YA – The Infinity Courts

Bowman, Akemi Dawn. The Infinity Courts. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-45649-5. 465 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.

The Infinity Courts starts with Nami who is sure that her life is finally beginning at the age of eighteen; however, those dreams are halted when she is murdered. When she comes to, she realizes she is in a place called Infinity. Infinity is ruled by a queen called Ophelia who was a virtual assistant to the human race when Nami was alive. Now, Ophelia is determined to eradicate humans, and she is very close to completing that mission. Nami has a choice to join the resistance and help eliminate Ophelia, or just ignore everything and let Ophelia take over and complete her mission.

THOUGHTS: This is a great science fiction book that doesn’t get bogged down in science facts. The pacing is well done, and the main characters have decent character arcs throughout the story. This is the first book in a trilogy, so readers have something to look forward to.

Science Fiction          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Long Distance

Gardner, Whitney. Long Distance. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-45566-5. 315 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Author and illustrator Whitney Gardner’s latest, Long Distance, is a charming middle grade graphic novel with something for almost every reader to love. When 10-year old Vega’s family relocates from Portland to Seattle, she has to leave her best (and only) friend Halley behind. To help her make new friends, Vega’s dads send her to a remote camp in the Washington woods called Very Best Friend. Vega is skeptical; she has Halley, after all, although her bestie hasn’t returned her last few texts. And the camp itself is unusual, with nonstop overcast skies, zero cell reception, and awkward counselors. Vega and her fellow campers discover surveillance gear hidden inside a pinecone, fake rocks scattered in the forest, and other clues that something is amiss. Vega, twins Gemma and Isaac, and chatty Qwerty join forces to gather more information in some of the book’s most entertaining sequences. Whitney Gardner’s illustrations are digitally rendered, with camp scenes depicting the natural world in earthy tones of green, rust, and slate blue. Bright, otherworldly colors cue the graphic novel’s big reveals.

THOUGHTS: This fish-out-of-water story blossoms into a science fiction-infused mystery, all while delivering some heartfelt lessons about how to make (and be) a real friend, no matter the distance.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

Garrity, Shaenon K., and Christopher Baldwin. The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-534-46086-7. unpaged. $14.99. Grades 7-10.

Haley loves Gothic romances so much that her English teacher insists she choose a new genre for her latest book report. While walking home with a fresh stack of library books, Haley sees a young man struggling to swim in the river. She scrambles in to save him, and upon exiting the water she finds herself at Willowweep Manor. The estate (complete with three brooding brothers and a ghost) has a lot in common with the settings of Haley’s beloved Gothic novels, but something is a little off. The manse and its surroundings rearrange themselves, seemingly at random, due to a crucial device going “out of alignment.” The stakes are high and the brothers (especially Montague, the dreamy middle brother whose escape plans Haley foiled with her rescue efforts) need the help of an outsider with a particular set of skills. Lucky for them, Haley, a girl of color, is plucky, confident, and a genuine heroine-in-waiting.

THOUGHTS: This graphic novel succeeds as both a fantastical science fiction story and a lovingly satirical nod to Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and the like.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Game Changer

Shusterman, Neal. Game Changer. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-061-99867-6. 386 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Ash lives a pretty normal life as far as teenagers go. He has a younger brother, a crush on a girl, and a starting spot on the school’s football team. Unlike his best friend Leo, he really doesn’t think too hard about things like race or equality because he doesn’t have to – the world is laid out in front of him and he just has to live it. Unfortunately, that world is altered when Ash takes a hard hit during a football game. A rush of ice through his veins accompanies a universe shift as Ash jumps into another dimension; while many aspects of Ash’s life are the same, many things have changed! Stop signs are blue, his parents are rich, and… segregation in schools is the norm. Leo is Black, which means in this universe, Ash and Leo never became friends. In this universe, Ash’s life is significantly better yet also significantly worse, so Ash wants to get back to his original dimension…or perhaps, an even better one. As Ash tries to figure out how to put his world back together, he questions what he has always known and realizes he needs to shift his thinking.

THOUGHTS: Neal Shusterman has always been a young adult favorite, and this book is no exception. With an engaging plot line, relatable characters, and funny quips in dialogue, students will enjoy this book immensely. This is a fantastic purchase for high school libraries.

Science Fiction          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Lion of Mars

Holmes, Jennifer L. Lion of Mars. Random House, 2021. 978-0-593-12181-8. 259 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6.

Bell has only known life on Mars – the fake sunlight, the painted on windows, the algae. But Bell wants to know more about the other colonies on Mars and why they don’t talk anymore. When an unidentified object lands on the Martian surface, Bell and his “siblings” decide to take a rover to explore. Things go terribly wrong, and Bell discovers that the clash between countries on Earth has apparently followed them to Mars. After being rescued, Bell and the others are banned from traveling to other colonies. Feeling more isolated than ever, the American colony discovers they have a mouse living among them after the last supply drop. Bell names the mouse Muffin, and they keep it as a pet. But when adults start to get sick and the eldest of the colony dies, the kids realize the mouse must have brought a virus and they need help. Using the train system that used to connect colonies, Bell and his brother journey to the French colony for help. The French colony sends medicine and support to the adults in the American colony while hosting the American children in their home. Realizing that they are more alike than different, Bell fights to maintain contact between the two colonies after unearthing an old photo of the American commanding officer.

THOUGHTS: A bit slow to start and focused on setting the futuristic idea of colonization on Mars, Holm picks up the pace when the rover crashes and Bell is hurt. A great story of trust and companionship that will be enjoyed by middle grade readers. This novel had cliff hangers and lots of moments where the reader was cheering for Bell. The out of this world setting makes it a fun read and leaves you wondering, “what if….”.

Science Fiction          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – Cut Off

Finlay, Adrianne. Cut Off. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-358-00645-9. 384 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

A group of teenagers is competing for a one million dollar prize, each with their own reasons for needing it. In order to be accepted onto the new reality show Cut Off, contestants go through a rigorous interview process and psychological evaluation. As readers are introduced to each character throughout the early days of Cut Off, interview segments and details from the evaluations are provided. Contestants need to outlast each other while spread out around a large island jungle. When they have no choice but to work together, the contestants begin to realize they might be more cut off than they thought. Their skym cameras (3D cameras that hover and follow their every move) still work, but the tap out button seems to be malfunctioning. Could something be wrong with the fully immersive reality show? Determined to figure out what’s going on, the contestants work together to survive, being more cut off than they ever thought was possible.

THOUGHTS: This action-packed adventure has three distinct parts. What starts out as serious outdoor survival takes a sharp turn towards science fiction. Readers will want to know who outlasts the others, but those who stick with it may have questions.

Science Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe

Herandez, Carlos. Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-02283-5. 423 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7. 

This sequel to Sal and Gabi Break the Universe picks up shortly after the end of the first book. Sal’s father, a calamity physicist, is convinced he has perfected the remembranation machine to close the wormholes in the multiverse created by Sal and Gabi. This is great news! So why does Sal feel so empty? Cuban-American Sal Vidón, seventh grade magician extraordinaire and his friend-who is-a-girl-but-NOT-his-girlfriend Gabi Reál knew they created chaos when they manipulated the wormholes previously. Yet something is obviously wrong. Then Gabi from another universe (dubbed Fix-It- Gabi) shows up and explains to Sal that his reaction to the activation of the remembranation machine was a result of being cut off from the multiverse. Repairing the membrane between the multiverses will actually destroy Sal’s universe, Fix-It Gabi declares. She has seen it happen in other universes. But Sal, who adores his family, can’t believe his Papí is a force of evil. On top of saving the multiverse, Sal has problems closer to home, including saving his school’s ambitious Rompenoche performance of Alice in Wonderland scheduled for Parent Night in just a week. The cast of characters in the book series is over-the-top delightful. Family dynamics are explored as Sal adjusts to his new stepmamí, and Gabi deals with a contingent of dads, male, female, and robotic. Artificially Intelligent characters, including Vorágine, the AI toilet at Sal’s school, as well as the newly aware remembranation machine add to the fun. Set in Miami, the book celebrates the vibrant city as well as Cuban culture, frequently integrating Spanish dialog. Sal’s type 1 diabetes also plays an integral part in the story, as it does in Sal’s life. The downside to all this joie de vivre can be feeling a bit like encountering a cyclone. Hernandez does not waste time with exposition. No recap or backstory is provided to bring readers up to speed. This is a delightful, clever sequel, but will work best if read immediately after the first book, while all events and characters are fresh in the reader’s mind. There are also some political allusions that feel out-of-place in a book aimed at 10-year-olds, who will likely not catch or understand the comments.

THOUGHTS: This is a riotous ride of a book that is definitely not a stand-alone. While filled with fart jokes and talking toilets, the book also addresses more serious issues such as diabetes, death, and abusive parents. Keeping up with the multiverse of characters is also challenging. Hand this series to readers who like books with humor, or use for a class read-aloud.

Science Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Cut Off

Finlay, Adrianne. Cut Off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-00645-9. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Contestants on the new virtual reality television show Cut Off have their own reasons for competing. Part I begins with contestant interviews as each player is introduced at their current location on a remote island. Readers get to know River, a natural survivalist whose parents died in a car accident; Cam, who feels responsible for her little brother due to their mom’s is incarceration; Trip, whose technology is what makes the show’s virtual reality experience unmatched; and Liza, who seems to know a lot but isn’t inclined to share much about herself. As the contestants are forced together to survive, they begin to realize that they may be more cut off than they signed up for. When technology begins to fail and fears become real, they have to rely on each other to survive. But they signed on to compete for a one million dollar prize, and they each have fears, some that may be too difficult to overcome.

THOUGHTS: Told in several parts this action-packed adventure begins with meeting basic survival needs and evolves into a high tech world of survival. Fans of stories like Warcross by Marie Lu, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Eye of Minds by James Dashner, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline will get their tech adventure fix in this stand alone title.

Science Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

 

YA – All These Monsters

Tintera, Amy. All These Monsters. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-01240-5. 450 p. $17.99. Grades 9 and up. 

The world has been overtaken by vicious man-eating monsters that randomly pop up from underground. No one knows where or when they’ll attack next, all must be on guard, and deaths are staggering. Clara Pratt’s home life is still worse. Her abusive father is violent, angry, and manipulative, and anything can set him off in an instant. When Clara discovers her brother is about to leave, she knows she needs to too. After learning about Grayston St. John’s plan to send teams to fight the monsters (the scrabs as they’re called) overseas in Europe where America has refused to send help, Clara knows that’s her way out. Only if she can make the team and leave the country. But all is not as it seems in the world of the scrabs, and to face it she will have to fight her inner demons.

THOUGHTS: An action-packed novel, All These Monsters has earned a spot on my shelf right between The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner.

Dystopian            Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD
Science Fiction

YA – Ready Player Two

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player Two. Ballantine Books, 2020. 978-1-524-76133-2. 370 p. $28.99. Grades 9 and up. 

Wade Watts has won the contest. He’s rich, he’s famous, he’s living the life of his dreams? Inheriting billions of dollars and taking control of GSS has left Wade wrapped up in a lavishly padded but empty life. With robotic staff at home and avatars inside the Oasis, Wade very rarely interacts with actual, physical people. While the rest of the High Five move on, creating great lives and names for themselves, Wade is left behind. That is until the unexpected happens and the High Five are thrown back together again, with a new race to save the Oasis. One with even greater consequences than before.

THOUGHTS: Ready Player Two is as much an action-packed whirlwind as the first. Readers will delight in meeting friends, old and new, that change the face of humanity.

Science Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

Wade Watts has just won James Halliday’s contest and, along with his friends, the high five, has become one of the new co-owners of Gregarious Simulation Systems. As James Halliday’s heir, he now wears the robes of Anorak while in the Oasis, giving his avatar Parzival unlimited power. Days after winning the contest, Wade also discovers a new technology called ONI (Oasis neural interface) which has never been released to the public. Halliday specifically left this technology to his heir, and Wade, along with his co-owners Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, has to decide if the world is ready for this technology. Only Art3mis objects, and soon the world starts experiencing the Oasis in a new and improved way. Wade quickly becomes addicted to the new ONI experience, and lives a very solitary life, always waiting to get back into the Oasis. However, when a new quest is revealed, similar to Halliday’s egg contest in the previous installment, Wade needs all of the help he can get, from both old friends and new, and Parzival must once again step up to the challenge to save the Oasis while keeping ONI users out of danger.

THOUGHTS: The futuristic setting of both Ready Player One and Ready Player Two doesn’t seem as unrealistic as it did to me when I first started this series. One of the benefits of the Oasis is that people can interact safely without the fear of spreading disease, and they often reference a terrible flu that killed millions before the Oasis became so widely used. Since so many of our interactions in 2020 were virtual, it makes me wonder if something like the Oasis will be in our future as well. I’m glad this book picked up right where book one left off, and the events that transpired after didn’t come as too much of a surprise to me either. Readers must remember how young Wade Watts is, and after inheriting everything from James Halliday in the previous book, it only makes sense that he’s not always going to make the right choices after becoming a billionaire overnight. Mostly, I loved all of the 80s pop culture references, especially the John Hughes planet inside of the Oasis! It was a nice wrap up to events set in motion in Ready Player One, and a perfect book to read during these primarily virtual times.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD