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The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

There are a few authors I could read all day, all week, and never get tired of their books, their characters, and their writing style. Whereas some authors I read and enjoy but then need a break—Dickens or John Grisham or even Tolkien. Others are so delightful and amusing and light-hearted that I could take a steady diet and not feel too over-filled or burdened. P.G. Wodehouse, Jan Karon, Agatha Christie (well, maybe not “light-hearted”), and Alexander McCall Smith fall into the latter category.

Mr. McCall Smith has written several series of novels set in various locales, and I’ve enjoyed at least a few of the books in each series:

Corduroy Mansions in London
44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, Scotland,
The Isabel Dalhousie novels, also in Scotland,
Professor Dr. von Igelfeld novels in Germany and other settings,
and of course, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency set in Botswana, Africa.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the latest, and perhaps greatest, of this best-selling detective series. I enjoyed the contrasting of modern ways and the old conservative ways of traditional Botswanan culture—and the compromises between the two. I enjoyed the two mysteries and their cozy solutions. I enjoyed the continued unfolding of the friendship between Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi. And Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni continued to work in this book as in others at loving and caring for his traditionally built and professionally astute helpmeet. The supporting cast in this series also make an appearance and add to the story, each in his own way: Mma Potokwane, Phuti Radiphuti, and the apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell.

A couple of quotes, just to brighten your day and give you something to think about:

On forgiveness:
“She had forgiven him, yes, but she still did not like to remember. And perhaps a deliberate act of forgetting went along with forgiveness. You forgave, and then you said to yourself: Now I shall forget. Because if you did not forget, then your forgiveness would be tested, perhaps many times and in ways that you could not resist, and you might go back to anger, and to hating.”

On beauty:
“You could be very glamorous and beautiful on the outside, but if inside you were filled with human faults—jealousy, spite, and the like—then no amount of exterior beauty could make up for that. Perhaps there was some sort of lemon juice for inside beauty . . . And even as she thought of it, she realized what it was love and kindness. Love was the lemon juice that cleansed and kindness was the aloe that healed.”

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.

So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.

Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.

A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.

The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:

“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—”

I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

Middle grade fiction subtitled A Story of Katrina, Zane and the Hurricane tells about the adventures, or misadventures, of Zane Dupree, a visitor to New Orleans from New Hampshire during the worst disaster in the city’s history, Hurricane Katrina. And Zane sees the worst of the worst.

I remember Katrina, but I think I must have subconsciously blocked out many of the details of the news coming out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation. I think I found it hard to believe that, for a few days at least, lawlessness reigned, and the governing authorities were at least somewhat powerless to help survivors of Katrina’s floods and winds. I do remember the refugees that came to Houston from New Orleans and from other places in Louisiana and the crime that some of them brought with them. (Wikipedia says: “The number of homicides in Houston from September 2005 through February 22, 2006 went up by 23% relative to the same period a year before; 29 of the 170 murders involved displaced Louisianans as victims or suspects.”)

However, I also read that reports of the lawlessness in New Orleans after Katrina were exaggerated:

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was characterized by extensive reporting of looting, violence, shooting against rescuers, murder and rape. While some criminal acts did occur, such as the emptying of an entire Wal Mart, many reports were also exaggerated, inflated, or simply fabricated. Several news organizations went on to issue retractions.

The media reports did fuel a paranoid anxiety in many homeowners who decided to take up arms to defend their property. Investigations carried out in the years following the hurricane turned out evidence of violence by white vigilante groups against evacuees and survivors, usually young black men. For example A.C. Thompson, after extensive investigation and eyewitness interviews in New Orleans found that “at least 11 people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.” Wikipedia, Effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans

So, take most of the bad things that really did happen during and after Katrina, and Zane Dupree sees or experiences them all: floods, heat, wind, looting, vigilantes, shooting, crime, death, lack of medical services, and more. This approach to telling the Katrina story through the eyes of a young survivor makes for a dark tale, but it’s deftly lightened by the heroism of Zane’s rescuers, jazz musician Trudell Manning and his ward Malvina Rawlins. Zane’s dog, Bandy the Wonder Dog, also adds a bit of humor and lightheartedness to the story. While Malvina tells very bad jokes (What did the ocean say to the ship? Nothing, it just waved!), and Mr. Manning tries to get himself and the two children to a safe place in a devastated city, Zane learns that that he can survive the worst of the worst, even in New Orleans,—with the help of family and friends.

Zane, the narrator, gives readers a warning on the first page that “there’s some really gross stuff in this book”, but most readers eleven or twelve and up have probably seen worse on television. However, if your child is particularly sheltered or sensitive, Zane and the Hurricane may not be the book for them. Other wise, it’s a good introduction to a sad episode in recent history and a good discussion starter. How would you act in a crisis? What if police were scarce and services such as electricity and food services were to disappear in a disaster? How would you treat your neighbors? How would they treat you?

Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski

The premise is cute: what if you got a flu shot, and the side effects were headache, purple coloring in your eyes, and ESP? So, now you and your classmates, who all got the same batch of vaccine, can read each other’s thoughts—and everyone else’s thoughts, all the time.

I thought it this light-hearted look into the minds of upper middle class teens was entertaining and funny. The only thing that prevents me from recommending it whole-heartedly is the language and some gratuitous sexual content. A few f-bombs, which aren’t really bombs anymore apparently, and some graphic kissing descriptions were as yucky and repellent to me as the scene in which one of ESPies “overhears” her parents’ thoughts as they’re having sex was to her.

Nothing deep here, just a silly story about a group of teenagers who are given a special ability and about what it does to them and how it changes their perceptions of each other and of the non-ESPies with whom they go to school. One of the kids, Pi, is the competitive, intelligent, bossy type. She tries to organize and control the group, but if everyone knows what you’re thinking, they’re sort of hard to control. Another one, Olivia, is a shy, hypochondriac–until she realizes that no one is really thinking about her at all most of the time. At that realization, Olivia is released from her own prison of uncertainty and self-doubt to be the person she really is inside.

Then there are the couples: Mackenzie and Cooper and Tess and Teddy. Their love lives are about to get really, really complicated. Would you want your boyfriend or girlfriend to know everything you are thinking all the time?

I liked this one, but if the previously referenced content bothers you or if you’re looking for something a little more intellectually challenging, it’s not for you.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This YA novel by well-known author Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Twisted, Wintergirls, Chains, and Forge) is what I call “an ABC after school special” work of fiction. For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember the after school special movies that were featured on the ABC network back in the day, they were usually dramas (sometimes comedy or documentary) aimed at middle school and young adult audiences about issues that the producers thought were relevant to teens: drug abuse, teen pregnancy, popularity, cancer, sexual harassment, blended families, racism, alcoholism, anorexia, etc. Each drama usually focused on one or more of these teen issues and gave guidance to viewers about how to handle the problem in the form of a story or parable or panel discussion.

Well, The Impossible Knife of Memory is a problem novel about the issue of having a parent who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As the novel opens, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been traveling the country for the past five years, running away from Andy’s recurring nightmares and violent outbursts in response to his time as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Andy is a mess, but he’s decided that Hayley needs a more stable life and a chance to graduate from a brick-and-mortar school. So, the two of them move back to Andy’s hometown.

For the rest of the book, Andy, the dad, messes up: marijuana, fights, alcoholism, suicide attempts, incoherent and dictatorial behavior, criminal associates, and general irresponsibility. Hayley tries to take care of her father and live a “normal” teen life at school at the same time. She acquires a boyfriend, Finn, who is cute and sweet, mostly, but has his own dysfunctional family. In fact, all of Hayley’s friends and acquaintances seem to come from seriously messed-up families. Does Ms. Anderson mean to indicate that all teens deal with some form of parental misbehavior and irresponsibility, or is it just that Hayley picks the ones with dysfunctional families to be friends with?

The title indicates that the book will be about the double-edged sword that is memory: how our memories can both strengthen us and capture us in a web of hopelessness, depending on how we see and process those memories. I’m not sure that the theme indicated in the title came through clearly; I was too distracted by “cute little puppy-dog-like” Finn and by Hayley’s need to get away from her borderline abusive dad. I couldn’t think about the larger themes and issues that the book was trying to illuminate. Maybe if ABC made it into an after-school special, the script writers would hone the focus. As it was, I felt sorry for Hayley, liked Finn, couldn’t stand Gracie (best friend) and her boyfriend, and wanted Andy to go a hospital and get some help.

And that’s about all I gleaned from this particular after-school special novel. I prefer Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction. The book, and maybe the TV special, would be rated PG for some language and “adult” situations and discussions, such as drug abuse, suicide, and adultery.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

If you liked the following books, you might like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery and a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin.
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin.
The Puzzler’s Mansion by Eric Berlin.
The Sixty-eight Rooms by Marianne Malone, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Candymakers by Wendy Mass.

Conversely, if you read Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and you want more, you might want to check out one of the books on the list above. Some of these books are at least alluded to in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, but they’re certainly not the only books that are mentioned. Book-title-name-dropping is pervasive throughout the story, a story that takes place in a magically enchanting library full of books, games, puzzles, displays, artifacts, and technological wonders. A few of the other books and authors that get a mention in Escape are: Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Rick Riordan, The Hunger Games, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, ewes Carroll, Geroge Orwell, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Pseudonymous Bosch, and the Bible.

Now that’s an eclectic list! Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library should keep 10-12 year old puzzle-lovers and mystery readers enthralled as they try, along with twelve other twelve year old characters in the book, to figure out how to escape from a library filled with both informational marvels and deceptive snares. Kyle Keeley, our protagonist, is all-boy, and he and his best friend Akimi, along with the other children, if somewhat stereotypical, are still engaging enough to keep the story moving. In a book that’s mostly plot and puzzle, the characters are not as important and can be allowed a little flatness.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library isn’t as good or as intricately plotted as a couple of my favorites in the puzzle fiction genre, The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game, but it’s a solid entry in a field that still has room for a few more good selections. I recommend it for library aficionados, reading addicts, and puzzle and game lovers everywhere. And could someone explain to me the puzzle mentioned in the Author’s Note at the end of the book? I’m not so good at solving unexplained puzzles that are hidden somewhere in some some unspecified part of the book.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.

The Daphne Awards

This idea is genius! Jessica Crispin at Bookslut has come up with the idea of a book award that goes back in time to correct and adjust the mistakes of past years of book awards. As a beloved literature professor once told us, the definition of a classic (or a book that should be “award-winning”) is a book that stands the test of time. So, starting with 1963, fifty years ago, the Daphne Awards will be given to those books that have lasted and still speak to today’s readers.

If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards.

The Daphne awards have four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Of course, I’m most interested in the last category. First, I thought I’d look to see what children’s books, published in 1963, won awards:

Caldecott Award: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Caldecott Honor Books: Swimmy by Leo Lionni.
All in the Morning Early by Evaline Ness.
Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes by Phillip Reed.
It must be remembered that the Caldecott Medal is given for “most distinguished picture book,” majoring on the excellence of the illustrations in the book. I’m assuming that the Daphne Awards are more literary in nature.

Newbery Medal: It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville
Newbery Honor Books: Rascal by Sterling North and The Loner by Ester Wier.

Carnegie Medal: Time of Trial by Hester Burton. (Never heard of it or her)

Kate Greenaway Medal: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers by John Burningham. I have heard of Mr. Burningham and read some of his picture books, but not this one. Wikipedia says Borka was his debut book, and from the description, quoting Kirkus Reviews, it doesn’t hold up to the American offerings for the year 1963. “Borka is an ugly duckling who does not undergo a transformation; she is as bald as a goose as she was when a gosling. … The freely stylized illustrations in bold lines and appropriate, vivid colors are many and strong.”

The National Book Awards didn’t have a children’s literature category until 1969.

Other popular and distinguished children’s books published in 1963:
Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. Excellent beginning reader that has stood the test of time.
Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. Not my favorite Dr. Seuss, but a popular entry.
Stormy, Misty’s Foal by marguerite Henry. Another book that is still popular among the horse-lovers.
I Am David by Ann Holm. A twelve year old boy escapes from prison camp in Eastern Europe. Cold War literature that I’d like to go back and re-read to see if it stands the test of time.
Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander. I’ve read this one, but I don’t remember it.
Curious George Learns the Alphabet by H.A. Rey.
Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary. What we would call YA romance nowadays without all the angst and sex.
The Winged Watchman by Hilda von Stockum. Excellent WW2 adventure fiction, written by a Dutch-American author and published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux in English in January, 1963.
The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell. I had forgotten about this one, a lovely little story with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Mr. Sendak was rather busy in 1963 (see below).

Now the Daphne shortlist for Young People’s Literature published in 1963:

51CDZcP-cPL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Children’s Literature

The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit (and the Lovely Present) by Charlotte Zolotow. I don’t know why they left off the last four words in the title.
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

If I were choosing from that list, I’d have to go with Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present or with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful story, but Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (illustrated by who else but Maurice Sendak?) should have been at least honored, and Encyclopedia Brown still lives! I love Madeleine L’Engle’s books, all of them, but I’m not sure The Moon By Night was her best, just as Lafcadio wasn’t Shel Silverstein’s finest (see either. The two others are by authors I know, Edward Gorey and Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), but I don’t know the books.

WINNER (if I’m choosing): Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

That’s how Ruta Sepetys’ second YA novel starts out, and that intro pretty much tells you whether or not this coming-of-age novel set in the 1950′s about a girl who’s desperate to get out of NOLA is the right kind of book for you. I liked it—with reservations.

Let’s get the reservations out of the way first. The obligatory homosexual subplot and gay minor character are forced and awkward. I’m tired of authors notching their figurative diversity belts by shoehorning in a gay character or an episode in which their authorial lack of homophobia is displayed. But I expect to see more and more of this sort of thing in books just as I’m seeing it in TV series and movies. Skim time.

Some of the other characters are rather stereotypical, too. Our protagonist, seventeen year old Josie, has a mother-substitute, since her own mother is a witch. Of course, the maternal figure is a brusque, sharp-tongued madam with a heart of gold. Maybe madams with hearts of gold exist in all “respectable” brothels, I wouldn’t know, but they are a little too cliche to be believed. Then, there’s the old quadroon servant/chauffeur, Cokie, who knows his place but turns out to be the the most intelligent and dependable person around. Again, possible but hackneyed.

Nevertheless, these drawbacks can be overlooked because Josie herself is such a wonderful character. She lives and works in a bookstore in the lower class part of New Orleans. She loves to read. She also cleans the cathouse every morning, and she knows she wants to do and be more than her mother, more than her friends in the NOLA underworld, and more than New Orleans can ever give her. When Josie gets the bright idea that she could apply to go to the prestigious Smith College in far-off Massachusetts, she gives the application and the preparations her best effort, even when her mother’s cruelty and criminal connections threaten Josie’s dream.

Out of the Easy was one of the books nominated for the 2013 YA Fiction Cybils Award, and I liked it a lot more than I liked the winning book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A–. Rose Under Fire was the best of the shortlisted books, by the way. What all three books have in common is the rough, filled with evil, poverty and hardship, settings. There’s not a whole lot to choose between the barrio, the New Orleans underworld, and Ravensbruck. OK, Ravensbruck is much worse, but on the other hand, Rose Under Fire is a much more tragic, and ultimately redemptive, story than either Out of the Easy or Yaqui Delgado. Anyway, I would recommend Out of the Easy with the above caveats, and if you’re able to stomach another book with a truly horrific mother.

Sidekicked by John David Anderson

Superheroes, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Samson and Gideon to Hercules to Beowulf to Superman and The Incredible Hulk—we weak mortals have always been fascinated with the adventures and exploits of men (sometimes women) with incredible talents, beyond human strength, and extraordinary intelligence. Superheroes are the stuff of legend and comic book—and nowadays middle grade speculative fiction.

John David Anderson’s Sidekicked takes one aspect of the superhero mythos, the Sidekick or assistant or superhero-in-training, and builds it into a snarky middle grade fictional essay on ethics. The moral of the story, however, is a little murky.

Andrew Bean, seventh grader and citizen of the city of Justicia, is a member of H.E.R.O., a secret organization of middle school students with exceptional gifts who are training, each under their own superhero mentor, to become Superhero Sidekicks. And there’s always the possibility that these junior heroes might even graduate to become Superheroes on their own someday. Meanwhile, Drew (aka the Sensationalist), his best friend Jenna (aka The Silver Lynx) and the other members of H.E.R.O. spend several hours a week training for their future as crime fighters in a secret room in the basement of Highview Middle School. Plus for everyone except Drew, there’s one-on-one training with their very Supers (special Superhero mentors). Drew has a Super, too, but unfortunately The Titan is a superhero of the washed-up variety, “going through a little identity thing”, and totally uninterested in mentoring, or rescuing, his erstwhile sidekick, Drew (aka The Sensationalist).

So, if you’ve got Superheroes, you also have to have Supervillains to match. And in Sidekicked the villains are coming out of the woodwork, and back from the dead, to attack and take over the city. Drew is committed to the Code, the Superhero Sidekick Code of Conduct, but things start to get complicated when the meaning of concepts like justice and honor and good and evil come into question. And when there’s a girl involved.

Like I said, this book is big on snarky, self-deprecating, middle grade humor (my favorite kind of funny) and confusing ethical discussions, but it’s a little short on answers. Which is OK. It’s the sort of book that entertains a lot while making kids think a little, and that’s the best kind, as far as I’m concerned.

Sidekicked is on the short list for the Cybils Awards in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced tomorrow, Friday, February 14th.

Superhero books that riff off the basic superhero model abound in middle grade fiction these days. Here are a few favorites:

Failstate by John W. Otte, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz.
Hero by Mike Lupica.
Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.
Dangerous by Shannon Hale, due out in early March, 2014.
Of course, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, recent winner of the Newbery Award, is a different kind of superhero story (squirrel superhero), maybe for a little younger audience than the above-listed. However, I enjoyed it immensely.

Do you have a favorite kid superhero novel?