‘To Catch a Cheat’ by Varian Johnson: Middle grade action story

to catch a cheat

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

It’s all harmless mischief in “To Catch a Cheat” by Varian Johnson. It’s the sequel to “The Great Greene Heist,” and while many say that “To Catch a Cheat” is a stand-alone book, it’s a much better read after reading the first book. In fact, in the first book, the characters refer to a previous escapade which is explained in detail, but which left this reader wondering if there was another book before that one.

The characters are as diverse in terms of personality and intelligence as they are racially. But the best character is the title character Jackson Greene. He’s irreverent, brilliant, honorable, and very, very sneaky. He is a Robin Hood-type character, only creating his crooked schemes to right wrongs and foil the real bad guys. The dialogue and narrative brilliantly create characters that seem real and action that is believable.

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‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes: Fabulous sequel to ‘Me Before You’


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

The many, many readers who couldn’t put down Moyes’ “Me Before You” will be thrilled that she has brought back the intrepid but changed Louisa Clark. Louisa has tried to put her six months with Will behind her, but she can’t forget how he changed her life. But in some ways, her life has not changed at all. She is still tending bar albeit in a different location — she now lives in London.

One crazy misstep from the roof of her condo, and Louisa is back in the small village of Stortfold living with her parents while she recovers. To be perfectly honest, the first part of the story is a bit slow, and occasionally the reader might wonder when the magic that filled “Me Before You” will appear. Be patient, it does.

By the end, Louisa’s quest for closure, for a new beginning, will have magnificent results. She not only brings closure to her own life, she enriches the lives of her own family — and, surprisingly — Will’s family. Will’s influence on Louisa is evident in almost every page, and while she misses him terribly (don’t we all?), she comes to terms with his decision and learns to make some decisions of her own that would make Will proud.

The ending leaves room for another sequel — which Moyes will no doubt ably complete (I hope) and enthrall us about the next step in Louisa Clark’s life.

Moyes is able to combine humor, pathos and thoughtful themes into her stories. In “After You,” readers will consider what makes people family — is it just a blood relationship? What makes people act the way they do, and can love exist from afar? She also brings into the story the vulnerability (and stupidity) of youth. While this book could stand on its own, readers will enjoy it much more having read the first book — and the first book is one that cries out to be read. So read “Me Before You” and then grab this one. Buy the set for someone you love. They’ll appreciate the gift.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books, for review purposes.

‘Fuzzy Mud’ by Louis Sachar: intriguing middle grade story

fuzzy mud

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Louis Sachar is an icon among children’s authors. The author of “Holes,” “There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom,” and many more much beloved titles now writes a slightly more serious story. This story will make children think about many serious issues including bullying, the environment, big business and friendship, to name just a few.

It’s a perfect book to evoke a rush of discussion about what happens in the plot. The story is downright gory at times (kids will love it!) although the outcome is a hopeful one. But this story will make its readers think about the dangers of what we are doing to our environment. It’s a doomsday warning about out-of-control science and how little our government could do if something really terrible were to happen.

The characters are all real; each one has his or her own issues and problems. The action is fast-paced and the story moves quickly — almost too quickly. The book seems to be finished before the reader is ready to say goodbye to the characters. Middle grade kids will really like this slightly more sophisticated offering by Sachar. Perfect for grades four through eight and a great addition to the classroom library. This would be a fantastic read aloud for the classroom.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

‘Made by Raffi’ by Craig Pomranz: Picture book for kids of all ages


made by raffi

Rating: 5 stars

“Made by Raffi” is a joyous children’s book written by Craig Pomranz and illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain. Young Raffi knows he is different from his peers. The other kids love rough play, tumbling around and yelling at each other. Unlike them, Raffi can’t stand roughness and noise. He doesn’t yell. He wears brightly colored clothes. He has long hair. He gets teased constantly — because he’s different.

Then one day as he sits by himself, he spots a teacher who is knitting a beautiful scarf. He realizes immediately that this activity is for him. It seems to be MADE for him. And he is made for knitting specifically and design generally. He is amazingly talented. But the teasing continues unabated.

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‘Silent Creed’ by Alex Kava: thriller and action and dogs

silent creed

Rating: 4 stars

“Silent Creed” by Alex Kava is a solid government espionage/action thriller with the added bonus of search and rescue dogs. Several dogs — all of them wonderful. The story is well done. It’s about Ryder Creed, who trains search and rescue dogs and is called upon to help the government find a mysterious lab that has disappeared under a mudslide. Creed will be working with an old acquaintance from the military, Peter Logan. This is the second book in the series that began with “Breaking Creed,” and it brings back Special Agent Maggie O’Dell, who is with the FBI and who has a back history (she has her own series of books), but is definitely interested in Ryder Creed. That interest, ignited in the first Creed book, continues to spark.

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‘The Poe Estate’ by Polly Shulman: Middle grade fantasy with lots of magic

poe estate

Rating: 4 stars

If you didn’t read Polly Shuman’s two prior books, “The Grimm Legacy” and “The Wells Bequest,” now is the perfect time to learn about her magical world. Her newest book, “The Poe Estate,” is about Sukie, a girl who moves with her parents into her family’s ancestral home. She learns that it’s not surprising that she is in contact with her dead sister. In fact, ghosts run in the family.

She befriends a classmate, Cole, and together they investigate the mysteries of the ghosts that are running rampant in the house. Ghosts that are their ancestors, sometimes even (spoiler alert) their common ancestor. Antique brooms, seven-league boots, flying carpets and more add lots of enchantment to this story.

What is fiction and can fiction become real? That’s part of the conundrum in this twisting and complex tale of magic, fantasy and history — and how they all meet. Those who love adventure will enjoy reading about pirates and adventures on the high seas, and there is even a bit of romance — all appropriate, of course.

Kids will enjoy this book and probably want to read the other two books which also have some of the same settings as this story, namely the New York Circulating Material Repository, a magical place to be sure. Perfect for children from eight to twelve, this would also be a welcome addition to almost any classroom library.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Nancy Paulsen Books, for review purposes.

‘The Lightning Queen’ by Laura Resau: Magical middle grade fantasy

lightning queen

Rating: 5 stars

“The Lightning Queen” by Laura Resau is a fantasy that takes the readers from modern-day Maryland to ancient (not that ancient) Oaxaca, Mexico. There are two alternating stories, one told by Mateo in present time, and one told by his grandfather, Teo, when he was a young man.

Those who have had the good fortune to visit Oaxaca, an area of Mexico where many see the coast but few venture into the dry hills, know that parts of the state of Oaxaca are dusty and desolate. Many of the people there in rural areas still speak the ancient Mixtec language. Just as in our county, native Americans were not allowed to use their language, in Mexico, the indigenous people were forbidden to use their language in school. Spanish was considered the only civilized language.

This story combines the prejudice done to both the Mixtec people and the Romani. Teo met Esma when they were young teenagers. Her troupe of Rom traveled to the rural areas of Oaxaca showing movies (there were no towns or theaters in such rural areas back then). The Rom would set up their caravans and trade movie showings for hats, food, and other goods.

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‘Lillian’s Right to Vote’: Picture book about the history of voting rights


Rating: 5 stars

“Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965” by Jonah Winter and Shana W. Evans is much more than its title indicates. It is a picture book that is, in fact, a powerful metaphor for the unimaginable struggle of African-Americans to achieve the vote, equality in the eyes of the law, the respect due all human beings, and the absolute right to pursue justice without fear.

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‘Mirrored’ by Alex Flinn: Who’s the fairest in this fractured fairy tale?


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Alex Flinn does it again. She creates a fabulous, fantastic, fractured fairy tale — this time based on Snow White. Just like the Brothers Grimm , Flinn pulls no punches. The evil queen in the story is pure evil, although she doesn’t start out that way. Violet started out as a homely little girl with a mother who was beautiful. But when Violet learns that she has magical powers, she thinks that magic is the key to happiness.

When a boy, Greg, befriends Violet, she is finally happy. They are best friends for years. But when puberty hits and the pretty popular girl pays attention to Greg, he drops Violet in a flash. Nice guy, huh?

Well, Violet decides that if she can make herself the prettiest girl in the world, she can get him back. Or can she? Violet narrates the first part of the story, and the reader sees how the magic — and the beauty — change Violet from someone who is kind and gentle and loves animals into someone truly horrible.

The girls who made her life torture? The especially pretty girl who stole Violet’s friend Greg? Violet finds that she has the ability to communicate with animals and can make them do what she wants. She makes a dog attack Jennifer, but is devastated when Jennifer’s scars don’t drive Greg away.

The second narrator is Celine. Her mother, Jennifer, dies mysteriously from an attack while the girl scouts are having an overnight at the zoo. Jennifer has been deathly afraid of animals every since animals attacked her as a teenager (thanks to Violet and her ability to communicate with animals). Celine is there when her mother dies. Violet comes into their life to comfort Greg and, finally, get him for herself.

When Celine becomes a beautiful teenager, Violet’s true nature is revealed (to Celine, not the oblivious Greg). Celine is attacked relentlessly by animals. She learns to hide her beauty behind baggy clothes and no makeup. Things go from bad to worse when Celine accidentally gets the lead in the school musical.

The last narrator is Goose, a person of small stature (seven dwarves, anyone?). This story turns the original tale upside down, and readers will love the outcome. And because it’s a fairy tale, we know that they all live happily ever after. Maybe.

Please note: this review is based on the final hardcover copy provided by the publisher, HarperTeen, for review purposes.

‘Ten Thousand Skies Above You’ by Claudia Gray: Second is a fab YA series

ten thousand

Rating: 5 stars

In “Ten Thousand Skies Above You,” Claudia Gray has accomplished something that is very difficult for many authors to do. She created a sequel (to “A Thousand Pieces of You: A Firebird Novel“) that is every bit as exciting and gripping as the first book in the series. This series is actually a series of accomplishments.

The plot is pure science fiction — it’s about a universe where the technology has been created to travel to alternate universes. The protagonist, Marguerite, is an artist whose parents created the technology. Two of her parents’ graduate students (they are professors) have become very close to her — Theo and Paul. In the first story, Marguerite’s father dies and Paul is thought to be the culprit. No spoilers here, but Theo and Marguerite travel to alternate universes to find Paul and bring him to justice.

The stories are both beautifully put together. The three main characters, Marguerite, Paul and Theo are complex and described in enough detail for the reader to feel like they are real (Marguerite and Paul perhaps more than Theo). But perhaps Gray’s most impressive accomplishment is that in spite of the many alternate universes that they travel to — and there are many — she keeps the plot and the action simple enough that it’s easy to keep track of where they went and what happened.

Often in science fiction and other novels, the plot becomes so complex and with so many characters that it’s difficult for the reader to really keep track of what is going on and who everyone is. There are times when a reader (me) will simply choose not to read the third novel because of the effort involved in trying to keep track of everything.

While rereading (or skimming) the first novel is still recommended before reading this novel, there are enough reminders that it’s not totally necessary. And while it could, possibly, stand on its own and be read without reading “A Thousand Pieces of You,” why miss out on the enjoyment you’d get from reading the first part of the story?

For all of those of us who have thought, “I wonder if in another universe this happened and changed my life,” the possibilities are all there in this book. Each version of Paul, Theo and Marguerite are different — some much more so than others. And while the Paul from Marguerite’s original universe (not ours) believes in destiny, or fate, she begins to wonder.

There are moral issues involved, too. How ethical is it to take over your alternate body in another universe? Especially when, as Marguerite finds out, there could be serious consequences. But the stories are also about espionage and warfare between universes. In one particular universe, Marguerite finds out how serious the stakes are — not only her life but the lives of those who exist in whole universes that could be destroyed.

This book ends with a huge cliffhanger — thank you very much, Claudia Gray! Just as readers were anxious to read this second in the series, they will be even more anxious to read the next book to see how this cliffhanger resolves. Does Marguerite manage to save the universes with the help of Paul and Theo? What happens to the “evil” version of Marguerite’s parents? How does Marguerite choose between Paul and Theo? All these questions and more will — we hope — be answered in the next book.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, HarperTeen, for review purposes.