MG – City of the Plague God

Chadda, Sarwat. City of the Plague God. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05150-7. 400 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7. 

Sik, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi-American, lives with his mother and father in New York City, running a family deli specializing in middle-eastern food. He and his parents mourn his older brother, Mo, who was killed while traveling in Iraq. Alone in the deli one night, Sik encounters two scary guys in the back alley, eating rats and talking in rhyming couplets. Then Sik meets their boss, an insect infested, maggot producing 10-foot monster who proceeds to demolish the deli looking for something he says Mo stole from Iraq. If that wasn’t weird enough, Sik is saved by a pint-sized ninja, who turns out to be Belet, the new girl in his class at school. And if THAT isn’t weird enough, Belet is the daughter of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar explains to Sik that his nighttime visitor was Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of war and plague, and New York City has just become an immortal battle zone. Another entry from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint introduces middle grade readers to really ancient mythology – stories from the Fertile Crescent. The original super hero, Gilgamesh, appears in the story, having renounced his former violent ways. This story is not for the faint of heart. Bugs, blood, and bile dominate in this action-packed adventure. Characters come back from the dead, and Sik must visit the underworld in his pursuit of Mo’s mysterious treasure. Learning about Sumaria was never so much fun! Sik is a charming character who cares deeply about his family, and resents his brother for dying, while Belet desperately wants a family like the one Sik treasures.

THOUGHTS: Those students who may have previously eschewed the RRP family of books will be drawn in by the delightful grossness of this story. Readers may not run for a translation of Gilgamesh, but they will undoubtedly be more receptive to learning about Mesopotamia in history class.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Ground Zero

Gratz, Alan. Ground Zero. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-24575-2. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8.

Brandon, 9 years old, suspended from school for fighting, is spending the day with his father, who works at the Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He sneaks away from his dad to run an errand when a plane flies into the building. It is September 11, 2001. Brandon’s life has changed forever. Decades later, and a world away, Reshmina, a young Afghan girl, also lives with the fallout of that horrific day. Life in rural Afghanistan changed drastically when the US armed forces came to push back the Taliban. While no one likes the American soldiers, most Afghans fear the Taliban as well. Alan Gratz’s take on the 9/11, attack follows the two young people, alternating between their stories. While Brandon fights for his life as he tries to escape the burning tower, Reshmina struggles with the burden of Pashtunwali, providing aid to those who request it. Reshmina comes across an American soldier injured during a Taliban ambush. Despite her hatred of the Americans, she cannot leave him to die after he asks for help. The move places her family in danger; her twin brother has begun working with the Taliban and threatens to notify them of the soldier’s presence at their home. It won’t surprise any reader that the soldier is Brandon, 18 years later. There is nothing subtle about this book. Gratz had a point to make, and he hammers it home. The two stories aren’t just parallel, but painfully structured to be identical stories – an event in one story is mirrored by a similar event in the other narrative. And Gratz does not couch his opinion that everything the US did in Afghanistan was wrong and hurtful. While the current generation of readers looks for books set around 9/11, Gratz, a master of historical fiction adventure, who single handedly has converted young readers to historical fiction fans, falls a bit flat with this story. Gratz fans will want to read it, but it will not replace gems like Refugee or Projekt 1065.

THOUGHTS: Purchase where Alan Gratz is popular, but readers may be disappointed.

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Last Fallen Star

Kim, Grace. Last Fallen Star. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05963-3. 336 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Riley loves her Korean family and community. Her parents are healers, part of the Gom clan, and Riley longs for the day she can join them, with her almost-twin sister, Hattie. Unfortunately, Riley, an adopted daughter, has failed to show an affinity with any of the five magical witch clans, let alone an indication she is a Gom. However, an offhand comment shows the girls an option, albeit a dangerous one: once Hattie is initiated into the clan, she can cast a spell to share her magic with Riley. But when the girls attempt the spell, truths are revealed that Riley and Hattie never imagined. An appeal to the clan goddess ends with Hattie’s life in peril and Riley pledged to locate the Last Fallen Star. Only she has no idea what it is, let alone where to find it. Luckily, Riley is blessed with a great friend in Emmett, a non-magical member of the Korean community who undertakes the quest with Riley. Along the way, Riley and Emmett locate the sixth witch clan, long outlawed from the other clans, and uncover the truth of the rift between them. This first book in a new series from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint delves into the fascinating world of Korean mythology. All characters are members of the Korean community in Los Angeles. Readers will love the intricacies of the witch clans, their associated skills, and patron goddesses. Riley is a spunky protagonist whose adventurous spirit and deep love for her sister keep the story moving. Kim writes with wit, and the story is often laugh-out-loud funny (the Gostr app to locate spirits is quite humorous). Riley discovers she has more friends than she realized, which is a comfort when she makes a startling sacrifice to save Hattie.

THOUGHTS: This enjoyable action adventure will please readers who cannot get enough of mythology-based series. Purchase where RRP books are popular. Delightfully, the main characters are thirteen years old, making the book potentially attractive for middle school collections.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Ali Cross Like Father, Like Son

Patterson, James. Ali Cross Like Father, Like Son. Little, Brown, 2021. 978-0-316-50013-5. 294 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Ali Cross, son of Patterson’s famous literary detective, Alex Cross, is back in the second book of the series. Ali loves his father’s work, and when his friends are in trouble, he jumps into the situation, determined to use his own talents to solve the problem. Ali and his best friends are at a local D.C. music festival, waiting to see their friend Zoe’s mom perform, when gunshots ring out. Ali races to see if Zoe is OK. He eventually finds her in the backstage maze of semi trucks, RVs and trailers, only to realize she has been shot. Ali rallies his investigative team to discover what happened, but they run into a roadblock in Zoe, who seems determined to keep Ali from finding out the truth. Ali Cross is a delightful upper middle grade and middle school series. Ali is one of the most realistic characters in tween detective fiction. He lies to his Nana Mama and gets in trouble (then lies again). He feels guilty, he makes mistakes, and he loves his family. The plot embraces current issues such as homelessness, police violence, and the proliferation of black shooting victims, balanced with Ali’s personal experience with police work. Ali and Zoe are Black, and other friends are diverse.

THOUGHTS: A well-crafted story from a master storyteller. Patterson is the king of pacing, and the story will keep even reluctant readers engaged. Topical issues add some depth to the book. Mystery fans should enjoy the series, which will lead them to Alex Cross books when they’re older.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Memory Thief

Anderson, Jodi Lynn. The Memory Thief. Thirteen Witches Book 1. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-481-48021-5. 325 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Rosie finds great comfort in writing fantasy stories with happy endings, to compensate for her less-than-perfect life with a mother who cannot remember she has a daughter. But when Rosie’s best friend, Gemma, suggests the girls are getting too old for stories, Rosie, shocked and hurt, burns her writings. Later that night, the ghosts come. When a young boy ghost realizes Rosie and Gemma can see them, he takes it up himself to educate Rosie of her family’s heritage. Armed with The Witch-Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, Rosie learns of the existence of 13 witches, who steal the good from inside of people. Her mother, the last known witch hunter, was cursed by the Memory Thief. Now that Rosie has triggered her own sight, the witches will be aware of her existence and will come for her. Anderson, author of the ethereal Midnight at the Electric, creates an equally luminous fantasy for middle grade readers. The main characters are fully nuanced, and the evolution of friendship is a major theme in the story. The layering of the magical world over the ordinary world is an element sure to pull in readers, as they cheer for Rosie and Gemma to succeed in holding off the darkness. This is the first book of the series, and the ending will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next volume. The main characters are presumed white.

THOUGHTS: This is a top-notch fantasy with three dimensional characters to whom readers can relate. There should be a wide audience for the book, beyond fantasy readers.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Much Ado about Baseball

LaRocca, Rajani. Much Ado About Baseball. Yellow Jacket, 2021. 978-1-499-81101-8. 312 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Trish is annoyed with her mother for making her move again. It’s challenging enough being a girl who plays baseball, without being the new kid too. But she is determined to make what may be her last season of baseball awesome. Until she discovers Ben, the boy she beat in last spring’s regional Math Puzzler competition, is on the team. This could be a complicated problem to solve. Ben, who is reluctantly playing ball this summer, does not need Miss Math Puzzler genius showing him up in baseball, too. So the two 12-year-olds begin the season at odds with each other, despite the efforts of Ben’s pal Abhi, who quickly befriends Trish as well. But when Ben and Trish each receive a puzzle book in the mail, they quickly realize that the team’s sudden success may be tied into their ability to solve the puzzles, and they soon pair up. But the course of true love, whether math or baseball, never did run smooth. And with the machinations of a Puck or two, there is no guarantee of a solution to this Midsummer mess. This companion book to LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem delightfully pairs baseball, math, and Shakespeare in a lighthearted plot about friendship and family, relationships that are frequently complicated. Ben, Trish, and Abhi all have frustrations with their families, as well as negotiating friendships and self-esteem issues. A community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides the context for a bit of Puckish magic, and a few fey individuals who wish to make the mortals look foolish. Readers who are not familiar with the Bard’s work still will thoroughly enjoy the book, but those with a knowledge of the play will enjoy the subtle (and eventually not so subtle) parallels running through the story. Trish and Abhi are Indian, Ben is white.

THOUGHTS: A blending of math and baseball may not attract all readers, but one does not have to be a fan of either to enjoy the book. LaRocca enthusiastically explains both, so readers may pick up an appreciation by the end of the story.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – My Contrary Mary

Hand, Cynthia, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. My Contrary Mary. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-93004-0. 496 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

For readers who like their historical fiction a bit more on the fiction side, the trio of authors known as the Lady Janies offer their fourth rollicking rewrite of history, this time turning to Renaissance France for felicitous fodder. Mary, Queen of Scots has been engaged to Francis, Dauphin of France since they were tiny tots. They are best friends, and Francis keeps Mary’s deepest secret: she is an Eꝺian, a shape shifter with an animal alter ego. In a country ruled by Verities, this is a death sentence. This story returns to the highly enjoyable world of the trio’s first book, replacing religious warfare with Eꝺian/Verity strife. While historical events form the basis of the plot, the authors never let facts get in the way of a good story, and certainly not a happy ending. When King Henry suddenly dies, (possibly probably with an assist from Mary’s uncles), and Francis is placed on the throne, the maneuvering begins to gain control of France. Ari, the daughter of the court prognosticator, Nostradamus, finds herself thrust into the middle of the messy machinations, as her skill as a potion maker is in demand on all sides. Can Mary save Francis, save France, save Scotland, save her mother, save Eꝺians, and save her marriage? Of course she can! This is history as it ought to have been, and far more fun than anything you were taught in school. All characters are presumed white, but Ari develops a romantic relationship with one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting.

THOUGHTS: This is a delightful, giggle-inducing romp through history, containing just enough facts to send readers to Wikipedia to discover what really happened. A steady stream of asides from the authors adds to the hilarity.

Fantasy (Historical)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

Johnson, Varian. Playing the Cards You’re Dealt. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-34858-3 320 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.

Anthony “Ant” Joplin and his older brother Aaron have been schooled in the card game Spades by their father. In the Joplin family, Spades is serious business. There is a tradition of Joplin men winning their South Carolina town Spades tournament. Aaron has followed through, winning the teen tournament last year, but Ant, in his first year competing in the junior division, choked big-time. His father claims he just needs to “toughen up” and he’ll win this year. Ant and his best friend, and Spades partner, Jamal, have been practicing nonstop, but when Jamal gets suspended for fighting, Ant needs to find a new partner. Luckily there’s a new girl in Ant’s fifth grade class, and Shirley is as much of a card shark as Ant. But Ant is finding it tough to concentrate on cards when things are tense between his mom and dad, and Aaron, who attends boarding school, tasks Ant with keeping an eye on their father to see if he’s starting drinking again. But how does a 10-year-old even know what drinking looks like? Fortunately for Ant, Shirley turns out to be as good a friend as she is a card player, and helps him navigate through this challenging hand he’s holding. While the plot deftly explores the pressures put on young children by troubled adults, the narrative style keeps the tone light and comfortable. The book feels like a story being told by an older relative, sitting on a porch swing on a summer evening, including personal asides by the narrator. Johnson vividly portrays the damage toxic masculinity can wreak on families, particularly the younger men and boys who must pick up the pieces. Ant is a young man who discovers what it means to be tough, in the most difficult situation imaginable, and readers will be cheering for him to win the hand he’s dealt. All main characters are Black.

THOUGHTS: A well-developed story that hooks you from the very beginning. This should fly off the shelf.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Simone Breaks All the Rules

Rigaud, Debbie. Simone Breaks All the Rules. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-68172-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Simone Thibodeaux is tired of her overprotective Haitian parents, and when they arrange her prom date with a son of a suitable Haitian family, it is the last straw. She decides the end of her senior year at St. Clare Academy, a largely white, all-girls school, is the perfect time to start experiencing life. She enlists two classmates with similar parental issues, Indian-American Amite and Kira, the white daughter of a notorious lawyer. The trio dub themselves HomeGirls, and create a Senior Playlist of challenges and accomplishments, including going to a house party, cutting class, and changing up their style. And then there is prom. Simone works feverishly to keep her parents thinking she is going to prom with Ben, the polite Haitian boy, while lining up her own date with Gavin, a hot guy from the affiliated boys school. But why is it so hard to be herself around Gavin, and so comfortable to be with Ben? Readers will fall for Simone from the first pages. Her voice is fresh, humorous, and authentic. Anyone with parents will relate and sympathize with Simone and her girlfriends. However, along the way to ditching her parents, Simone comes to appreciate her Haitian heritage and culture, and realize how much she does love her mom, as trying as she may be. The book celebrates the value of good friends (and how not to lose them) and the families who love us. Haitian culture and Haitian Creole language are sprinkled throughout the book, deftly adding to the depiction of the New York area Haitian-American community.

THOUGHTS:  This delightful rom-com is perfect for middle school as well as high school, with nothing more dangerous than a few chaste kisses, and clubbing occurs as a teen venue serving “mocktails.”

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Realm Breaker

Aveyard, Victoria. Realm Breaker. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-87262-3. 563 p. $19.99. Grades 8-12.

Aveyard returns with a lush new fantasy series that feels like a cross between King Arthur and Game of Thrones. A new player has come to the Ward, a man with the power to open Spindles, portals between realms. Spindles have not been opened for generations, not since the Immortals traveled into the Ward and found themselves stranded, unable to return to their home. But now Taristan has stolen the sword to create spindles, and begun releasing monsters and undead creatures into the world. Those knights who survived the initial battle between good and evil realize what Taristan is unleashing, yet few rulers care to believe them. The Immortal Domacridhan knows what it will take to stop Taristan – an individual with Corblood, and a Spindlesword – and he sets out to locate 17-year-old Corayne, an illegitimate daughter of the Cor lineage, who yearns for adventures her pirate mother refuses to grant her. The group gradually enlarges to seven unique characters, including a squire who lost his Lord at the first battle; a forger; a bounty hunter; a witch; and Sorasa, an assassin who steals the story. With no support from the monarchs of the Ward, the ragtag group proceeds to try to close the spindles before their world is set ablaze. This first book in the series has a great deal of scene setting to accomplish, and Aveyard evokes a fascinating world of exotic lands and characters of all ethnicities and skin tones. A detailed map on the endpapers assists readers in keeping track of the sprawling territory, and at times the proliferation of characters, locales, and realms can be overwhelming, but the story is gripping and delightfully satisfying. While Corayne seems to be set up as the main character, the story rotates between all the voices, and each character is a well-developed personality: Andry, the 17-year-old squire has nobility ingrained in him, but slowly develops the ruthlessness needed to survive their quest; Dom, the Immortal, does not quite understand mortals; and Sorasa, the female assassin, just might have a heart under her tough persona. There is no shortage of action, battles, monsters, daring escapes, and breathtaking betrayals.

THOUGHTS: Fantasy lovers should flock to this new series and be waiting on the edge of their seats for the sequel.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD