Category Archives: middle grade

Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter

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Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2018.

In this rousing fast-paced middle grade thriller, two teens battle the elements, terrorists and each other.

Six years ago, some Russian terrorists failed in their attempt to kidnap the First Lady – an attempt that was seen by her ten year old son Logan and his best friend Maddie, daughter of the head of the secret service. Now Maddie and her Dad live alone in the wilds of Alaska and Maddie has learnt survival skills while Logan has spent the ensuing years ignoring her and overenthusiastically enjoying the social perks of his position. When the President sends Logan to stay with Maddie to cool off, a Russian swoops in again and Logan is abducted – luckily Maddie is on their trail!

Maddie is an somewhat endearingly odd mix of wilderness “badassery”, including skills with knives and hatchets, and simpering girliness as she worries about her complexion and whether she finds Logan attractive (what do you think?). Logan is the sort of dreamy bad boy who comes with convenient skills such as understanding Russian and having a photographic memory. The Russian kidnapper who starts out as an unfeeling monster is turned into a more sympathetic character further in as it suits the plot.

Author Carter (the Gallagher Girls series) keeps the book short and breezy with characterization, dialogue, and setting all in efficient service of the plot and, though there is some wild implausibility – Logan manages to unlock his own handcuffs while walking over a broken rope bridge in a raging storm for example – it’s mostly a thrilling romp as the two teens face and overcome one obstacle after another to outwit their captor.

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Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott

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Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott
Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

Though rather misleadingly titled, this thoroughly researched and very readable historical novel shines a light on the third of the Schuyler sisters, Peggy, who only appears briefly in the first half of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and the lot of women in 18th century America.

Set between 1777-1781, the author has used contemporary letters and journals and informed speculation (no letters from Peggy have survived) to weave in battles, personalities, and events from the period as seen through Peggy’s eyes. Peggy has always felt like an afterthought compared to “scintillating, enrapturing Angelica [and] the saintly sweet Eliza” but the Revolutionary War is her opportunity to find her niche. With her sisters both married, Peggy is able to help her father as he runs black ops for George Washington and the Patriots.

Elliott’s Peggy is both very much of her time and will have appeal for today’s young women. In an echo of Hamilton’s “young, scrappy, and hungry,” Peggy’s father describes her as “stubborn, defiant, willful” and just what the new country needs. She wants to use her brains in the cause of liberty and “wit was her bayonet” but it was frowned on for women to express thoughts on what was considered men’s province: war, politics, and philosophy but to Peggy, women’s stuff seems so “small” in the context of the Revolution.

Despite the book’s title, Alexander Hamilton is very much a secondary character though the relationship between the two is charming. More significantly, the author shows the bond between the three Schuyler sisters as they part and come together again, quarrel and bond. Though the book does get a little bogged down in the nitty gritty of the revolution, the personalities of all the characters are crafted and vivid.

Peggy has a brief romance with a French officer, Fleury, which flames like a firework and then as quickly dies out. But by the end of the book, true love with a distant relative Steven Van Rensselaer is on the horizon.

The author has included an extensive afterword describing the research process and explaining what is true and what is informed speculation. There is also an extensive bibliography for reader wanting to dig deeper into Peggy and others’ lives.

Ideal for Hamilton fans who want to know more of the real story and as an unusual perspective for those interested in the founding of our country.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.

Granted by John David Anderson

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Granted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2018

Magic is draining out of the world, leaving very little for the fairies to be use to grant wishes. When rookie wish granter Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is finally sent on her first mission, to get a purple bike for a girl called Kesarah, it should be fairly straightforward. Instead Ophelia gets into one pickle after another before realizing that sometimes rules have to be broken.

Anderson, better known for his sharp and nimbly written realistic novels Ms Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, has created a fanciful world: a quirky mixture of whimsical wishlore and portentous digressions about the loss of wonder juxtaposed with the officialdom of the fairy world and the quotidian lives of the fairies (Ophelia is a fan of the mocha lattes in the new café on the 147th floor of Grant Tower). However, this scene setting slows down the pace, particularly in the first third of the book.

Ophelia is headstrong, impulsive, and initially rather a know it all, but as her adventures pile up she recognizes that she can’t do everything on her own or in her own way. She teams up with a stray mutt with a heart of gold, who is used to being called “Stupid Dog” but she calls him Sam. The warm-hearted core of the novel rests with this affectionate partnership as they both learn the value of friendship and helping each other.

While this didn’t have quite the same grip of Mr Anderson’s school novels or the same acute appeal to a specific age group, it is pleasantly imaginative and folksy. Ideal for readers of fairybooks who want to peek behind the curtain.

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross

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The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross
Harper Collins, 2018 (originally published in the UK in 2016)

A wacky novel celebrating the imagination, creativity, and kindness of children, set in an oddly anachronistic English hospital. When Tom gets hit on the head by a cricket ball at his boarding school, he is whisked to the children’s ward in London’s Lord Funt Hospital. There he discovers the Midnight Gang, fellow child patients who escape from their beds at night to make a dream come true for one of their numbers with the aid of the porter.

A lot of this is very sweet, gently funny, and anarchic in a Roald Dahl sort of way and Tony Ross’s whimsical and exuberant illustrations compound the comparison. However, the novel is old-fashioned though not in a good way, feeling reminiscent of a children’s story from the 1950’s complete with all the oblivious racism and classism of that time. The only person of color is the “dinner lady” Tootsie with her “huge Afro hairstyle” , who speaks “as if she were singing a song.” Dilly, one of the hospital cleaners, is a lazy caricatures of English working class incompetence, complete with cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth.

Other adults including the matron and the headmaster of Tom’s school who are straight out of the Dahl-playbook of cruel child haters. The Midnight Gang themselves are swiftly delineated: Amber is bossy, Robin is a smart alec, George is fat. Only the very sick Sally, left out of the gang as she is too weak to join in, and Tom himself who is a lonely and bullied child, show any semblance of being characters.

Mr Walliams is very popular in the UK as both a comedian and children’s author and he has had several books published in the US, including The Demon Dentist (2016). However, this book feels like a misfire to me and I wouldn’t recommend it to even the most Anglophile kid.

Posted by John David Anderson

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Posted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2017

Bench, Wolf and Deedee are Frost’s people, they make up his middle school tribe – he eats lunch with them, plays Dungeon and Dragons with them at weekends, and supports them in their passions. They have been together for years and are planning to cruise through middle and high school together.

But then two things happen: the school principal bans cellphones and Rose Holland starts at their school. These catalysts test the boys’ friendship and reveals the level of cruelty that anonymity can bring out in 8th graders. The cellphone ban generates a new method of communication – unsigned post-it notes. Many are just harmless notes to friends but a few are hate-filled.

The novel starts like an Andrew Clements novel with a funny situation at a school, but quickly gets much darker and more nuanced as it tackles middle school social dynamics rather than elementary school ones.

Frost, the narrator and the poet of the group, can only watch as his tribe fractures. Bench (so-called because of where he tends to spend most sports games) is not keen on letting Rose join them and when he makes a stunning catch in a football game and becomes part of the jock crowd he drifts away from them. Sensitive Wolf, a gifted pianist, bonds with Rose as they are both outsiders who become the target of post-it bullying. Only Dungeon master Indian American Deedee seems comfortable, or perhaps oblivious, with the status quo. Rose, “tall and wide,” has moved around from school to school and knows all about name-calling and bullying.

Set in a small town in Michigan, the novel zooms out from the school and portrays a variety of family structures and dynamics, and the effect that can have on a child. Frost’s parents are bitterly divorced, whereas Wolf’s are bitterly still together.

Mr Anderson seems comfortable to move between fantasy and novels, and writes equally adeptly in both genres. Kids who enjoyed Ms Bixby’s Last Day, should be happy to move up to the middle school machinations of Posted.

The Crims by Kate Davies

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The Crims by Kate Davies
Harper, 2017.

A mildly entertaining British novel about a family of absurdly incompetent criminals whose style reminded me of both David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency and Julian Clary’s The Bolds.

12 year old Imogen ran away to a fancy boarding school after the matriarch of the Crims was killed in a heist. However, when the rest of the family is jailed for the theft of a valuable lunch box, she feels obliged to return to help them out.

Davies does a competent job of delineating the numerous Crims by providing them with a defining trait: fearsome-looking Uncle Knuckles is really a gentle flower-loving man, Freddie is astonishingly absent-minded, Imogen’s father is an accountant who loves numbers and book-keeping, and so on. Imogen had developed an ambition to be a future world leader while at school, but now discovers that her love for her family and her suppressed criminal plotting genius outweighs that.

The silly situations, word play, and broad characters are somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, though the quips about grisly murders fall rather flat.

Judging by the open ending, the intention is to have a sequel in which the Crims take on the frighteningly competent Kruk family.