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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.

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.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard

Blurb from back cover: “When a meteorite crashes near a small village in fifth century Britain, it brings with it a mysterious black stone that bewitches anyone who comes in contact with its glow—a power the druids hope to use to destroy King Uther’s kingdom. The only person who seems immune is a young, shy, half-blind swordmith’s son named Merlin.”

This YA title in Zondervan’s new teen fiction imprint Blink joins my shortlist of favorite fantasy novels and series that play off the Arthurian legend of Merlin, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Tereskillard’s Merlin is likable and easy to root for, and the minor characters are also well-realized and interesting. The fight between good and evil is engaging, and the ending is not a foregone conclusion. Even though Christ is greater than the old gods and the new magical stone of the druids, God’s ways are not always our ways and man’s sin and weakness are ever-present, making the story both suspenseful and satisfying.

I’ve read L’Morte d’Arthur, the long and sometimes repetitive compilation by Sir Thomas Mallory of fifteenth century stories about Arthur and his knights, and despite the repetition and the archaic language, I enjoyed Malory’s version of Arthur very much. I’ve also read several other novels, poems, and series that use these legends as a starting place. Here are some of my favorites:

The Once and Future King by T.H. White. White’s version of the Arthur legend is the source, in its turn, for Disney’s Sword in the Stone and for the musical Camelot. It’s light-hearted and rather fun.

Idylls of the King by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Arthurian legend in poetic form. Victorian Arthur.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
No tribute will we pay: so those great lords
Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome.

And Arthur and his knighthood for a space
Were all one will, and through that strength the King
Drew in the petty princedoms under him,
Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame
The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reigned.

*************

If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

'Glastonbury Abbey' photo (c) 2009, Elliott Brown - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead consists of six novels:
Taliesin (1987)
Merlin (1988)
Arthur (1989)
Pendragon (1994)
Grail (1997)
Avalon (1999)

Lawhead’s druids, as I remember it, were good guys, for the most part, worshipping the One True God, whereas Treskillard takes the opposite approach with the druidow, as he calls them, being the definite bad guys in the story, evil and pagan through and through. Nevertheless, Treskillard, in the author’s note at the end of Merlin’s Blade, thanks Lawhead for his “unique and expert critique” and for inspiring him. There’s apparently room for more than one vision of Arthur and Merlin and druids.

King Arthur and His Knights of The Round Table by Howard Pyle is a summary/re-telling of Mallory without much extraneous material or re-interpretation. Pyle does organize the story and leave out a lot of the repetition to condense it down to a more manageable length.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote several books related to Arthurian legend and early medieval/Roman Britain: The Lantern Bearers (1959), Sword at Sunset (1963), Tristan and Iseult (1971), The Light Beyond the Forest (1979), The Sword and the Circle (1981), and The Road to Camlann (1981). Excellent stuff.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain is mostly ridiculous, but not a bad read.

The last book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is set in post-modern Britain, but it features the “return of the king” (Arthur) and of Merlin.

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, all by Mary Stewart, are called together her Merlin Trilogy. Sh later wrote two more books based on Arthurian legend, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim but I have not read those.

Here There Be Dragons by James Owen, reviewed at Semicolon, has allusions to Arthurian legend: one of the islands in the story is Avalon, and King Arthur has some influence on events in the book.

The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla. Shan, son of Lord Weldon, hides a sword in the hollow of a tree. The events of this book take place during the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and Shan eventually ends up in Camelot. This easy chapter book was a favorite of one of my daughters when she was younger.

The Defence of Guenevere by William Morris, with Semicolon commentary.

Of course, when talking about Arthurian farce and legend, one can’t forget the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My friend in high school had the “hand grenade” monologue, and several other parts of the movie, memorized:

Cleric: And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu…
Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother…
Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

I liked Merlin’s Blade well enough that I have the second book in the planned Merlin Spiral trilogy, Merlin’s Shadow, on hold at the library. What’s your favorite version of or allusion to Arthurian legend?

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?

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Geometry and drawing and chalk duels and strategy games and kidnapping (or murder?) and boarding school and alternative fantastical history with a touch of steampunk. The Rithamtist, by the same author who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time adult fantasy series, is an excellent conglomeration of all of the above plus a lovely set of characters who made the reading both interesting and fun.

Joel is a poor scholarship student, son of the cleaning woman, at a rich people’s school. And what’s more, he longs to be a Rithmatist, but knows he’s missed his opportunity. Rithmatists are an elite bunch, even within an already elite school. They are the specially chosen fighting force that holds off the chalklings on the frontier in Nebrask and keeps them from overrunning the island states of the United Isles. Rithmatists are chosen in a special ceremony when children are only eight years old, and only one in a thousand is picked to join the Rithmatists. Unfortunately Joel missed his “inception” ceremony, so he’s doomed to hangout on the periphery of The Rithmatists who study at Armedius Academy and pick up what he can about Rithmatics as he makes unauthorized visits to Rithmatic classes.

However, now Rithmatist students are disappearing in very suspicious circumstances, and only Joel and the brilliant but aging Rithmatics Professor Fitch can possibly figure out who is behind the disappearances and how to stop them. But Joel suspects that Professor Fitch’s rival, the brash young Professor Nalizar, might be involved in the kidnappings, and a Rithmatist student who’s taking remedial classes, Melody, is definitely involved in Joel’s life whether he wants her to be or not.

You can’t go wrong with this Cybils-nominated fantasy adventure—unless you’re allergic to geometry or chalk dust. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced on Friday, February 14th. The Rithmatist is definitely a contender.

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

Jinx is your basic, orphaned in the forest, boy hero, who becomes a wizard’s apprentice. Jinx’s curiosity is, of course, sometimes too much for his capabilities. It all reminds me of this scene from Fantasia:

I really enjoyed Jinx. It’s a story with lots of questions–and elements from various old stories:
Who is Jinx? Why and how does he “see” people’s emotions and “hear” the language of the trees in the Urwald (forest)?

Is Simon Magus, the magician to whom Jinx becomes a servant, evil or good? What about his wife, Sophie? Who is she? What is the place she comes from, Samara?

Why can’t Jinx read Dame Glammer the Witch the way he reads others’ thoughts and feelings?

What is the Terror that the trees of the Urwald are afraid of?

What is the curse that binds Jinx’s new friends, Elfwyn and Reven? And how can their respective curses be removed?

Is Jinx also cursed? How?

Who is the Bonemaster? Will he help–or is he even more evil than Simon?

Lots of questions. If you read to the end of the book, you’ll get some answers—and be presented with a new set of puzzles, a perfect set-up for the second book in the planned trilogy, Jinx’s Magic.

Jinx is one of the books nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils will be announced on Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day.

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

This middle grade fiction book is an odd little ghost story about a girl who finds herself unexpectedly transported into the past and about her little brother Lucca, who’s three years old and doesn’t talk.

Siena’s family is moving from the city, Brooklyn, to coastal Maine in hope of jolting Lucca into talking again or somehow helping him. Lucca, when the story begins, hasn’t spoken a word for over a year.

I liked the story. Siena is a sympathetic character, fourteen years old, obsessed with abandoned things, a little prickly and stand-off-ish because her old friends in Brooklyn think she’s weird. As a matter of fact, she is weird: Siena sees visions of the past and know things about past events and places that she shouldn’t know. Since all of us feel a little awkward and weird at times, especially at fourteen, Siena’s visions and Lucca’s silence can be stand-ins for whatever is making the reader feel out-of-place and misunderstood. That aspect of the book worked really well.

I also liked that (minor spoiler!) we never do find out why Lucca quit talking. He simply tells Siena, eventually, that he just doesn’t want to speak. Sometimes, contrary to our psychologically fixated society, kids just do stuff and make decisions for reasons that make sense to them but to no one else. And if they make bad decisions or crazy decisions or even inexplicable decisions, it’s not always someone’s fault. I liked that Lucca just didn’t want to talk. Actually, I had a child who was not totally silent, but who didn’t want to talk to anyone outside our house for a long time, so she didn’t. She grew out of it.

One thing bothered me about the book: SIena, when she is in the past is able to talk to a young man named Joshua who is suffering from PTSD or depression or some combination thereof and get him to “come back” to his family who are suffering because of his illness and withdrawal. She says:

“What will happen if you don’t is what I told you: all the people you love are going to fall apart. Their lives will be full of the darkness you’ve brought home. They will remain faceless to you. But if you get up, if you try to let a little of it go, if you make new happy memories, you can have them back.”

So Joshua “comes back.” The same thing happened in another middle grade novel I read recently, The Absolute Value of Mike by Katherine Erskine. Mike gets mad at his great-uncle, an old man who is depressed and guilty because of the death of his adult son, and the words Mike says to his great uncle Poppy somehow snap him out of his lethargy and depression and bring him to full recovery.

It’s unrealistic and puts a lot of pressure on kids to imply that if they just talk to a loved one who is depressed or grieving and say the right words and tell the person to snap out of it, they can bring that loved one back from the brink. Yes, sometimes people who are experiencing a mild depression can bring themselves back and recover with the help of wise words from another person who loves them. But sometimes, often, it takes more than a good talking-to. It takes medication or time or therapy or many talks or prayer or?

Nevertheless, I liked Listening for Lucca, and I recommend it with the above caveat. It was a sweet book. (I liked The Absolute Value of Mike, too, but I never managed to get a review posted. Great book, quirky misfit characters, good story-telling, even though a bit unbelievable.)

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen

Book 2 of the Ascendancy Trilogy. I’m about to make a rule for myself: no more trilogies, series, or maybe even sequels. I’m tired of half-finished stories. However, if I made that rule I’d have to make an exception for Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendancy trilogy.

The Runaway King is just as good as (or better than) the first book in the Ascendancy Trilogy, The False Prince, which was the Cybils award winner last year in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. In Book Two, Prince Jaren has become King Jaron, but his grip on the throne is none too secure. Both the neighboring kingdom of Avenia and the cutthroat Pirates are ready to attack Jaron’s rather weak little country of Carthya, and these two enemies may actually be in league with one another. Not only does Jaron doubt himself and his ability to be a good king, but the most of the Council also want to replace Jaron with a regent. And Jaron’s not sure whom he can trust, and there’s the unresolved quandary of a princess he’s required to marry versus a commoner friend he loves and wants to protect.

When Jaron’s past catches up with him in the form of an assassination attempt, he does the only thing he can: he disguises himself, runs away, and goes to confront Carthya’s enemies. Self-sacrifice is a big theme in this volume of the story, and Jaron is growing and learning as he tries to balance his responsibilities, his desire for justice, and his commitments to friends. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, and he has a kingdom to save while he’s at it.

The third book in the trilogy, The Shadow Throne, is due out in February, 2014. I may go back and read all three books together when I get my hands on all three. And I may just try to establish a policy of waiting until all three books in a trilogy are published and available before I start reading, instead of banning series altogether. If I have the patience for such a policy . . .

Cybils 2013 Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Some possible nominees for the Cybils awards in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction (Fantasy and Science Fiction) category:

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer, reviewed at Semicolon.

Failstate: Legends by John W. Otte.

Anomaly by Krista McGee. Reviewed by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible.

Captives by Jill Williamson. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Shadow by Robert Treskillard.

Cybils 2013 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Here are a few ideas for nominees for the Cybils category, Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy):

The Spies of Gerander by Frances Watts. Book Two in the series, The Song of the Winns. I just read this sequel and liked it even better than I did the first in the series, Song of the Winns. The pace is picking up, and I’m starting to fall for the mice characters. In fact, it’s been a good year for talking mice characters.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

Cake: Love, Chickens and a Taste of Peculiar by Joyce Magnin, reviewed at Semicolon.

A Whole Lot of Lucky by Danette Haworth. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Risked by Margaret Peterson Haddix. One of my favorite middle grade/YA authors.

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur. Reviewed at A Garden Carried in the Pocket.

The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore by Kate Maddison. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

There are lots more ideas/reminders in this post at Charlotte’s Library. And here’s yet another list from the lovely Charlotte. Surely, you have a favorite from one of these lists. If so, nominate before October 15th at the Cybils website.