The Shadow Cipher. York Book 1 by Laura Ruby

The Shadow Cipher. York Book 1 by Laura RubyThe Shadow Cipher. York Book 1 by Laura Ruby. Walden Pond Press, 2017.
Over a hundred years ago, the two Morningstarr siblings created York as the jewel of America.  Tall, glittering buildings with elevators that go all different directions, subways with cars that are cleaned by mechanical bugs.  After they died, they left everything to their servant Ava Oneal, about whom mystery swirled – possibly escaped slave, definitely heiress and martial arts expert, and who then vanished.  But besides their fabulous architecture, the Morningstarrs left another gift to the people of York – the Old York Cipher, a puzzle and presumably treasure hunt.

In the present day, the Cipher is still unsolved, and most think it never will be. We meet five children all living in a beautiful Morningstarr apartment building, which as the story opens has been bought by developers who want to demolish it.  Twins Tess and Theo were named after the Morningstarrs by their grandfather, who dedicated his life to the Cipher, though he’s recently had memory problems severe enough to need to move to a home.  Jaime lives with his grandmother, the building caretaker, whose native language is Spanish but who is also fluent in several others.  (While naturally the kids tried to keep her out of the loop of their more dangerous adventures, I would have liked to see more of her!) All three of them are twelve, and know each other slightly from school.  But they come together as they decide that the building needs to be saved.  That quest will take them all over the city.  Meanwhile, keeping guard over happenings in the building from her tricycle is six-year-old Cricket, who just might hold the key to everything.

This is both puzzle and adventure, though the adventure takes center stage for much of the book.  The characters are well-drawn even with the largish cast, and diverse, as the twins are Jewish, Jaime Latinix, and Cricket bronze-skinned with black hair.  The world-building that peeps out is fantastic, including hints of an America that perhaps didn’t treat the Native population as horrifically as ours has.  It is also undeniably long – at 476 pages, it’s over 100 pages longer than Ruby’s last teen book, Bone Gap, (which I also loved, though it is very different.)  Even at that, the ending is rather a cliffhanger, so I must advise readers who like to have all books in hand before starting a series to wait.  I’m personally hoping for it to come out on audio, as I think my son would enjoy it very much.  It should work well for kids who enjoyed books like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

This book has been nominated for a Cybils award.  These opinions are my own, and do not reflect that of the committee.

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Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

My blogging friend Maureen at By Singing Light, like myself, is a fan of a well-retold Tam Lin story – so when she got excited about this story, I paid attention.  A column by the author on John Scalzi’s blog didn’t hurt my interest, either.

Roses and Rot by Kat HowardRoses and Rot by Kat Howard. Saga, 2016.
In modern-day America, two sisters trying to make it in different artistic paths are both excited and nervous at the chance to spend a year in the famous New England artist’s colony of Melete.  The idea to apply together came from the younger, blond sister, Marin, a ballerina.  The story is narrated by dark-haired Imogen, a writer.  Melete usually kicks its residents off to long-term success, but how and why?  Just as important to both sisters is escaping from their abusive mother, who finds ways to torture them even as they are adults no longer living at home.

But Melete has secrets, too – most notably that the success of its artists comes at a high and supernatural cost.  Only one of the artists will be chosen to pay the price and reap its reward.  And now Imogen has to decide whether trying to help her sister get the chance at success she wants or trying to keep her safe is the truest love – while figuring out what she wants herself.  Variations of these choices and their consequences are played out in the side characters.  All of this comes together in a story that is dark, real and much more ethically nuanced than fairy tales usually are, without sacrificing the feel and the power of magic.

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Diverse Reading Round-up Fall 2017

It looks like I missed the last couple of my planned diverse reading round-ups – the last one I could find was my March and April Diverse Reading.  Here’s what I’ve read since then, with links to reviews if I’ve written them:

#OwnVoices Authors

  • When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (teen fantasy)
  • Funny Girl by Betsy Bird (middle grade short stories)
  • Flying Lessons by Ellen Oh, Ed. (middle grade short stories)
  • Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (middle grade fantasy)
  • Five, Six, Seven, Nate! By Tim Federle (middle grade realistic)
  • The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (middle grade realistic)
  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (adult sci-fi)
  • Ghost Girl in the Corner by Daniel Jose Older (teen fantasy)
  • Want by Cindy Pon (teen sci-fi)
  • A Wish after Midnight by Zetta Elliott (teen fantasy)
  • The Door at the Crossroads by Zetta Elliott (teen fantasy)
  • When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (teen realistic)
  • Midnight without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (middle grade historical)
  • In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall (middle grade realistic)
  • A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander (middle grade fantasy)
  • The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim (middle grade fantasy)
  • The Mesmerist by Ronald L. Smith (middle grade fantasy)

White/Straight Authors, Diverse Characters

  • Shadow Cipher. York #1. By Laura Ruby (middle grade fantasy)
  • Journey across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst (middle grade fantasy)
  • Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson (middle grade sci-fi)
  • Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker (middle grade sci-fi)

Hopefully the huge round-up is not too overwhelming.  Even so, I don’t think I’m quite meeting my goal of 5 diverse authors a month.  I’d love to hear about your diverse reading, too!

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Ninefox Gambit

A quick review of some twisty military sci-fi for adults, before Cybils middle grade spec fic takes over the blog as it has already, of course, taken over my reading. (Have you nominated yet?  There are still a couple of days!  I want more books to read!)

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha LeeNinefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Solaris, 2016.
Before I even started this book, I heard Renay and Ana discussing it on Fangirl Happy Hour.  Renay had said that she worried when she started the book that she wouldn’t be smart enough for it, but that it turned out to be ok once she got into it.  I kept this in mind as I started it, as I often feel like my brain is just too full to deal with really complex adult books.  And it’s true – the introduction is intimidating, but once the flood of ideas of the initial chapters is past, this is fascinating military science fiction, with a strong focus on the characters involved.

Kel Cheris is a soldier in the Hexarchate, which uses a calendar with the power to impose order on the universe when used correctly.  The warrior class, which Cheris is part of, as signified by the “Kel” in front of her name, is implanted with a formation instinct, making it easy for them to work together.  But they are up against a very strong enemy, so heretical that the calendar doesn’t work the way it should.  The only solution they can come up with is to implant Cheris with the consciousness of millennia-old General Shuos Jedao, the only undefeated general in the long history of the Hexarchate.  The hitch – he’s insane, and his final move before he was immobilized and preserved was to slaughter two armies, including his own.  Cheris, with a strong mathematical bent unusual with her military training, has a mind that will both complement Jedao’s, and hopefully be strong enough to resist going insane herself. The stakes build quickly and the tension stays high all through this tightly written novel.  The sequel, The Raven Strategem, is already out (because I am really slow about getting to adult books even when they sound really good). If you enjoy books like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, this is an obvious choice.

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Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior by Nnedi OkoraforAkata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. Viking, 2017.
At last, a long-awaited sequel to Akata Witch, complete with new covers for both books.  It’s been just a year in book time since Sunny Nwazue and her three juju-learning Leopard team mates defeated the evil Black Hat. (Leopard and Lamb here being the Nigerian equivalent of wizard and muggle.)  Now, all of them are furthering their studies.  Sunny is working hard to decode the magical picture language of Nsibisi, while trying to cover up her exhaustion from midnight magic classes after a full day of regular classes (no magical boarding school for these students.)  Sunny’s friendship with Orlu is slowly deepening into something more, while Chichi and Sasha have a relationship that’s both openly romantic and openly fighting.  When Sunny’s big brother goes off to college with a great deal of fanfare, it turns into something much more sinister, something his little sister will have to rescue him from… The action ratchets up throughout the book, and Sunny will have to know herself better than she ever has before to have any hope of succeeding.

“Juju cartwheels between these pages like dust in a sandstorm”

is a quote about the book Sunny is learning from that’s equally applicable to the book itself.  Okorafor has a knack of putting simple words together into a story that feels utterly matter-of-fact and utterly magical at the same time.  I don’t know how she does it.  I bought the new paperback of Akata Witch for my son to read, partly because he is addicted to epic fantasy, partly because he was doing a summer reading challenge trying to read a book set on this continent and middle grade fantasy set in Africa is pretty sparse on the ground here.  But I wanted him to read this even without that, because all magical kids here have their powers through something that’s viewed negatively by the outside world – Sunny being albino, and one of the boys through being dyslexic, like my son.  (It is ironic, given that, that the books aren’t available on audio, which would have made it much easier for him to read!) The books are perfect for middle school and up, with a fair amount of violence and minimal romance.  Don’t miss Nnedi Okorafor’s other books, including Zahrah the Windseeker Bintiand Binti: Home

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A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman

The last time I wrote about an eligible, not-yet-nominated Cybils book, it was nominated before I posted my review.  Will the same thing work again? (Cybils nominations close October 15, if you haven’t yet nominated!)

A Crack in the Sea by H. M. BouwmanA Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman. Read by Bahni Turpin. Putnam, 2017.
Orphaned siblings Kinchen (about 12) and her younger brother Pip live on an island in the Second World, cared for by a grandfatherly man with rare pale skin.  Kinchen has always worked very hard to protect Pip from others – he communicates well with fish and can breathe underwater, but (like Finn in Bone Gap) can’t distinguish between human faces.  But when the King of Raft World learns about Finn’s ability, he decides that he needs Pip’s abilities, whether or not he has permission to take Pip.  One of the many storylines in the book follows Pip and Kinchen’s separate stories, with Pip learning what it is the Raft King wants as well as learning how to deal with people on his own, and Kinchen trying to find a way to get Pip back.

But we also learn the story of the discoverers of the Second World, Venus and Swimmer, 18th century Africans from our world who were thrown off the (very real) slave ship Zong and found their way through a crack in the ocean to a small but safe tropical world.

Another storyline follows Tan, a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy and his older sister Sang in 1978 as they try to escape the oppressive conditions in a tiny fishing boat.  Things are very precarious between the rough seas and the pirates looking to prey on them and other similar refugees.  Will they find their way to safety?

All speculative fiction asks questions about the world.  Here, underlying the happiness of an escape route for people in horrible situations is the sad knowledge that there was no such refuge for the people who really lived them.  At the same time, the author asks, explicitly in an afterward,”Why can’t we welcome everyone in such dire straits with love?” It could have been too preachy, but I still believed in the characters here, cared about their fates, and the Second World and the magical abilities were fanciful and inventive enough to keep the book appropriate for at least an older middle grade audience.

The audiobook is ably read by the multi-talented Bahni Turpin, here with a variety of African and Vietnamese accents over and beyond her already demonstrated ability with African-American voices.  My own twelve-year-old and I both listened to and enjoyed this book very much, and it’s one that my thoughts have kept returning to since I read it.

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The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart


The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Does it get much better than dragons and chocolate?

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Aventurine is a young dragon bored of staying in the caves.  Young dragons are expected to stay in their caves until their scales harden, spending their time on deepening their studies and hobbies.  “It’s safer not to talk to your food” is what her grandfather always said, part of the deeply entrenched prejudice against humans. But Aventurine wants to see the world.  She sneaks out, only to run into a food mage, who makes an irresistible-smelling drink for her.  It turns out to be enchanted hot chocolate. Before she knows what has happened, she’s been turned into a small, pale, squishy human herself – with a burning desire for more chocolate.

As she makes her way down the mountain into the Austrian-inspired city, it soon becomes clear that she’s massively unprepared for life as a human.  There are those who’d like to exploit, many chocolatiers who don’t want to hire her – and one friendly, city-wandering, Afro-wearing girl named Silke who takes it upon herself to help Aventurine find the clothes she needs and the job she wants.  Aventurine is able at last to find a job at the small, struggling chocolate shop called the Chocolate Heart.  But will her new knowledge of chocolate help when her family comes looking for her?

I loved Aventurine so very much, including her prickliness, her dedication to her passion, and her difficulty in learning when to try to fit in with humans and when to just be her dragon self, which showed up in small things like her preferences for colors that humans considered garish and in larger things like dealing with relationships.  The world building is also solid, recognizably European, but without the cross-cultural migration whitewashed out of the story.  There are lots of characters of color here, from mixed-race princesses to the owner and chef at the Chocolate Heart, and Silke, who will star in the next book in this world, The Girl with the Dragon Heart.  I can’t wait to read it!  I’m also looking forward to reading Katie O’Neill’s upcoming Tea Dragon Society graphic novel.  And though I read this book from the library, I’m feeling a need for my own copy, for easier reading aloud to offspring.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my own personal opinion, not that of the committee.

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It’s Cybils Nominating Time!

It’s Cybils nominations season!  Once again, I’m very excited to be a round 1 panelist in the fabulous (literally) Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category (click through for a full category description).  We need your help!  You, yes you, can nominate one book in each of the Cybils categories – please read how to nominate if you haven’t done so before or need a refresher.  If a book isn’t nominated, it can’t be judged.

Cybils Awards 2017

I want the long list to be a really long list full of great titles, because we all know that more than seven great books (the usual length of the short lists) are published in each category every year!  I can only nominate one book in each category myself, and I am (figuratively) biting my nails as I have more than one personal favorite in many categories that haven’t yet been nominated.  Will someone else have loved one or more of them enough that we can spread the love around and get them all nominated?  And what about the many great books I haven’t yet read or heard of?  Will they get their chance to shine? Only time will tell!

Nominations close for the general public on October 15.  After that, authors and publishers will have another two weeks to nominate their own books.

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Two Family Adventures: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher and the Lotterys Plus One

Here are two stories of the classic family adventure type, but featuring same-sex parents. Both of them also have families formed by adoption, so adopted kids with many kinds of parents could see themselves reflected in these books.

Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison LevyMisadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy. Delacorte Press, 2014.
Dad, a high school teacher, and Papa, a work-at-home inventor, have a crew of four adopted boys, each with their own interests and challenges.  Twelve-year-old Sam is interested in soccer and his phone.  Ten-year-old Jax is struggling with a school assignment to interview a veteran, while his best friend Henry is being pulled away from him by new and annoying interests in girls and fashion.  Eli, also ten, has decided that he wants more academic challenge and has finally gotten his wish of attending an expensive private school.  Frog, age 6, has started kindergarten and comes home talking about a friend, Ladybug, who has two moms.  But is Ladybug real or more like his invisible cheetah?  All these boys plus a couple of dogs adds up to one lively family – but grouchy Mr. Nelson next door is determined to keep everything quiet.  Can they find a way to be themselves and good neighbors? The adventures of the Family Fletcher continue in The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, while that “imaginary” two-mom family stars in This Would Make a Good Story Someday.

The Lotterys Plus OneLotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue. Read by  Thérèse Plummer. Arthur A. Levine, 2017.
This one is especially exciting to me because my kids have many, many classmates with two moms and none with two dads – but until now, the few children’s books with same-sex parents have been mostly about two-dad families. Long ago, two committed men and two committed women won the lottery, bought a very large house in Toronto, which they named Camelottery.  Over the course of several years, PopCorn and PapaDum, CardaMom and Maximum adopted seven children together.  It’s a loving, quirky family, committed to experiential learning and making the world a better place.  We see it all through the eyes of 9-year-old Sumac Lottery.  Life is running in the sort of happy chaos that one would expect from such a situation, when PopCorn’s estranged father, Grumps, suddenly needs to move in with them.  No one is happy with the situation – not Grumps, and not Sumac, who has to give up her beloved bedroom so that Grumps can sleep on the main floor.  All the characters have multiple aspects – different ethnic backgrounds, mental issues, and interests. Some on-line reviewers found this excessively PC but I found it a refreshing break from fictional characters who are allowed no more than one or two variations from the theoretical blank of white male.  My biggest problem was that the four-year-old, who announced over a year ago that his name was now Brian and not Briar and gets angry when called a girl, was consistently referred to as “she”.  This made me twitch every time it came up in the audiobook, though an adult reading it aloud could easily edit on the fly.  This is an exuberant, present-tense story where the many individual quirks and quests tie into a moving whole.

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Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever.

Funny Girl by Betsy BirdFunny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever. Edited by Betsy Bird. Viking, 2017.
It was the author list and associated cartoons on Betsy Bird’s blog, a Fuse #8 Production, that first drew me to this book (I can no longer find the cartoons, though they were hilarious.  But you can read Betsy’s initial announcement of the book ) There are lots of authors I’ve read and enjoyed for comedy, and a very diverse selection of authors I was less familiar with, including Raina Telgemeier, Shannon Hale, Ursula Vernon, Cece Bell, Lenore Look, Carmen Agra Deedy, Akilah Hughes, Rita Williams-Garcia and Michelle Garcia, Mitali Perkins, Christine Mari Unzer.  I don’t really like writing one-sentence summaries of lots of different stories.  This made my Top 10 Books from the First Half of 2017 list because so many of them were funny enough that I read them aloud, some more than once (“One Hot Mess” by Carmen Agra Deedy, I’m looking at you.)  Some of them are appropriate for younger children, while others, touching on periods or bikini mishaps, seem a better fit for middle school and up.  Both my son and daughter enjoyed reading this, both listening and reading to themselves.  I could see this working well in a classroom setting, keeping students happily entertained without the commitment of a full novel.  There is deeper philosophy behind this, about why it is that boys are assumed to be funnier than girls – but maybe just listening to these stories could keep that prejudice from ever taking root in children.

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