The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

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girl-mans-upGirl Mans Up by M-E Girard
HarperCollins, 2016.

Portuguese American Penelope ‘Pen’ Olivera feels like she’s not really a girl, but doesn’t want to be a boy either. Over the course of her 11th grade, she finds her identity, falls in love, and makes some real friends who want her for herself, not what she can do for them.

Pen’s family is beyond dysfunctional: her parents are obsessed with their traditional idea of familial respect, and neither Pen nor her beloved older brother Johnny deliver this. Pen also learns that her longtime friend Colby is toxic to her and to other girls.

Though the book is needlessly meandering, and the characters can be tiresomely self-obsessed and inarticulate, it feels like an authentic portrait of a blue collar immigrant family and the struggles of the second generation with its feet in two camps that are worlds apart.

Pen is a well-drawn questioning teen, and her relationships with both Johnny and her girlfriend Blake ring true, but her friendship and support of Olivia, discarded by Colby, never has that same ring of truth, and feels like a rather heavy handed plot device.

With its eye catching cover and very of the moment gender questioning theme, Girl Mans Up will deservedly attract readers.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

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ms-bixbyMs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2016

Taking a sharp turn away from the fantasy action of Sidekicked and The Dungeoneers, Mr Anderson has written an impressive and moving realistic novel.

Sixth grade teacher Ms. Bixby announces to her class that she is sick and will have to leave before the end of the school year. But she leaves sooner than expected, and there’s no chance to have her planned Last Day shindig, so Topher, Steve, and Brand decide to take the celebration to her in hospital instead.

Most of the book takes place over the course of the day that the three boys bunk off school, and follows their quest to gather all the items to make the event perfect. Narrated in turn by each boy, we get to know them, and understand their relationship with their teacher and why they are all so individually motivated to make this party perfect. Ms Bixby has entered each of their lives in different ways and made them feel special, and very gradually we find out how and why.

As a warning, the title of the book has a double meaning, but it is sad without being maudlin. The author has perfectly pitched his sixth graders – still innocent and goofy but also taking on the beginnings of adult responsibilities. Funny and sweet without being syrupy, I would highly recommend Ms. Bixby for upper elementary/lower middle school fans of realistic fiction.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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ghostThree years ago, middle schooler Castle ‘Ghost’ Crenshaw found out he could run fast, when he and his mother were escaping from his father firing a gun at them. Now he’s been invited to be a sprinter for an elite track team, but he feels he can’t compete while he has to wear his raggedy high-tops. As Ghost realizes he can’t run away from his past, readers will be rooting for him as he gets ready to run towards a better future.

Ghost narrates this compelling first book in a middle grade series, in which all the characters are black unless otherwise mentioned. He has had a challenging life, and is frequently in trouble for getting into “altercations” at school, but under the guidance of Coach Brody, who looks like “a turtle with a chipped tooth,” Ghost is able to quieten the “scream inside” as he trains with the team.

Ghost is a typical Reynolds’ (When I Was the Greatest, 2014) protagonist: robustly authentic, smart, intrinsically decent, and quirky, with his love of sunflower seeds and world records. His mother, studying for her nursing exams while working full time and bringing up Ghost on her own, is a strong role model for him too, and is humanized by her love of soppy romantic movies.

Future books will center on the other “newbies” in the team: Lu, Patina, and Sunny. They are initially rather flat characters given traits to make them memorable: Lu is albino, Patty has been adopted by a white family, and Sunny lives in a wealthy neighborhood. But they blossom in their sharing of secrets over a Chinese dinner, which is a Coach tradition for new members of the team.

This is a short, fast-paced (ha!) book that will appeal to readers of Kwame Alexander’s books.

Naked ‘76 by Kevin Brooks

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naked-76Naked ‘76 by Kevin Brooks
carolrhodaLab, 2016 (first published in the UK in 2011)

Brooks follows up the success of The Bunker Diary (2015) with the American publication of this realistic YA novel set in London in 1976, when punk rock burst onto the British music and cultural arena. This was of particular interest to me as it’s about the defining era of my youth. However, it should be noted that I’m a middle-aged Brit, so I’m not the target audience!

Lili Garcia, narrating from the future, is asked by charismatic Curtis Ray to be the bass player in his band, Naked. As the band start gigging, they get deeper into the punk scene, and the author blends fiction with fact as they mix with seminal bands including the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and iconic figures like Malcolm McClaren.

At the same time, Lili and Curtis become a couple, though he seems more interested in drugs, alcohol, and hanging around with the really cool kids, and Lili seems pretty passive about this. But when William, a mysterious young Irish man with brilliant hazel eyes joins the band, the romantic tensions add to their music, while fracturing the relationships. An IRA sub-plot is rolled in here, though with little explanation of the Troubles.

The mostly upper middle class, mostly white characters represent only one side of the London punk scene, and the author does not seem particularly interested in the class or musical divisions that created this paradigm shifting culture.

The prose is pretty straightforward and unadorned, perhaps as befits a novel about a stripped down anyone-can-do-it music form and the plot moves forward in a linear and mostly unsurprising arc.

The author does touch on the alienated and alienating side of punk, which contemporary teen readers may be able to relate to. However, with its very specific milieu, Naked ‘76 will likely have limited appeal to American readers.

The Best Man by Richard Peck

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best-manThe Best Man by Richard Peck
Dial, 2016

Richard Peck’s perceptive and sunshine-warm middle-grade story of male role models naturally integrates a love story between two men, but is slightly marred by some stereotyped characters.

In a comfortably middle-class white suburb of Chicago, 6th grade narrator, blithely naïve Archer Magill, starts the story as a white velvet beshorted ring bearer at one wedding, and closes it as the Ralph Lauren-clad best man at the wedding of his Uncle Paul to teacher Ed McLeod. Between the two, Archer gives us vignettes of his school life, and the reader gets to know Archer’s laid back and empathetic Dad, and big-hearted Grandpa, and will understand why Archer wants to be them.

Peck succeeds admirably in creating two gay role models for Archer, though they are perhaps a little caricatured, with their emphasis on looking good (and it appears that not wearing socks with wingtips is a signifier of homosexuality). However, both Uncle Paul, a hotshot PR guy who remains close to his family, and swoony Mr. McLeod, who, literally, comes out in defense of a student bullies label as gay, embody the idea that “being gay isn’t a decision. How you live your life is a decision.”

However, the author irritatingly stereotypes female educators as either ineffectual and fluffy or battle axes, whereas dreamy Mr. McLeod, not yet qualified, is imaginative, authoritative and effective. And a British character is introduced who appears to be inspired by 1950’s ideas of what an English aristocrat should be. While this is clearly nothing like as egregious as stereotypes of people of color, it detracts and unbalances the other more realistically created characters. (I should note that none of the reviews mention these – maybe being a British female educator has just made me a bit sensitive)

There are many laughs in the novel – from Archer’s Youtube appearance with his split velvet shorts to the farce of Mr. McLeod’s first entrance – as well as more serious moments when Archer begins to get to grips with what growing up, and being grown up, mean. Overall, the author builds an idyllic, yet realistic, slice of one boy’s life, with its ups and downs, while gently slipping in a message of tolerance.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

I enjoyed Eleanor and Park (2013) very much, but I was much less keen on this overlong second novel by Rainbow Rowell.

Cath Avery is making a poor job of navigating her first year at college. She was expecting to hang out with her twin, but Wrenn has struck out on her own. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, is rather intimidating, and Cath’s writing partner in her fiction class seems to be stealing her work. But she can, at least, escape into the world of the Harry Potter-esque Simon Snow, and has her place in that world as an enormously successful fan fiction writer.

I was irritated by Cath’s drippiness, and eye-rolled my way through her frequent outbreaks of crying. How this sullen, almost silent, girl ends up attracting the charming and affable Levi is something of a mystery that I think has more to do with authorial wish-fulfillment than real life.

The novel is interspersed with excerpts from both the ‘real’ Simon Snow novels and Cath’s fanfic, usually presaging something that’s about to happen in Cath’s life. I found these extracts to be rather too long in places – particularly when Levi wants Cath to read to him (what a bookish girl fantasy that is!) – and though I mostly enjoyed these Potter-esque sections, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Carry On (2015), Rowell’s Simon novel.

There are some interesting ideas bubbling around the idea of creative writing. Cath finds herself so much more comfortable with fanfic, writing about someone else’s world and characters – but is this plagiarism, as her fiction professor believes? And does she really need a professor to tell her to use characters and situations from her own life instead?

I listened to this book and really enjoyed much of it, but I found the pace of the second half really slow, as we wound to the inevitable conclusion. Nonetheless, Cath is a credible and sympathetic portrait of an introverted young woman, and I understand why this book is so popular with many of my library-lurking students.