new books

New Books Roundup: Spring 2018

New Books Roundup: Spring 2018

New books! Indian mythology, lightning-induced math genius, quirky seaside towns, and more round out this list of new fiction.

21 New Books for Your Fall Reading List

21 New Books for Your Fall Reading List

A teenager starts a feminist revolution, Humpty Dumpty adjusts to life post-Great Fall, the Bronte kids create a dangerous imaginary world, a RenFaire girl finds middle school challenging, and more great books to read this fall.

New Books: Recently Read in Middle Grades Fiction

New Books: Recently Read in Middle Grades Fiction

A boarding school on a ship, a demon with a centuries-old agenda, and a haunted house in Chicago bring a little mystery to middle grades fiction.

New Books: Recently Read Roundup

New Books: Recently Read Roundup

It's all about adventure in these new books, whether you're visiting a fantasy world where one brave guild stands between a city and disaster or meeting a tween determined to start her own restaurant.

New Books: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

The question that always comes up when we’re talking about people like the Founding Fathers is this one: How could the people whose legacy is the freedom and democracy established by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution keep slaves? This book doesn’t attempt to answer that unanswerable question. Instead, it shines a spotlight on some of the people enslaved by these heroes of early U.S. history—which, in the case of this well-researched and utterly compelling collection of mini biographies, feels like the only reasonable way to approach this not-so-beautiful piece of our history.

Davis focuses on the lives of five enslaved people (he specifically avoids calling them slaves because of the way that word can dehumanize people by reducing them to property): Billy Lee, who was George Washington’s valet; Ona Judge, another enslaved member of Washington’s household who the family pursued aggressively when she escaped to freedom; Isaac Granger, a skilled metal worked owned by Thomas Jefferson and given by him, along with the rest of the Granger family, to his daughter as a wedding present; Paul Jennings, who served as James Madison’s valet, and Alfred Jackson, who was an enslaved person owned by Andrew Jackson’s family. At first, these may seem like stories of ordinary, everyday people, but that’s the point: For every person like Billy Lee who left more than a bill of purchase in the annals of history, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, whose stories we just don’t know. Davis does a great job piecing together the scraps of available history into narratives that capture the experience of being a slave in the early days of the United States. Some of it is really hard to read—Washington’s dogged pursuit of his escaped slave stood out for me—but these feel like stories that need to be told. I also appreciated that Davis addresses upfront the problem of history and enslaved people—namely, that slaves are not likely to speak ill of masters with the power of life and death over them and that chroniclers of enslaved people might have had a tendency to pick and choose what they included in their narratives, often biasing their work toward positive comments. 

This book isn’t a hatchet job on our Founding Fathers, but it does point out the inherent contradictions between their ideal of democracy and their pragmatic approach to slavery in their own lives. I think this should be on every middle grades and high school U.S. history reading list. I had a few problems with the book—the author has a tendency to talk down to his audience and overexplain, which got in the way for me sometimes—but on the whole, it’s an excellent read on an important subject and well worth adding to your library hold list, stat.

New Books: The Star Thief

The Star Thief
By Lindsey Becker

Honorine can’t remember anything from the time before Lord Vidalia brought her home with him to his country estate, but she knows that she’s fortunate to have found a home. Not all orphans are so lucky. Sure, the starching, dusting, and cleaning duties that fill her days as a maid aren’t intellectually stimulating, but she has Lord Vidalia’s library of curious books, and she has her mechanical inventions, and—until he left for boarding school after his father disappeared—she had her best friend Francis, heir to the Vidalia estate. It’s a perfectly fine life—that comes crashing to a halt one night when the mansion is invaded, and Honorine flees into the grounds to escape and plunges into an adventure she could never have imagined.

The constellations we know—Orion, Andromeda, Canis Major—are alive, and they’re being hunted by a mysterious Mapmaker in a fantastic, steampunk flying ship. The constellations have their own fantastic, steampunk flying ship, and Honorine’s torn between the constellations—with whom she seems to have a real connection—and their hunters, who include her old friend Francis. As she’s pulled into the adventure, she realizes that the constellations may also be able to help her solve the mystery of her parents.

The Star Thief is a middle grades fantasy novel with a premise that any star-gazer would love, and it’s full of complicated alliances and even more complicated machinery. It’s a totally fun, action-packed adventure story—it’s so fun that it may not even bother you that the characters get short shrift in this story. (Even Honorine feels one-dimensional most of the time.) The constellations’ living ship sometimes feels like it has more personality than any of the creatures inhabiting it. (The ship is pretty amazing and imaginative, so that’s maybe less of an insult than it sounds like.) If you can coast along on the plot and fantastic descriptions, you’ll definitely enjoy the ride, but if you’re looking for something deeper from a book, this one is likely to disappoint. I like a fun read now and then and I enjoyed The Star Thief, but I couldn’t help wishing for the book it might have been. I think it would be fun to do as a readaloud when you’re studying constellations or as a pool or park readaloud on a lazy summer day when you just want something with lots of action to entertain everyone.

New Books: A Face Like Glass

A Face Like Glass
By Frances Hardinge

Once upon a time—and that is really the only way to start to talk about the fantastical world of this novel—a cheesemaker named Grandible finds an abandoned child in his labyrinthine home underground.

‘It draws you in. You twist your mind into new shapes. You start to understand Caverna . . . and you fall in love with her. Imagine the most beautiful woman in the world, but with tunnels as her long, tangled, snake-like hair. Her skin is dappled in trap-lantern gold and velvety black, like a tropical frog. Her eyes are cavern lagoons, bottomless and full of hunger. When she smiles, she has diamonds and sapphires for teeth, thousands of them, needle-thin.’
’But that sounds like a monster!’
’She is. Caverna is terrifying. This is love, not liking. You fear her, but she is all you can think about.’

Grandible isn’t just any cheesemaker—he’s THE cheese artisan of Caverna, a city with no shortage of spectacular craftspeople. Behind his well-defended door, the reclusive genius makes cheeses that are the stuff of legend: the emerald-rinded Whitwhistle, which issues a fluting melody as it settles, the paralyzing Poric Hare-Stilton which Grandible puts on double duty as a booby trap, and the labor-intensive Stackfalter Stilton that needs to be turned every 141 minutes exactly—a task that requires at least two workers to accomplish. Even in Caverna, a city where artisans compete against each other in an ever-more-spectacular competition to pique the jaded interest of the city’s immortal ruler. Grandible’s talent is the stuff of legend. He could be a darling of the court, but for reasons known only to himself, he’s gone into seclusion, barricading his doors against the world outside and refusing the society of the city.

And the child, who somehow finds her way into his tunnels and survives on his potent cheeses, is not just any child. Grandible protects the girl—he calls her Neverfell—the only way he knows how—by keeping her hidden and hiding her face with a velvet mask. But safety in Caverna is an illusion, and when Neverfell follows a white rabbit out of the safety of Grandible's tunnels, she must confront a dangerous world, where Facesmiths help citizens express subtle emotion through their features, where the Kleptomancer carries out spectacular thefts, and where every person she meets is caught up in at least one scheme. As Neverfell discovers the city’s darkest secrets, she realizes that her own forgotten history is tangled up with Caverna’s treacherous past.

This book is so wonderfully, eerily weird. Hardinge is brilliant at creating creepy worlds that slowly untether themselves from reality, twisting into complex, elaborately detailed fantasy lands. (See also: Cuckoo Song, The Lost Conspiracy) Nothing is ever simply what it seems—eddies of undercurrent swirl beneath the surface of every scene, every character, and every conversation. Neverfell, whose innocence gives her power even as it puts her in danger, is a tempestuous person, as emotional and changeable as her dangerous face, but it’s the other characters who make this book come to life: staunch, angry Erstwhile who grew up one of the city’s disposable Drudges; Madame Appeline, the celebrated Facesmith whose sad, sweet faces remind Neverfell of something she can’t remember; the Grand Steward, who has lived so long that nothing interests him and he’s started plotting against himself; and Caverna herself, a living city full of literal twists and turns with plans of her own.

I kind of loved this book. It’s beautifully imagined, and the writing has a dreamy lyricism that draws you into the complicated, shadowy world of Caverna. And it's so darn interesting: It raises all kinds of questions about the ways we know ourselves and other people, the importance of feelings—even when they’re bad or unattractive, the power of words and storytelling and believing. Like most Hardinge books, it’s for middle grades with an asterisk—it’s creepy and dark, and not all readers are ready for that, but it’s also a book that young adults and even adult-adults could really love. As long as you don't mind a little time on the dark side, put this one near the top of your library list.

New Books: Maresi

Maresi (The Red Abbey Chronicles)
By Maria Turtschaninoff

Here’s the set-up: In Maresi’s world, the Red Abbey is both a refuge and a resource for women seeking a better life. Within its women-only domain, girls study with the sisters, learning—among other things—healing, housework, and history, while following the Abbey’s seasonal rituals in honor of the Goddess. 

When Maresi comes to the Abbey, she has a secret: When she was in the world, she saw the door made by the Crone, the goddess’s death aspect, just before her little sister starved to death. Every time she passes the Crone’s door in the Abbey, she shudders and tries to convince herself that it was just her imagination. Other than that, life at the Abbey is good—Maresi doesn’t find it easy to make friends with her fellow novices, but she can spend hours exploring the shelves of books in the House of Knowledge. Books are Marsei’s favorite thing in the world.

When Jai comes to the Abbey, a refugee fleeing for her life and so damaged by what’s happened to her that she can hardly speak, Maresi makes her first real friend. But Jai’s past is still following her, and before long, it will put all of the Abbey in danger—and force Maresi to come face-to-face with the goddess’s death aspect at long last.

This is deceptively simple fairytale story that builds slowly. The Red Abbey is vividly imagined—the intelligent, practical sisters approach the laundry with the same respectful reverence they give to their daily worship, and there’s much quiet celebration as each novice finds her calling and the sister who will help her follow it. The daily and yearly routine of the Abbey is built up so gradually and steadily that the reader feels as disrupted and upset as the Abbey’s novices when that peaceful existence is breached by outside violence. 

I think a lot of fantasy stories lose me because of the way women get reduced to secondary characters in them, but that’s not the case here: In fact, I’d say that the men get short shrift in Maresi. They’re pretty one-dimensional villains, even though the author does try to make the point that not all of them are completely evil. (Just mostly.) Still, it doesn’t feel like she’s suggesting that all men are evil, just this particular vengeance-bound bunch bent on violating the sanctity of the Abbey. Maresi is a pleasantly well-rounded character—good at some things, bad at some things, kind sometimes, and cross sometimes. Her fear at being linked to the Crone feels real, and I was delighted with her in the moment when she realizes that her beloved library is as much a part of the Crone’s domain as the afterlife. Stories, after all, hold the dead, too.

There’s a confrontation at the end between the women of the Abbey and the attacking soldiers that’s pretty tense and definitely on the young adult side of the reading spectrum. (There is violence against women which makes sense in the context of the story but which is still violence against women.) The book is translated from the original Finnish, which gives it a hint of other-ness that I think works really well for a fantasy world, but I know some readers can find that off-putting. All in all, I found Maresi a pleasant surprise: A feminist fantasy with strong, believable characters and great world building.

New Books: Alterations

By Stephanie Scott

You’ve seen Sabrina, right? (The Audrey Hepburn flick where she plays the chauffeur’s daughter in love with the son of the family who employs her dad? If you haven’t, you are missing out, and you should probably go watch it now.) Scott wrote Alterations as a kind of 21st century YA take on Sabrina, and in terms of frothy, fashion-y fun, it works as a pretty successful homage. 

Amelia has spent her life living on the Laurenti family estate, where her abuelita works as the family’s chef. Amelia has grown up watching handsome, popular Ethan—and his brother Liam—from afar, dreaming of the day when her crush will finally notice her. But Amelia’s abuelita thinks it’s time for Amelia to find a life away from the Laurentis, and she sends off Amelia’s discarded application to a prestigious New York City summer fashion program for teens. Though she’s nervous at first, soon Amelia is living the Project Runway life, shopping at Mood, making her designs work, and even showing an evening gown on the runway at the end of the program. More importantly, she’s making friends, boosting her confidence, and finally—though not without a few snags and some back-pedaling—coming into her own. (This was the best part of the book.) When she returns home, she’s a different girl from the shy, insecure girl she used to be—and Ethan finally notices her. But, as it turns out, Amelia’s long-time crush may not actually be the Laurenti brother she really wants to be with.

This is definitely a predictable teen romance, but if you like that kind of thing—and I do sometimes—it’s a pretty charming one. Amelia learns to define herself by much more than whoever she happens to have a crush on at a given time, and her friendships are just as important to the story as her love connections. I like that she makes mistakes (like lying to a new friend that Ethan is her boyfriend in a moment of stupidity), accepts and apologizes for them, and moves on. And I think her relationships with her mom and her grandmother feel warm and realistic. I did feel that the second half of the book dragged after Amelia came home from NYC—that part just wasn’t as interesting to me as the fashion school arc, and it seemed to take needlessly long for Amelia to realize that Liam was the Laurenti for her. But this is the kind of book I’d read by the pool or in the hammock, when what you want is something light and cheerful that you know will leave you with a happy ending. It’s fun, and sometimes that’s just what I want from a book.

Homeschool Gift Guide: Everybody Needs Books!

Homeschool Gift Guide: Everybody Needs Books!

The “something to read” is always my favorite part of shopping. I can’t buy all the books for my own family, so here’s a roundup of fabulous titles for many ages and interests.

New Books: More Than Magic

More Than Magic
By Kathryn Lasky

Something bad is happening to Rory, and Ryder is the only one who can stop it.

When Ryder’s late mom created cartoon character Rory, she was determined that she would be a brave, bold hero instead of a princess who needed saving. But now there are new plans for Ryder’s mom’s legacy, and they’re all about handsome princes and high-heeled shoes. Ryder suspects that her dad’s new girlfriend has something to do with Rory’s transformation. A little magic allows Ryder to team up with Rory in her animated world, and with the help of their friends, the girls team up to keep Rory from getting sucked into the princess trap.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have Issues with princesses, so I appreciated the fact that this book tackled that trope head-on. I loved seeing a couple of girls fight the princess-ing of female adolescence. I wish that Ryder and Rory (and the rest of the characters in this book) had been written more deeply—they were likable enough, but they felt a little one-dimensional. The magic in the book wasn’t well explained, but that never bothers me—it’s magic, right? I’m always ready to believe in magic. I liked the idea of characters from the real world being reflected in the animated world, and I wish Lasky had played more with this idea. And I was glad when Ryder made a real-life friend, but that friendship felt tacked-on rather than earned.

If you loved the vividly imagined, nuanced, epic world of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, be prepared: This book is totally different from that, and if you come to it expecting that kind of world-building, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you come to it looking for a fun, slightly feminist story for younger readers, I think this could be a fun choice. It’s not a great book, but it’s an enjoyable read.

New Books: Recently Read Middle Grades Books

I’ve fallen a little behind on reviewing the books I’ve read lately, so I thought I’d combine them into a few posts to catch myself up.


The Secret Keepers
By Trenton Lee Stewart

The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society is back with another tale of new friends on a dangerous adventure. This time, this kids in question are Reuben, who makes a dangerous discovery on one of his explorations in the city, and Penny, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter whose family guards a secret from a hidden evil. Pursued by the henchmen of a criminal known as The Smoke, Reuben unravels a series of clues that lead him to Penny’s lighthouse and the secret power of his mysterious discovery. Reuben, Penny, and Penny’s older brother team up to take down The Smoke once and for all.

Like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Secret Keepers is a sometimes over-complicated adventure story featuring intelligent, resourceful, independent children as its heroes. The storyline isn’t always satisfying for me—especially when it veers into situations that feel ridiculous (The Smoke’s big booby trap of a house is one of these for me)—but the protagonists are terrific and interesting, and you want to know what happens next for them. (I wish the villains were similarly complex.) The book is at its best during its suspenseful sequences, which are clearly Stewart’s forte—he builds the kind of tension that keeps you flipping pages—and the development of the characters on the side of good, especially the children. There are places where the lengthy descriptions and explanations bog the book down a bit—I think a little editorial intervention might have trimmed some of the length without losing any of the story—but that’s a quibble. This is an adventure story and—mostly—a pretty delightful one with plenty of satisfying twists and turns, perilous exploits, and a well-earned conclusion. 

If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, this one is definitely worth checking out on your next library trip.

The Secret of Goldenrod
By Jane O'Reilly

I have always had such a soft spot for old-fashioned books about old houses (see also: The Four-Story Mistake, Magic Elizabeth, Gone-Away Lake), and The Secret of Goldenrod fits so beautifully into that niche, even though it’s clearly a modern book with contemporary sensibilities.

Trina and her dad spend their life moving from house to house, fixing places up for other families to call home before moving onto their next fixer-upper. Their new project is a lonely Victorian mansion on the outskirts of New Royal, Iowa, a house called Goldenrod with a tragic past. When Trina and her dad move into the house, strange things start happening, and Trina’s convinced the old house is haunted. When she discovers an antique doll called Augustine, she’s sure that Goldenrod is no ordinary house. But what does it want?

It is no surprise that I loved this book, which was warm and gentle and just a pleasure to read. Though it deals with complicated issues, including Trina’s long-absent mother and the loneliness of always being “the new kid,” in a realistic way, it’s never bleak or depressing. And though the story is about a haunted house, it’s not scary at all—there are a couple of creepy moments when Trina’s alone in the house early on—but it’s the opposite of a horror story. Trina’s relationship with her single parent dad is beautifully written—complicated and caring and completely authentic. Watching Trina slowly open up her defenses, making friends and becoming part of a community, while the old house is slowly restored to its old splendor, feels good—but it also feels right, like something Trina has earned and built for herself.

This is the kind of book I would have checked out of the library over and over again. I think it would make an absolutely lovely readaloud—in fact, it’s up next in my family’s readaloud queue.

New Books: The Voyage to the Magical North

Brine Seaborne is allergic to magic—but that’s about the only thing she knows about herself since she can’t remember anything from the time before she was rescued from a rowboat at sea as a child. Now she’s stuck working as a servant for a grumpy magician, living for the moments when she can sneak into the library to read any book she can get her hands on.

Peter Magus is a magician-in-training, which makes him one of the most important people on the island. But Peter isn’t sure he has what it takes to be a real magician.

Brine and Peter have never gotten along, but when their mutual master the magician informs them that he’s arranged for Brine to go to work for and 12-year-old Peter to marry into the wealthiest family on their island, the two team up to make their escape. When they get picked up by the legendary pirate ship Onion, the unlikely duo find themselves on a wild adventure, including secret libraries, magical starshell, and perilous storms. They may finally find out whether Peter’s a real magician after all. They may discover the truth about Brine’s origins. They may even—against all odds—actually become friends.

The Voyage to the Magical North isn’t a great book, but it’s certainly a fun one. There’s tons of punning and wordplay, the irresistible charms of swashbuckling pirates, magicians good and bad, and a plot that never stops moving. The characters aren’t deeply nuanced, but they’re likable and interesting, and even though the details of Brine and Peter’s world aren’t always completely clear, it’s obviously a wonder-filled place to explore. I never like books that end with an obvious set-up for the next book, so I will point out that this one does, a little, but that it could also stand on its own reasonably well. The best thing about this book, though—for me, anyway—is how much it celebrates stories and the people who tell them and the people who hear them and the people who keep them.

I think The Voyage to the Magical North would make a great morning readaloud to get you excited about the day ahead, but it might also be a good pick for an independent reader who likes fast-paced adventure stories. However you decide to read it, I think it’s worth flipping through next time you’re at the library.

New Books: The Left-Handed Fate

The Left-Handed Fate
By Kate Milford

Take an English pirate’s daughter, a natural philosopher’s son, and a 12-year old captain of the U.S. navy, drop them into the middle of the War of 1812, and throw in a mysterious machine with the power to end all wars—if only they can sort out the cryptic clues—and you’ve got The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford’s new middle grades adventure story.

Lucy’s promised to help Max Ault complete his late father’s mission to solve an ancient puzzle and build the ultimate war machine. She’s not expecting it to be easy—she is a privateer’s daughter, after all—but she’s definitely not prepared for how complicated it gets when the newly minted United States declares war on Britain, mysterious figures in black start following them everywhere, French diplomats start showing their nasty side, and her beloved ship gets captured by a U.S. ship helmed by 12-year-old Oliver Dexter. Together with Lucy’s half-brother Liao (possibly my favorite character in a novel full of nuanced, favorite-able characters), they form an unlikely team with a nearly impossible mission full of action, danger, and a surprising number of explosions. If you loved the dreamy, slow-building pace of Milford’s The Greenglass House, you may be surprised by how fast-paced and action-packed The Left-Handed Fate is. (Both books do take place in the imaginary town of Nagspeake, though The Greenglass House is set two centuries after the events of the The Left-Handed Fate take place.)

The Left-Handed Fate has the deliberate old-fashioned spirit, clever children on a mission, and twisty brainteaser to solve that made The Mysterious Benedict Society such a favorite, and it’s a worthy follow-up to your Trenton Lee Stewart read-a-thon. As with the Benedict Society, the characters are the best part of this story: bold, honor-driven Kate, stalwart midshipman Oliver, brilliant Max, and dreamy, clever Liao. It would be worth reading The Left-Handed Fate just to meet them.

The Left-Handed Fate: Middle grades adventure with a feisty heroine, intriguing central puzzle, and lots of action, set in the War of 1812

New Books: The Wrong Side of Magic

The Wrong Side of Magic
By Janette Rallison
Words have power. People who know how to use them wield that power.

I feel that I should start out by saying that this book is not like The Phantom Tollbooth. A lot of the advance reviews I read compare The Wrong Side of Magic to Norman Juster’s childhood classic, but I think if you go into this book expecting it to be the next Phantom Tollbooth, you’ll be pretty disappointed. Which would be a shame because The Wrong Side of Magic is actually a charming little book.

Hudson’s neighbor Charlotte is odd. So he’s pretty annoyed when Charlotte convinces his little sister that the only way to cure her sick cat is to use Charlotte’s magical compass to travel to the world of Logos and collect the enchanted catflower that grows there. But when Hudson uses the compass himself, he discovers that Charlotte was telling the truth: Logos is real, and if he’s going to navigate the world of words and get rid of that nasty troll curse he managed to pick up, Hudson’s going to have to team up with Charlotte. Charlotte, though, is on a mission of her own: to restore the vanished Princess to the throne and get rid of the evil usurper Prince Varygran once and for all. Along the way, they’ll run into punctuation markets, marauding encyclopedias, unicorns, mermaids, magic, and more.

This is a fun quest story with lots of playful puns and clever wordplay. The land of Logos obviously owes a little debt to Dictionopolis and The Phantom Tollbooth, but it’s its own place with its own rules and inhabitants. Hudson is a pretty typical male protagonist, determined to fill his deployed father’s shoes by taking care of his mom and sister, while Charlotte has a Luna Lovegood wackiness that balances his seriousness well. They make a good team, putting together clues and braving hazards in their quest to save the kingdom of Logos from its evil ruler, always just a few steps ahead of his relentless army, and the evolution of their relationship—from reluctant allies to firm friends—rings true. Some of the scenes are hilarious word nerd fun (like the market scene where Charlotte and Hudson are looking for a word snack to share, and Charlotte explains they can’t share “to explore” since you can’t split infinitives).

The verdict: The Wrong Side of Magic would be a great family readaloud on its own with the bonus of launching fun conversations about language and grammar.