite the romantic cover. And always, though she’s learned better how to defend herself from it, she’s on the lookout for the demon which first possessed her in America and is still trying to get through to her. The demons are terrifying, and no one around her is safe (cue ominous music)… but this is a highly satisfactory book. The only sad note to this is that just as I was finishing it, word came out that Egmont, the publishing house is closing, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the third book in this series will be published!

Pair this with Buffy, of course, and perhaps also with Robin McKinley’s contemporary teen fantasy Shadows.

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Cybils Middle Grade Graphic Novel Finalists

I read four of the seven finalists in the 2014 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels category – the other three were not available through my libraries. Here’s a rundown of them:

eldeafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell. Amulet Books, 2014.
This graphic memoir about the author’s growing up deaf is one that I’d heard about when it first came out, but it was never on the shelf and I didn’t bother to put a hold on it until January, when it made the Cybils shortlist and also won a Newbery Honor award. It really is a wonderful book. Cece explores her feelings about her deafness and especially the bulky hearing aid she had to wear to school which proved to be both socially awkward and a hidden superpower. But even as the reader – hearing or deaf – gets a view into the difficulties posed by her deafness, it’s also filled with the funny and painful ordinary adventures of trying to make and keep friendships. The illustrations of people with bunny ears are deceptively simple, but deftly convey emotions. I’m reading it aloud to my daughter, whose hearing loss is mercifully much less severe – but it’s the first book I’ve found for her with a hearing-impaired protagonist. My ten-year-old also routinely sneaks into her bedroom to listen to me read it, and then makes off with it himself to continue reading, a sure sign of its powers. It’s mostly about Cece’s elementary school years, and clearly has appeal for kindergarten on up, though probably older elementary and up for independent reading. I’ll be buying this for our home library.

dumbestideaeverDumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. GRAPHIX, 2014
This memoir, also about school days, focuses on middle and high school, as Jimmy (the author of the very popular Amelia Rules books) relates the story of how he made his first, self-published comic book. It’s rooted in his Catholic school experience, as an illness that keeps him out of school for a long time both ignites his passion for comics and makes him disillusioned about staying ahead at school, as he’d always done. Basketball, comics, school, friendships and first dates weave together in this highly relatable story. I especially loved his presentation to a disapproving Sister on the importance of comics. Though it’s high school with dating, things never go beyond a kiss or two, keeping the content appropriate for middle grade kids and up. The title comes from Jimmy’s response to his best friend Tony’s suggestion that rather than writing a comic mash-up of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, he write about their own life. Though memoir for kids has the potential to be too adult and therefore boring to kids, this reads more like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile with just enough perspective for honesty while still keeping that kid’s sensibility. It is funny and true, and my boy and I both zipped through it with enjoyment.

hiddenHidden by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo. English translation by Alexis Siegel. First Second, 2014.
This one won a Sydney Taylor award for Jewish literature from the ALA as well as being on the Cybils shortlist. It tells the story, fictionalized from true accounts, of Dounia, a young Jewish child in Paris during the Nazi occupation. It’s told through a frame story of Dounia as a grandmother telling it to her grandchild. As with the previous book, it’s easy to make a story about a child too adult for a child simply by telling it from an adult perspective, but Dounia’s perspective in the book is still limited to her knowledge as a child, with the frame story mostly serving as reassurance that she’s going to make it out OK. Dounia’s father first tells her that the yellow stars they have to wear are sheriff’s stars, and it’s only when she and the other Jewish children in school are mocked by their teachers that she realizes that it means something else entirely. Things go from bad to worse until the day she has to hide in a cupboard as her parents are taken away and wait for the neighbors to rescue her. Eventually, they have to flee Paris and Dounia gets new pretend parents, who work as hard as they can to find out where her real ones are. The story never gets into what really has happened to them, though it’s dreadfully obvious to anyone who knows about the Nazis. This is as sensitive a treatment of the topic as you can get, but I still didn’t find myself wanting to bring it home to my son. As much as he loves reading about military history, concentration camps are quite different, and I don’t think he’d be able to read the book without having more questions. The large-headed characters in the art add to the childlike feeling of the whole piece, so that another librarian and I were discussing if that would make it unappealing to the middle school students who might otherwise be the right age for starting to learn about the Holocaust. Still, this a good introduction for children just old enough to learn about this difficult and important topic.

balladBallad by Blexbolex. Translated by Claudia Z. Bedrick. Enchanted Lion Books, 2013.
A short paragraph tells the story of two children coming home from school, followed by a page with just one word for each of the major events in the story. The story is retold again and again, getting longer and more fantastical every time as bandits, a queen, a witch and more are involved in the adventure. The illustrations are bright screen-printed images with a decidedly retro look, and the adventure is exciting if a little hard to follow exactly because of the very short descriptions and single-page illustrations rather than panels. This is a really neat concept piece, and I enjoyed both the illustrations and the story, which never clarifies whether the adventure is really happening or all in the mind of the school children. The biggest drawback is that the text is all in a round cursive script, so that when I took it home for my son to read, he just couldn’t decipher it.

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The Storyteller and Her Sisters

It was 2011 when my good friend Dr. M. and I discovered that we had both come home from the library with different novel-length retellings of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and started trading titles. I’ve kept reading any of these that come out as I’ve found them, including last year’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. So I was delighted when my blogging friend Cheryl at Tales of the Marvelous offered me a review copy of her self-published novel-length retelling of that very story, which as a bonus is a companion to The Wanderers, which I also enjoyed.

storytellerThe Storyteller and Her Sisters by Cheryl Mahoney. Stonehenge Circle Press, 2014.
Alyra and her eleven sisters have names that all start with the letter “a” – Alyra, Avira, Amina, Atalya, and so on. Inside their private chambers, they drop the “A” and go by Lyra, Vira, Mina, Talya and so on. Outside, they dress identically and keep their names as similar as possible so that no one, including their father, can tell them apart. Because the secret under the castle has so warped their father’s mind that he will do anything to them to make it his own. Once, he followed their mother under the castle to the locked gates and saw the forest of gold and silver trees. Now all he wants is to make that wealth his own, and he will not let his daughters leave the castle until they give it to him. But they have their own reasons for resisting him…

The two big challenges in any “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling are giving the princesses a reason for their dancing – convincingly accomplished here – and handling such a large cast of characters. Mahoney deals with this second both by talking about the princesses’ efforts to blend together and by picking a handful of them to focus on. Lyra, our narrator, is the one we first met from an outside point of view in The Wanderers. She’s a storyteller, and fills the narrative with the traditional stories she adapts herself as well the larger narrative. The interfering would-be good fairy from The Wanderers also makes her appearance here in copious showers of sticky glitter, helping to lighten what could have been a grim narrative.

Indeed, even though this is a book with an abusive father about traveling to dark, cursed caverns, The Storyteller and Her Sisters maintains an overall light tone. It feels like a lovely, straightforward fairytale retelling, even as it slips in welcome if nontraditional themes of escaping from abuse and Lyra’s own particular desire to find out who she is without her sisters or her prince. In short, it is delightful. I very much look forward to reading what Mahoney writes next.

Read my interview with Cheryl about this book.

Other “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retellings:
The Princess Curse
Princess of the Midnight Ball
The Thirteenth Princess
Wildwood Dancing
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

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State of the Book Basket, March

It’s another Sunday at the library, so I thought I’d share with you what we’re all reading right now.  I just returned a bunch of books yesterday, bringing my personal number of library books checked out to under 50 – but I’m guessing with the ones my love has out, and most especially the piles of books my daughter delights in bringing home from the school library, that we’re still well over 50 total library books in the house right now.

Cybils Finalists

handlewithcareThe numbers have gone down as I’ve read and returned them… these are the ones still out and in the general book basket rather than being read by anybody specific.

  • Handle with care : an unusual butterfly journey by Loree Griffin Burns – read to my daughter, who enjoyed it.
  • Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko and Melissa Sweet – shared with my son’s former teacher, who’s always on the look-out for non-rhyming poetry to share with her students
  • Water Rolls, Water Rises by Pat Mora and Meilo So – another poetry finalist, which my daughter listened to and enjoyed despite a professed hatred of poetry (and I really don’t know where that came from!)

Daughter’s Books

  • eldeafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell is the Cybils MG Graphic Novel winner and Newbery Honor Book, which I’m reading aloud to my daughter.  She’s loving it, and my son was also sneaking in to listen and then continuing on his own, a sure sign of a great book.
  • Barbie and the Secret Door: Magic Friends by Chelsea Eberly. This is not what I’d call a great book, but it demonstrates what I often tell parents: interest trumps reading level. The girl is reading this book aloud nearly perfectly, though it’s a year or two past what she’s able to read in school.
  • Sleeping Beauty by Mahlon F. Craft – because the three or four versions we have at home already were no longer enough.
  • magicfriendsThe last king of Angkor Wat by Graeme Base – picked by my colleague as emergency reading when my daughter was in the ER a few weeks ago.
  • The princess gown by Linda Leopold Strauss – ditto, and one of her favorite books.  We loved it!
  • Stars by Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee – guility, I’ve forgotten which book blogger was sharing favorite Marla Frazee books a while back – but I was inspired to put this on hold, and it just came in. Just lovely!
  • The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPre – a 2015 Caldecott honor book.  The girl is crazy excited about this book, looking at it by herself, wanting it read aloud, and making her teacher read it aloud to the class.
  • Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo – also a 2015 Caldecott honor book.  It’s a great story of an active grandmother, but more of a toddler/preschool book.
  • The adventures of Beekle : the unimaginary friend by Dan Santat – Hooray!  We loved this one, and it’s also been shared widely.
  • Eve of the Emperor penguin by Mary Pope Osborne – in print, to go along with the audio books for the car.
  • Magic Tree House Books 36-41 by Mary Pope Osborne (three audio cd sets) – now that we finished Ivy & Bean, the girl has asked to go back to Magic Tree House.

Son’s Books

  • smekforpresidentSmek for President by Adam Rex is our current read-aloud, and one I purchased because we loved The True Meaning of Smekday so much.  Will we be able to finish it before Jinx’s Fire comes out on the 24th???
  • Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry – reading to himself, from the copy we got him for Christmas
  • The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley – a Cybils MG Graphic Novel finalist, which I read first and passed on to him.  It’s inspiring him to create his own comics – yay!
  • The Burning Bridge by John Flanagan – for his school DEAR time.
  • The life and times of Genghis Khan by Jim Whiting and Genghis Khan by Judy Humphrey, for a school biography project – he was so excited he dropped what he was doing and sat down to look through these when I brought them home for him, his school library not having anything on the topic.
  • The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi (audio cd) – starting a new series, as we couldn’t get the next book in any of the series we were listening to.

My books
Currently reading

  • strangerStranger by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown – because so many of my blogger peeps loved it.  It’s fantastic so far!
  • The little white horse by Elizabeth Goudge – a classic.  Somehow I’d only read her non-award-winning book, Linnets and Valerians.
  • Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus (e-ARC via Netgalley)
  • Lirael by Garth Nix (audio cd) – continuing my re-read of the series, sparked by listening to Clariel
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (e-audio) – ditto, except I was starting at the beginning and found the libraries just didn’t have the complete series

Finished but still have

  • Brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – this book is covered in awards, and I’m so glad I finally read it.  It is just beautiful!
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – winner of the 2015 Newbery. Had Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile not raved about this one, I might have put off reading it longer – crisis averted! It is amazing. I brought both this and Brown Girl Dreaming in for my son’s teachers to peek at.

Waiting to Read

  • spiderringWhile We Run by Karen Healy – this and the next are more Cybils Teen Spec Fic finalists.  I had to take Winner’s Curse back and put my name back on the list for it. Sad face.
  • Noggin by John Corey Whaley
  • Fairest by Marissa Meyer – I’m not sure I’ll love this as much as the other Lunar Chronicles – but I still hope I can get to it before it comes due!
  • The Spider Ring by Andrew Harwell – and as if I didn’t have enough on my plate as it is, I read this moving blog post by the author in response to Shannon Hale, saying how he was the boy sneaking “girl books” out of the library and hoping he wouldn’t get caught.  Naturally, when I saw his book was checked in, I had to take it home.


Probably not general interest – but hey, I’m going to be teaching a one-hour class on the music of the 13th century next month, and these are some of my research books.  Fun times!

  • Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music edited by Mark Everist
  • French Motets in the 13th Century by Mark Everist
  • History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout
  • Concerning Measured Music by Johannes de Garlandia

What are you reading?

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Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn

The Cybils panel was already feeling like distant and much-missed history when I read this nominated book. I read it anyway because a) it was nominated by Karen of Ms. Yingling Reads, whom I very much respect; b) there is visible diversity on the cover (and further research revealed that the author is Japanese-American as well); and c) the publisher was kind enough to send it to me to read. It’s now in both the library where I work and my kids’ school library.

Little Green Men at the Mercury InnLittle Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith. Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
Twelve-year-old Aidan lives and works at his family’s old hotel, the Mercury Inn at Cocoa Beach, Florida. It’s not the fanciest of places, but with a vintage feel and a good view of the shuttle launches, it has steady business. His best friend, Louis, lost a leg in a car accident that he swears happens because of a UFO. Aidan, Louis, and mystery guest Dru Tanaka are all watching when a planned shuttle launch is scrubbed due to something that looks a lot like another alien ship. Soon the three kids – and crotchety old hotel guest Mrs. Fleance – are caught up in a mystery adventure that involves hiding things in the giant hotel freezer and Aidan retrieving poolside tables and chairs from the bottom of the pool every morning. Aidan’s parents, while certainly present in his life, are just too busy to note what’s going on.

This is approachable sci-fi with relatable characters, fast-moving adventure, a pleasingly twisty plot and lots of humor. The diversity shown on the cover works well, too, being necessary for the plot without overwhelming the characters. At 214 pages, it’s a great length for kids just moving up to middle grade books or reluctant readers. Those who want their science fiction Epic or including off-world journeys might be disappointed – but for the kid who likes almost realistic fiction with lots of humor, this is just the thing.

Here are other silly adventures involving aliens I’ve reviewed:
Astronaut Academy by Dave Roman
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
What We Found in the Sofa and How It Changed the World by Henry Clark
Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke

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I read the whole Old Kingdom series when it first came out, long enough ago that I’ve never reviewed them for my blog, though I’ve recommended them and loaned them out many times since. I was very excited when Clariel came out last fall – except I couldn’t read it just then.

clarielClariel by Garth Nix. Read by Graeme Malcolm. Random House/Listening Library, 2014.
This story is set about 600 years before the events of the previous three books, before the great decline of the Old Kingdom. As with the other books, the story opens as a dangerous creature escapes from its bindings and sets off on a mission of destruction before introducing us to our heroine.

Clariel is a member of the Abhorsen family, though she hasn’t grown up with them. Her mother, Jaciel, is a master goldsmith, recently invited to leave their home at the edge of the Great Forest to join the Guild in the capital city of Belisaire. Clariel is expected to go to a finishing school for the older children of the well-to-do, in preparation for finding a nice city career or preferably a husband.

Clariel wants nothing to do with any of this. Her dream since childhood has been to live and work in the Great Forest, and she’s tried relationships and just isn’t interested. She also knows that stressful situations increase her chances of losing control of the anger that’s always simmering inside her, and nothing is more stressful than a big city where there are no trees and she’s never alone. Though she tells everyone that she needs to be in the forest, including her parents and her advisors at the finishing school, they are all full of reasons why she can’t, including her social status and her help being needed to fight the dangerous free magic creature now loose in the city.

Clariel is in some ways very similar to both Sabriel and Lirael. Garth Nix is master of the introverted character, and Clariel is no exception. Like Sabriel and Lirael, Clariel is faced with challenges that she is uniquely able to face, even though she doesn’t quite have all the training that would really be useful. Each book also focuses on a different aspect of the magic of the Old Kingdom – the bells of the necromancer in Sabriel, Charter magic in Lirael and now free magic. (I’m now re-listening to the rest of series, and haven’t yet gotten to Abhorsen.) But though Clariel is a similarly likeable talented but socially awkward young woman, things do not go well for her. This is, as my blogging friend Sondy at Sonderbooks also pointed out, a very sad book. It would be a spoiler, as things don’t start off looking like they’re going that way, except that it’s right there on the cover “A passion thwarted will often go astray…” And as Clariel knows what she needs and is quite articulate about it, it’s heartbreaking.

I don’t know that I’d say not to read it, especially for fans of the series. It is really interesting to see the Old Kingdom before its fall, not quite in its prime but certainly vibrant, to see another Abhorsen, and to meet up with Mogget, the free magic cat servant from Sabriel – but while the Old Kingdom is always dark and dangerous, this entry in the series is even darker. The hallmarks of the series are still here – the strong characters (more than just Clariel here, though I’ve only talked about her), the compelling plot, the detailed world with its intricate magic system – but with the edge of hope taken away, it was a lot harder for me to get through. I’ll still read anything Garth Nix cares to write about the Old Kingdom, and I’m very much enjoying my trip back re-reading the rest of the series.

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House of Sand and Secrets

The book that made it to two of my Top 10 Lists in the past year – both 2014 Releases I Didn’t Get To and Books I Want to Read But Don’t Own Yet. It’s the sequel to When the Sea Is Rising Red, which I very much enjoyed. Thank you to my brother-in-law for getting it for me for Christmas! Warning: spoilers for the first book are inevitable.

House of Sand and SecretsHouse of Sand and Secrets by Cat Hellisen. Folded Wherry Press, 2014.
Hellisen must not believe in straight-up happy endings… because what looked like hard-won peace and tentative love at the end of When the Sea Is Rising Red has turned to mistrust and small acts of cruelty by the beginning of this book. Felicita married Jannik, a young vampire who wooed her with poetry, and they ran away from the chaos of Pelimburg. Felicita has claimed her rank in the city of MallenIve – but gaining a toehold in high society is both difficult and necessary. Vampire-human relationships weren’t socially acceptable in their home city of Pelimburg, but vampires were at least regarded as full members of society. In MallenIve, they are regarded as suitable only for slavery. Besides the strain created by their difference in rank, they are haunted in the not-literal sense by the ghost of the lover they shared. Did they really ever love each other? Magic for the high-class humans is literally a drug, addicting even as it activates their latent powers, and Felicita has gone cold turkey. The withdrawal symptoms put her on edge and are especially difficult when she’s around the other high-class ladies all using publicly.

On top of these nebulous relationship issues is a pressing outside concern: increasing numbers of vampires found murdered. The numbers of those who care about this are few indeed, and Felicita and Jannik will have to find some way to convince someone – anyone – to work with them before they get completely out of hand. The book is filled with mystery, politics, magic, art, and people repressed by society. Though there’s a lot going on, it’s an introspective story, and we spend a lot of time in Felicita’s head as she tries to figure out who she is and her relationship with Jannik, enough that those who prefer plot-focused books might feel bogged down.  The focus on the post-marriage relationship makes it feel a little more adult, though the content isn’t really more than other teen books and the characters are still in their teens. It is dark and gorgeous and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I’d read When the Sea Is Rising Red first if you haven’t. This might also pair well with Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver and Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, though neither of these have the Victorian historical feel of this one. The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney also has some of the same dark paranormal mystery/romance in a historical setting.  And of course, I still need to read Hellisen’s latest book, Beastkeeper, a middle grade Beauty and the Beast retelling

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