Thursday, November 29, 2007

The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, 2002

Matteo Alacran foot bears a tattoo: Property of the Alacran Estate. Matt is no mere slave; he's a clone, with no more legal rights than cattle. But unlike other clones whose minds are stunted at birth, Matt is ultimately raised as a pampered prince, led to believe he's the heir of El Patron, the drug lord whose clone he is and whose opium empire he thinks he'll inherit. Provocative science fiction with memorable characters that asks probing questions not only about science and ethics but international trade, law, economics, and drug trafficking. Recommended.

Clay, by David Almond, 2005

Is Stephen Rose disturbed, or daft, or devilish? Maybe all three. That's why he was expelled from Catholic school and sent home, then from there to live with his aunt, Crazy Mary in the town where Davie and Geordie, circa 1960, are busy doing nothing but sneaking cigarettes and avoiding Mouldy, the town heavy. Stephen Rose is freaky-odd, to say the least. He sees visions, talks to angels, and has artist's hands that can make clay practically come alive. Psychological and supernatural, frightfully uncertain and unsettling. Excellent young adult horror; but then, when does David Almond ever disappoint? Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff, 2004

Daisy goes to England to stay with her aunt and cousins to escape her evil stepmother, and finds herself on the threshold of both a passionate love affair and an international war. When her cousin's family is wrenched apart by the military commandeering their homestead, she's forced into a heroism she didn't know she had, and takes a hard second look at her anorexia in a world without food. An extraordinary voice and perspective; Daisy's love affair may disturb some American readers who interpret relationship rules differently than Europeans tend to. Sex alert. Masterfully written.

Day of Tears by Julius Lester, 2005

Based on true events, this "novel in dialogue" reads in part like a play, part like a documentary, though it combines fictive and historical personalities. In 1859 the largest slave auction in America took place in Savannah, Georgia, where over 400 slaves belonging to a once-prosperous plantation were sold off to pay the owner's gambling debts. On that day a rain of Biblical proportions seemed to try to wash away the taint of what took place, and the tears of the families ripped apart by the auction mirrored the rain.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi, 2002

The boy who only knows himself as "Asta's son" has scarcely buried his dead mother before he's branded a wolf's head, one whom anyone may freely kill. Is it because of an overheard conversation between the manor's steward and a nobleman? Or does it have something to do with his mother, and the engraved lead cross which is the only relic she left behind? A meticulously-placed historical adventure. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey, 1997

Life imitates art when George and Harold's confiscated comic books fall into mean ol' Principal Krupp's hands -- and a 3-D Hypno-ring falls into theirs. They've created a monster, who thinks he's a hero, and solves crime with bravado and Wedgie Power. But will it be enough to catch bank robbers, thwart Dr. Diaper and his evil robots, and save George and Harold from a life of servitude and/or a pounding from the football team? There's only one way to find out. Strongly recommended -- if you wear underwear.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, 1950

What's not to like about a child with invincible strength, a fortune in gold pieces, no parents to give her pesky rules, and no social inhibitions? That's what Tommy and Annika think, and everyone who's ever read Pippi is bound to agree. Her unfettered impulsivity, wild exaggerations, and eccentric ways are perfectly balanced by the leisurely, episodic pace of the book -- something I rarely see in contemporary titles. Always strongly recommended for a genial visit to my own childhood, where reading Pippi never failed to satisfy.

Loser, by Jerry Spinelli, 2002

Donald Zinkoff embraces life in a joyful and simple way, but his clumsiness and naievete brand him first as a nobody and ultimately as a loser. His unfolding life and his intrinsic value are painstakingly presented; his ultimate actions made me cry. Slow to start, more character sketch than story, but I came to care deeply for Zinkoff, and will see a bit of him in other so-called "losers."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Holes, by Louis Sachar, 1998

Innocent but faced with the choice of jail, or Camp Green Lake, Stanley Yelnats chooses camp. It's neither green nor a lake -- more of a God-forsaken Texas desert where juvenile delinquent boys dig five-foot holes every day under the Warden's all-searching eye. Destiny, bad luck, broken promises, lipstick, peaches, onions, and foot odor converge and alter forever the fortunes of Stanley, the Warden, and tent-mate "Zero." Modern realism meets wild western mythos; most strongly recommended.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Half Magic, by Edward Eager, 1954

Jane, Mark, Katherine, and Martha wish for adventures at the start of a hot, dull summer ruled by stern babysitter Miss Bick. They get more than twice what they wish for when a shiny nickel -- or is it? -- appears on the sidewalk. Wishes that are only granted by halves pose messy and inventive problems indeed, but the magic nickel has romance along with moralizing up its sleeve. A nostalgic and charming read, wonderfully witty; E. Nesbit's plots meet C.S. Lewis's genial voice. The four co-main characters are painted warmly and convincingly. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, by Jennifer Allison, 2005

At thirteen, Gilda Joyce's star-studded careers as novelist, psychic, and spy are off to a frustrating start. When her best friend heads off to music camp, Gilda cooks up a scheme to travel to San Francisco and visit her wealthy second cousin, whose antique house just might be haunted. This could be a lucky break for Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, and she and her leopard-skin disguises aren't about to miss it. Fun, absorbing, well-paced, substantial. Strongly recommended.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Traitor's Gate, by Avi, 2007

John Huffam's life as the son of a profligate London gentleman dissolves the day his family's belongings are seized and they're hauled to a "sponging house," their last stop on the way to debtor's prison. Strange people approach John's father, and still stranger ones follow John, for reasons that must go beyond mere gambling debts. This mystery, tour through Dickensian London, and love letter to Dickens introduces the memorable characters of Sary the Sneak and Mr. Snugsbe, great of coat and cauliflowered of hair. Recommended.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Half-Moon Investigations, by Eoin Colfer, 2006

Fletcher Moon is an official detective with a badge, even if he is only twelve. When popular April Devereux hires Fletcher to investigate the theft of a lock of celebrity hair, the case gets personal. And Red Sharkey, the charismatic scion of the notorious criminal Sharkey family, has reasons of his own for making sure "Half-Moon" solves the case. Hilarious middle-grade detective fiction, set in in Ireland, with Colfer's trademark ratcheted stakes. Strongly recommended.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.F. LaFevers, 2007

(1905) 11-year old Theodosia Throckmorton sleeps in a sarcophagus and lives in a dusty London museum of antiquities, because her father usually can’t be bothered to go home at night and send her to school like he ought to. Her mother returns home from Egypt bearing loads of artifacts positively steeped in curses, which only Theo can detect and eradicate. But when a plot of German conspirators steal the Heart of Egypt from Theo’s mother, Theo takes matters into her own hands.

The Lemonade War, by Jacqueline Davies, 2007

It was the letter from the school that ruined Evan’s summer and turned his friendship with Jessie, his younger sister, sour. Their lemonade-stand hobby turns into a fierce end-of-summer rivalry to see who can earn the most money selling lemonade before Labor Day. But there’s more at stake than just the money. Engaging middle-grade realism told from dual points of view. Recommended.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, 2007

Hugo Cabret lives alone among the rafters of a Paris train station. It’s 1931, and he winds the clocks, steals food to live, and tries to repair a strange machine that his father had discovered in the attic of a museum before he died. But Hugo needs parts, which he can only get by stealing wind-up toys from a strange toymaker who runs a shop in the train station. A wonderfully inventive story, mixing fiction and film history, rendered in an unusual mix of hundreds of moving black and white illustrations, with snippets of text throughout. Rewarding on many levels, and strongly recommended.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Flush, by Carl Hiassen, 2005

When Noah's dad gets into trouble, as he frequently does, he tends to go a bit overboard, even if his heart is in the right place. This time he sunk Dusty Muleman's casino boat, the "Coral Queen," for dumping its sewage into the ocean. But the Coast Guard has no proof, and Noah's mom's had it with her husband's antics. Noah and his sister Abby have more to save than loggerhead turtles -- their home and livelihood's at stake if they don't find a way to bust Dusty's foul-smelling operation. Environmentally conscious middle-grade fiction, lyrical Florida Keys setting, villians, and humor. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, 2007

Harry sets out to finish the task Dumbledore has left him, against impossible odds and despite the tourniquet-like surveillance of the Ministry, now overrun by Voldemort and his Death Eaters. But finding and eliminating the remaining Horcruxes is a nearly impossible mission, and is it even the right mission? Posthumous revelations of Dumbledore's history show a less than pristine past, and an obsession with obtaining objects of power that would establish wizard supremacy over Muggles forever. Rowling's masterful resolution of Harry's complex epic shows an expert hand at story with exceptional thematic control. Most strongly recommended.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume One, The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson, 2006

Octavian, both the protege and the property of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, embarks upon a prolonged awakening, as cataclysmic as it is eloquent, to his status as a classically educated African slave in pre-Revolutionary Boston. A setting starkly convincing even its Gothic extremes, the Novanglian College of Lucidity with its absurdities and excesses is bound to feel rather more like modern America than not. An uncomfortable but necessary read; a staggering accomplishment; as a book jacket reviewer said (and I wish I'd thought of it), "A brilliantly complex interrogation of our basic American assumptions." Most strongly recommended (though not for very young or immature readers).

The Folk Keeper, by Frannie Billingsley, 1999

Corin, nee Corinna, has learned to survive in the Foundling Home by turning herself into a boy and extorting the secrets of Folk-Keeping from other Cellar-bound keepers. Her cover is almost blown at 15, when an ailing lord summons her by name to his manor, breathing his last breath in her ear. A fantasy at once bloodthirsty, mysterious, and romantic; a well-rewarded read, if at times confusing. Strongly recommended.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko, 2004

Al Capone really does launder 12-year old Moose Flanagan's shirts, ever since his family moved to Alcatraz, where rent's cheap during the Great Depression and his dad is able to get two jobs at the prison. They need the money to send Natalie, Moose's (younger? older?) sister to a special school for children with mental disabilities. Only problem is, the school has an age cutoff for admission, and Natalie's been celebrating her tenth birthday for the past six years straight. Thoughtful, funny middle grade historical realism that successfully mixes autism, baseball, and the mafia, with an enviably original and well-researched setting. Recommended.

The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler, 2003

For folks living on a houseboat, Emily and her mom are more than shy of water. So when Emily takes her first swimming lesson in gym class and finds her legs fusing into a scaly tail, no one's more surprised than she. Why didn't her mother tell her she had a merman for a dad? And why does that creepy Mr. Beeston keep coming over to feed her mother doughnuts? Light middle grade fantasy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones, 2001

In both of the dueling magical families of Caprona, spell-making is taught even to the youngest children. But Tonino, of the Casa Montana, can barely summon a spell. All he's good for is reading and talking to cats. If only he could muster some ability, perhaps he could help the Montanas, and the Petrocchis, their enemies, unravel the mystery of why both families' magic seems to be eroding while the Duke of Caprona does nothing but watch Punch and Judy plays. And who's the strange redhead cousin courting cousin Rosa? Great big Italian warmth envelops this ambitious and successful Chrestomanci-meets-Romeo and Juliet. Recommended.

Eyes of the Emperor, by Graham Salisbury, 2005

Pop is furious when he learns Eddy Okubo lied about his age to enlist early in the Army. But when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, both Pop and Eddy see his service as a chance for honor, to show that though they have "the eyes of the emperor," they are loyal Americans. But what America asks of its soldiers of Japanese descent is only a cause for shame. Exemplary historical fiction, written with authenticity, dignity, and compassion. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson & The Olympians, book 3) by Rick Riordan, 2007

When Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth head to a military academy in Maine to rescue Grover who's in trouble rescuing a pair of half-bloods, they run afoul of Dr. Thorn, a manticore (a poison-dart throwing man-lion) and cross paths with Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and her maiden Hunters. Annabeth is captured, and Artemis leaves on a quest to track down a mysterious beast who may prove the downfall of the gods. But in Percy's nightmares, their dooms are linked. Without Blackjack, his mobster pegasus friend, all might be lost indeed. Adolescent love and angst clash spears with titanic forces in book 3, which nicely escalates all the prior tensions, and shows more depth and heart without sacrificing its breathless excitement or nutty humor. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The New Policeman, by Kate Thompson, 2005

J.J. Liddy never knew the scandal that explained why the Liddys were shunned in Kinvara, even though their cíelís (folk dances) were legendary for their fiddle tunes. Neither he, nor his mother, nor anyone knew where all the hours in a day disappeared to. And nobody knew the origins of the absent-minded but handsome new policeman in town, even if some old-timers had their suspicions. Only when a cheese delivery goes underground does J.J. begins to find out. Sophisticated, intricate fantasy dressed in tight, seamless prose. It left this would-be author envious. Most strongly recommended.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Slake's Limbo, by Felice Holman, 1974

Aremis Slake, a neglected and ill-used foster child, had learned how to dodge conflict by slipping into the subway system at the first sign of a threat. One day he slipped in and stayed. His first brushes with order, dignity, and compassion were found underground, where he slept on newspapers in a cave he made his home, and shared his food with a rat. 33 years after publication the novel still feels remarkably current, despite an unusual, omniscient voice; unsentimentalized, candid realism that offers Slake convincing victories and hope. Strongly recommended.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass, 2006

Jeremy Fink gets a box in the mail from his father's lawyer, containing a wooden box with four separate locks, and an engraving saying that it contains "The Meaning of Life." Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy spend a memorable summer hunting down the keys and sniffing out ideas from the colorful characters they meet about what the meaing of life could be. Middle grade realism, intricate, with many bright moments of humor and charm; Jeremy does not feel like a boy, though, and the outcome feels contrived.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Owl in Love, by Patrice Kindl, 1993

14-year old Owl Tycho is in love with her science teacher, Mr. Lindstrom. Hers is no ordinary schoolgirl crush; she's chosen her mate for life, for she is a were-owl, daughter of witches with owl blood in the family, er, tree. But even her unblinking obsession with Mr. Lindstrom, who sleeps in nothing but Fruit of the Looms size 34, suffers distraction when she discovers a deranged boy lurking in the woods outside her beloved's house. Innovative and convincing first-person fantasy, a forerunner in its genre. If Owl's voice felt overly formal at times, well, she's an owl. Strongly recommended.

The End of the Beginning, by Avi, 2004

Avon the snail longs for adventure, so he and his friend Edward the ant set out in search of one. But snails have a slow time of it, which affords more chances for reflection along the way. Edward and Avon are simple minds with warm hearts, and their tale of there-and-back-again is not without its charm. Young readers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Night Birds on Nantucket, by Joan Aiken, 1966

Improbability reigns supreme in this sequel to Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido Twite, lashed to a beam and lost at sea, is rescued by a Nantucket whaler, nursed on blubber soup for nine months, and awakens to find herself in the merciful grip of a Quaker sea captain obsessed with a pink whale. Dido agrees to stay on in Nantucket and help Captain Casket's timid daughter, Dutiful Penitence, adjust to life with Aunt Tribulation. But Hanoverian plotters and foul imposters are never far away, and it takes all of Dido's pluck and sauce to stop a mad scientist from firing a gun across the Atlantic and hitting St. James Cathedral. Recommended.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Mouse Called Wolf, by Dick King-Smith, 1997

Wolfgang Amadeus Mouse, so named because the smallest mouse baby in the litter needed a big name to back him up, has rare musical gifts, which neither his siblings nor his mother can fully appreciate. But the old lady who plays the piano next to the mouse-hole soon discovers her pest protege, and there springs a warm and chocolaty friendship between them. Simple, sweet without sentimentality, with cleverly understated wit. Well suited to elementary readers but older readers will enjoy it also. Strongly recommended.

Black Hearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken, 1964

Simon journeys to London to find his friend, Dr. Gabriel Field, under whose direction he intends to enter art school, but the doctor seems to have vanished. He meets the despicable Twites, his landlords, and their irrascible daughter Dido; and rediscovers his good friend Sophy, now lady's maid to the Duchess of Battersea. But a chorus of rascals comes and goes between the Twite home and Battersea Castle, and when Simon discovers an arsenal of weapons in the Twite's cellar, he suspects a Hanoverian plot against Good King James. Rollicking good fun set in an alternate England where the Glorious Revolution never happened, full-fledged danger and villainry that isn't watered down for the kiddies, and a literary original you'll not soon forget, Dido Twite. Most strongly recommended; read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase first.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady, by Gerald Morris, 1999 (Sequel to The Squire's Tale)

Terence, squire par excellence to Sir Gawain of the Round Table, has grown a few years older and developed an eye for the ladies. On a quest in which Sir Gawain seeks a Green Knight who's obligated to chop off Gawain's head (don't ask why, there's a lofty chivalric reason), Terence rescues, or is rescued by, the feisty Lady Eileen of Irish blood and temperament. Monsters, villians, and slightly naughty courtly love abound in this Arthurian coming-of-age romance. Minor stylistic hiccoughs don't interfere with this retelling of "Gawain and the Green Knight's" humor, charm, and good fun. Recommended.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Belle Prater's Boy, by Ruth White, 1996

When Gypsy's aunt, Belle Prater, up and disappears from out of her bed, and Uncle Everett takes to drink, pretty soon her cousin Woodrow moves in next door with Granny and Grandpa Ball. Woodrow wears Coke-bottle glasses and bears the brunt of their Virginia mining town's curiosity over his mother's disappearance. Middle-grade realism; warm, thoughtful, unsentimentalized, unexpected. Strongly recommended.

The Monster's Ring, by Bruce Coville, 1982

If only Russell Crannaker could really turn into Frankenstein's monster on Halloween, and frighten off Eddie who keeps beating him up! When a wrong turn to escape the bully leads him to Mr. Elives' Magic Shop, Russel buys the Monster's Ring for a dollar, and gets a lot more than he bargained for. Upper elementary fantasy, with just the right blend of thrills, naughtiness, and cafeteria humor. Strongly recommended, a great choice for children just starting to read novels.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Mister Monday, by Garth Nix, 2003. The Keys to the Kingdom, Book One

Arthur Penhaligon ought to have died from his gym class asthma attack. Instead, he has a hallucination of a bedraggled butler named Sneezer and an idle aristocrat named Monday giving him a metal key which restores his breathing. When foul-smelling, dog-faced Fetchers invade his school, and people start dropping ill with Sleepy Plague, Arthur begins to realize what's been thrust upon him. This extraordinarily inventive middle-grade fantasy suggests shades of Oz and Wonderland in its elaborate depictions of the House governed by Monday and the Morrow Days. But its premise is much more ordered and deliberate, leaving a hearty appetite for sequels. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry, 2000

When Kira's mother dies, the village women take over her cot as a plot of land for a pen for tykes and chickens, and threaten to stone her, since she's handicapped and unfit to live. The village Guardians intervene and assign her to live in relative luxury inside the Council Edifice, which has furnished rooms and even hot water, and her only job is needlework, her one great skill. Another Lowry dystopia of uncertain ending, pitting brave if bewildered young people against a repressive society. Matt, Kira's sidekick, is much more interesting and active than Kira; the novel lacks action and drama. Still, Lowry's fans will enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt, 2006

How to summarize this remarkable novel? It feels blasphemous to do so. Its power lies far, far deeper than its mere plot. Meet Keturah, meet Lord Death, and be swept away, and changed. Young adult fantasy. Most urgently recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ludie's Life, by Cynthia Rylant, 2006

Ludie grew up in Alabama in the 1910's, married at 15, and with her coal miner husband, moved to West Virginia to live her life and raise her six babies, which may have been five too many. This novel in verse was shelved in the YA section of my library; I can't help feeling this book belongs on the adult shelves, and may in fact have been intended to land there. Unimpressive verse and a jaded air to most of the selections. It may appeal to some, and fit bitter with the sensibilities of literature for adults, but from me: not recommended.

The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan, 2006

Percy Jackson almost makes it through a year of school without incident, until fire-hurling Laistrygonian monsters show up in gym class on his last day. His not-so-little little brother, Tyson, saves him, and together they flee with Annabeth to Camp Half Blood, which has had a leadership shakeup and fallen on hard times. Could this be another step in Kronos' bid to return to power, aided by disgruntled heartthrob Half Blood and Percy's old nemesis, Luke? Like good Greek tragedy, a full cast of monsters for our hero to battle; like good middle-grade fantasy, a loyal if complicated band of friends to join in the quest. Fun, fast, furious. Book Two of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is strongly recommended. Read the books in order.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Squire's Tale, by Gerald Morris, 1998

There's something unusual about Terrence, squire to Sir Gawain of King Arthur's Round Table, and neither he nor anyone else -- except Merlin -- seems to know why. Time and again his instincts and courage save Sir Gawain on their quests, and as Gawain comes to better understand women, Terrence learns about his origins, saving the king in the process. Terrence calls to mind Taryn in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles. True to the form of knightly romance, the story wanders from quest to quest, and modern critics might wish for a more character-driven narrative where knowledge isn't so often magically handed to the main character. Nevertheless, a satisfying read. Recommended.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw, 1996

Old Bess could tell that the baby in the truckle bed was different than before -- its eyes changed color, and it screamed night and day, especially when the iron-wearing blacksmith came indoors! But Yanno and Anwara, the baby's parents, wouldn't hear what Old Bess had to say: that the baby was a changeling, one of the Moorfolk, swapped for their own infant. So Saaski grew and tried to do as a human child would, but that didn't stop the villagers from calling her freaky-odd, and blaming their troubles upon her. Engrossing middle grade fantasy, complex, psychological, atmospheric. Most strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Place Where Nobody Stopped, by Jerry Segal, 1991

For a place that's hardly a place, just a cluster of cottages between Smolensk and Vitebsk, the place where nobody stops keeps getting visitors. First Yosip the lonely Baker, the Sergeant Major and his platoon of cossacks, Mordecai ben Yahbahbai the impractical scholar and his intelligent wife Ginzl, then their ten babies ... An original story in Russian folktale's clothing, with many layers of sweetness and horror and complexity: love and loneliness, poetry and practicality, valor and violence, and the collision of cultures and ways in turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia. Recommended for middle grade and up.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

How I Found the Strong, by Margaret McMullan, 2004

Frank "Shanks" Russell watches as his father and brother enlist in the Confederate Army, full of promises to be home by Christmas. He stays home with his mother, his grandparents, and Buck, the family's slave. The family endures the mounting horrors and privations of the war amid departures, deaths, and births, and Shanks finds his courage tested without ever going to war. Elegant, thoughtful, compassionate writing; a moving and convincing portrayal of the Civil War and its moral dilemmas. Strongly recommended.

Changing Tunes, by Donna Jo Napoli, 1998

When Eileen's dad moves out, he takes the piano with him, forcing her to practice in the school auditorium every afternoon with a janitor for her audience. But she can't bring herself to tell her best friend Stephanie why she plays at school every day, or what's really going on at home. A middle grade divorce story with disappointingly stiff characters and unremarkable events. Not recommended.

Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia, by Barbara O'Connor, 2003

Bird's looking for a friend, and when gangly, squinty-eyed, tight-lipped Harlem Tate moves into town to live with can-scavenging Mr. Moody, Bird figures he's unaccounted for and might be won over. With the help of her neighbor / fairy godmother Miss Delphine, she persuades Harlem to be her partner in the sixth-grade spelling bee. A surprising, satisfying, funny, believable, oh-so-Southern middle-grade novel as warm and fragrant as Miss Delphine's apple pie. Strongly recommended.

George and the Dragon Word, by Dianne Snyder, 1991

When George's ugly word turns Greataunt Agatha into a dragon, she drags him to a goaty-looking linguist named Wordsmith who makes custom words to order, so he can create a word to undo the damage. A light and short read perfect for elementary readers who are discovering the power of words, of sounds -- and of kindness. Recommended.

Marcy Hooper and the Greatest Treasure in the World, by Stephanie Tolan, 1991

The one thing Marcy Hooper feels she can do well is read -- maybe not so well that she remembers how the words are spelled, but well enough to be carried away to the magical worlds of princesses and dragons in the stories she likes best. But one day when she runs away from home she finds herself in a cave where her storybook tales are real, and her search for treasure brings unexpected results. Geared for elementary school readers.

The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh, 1982

Father says they may only bring one book each on the ship that will carry them from Earth, on the verge of destruction, to the nearest habitable planet. Joe brings Robinson Crusoe, and Sarah a pony story, but Pattie brings The Green Book, which is blank. Their new planet, which Pattie names Shine, has air and water and sparkling vegetation as if made of glass -- but can it sustain them? A lean, graceful text, simple yet compelling, with not a word out of place. Its unusual point of view stance is ultimately rewarded. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Witch's Wishes, by Vivian Vande Velde, 2003

Well-intentioned wish granting goes awry on Halloween night -- and so does the attempted reversal -- when a witch rewards a kind young girl by making her costume magic wand turn real. Whether Sarah's wishes come true or turn upside-down, the results are disastrous, just as the witch's wise-cracking broomstick warned her. A short and lively early grade light fantasy novel, full of whimsy and a surprising level of complexity for the length and readership age. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Beyond the Deepwoods: Book 1 of The Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, 1998

When long-legged Twig learns he's not really a woodtroll, he sets off through the Deepwoods to locate his adoptive cousin and perhaps find his destiny. He's waylaid by a parade of the bizarre and predatory inhabitants of the Deepwoods, and nearly digested on more than one occasion before discovering his true origins. A collaboration between author and illustrator, this episodic novel's great strenth is its vivid menagerie of frightful beasties, wonderfully drawn by Chris Riddell. Its weakness is its overreliance on those beasties, and on the illustrations themselves, which liven up a sometimes disconnected narrative. Points for each time the word "sticky" is used, and the text's bonus word is "juddered." For readers fond of monsters and goo, recommended.

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett, 2006

When she hears the music of a Morris dance ushering in the winter, Tiffany Aching can't keep her feet still. That's how she catches the attention of the Wintersmith, or elemental god of winter, as cold, persistent, and dense a suitor as a 13-year old girl can have. But he's determined to prove himself to her, and the Nac Mac Feegles -- and Roland, the Baron's son -- have an Olympic quest to undergo to save Tiffany and restore the balance of nature, even if Tiffany's not used to being rescued, thank you very much. The third Tiffany Aching story contains more of the same Pratchett absurdity, and plenty of Feegles, but it lacks the luster of books one and two. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett, 2004 (Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men #2)

Tiffany's off to the mountains to learn proper witchery, leaving behind the Chalk, the sheep, and the Baron's son Roland, a connoisseur of curtseys. But something sinister is searching for just such a host as Tiffany's powerful mind, and Tiffany finds she can't leave the blue, six-inch Nac Mac Feegle behind, wherever she goes. A take-no-prisoners sequel with at least as many belly laughs as the first. Smart and delicious. Most strongly recommended; read the books in order.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, 2003

With her mother's 1895 suicide in a Bombay marketplace, 16-year old Gemma Doyle begins to have alarming visions that fill her with a terrible foreboding of a power seeking to devour. Her family whisks her off to England to Spence Academy for girls to erase the scandal and make a lady of her. But strange visions follow, as does a swarthy young Indian, Kartik, who warns her not to tamper with the power beneath them. The novel invokes Victorian England's obsession with spiritualism and sensuality.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Wizard at Work, by Vivian Vande Velde, 2003

All the wizard wants is a quiet summer of fishing and gardening, but no, people keep insisting he solve their problems, and so the longsuffering wizard is summoned to every end of the kingdom in this episodic, fractured fairy tale novel. You just might learn the real story behind some tales you thought you knew. The understated, wry wizard is superb. Smart, funny, recognizable yet new, every tale is surprising but right, and carefully woven into the theme of the whole. For young middle grade up through advanced dementia, strongly recommended.

The Great Good Thing, by Roderick Townley, 2001

"Sylvie had an amazing life, but she didn't get to live it very often." From this enticing first line unfolds a post-modern, funny, clever, dramatic, psychological, sad, delicious fairy-tale fantasy. Where other narratives attempting this kind of storybook-comes-to-life format flop and fizzle, The Great Good Thing (so aptly named) never misses. To summarize would be sacrelige; hurry and read it. After you've read it, tell me what you expected from Thomas. It merits a new category in the Julie Berry blog: vehemently recommended.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Charm Bracelet (Fairy Realm #1), by Emily Rodda, 2000

Jessie hates to think of Granny leaving Blue Moon, her mountain home, but Jessie's mom says she must, now that she's taken a fall and her mind's not working like it should. Jessie wonders if it's not the fall, nor living alone, that's affected Granny, but the loss of her charm bracelet. A midnight summons from the wall to the secret garden shows Jessie that Granny is the true queen of a fairy realm that's now in terrible danger. A trite, patronizing narrative. Textual clues suggest an 11 or 12-year old Jessie, but illustrations and the utter mindlessness of the character, narration, and plot suggest a girl of six or seven, which is probably the target market. Overwritten, obsessed with and justifying its wise and "kindly" adults at the expense of its child hero. A Babysitter's Club of young girl fantasy. Some may enjoy it, but from me, not recommended.

Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones, 1989

Heather hates living at Castlemaine, where her parents are curators, and where tourists flock like sheep, leaving her no private place except the mound at the edge of the lawn. When Heather accidentally summons from the mound the glowing form of Wild Robert, once the heir to Castlemaine but for some treachery on account of his witchcraft, she finds she has far greater problems than tourists on her hands. A brush with the past that offers as much complication as romance, short and tightly written early middle grade fantasy. Strongly recommended.

The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, by M.T. Anderson, 2006

When Katie needs a break from solving hideous horrors and crimes, she, her best friend, Lily, and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, head to Moose Tongue Lodge on Resort on scenic Mt. Anderson (look twice at the name) for some detection-free R&R. But it seems they're not the only action-thriller book series heroes present, and nefarious crime has followed, nay, summoned, them there. The second in Anderson's nutty "Thrilling Tales" series promises a large second helping of the absurdity found in Whales on Stilts. It may depend even more heavily than the first title on allusion and parody of the childhood pulp fiction series of yesteryear, and therefore may make more sense to adult readers. Still, recommended.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett, 2003

Tiffany Aching has little to help her save the world and retrieve her stolen baby brother besides First Sight, Second Thoughts, and an iron frying pan. What little she does have besides that are the Nac Mac Feegle, six-inch, sword-wielding kilted blue-skinned thieving drunkards who roam the downs and sheepwolds of the Chalk. And a determination to preserve what's hers, just as old Granny Aching had had, which might ultimately be all she needs to be a proper witch. Strong, confident, audacious, hilarious, successful fantasy and story. This reader hasn't laughed so hard in far too long. Most strongly recommended.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 1), by Rick Riordan, 2005

12-year old Percy Jackson is used to getting kicked out of school, used to tiptoeing around Smelly Gabe, his mom's odious husband, used to getting blamed for pretty much anything that goes wrong. But he's not used to math teachers transforming into mythic monsters and trying to rip his entrails out. Nor to minotaurs trying to impale him on his way to a Long Island summer camp. But, as he soon learns, when you're the son of Poseidon the Sea God, you inherit a lot of enemies, an impossible quest, some crazy would-be protectors, and a pretty amazing ball-point pen. And you learn to get used to just about anything the gods can dish up. Fast paced, absurd, dangerous, a rollicking yarn with a distinctly-voiced reluctant hero. Strongly recommended.

The Field Guide (Book 1 of The Spiderwick Chronicles), by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, 2003

What happens when a brownie goes bad (and it's not a chocolate cookie bar)? It becomes a boggart, a tiny mischievous creature who creeps between walls and under beds, stealing and spreading mayhem and getting others blamed for it. Jared Grace knows this, and eventually, so does his twin brother Simon and even their older sister Mallory. Clues suggest that their Spiderwick ancestors knew even more. But Mom refuses to believe anyone but Jared could have ransacked the kitchen and hogtied Mallory's hair. After all, Jared has been acting up a lot since the divorce ... This first of the Chronicles reads more like a serial installment than a complete novel, but its size, complexity, and illustrations make it well-suited to 7-9 year old readers.

The Lost Colony (Artemis Fowl, book 5) by Eoin Colfer, 2006

Artemis Fowl, 14-year old billionaire Irish genius, has tangled with fairy-folk, reformed, and finally earned their trust, but when he attempts to decipher an unraveling magical space/time paradox that brings demons stranded in another dimension to Earth, he finds that a new terrestrial rival, French millionaire 12-year old Minerva Paradiso, has gotten there first. Diabolically clever and devilishly pretty, Minerva is almost a match for Artemis, though puberty may be his real undoing. This fifth installment takes the Artemis series to newly implausible heights of cosmic-fairy-techno-crimebusting-derring-do, with romance for seasoning and several promising hooks left for #6. Leave logic at the door and ride the roller coaster. Recommended (but reading the prequels in order is vital).