10 Middle Grade Titles for Fall

10  Middle Grade Books for Fall

Looking for a spooky story? Or maybe just a seasonal read, evocative of crunching leaves underfoot and a briskness to the air? Here are ten middle-grade books that will satisfy your desire to curl up with a book this fall.

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Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe

Twelve-year-old Eva Evergreen possesses only a pinch of magic. And that will make passing her Novice Quest incredibly difficult. She has one month to find a town to live in, and then do enough good for the inhabitants that they will recommend her to the Council–otherwise she will lose her magic forever. Eva’s plan is to do small repair magic to help the locals. But the mayor of her new town insists that Eva protect the town from the Culling–a magical storm of unknown origin that even the most power witches and wizards fail each year to contain. Eva has no idea how to succeed, but she certainly means to try.

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Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

When Ollie finds a woman trying to throw a book into the local swimming hole, she can’t help herself–she grabs the book and runs. It tells the story of a farm where, long ago, a woman’s husband disappeared, taken by the smiling man. Then Ollie finds herself on the same farm for a school field trip–and something is not right. The bus driver gives an eerie warning, leading Ollie to flee the bus. Can she survive through the night? Or will the smiling man come for her, too?

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Well Witched by Frances Hardinge

Needing money for the bus, Ryan and his friends steal coins from an old wishing well. Little do they know that the Well Witch guards the waters–and she wants compensation. Now Ryan and his friends are developing strange powers, all to serve at the Well Witch’s command. But what if some wishes were never meant to come true?

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Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Seven young foxes gather round to hear a scary story. But will the heroes, Mia and Uly, make it through unscathed? The kits cannot bear to find out. Will any of them stay long enough to hear the end?

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Beetle & the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

Beetle longs more than anything to be a sorcerer, but her grandmother keeps her practicing goblin magic. So Beetle is excited when her old friend Kat comes back to town after attending a school for sorcery. But Kat’s aunt has plans to tear down the local mall–the place where Beetle’s best friend Blob Ghost is tied to for eternity. Now Beetle and Kat have three days to figure out how to release Blob Ghost before they are destroyed forever.

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The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Gianna Zales is looking forward to run in sectionals–if she can pass science class. Unfortunately, she forgot all about her leaf project.  If she can’t collect enough leaves in time, her arch nemesis will run in her place.  But how on earth is Gianna supposed to focus on school when she’s worried about her Nonna’s memory, she’s wondering if her best friend Zig might ever be something more, and her dad keeps embarrassing her by driving her around in the family hearse?

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Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert plan to adopt an orphan boy to help on the farm, but a mistake sends them eleven-year-old Anne Shirley instead.  Anne has an imagination as big as her heart, but also a penchant for getting into scrapes.

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Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Luna can see ghosts–the spirits of her ancestors that mostly appear as fireflies in a tree in her yard. But then her ancestors start getting restless, saying something dark is approaching. Can Luna and her friend Syd save Luna’s family by reciting a spell to waken the dead? Or will they only make things worse?

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Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

When Clara Wintermute goes missing after her twelfth birthday party, the police suspect master puppeteer Grissini and his two orphaned assistants.  Though the police find nothing, Grissini’s increasingly suspicious behavior draws the attention of the children, who determine to find Clara and return her to her family.  Their journey will entangle them with Grissini’s ancient enemy, a witch who desires to save her own life at any cost—even if that means taking the life of a child.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

One day the Green Wind catches up September and takes her to Fairyland—but all is not how it should be.  Fairies are scarce, winged beasts are forbidden to fly, and the Marquess has stolen the spoon the witches use to see the future.  September agrees to travel to the capital and retrieve the spoon, but somewhere along the way she realizes that her quest has grown bigger than she anticipated.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (ARC Review)

Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy book cover for Instagram

Information

Goodreads: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy
Series: None (yet)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: ARC for review
Publication Date: October 12, 2021

Official Summary

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread.

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy–a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself–things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

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Review

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy jumps into the heart of its problem from the very first page: girls in Marya’s kingdom are given no opportunities. Marya is raised to believe the shortcomings are hers, that’s she’s useless and messes everything up and gets in her brother’s way, but when she’s sent to a school for “troubled girls,” she and her friends begin questioning everything they’ve been taught and unraveling mysteries about their school and their country that have lasted centuries. The result is an immersive, engaging story that both enthralls and enrages.

I always think I’m over stories about the patriarchy and the oppression of girls. It’s an important topic and, of course, a personal one as I’m a woman, but I do get tired of reading books with “Girls aren’t allowed to do anything” as the premise. However, Ursu digs deep into history for her story, and her take on this premise is thoughtful and complex. Indeed, it’s actually very dark at times, as characters try to convince girls they are insane rather than admit they might have knowledge or talents, but Marya’s independence and optimism help readers see the light at the end of the tunnel. Readers believe that Marya will use her wits and bits of women’s knowledge and secrets that have been passed down through generations to get out of her troubles and to find fairness for girls they’ve been denied.

The plot is ever-twisting, and I’m pleased to report that while I was close with some of my predications, I was never 100% correct. Ursu keeps readers on their toes and builds a complex web of lies and clues and magic that will hold its own for readers both young and old. I was excited to find out what would happen next, what Marya and her friends would do and what they would uncover, and I kept turning page after page to find out.

The end of the book feels a bit rushed, but everything gets wrapped up, so The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy can work as a standalone. There’s doom for sequels, and I think a lot of readers will be clamoring to hear more about Marya and her friends and their next adventures, so hopefully a new book contract is in the cards for Anne Ursu.

If you like fantasy and books about tearing down the patriarchy, this will definitely appeal to you.

Briana
4 stars

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson

Information

Goodreads: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2009

Official Summary

Based on rare archival material, obscure trial manuscripts, and interviews with relatives of the conspirators and the manhunters, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a fast-paced thriller about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth: a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

So begins this fast-paced thriller that tells the story of the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find this killer and his accomplices. Based on James Swanson’s bestselling adult book MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER, this young people’s version is an accessible look at the assassination of a president, and shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend, and how his death impacted those closest to him.

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Review

I admit I was expecting more from this book, based on the glowing reviews. I know little about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, other than that it happened at Ford’s Theatre, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped into Maryland and was subsequently shot and killed in a barn in Virginia. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, however, did not noticeably improve my understanding of the manhunt. It draws the chase in broad strokes, mainly tracing where Booth went and whom he met, but without providing many of the little details that might make history come alive. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is a serviceable first read, for those new to the tale, but readers truly interested in the matter will want to check out other books that might bring out the nuances of history more clearly.

Perhaps the lack of details is a result of the story adapted for children or maybe there simply is not as much historical evidence about the chase as one might want. Either way, once the the Booth departs from Washington, D. C. and into Maryland, the story loses much of its impetus. The author seems concerned mainly with tracing Booth’s path from one safe house to another, but the characters he meets do not get extensive background treatment, nor does the historical moment. What were the lives of these Marylanders like before and after they encountered Booth during his escape? What was happening back in Washington? What was the mood of the nation? What was the mood of Booth’s family, including the reaction of his famous brother, the actor (and Unionist) Edwin Booth? Readers receive only a glimpse.

And the nuances of the history seem to be lost in this telling, as well. Intrigued by what I had read in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I did a short internet search for Booth. Simply reading a few online articles informed me that the history may not be as straightforward as Swanson presents it. In his version, for instance, Boston Corbett shoots Booth inside the barn, says he did it to defend his men, is court-martialed for disobeying orders, but ultimately let go. He eventually goes mad and disappears from history. Wikipedia adds to this story, noting that eyewitnesses disputed Corbett’s account that Booth had been reaching for his gun; some even expressed doubt that Corbett had been the one to shoot Booth. Additionally, Corbett does exhibit unusual behavior and eventually disappear from history, but it is believed he settled in Minnesota where he perished in the Great Hinkley Fire (though this cannot be confirmed). These are small details and probably not pertinent to the overall account of what happened. It may even be that historians do not doubt that Corbett was the one to kill Booth, and so perhaps some may not feel the need to note that eyewitnesses were not entirely sure who made the shot. And yet, these little details, and the messiness they represent, are what make history interesting.

The writing style, too, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in an attempt to sound dramatic, the book often repeats itself on the sentence level. So, for instance, the author might inform readers of something to the effect that actress Laura Keene wanted to make history that night by being present at Lincoln’s death. But then the book will say that same thing two more times, in slightly different ways. One would think that, being condensed from a longer work, this book would not need to repeat itself for content. And this does nothing for the story except make for an awkward reading experience.

Part of me suspects that this book has received so much attention mainly because of the subject matter. Lincoln’s death continues to grip, and haunt, the nation. A book about his killer would certainly be of interest to many, especially considering that there have been several conspiracy theories over the years, suggesting Booth did not really die in a barn that April night. However, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is really a surface-level treatment of the history, presenting the basic facts, but not really situating the events in the historical and political context, or even offering any historical analysis. The book is a good place to start, but curious readers will want to keep learning more.

3 Stars

Dark Waters by Katherine Arden

Information

Goodreads: Dark Waters
Series: Small Spaces #3
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

Having met and outsmarted the smiling man in Dead Voices but fearful of when he’ll come again, Ollie, Brian, and Coco are anxiously searching for a way to defeat him once and for all. By staying together and avoiding remote places, they’ve steered clear of him so far but their constant worry and stress is taking a toll on their lives and friendship. So when Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom plan a “fun” boat trip on Lake Champlain, the three are apprehensive to say the least. They haven’t had the best of luck on their recent trips and even worse their frenemy Phil is on the boat as well. But when a lake monster destroys their boat, they end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. This isn’t just any island though. It’s hidden from the outside world in a fog and unless everyone works together to find a way to escape, they won’t survive long.

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Review

Dark Waters is rather a low point for the Small Spaces quartet. Under 200 pages in length, the book seems written mainly to fill up the “spring” slot in the series and to bridge the gap until the thrilling conclusion (sold to readers through a cliffhanger). The plot, which features a massive water snake, is simply not as compelling as the plots of the first two books, and it lacks heart. Fans of the series will read it because they are already invested, but Dark Waters proves a mostly forgettable read.

Regrettably, this series seems to have hit its high point with book one. Small Spaces was a pleasantly creepy, if not wholly surprising, read for the middle grade crowd. Dead Voices laid on the spook factor, even if the plot was confusing and convoluted. But Dark Waters feels like it has just given up. Although ostensibly Brian’s story, the book fails to meaningfully convey Brian’s inner life. And the premise–being stuck on a deserted island with a huge monster–just never feels scary. The children are too quick to solve problems and the actual problem–the monster–comes across as more cheesy than threatening. And the Smiling Man? Nowhere to be found.

Really, however, the book seems to exist mainly to set up the final cliffhanger. This seems to be indicated in part by just how short the story is. Probably the last 50 pages of the book are actually chapters from Small Spaces and Dead Voices. Most books put a preview of the upcoming installment, not excerpts from previous books. What can a person conclude but that these excerpts were appended to the ending so that the book looks longer than it truly is? Without these excerpts, it becomes clear that readers are buying a story that is not equal in length to the previous books. A story that is only around 180 pages. A story that barely begins before it ends.

The Small Spaces quartet began with much promise, but the books have been declining in quality as the series progresses. I will still be reading the final book, since I made it this far, but I admit that my hopes are not high.

2 star review

10 Middle Grade Books to Read in Fall 2021

There are a lot of excellent middle grade books coming out in fall 2021. Here are 10 of the ones I think are the most interesting! (Ok, one came out in July 2021, but it’s a Halloween book, so you should still read it this autumn!) What fall releases are you looking forward to?

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The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis

Release Date: September 14, 2021

Summary

Deep within an enchanted forest lies a castle where a set of triplets and their sorceress mother have lived for years–safe from the decades-long war for the Raven Throne that rages in the kingdom. Cordelia, one of the triplets, has the power to become any animal with just a thought, and she yearns to discover more about the world outside her castle.

But one day, the world comes to her, when the eldest of the triplets becomes the newest heir to the throne. Knowing that being named heir means certain death, Cordelia’s mother hid the truth about which child is the eldest when she hid them in the forest. When her family is captured, it’s up to Cordelia to use her powers to keep her siblings hidden and discover the truth about the Raven Heir–before it’s too late.

From the author of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart comes a thrilling new fantasy full of magic, adventure, and the power of family.

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BEASTS AND BEAUTY: DANGEROUS TALES BY SOMAN CHAINANI

Release Date: September 21, 2021

Summary

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that free hearts long kept tame, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare. 

Concealed by Christina Diaz Gonzales

Release Date: October 9, 2021

Summary

Ivette. Joanna. And now: Katrina

Whatever her name is, it won’t last long. Katrina doesn’t know any of the details about her past, but she does know that she and her parents are part of the Witness Protection Program. Whenever her parents say they have to move on and start over, she takes on a new identity. A new name, a new hair color, a new story.

Until their location leaks and her parents disappear. Forced to embark on a dangerous rescue mission, Katrina and her new friend Parker set out to save her parents — and find out the truth about her secret past and the people that want her family dead.

But every new discovery reveals that Katrina’s entire life has been built around secrets covered up with lies and that her parents were actually the ones keeping the biggest secret of all. Katrina must now decide if learning the whole truth is worth the price of losing everything she has ever believed about herself and her family.

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The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink

Release Date: July 20, 2021

*Review to come on the blog in early October.

Summary

Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything in the world. So she is determined to go trick-or-treating again this year despite the fact that her parents think she is officially too old. Esther has it all planned out, from her costume to her candy-collecting strategy. But when the night rolls around, something feels . . . off.

No one is answering their door. The moon is an unnatural shade of orange. Strange children wander the streets, wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. And it seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see it all are her best friend, her school bully, and her grown-up next-door neighbor.

Together, this unlikely crew must find a way to lift the curse that has been placed upon their small town before it’s too late. Because someone is out to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. And even Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in this night forever.

A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks

Release Date: September 14, 2021

Summary

Joy Taylor has always believed home is the house she lived in her entire life. But then her dad lost his job, and suddenly, home becomes a tiny apartment with thin walls, shared bedrooms, and a place for tense arguments between Mom and Dad. Hardest of all, Joy doesn’t have her music to escape through anymore. Without enough funds, her dreams of becoming a great pianist—and one day, a film score composer—have been put on hold.

A friendly new neighbor her age lets Joy in on the complex’s best-kept secret: the Hideout, a cozy refuge that only the kids know about. And it’s in this little hideaway that Joy starts exchanging secret messages with another kid in the building who also seems to be struggling, until—abruptly, they stop writing back. What if they’re in trouble?

Joy is determined to find out who this mystery writer is, fast, but between trying to raise funds for her music lessons, keeping on a brave face for her little sister, and worrying about her parents’ marriage, Joy isn’t sure how to keep her own head above water.

The Shattered Castle by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Release Date: October 19, 2021

Summary

King Jaron has outwitted the Prozarians and returned to his own kingdom with one secret in his pocket that not even his friends know about. He’s hoping that secret will help him finally bring stability to Carthya.

But a surprise attack on his own land — on the castle itself — reminds Jaron that nothing is easy. The Prozarian Monarch threatens to crumble Jaron’s entire kingdom. And that’s not the only thing in danger: With old enemies and new rumors circling around him, even Jaron’s relationship with Imogen is uncertain.

This former False Prince will need his best tricks and many allies at his side to hold Carthya together.

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Barakah Beats cover

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

Release Date: October 7, 2021

Summary

Twelve-year-old Nimra Sharif has spent her whole life in Islamic school, but now it’s time to go to “real school.”

Nimra’s nervous, but as long as she has Jenna, her best friend who already goes to the public school, she figures she can take on just about anything.

Unfortunately, middle school is hard. The teachers are mean, the schedule is confusing, and Jenna starts giving hijab-wearing Nimra the cold shoulder around the other kids.

Desperate to fit in and get back in Jenna’s good graces, Nimra accepts an unlikely invitation to join the school’s popular 8th grade boy band, Barakah Beats. The only problem is, Nimra was taught that music isn’t allowed in Islam, and she knows her parents would be disappointed if they found out. So she devises a simple plan: join the band, win Jenna back, then quietly drop out before her parents find out.

But dropping out of the band proves harder than expected. Not only is her plan to get Jenna back working, but Nimra really likes hanging out with the band-they value her contributions and respect how important her faith is to her. Then Barakah Beats signs up for a talent show to benefit refugees, and Nimra’s lies start to unravel. With the show only a few weeks away and Jenna’s friendship hanging in the balance, Nimra has to decide whether to betray her bandmates-or herself.

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The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Release Date: October 12, 2021

*Review to come on the blog in September

Summary

If no one notices Marya Lupu, it is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread.

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy–a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself–things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built. 

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The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis

Release Date: September 21, 2021

Summary

Twelve-year-old Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he witnessed a Great White Wolf steal his grandpapá’s soul, preventing it from reaching the Sea-in-the-Sky and sailing into eternity. When the superstitious residents of Bouge-by-the-Sea accuse the boy of crying wolf, he joins forces with another orphan to prove his innocence. They navigate their shared grief in a journey that ultimately reveals life-changing truths about the wolf––and death. Narrated in a voice reminiscent of The Book Thief and Lemony Snicket, this fast-paced adventure is perfect for fans of literary fiction fantasy such as A Wish in the Dark and The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

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Tidesong by Wendy Xu

Release Date: November 16, 2021

*Review to come on the blog in October

Summary

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

Briana

The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman

The Girl and the Witch's Garden

Information

Goodreads: The Girl and the Witch’s Garden
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2020

Official Summary

Mallory Estate is the last place twelve-year-old Piper Peavey wants to spend her summer vacation. The grounds are always cold, the garden out back is dead, a mysterious group of children call the property home, and there’s a rumor that Melena M. Mallory—the owner of the estate and Piper’s wealthy grandmother—is a witch.

But when Piper’s father falls ill, Mallory Estate is exactly where she finds herself.

The grand house and its garden hold many secrets—some of which may even save her father—and Piper will need to believe in herself, her new friends, and magic if she wants to unlock them before it’s too late.

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Review

The Girl and the Witch’s Garden evokes the feeling of classic children’s fantasy, where old estates hold secret portals to another world. However, while the idea of a hidden garden remains as enchanting as ever, the execution of the plotline shows some weaknesses that prevent the story from being as remarkable as it might have been. I wanted to adore The Girl and the Witch’s Garden because it possesses all the right elements to make my imagination soar. In the end, however, the storyline is rushed and predictable, making this a book one I am not likely to reread.

Like many a classic tale, this one begins with a girl arriving at an old estate said to be owned by a witch. Inside, she finds a number of orphans who are being fostered and who claim to possess magical skills. Their quest? To find their way inside a magic garden and complete a series of trials in order to obtain a legendary object of great power. Initially, the protagonist, Piper Peavey, does not believe them. But when she learns that they seek a potion of immortality, she becomes desperate to claim it for her dad, who is dying from cancer.

This is the kind of plot that normally would move and delight me. I love stories where the magical intersects with the everyday, where enchantment lurks just beyond the corner, if one knows how to look. Unfortunately, however, the rushed plotline made it difficult for me to feel immersed in the story. Piper unlocks her magical ability, learns how to control it, enters the secret garden, and completes the first trial almost immediately. Subsequent trials are passed with equal ease. For a story to grip me, I need there to be challenges to overcome. I need the characters to feel trapped, to sleep on the solution for a few days, to seek outside help because they are absolutely stumped. Having characters solve a puzzle in ten minutes after a failed try or two simply does not provide the same sense of drama. It lowers the stakes and makes it seem as if the garden is a puzzle anyone could solve, as long as they possess the right magical knack.

All this leads up to a climax that is too predictable to be exciting. Because the book spends a lot of time setting up an obvious villain early on, I knew who the the real villain must be and even where they must be. Perhaps the target audience will gasp in surprise at the late revelations, but I merely yawned. Then got annoyed when new powers suddenly came into play at the last moment. A deus ex machina to end the tale? Of course.

I wanted to love The Girl and the Witch’s Garden. This is a book I have eagerly been anticipating since last year, and only managed to read now because of the pandemic and other factors. Unfortunately, however, the magic of the premise did not translate into the execution.

3 Stars

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge

Well Witched

Information

Goodreads: Well Witched
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2007

Official Summary

Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins?

The well witch does.

And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her . . . and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps–are they eyes?–between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly–inexplicably–grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.

Darkly witty, wholly unexpected, and exquisitely sinister, Frances Hardinge’s Well Witched is one well-cast tale that readers didn’t know they were wishing for.

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Review

I have loved every book by Frances Hardinge that I have read, so I was more than surprised to discover that Well Witched failed to capture my imagination in the same way as her other stories have. While I associate Hardinge’s work with beautiful prose, as well as with quirky and imaginative stories, Well Witched reads a bit more like a standard middle-grade fantasy than it does a highly original and inventive tale. In the end, I enjoyed Well Witched, but it does not strike me as a read that is memorable, or one that I am likely to read again.

The aspect I enjoyed most about Well Witched is the way that magic intersects with the contemporary world. Often, fantasies tend to be set in pseudo-medieval worlds, alternative worlds, or worlds based on a past time period. Much rarer are those stories that suggest that magic is still around, and that the readers, too, might just be able to catch a glimpse. In Well Witched, the characters receive unwelcome powers after stealing coins from a wishing well. They must then determine what the well witch wants from them, all while hiding their new strangeness from friends and family. I absolutely loved the idea that contemporary characters have to figure out how to accept the presence of magic in their midst, all while hiding the fact from people who might think they are crazy.

The characterization, however, does not reach the standards I have come to expect from Hardinge. What I love about her books is that her protagonists are often conflicted, but also often not very nice. They are not necessarily heroes or people striving to do the right thing, but people striving to survive. In Well Witched, there are echoes of Hardinge’s complex characters, particularly in Josh, the leader of the trio of protagonists, who seems to enjoy his dark new powers a little too much. However, the story is told mainly from the perspective Ryan, who is more of a do-gooder, a little more boring, and a little unobservant for someone the story claims can see things others cannot. One of the main things Ryan misses is his friend Chelle, whom he dismisses as a bubbly, perhaps not too bright, chatterer, just like everyone else. Perhaps it is the presence of three main characters that throws this book off, but each one gets a few defining characteristics, but none really comes alive in the breathtaking way that Hardinge is capable of.

Finally, the plot in Well Witched is not evenly paced, and somehow comes across as less original than it probably is. The story starts off incredibly slowly, and only picks up steam in the final third. By this point, of course, some readers may have already given up. The slow pacing at the start damages the feeling of the story overall. The idea that an ancient spirit of some sorts is now trapped in a modern-day well, granting twisted witches, is a great one! But all the interesting bits that come with this information arrive too late in the tale to feel as meaningful and gripping as they might. I love the concept of Well Witched. I think the execution could be improved.

Well Witched is not a bad story by any means. It is certainly worth a read for fans of Hardinge, and it will probably also appeal to readers who like their tales twisted. Hardinge excels at the creepy, and not many middle-grade authors seem to be willing to go as as dark as she does. We’re talking infanticide (a story from the past–not depicted in the present storyline), souls trapped in some sort of limbo hell, and friends willing to commit murder to keep their powers. Perhaps it is not surprising that some readers prefer to categorize Hardinge’s middle-grade books as YA. But for readers who like a bit of horror, Hardinge delivers.

So would I recommend Well Witched? Certainly, to the right reader. Do I think it is Hardinge’s best work? Probably not. But even Hardinge’s more standard fare is engaging.

3 Stars

So Done by Paula Chase

So Done

Information

Goodreads: So Done
Series: So Done #1
Source:
Library
Published:
2018

Summary

Tai has been waiting all summer for her best friend Bean to return, but, when she does, things aren’t the same. Bean wants to be called Mila now. And, worse, she’s starting to speak up for herself, instead of agreeing with everything Tai says! Then there are the looming auditions for the new talented-and-gifted program at school. Mila wants to try out for dance. Tai couldn’t care less. Can Tai and Mila repair their friendship? Or are they destined to drift apart?

Star Divider

Review

So Done is a realistic portrayal of growing up and potentially growing out of old friendships. Mila and Tai have known each other for ages, but after an incident at Tai’s house, Mila seems withdrawn. Worse (in Tai’s eyes) is that Mila is starting to stand up for herself, instead of just agreeing with everything Tai wants. As auditions loom for a new talented-and-gifted program at school, the girls have to decide what they want in life, and if they are going to be together, or stay apart for good. While I enjoyed the complexity of Mila and Tai’s friendship, the ending of the story threatens to undo everything the book works so hard to build. In the end, the book suggests that external factors can save friendships, and that Tai does not need to grow along with Mila. I wanted a story where both Tai and Mila can change, but that promise is never fulfilled.

Perhaps the highlight of So Done is the wonderful way in which Mila and Tai are so very different, yet both get a chance to tell their story and gain some of the readers’ sympathy. Mila tends to quieter, politer, and more focused than Tai. She is afraid living in the Cove, and starts to dream of moving to the suburbs, away from the dealers. Tai, on the other hand, is loud, attention-seeking, and rude. She also loves living in the Cove, where she can flaunt her body on the streets and show her superiority by dissing the other girls. Their interactions are fascinating because they do not really seem to go together, and those interactions become even more interesting when Mila starts to stand up for herself and want she wants.

I admit–I didn’t really like Tai. Her chapters are all about her musing how unfair and wrong it is that she can no longer control Mila. Multiple characters call Tai out for her treatment of Mila, the way she makes fun of her “friend” so that Mila will go along with whatever she wants, just so Tai will stop being mean. But I give credit to the author for making a character so disagreeable. Tai may be petty and selfish, but she is also real. I only regret that Tai shows very little growth throughout the story.

Most of the times in middle-grade friendship stories, one hopes that old friendships can be restored. In this case, however, I was cheering on Mila as she began to pull away from Tai. Tai offers her pretty much nothing in terms of friendship–no kindness and no support. I hoped that So Done would be a story about how it is okay to outgrow friends, especially when those friends are more like bullies. However, that does not happen. The author instead introduces an external incident that the girls can agree upon, instead of having Tai realize how mean she is and apologizing for past behavior.

This book does, regrettably, rely heavily on that old trope of “The Incident.” That thing that happened in the past that casts a looming shadow over everyone, but which cannot be named for ages, because the author wants to build suspense. I hate books with Incidents. In this case, it becomes clear pretty early on that some sort of sexual harassment occurred, which has traumatized Mila, but which Tai wants to pretend never happened. Thus, the end of the book is about Tai agreeing to help Mila speak out. This is all great! Messages about speaking up are important. But does Tai ever look inward and realize that she has been bullying Mila for years? No. It is apparently enough for me to be nice just one time for this friendship to be declared healthy and fixed.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about So Done. The characterization is wonderfully done, and I appreciated how the author brings up romance (even to the point where Tai thinks of showing herself nude on a screen), since some tweens are worried about going out and maybe are doing things like sexting. These are aspects middle-grade books often leave out in favor of showing platonic friendships. But the ending does take away from everything the rest of the story seems to be saying: that it is important to be yourself, that you don’t have to put up with friends who tear you down. Not having Tai reflect more on her past actions makes it seem like she will just bully Mila again in the future. Maybe the ending is realistic. It just does not feel satisfying.

3 Stars

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

Fly by Night

Information

Goodreads: Fly by Night
Series: Fly by Night #1
Source:
Library
Published:
2005

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn’t got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who’ll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn’t know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life.

Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger — discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double-crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love — words — may be the death of her.

Star Divider

Review

Fly By Night is a treasure, a book so quick-witted and lively that it seems a marvel it could be Frances Hardinge’s debut. The story breathes with inventiveness on every page, from the floating coffeehouses, to the panoply of kings and queens waiting for a triumphant return to the fractured kingdom, to the fighting goose. Loosely based on 18th-century England, the book is alive with imagined religions, politics, and intrigue. Any lover of fantasy will devour the descriptions of people, places, and things, all told with keen observation, and just a little cheek. Fly by Night is, in short, a fantasy sure to delight readers young and old.

Hardinge immersed me in her world from the very start, when readers learned that Mosca Mye was born into a kingdom where the people pray to the Beloved, gods of sort who each have a dedicated time of day and year, and who are each responsible for a different aspect of life. Readers will know that Hardinge’s work tends to have atheistic underpinnings, so the Beloved, while interesting, are also treated a bit humorously. Their areas of concern can be incredibly specific, and also a little bit strange. However, be that as it may, the people are serious about the Beloved, and the different belief systems of the realm soon becomes important as Mosca and her new guardian find themselves embroiled in city politics. A story that initially seems like a fun fantasy adventure becomes a thoughtful look at the way we use words to shape the world around us, and the way those words can be wielded for good or for ill by both the powerful and the lowly.

Words stand at the center of the story, making Fly By Night a short of homage to the power of words and the power of literature. Mosca initially runs away from home because her father’s books have been burned, and a man of letters represents a chance for a future where she can possess all the words she wants. But Mosca ends up in Mandelion, a city run by the stationers’ guild, and they control what can and cannot be printed. Anything without a stationers’ seal is viewed as corrupt, for it is said that books can make one mad. Mosca’s journey sees her transform from a young girl who believes what everyone around her says, even though it creates tension with her own desire to have all the words she chooses, to a girl who begins to desire the freedom to think for herself. In many ways, Mosca is a heroine with Enlightenment ideals in a realm still focused on the safety of tradition.

Fly by Night is a wondrous tale, one that skips and sings with beautiful words and a passion for stories. It is a book about the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, and the ways in which those stories can transform the world for the better or for the worse. Fantasies that make me think are some of my favorite–they are the ones that make me want to read them again and again, to discover new things, to reflect on issues I may not have thought about before. For now, I hope to return to Mosca’s world through the sequel. But I can definitely see myself reading Fly by Night again.

5 stars

Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani

Jukebox

Information

Goodreads: Jukebox
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

Grab some coins for the jukebox, and get ready for a colorful, time-traveling musical tale about family and courage.
A mysterious jukebox, old vinyl records, and cryptic notes on music history, are Shaheen’s only clues to her father’s abrupt disappearance. She looks to her cousin, Tannaz, who seems just as perplexed, before they both turn to the jukebox which starts…glowing?

Suddenly, the girls are pulled from their era and transported to another time! Keyed to the music on the record, the jukebox sends them through decade after decade of music history, from political marches, to landmark concerts. But can they find Shaheen’s dad before the music stops? This time-bending magical mystery tour invites readers to take the ride of their lives for a coming-of-age adventure.

Star Divider

Review

The summary for Jukebox suggests that Shaheen and her cousin go on a magical time-travelling adventure that will teach them–and readers–all about music history. Readers expecting to experience meaningful, in-depth looks at history, however, will be disappointed. The jukebox turns out to be more about selling a premise than about actually teaching history. And even the backstory given to explain the presence of the jukebox seems slapped on, providing just enough detail to get the story moving, while not providing enough to flesh out the characters or make readers care about them. The lack of detail in this story, in almost all respects, makes Jukebox a rather forgettable tale.

Stories with time travel have great potential to not only teach readers about a certain historical moment, but also to bring a unique sense of adventure to the tale. Where will the girls go next? Why? Will they make it back home alive? In this case, however, the time travel aspect is not particularly well thought-out, nor is it integrated into the story. The main idea seems to be that the titular jukebox will bring the listener back to the year an album came out, maybe around where someone is singing the song. But there is no real rhyme or reason to where the girls go, nor is every moment significant. At one point, for instance, they find themselves in the middle of a lindy hop dance competition, which is interesting, but not historically notable. At another point, the jukebox takes one of the girls to an ERA March, but the book never explains what the ERA is or why it matters. All the time travel happens this way, with the girls dropping in to see people and places that the story never actually engages with. There seems to be little point to time travel, however, if readers do not even know what they are looking at.

The backstory to the jukebox discovery is just as disappointing. Basically, Shaheen’s father disappears one day, so she goes looking for him, along with her cousin. Eventually, it comes out that she has been struggling with their relationship because all he does is talk about music and he does not even do things like read the Angie Thomas book she recommended to him, so she believes he clearly disappeared because of her. Their struggles, however, are glossed over at the end as they reunite. Other aspects that are thrown in, such as Shaheen’s anxiety and her cousin’s decision to come out as bi, are also glossed over simply because the book is too short to engage meaningfully with all the issues it wants to raise.

The art for Jukebox is cute, and probably the one aspect of the book that I really enjoyed. However, the lack of engagement with history, the slapped on backstory, and the rushed ending all work against making the book something I would recommend or read again. I wish I could say that at least kids might be inspired to learn more about the historical moments mentioned, but I do not think the book really gives enough detail for them to know what it is they would be interested in knowing more about. Jukebox has a wonderful premise. It just does not deliver the story it promises.

2 star review