Journey’s End by Rachel Hawkins

A ghost story seems appropriate for today, All Hallows Eve, and a ghost story that takes place in Scotland is particularly fun. Journey’s End starts out mysterious and kind of confusing with the first three chapters set in three different time periods with different characters, but the confusion clears up fairly quickly and the mystery and spookiness remain throughout to the end.

Nolie Stanhope, from Georgia, is spending the summer with her dad in Journey’s End, a village on the coast of Scotland that is sustained by a mysterious fog bank, the Boundary, that hovers just off coast and swallows up any boats that try to go into the fog. Yes, the boats and people simply disappear if they get too near the wall of fog, and now boats take tourists near the Boundary to give them an adventure, but not too near. Nolie’s dad is a scientist who is studying the mysterious and perilous fog, and Nolie’s new friend, Bel, helps out in her family’s business, a souvenir shop where tourists can buy woolly Scots stuffed lambs and postcards and other knickknacks as memories of their trip to the Boundary.

Much is made in this book of the differences between Scots speech and American vocabulary, maybe a little too much. Nolie wonders why Bel is talking about carrying a flaming torch to explore a cave, and Nolie and Bel trade words to reference everything from mad/crazy to bum/bottom to holy cow! or holy hairy coo! Frequent word discussions and interpretations add humor to the story, but maybe they are a little too frequent by the end of the book. Still, we Americans do enjoy a Scottish dialect and accent, and I’m sure, vice-versa.

The ghost story itself is standard: a person was wronged long ago, and her ghost hangs about with the unfinished business of revenge in mind. The fog, the Boundary, is an interesting touch, and it was just scary enough, with just enough humor, for middle grade readers, without becoming evil or morbid. If you’re up for a good ghost story, I’d recommend this one.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

For more middle grade ghost stories, I can recommend:

The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston, and its sequels.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
The Court of the Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron.
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1) by Jonathan Stroud, and sequels.
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur.
Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn by Dorothy Hoobler.

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

“Six kids from around the world have been chosen for the first-ever mission to Mars.”

Miranda Regent is the genius thirteen year old from the United States who is one of the six astronauts in training for the international mission to Mars, a peace-keeping mission that will unite the world in a cause that transcends national interests and the recently concluded AEM war. But someone is out to sabotage the mission and the six kids who have been chosen for it. Can Miranda figure out who is behind the threatening emails and the attacks on her and her fellow astronauts before they succeed?

NASA fans and aspiring astronauts, aeronautical engineers and space scientists will geek out on this science fiction/mystery/adventure story. Since I live with a NASA engineer, I think I know what will appeal, even though my own “science gene” has never been in evidence. Miranda and her fellow teen astronauts are an engaging crew, and the tension and adventure really ramp up about halfway through the book when something big goes wrong with the whole program and the kids are left to save themselves and the space program and to preserve world peace all at the same time.

The fact that the kids in this novel are all geniuses may make them a little less relatable, but it also shows that kids are kids no matter how intelligent and talented. Miranda worries about her grades in astrophysics and calculus, but she also wonders a lot about how she can make friends with the other cadets and how they can become a team before the Mars mission blasts off. She thinks about how she looks, and even a little about the guys on the team and whether or not they are attractive and attracted. Not too much mushy stuff, lots of science, and a good solid plot make this book a must-read for sci-fi fans.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley

Diane Stanley, the same Diane Stanley who wrote all those wonderful children’s biographies of everyone from Peter the Great to Saladin to Charles Dickens, has published a new children’s fantasy book, Joplin, Wishing. I can’t say I like this book as much as I do her biographies or even her other fantasy novels that I have read, Bella at Midnight and The Cup and the Crown, but Joplin, Wishing is a decent enough story.

Joplin, named after both the singer Janis and the composer Scott, has a hard time at school after her dead and famous novelist grandfather is caricatured in the newspapers as an eccentric, wild, and crazy recluse. The bullies come out of the woodwork and make her school life unendurable. Joplin just wishes for a friend or two, one at home and one at school, and she gets her wish. The fulfilled wish, however, comes with complications; the Dutch girl from Joplin’s delftware plate who grants Joplin’s wish is really a slave to the plate and to the maker of the plate. Can Joplin find a way to set her free?

The book is very anti-journalism, as it is currently practiced. The reporters in this story are villains, making up “fake news” and hounding Joplin and her family to get a thread of something to hang the story on. It’s also an anti-bullying story, which is all the rage these days, but it doesn’t present any clear solutions to the bullying problem. The bullies in the story are forced to apologize for their behavior, but the apologies are mostly as fake as the news, and Joplin just has to endure and hope that the bullying behavior will get old and go away. Finally, the book is anti-slavery, and a little on the dark side in that regard, since Joplin’s friend from the plate was groomed by the magician and artisan who made the plate to be his personal slave and wish-granter in the same way that a child molester would groom a victim. That part of the story is downright creepy.

Most of the novel, however, deals with how to manage to get the girl from the plate back to her own time and place, how to free her. And the mechanisms and plans for doing that are interesting. It’s the first time I’ve seen a legal contract used as a plot device to solve the magical problem of the novel.

Joplin, Wishing is okay, but it could have been better with a little less darkness and cruelty, and a little more whimsicality. I like my novels, even middle grade fiction, to have some serious, thoughtful themes and ideas, but a little humor and whimsy go a long way toward making those serious ideas palatable.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Saturday Review of Books: October 21, 2017

“Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.” ~Will Schwalbe


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

2017 Middle Grade Fiction: Short Takes

Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou. While skipping school, Cassie meets Cassius, an unschooled and independent spirit who is doing research on art at museums all over NYC. Cassie is dealing with her own family and personal issues, and she and Cassius become friends and allies as they discover that Callie’s family history is both surprising and complicated. The story deals with homosexual behavior, family dynamics and regrets, and forgiveness and restoration, all in a fairly standard, morally tolerant, and one-dimensional manner. The “bad guy” is Callie’s grandfather, a homophobic bigot, who is conveniently dead and gone. The “good guys” are all the ones who realize and understand that “people are born gay.”

Posted by John David Anderson. When cell phones are banned at Branton Middle School, a new communication method becomes a fad: sticky notes. But when the sticky notes begin to turn ugly, Frost and his friends are forced to decide where their loyalties lie. Will they be able to remain friends and even take a new kid into their “tribe”—or will the ugly taunts and bullying notes break up the friendships they have built? The story is told from the point of view of one of the middle school kids, Frost, and I found him to be pretentious and whiny at first, but his voice grew on me. By the end of the book, I was absorbed in the story and fond of most of the characters. Some kids may find the book to be too introspective, but for others it will hit a sweet spot of just right.

Feliz Yz by Lisa Bunker. A gay thirteen year old named Felix lives with his bisexual mother and his gender-switching grandparent (three days a week as Vern and three days a week as Verna; Wednesdays are spent alone and genderless) as Felix deals with he repercussions of a childhood accident that fused his psyche together with that of a fourth-dimensional creature called Zyx. Yeah. If Posted was introspective and angsty, this one is beyond—altogether in another dimension.

Me and Marvin Gardens by A.S. King. Obe Devlin spends his days picking trash out of the creek behind his house and mourning the loss of his family’s land to housing developers. He also spends a lot of time nursing his frequent nosebleeds. Then, one day he finds a new species of animal, and things get interesting. Can Obe save the animal he calls Marvin Gardens from the encroaching housing developments and the curiosity of neighbors? Is Marvin himself a danger to the neighborhood, or is Marvin the solution to the problem of pollution? The story is quite pessimistic and didactic, but if you’re looking for a preachy environmental title, this one will fit the bill.

Gnome-a-geddon by K.A. Holt. Buck Rogers and his best friend, Lizzie, enter the world of their favorite book series, The Triumphant Gnome Syndicate. Immediately, things start to go wrong when Buck realizes that he isn’t necessarily the hero of this adventure, and maybe the gnomes aren’t even the good guys in the story, and trolls, well, trolls are different in the real underground land of the Gnome Syndicate, too. The story alludes to several popular fantasy books, movies, and series, including Harry Potter, Star Wars, LOTR, Princess Bride, Back to the Future, superhero comics, and the Narnia books. Fun for fans.

One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn. I didn’t like any of the people in this ghost story, except for the elderly lady who befriends the narrator at the end of the book. A group of girls bully and torment Elsie, a girl of German heritage, during World War I and the influenza epidemic. Elsie is a liar and a tattletale, and Annie, the new girl in school, must choose whether to befriend Elsie or the mean girls who pick on Elsie. It’s not much of a choice. Unfortunately, there’s no one at school for Annie to be friends with, so Annie becomes one of the bullies. It just gets worse from there with a nasty, mean ghost who harries Annie into a mental asylum.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
Some of these books are also nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley

Cassie and Kate Beasley are sisters who both write children’s fiction. They live in rural Georgia, near the swamps, hence the setting of Tumble and Blue in a rural town near the Okefenokee Swamp. Tumble and Blue is dedicated by Cassie to Kate. It seems the sisters not only share a vocation, but also are close friends and writing encouragers. Cassie’s first book, Circus Mirandus, and Kate’s debut, Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, were both intriguing and rewarding reads.

Tumble and Blue are also friends. Tumble Wilson is a girl who wants to be a hero. She admires and tries emulate her hero, Maximal Star, author of the best-selling book, How to Hero Every Day. Blue Montgomery is cursed with a terrible fate, just like all of the Montgomerys. Actually, some of the Montgomerys have an awesome fate, like always winning or charming animals into submission. But others are not so fortunate. Blue’s fate is that he always loses, every game, every contest, every fight, every time. His last fight earned him a broken arm, so his daddy has left Blue to stay with his Grandmother Eve for the summer at the family homestead in Murky Branch, Georgia (Population: 339).

This book is about fates and talents and persistence and optimism in the face of disaster. Tumble is determined to a hero, even though the results of her previous attempts at heroic deeds have been less than stellar. And Blue is determined not to try anymore, since he always loses anyway. Can the two friends teach each other something, like when to be optimistic and try and when to fold and walk away?

Some of the “gifts” of the Montgomery family members turn out to be curses in disguise, and vice-versa. I was reminded of Ingrid Law’s Savvy series and of Adrian Monk, of course: “It’s a blessing—-and a curse.”

Only in this story, it’s a swamp instead of a jungle.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

A Single Stone by Megan McKinlay

I read Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island just after I read this book. Both books are partly about keeping the traditions that are handed down, obeying the laws of your own community, and questioning those traditions and laws. But each book comes to a very different conclusion.

In Orphan Island, questioning and breaking with tradition lead to disaster, a disturbance in the natural order of things on the island. In A Single Stone, questions and rule-breaking lead to freedom from tyranny. In the real world, of course, some rules and traditions need to be questioned, but often the law is for our good, and the transgression of that law leads only to evil and heartbreak. Since I believe the latter lesson is one that rarely gets spoken these days, and since I’m a conservative at heart underneath my rebel tendencies, I have more sympathy for the story of Orphan Island than for A Single Stone.

Jena is one of the chosen seven. She’s been trained and molded for this job ever since she was born, and now she leads the other six girls who also have been chosen to tunnel into the mountains to search for the precious mica that sustains life in their isolated village. The village has maintained itself, precariously, cut off from the outside world by a ring of impenetrable mountains all around, by using mica as a fuel for the long, cold winters. Only the chosen seven young girls can fit themselves into the tight crevices and low tunnels inside the mountains to bring back the harvest of mica that allows the villagers to remain alive.

This is the way it is, and this is the way is has been from time immemorial. That’s what Jena has been taught, and she believes the Mothers who teach and train the children to become useful to the village as they grow up. But what if the Mothers are wrong? What if they’re deceiving the villagers or perhaps even deceiving themselves? Can the world be different? Is there a way through the mountains, and is there something or someone on the other side?

Again, it’s a good book, by an Australian author, but I preferred Orphan Island. Both the premises and the conclusions were more intriguing in Orphan Island than in A Single Stone. Read both for comparison’s sake.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Books in Search of a Nomination

Cybils nominations are now open. These are some middle grade speculative fiction books that I’ve either read or intended to read that also have NOT yet been nominated. I believe all of the following books are eligible for this year’s Cybils nominations and fit into the middle grade speculative fiction category.

Books in search of a nominator:

Henry and the Chalk Dragon by Jennifer Trafton. NOMINATED
Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley.
Blueberry Pancakes Forever by Angelica Banks.
Broken Pride (Bravelands, #1) by Erin Hunter.
Frogkisser by Garth Nix. NOMINATED
Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr.
Edgeland by Jake Halpern.
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.
The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry.
Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis. NOMINATED
The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan.
Grandfather and the Moon by Stephanie LaPointe.
Olive and the Backstage Ghost by Michelle Shusterman. NOMINATED
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander. NOMINATED
Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley.
Quest to the Uncharted Lands by Jaleigh Johnson.
The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold.
Siren Sisters by Dana Langer.
The Fearless Traveler’s Guide to Wicked Places by Pete Begler.
The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library by Linda Bailey.
The Silver Gate by Kristin Bailey.
Nevermoor by Jesica Townsend.
Unicorn Power! by Mariko Tamaki.
Warrior Bronze by Michelle Paver.
Threads of Blue by Suzanne LaFleur.
The Wonderling by Mira Bartok.
The Adventurer’s Guild by Zach Clark.
The Night Garden by Polly Horvath.
Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens.
The Emperor of Mars by Patrick Samphire.
The Matchstick Castle by Keir Graff.
The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. NOMINATED
The Star Thief by Lindsay Becker.
The Bone Snatcher by Charlotte Salter.
Beast and Crown by Joel Ross.NOMINATED
Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein.
A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang.
Rules for Thieves by Alexandra Ott.
Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham.
Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst.
Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. NOMINATED
The Door Before by N.D. Wilson.

Nominations are open this week and next, through October 15th. Be sure your favorite children’s and young adult books of the past year get nominated. I’m on the panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, and I’ll be working with some other great panelists to whittle down the nominations list into a short list of finalists. But your favorite books can’t make it to the finalist list if you don’t nominate now.

Go forth and nominate!

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here or on this link to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
One or more of these books is may be nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.

Bravelands #1: Broken Pride by Erin Hunter

Grass-eaters, meat-eaters, scavengers, predators and prey—all live together in the grassy savannah lands of Africa, more or less peacefully, following the ancient code of Bravelands. The primary rule of the Code: Kill only to survive. But things are changing in Bravelands, first among the lions where Gallantpride, headed by the male lion Gallant, is stolen by treachery and becomes Titanpride, ruled by an autocratic and cruel dictator. Then, things begin to go wrong among the baboons and among the great elephants, too.

“Windrider paused as the clamor rose around her. She swiveled her head. ‘Do you smell it, Blackwing? Do you taste it?’
‘The scent in the sky?’ He nodded once.
‘Do you know what it is?’ she asked him. ‘Something we have not tasted for our lifetimes, Blackwing, for though it is slow and constant, it happens so slowly it can’t be noticed.’
He tilted his head. ‘And now?’
‘Now it comes fast; fast enough to be dangerous. Change, Blackwing. What you smell on the Bravelands sky is—change.'”

I’ve never read any of Erin Hunter’s* Warriors series about clans of wild cats.Nor have I read her Survivors series of novels, which focus on the lives of wild dogs. She also has a third series, Seekers, about bears in the wild. I’m not really an animal person, although I have enjoyed the occasional animal book. Nevertheless, I would recommend Bravelands, at least the first book, Broken Pride, to all my friends and fellow readers who are animal lovers—and to those who love books set in Africa.

The animals in this book are somewhat anthropomorphized; they talk to one another, they plot, they plan. But the Code of Bravelands is similar to the unwritten “code” of wild animals everywhere. Predators kill only to eat. Animals, particularly male lions, fight to establish dominance. But there is no sin, no arrogant pride, no violence for the sake of violence. However, in this book, unlike on the real savannah of Africa, the animals take on some human characteristics. The title “broken pride” has a double meaning as the young lion cub, Fearless, sees his pride of lions scattered and has his own pride and self-respect also broken.

The balance of Bravelands has been disturbed, and only the combination of a lion cub, a young elephant, and a baboon can set it right. Maybe. If only they can figure out what has happened to make such horrible change come and what they can do to make things right. As I said, I haven’t read Erin Hunter’s other, very popular, books, but I thought this one was every bit as good as Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The writing is adequate, and sometimes exceptional, as the author describes the beauty and danger of sub-Saharan Africa. (No human characters are in the book, and the place name “Africa” is never used.) And the characters and plot are memorable and engaging.

Bravelands #2: Code of Honor comes out in February, 2018 and takes up where Broken Pride leaves off. And, fair warning, I can see why Ms. Hunter’s books are known as a series, rather than individual books. The ending to Broken Pride is a cliffhanger, leaving the reader thirsty for more.

*It turns out that “Erin Hunter” is a pseudonym for six people: Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Tui T. Sutherland, Gillian Phillips, and Inbali Iserles, as well as editor Victoria Holmes. They write these books in the series that I mentioned as a group—somehow.

Cybils 2017 Nominations Are Now Open

The 2017 Cybils nominations are now live!

Some quick reminders:

First, check out the category descriptions. If you don’t know where the book should go, please read through the descriptions to help you decide. If you’re still not quite sure, make your best guess, and the organizers can straighten things out behind the scenes.

Take a minute to check out the Rules and Regulations. The Big Rule: the book needs to be published in the U.S. or Canada between October 16, 2016 and October 15, 2017. Oh, and ONE book per CATEGORY per PERSON. No exceptions. The form will kick you back if you try to nominate more than one book (or if someone else has already nominated the book).

If you are a publisher or an author, you need to wait until the public nomination period closes before submitting your nominations.

If you have any other questions, check out the Cybils FAQ page.

Follow this link to nominate your favorite books in all our categories. You have until October 15th.