Two 2017 Middle Grade Spec Fic Releases

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she’s still the fiercest creature in the mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

  • The cover and genre of this book appealed to me, but when I came to the plot, I thought “That’s a bit too quirky for me” and didn’t add it to my TBR. After positive reviews from Ms. Yingling Reads, Charlotte’s Library, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile, I decided it might be worth a shot.
  • The story itself is a simple one. The appeal is in the combination of elements not usually taken together – dragons, apprenticeship, chocolate making, royal politics and elitism.
  • Aventurine, being a young dragon transformed into a human, brings a unique perspective to this style of fantasy. Youthful energy and dragon stubbornness combine for some interesting moments in Aventurine’s human form. I enjoyed reading about her new found passion for the craft of making chocolate.
  • The relationships Aventurine develops as she learns to trust in the love and support of others give this story some warmth.
  • I would enjoy a sequel that features more of Aventurine’s dragon family and the difficulty Aventurine may face in balancing her two identities.
  • The Bottom Line: A fun bedtime read that served its purpose in distracting me from grad school life.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar

Race to the bottom of the SeaWhen her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?

  • Not quite sure where to start with this book. It turned out to be a lot more mature, and fairly dark, than I expected.
  • The details of Fidelia’s parents’ death alarmed me a bit. I had expected them to have died prior to the start of the story. The fact that the Fidelia had invented the submarine in which they died was tough enough. But then add the fact that she decided to ignore an incoming storm, when her mom explicitly asked if they needed to head in for safety… ouch.
  • I generally enjoy having adult characters interact equally with the younger main characters in middle grade novels. However, all the characters aside from Fidelia are adults, and most of the story is really their story. I often felt like Fidelia was just along for the ride. For her part of the story, she does learn to be herself again after the death of her parents, but the plot is driven by the actions of the adults.
  • My opinion of this book isn’t as bad as you might think! There are a lot of fun elements that made this an entertaining read – pirates, ocean faring, sea creatures, and Fidelia’s inventions.
  • The Bottom Line: Another fun read, but darker and more mature than The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. Not recommended for sensitive readers.

Have you read any speculative fiction releases (especially middle grade) from this year? What are your favourites?

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Jessica Miller’s Elizabeth and Zenobia Exemplifies Gothic MG

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia coverFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen.

Especially in the forbidden East Wing.

The flowers and vines of the wallpaper sometimes seem to be alive.

A mirror has a surface like the water of a pond.

And an old book tells a different story after midnight.

Zenobia is thrilled by the strangeness, but Elizabeth is not so bold…

Until she makes a mysterious and terrifying discovery.

Here is a spooky middle grade tale I can get behind! There is a countryside estate that’s been boarded up for some years, there is an overgrown garden and labyrinth, there is a distant father with a mysterious past. While the story doesn’t scare, not in the way of Coraline or The Nest, it uses a handful of gothic tropes to create its own tense and atmospheric moments. Miller writes well for this genre. Her descriptions aren’t too flowery, yet they are creative enough to set an evocative scene. What really brings the setting and story to life, however, are the delightful cast of characters.

Elizabeth and Zenobia play off each wonderfully. Miller gives each a distinct voice. If I described both girls, I might make them sound like caricatures, but they come across as believable young girls. Elizabeth makes for a unique protagonist in these kind of stories – she is not a daring and adventurous child. Zenobia is brash and bold; Elizabeth is scared of many things. Zenobia wants to contact the spirits she assumes inhabit Witheringe House; Elizabeth would rather not. And a similarity – Zenobia can only be seen Elizabeth; Elizabeth wishes her father would see her better. Zenobia’s eager tendency towards the gruesome also helps shape the darker tone of the story. They are the best of friends, and the story explores how they navigate that friendship when their personalities clash. While the plot takes some time to show itself, I found the daily interactions of Elizabeth and Zenobia in their creepy new home entertaining enough.

In addition to Elizabeth and Zenobia, there is a housekeeper whose ability to appear without warning greatly impresses Zenobia and serves as a running gag. There is a tutor who is not the antagonist of the story. And there are a few more characters that I’ll leave you to discover…

My primary criticism lies in the ending. I felt the story concluded abruptly. The mystery surrounding Zenobia never receives an explicit explanation. I like stories neatly wrapped up at the end, though I am coming to learn that’s not always necessary. Zenobia’s nature being revealed was never a promise of the main story line (though I crossed my toes hoping it would come up). The illustrations were not at all to my taste. I tried to be forgiving – “Maybe they’re meant to look like they’re drawn by a kid…” – but personally, I just think they’re bad. Edit (Oct. 13): I did not think to consider that the illustrations were not finalized in my ARC. (As a blogger who’s been reviewing ARCs for awhile, I am a little embarrassed…). Thank-you to the author for politely pointing this out to me. I have since purchased the book and am happy to report that the illustrations are much more tidy and refined, yet they still retain a quirky quality that’s very appropriate to the story and characters.

The Bottom Line:

A delightful tale of friendship between two very different young girls, Elizabeth and Zenobia is an example of Victorian Gothic middle grade fiction that other books could look up to.

Further Reading:

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Patty Ain’t No Junk – Review of Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Cover of PatinaSeries: Track #2
Format/Source: ARC/Publisher
Published: 29 August 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Patina, or Patty, runs like a flash. She runs for many reasons—to escape the taunts from the kids at the fancy-schmancy new school she’s been sent to since she and her little sister had to stop living with their mom. She runs from the reason WHY she’s not able to live with her “real” mom any more: her mom has The Sugar, and Patty is terrified that the disease that took her mom’s legs will one day take her away forever. So Patty’s also running for her mom, who can’t. But can you ever really run away from any of this? As the stress builds up, it’s building up a pretty bad attitude as well. Coach won’t tolerate bad attitude. No day, no way. And now he wants Patty to run relay…where you have to depend on other people? How’s she going to do THAT?

I first encountered Jason Reynolds last year when I read Ghost, the first book in his Track series. Ghost ended up winning the 2016 Cybils award for middle grade fiction. Patina, the follow up to Ghost, hits just as many right notes as Ghost -even if they’re different notes. In his first novel from a female perspective, Reynolds has crafted a unique voice that brings Patina to life in a distinct way from that of Ghost, the previous novel’s male protagonist. If you haven’t read anything by Reynolds, I highly recommend this series. The Track books do a great job of exploring middle grade life, the importance of friends and family, and how sport can benefit kids in more ways than one. Patina would be a good story if Reynolds tackled even just one of these topics, but he has managed to bring them all together in a well-balanced blend.

Patina’s plot differs from Ghost in that it lacks a central conflict stemming from Patina’s own actions (i.e. Ghost steals a pair of shoes and has to deal with the consequence). There is a tense pivotal moment, yet one of a very different nature than in Ghost. Instead, Patina focuses more on the exploration of Patina’s relationships with friends, family, and track mates.  I loved reading along as Patina realizes how much she loves her family and how much she values everything they do for one another. She learns to balance her competitiveness and her track life with her school and family life.

Beyond his on-point exploration of life as a middle schooler, Reynolds also explores how Patina’s life differs from her White classmates as she and her younger sister (who are Black) are raised by her White aunt and Black uncle. Patina’s mother has lost her legs to diabetes and can no longer raise her children, but she still plays a large and important role in her children’s lives. This is a family situation I haven’t seen before in a middle grade novel. It sends a strong message that just because a mother of father can’t provide for a child in a traditional sense, doesn’t mean that they don’t love and care about them.

Something would be missing from this review if I didn’t mention track! I have (had?) no interest in sports novels before I was required to read Ghost. Now I can see where they get their appeal from. Track practice provides a unique setting for the characters to interact in. The advice from the coaches and banter between team mates felt refreshing to me – a change from the usual school or home life based discussions. And of course, the build-up to the big race creates a solid structure for pacing the novel.

The Bottom Line:

If you enjoyed GhostPatina won’t disappoint. Patina demonstrates all of Reynold’s writing chops as he tells an engaging story through a strong voice.

Further Reading:

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This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!

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Family Reads: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist by Sunil Yapa

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist had been on Ash’s shelf for awhile. She had purchased it on the strong recommendation of a close friend. When I asked her what book she would like to do for Family Reads, she told me she was about to start reading this one. It was also on my TBR (I had seen some good reviews from other bloggers), so our interests converged nicely.

On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor–a boyish, scrappy world traveler who’s run away from home–sets out to sell marijuana to the 50,000 anti-globalization protestors gathered in the streets. It quickly becomes clear that the throng determined to shut the city down–from environmentalists to teamsters to anarchists–are testing the patience of the police, and what started as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence.

Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the lives of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn’t seen in three years, two protestors struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country’s fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the president of the United States.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (minor spoilers ahead).

We both gave this book ★★★★. Ash commented that she felt it wasn’t often I gave a book she picked four stars. (Though when we looked back at the five previous Family Reads we had done, we realized AnnihilationHouse of Leaves and A Monster Calls were all stand out reads for both of us. Ash had picked all of those books.)

We were pleasantly surprised to find the story told from multiple viewpoints, as we weren’t expecting that. We had thought the story was going to primarily be about reconciliation between Victor and his father via the protests. That was not at all where the story went. The narration through many different perspectives made the story more interesting than we had anticipated.

We both liked the narrative style. From the very first page, the prose keeps a nice rhythm which kept us turning the pages. There were a lot of lines in the book that felt very descriptive – one line ‘zingers’, things you wouldn’t normally say to describe a person but that work nicely in a novel. For example, this line about one of the police officers – “The last time Park hugged someone was at a funeral” – gives you a clue into his personality. That was when I started to think something might be off about this guy. The line that got Ash thinking something wasn’t right with Park was when he was estimating how many cops would die that day. I found the police officer characters pretty infuriating. Even Julia seemed a little weird, not in the ideal mindset for a police officer.

Our discussion evolved from the police officers to the rest of the cast of characters. We concluded that everyone was kind of strange except Victor. They all had some sort of skeleton in their closet. Bishop was a somewhat complicated character. There was a bit about how he stood in a grocery store for hours that made me think “This is a guy who needs some help”, a guy who probably shouldn’t be Chief of Police. We couldn’t decided if he actually liked his son. Charles was a favourite character of ours. He thought he could make a difference for his country but he gets trapped by everyone’s opinions. Charles’ story added another layer to the book. It wasn’t just about some kid and his dad, not just about why people protest, but also about globalization and the grand picture. We felt there are two aspects to this book: the personal story of the characters and the bigger story of globalization.

Regarding the ending – it was pretty ambiguous?? We weren’t too sure. I tend to read endings too quickly. Ash thought that Victor had a near death experience. I don’t generally like ambiguous conclusions; I’m too plain and straightforward for that sort of thing. We also didn’t find the epilogue very satisfying. Ash wondered how separate epilogues are from the main story. I feel they’re like a PS, a bonus to the main story line.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a FistFinally, we both liked the cover and found it highly appealing – that swirly motion, the bright colours, the strong font. We also liked the hardcover design, but we discovered that neither of us likes yellow on a book cover.

 Final Thoughts

Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge.

This book is the first literary/fiction novel Ash and I have read for Family Reads. We both enjoyed it more than we expected, despite our loose familiarity with protest movements and our uncertain grasp of the conclusion.  Have you read Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist?  What did you think of it?
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Diversity Spotlight Thursday #4

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Read and Enjoyed: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutsie

The Abyss Surrounds UsFor Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Goodreads | While The Abyss Surrounds Us didn’t have the vivid world building that I was hoping for, I’d recommend it for the human relationships. I expected Santa Elena to be Cas’s love interest (which may have been a bit Stockholm syndrome-y), but that role goes to another female crew member. I liked how Cas’s crush develops subtly and naturally. There is also some interesting exploration of us vs. them mentalities (good guys vs bad guys, rich people vs poor people). As far as I can tell, this is not an own voices novel (please let me know if you can confirm otherwise).

Released but Not Yet Read: One Half From the East by Nadia Hashimi

One Half from the EastObayda’s family is in need of some good fortune. Her father lost one of his legs in a bomb explosion, forcing the family to move from their home city of Kabul to a small village, where life is very different and Obayda’s father almost never leaves his room. One day, Obayda’s aunt has an idea to bring the family luck—dress Obayda, the youngest of her sisters, as a boy, a bacha posh. Now Obayda is Obayd. Life in this in-between place is confusing, but once Obayda meets another bacha posh, everything changes. The two of them can explore the village on their own, climbing trees, playing sports, and more. But their transformation won’t last forever—unless the two best friends can figure out a way to make it stick and make their newfound freedoms endure.

Goodreads | My sister brought this book home from a HarperCollins event. The setting caught my eye. Not own voices – Hashimi was born and raised in America to first-generation Afghani immigrants. Her website states she was “surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins, keeping the Afghan culture an integral part of their daily lives”.

Not Yet Released: Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi

Beasts Made of NightIn the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts – lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt.

Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but 17-year-old Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.

When Taj is called to eat a sin of a royal, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves – and his own life.

Goodreads | Look at the cover! Then read that description! Are you sold on this one now? 😛 This debut comes from a Black American author.

What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!