12/31/11

New releases of fantasy and science fiction for kids and teens--the second half of December, 2011 edition

The poor new releases of middle grade and YA sci fi/fantasy from the second half of December slipped my mind until now... but since nothing was published from the 15th to the 20th (why? what did the publishers have against that week?) it makes slightly less difference than it might have done.... It's a pretty sparse list too. But January 1 has enough books to (almost) warrant a post of its own. My information comes as always from Teens Read Too, with blurbs from Amazon/the publishers.

(by way of explanation: I only find the mg blurbs; lots of blogs seem to cover the YA, and it just takes too much time to do both)

The Middle Grade Books:

ALIENS V. MAD SCIENTISTS UNDER THE OCEAN: MEGA MASH-UP by Nikalas Catlow & Tim Wesson "These books take great subjects for boys and combine them into short, bonkers, and funny stories that are incredibly easy to read. The illustrations are bold and crazy, and there's plenty of space left on each page -- together with suggestions for how to fill it -- so kids can add their own drawings. The books read as hilarious, zippy stories that look a lot like novels but are terrific doodle books as well.

The earth is in peril! Aliens are trying to stop it from spinning so that everyone will fall off and they can take over. Mwa-ha-ha-ha! But fear not! The Mad Scientists are building a genius underwater machine to save the day. If only the Aliens would stop zapping them with their Frazzelizers. . . . "

PIECE OF MIND: EMILY THE STRANGE by Jessica Gruner & Rob Reger "Emily’s Strange To-Do List: 1. Lose (and regain) mind 2. Reprogram golem 3. Locate secret book vault 4. Commune with Dead Dark Aunts 5. Rescue Cousin Jake 6. Redecorate souvenir kiosk 7. Thwart Thought Thief 8. Endure hero worship 9. Grant ancestral enemy’s deepest wish 10. Save cat-napped kitty 11. Summon black rock 12. Defeat Shady Uncles 13. Guard family legacy & claim inheritance!"

ROBOTS V. GORILLAS IN THE DESERT: MEGA MASH-UP by Nikalas Catlow & Tim Wesson "Deep in the desert, Gorillas trade oil for bananas grown by hi-tech Robots. But then they have a big falling-out and decide to have a race to settle their differences. Which side will get slimed by the garlic burp-breath sand slugs? Which will fall for the banana sundae mirages? And when will they realize that the race has no finish line?"

ROMANS V. DINOSAURS ON MARS: MEGA MASH-UP by Nikalas Catlow & Tim Wesson "The Romans and Dinosaurs live together in a huge glass dome called Romasauria. They race their rocket chariots and feast on moon-cow and chips until life on Mars is threatened by a giant asteroid spotted by Augustus Astronomus through his giant telescope. Will a wooden catapult and some Dinosaur poop save the day? The Romans and the Dinosaurs are going to have to work together or it's KAPOW for life on Mars."

SUMI'S BOOK: THE FAIRY GODMOTHER ACADEMY by Jan Bozarth "Sumi Hara loves fashion. She always looks beautiful, and always wears the perfect outfit. When she arrives in Aventurine, Sumi is thrilled to learn that she's a shape-shifter.

Unfortunately, she's not very good at shape-shifting yet, so she's given a guide named Kano—who's distractingly gorgeous in his human form. But right away they get off on the wrong foot; Sumi can't understand why this boy doesn't seem to like her. When they find out that an evil fairy queen holds the final mirror shard needed to complete their mission, Sumi will have to discover what true beauty and perfection are, or she could lose Kano and her chance to become a fairy godmother."

THERE'S SOMETHING OUT THERE: YOU'RE INVITED TO A CREEPOVER by P.J. Night "Jenna Walker has always been fascinated by the legend of the Marked Monster, the scarred half-bird, half-beast creature that is said to roam the forests around her hometown. Is the Marked Monster real or is it just the stuff of myth? Jenna decides to find out once and for all with a campout at her house where she and her friends can search for the legendary beast. But as Jenna starts to learn more about the Marked Monster, she realizes that this legend might be more than just myth, and more sinister than she ever could have imagined. Will Jenna meet the Marked Monster face to face and will she be marked for life?"

THE US CAPITOL COMMOTION: FLAT STANLEY'S WORLDWIDE ADVENTURES by Jeff Brown "Stanley’s been chosen to receive a medal of honor in the nation’s capital! But once in Washington, DC, Stanley gets swept away by a crowd and separated from his family. Now he’s on the run in a city filled with monuments—and with shadowy figures on his trail. What’s a flat boy to do now?"

A VALENTINE'S SURPRISE: CANDY FAIRIES by Helen Perelman "Raina wants to make a very special birthday treat for Berry. She's even asked Lyra, the unicorn who looks after the Fruit Chew Meadow, to grow a special flower for the surprise. But when Raina and Dash go to visit Lyra, they are in for a sour shock! All the flowers in the meadow arewilting and Lyra's sick! Her horn is dull and she can't stand up. Something--or someone--is hurting the gentle unicorn and the meadow, but who? And what about Berry's birthday?

All the Candy Fairies will have to work together if they are to solve this mystery, cure the meadow and Lyra, and make sure that Berry has the sweetest birthday ever!"

ZOMBIE TAG by Hannah Moskowitz "Wil is desperate for his older brother to come back from the dead. But the thing about zombies is . . they don’t exactly make the best siblings.
Thirteen-year-old Wil Lowenstein copes with his brother’s death by focusing on Zombie Tag, a mafia/capture the flag hybrid game where he and his friends fight off brain-eating zombies with their mothers’ spatulas. What Wil doesn’t tell anybody is that if he could bring his dead brother back as a zombie, he would in a heartbeat. But when Wil finds a way to summon all the dead within five miles, he’s surprised to discover that his back-from-the-dead brother is emotionless and distant."

The YA Books:

BLEEDING HEARTS: THE DRAKE CHRONICLES by Alyxandra Harvey
BLOOD WOLF: A WERELING NOVEL by Steve Feasey
FLYAWAY by Helen Landalf
LEGACY by Molly Cochran

STILL WATERS by Emma Carlson Berne
TORN by Cat Clarke
VAMPIRE ACADEMY: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE by Michelle Rowen & Richelle Mead
BLOOD SUN: DANGER ZONE by David Gilman
EVERY OTHER DAY by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
LIVING VIOLET: THECAMBION CHRONICLES by Jaime Reed
MAGIC OF THE MOONLIGHT: A FULL MOON NOVEL by Ellen Schreiber
REPLICATION THEJASON EXPERIMENT by Jill Williamson




DAME Penelope Lively!

Penelope Lively has just become a Dame of the British Empire (the female equivalent of being knighted). Although she's perhaps best known for her adult fiction, such as Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger, for me she will always be a chidren's author. Her books for children include The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Astercote, A Stitch in Time, The Driftway (my review) and The House at Norham Gardens (my review).

How nice to see her recognized! And now I am feeling a great urge to read (and write about) more of her books....

12/30/11

The Hawk of May, by Ann Lawrence

I'm busily reading my Christmas present books--this year I am determined not to have a sad little pile of them looking reproachfully at me come June! So when I got home today, I successfully ignored the distressing clutter that takes up far too much of my home, and curled up with The Hawk of May, by Ann Lawrence (Macmillan, 1980). Ann Lawrence is the author of one of my favorite books as a child (Tom Ass), and it's only in the last year or so that it occured to me that maybe she'd written more books, and maybe I'd like them! Fortunatly for me, she did, and I do (here are two others I've reviewd--Between the Forest and the Hills, and The Good Little Devil).

The Hawk of May is a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mixed with the story of the Loathly Lady, and for an hour I was lost to the world, as I journeyed with Gawain through an imaginary medieval England as he sought to find the answer to the question "What do women really want?" Making the quest rather tense for Gawain is the small detail of loosing his head if he gets the answer wrong.

It's surreal, and beautiful, and thought-provoking, combining lovely world-building detail with touches of humor. There's magic, and intrigue, and the threat that all Arthur has build could come tumbling down...and there's Gawain himself, who means so well, and yet has much to learn (he's not the brightest hero going, but so likeable)*. It's somewhat meditative in its pacing, with many longish bits in which little Happens (don't expect battles and deeds of daring), but the slow and steady unfolding is shot through with beautiful flashes of the fantastic.

If you are at all a fan of Arthur retellings, seek this one out! It's not exactly a "kid's book," what with its focus on the relationships between men and women; rather, it seemed to me more like that rare thing, a fairy tale for grown ups that is written with the precision and sense of wonder that characterizes the best children's books.

*although why, I wonder, was his having fathered a child that he didn't know about thrown into the story, and then abandoned almost instantly? I was left wondering if it were true or not, and was somewhat vexed.

12/29/11

Seven Sorcerers, by Caro King

Yay! I'm back to writing reviews, and (surprise!) I have a lovely middle grade fantasy to write about tonight--Seven Sorcerers, by Caro King (first published in the UK in 2009, published here in the US by Simon and Schuster in 2011).

I was very pleased when Seven Sorcerers was nominated for the Cybils--I'd been wanting to read it for ages, and it wasn't in my library system or local bookstores (I am trying not to buy books on line for myself). Happily Simon and Schuster sent review copies...and after a small false start in which I received a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom instead by accident (why, I wondered bemusedly, before I thought to check the packing slip, did anyone think that was a good fit for my blog???), they kindly tried again (thanks, S. and S.!), and I dove into a beautifully enchanted world (so engrossing that it competed successfully with Christmas-time for my attention, which is saying a lot!).

All that is left of Nin's little brother Toby is his sock monkey, and Nin's memories. Nothing else--her parents no longer even know they once had another child. But one person believes Nin's version of reality--a mysterious boy named Jonas, who suffered a similar fate--he, like little Toby, was kidnapped by a bogeyman, and taken to a magical land known as the Drift, to be offered up to the sinister master of the Terrible House. But unlike Toby, Jonas escaped...only to find his family had forgotten him.

Nin is determined to find Toby, and bring him home, and Jonas agrees to help. So they set off, into a land of magical creatures and dangerous pitfalls, a land where Seven Sorcerers worked strange enchantments in a desperate effort (that hasn't worked all that well) from slowly loosing all its magic. As if the dangers of the Drift aren't enough, they are pursued by Bogeyman Skerridge, the one that took Toby, who has set his sights on Nin. And though, time after time Nin's good luck saves her from disaster, luck alone is no match for what Nin finds when she finally reaches the Terrible House....

I was very pleasantly surprised by just how interesting I found Nin and Jonah's adventures. On the face of it, the bare bones of the plot don't sound wildly original, but I found the particulars of their encounters with various strange things to be very tasty, fresh, reading. Not only was the world-building enticing, but there was nuance to the bad guys and assorted minions that made the story delightfully tricksy. Oftentimes I lose interest when the "good" characters are running away from/fighting with the "bad" characters--and I was very happy that to find I didn't have to face that problem here.

I especially liked the fact that this isn't "a quest by the chosen child of Light." Nin's motivations are personal, and there's nothing (at this point) that makes me think she's been Chosen (although she is awfully lucky....). She is arguable perernaturally self-controlled (as opposed to being, more realistically, an emotional mess about her situation), but she is also self-aware, not just doing things, but questioning, and reflecting, wondering who to trust; wondering, at times, if her pride is going to be enough to keep her from screaming. And I also enjoyed the fact that the action also doesn't stick entirely to the magical realm--trips are made back to our world, which has the somewhat counterintuitive effect of making the Drift more real, by contrast.

In short, the only thing I didn't like about the book was that it stopped too abruptly....I wanted to stay with Nin, and Jonah, and Toby, and even Bogeyman Skerridge, just a little while longer. Truly it was one of the most jarringly sudden ends I've read in ages. Happily, there's a sequel, Shadow Spell, already out in the UK, and coming here in May 2012. Oh would that my birthday weren't next week, and my presents already asked for and bought....

Some of the violence is very violent indeed, and I think I would have been troubled somewhat by it, and by the whole disturbing premise of Vanishing from one's family, at the tender age of nine or so, so I'd give this one to the tougher ten year old, or better still, the eleven year old.

Here's another longer review, at books4yourkids, that goes into more detail about what makes this a fine mg fantasy.

(disclaimer: as stated above, I received a review copy from the publisher for Cybils purposes, and I wouldn't have said anything about the packing mistake if I hadn't been amused by the book I got instead...)

Edited to add: the sequel, Shadow Spell (my review) was also excellent.

12/28/11

Greetings from exit 8 of the NJ turnpike

I am writing from the Hampton Inn, off exit 8 of the NJ turnpike. We like this hotel because guests are greated with origami towels--this time it was a peacock. We moved it to the top of the tv, where it became a dead peacock (the neck sagging forward off the edge), but still a nice touch. I'm headed home, and looking forward, after the wild festive gaiety of Christmas at grandma's, to peaceful unpacking of presents and catching up on blog reading and the looming backlog of reviews I need to write (strangely, large intervals of peaceful time in which to write reviews was lacking at grandma's, although I did get lots of books read).

My Cybils work is done, just about--us mg sff panelists have had our chat, and come up with a gem of a list (I hope you all approve of our choices!). The announcement of the shortlisted books will be made on the first of January.

And now I go off to get more hotel coffee...and rouse my family for the last desperate charge northward....

12/24/11

The dangers of biscuits, with a few etcs

Everyone, please Play it Safe this Christmas. Cookies, aka biscuits, can turn ugly on you, as reported today in the Telegraph:

More than half of all Britons have been injured by biscuits

I particularly like the story of a man who waded into wet concrete to retrieve a stray biscuit, and got stuck. I am not being entirely tongue in check when I say that I find this a rather moving testimonial to the power of the human spirit, defiant and persevering in the face of terrible odds, committed beyond rational belief to all that is worth saving, etc. Although it's a pretty dumb thing to do.

So far today I have eaten two date dreams, a florentine, and a gingerbread man (the soft kind, not the dangerous rock hard kind). I am uninjured--for the moment. And mercifully, our holiday assortment includes none of the most deadly cookie of them all--the custard cream.

I'm off now to Barnes and Noble, where I am going to buy:

The Cat's Table, All of My Friends are Dead, Press Here, and the new Oliver Sacks book.

Then I am going to the National Geographic Museum, to see an Anglo Saxon hoard (happily, I've just re-read Coming of the Dragon, by Rebecca Barnhouse).

Then I am going to just be at home, making sure the children don't poke themselves in the eye with sugar cookies, and hoping I don't fall asleep before they do....

I hope that none of you has been injured by cookies this holiday season, and that everything else is conspiring to make things pleasant and happy for you!

12/23/11

Thank you, Blogger Secret Santa!

I arrived at my mother's house yesterday, and found a surprise--my package from my Book Blogger Holiday Swap Secret Santa! It was a surprise because I had forgotten I had used her address...and I had left home feeling sad that I hadn't gotten it. But there it was! Yay!

My Santa, Gaskella, picked out two books that made me very happy--The Dead Gentleman, by Matthew Cody (time travel parallel New York, by the author of Icefall), and The Nightwood, by Robin Muller (a beautiful picture book retelling of Tamlynne [sic]).



Thank you very much indeed, Gaskella!!! And thank you to all who worked behind the scenes, organizing the book blogger holiday swap ! It was such fun sending off my own present, and receiving books I wanted in turn!

12/22/11

Witchlanders, by Lena Coakley

Witchlanders, by Lena Coakley, (Atheneum, 2011, YA, 416 pages) is a lovely high fantasy for a cold winter's day, especially for those who like intrigue, fascinating magic, and dogs (there's a great one), and one I'd particularly recommend, despite what the cover might suggest, to boys (more on this later).

It's the story of two young men, whose countries have a history of bloody war. Ryder is from the Witchlands, where all his life his mother taught him to scorn the magic of the witches praying to the goddess and casting bones to tell the future, and his father taught him the hard work of farming. Now his father is dead, and his mother has turned back to witchcraft, and the prophecies she claims to see in her frenetic bone castings are terrible. If it is magic, and not madness, all that Ryder loves is in danger.

Falpian is a Baen, son of a noble family, who failed his father by not having magic, and who has been sent to the boarder of the Witchlands...to wait out the long snowy months alone (except for his dog) until his father's mysterious plan for him becomes clear.

But magic is about to enter their lives--the singing magic of Baen and the prophesies of the witches both. If Ryder and Falpian can overcome the hatred between their two peoples, and work together, despite their different religions and languages and prejudices, they can defeat the rot of old hatred that threatens to spark another war.

It's a fascinating world that Lena Coakley has created here, with its strange magics and harsh landscape lyrically described, and atmospheric as all get out. The tension builds very nicely indeed, in the alternating stories of Ryder and Falpian, as they begin to unravel the lies and treachery in which they have become entangled, and I found it hard to put down.

I found it especially fascinating that neither boy is especially likable for a good way into the book, and yet I, who generally prefer to like, if not love, at least one character per book, was captivated enough by the story not to mind (too terribly much). Happily for me, I did warm somewhat to Falpian, who is the warmer and more open of the two (although, and this is just my problem, I know--"Falpian" sadly didn't work for me as a name). I do feel, though, that the characterization of the two main characters was the weak point of the book--Ryder, for instance, tells his sister something on page 313 that, if the reader can believe him, sheds a completely new and unforeshadowed (or else I missed something, which is quite possible) light on him.

I was a tad let down by the (gorgeous) cover, which I took as a promise that there would be a main girl character. The girl shown (if she is who I think she is) is important, but not central...it's definitely the story of the two boys! Which is fine, but not what I was expecting.

I think that the YA designation of the book also lead me to expect more development of the complexity of relationships between the characters. Witchlanders, and this isn't in a way a criticism, seems to me like a rather young YA (as opposed to an old YA, like, say, Finniken of the Rock, which I would Not recommend to the younger reader), one that would be a most excellent book to give to the boy who loved, perhaps, the Ranger's Apprentice series, and who wants magical adventure without getting into any messy romantic entanglements. One could imagine the two teenaged boys a few years younger, and voila! An excellent middle grade book about brave boys using their new found gifts of magic to change their world.

(Getting somewhat sidetracked, and going back to the cover--obviously this book isn't being marketed to 12 or 13 year old boys who enjoy high fantasy adventure (which I'm using to mean books set in a self-contained magical other world). It seems to me that this is a rather under served demographic. Looking quickly over the lists of books nominated for the Cybils in both middle grade and YA, there isn't much high fantasy with boys). Nothing in the 130 middle grade books quite fits my definition--the closest I get is The Dark City series, by Catherine Fisher, Dragon Castle, by Joseph Bruchac, and A World Without Heros, by Brandon Mull. In YA, there's Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card, the Seven Realms series, by Cinda Williams Chima, and arguably The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier, although I think of that as the somewhat more cozy "school fantasy"rather than the epic "high fantasy.")

Back to Witchlanders--it's also one I'd recommend to any reader looking for a change from paranormal romance! Witchlanders received starred reviews from Pubishers Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. It's a cold, clear read of a book, that made lovely pictures in my mind. I liked the moral too, being all in favor of age-old hatreds being overcome....and I hope there is more about the Witchlands to come!

To give you an idea of the writing, here's an excerpt from Chapter Four, in which Falpian finds his magic:

"The world was swollen with color now, blinding and bright. This must be magic, he thought with a shiver, or something like it. Below him, the birds in the trees grew restless, agitated by his song. They rose up in front of him in a great spiral, dazzling him. He could see everything so clearly now, as if a veil that had been in front of his eyes all his life had finally been lifted. He shifted his song slightly, and one of the birds stopped in mid air. He was amazed that he could do it, amazed by how effortless it was. The bird hovered right before his eyes, flapping uselessly, making no headway, as if flying against a strong wind. Falpian marveled at its green iridescence, and he laughed, making his laughter part of his song. No wonder he had frustrated his tutors; this was so easy. For the first time he understood what he had always been taught: the world was made of music. All the things that seemed solid—the trees, the birds, his own body—were really just vibrations in the great God Kar’s endless song." (pp 60-61)

Disclaimer: review copy received (very gratefully) from the author

12/21/11

Waiting on Wednesday--House of Shadows, by Rachel Neumeier

One of my favorite books of 2011 was The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier (my review). Its combination of wonderful world building, and not one, but two (!) nifty, magical schools won my heart. I liked the characters too. And I also loved her first YA book, the very Patricia McKillip-esque The City in the Lake (my reivew).

So I am as anticipatory as all get out over her upcoming release of House of Shadows (July 10, 2012):

"Orphaned, two sisters (me: Yay! orphaned sisters!) are left to find their own fortunes.

Sweet and proper, Karah's future seems secure at a glamorous Flower House. She could be pampered for the rest of her life... if she agrees to play their game (sounds like a sinister boarding school, which is a yay, if so....)

Nemienne, neither sweet nor proper, has fewer choices. Left with no alternative, she accepts a mysterious mage's offer of an apprenticeship (yay! character learning magic!). Agreeing means a home and survival, but can Nemienne trust the mage?

With the arrival of a foreign bard (yay! bards imply music, and I like music in my fantasy!) into the quiet city, dangerous secrets are unearthed, and both sisters find themselves at the center of a plot that threatens not only to upset their newly found lives, but also to destroy their kingdom."

And by July I will be all caught up with my reading, and there won't be any books left in the downstairs bathtub, and so I'll be able to leap out and buy it with a clear conscience (in an ideal world, a new downstairs bathroom will be build, but I think I'll stick with the more realistic goal of reading three hundred or so books in six months la la la.

Waiting on Wednesday (or, as I think of it, "Waiting, on Wednesday") is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

12/20/11

Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah, by Lee Edward Fodi, for Timeslip Tuesday

Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah, by Lee Edward Fodi (2011, Brown Books, lower middle grade, 294 pages)

Back in 2009, when I was serving as a sci fi/fantasy panelist for the Cybils, a book called Kendra Kandlestar and the Shard from Greeve was nominated. Of all the many books that came into my house that Cybils reading period, this one was just about the only one that called to my nine year old son. I was pleased (since he was at that time a very picky reader), and more than a little surprised (it looked to me very like a "girl" book, which goes to show how pointless such distinctions often are). It was, however, the third of the series, and so, both to please him and so as not to read the books out of order myself, I bought the first two (K.K. and the Box of Whispers, and K.K. and the Door to Unger), and my boy had a lovely reading orgy.

This year the fourth book in the series was nominated. My son is now eleven, but still he was very happy when it arrived. He got to read it first, and then my turn came....and I was happy to find it was a time travel book (because of always being anxious that I won't have one ready come Tuesday).

So on to Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah.

Kendra is a young Een girl (the Eens are an ancient race of fairy-like beings), who, in her previous adventures, found herself faced with one magical and dangerous quest after another. Together with an assortment of odd companions (a warrior grasshopper, a raccoon who aspires to be a wizard, her Uncle Griffinskitch, who is in fact a powerful one, and her best friend, a mouse named Oki), Kendra is now off on a quest to find her brother, transformed into a fearsome Unger.

But Kendra's quest is violently interrupted by the arrival of an old enemy...and when he is captured, Kendra finds herself in possession of his ring. It's cracked, and cold, and grey, and Kendra has no inkling of its power. It is made of magical kazah stone...and it is about to take her on a journey through time. Finally she will meet her mother--when her mother was still a girl--and she'll learn about the secret past of her family. But time travel also brings dangers, and Kendra's present Een world is threatened by its changing past....

The choices that Kendra makes, not just in the past, but in a future that might not happen, will determine not just her fate, but the fate of (sorry for the melodrama, but sometimes I can't resist) all she holds dear!

It's a rather fascinating time travel experience. Not only does Kendra have the rare chance to see her mother as a person her own age, but she gets to see a future version of herself grown old, something that rarely turns up in time travel stories. The paradoxes and perils of time travel all hang together to make a cohesive whole, that keeps the reader (me and my son, at least) briskly turning the pages.

And in large part this is because I was genuinely interested in what happened to Kendra. She's a plucky, believable 12 year old, confronted with thought-provoking problems that are almost too much for her to solve, but managing, with the help of her friends, to make it through.

This series is one that makes a nice next step for the young reader ready to move on beyond easy readers; a seven to nine year old, say, who's just about to become a confident reader. The numerous, and appealing, black and white illustrations by the author, the engaging characters, and fast paced adventures, make the books a friendly read. Which isn't to say these aren't substantial books--the font and margins are the same size as your basic middle grade book, and the page counts up in the 200s. But in feel, they seem to me more likely to please the elementary school set, and also good ones to read out loud to an even younger child. (At the left is the first page of Crack in Kazah).

I enjoyed this fourth book in particular (because of the time travel), but as an older reader, I could have done without the authorial intrusions that start the chapters. It's not one I'd urge all you grown-up readers of my blog to leap up and find, but I do think that many children, especially those that enjoy the whimsical fantastic, will appreciate it.

I couldn't find any other blog reviews of this one, but here's the podcast that the folks at Just One More did about book 1. For more information about the books, here's their website.

Disclaimer: review copy provided to me by the publisher for Cybils consideration

12/18/11

Kids of color in the middle grade fantasy and science fiction books of October 2010 to October 2011

I have read around 130 middle grade fantasy and science fiction books published between October 16, 201o and October 15, 2011. 130 books were nominated for the Cybils, for which I am a first round panelist in mg sci fi/fantasy, and I've read all but 15 of them. When I add to that the books I've read that weren't nominated, I have a nice and fairly comprehensive database.

And one of the things that interests me is the extent to which kids who aren't white get shown and included in this particular genre.













These are the eight books I know of whose main characters are not of white, northern European descent, and who are shown as such on the cover. Darwen Arkwright is stretching it a bit, because he's a silhouette, but his buddy Alexandra is shown as the African American girl she is, so I let Darwen be part of this cluster.

I read two books which included non-white characters in supporting roles, and showed them on the cover.







And I read five books with non-white characters (all clearly of African ancestry, or described as having dark, or brown, skin), that showed them on the cover, but in a somewhat ambiguous way.



Edited to add: I had meant to include The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg van Eekhout, in this category, but that picture got lost in my struggle with Blogger. Here's the author talking about the portrayal of the main character on the cover. Thanks for the reminder, Doret!

Additionally, there was one book, Zinnia's Zaniness, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, whose protagonist looked to me as though she could be Hispanic, although I didn't see any mention of ethnicity in the text.

I can think of only two other books (sadly not nominated for the Cybils...I hate it when the good ones don't make it!) that didn't have a Northern European protagonist-- Laurence Yep's City of Ice, and Jenny Nimo's The Secret Kingdom. And I cannot think of a single other important supporting character of color in a book not already mentioned, but I could easily have missed many....especially in books I was really enjoying.

It was, sadly, easy to pull this list together (apart from Blogger being difficult viz formatting). I was not tempted to say "oh goodness there are too many" and throw up my hands.

19 out of circa 130 books nominated.

Please tell me I missed lots????

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week, rounded up for your middle grade sci fi/fantasy reading pleasure! Let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews:

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket (audio book review) at Good Books and Good Wine

Bigger Than a Breadbox, by Laurel Snyder, at Book-a-day Almanac

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Plot, by A.J. Hartley, at Charlotte's Library

The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, at Classroom Talk

The Flint Heart, by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson, at Flunking Sainthood

Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins, at Library_Mama

The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Inquisitor's Apprentice, by Chris Moriarty, at Guys Lit Wire

Monster Hunters, by Dean Lorey, at Project Mayhem

The Moon Coin, by Richard Due, at whnbstihwsoft

Nicholas St. North, by William Joyce and Laura Geringer, at Great Books for Kids and Teens

Noah Zarc--Mammoth Trouble, by D. Robert Pease, at Book Addict

Poor Tom's Ghost, by Jane Louise Curry, at Charlotte's Library

The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell, at Charlotte's Library

The Son of Nepture, by Rick Riordan, at Jason's Bookstack

Thresholds, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, at Books & Other Thoughts

The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann, at Writings, Workouts, and Were-Jaguars

Vampirates: Empire of Night, by Justin Somper, at Reading Tween

Winterling, by Sarah Prineas, at My Brain on Books

Zinnia's Zaniness, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, at Charlotte's Library

A collection of dinosaur fantasies for the young at Words and Pictures

And finally, Ms. Yingling takes a look at two time slip books--A Year Without Autumn, by Liz Kessler, and Through Her Eyes, by Jennifer Archer.

Authors and Interviews:

D. Robert Pease (Noah Zarc) at Susan Kaye Quinn

Rick Daley (The Man in the Cinder Clouds) at Writer's Ally

Victoria Simcox (The Magic Warble) at Manga Maniac Cafe

Other Good Stuff:

Why We Invented Monsters, by Paul A. Trout, at Slate

And here, to inspire those of us who have not yet begun our Festive Bakeing, a gingerbread Star Wars assult vehicle (which I found here, where you can also find this assortment of modern gingerbread houses, for those to whom the cottage has become passe):

12/17/11

The books my boys are getting for Christmas

Twice in one day I have hit publish post by mischance!!! Argh! So for all those who follow me on google reader (thanks) I am quickly covering up the most recent one, a sneak peak at tomorrow's mg sff round-up, with a post I meant to do later today on the books my boys are getting for Christmas.

By way of background: my boys are 11 and 8. The 8 year old is currently reading Battle of the Labyrinth, the 11 year old is reading The Chamber of Secrets (he came late to Harry Potter; I'm not sure why). In a nutshell, they both like reading pretty well (not as well as their mama did when she was their ages); although they like fantasy, they read across genres.

There lists of book presents include very little regular fiction (1 out of 11). Our house is so full of middle grade sci fi/fantasy that they have enough of it to read (lucky children!), and I also find it very difficult to predict what they will actually pick up and read, let alone truly enjoy. So their book presents tend to be random grab bag of non-fiction and graphic novels.

For the eleven year old:

The Last Dragon, by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay (so beautiful!)

The Dragon of Hong Kong (Yoko Tsuno book 5) by Roger Leloup (this will make him very happy)

The Acme Catalog (Quality is Our #1 Dream)

The Way We Work, by David McCauley

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins

All of My Friends are Dead (he saw it in a store, and wants it really badly...I think the title is the funniest thing, and it goes downhill from there, but whatever.)

For my eight year old:

The Mythbusters science fair book

A Greyhound of a Girl, by Roddy Doyle (I hope he likes it; I haven't read it myself yet, but he loves The Meanwhile Adventures et seq. so he should be pleased. Unless he's disappointed because it doesn't have Rover in it)

Eric, by Shaun Tan (An expended story from Tales from Outer Suburbia. Eric is pictured at right)

Gon, Vol. 4 My boy sees a lot of himself in Gon, the dinosaur that time forgot--both are loyal, determined, and very fierce.

The Fog Mound book 1-- Travels of Thelonius (a post apocalyptic fantasy with mice that's part graphic novel. I picked this one up used, and haven't read it myself, but I tested it on his brother, and it was approved)

If you were to be given one of these books, which would you like?

The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell

The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell (HarperCollins 2011, mg, 336 pages), is two fairy tale retellings in one package--12 Dancing Princesses plus Beauty and the Beast, with a dash of mythology and history thrown in for good measure.

13-year old Reveka is the herbalist's apprentice at a castle in a eastern European kingdom precariously poised between the Ottoman Empire and larger principalities to the north. There is a curse on the castle--the prince has successfully fathered 12 daughters (the majority of whom are illegitimate, which I though was a very clever way to make them close in age, something that makes the story more believable), but efforts to marry them off are being thwarted by dark magic. The princesses dance their slippers to rags each night (metal slippers are tried, with horribly bloody results), and any attempt to remove them for the castle results in cataclysmic disaster. Those who try to spy out what happens each night fall into an enchanted sleep, from which they never awake.

Reveka doesn't care much for the princesses, but she does find the reward offered for breaking the curse most intriguing. It would allow her to buy her way into a nunnery, and become its herbalist. So she sets to work, using her knowledge of plants, and odd scraps of magic that come her way, to find a way to follow the princesses down to another realm....

And that is the first part of the book, generally good humoured (apart from bloody feet, and a hall full of sleepers, some of whom are slipping into death, and sundry hints of dark magic), lively retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses. But then, suddenly, the story becomes a dark and rather scary retelling of Beauty and the Beast!

Reveka finds out the secret of the princesses, and to save them, she agrees to marry the lord of the underworld. There she that the curse of the dancing princesses is only the tip of the iceberg--there are layers of dark magic that lie beneath it. If Reveka is to have any hope of happiness (and restore the balance of the worlds) she must embrace a strange and terrible fate....one that could threaten her immortal soul.

And this part got a little strange. Reveka is only 13, and a youngish thirteen at that, and she must play Beauty, as it were, to a very strange Beast indeed; their marriage strongly echoes that of Hades and Persephone. The stakes have become much, much higher, and the tone much darker. It disturbed me, somewhat, to find the thirteen year old girl I'd come to care suddenly thrust into a much more mature story--even though the marriage isn't consummated, she is married to an inhuman (literally) person much older than her with whom she has only a passing acquaintance. Sure, he's not a villain, but he is guilty of using pretty dubious tactics to achieve his goals.

I'm a fan of historical fantasy--stories that blend details appropriate to the time period (in this case, late Medieval Christianity) with fantasy elements. But in this case, I'm not sure that Haskell went deeply enough into this part of the story to make it convincing--references to Saint Hildegard, for instance, aren't quite enough to make me believe that Reveka's mindset is really that of a fifteenth-century Eastern European Christian. I think if you are going to pin your story down to such a specific place and time as this one is, you risk building up expectations for the reader that might prove tricky to meet. Especially if you then surprise the reader with a totally fantastical and non-Christian underworld....

A reviewer at Amazon was reminded of Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard and Clare Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom; I agree, especially with regard to the later. I enjoyed it lots myself (and I do recommend it to those of you who read my blog looking for books for yourselves!) despite the fact that I couldn't help but feel I was reading two different books. I think I would have enjoyed if more if it had come right out and been a young adult book.

Despite the very young looking cover and the very "middle grade-ish" beginning, this is one I'd give to kids 11 and up--they'll be able to better appreciate the references to mythology and history, and the botanical details (I liked these lots, myself), as well as finding the second part of the book less disturbing.

12/16/11

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, by A. J. Hartley

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, by A.J. Hartley

Eleven-year old Darwen Arkwright is an unhappy transplant from northwest England to Georgia, come to live with his aunt after the death of his African American mother and English father, and sent to an ultra expensive boarding school where he is a fish out of water. But Darwen is confronted with something even stranger than an elite American middle school when he spots a strangely horrible flying creature in the local mall, and begins a journey that will take him to another world.

"There was one more shop, right at the end of the corridor beside the exit sign, a tiny ramshackle place that looked like it had been lifted out of an entirely different location and dropped in... It looked like a shop from another age. Above its door, suspended from two chains, was a faded wooden sign with gold lettering:

"Mr. Octavius Peregrine's Reflectory Emporium: Mirrors Priceless and Perilous

"Clinging bat-like to the sign, its head cocked in Darwen's direction, was the little winged beast. It blew a raspberry at him, then hopped onto the wall of the shop and through a half-broken diamond of leaded window glass.

"Darwen ran to the door but hesitated as he put his hand on the tarnished brass handle. There was something odd about this place. He could feel it. The window displays were dusty, full of antique mirrors in ornate frames, many of them faded, speckled, and scratched, some with obvious cracks.

And how, he wondered, could mirrors be "priceless and perilous"?"
(pp 11-12 of ARC)

Darwen is about to find out. The owner of the shop, Mr. Peregrine, gives him a small mirror. And much to his amazement, Darwen finds that he can travel through it, to Silbrica, a magical and beautiful place filled with wonders, and populated by strange and magical creatures.

Unfortunately, not all of them are friendly. Some are so unfriendly, in fact, that they are seeking to take over our world...and destroying Silbrica in order to do so.

With two new friends, Rich, an aspiring archaeologist, and Alexandra, whose irrepressible spirit the heavy weight of their school can't squelch, Darwen must solve the mystery of the mirror world creatures, and figure out how to foil their evil plans.

Darwen's magical mirror is no wardrobe leading to Narnia. Although he does pass through, what happens to him there is only a minor part of the story. The important events take place in the real world, with Darwen's life at school and at home getting the bulk of the page time. His grief and loneliness gradually become ameliorated by his somewhat unlikely friends and the shared challenge before them, and this is as crucial to the book as the actual confrontation with the evil bad guys coming through from the mirror world.

It's a somewhat slow moving book--there is not one pivotal moment where the Adventure Begins, and then never lets up. Instead, the tension increases gradually, mirroring the tension inside Darwen as he lets himself hope that somehow the fantasy realm and the dangers it poses was related to the death of his parents--making their deaths more than just a random accident.

It's not a book for those seeking escapist fantasy--the problems of the real world are too much in the center of things for that! And it wasn't one that I personally loved--the juxtaposition of the real world and the fantasy realm felt jarring, with aspects of the later not quite as well developed as I would have liked, and I found it rather hard to read about Darwen's loneliness and grief, and his wretched time at school. But those who want real-world emotional resonance mixed with their fantastical creatures, and who are willing to spend time in a truly unpleasant school along with poor Darwen, should find it a rewarding read.

A note on age--this one felt at the upper end of middle grade (11 to 12 year olds) to me, not because of the content (there's no sex or bad language, that I noticed--"Chuffin' 'eck!" is as strong as it gets), but because it is a somewhat weighty book, that requires patience from the reader.

Explore the world of Darwen Arkwright further at the book's website, which includes an illustrated bestiary of its mysterious creatures of Silbrica.

12/14/11

Zinnia's Zaniness, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Anyone looking for a fun, age-appropriate fantasy series for a girl in third or fourth grade should seriously consider the Sisters 8 books, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (with Greg Logsted and Jacki Logsted). I can't make that "definitely consider", because Zinnia's Zaniness, the eighth, and penultimate, book of the series (Sandpiper, 2011, 128 pages), is the only one I've read. It was nominated for the Cybils Awards in middle grade sci fi/fantasy, for which I am a panelist. New to the series though I was, I found Zinnia's story to be a pleasantly diverting read.

The Sisters Eight are eight-year-old octuplets, each of whom develops in turn a magical power, and receives a special gift. But there's a catch. Their parents are missing--and until each girl gets her power and her gift, they won't know what's happened to their mom and dad. Annie, Durinda, Georgia, Jackie, Marcia, Petal, and Rebecca have all had their turn. Poor Annie, the oldest, has the gift of being able to think like an adult, but the other sisters have more interesting powers--freezing people, invisibility, super speed, etc. Now the girls are waiting for the youngest and the smallest sister, Zinnia, to manifest her own power.

And in the meantime, kindly neighbors are taking the family on a seaside vacation. There, in a somewhat dingy vacation cottage (hotels aren't an option, since not only are they are rather large group, they've brought their kittens with them), they'll bicker, play, worry, and meet a mysterious boy....and Zinnia will reveal her own special gift.

The adventures and the magic aren't all that Exciting--it's the relationships between the sisters that gets the most page time (which is fine with me, sisterly relationships being something I have my own considerable experience with!). That being said, the characterization of the sisters in general isn't all that deep--each has a few trademarks that are brought forward in turn; enough so that they can be distinguished, but not so as to make them come alive to a new reader of the series. But Zinnia, in this, her own book, had the spotlight shown on her, and became quite real to me--probably this happens to the other sisters in their own books.

This isn't a series I'd recommend to the grown-up readers of my blog, but for eight year old (or so) girls who love mysteries and magic and kittens, I think it's a pretty safe bet.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.

Waiting on Wednesday--Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse

When I reviewed Rebecca Barnhouse's retelling of the story of Beowulf and the dragon last December here, I tried to make clear just how much I appreciated this well-told historical fantasy full of fascinating characters. One of these characters was introduced right at the end--a girl named Hild, sent to Beowulf's kingdom to marry his heir and become a Peaceweaver between her people and his. It was clear, even though she made only a brief appearance, that there was a lot more to Hild and her story then we were shown here. And so I am as pleased as all get out to have a whole book about Hild to look forward to!

Peaceweaver comes out from Random House, March 27th, 2012 (for ages 10 and up). Here's the Amazon blurb:

"Sixteen-year-old Hild has always been a favorite of her uncle, king of the Shylfings. So when she protects her cousin the crown prince from a murderous traitor, she expects the king to be grateful. Instead, she is unjustly accused of treachery herself.

As punishment, her uncle sends Hild far away to the heir of the enemy king, Beowulf, to try to weave peace between the two kingdoms. She must leave her home and everyone she loves. On the long and perilous journey, Hild soon discovers that fatigue and rough terrain are the least of her worries. Something is following her and her small band of guards—some kind of foul creature that tales say lurks in the fens. Will Hild have to face the monster? Or does it offer her the perfect chance to escape the destiny she never chose?"

I'm hoping that, as well as Hild's own adventures, we get to see how she settles into her new home...I want to see my old friends from Coming of the Dragon again!

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

12/13/11

Poor Tom's Ghost, by Jane Louise Curry, for Timeslip Tuesday

Poor Tom's Ghost, by Jane Louise Curry (Atheneum, 1977, 178 pages)

Thirteen year old Roger pinned great hopes on the old house near London his Aunt Deb left his father. He imagined that it would actually be a home--for years his life has been full of uncertain strain, as his actor father Tony moved restlessly from place to place. Roger hopes that having a house of their own will make his stepmother Jo, his little step-sister, Pippa, Tony, and himself, into a safe, secure, family with a place to belong. But when they see that Aunt Deb's house is a stuccoed monstrosity that's barely habitable, his hopes fade.

Then the family set to work, ripping off strips of sagging wallpaper, tearing out moldering paneling...and gradually they unveil the Elizabethan house that had had been hidden for years. And other, darker, secrets begin to surface too.

Roger is awakened on his first night by the wild grief of restless ghost. Tom Garland, an actor at the Globe Theatre, haunts the house...and as the days pass, his spirit begins to merge with Roger's father, Tony. Tony's performance of Hamlet reach a new level of wonderful authenticity, but the dark side of Tom Garland's story threatens to shatter Roger's hopes for peace in the present.

Gradually Roger himself finds himself drawn into the past, to 1603, living within Tom's younger brother as a centuries-old tragedy is played out in plague stricken London. Unless Tom can set things right in the past, Tom Garland's ghost will never rest.

This is just quite simply a lovely time travel story. The past comes gradually into the story like an incoming tide...slowly pulling the characters in the present back into time. The ghost story aspects of the present and Roger's experiences back in 1603 are both delightfully spooky and full of tension.

I love just about any old house fixing-up story, and this part of the book was a real treat, but what makes this book stand out is the finely drawn characterization of young Roger. He's a lonely, tense, and apprehensive boy, desperately hoping for peace and stability, and Curry does an excellent job using the events of the past to push Roger (and his family) into a new, safer place.

In short, this is one of those lovely books that I not only would have loved as a child, but enjoyed very much reading for the first time as a grown-up! Although it was written 35 years ago, it doesn't feel dated--Roger's emotions are timeless, and, since the old house has no modern conveniences anyway, they wouldn't have been able to go online and look up its history anyway. Instead they have to look through the parish registry by hand, as it were. (Which makes me wonder how many Elizabethan parish registries are available online....which in turn leads me to wonder if anyone has written a time travel book in which google searches are important).

And now I must go back and re-read The Black Canary, which was a prequel, written several years later, to this one.

12/10/11

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs

Hi, and welcome to this compilation of what I found in my blog read of interest to fellow fans of middle grade sci fi/fantasy. Please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

Aliens on Vacation
, by Clete Barrett Smith, at Good Books and Good Wine

The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell, at King County Library System Book Talk

Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor, at Misfit Salon

The Boy at the End of the World, by Greg van Eekhout, at Intergalactic Academy

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, at Ms. Yingling Reads and Slatebreakers

The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley, at Charlotte's Library

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburger et al., at The Compulsive Reader

Dark Eden, by Patrick Carmen, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Dragon's Tooth, by N.D. Wilson, at Shannon Whitney Messenger

The End of Time, by P.W. Catanese, at Diary of a Text Addict

The Fiend and the Forge, by Henry Neff, at J. Keller Ford

Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver, at Book Nut and My Books. My Life. (audio book review)

The Mostly True Story of Jack, by Kelly Barnhill, at Good Books and Good Wine

The Ogre of Oglefort, by Eva Ibbotson, at Cracking the Cover

Princess of Glass, by Jessica Day George, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George, at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

The Quest for the Scorpion's Jewel and its sequel, Escape from Riddler's Pass, by Amy Green, at Geo Librarian

A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond, at Things Mean a Lot

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex, at Abby the Librarian (audio book review) and Books & Other Thoughts

The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann, at Challenging the Bookworm
Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, at Girls in the Stacks (audio book review) and Dreaming in Books

Winterling, by Sarah Prineas, at Karissa's Reading Review

The Animorphs re-read continues at Intergalactic Academy
Authors and Interviews:

Suzanne Williams and Joan Holub (Godess Girls: Artemis the Loyal) at Reading Tween

Kai Srand (The Weaver) at Mayra's Secret Bookcase

And a moving account of author Edward Ormondroyd's (David and the Phoenix) surprise school visit.

Other Good Stuff:

At io9, you can find a handy chart detailing the Rules of Magic according to the greatest fantasy sagas of all time. Although "greatest" is subjective, and I would have included Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books.

And also from io9 comes the ultimate futuristic gift guide for 2011, with many not to be missed things you didn't know you wanted (or not). Like this:

12/9/11

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins

Sometimes, even though one has overdue library books and a pile of Cybils books and a (small but substantial) pile of ARCs, not to mention books received as Christmas presents last year, waiting to be read....one finds oneself in the bookstore buying a new book. A book that promises to be utterly untaxing, different in genre and subject from one's usual fare.

This happened to me on Wednesday, and so tonight, with a sigh of relief that a difficult week was over (thank goodness older son's two week study of sheep and wool, which required extensive essay writing and journal keeping, which in turn required substantial parental enforcing, is over), I settled down in front of the fire and read Anna and the French Kiss cover to cover.

And though Anna's nervousness at starting her senior year at a boarding school in Paris made for a gripping beginning (I'm being sincere--I'm a fan of boarding school stories), it was, not unexpectedly, it was the growing romantic tension and sweetly taut frisson of her relationship with her hot classmate Etienne that kept the pages turning rapidly. I could, though, have done without all the part in the final third of the book when things not going smoothly, and skimmed many bits of unhappiness. A book entirely comprised of sweet frisson might not be quite substantial enough in the long run, but it would have been more soothing.

My own particular mental state aside, it was good reading, but it wasn't a perfect book. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, not just in regard to the relationship between Anna and Etienne. The Mean Girl, for instance, was an almost ridiculous stereotype--I couldn't believe in her. And on a very minor note, how could Anna, film aficionado that she was, have arrived in Paris ignorant of its cinema scene? Wouldn't she, as I just did, have googled it before getting on the plane? (in three seconds ,I found this: "With over 300 films playing per week around the city, Paris is the place to be for film lovers. You'll find everything from arty retrospectives in intimate old theaters to blockbusters with surround-sound in ultramodern multiplexes. Here's a guide to the city's best spots for the seventh art.")

Still. Anna and the French Kiss kept me nicely occupied, and I am sure I'll be impulse buying its companion novel, Lola and the Boy Next Door, next time I find myself in a similar mood! (I could, of course, order it from the library....but the problem with that is that then it would be Demanding Attention. Not the same feel at all).

12/7/11

The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley

N.E.R.D.S: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (Amulet Books, 2011, upper elementary/middle grade, 288 pages)

The N.E.R.D.S are a band of technologically enhanced kids, agents of a secret organization that has taken each members nerdy weakness, and made it into a super super power. In this third installment of the NERDS series, asthmatic Matilda, aka Wheezer, gets a chance to shine when a new disaster threatens to destroy not just the earth, but the whole multiverse. But Matilda isn't being asked to put her mad fighting skills and arsenal of super inhalers to work. Something much worse is in store for her--she has to become a cheerleader, infiltrate a crack cheering squad, and find the rouge NERDS agent responsible for the impending disaster...a girl named Gertie, once known as "Mathlete."

Gertie, desperate for the money she needs to create a new, beautiful, cheerleading self, has invented a device that allows her to travel to alternate versions of earth, and pilfer them at will. Now she is no longer a homely nerd; she is that wonderful, beautiful, bubbly thing--a top notch cheerleader. For Matilda to infiltrate the cheerleading squad, and crack Gertie's disguise, she's going to have to do the hardest thing she's ever done in her live--shuck her tough, grungy persona to become a smiling, perky, pompomed girl who whoops.

But in the meantime, there's another young mastermind at work--a criminal one. Former NERD Heathcliff "Choppers" Hodges doesn't really want to live the rest of his life in a mental institution for the criminally insane. He wants to take over the world (in an evil way)...and Gertie's invention might be just what he needs.

This is the first NERD adventure I've read, and I found myself nodding in agreement as I remembered all the reviews of the series recommending the books highly for the 8-10 crowd. There's humor, action, suspense, delivered in snappy style; there are cool gadgets and neat technology, such as would delight even young readers who aren't nerds themselves, and best of all, there are actually interesting characters giving weight to the somewhat goofy story.

In this case, Matilda is forced to confront questions of identity--the process of becoming a cheerleader requires her to consider why she had created her own tough girl identity, and challenges her preconceptions of cheerleaders. The result is a more tolerant, self-aware (but still tough) Matilda! It's a subtle enough message so that it doesn't grate on the reader's nerves, but it's enough to make this more than just fun fluff.

As an added bonus, the kids who comprise the N.E.R.D.S are, as you can see from the cover, a diverse bunch. Matilda, for instance, is Korean-American.

Here's what I'm wondering--the first two books were told from the point of view of boy team members, and seem to be popular with boys. Now we have a girl central character, and Cheerleaders, no less! The (very doubtful) assumption that boys are reluctant to read about girls is all too prevalent...but I think the wacky zest of the series will have successfully captured it's young male readers, making that issue irrelevant in this case.

Here's another review at TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Thanks very much to the publisher, Abrams, for sending me a review copy for my Cybils middle grade fantasy/sci fi reading! There were so many holds on this one at my library that it might have proved difficult for me to get my own hands on it otherwise!

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