‘Code Name: Serendipity’ by Amber Smith is a sweet doggy tale of friendship, family, growing up, and most of all, compassion

Code Name: Serendipity by Amber Smith

With her new middle grade novel, “Code Name: Serendipity,” author Amber Smith presents an eleven-year-old fifth grader named Sadie. Sadie doesn’t feel as if she fits in anywhere because now that her best friend, Jude, has moved away, she has no one at school to talk to, ride the bus with, or eat lunch with. At home, her older brother Noah is often unkind and has little time for her. Her two moms are also busy, and her grandfather’s recent declining mental health means they have worries of their own. It doesn’t help that Sadie has a learning disability, even though she prefers to call it a learning difference.

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‘Red Thread of Fate’ by Lyn Liao Butler is a beautiful story of love, betrayal, forgiveness, and making a family

The Red Thread of Fate by Lyn Liao Butler

The first sentence of “Red Thread of Fate” is as riveting a first sentence as I’ve ever read. “She was on the phone with her husband when he died.” What?! You can’t stop reading after that kind of first sentence. At the heart of Lyn Liao Butler’s newest novel is the concept that our family is what and who we make it. It might be those who are born into our family, but often our family includes those who are adopted (and they come with two and four legs), those we informally “adopt” as honorary family members, and close friends we trust and love. And while Butler’s book focuses on family, and how Tam, the main character, reacts when she is confronted with an apparent betrayal by her husband and his cousin, she also presents, to a lesser extent, the smaller betrayals we might perpetrate by, for example, not listening to our parents and their stories, by not stopping to listen to those we love, or by thinking only of ourselves and how things affect us.

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Children’s books for Black History Month and every other time of year

Moving Forward by Chris Barton

If I were going to teach a unit on prejudice, I’d start with a fabulous picture book, “Moving Forward: From Space-Age Rides to Civil Rights Sit-Ins with Airman Alton Yates,” by Chris Barton and Steffi Walthall. There are many, many wonderful nonfiction books aimed at middle grade readers, books which are perfect for research projects or just informational reading. A powerful picture book like this one about Alton Yates will elicit many emotions in readers. We admire Yates for his dedication and bravery, we are infuriated on his behalf because of the prejudice and mistreatment he endured after serving our country in the military, and we are inspired by his fight, at times endangering his very life, against the Jim Crow laws of the south. The story is factual and gripping. The illustrations are powerful. Alton is a heroic person, and his story is a wonderful example of how one man fought against injustice. It’s a fight that is ongoing. (Beach Lane Books)

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‘Honor’ by Thrity Umrigar is a heartrending and thoughtful story of love and hatred

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

“Honor” is a perfect title for Thrity Umrigar’s powerful novel about India and the horrors that are perpetrated in rural areas in the name of religion and honor. For while honor is a noble concept, the foul acts perpetrated in its name are not. Umrigar makes it clear that while India is the setting for this tragic story, the prejudice and hatred toward women, toward others of a different religion, toward others who are considered to be less worthy, are not confined to any one country. Such prejudice and hatred are endemic to almost every country.

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‘The Paid Bridesmaid’ by Sariah Wilson: a delightful romance about that strange profession: the paid bridesmaid

The Paid Bridesmaid by Sariah Wilson

Reading Sariah Wilson’s last two novels, “The Paid Bridesmaid” and “The Seat Filler” has opened my eyes about employment opportunities I never realized existed: seat fillers and paid bridesmaids. Who knew you could actually hire a maid of honor to help you with all those pesky details like organizing a bachelorette party or giving a heartfelt speech at the wedding reception? In her latest novel, we meet Rachel Vinson, who started her company with the brilliant thought that brides who didn’t have many friends, or friends who couldn’t be bothered to really help with the wedding, or friends who might cause drama, might want a few professional bridesmaids to do the actual bridesmaid work. And really, have you ever thought about the work involved in being a bridesmaid? I had not.

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‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett is a fabulous mystery that’s very very British

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

“The Appeal” by Janice Hallett is a mystery in epistolary format. I wasn’t sure that this book, written with no narrative — just emails, text messages, transcripts of phone messages and police interviews, would be engaging. My fear that I wouldn’t connect with the writing and the story were completely unfounded. Within the first few pages, I was fascinated by the characters, the setting, and the mystery. In fact, while we often have novels with unreliable narrators or characters who are not as they first appear, in this mystery we don’t have anyone’s narration to rely on. We must rely on the words of the characters themselves as they reveal who they are and what they think of other characters. While we know up front that this is a murder mystery, the actual murder doesn’t occur until almost 3/4 of the way into the book; but there are other questions—other mysteries—that appear almost from the very beginning.

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‘When Winter Robeson Came’ by Brenda Woods is a beautifully told middle grade historical fiction

When Winter Robeson Came
by Brenda Woods

I don’t think I’d ever read a book about the 1965 riots in Watts, California, until I read Brenda Woods’ beautifully written book, “When Winter Robeson Came.” There is much that is lovely about the verse in this story: the lyrical language, the way Woods compares feelings to tempos in music, the clever way she compares the discrimination in Mississippi to that in California, and how she manages to make us feel the gamut of emotions that the characters display from fear to joy.

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‘A Flicker in the Dark’ proves Stacy Willingham is a master at sleight of hand

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

All thrillers include twists and deception. But in “A Flicker in the Dark,” Stacy Willingham proves that she is a master at creating a narrative that deceives us again and again, and as we keep reading with our suspicions firmly planted on one character and then another, she shocks us with a villain that we truly didn’t see coming. At least I didn’t. I reread sections to see artfully placed hints, so subtle and skillfully woven into the narrative that only the finest detective might have noticed them for what they were — signs that we were looking the wrong way.

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‘The Lock-Eater’ by Zack Loran Clark is an action-filled fantasy with plenty of twists

The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

In his debut novel, “The Lock-Eater,” author Zack Loran Clark presents us with a very unusual protagonist. Melanie Gate is an orphan, and she lives with other similarly situated girls at the Merrytrails Orphanage for Girls. Mrs. Harbargain is the kindly woman in charge of the orphanage, and she lives with the children and her cat, Abraxas, who is redeemed neither by his looks nor his personality. Melanie has the strange ability of being able to open any door or lock. Other girls in the orphanage have different abilities; one is a talented baker, another is unusually charming, another a gifted storyteller.

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‘City Spies: Forbidden City’ by James Ponti is the third in this thrilling middle grade series about an MI6 group of kid spies

City Spies: Forbidden City by James Ponti

Let me begin by saying I love the “City Spies” series by James Ponti, and his newest entry, “Forbidden City,” is no different. The story is gripping from the start as we read about Paris, one of the young spies, climbing the side of a mansion to return to the billionaire owner a priceless Fabergé egg which, unbeknownst to him, had been swapped for a exact copy containing a bug that allowed British Intelligence to spy on him. He is loaning the priceless treasure to a museum where the deception would surely be uncovered. Paris is named for the city where he was recruited. All the young spies are thusly named, Kat was recruited in Kathmandu, Sydney in that Australian city, Rio in Brazil, and Brooklyn in that New York borough. All live together in a manor home in Scotland with Mother and Monty, two MI6 agents. They attend an exclusive private school and work on spycraft in their spare time. And, in each novel, they have a mission.

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