From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington book cover

Information

Goodreads: From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 14, 2020

Official Summary

Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?

A crime he says he never committed.

Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

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Review

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an engaging story about a daughter connecting with a father accused of a terrible crime, and a story that manages to remain hopeful even as the protagonist deals with complicated family relationships and becomes more aware of the systemic racism that can lead to the imprisonment of innocent people.

The colorful, quirky cover of From the Desk of Zoe Washington, as well as a sideplot about Zoe’s aspirations to become a kid baker on one of her favorite television shows might lead readers to believe this is a “fun” book.  In many ways it is.  The baking, and the music playlists Zoe receives from her father, and the adventures Zoe gets into with her grandmother and her best friend all help to balance the narrative and make it fairly light and optimistic. 

Yet there are also some heavy themes here.  Zoe goes from having no communication with her father at all (fair, considering what he has been convicted of) to communicating with him in secret to wondering if his attestations that he’s innocent can possibly be true.  She discovers the Innocence Project and talks with her grandmother about the injustices of the judicial system and attempts to uncover the truth for herself.  So there’s some “normal” kid stuff like sneaking behind her mother’s back to post letters to her father mixed with hard truths about racism and failures of systems that are supposed to protect everyone, as well as an undercurrent of doubt.  Some people in prison are innocent—but is Zoe’s father?

I enjoyed this look at a topic I haven’t seen addressed in middle grade (or YA) before, and I do think the author does a good job of not letting the hard stuff overwhelm the book or Zoe’s life.  The ending is a bit rushed and a bit neat, in my opinion, but the overall narrative is approachable, compelling, and informative.

Briana
4 stars

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill

Tea Dragon Society

Information

Goodreads: The Tea Dragon Society
Series: Tea Dragon Society #1
Source: Giveaway from The Orangutan Librarian
Published: October 1, 2017

Official Summary

From the award-winning author of Princess Princess Ever Aftercomes The Tea Dragon Society, a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons.

After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives—and eventually her own.

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Review

The Tea Dragon Society is a beautifully quiet book about the power of tradition, the magic of handiwork, and the sweetness of memories.  The book is divided into four seasons and is told more in images and impressions than in a strong overarching plot, but the small scenes help create a wider picture of the characters and world that will be sure to draw readers in.

Information is revealed slowly as readers discover bit-by-bit what a tea dragon is, what the society is, and how the main character comes to be in it.  Readers might be initially attracted by the adorable tea dragons themselves (and there’s an appendix with much more detailed information that will help satisfy curiosity), but the real story is about the protagonist and her relationships with those who care for the tea dragons.  Each of them has a slightly complicated history, but they are drawn together by their love for the dragons and their respect for what is becoming a dying art.  (This is nicely tied with the protagonist’s other interest, blacksmithing, another dying art.)

There were times I wanted a bit more from the book, a bit more substance or explanation or even characterization, but overall it’s beautiful and thought-provoking, and it did leave me intrigued about the sequel.

4 stars Briana

Blastaway by Melissa Landers (ARC Review)

Blastaway by Melissa Landers

Information

Goodreads: Blastaway
Series: None (currently)
Source: Purchased
Published: July 9, 2019

Official Summary

Kyler Centaurus isn’t your typical runaway. All he wanted was a quick trip to the legendary Fasti Sun Festival. Who wouldn’t want to see new stars being born? Um, try Kyler’s entire family. They couldn’t care less about mind-blowing wonders of science.

When an accidental launch sequence ends with Kyler hurtling through space on the family cruiser, the thrill of freedom is cut short by two space pirates determined to steal his ship. Not happening!

Luckily, Kyler bumps into Fig, a savvy young Wanderer who makes a living by blowing up asteroids. She could really use a ride to Earth and Kyler could really use a hand with the pirates.

But when Kyler learns the truth about Fig’s mission, the two must put aside their differences long enough to stop the threat of astronomical proportions racing towards Earth?

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Review

Blastaway is a quick, fun middle grade story about a science nerd and a mutant-for-hire who accidentally become the only people positioned to stop a massive threat to Earth. While the book has a great voice, and Landers does a great job making the book quirky but not too cheesy, I struggled to maintain interest in the story at multiple points, and her work here simply does not live up to her previous two young adult novels, Starfall and Starflight.

The story’s strength is its too protagonists. Landers skillfully gives them divergent but ultimately complementary personalities and walks readers through how they come to appreciate each other’s life experiences. Fig initially writes Kyler off as privileged kid with no real sense, and Kyler things Fig overly aggressive (he may have a point), but their friendship manages to grow as they come to understand one another. Landers also gives them unique voices, and I really felt immersed reading about Kyler’s big, mostly jock family and about Fig’s time struggling to make it on her own.

Unfortunately, the plot often lagged. Where the story is going at any one point is highly predictable, and this was not a case where I found joy in reading the details of how things unfolded, even when I knew where they were going. I ended up frequently skimming brainstorming sessions and then the execution of the resulting plans because I simply didn’t care. I knew they were going to, say, defeat a particular enemy, and the minutiae of how they did so was not particularly gripping. For a book about space ships and pirates and the birth of stars and explosions, I was surprisingly bored.

The pacing in the final chapters is also off. Just as things seemed to be winding up, Landers threw in a major plot twist—so major that I panicked and that the story was not actually ending, that Blastaway was not a standalone as I’d thought and I would need to pick up a sequel to see how everything came together. It turns out that Blastaway is, in fact, a standalone. Landers simply threw in a huge obstacle at the end of the final chapter, that she then resolved literally a couple pages later. I was last baffled by this artistic decision and why an editor would let it stand.

Finally, as much as I liked the characters, I did have some issues with the portrayal of familial relationships, one I come across surprisingly frequently in middle grade books. Here, Kyler is bullied by his brothers for being the odd-one-out. He likes reading and science, while his brothers are rough and tumble athletes. They give him wedgies, beat him up, and force him to play games he doesn’t want to play. If he refuses, his parents punish him and guilt him for not playing with his brothers and being part of the family. There is no resolution of the fact that no one joins in on the activities that Kyler likes. No one is forced to watch science documentaries with him or guilted for not showing interests in his hobbies. Only Kyler is the one who has to change. And at the end of the book, that’s the message. Not that everyone should try to get along. No, Kyler comes to understand he’s a jerk for not wanting to play space hockey or whatever. This is ridiculous, and it makes me angry every time I see it in a book. You’re not a bad person for having your own interests, and you shouldn’t have to do all the things your family likes if no one puts effort into doing things that you like.

That said, Blastaway is fine. I think it will do alright with its target audience. It’s an adventure set in space with pirates and lasers and a lovable robot, so there are things going for it. I didn’t personally connect with it, however.

3 StarsBriana

Other books Set in Space

Hope by Alyssa Milano and Debbie Rigaud (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Hope
Series: Untitled #1
Source: BookCon
Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Official Summary

Meet Hope Roberts. She’s 11 years old, and she wants to be an astrophysicist. She loves swimming, Galaxy Girl comic books, and her two rescue dogs.

Hope believes it’s always a good day to champion a cause, defend an underdog, and save the future. And most of all, she believes in dreaming big. That’s why she’s enrolled in all of the advanced classes at her new middle school. She’s smart and confident in her abilities. But though Hope seems super strong on the outside, there’s another side of her, too. She’s just a regular girl trying to survive middle school.

This first book starts with the beginning of sixth grade, and Hope’s BFF Sam made some new friends over the summer. Hope doesn’t know how to handle it. She and Sam have always been inseparable! Then Hope meets her new lab partner, Camila, and they get off on the wrong foot. And even though Camila is great at science, she doesn’t want to join the science club. The club is all boys, and she doesn’t feel welcome.

When Hope hears that, she’s determined to recruit more girls into the science club, including Camila. Hope knows that sometimes changing the world starts small. So now Hope has a mission! Can she turn the science club into a place that’s welcoming for everyone — and make some new friends along the way?

Hope’s relatability, kindness, empathy, and can-do attitude will inspire a generation of do-gooders. This new series is a response to the very palpable feeling that not only can young people save the world — they will!

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Review

Hope is a quick, feel good middle grade story about a budding scientist and activist (Hope) starting her first year of middle school.  The general idea is very on trend (girls in STEM!, dealing with bullies!), but the actual writing was not to my personal taste.  The narration and dialogue are both casual and approachable, but the kids all sounded like adults to me, and the message(s) of the book frequently overshadow the story.

Frankly, the book feels preachy. Hope encounters a number of social issues she has to find ways to work through, such as committing microaggressions against her classmates and having to deal with the girls in the science club being interrupted and talked over by the boys.  There are lengthy speeches about many of these issues, and there is even a several page argument about the invalidity of astrology, which the book seems to have a vested interest in debunking for reasons I don’t entirely understand.  (I agree astrology is fake; I just didn’t see how inserting a lesson on this was integral to the story in any way.)  Basically, Hope teaches readers to be sensitive to racial issues, feminist issues, real science vs. fake science, and more, which is all good; it just does it in a way I found heavy-handed.  I think young readers, as well, can tell when they’re trying to be taught a lesson by a book, so this might not hit the mark with all of its target audience either.

That said, the preachiness is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Hope is herself a fairly flawed character.  She doesn’t just witness microaggressions; she commits them.  She doesn’t just show everyone girls can be as good as boys at science; she gets so caught up in her own messages that she messes it up.  She also struggles with other run-of-the-mill middle school problems like learning to share her BFF with new friends and dealing with bullies.  This part is fine; it just feels like a lot of other middle grade books that deal with the exact same themes, and it’s here where I get cynical and think about how any celebrity can walk up to a publisher and say, “Hey! I’d like to write a perfectly average middle grade story about *gasp* friendship and bullying; isn’t that just a great idea for kids!” and they get a book deal as if it’s a novel idea.

Overall, the book is average.  It had just enough interest and unique characterization to keep me going, in spite of the fact I felt constantly preached at.  The sequel is set up to be about Hope and her family doing good deeds to save an animal shelter, which sounds fun if you’re into animals but, well, also has a lot of potential for insertions of Good Morals and Lessons for Kids.  I won’t be continuing with the series.

(Also a shout-out to the illustrator, Eric S. Keyes, for really fun and emotive illustrations, though I did find it hilarious the characters seem to wear the same clothes in every scene, like cartoon characters rather than book characters!)

3 StarsBriana

Briar and Rose and Jack by Katherine Coville

Briar and Rose and Jack

Information

GoodreadsBriar and Rose and Jack
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: June 11, 2019

Official Summary

Sumptuous storytelling combines Sleeping Beauty with Jack and the Beanstalk in a magical exploration of prejudice, justice, and the meaning of true love.

Lady Briar is scorned for her appearance. Princess Rose is adored for her looks. Unbeknownst to them, one or both may bear a curse that only true love can break. But the girls have little time for curses anyway—along with their friend Jack, they are busy plotting the downfall of the evil giant who plagues their kingdom. But how can children succeed when the adults are afraid to even try? And what if the curse manifests? Whose love could be true enough to save the day?

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Review

Briar and Rose and Jack, a middle grade fairy tale retelling that mixes “Sleeping Beauty” with “Jack and the Beanstalk” and elements from some other tales, has a premise that could be utterly charming or completely generic.  After all, retold fairy tales are a dime a dozen, and putting a new spin on them can be difficult.  Katherine Coville, however, does manage to make these stories her own.  Though the elements might be familiar—even plot points like young princesses who slipped “disguised” into the village to meet with the commoners—the characters and the details make Briar and Rose and Jack really stand on its own.  While there are some points I think could have used more development, overall I enjoyed going with the protagonists on their adventures and watching them as they grew.

Though I did love watching the protagonists develop over the course of years, I’ve seen some other reviewers balk at the fact the story goes from Briar and Rose’s birth to their sixteenth birthday, but I think this stems largely from the fact that publishers have managed to pretty rigidly define “middle grade” as “books that feature characters who are 12 or maybe slightly younger.”  However, Coville’s story simply follows in the footsteps of a number of children’s classics that think young readers perfectly capable of reading about and caring about teen protagonists—like the original fairy tales or retellings like Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”  Kids love these stories, even though they’re about teens.  I also think writing about teens for a middle grade audience gives Coville the opportunity to actually write realistic teens.  They’re mature, of course, but they’re also young.  A lot of teen protagonists in YA books read as if they could be replaced with a twenty-five year old with no change to the book, so seeing teens act like teens here is actually refreshing.

I’ve also seen some complaints about the prose.  Personally, I do think Coville lays it on pretty thick, especially at the beginning and the end of the novel, in what seem like attempts to write particularly mystical or lyrical prose, and I was not personally a fan.  However, I disagree with assertions that the prose is complicated or the sentences too long for a middle grade audience.  I understand this gut reaction from a lot of readers, but, again, I think this is largely due to the influence of the middle grade market as it now stands.  Upon some reflection, I decided I would have been perfectly capable of reading this book when I was in the target age range, and in face I did read a lot of books with similar prose styles.  Kids have different reading levels, of course, but I think a lot will be fine with this.

But, really, despite Coville’s attempts, the prose is not the magical part of the book.  The beauty is in the characterization and in the subtle differences Coville managers to write into each character’s personality and their relationship with other characters as time passes circumstances in their lives change.  For instance, Briar and Rose are always fast friends, but their relationship changes as they turn from children to teens, as they develop different interests and different friends and even romances.  It’s often subtle, but the other has a good understanding of human nature.

This is also the only book I can confidently point to that I’ve read recently that made me cry.  There’s a scene maybe three quarters through the book where Briar experiences a ton of emotions (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers), and I felt them along with her and was incredibly moved.  Unfortunately, I was also on a train.  The beauty of this scene really struck me, however, and in my personal opinion, it compensated for other flaws of the book.

The flaw I could not get over, however, was the ending.  There are characters who inflict a lot of pain in the book, and it’s unsatisfactorily dealt with at the end.  Even when other characters confront them, the moment seems to pass too fast.  They’re largely forgiven and their ills forgotten as if they need not make reparations and as if people aren’t going to be affected by their negative behavior for years to come.  I don’t need books to have a moral, but since Briar and Rose and Jack was generally strong on characterization, I was surprise to see a lack of real exploration of some major issues when it most mattered, at the end.

Generally, however, this is a fun and engaging story.  If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll probably want to check it out.

3 StarsBriana

The Crimson Skew by S. E. Grove

Information

Goodreads: The Crimson Skew
Series: Mapmakers Trilogy #3
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

The Western War has begun.  Theo has been conscripted into the army.  Shadrack is being blackmailed by the prime minister into helping the war effort.  And Sophia and her friends are on the run from a mysterious group of agents from a future Age.  Then the red mist starts descending, turning people mad.  Turning them on each other.  Sophia is still determined to find her lost parents, but her maps might just lead her to a solution that can end the war.

Star DividerS. E. Grove’s Mapmakers Trilogy is a fantasy masterpiece.  Set in a richly-imagined world where different geographic areas have been flung into different time periods, it is fully of compelling characters, gripping dangers, and thought-provoking scenarios. This final installment provides a satisfying conclusion to a series that has been nothing short of stunning.

In The Crimson Skew, Grove presents a world where the prime minster of Boston, desperate to reclaim the history that might have been, sets into motion a war that will fulfill Manifest Destiny–no matter the cost to the inhabitants of the western regions.  The history of the U.S. is, of course, in many aspects, shameful and embarrassing, to say the least.  The Crimson Skew, with its parallels to this history, reveals this, showing how greed and corruption in high levels can affect the lives of many, displacing peoples, tearing apart families, and ending lives.  It is a sobering look at how carelessly people are treated when they are viewed only as pawns.

The story retains its heart, however, by focusing on the characters readers have come to know and love.  Sophia continues on her quest to find her parents while Theo risks his life for a war he does not believe in.  The stakes are high for everyone and S. E. Grove keeps the plot brisk and flowing, even as she introduces new characters and new locations to explore.

Readers who have come this far with Sophia and her friends are not likely to be disappointed by the trilogy’s conclusion.  It brings together all the elements that made the first two books original and compelling, while neatly wrapping things up.  Fans of fantasy will devour Grove’s Mapmakers trilogy.

4 stars

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Information

GoodreadsWundersmith
Series: Nevermoor #2
Source: Purchased
Published: October 30m 2018

Official Summary

Wunder is gathering in Nevermoor …

Morrigan Crow may have defeated her deadly curse, passed the dangerous trials and joined the mystical Wundrous Society, but her journey into Nevermoor and all its secrets has only just begun. And she is fast learning that not all magic is used for good.

Morrigan Crow has been invited to join the prestigious Wundrous Society, a place that promised her friendship, protection and belonging for life. She’s hoping for an education full of wunder, imagination and discovery – but all the Society want to teach her is how evil Wundersmiths are. And someone is blackmailing Morrigan’s unit, turning her last few loyal friends against her. Has Morrigan escaped from being the cursed child of Wintersea only to become the most hated figure in Nevermoor?

Worst of all, people have started to go missing. The fantastical city of Nevermoor, once a place of magic and safety, is now riddled with fear and suspicion…

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Review

I was so charmed by Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow that I was worried this sequel wouldn’t live up to it.  When someone writes a really dazzling and creative debut, sometimes the rest of the series doesn’t quite live up to it.  I am happy to report that that is not the case here at all. Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow is as magical and gripping as I can wish, wild and beautiful and just a little bit dark.  This series will be an auto-buy for me as each new  book comes out.

All the elements that made Nevermoor such a pleasure to read are here, as well: the breathtaking world-building, the enthralling plot, the fabulous cast of characters.  Morrigan herself shines as she continues to find her place in Nevermoor and figure out what being a Wundersmith is all about–even as she struggles with being disliked and thought of as bad luck by the people around her, exactly the type of thing she thought she had left behind at her old home.  The side characters, however, also make the book shine–old favorites like Jack, Jupiter, and Hawthorne, as well as a collection of new characters with varied personalities and incredible magical “knacks.”

Townsend’s books are so lovely and nuanced that I do have one lingering question that I am surprised has not been completely addressed, however: the nature of the Wundrous Society itself (or, Wunsoc).  Clearly part of the romanticizing of the Society comes from Morrigan herself, who is dazzled by the magic and hopes to find a home in Wunsoc.  However, it is clear the Society is highly respected and holds a special place in Nevermoor and…well, I can’t help but thinking that the Wunsoc members are a bit too obsessed with themselves.  Townsend does do a good job of pointing out some of the flaws of the society, but I’m not sure the book deals with the sheer pretension, the idea that these people are essentially a higher class with special privileges and different rules from everyone else.  I’d like to see that explored more in later books and not have it taken at face value that these people are “better” or “more deserving.”

Otherwise, this book comes close to sheer perfection for me.  It’s imaginative and moving and, on top of that, just well-written.  If you haven’t started reading the series, you definitely should, even if middle grade isn’t normally “your thing.”

5 stars Briana

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

Information

Goodreads: All’s Faire in Middle School
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Imogene is ready to become a squire at the Renaissance Faire where her mother runs a shop and her father always plays the villain.  But first she has to prove her bravery by going on the ultimate quest–middle school.  Unfortunately, middle school is more difficult than Imogene imagined.  Mean girls, scary teachers, potential love interests–it’s all too much.  Will Imogene find her way through?

Review

All’s Faire in Middle School is a sympathetic look at how it feels to enter a new school and attempt to navigate the unspoken rules.  Imogene has spent her whole life being homeschooled while her parents work the Renaissance Faire.  So mean girls, scary science teachers, and age-appropriate crushes are all new to her.  Victoria Jamieson, however, does not make Imogene a victim.  Rather, she shows how one girl attempts to survive middle school, but makes mistakes along the way.  Her willingness to allow her heroines to be flawed makes All’s Faire in Middle School both moving and realistic.

Any lover of the Renaissance Faire is sure to fall in love with this book.  A colorful cast of characters fills its pages as Imogene trains on the weekends to become a squire, but struggles during the weekdays to get through school.  Nods to the mud pit, the well wenches, and the turkey legs will surely amuse any Faire goer.  Even better is the banter that fills the pages; Imogene is surrounded by actors who love what they do and just want to give everyone a good time.  Their love and support grounds both Imogene and the book.

However, even those who do not eagerly await the opening of the Faire each year will find a thoughtful story within the pages of All’s Faire in Middle School.  Imogene tries to imagine how a brave squire would defeat the ogres and trolls that walk the halls, but all the rules confuse her.  Why are mean girls popular?  Why does she get mocked both for not fitting in and for trying to fit in?  Why is she allowed to talk to some people outside of school but not inside?  All the contradictions begin to take their toll, until Imogene starts to lose her sense of right and wrong in an effort to have the others accept her.  And yet, Imogene is still lovable.  She just needs a little push in the right direction.

All’s Faire in Middle School brings to life all the confusions and struggles of middle school.  It can be a rough time, and Jamieson acknowledges that.  This is a book both for those still trying to survive middle school and for those who look back on their time and shudder a little.  But, ultimately, it is a hopeful book–one that says families and friendships can always help you through.

5 stars

5 Novels for Chocolate Lovers

5 Novels for Chocolate Lovers

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Poor Charlie Bucket never dreamed he would see the inside of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but when he finds a golden ticket in a chocolate bar, his life takes a dramatic change.

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The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors

Emmeline Thistle is shunned by her village, not only because of her curled foot but also because of her special connection with chows.  Then she discovers she can turn milk into chocolate–and suddenly everyone is after her magic.

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The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

After receiving an injury at her job at a chocolate factory, Anna finds herself in the hospital learning French from an old friend.  Then she receives the opportunity of a lifetime–an offer to work in Paris with master chocolatier Thierry Girard.

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The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders

With the help of a talking cat and an elephant ghost, twins Lily and Oz fight the villains after their family’s magic chocolate shop.

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THE CHOCOLATE TOUCH BY PATRICK CATLIN

In this retelling of the King Midas tale, a boy is cursed with having everything he touches turn to chocolate!