Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd


snickerIn this appealing, quirky middle grade tale of family, belonging and kindness, 6th grader Felicity Pickle and her itinerant family have finally returned to Mama’s home town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee  – a place that was full of magic until the long-ago Weatherly Brothers fell out and dueled.

Now Felicity brings magic of her own – she sees and collects words from the air – and once she starts investigating the real story of the Weatherly brothers with her new friend Jonah (who happens to be in a wheelchair), she has a chance to bring the magic back to the town, and maybe even cure her Mama’s “wandering heart”, so that their family can put down some roots.

This is a tale full of cutesily named warm-hearted folk (which is usually an absolute turn off for me) who speak wisely if idiosyncratically, and each character pops out of the page and has a role to play. Felicity’s simple desire for a home will strike a chord with many readers, so her discovery that a family need not be conventional, while not original, is heartfelt.

Snicker is sweet without being saccharine, moving without being manipulative, and the climactic re-enactment of the duel packs a mighty emotional punch. Lloyd’s debut is a “spindiddly” tale that will appeal to fans of whimsical titles like Savvy (Law, Dial, 2008) and Three Times Lucky (Turnage, Dial, 2012).

Grasshopper Jungle: A History by Andrew Smith


GrasshopperJungle16 year-old Austin Szerba is the self-appointed historian of the end of the world, in this YA science fiction horror story that is a gonzo mix of teen mundanity and armageddon.

Austin and his best friend, Robby, inadvertently unleash an army of Unstoppable Soldiers, giant mantid-like beasts, who only want to do two things – eat  (humans) and procreate. And if that wasn’t enough, Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann and with Robby and is in a perpetual state of sexual arousal and confusion.

Austin records, in obsessive and occasionally repetitious detail, the webs of physical and temporal links and connections that lead to and result from this catastrophe, and also weaves in the history of his own family.

Smith (The Marbury Lens, 2010) captures perfectly the contradictions of a teenager: Austin goes from raunchy to biology text book, from hilarious self-centeredness to serious reflection on the ethics of science and the military, as he tries to make sense of his feelings and what is happening in the wider world. Will appeal to older teens who like salacious black humor with their apocalypses.

The Selection by Kiera Cass


selectionWhile we were on holiday recently, I managed to sprain my ankle. Feeling a little sorry for myself and being in some discomfort I looked for something light to read. The teen librarian at the public library where I work occasionally had recommended The Selection as a fun read for my daughter, and it turned out to be an excellent way to while away an afternoon of enforced elevating and icing.

In this fluffy romantic beach read, The Hunger Games meets The Bachelor, with a pinch of America’s Next Top Model – think makeover week!

In the future, after many wars, America has become Illea (I think) and has adopted a rigid caste system and a hereditary royal family. The male members of the family must choose a bride through the Selection: one girl is chosen from each of the 35 provinces to compete for the prince’s heart. And now it is the turn of Prince Maxon to make his choice.

America Singer has no intention of entering for the Selection as she is deeply in love with Aspen, nor can she imagine having any affection for the apparently stuffed shirt Prince. But, of course, through various plot shenanigans she does both.

The world building is quite shaky – it’s not clear why America/Illea has chosen this medieval system of government or what’s going on in the rest of the world. It also seems strange that there are phones and TVs, but no computers in the future. And the characters, beyond the handful of primary ones are not even sketchy – they’re simply names.

But all that aside (and also putting aside the controversy about the author trying to build up the Goodreads profile of her book), I spent a happy few hours immersed in the comings and goings of America and her two beaux and look forward to reading the remainder of the trilogy.

Dreamwood by Heather Mackley


dreamwoodIn this debut middle grade fantasy, set in an alternate Pacific Northwest at the time when settlers depended on the forests for their living, 12 year-old Lucy Darrington searches for her father, a ghost catcher and inventor of gadgets, who has set off to the ominous Devil’s Thumb peninsular to find dreamwood, a possible cure for Rust, a disease that is killing all the trees.


The first hundred pages of the novel are a little too stuffed with set up and exposition, but once Lucy, and her new friend Pete, set out on their quest, the pace and creepy tension ratchet up, and the foreboding evil on the Thumb is palpable.


There is a subplot with a tribe of First Peoples that adds to the rich atmosphere and original world creation, but it is not integral to the main narrative and there is nothing particularly original about the fictional Lupine tribe. Was there ever a Native American ‘princess’ who is not a proud and beautiful warrior?


Lucy is a feisty girl who is used to being right and working things out on her own, so her relationship with proud and self-reliant Pete is initially strained, but develops as they learn to rely on each other.


With a satisfying conclusion that puts sustainability on the agenda, everyone gets their due, good and bad. As several peripheral characters meet unpleasant deaths, this is more suitable for an older middle grade crowd than the cover and publisher description might suggest. Though there is perhaps a little too much plot, fantasy lovers will be excited by this new voice.

The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor


things you kiss goodbyeIn Connor’s (Waiting for Normal, 2010) YA romance, 16 year-old Bettina Vasilis feels isolated by the rules of her traditional Greek family, and by her lack of social activity since her best friend left town. Her life picks up after she catches the attention of “shy, sweet” Brady Cullen and she gets an unexpected taste of freedom when her father allows her to date him.

But it becomes an abusive relationship following a tragically familiar path: Brady alternates jealousy and physical abuse with loving attention, and Bettina is compliant. She doesn’t want to lose her liberty, and as she becomes conscious of how her mother is subservient to her authoritarian father, she starts to follow that pattern of behavior.

When Bettina meets an older man, 26 year-old Cowboy, however, she finds a relationship with someone who values her and who she is, but the icky age difference is never addressed. Though Brady’s transformation from loving kid to monster feels a little abrupt, and Cowboy seems just a little too dreamy, Bettina’s maturing feelings and her fight against the family ties that bind her are impressively well-written.

A two hanky ending cuts off several interesting plot threads, but this romance is given some backbone by Bettina’s emerging self-assured persona and by an affectionate, though clear-sighted, depiction of a family.

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop


surrounded by sharksThe gripping excitement in this middle grade survival tale kicks off when 13 year-old Davey Tsering gets up early on the first day of his family’s vacation in Florida, and finds a secluded beach. Ignoring the “NO SW MM NG” sign, he wades into the warm water but is quickly swept out to sea by a riptide.

At its heart, this is a kid power book, switching between Davey’s coolheaded fight for survival in shark-infested waters, and his brother’s crucial role in the increasingly panicky search for him on shore.

Northrop’s (Trapped, 2011) characters are little more than outlines – this book is all about the action which it delivers in spades – though the dynamics of the Tsering family, particularly the relationship between the two brothers, is well-drawn.

Surrounded by Sharks is a fast-paced adventure, from the first pages to the final heart-stopping rescue attempt, and, coming in at just over 200 pages, will have wide appeal even to reluctant readers.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares


HereAndNowIn this breezy twist on a YA dystopian novel, Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series) smartly connects a nightmare future to today’s inertia about climate change, and wraps it in an easy to read romantic thriller.

12-year old Prenna James travels from plague-ridden broken down 2098 back to 2010 along with nearly a thousand others. Four years later, Prenna discovers that it is her task to make a crucial difference so that the future is brighter. Brashares creates a believable community of time travelers, with rigid rules and structures designed for them to have as little effect on the future as possible.

But Prenna takes the typical dystopic heroine route from willing compliance to feisty rebellion, when she breaks the rules and falls in love with a ‘time native’, Ethan. Through Prenna’s eyes, the reader appreciates “the lushness, the generosity” of our world, and can feel her frustration at the lack of meaningful action being taken to keep it that way.

Ethan is rather bland in his perfection, as well as mind-bogglingly resourceful, and the other characters, even Prenna’s closest friend Katherine, are only perfunctorily developed. However, the time travel elements of the plot are well-thought through, and the race to change the future is stirring.

Though the finale is a little rushed and credibility-stretching, The Here and Now will have plenty of appeal to readers who like a good helping of romance with their science fiction. And thanks heavens it’s a standalone – I’m so tired of reading first parts of trilogies! Review based on an ARC from Netgalley.

Knockout Games by G. Neri


KnockoutGamesInspired by true events, Neri (Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, Lee & Low, 2010) has written a powerful YA story that reflects the realities of life at the raw edges of our society.

15 year-old Erica feels alienated and angry: Her parents have split up, she and her mother have moved to St. Louis, and she has no friends at her new school, where she is one of only a few white kids. But she finds a connection when she videos some kids playing the Knockout Game – hitting a random person until he or she is unconscious – and she gradually gets drawn into their group when she becomes involved with the Knockout King.

Caught up in the visceral, slightly sickening thrill of the game, Erica initially shies away from the moral issues, and it is only when the game goes too far that she faces what she is involved in and decides to make amends.

Told from the perspective of Erica, the only white kid in the group, the casual violence initially has only subtle racial overtones, but the issues become much more overt when a neighborhood action group becomes involved: the white community feels that violence committed against them is ignored by the police and the black community feels that the police unfairly single them out for prosecution. I’m unsure why Neri, an African American author, chose to write from the perspective of a white girl, especially as the other (mostly African American) characters are not particularly well-developed.

There are no easy solutions to these racial and social fractures in real life and Neri only just avoids a glib resolution in this otherwise morally complex novel.

She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick


invisibleFar removed from the Gothic fantasy of his Printz award winning Midwinterblood (2013), Marcus Sedgwick’s new YA mystery wraps a contemporary story of a blind girl searching for her father around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe”.

When 16 year-old Laureth gets a message that makes her believe her father has gone missing in New York, she takes her “slightly strange” 7 year-old brother, Benjamin, and they fly from London to find him. She needs her brother with her because she was born blind. Laureth determinedly tries to hide her vulnerability from the rest of the world with a variety of strategies and she navigates us through their challenging journey so that we can begin to understand how she navigates through life without visual cues.

Her father is obsessed with finding meaning in coincidences, and Laureth becomes increasingly aware of them as they follow his cryptic trail. Pages from her father’s notebook, on topics from Jung to Poe, give the reader more food for thought on the subject.

A growing sense of unease is brilliantly created, though the quest, which puts both Laureth and Benjamin to the test, ends in a more conventional way than you might hope, even as it ties up all the loose ends. This is a well-paced, moving story with superbly developed characters (including the fabulous Mr. Walker), and the end of the final chapter will make some readers want to go back and reexamine everything they have just read.