Last Day on Mars

It’s time to pay a visit to Mars with this exciting Cybils-nominated science fiction title.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin EmersonLast Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. Harper Collins Children’s, 2017.
As the story opens, a beautiful blue alien scientist sets up an observatory on Mars, with some fond thoughts about humans, and then is murdered.

Much later, former residents of Earth have established a colony on Mars as a stepping stone to leaving the solar system.  The sun is expanding to the point where life on Earth is no longer possible, and very soon now, it will take over Mars as well.

Our guide to this is Liam, a twelve-year-old who was raised on Mars.  (His parents have told him he has ancestors from four different continents on Earth, but he doesn’t see why this is such a big deal as he considers himself Martian.) Departure is scheduled for just days away, and he and his friends Phoebe and Shawn are having a hard time seeing the need to cooperate with school in the meantime.  Their parents are all scientists working on critical terra-forming for the eventual home planet, racing against time as the sun gets larger and the need to leave grows ever more urgent.

Liam’s teen-aged sister Mina is set to board the big colony ship a day or so ahead of Liam.  She gives him – just temporarily until they’re together again and she can give it to her boyfriend – a radio signal necklace that pairs with one that she has.  This turns out to be critically important as the stakes get higher, with lava tunnels exploding just for a start.  There are daring chase scenes, dastardly villains, quite startling plot twists, and a friendly robot butler.  I’m not going to say too much more here – just go read the book.  You’re welcome.

There have been so many great middle books about Mars!  Here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

Standard disclaimer: This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the committee.

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Journey across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst

I was so excited when an author from my Top 10 Fantasy Authors I’ve Never Read list popped up on the Cybils nominations this year!  Sarah Beth Durst writes mostly YA – I understand this is her first middle grade novel.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth DurstJourney across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst. Clarion Books, 2017.
In a fantasy kingdom with a mix of mostly Asian cultures live twelve-year-old twin princesses Ji-lin and Seika.  Seika, the eldest, will be empress of the Hidden Islands when their father passes.  Following tradition, Ji-lin, the younger, has been trained by the winged lions who are their partners to be her sister’s guardian.  Her personal partner in this is the young and very enthusiastic winged lion Alejan (whose name I kept wanting to pronounce as a nickname for Alejandro, certainly not what the author intended!) After a full year apart for this training, Ji-lin and Seika are finally allowed to see each other again – only to be sent on the great journey across the Hidden Islands to visit the dragon who maintains the barrier that keeps the islands hidden from the outside world and protected from koji, the giant monsters that plague the rest of the world.

As they travel, they learn that earthquakes have been increasing in number and severity, and there are more and more trouble with the koji that the barrier is supposed to keep out.  When they rescue Kirro, a boy from the empire the Hidden Islands escape from centuries ago, they know that the barrier must be failing indeed.  But as they compare stories, they have to wonder whose stories are true, and how much safety is worth.

This is an exciting adventure with three great lead characters.  I appreciated a culture that felt very traditional but still didn’t balk at having girls inherit both the major roles in the kingdom.  And for all the battles with monsters, there are some deep questions underlying the story.  My only hesitation here was with the mix of cultures – do they combine to form their own unique culture, or would someone coming from an Asian perspective experience this as just a random mishmash?  I don’t have that perspective, so I can’t say for sure.  I did enjoy reading fantasy with Asian-inspired protagonists, and I enjoyed Ji-Lin, Seika and Alejan and their adventures for their own sake as well.  Give this to any kid in search of a good fantasy adventure!

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

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Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

It’s all Cybils all the time for me right now – except for this book, which I read just as the Cybils nomination period was opening in the expectation that it would be nominated, because Circus Mirandus had been so very popular (link to a review at Views from the Tesseract, as it looks like I never reviewed it.)  Every year I start doing this, and every year, like this, I read some that end up not getting nominated, like this one.  I’m still glad to have read it.

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley. Dial Books, 2017.
Blue Montgomery (a boy, unlike Blue Sargent) comes from a family where pretty much everyone has either a curse or gift.  Blue’s father has the gift of always winning, which has led to an exciting career in car racing.  Blue, though, always loses.  Not just loses, but loses spectacularly – like a deer running out of the forest and knocking him down if he might be close to winning a race with another kid.

Now, though, Blue’s dad is dropping him off at the home of a grandmother he’s never met, at a house in rural Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp.  There’s a legend that anyone in the family could have a chance for a new destiny if they’re able to find the alligator they’ve named Munch in the swamp under a blood red moon, and the old house is soon crowded with extended family members hoping for a chance.

Tumble Wilson’s family has decided, much to her chagrin, to leave their shiny red camper and settle in an old house that just happens to be down the road from Blue’s grandmother.  Tumble sees herself as a hero in training, always carrying her emergency backpack filled with supplies recommended by her hero, Maximal Star. But slowly, she comes to realize that every rescue attempt she’s ever made has ended in her needing to be rescued herself.

We the readers know that the magic is real, even though Tumble doesn’t believe it when Blue tells her, because their stories are interwoven with short reflections from the point of view of the alligator, a being with quite a different perspective.  This is a nice balance of magical and the realistic – the scenes of the swamp at night are vivid and magical, but Blue and Tumble both learning to be friends and to accept their limitations are just as important to the story. Both of them develop their relationships with their families as well as their friendship. And while destinies may be changed through magic, it’s realistic enough not to fix things like a father who doesn’t know what to do with a son so very different from himself.  With plenty of humor to balance the heartache, this is a book to appeal to a broad range of kids.

Read more excellent fantasy set in the swamp with Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt.

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Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

Here’s a super-creepy book by We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh for those who want to hang on to that Halloween feeling. Or maybe just like reading stories of haunted houses.

Spirit Hunters by Ellen OhSpirit Hunters by Ellen Oh. HarperCollins, 2017.
Harper is unhappy.  She doesn’t like that her family has moved to a D.C. suburb from New York City, where she could get good bagels and had a therapist who was helping her try to recover some memories she’s missing. She hates that she has missing memories.  She hates that her older sister, Kelly, blames her for everything unpleasant in their life. She hates the old house they’ve moved into, way too hot in her bedroom and unpleasantly cold in her little brother Michael’s, even though the air conditioning isn’t working.

I might have expected not to like Harper, what with her journaling lists of things that she hates alternating with regular chapters.  But it’s clear from the beginning that Harper is right to be concerned about her new house – starting when Michael’s new but invisible friend Billy knocks Michael’s ice pop out of his hands because there isn’t one for Billy.  And as Harper starts to remember more of her own past, it’s clear that things have been going wrong about her for a long, long time.

Harper is also not one to just sit around complaining.  She makes friends with a neighbor girl, Dayo, whose mother shares her delicious baking and Jamaican cooking with Harper.  Even though Dayo can’t see any ghosts, she’s heard that Harper’s house is haunted and encourages Harper to find out what exactly is going wrong as things escalate to the point that Harper winds up in the hospital with stitches, not for the first time.  Harper will need to reconnect with the Korean grandmother her own mother cut off contact with five years earlier, and find the courage to fight against increasingly violent ghosts in the face of her immediate family’s doubt.

The ghosts here were creepy enough that I started thinking I maybe shouldn’t be reading this at bedtime (I am a wimp with this sort of thing), and the plot took some pleasantly unexpected turns.  At the same time, Harper goes through a lot of personal growth, learning to make a real friend and reconnecting with her family.  There are also some short but moving scenes of characters dealing with prejudice.  This could be a good one for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series – it is a notch scarier than A Properly Unhaunted Place.  I loved it anyway.

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Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

Back to Cybils-nominated books with a whimsical adventure with an alien, from the author of the updated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books.

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell BoyceSputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Harper Collins Children’s 2017.
Prez Mellows lives his life by lists, both the lists of advice given to him by his grandfather and lists he’s made to help his increasingly forgetful grandfather remember things. The chapter headings of the book are taken from a list of things he wants to tell his grandfather about – something that looks like a shopping list, but isn’t.

But Prez isn’t with his grandfather now.  He’s in Temporary Care, living with a crazy family with three kids of their own on a farm called Stradmoddie outside of Dumfries, Scotland.  He doesn’t know what’s happened to his grandfather or why it seemed such a big deal that he was perhaps doing more taking care of his grandfather than the other way around, and as a reaction to this, hasn’t been talking.  (I went through a period of not talking during middle school myself, so I could relate.)

At dinner one night on the farm, Prez hears the doorbell ring – there isn’t a doorbell, and no one else hears it, so Prez answers.  There is an alien who introduces himself as Sputnik Mellows.  Sputnik looks like a dog (their favorite kind) to other people, while to Prez, he appears to be a boy about his own age wearing goggles and a kilt.  He’s there to work with Prez to come up with reasons that Earth isn’t mythical and irrelevant, to explain to an intergalactic board why Earth shouldn’t be demolished.

Meanwhile, Sputnik tries to be helpful to Prez in ways that only make sense to his alien way of thinking.  Early in Prez’s stay, for example, his youngest foster sister has a birthday.  Prez needs a gift, but there’s no time to go to the store and he hasn’t any money in any case.  He digs an old toy light saber out of his backpack to give to her, and Sputnik offers to repair it.  But instead of just fixing the telescoping plastic part, Sputnik turns it into a real functioning light saber, with hilarious and disastrous results among the unsupervised six-year-olds in the back yard.  Efforts to find and rescue Prez’s grandfather are similarly madcap, if slightly more poignant.

I loved the whimsy and the depth in this book.  So many recent books for kids seem to be exploring the Beauty of Sorrow by showing kids deal with the grief of losing a sibling or a parent.  I have very little patience for this.  Here, the issue is a much more realistic dealing with the grief of a grandparent with memory loss, and I didn’t feel that the loss itself was glorified.  Instead, we’re exploring what things are worth trying to hold on to and remember, including a sense of humor.  It’s also challenging to find books written from a foster child’s point of view – the only other contemporary middle grade spec fic title I could think of is Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, while Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin includes a foster kid as a major character.  Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is hilarious and deep, and highly recommended for kids and adults.

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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Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis.

Quick break for another pre-Cybils review, a charming Regency fantasy-romance, with strong underpinnings.

Snowspelled by Stephanie BurgisSnowspelled. The Harwood Spellbook 1 by Stephanie Burgis. Five Fathoms Press, 2017.

Cassandra Harwood used to be Angland’s only female magicians, and one of its best altogether.  Since trying an overly ambitious spell, she’s been unable to use any magic at all.  She broke off her engagement and has been living with her brother Jonathan and his wife, Amy.  At Amy’s insistence, Cassandra accepts an invitation to a posh winter house party where her ex, Wrexham, will be present.  Will she be able to convince him that leaving him was really in his best interests?

This being a romance-type novel, it isn’t really shocking that the ultimate answer to that question is “no,” though Cassandra’s slow realization of this is quite enjoyable.  Delightfully unexpected, though, is Cassandra’s magic-free solving of a threat from an elf lord, one who clearly isn’t a fan of the treaty that stopped the wars between elves and humans.  I’d love to read more in this world (hooray, more is coming!), with its intriguing political system – women are in charge of politics, with the ruling body called the Boudiccate – you should absolutely read more about the real-life Queen Boudica if you’re not familiar with her!  Men, meanwhile, are considered too emotional to be trusted with government but run the official magic of the kingdom through the Great Library.  It’s fascinating to read about a world with rigidly codified gender roles so different than what we’re used to.

Even though Cassandra, as pictured on the lovely cover, has the pale skin one would expect from a novel set in even an alternate Regency world, inside, the world is much more colorful.  Wrexham, the handsome love interest, is Maratha-Anglish, while sister-in-law Amy (a talented politician) is described as dark skinned and curly haired.  The secondary couple is lesbian, with Cassandra working to help solved some of the barriers to their relationship.

All of this is packed into a novella –  which is probably why the ending felt a little facile.  But with such great characters and world-building, I didn’t really care.  This is written for adults, but there’s nothing in the content that would make it inappropriate for advanced younger readers. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of the Harwood Spellbook.

More Stephanie Burgis books I’ve enjoyed:

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A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander

William Alexander’s latest book is short, spooky and delicious, with a strong core.

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William AlexanderA Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017.
Rosa Díaz is the daughter of the world’s best ghost appeasement specialist.  Everywhere has ghosts, of course – especially libraries, which tend to be full of the ghosts of past readers.  That’s why it makes no sense that they’ve moved to the tiny town of Ingot, which is famous two things: its Renaissance Faire, and for having no ghosts at all.  Even her mother’s grief over losing Rosa’s father shouldn’t be reason enough for her to move to such a place.

Rosa knows something isn’t right.  Then, when Jasper Chevalier, son of the Ren Faire Queen and its Black Knight (who will explain to anyone that there were Moors in Europe in the Middle Ages), takes her on a tour of it, they are attacked by an angry monster, part ghost but very physical.  And when Rosa’s mother is incapacitated, Rosa and Jasper are on their own.

I have enjoyed each of William Alexander’s books that I have read (you might recall Ambassador and Nomad popping up on many past lists of favorites, but Goblin Secrets are , and this is no exception.  I loved gutsy Rosa and cautious but determined Jasper.  I enjoyed the descriptive language – here’s the librarian, who sadly never makes Rosa feel welcome:

 “Her voice tasted like honey dribbled over raw rhubarb.”

While in general, I am tired of dead parents and siblings in middle grade books, it made sense in a book about ghosts.  I appreciated that while his loss is part of the story, the book wasn’t overwhelmed by grief.  The heart of the book is more about making peace with the past in general.  Also, I appreciate that its short length.  I’m always on the lookout for books that would be unintimidating for those with reading disabilities like dyslexia, and this book fits the bill – it’s fast-moving and illustrated, even.  I could see it working well as an October classroom read-aloud for about fourth grade and up, too – short, exciting, but not too scary for all but the most sensitive of readers.

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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Dark Surroundings, Bright Spirits: 3 Novels

Here are three books for teens and middle grade students that take a hard look at the African-American experience through the eyes of strong young people

A Wish after Midnight by Zetta Elliott.  Skyscape, 2010.
15-year-old Genna lives in Brooklyn with her Afro-Latinix family.  She’s never quite fit in either at home or school, where everyone else seems happy with stereotypical inner city lives.  She finds refuge in the nearby city garden and in the library, where she also falls for her classmate who works there, Jamaican-born Judah.  Judah’s sharing with her a pride in African heritage that she’s never felt before – when suddenly she finds herself in Civil War Brooklyn.  There, everyone expects her to “know her place” – which definitely doesn’t include her open goal of being a psychiatrist.  Will she ever find Judah and her way home again?  Continue reading

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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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