Sands, Kevin. Mark of the Plague
September 6th 2016 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
After the death of his master, Benedict Blackthorne in The Blackthorn Key, Christopher Rowe is trying to keep alive in London during the plague. His friend Tom has access to food, since his family runs a bakery, but there's very little business to bring in money. When someone breaks into the shop, Christopher is thrown into a realm of intrigue involving the plague and several secret societies. He starts by looking for a treasure that has supposedly been left to him, but soon is embroiled in finding out information about Melchior, a plague doctor who is going about London dressed in a smoking bird mask prophesying deaths with accuracy. There is another doctor, Galen, who claims to have a cure for the plague but doesn't want money for it. Many quacks are around, but they all want money. When Galen's cure works on a magistrates daughter, he is given Christopher's workshop to use and funded by the plague charity to produce more of his cure. There's something fishy about this, and Christopher, along with Tom and new addition, Cripplegate alumna Sally, are bound and determined to find out why.
Strengths: This is not a fantasy, even though the cover and length (540+ pages) would lead one to believe this. Solid historical novel that addresses lots of information about the plague and the political machinations during London in the 1660s. Compelling read all the way through.
Weaknesses: Sometimes the tone of the character's speech seemed too modern, but I'd rather have that than fake, stilted language.
What I really think: My library doesn't have much of an audience for this, and The Blackthorn key hasn't circulated well even though it was the 2015 Cybils middle grade fiction winner.
Weiner, Jennifer. The Littlest Bigfoot.
September 13th 2016 by Aladdin
Copy provided by the publisher
Alice has high powered parents who are ashamed of their daughter's ineptitude and unconventional looks. They try any number of schools for her, but no matter where she goes, Alice manages to get in trouble. Eventually, they send her to a boarding school in the woods-- The Experimental Center for Love and Learning. Alice fits in a little better there, and her roommates (Riya, who fences, and Taley, who is severely allergic and adenoidal) at least aren't actively mean to her. Alice manages to do okay with the lessons, and makes friends with the camp cook. Eventually she meets Millie, who has wanted to investigate the Center. Millie is a Bigfoot, but like Alice, doesn't meet her parents expectations. She loves to sing and be loud, which Bigfoots (or, more politely, Yare) don't normally do, and she longs to be on the stage. She and Alice become fast friends, but the Yare are still being stalked, especially by a boy in town, Jeremy, who is obsessed with the creatures. Eventually, Alice teachers Millie to have more confidence in herself, and brings her to the director of the school, Lori, and introduces her as a cousin with a glandular issue. Things go well for a while, and when news about Millie gets out, the participants at the Center rally around her and celebrate the fact that everyone has some fraction of "freak" within themselves.
Strengths: Middle grade books with positive messages are always needed. Weiner, the author of books for adults, tackled the subject about body image in response to her own daughter's concerns, and her daughter gave her input on the book.
Weaknesses: I couldn't quite tell if the Center (which was described as very ... New Age, earthy/crunchy) was good or bad, and there were some comments about people that were not positive, in particular, the description of an older teacher, and the description of the overweight cook. These descriptions undermined the message a bit for me, and the over-the-top actions of Alice's parents also watered down the message.
What I really think: The fantasy element of this might be more appealing to younger readers. By middle school, girls who are interested in "drama" usually want more realistic stories. I can see this being one that 4th and 5th grade readers really like.