Sunday, December 31, 2023

Sunday Salon

Deb Nance over at Readerbuzz hosts The Sunday Salon, which "is a place to link up and share what we have been doing during the week plus it's a great way to visit other blogs and join in the conversations going on there."

Happy New Year's Eve! I have a neighborhood progressive dinner party, although admittedly my favorite thing to do is to host the first course and then bow out of the rest of the evening. I almost always head home at midnight. 

I am in the middle of a quilt for my niece, and also need to start another one for a graduation gift. I also quilted two baby quilts for teachers at my school who are expecting, and have been working on some needlepoint Christmas tree ornaments, because they remind me of my mother. I've definitely not been reading as much, and have finished off the year with some adult nonfiction from the public library. It's a vacation when I don't have to write reviews!

The end of the year means statistics and social media, so here goes:

The reason I read so much is that my bottom line is always "The right book for the right child at the right time". In order to use my budget well and know what books to hand to students, I try really hard to read or be aware of everything. Do I miss some things? Absolutely. But in my  mind, I am the world's foremost expert on North American middle grade literature. 

Maybe next year I will do some Top Ten lists; I've only been breaking down my reading into age ranges and genres for two years. I do try to participate in social media (Twitter: @msyingling, Instagram: @msyinglingreads), but don't enjoy it. The connections are nice, and I like to spread the word about books that I think will make children happy, but it's such a time suck. 

I'm on Goodreads as well, if anyone wants reviews before books are published. Three stars means "I liked it", so books have to really speak to me to get four or five stars. Here are tiny pictures of those ratings, because I've been on the computer for two hours and need to go do something else! 

Chasing Stars

Here's a book that very appropriate for today, with scenes of Christmas, winter frolics outdoors, and a New Year's Eve gone badly awry. 

Gaertner, Meg. Chasing Stars
January 1, 2024 by North Star Editions
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus
Libby and her sister Erica have always been close, spending lots of time together playing in the snow, watching movies, and putting together plays that they recorded. Now that Erica is in 9th grade and Libby is in 7th, things are changing. Erica has become more interested in hanging out with friends and is busy in school. When their parents make an announcement at dinner that their grandfather will be moving in with them because he has had memory issues, neither girl is particularly happy, but only Libby is surprised. It turns out that Erica is all set to attend a private boarding school, and will be leaving right after Christmas. For a while, though, the girls have to share a room, and it doesn't go particularly well. Things are particularly tense at Christmas, when the family tries to celebrate with their yearly traditions, but their father gets very upset when his father doesn't remember people in photos. Erica decides to go out with friends, and the holiday spirit is in short supply. Libby gets a little respite when she spends time with her best friend Oliver and his mothers, who have recently adopted a baby from Guatemala. Oliver and Libby even offer to babysit on New Year's Eve, but things don't go well, and Erica comes to the rescue. Libby is angry because Erica treats her like a baby. There is the added stress of her father being at home to care for the grandfather, and her mother having to pick up extra shifts. When Erica is packing, she keeps Libby out of the room, but when Erica is dropped off at the school, she leaves a video for her sister that explains her own complicated feelings, and helps to mend their relationship. 
Strengths: It's easy to forget how important sibling relationships are to tweens, and Libby and Erica's fights reminded me of the toxic relationship in Figure it Out, Henri Weldon by Tanita Davis. Shifting family dynamics are always difficult, and grandparents moving in can cause a lot of stress. I enjoyed her relationship with Oliver, and how he and Erica had been friends, and he was able to still talk to her a bit. The scenes with the grandfather's struggles were very realistic. This was a very short book, and would be great for reluctant readers who want family dramas. 
Weaknesses: I wish that Oliver and Libby had been competent babysitters; maybe today's 7th graders are not, but I babysat constantly at that age, with no incidents, even for a family of five with children ranging from age 2 to 10! 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who liked The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing or Stark-McGinnis' The Space Between Lost and Found. I didn't realize this was available only in paperback. 

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Choosing Sides (Sweet Valley Twins) and Duel

Pascal, Francine, Andelfinger, Nicole, and Aguirre, Claudia (illus.)
Choosing Sides (Sweet Valley Twins Graphic Novels #3) (Reviews of 1 and 2)
January 2, 2024 by Random House Graphic
Copy provided by the publisher

While Lizzie is still looking for stories to report for the school newspaper, Jessica is still hanging out with the Unicorns, the most popular (and also the meanest!) students in school. Lizzie is worried about her friend Amy, who is determined to try out for the pep squad that the Unicorns are trying to get started. Amy isn't all that good at cheering,  but is working very hard at it. Lizzie knows from Jessica's friend Lila that the Unicorns are going to try to limit the people who get onto the squad, and feel it is their right to do this. Lizzie also notices that Ken, whose father was a high school basketball star, is trying out for the basketball team, and having trouble with some of the more unpleasant basketball players. She invites him over to practice with her brother Steven, and a student starts a rumor that the two are dating. This irritates Jessica, who is afraid that people will think that SHE is dating Ken, who is inept and also hated by the Unicorns. Amy continues to work hard, but Lizzie is still worried about her, especially when it turns out that she and Ken like each other. Lila goes so far as to tell Amy to drop out, which only strengthens her resolve. She is also able to see through a letter, purportedly from Ken, encouraging her to drop out. Ken recieves a similar note, supposedly from Amy, but takes it more seriously. Will Lizzie be able to stop Jessica from being quite so eveil so that the Unicorn's pep squad try outs are fair? 
Strengths: There's a lot of energy in these graphic novels, and Jessica vascilliates between starry eyed excitement and seething anger. Lizzie is a bit more even tempered, although her anxiety is not helped by her sister's machinations. Lizzie wants to support her friend Amy, Ken, and do a good job on the newspaper, but is worried that she isn't doing enough. That seems more on track with the way my students feel today, so they are definitely going to identify with Lizzie. The illustration style is appealing, and the colors are attractive. It's fairly easy to keep the twins straight, and the other characters are easily identifiable as well. There are a few pages from The Haunted House (#4), which comes out May 7, 2024, and looks interesting.  
Weaknesses: The original novels were written in the 1980s, when adults were not as aware of kids' behavior. I can't see the faculty advisor for the pep squad allowing Lila and her minions to control things so much, nor can I see Lizzie and Jessica's parents letting Jessica be so mean to her sister. I would have thought the graphic novels would have been updated more, but since The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels also preserve the 1980s social mores, it's not that surprising that they weren't redone. 
What I really think: This is a popular choice for fans of Raina Telgemeier's Drama or Shannon Hale's Best Friends who like to read about middle schoolers being mean to each other. These are not my personal favorite, especially since I was an adult by the time the Sweet Valley Twins novels were published, but can see why my students enjoy them. 

Bagley, Jessixa and Bagley, Aaron. Duel
November 7, 2023 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Sisters Lucy and Gigi are constantly sniping at each other, and when Lucy starts middle school, things get worse. On the very first day, Gigi's friends comment on Lucy's presence, enraging Gigi so much that she trips her sister, who falls dramatically. Tired of this treatment, Lucy grabs Gigi's fencing foil and challenges her to a duel. Both girls are sent to the principal's office, their mother is called away from her busy nursing job, and they are admonished to stop fighting, especially at school. Their mother is beside herself. The family's beloved father and husband, a fencing instructor, died not too long ago, and everyone is struggling. Gigi feels like her father loved Lucy better, and Lucy feels like her sister was able to spend more time with him, since he taught her how to fence. Along with her friend Sasha, Lucy starts to learn fencing, reading books and watching how-to videos. The girls aren't really able to keep their animosity at a simmer, and it is constantly boiling up. Gigi's resentment of her sister seems to center around the fact that Lucy stole a page from her diary and uncovered a secret of which she is particularly ashamed. As the whole school looks forward to the sister's duel, will the girls be able to find a way out of their grief in order to go on with their lives? 

I always thought it would be good to have a sister, but after reading Martin's Sweet Valley Twins
Telgemaier's Sisters, and Davis' Figure it Out, Henri Weldon, and Hale's Real Friends, I'm not so sure! The toxic nature of Lucy and Gigi's relationship is so completely awful, and rooted in such deep emotions that I wish they had been shown seeing therapists. My own daughter like to read books where people went through terrible experiences, since she said it made her own life look better, so perhaps this is the thought behind this story. 

Towards the end of the book, the girls do start to communicate and work through some of their problems, and their mother also admits that she hasn't handled the father's death all that well. In an end note, the author discusses her own family relationships, and includes the information that she lost her own father at the age of 19, so this is based on some real life emotions. I was glad to see that there was a very supportive grandmother, and that Lucy had Sasha at her side. 

There is a wealth of information about fencing practices and procedures in the book, and anyone looking into that sport will find this to be fascinating. Each chapter starts with an overview of a move or technique, and there is a match depicted with good detail.

Readers who enjoyed the one other fencing book I can think of, Rhodes' Black Brother, Black Brother, or the familial relationships in Mericle's Bad Sister and Johnson's Twins, will find this graphic novel by the Bagley wife and husband team to be an interesting look at sibling dynamics, which is made more intriguing by the addition of weapons, even though they aren't dangerous ones! 

Friday, December 29, 2023


Wyman, Christina. Jawbreaker 
October 24, 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Max Plink has a lot of problems. First and foremost, she has a severe overbite that isn't responding to the type of braces most tweens wear. Instead, her orthodontist Dr. Watson is talking about possible surgery to realign her jaws, and has her wearing painful headgear (the "jawbreaker") to try to avoid that route. Since her young parents are struggling financially, the cost of the dentistry is impacting the rest of the family economy. This, along with having to go to the appointments, makes Max's younger sister Alexis insufferable. Not only that, but Alexis has aligned herself with students at school who bully Max about her appearance, and continues this abuse at home, where the two fight constantly. There are some good moments, like rare family nights spent with their father when he doesn't have an overnight shift, but lately he's been smelling like beer and less interested in hanging out, and he and Max's mother are fighting more and more. Max also has a refuge at her friend Shrynn's house, where she has a lot of fun spending Friday nights with her friend and her much nicer younger sister Amy, but lately Shrynn seems oddly distant. The two friends do see each other at  their Brooklyn school, where they both work on the school newspaper, and are working on projects for a city wide competition to get a chance to work with journalist Jordan Slade. The bullying doesn't let up at school, Max's teeth don't respond to the headgear as hoped, her parents keep fighting, and she struggles with her contest submission. It's a lot, and there is no reprieve and no one who can help Max through her difficulties. She does have some success with her op ed piece for the school newspaper, which goes viral, and helps teachers  understand that not all students have access to the type and quality of technology that would let them be successful on all of their school assignments. She also has a good idea for the contest; she interviews her orthodontist about the problems she faced that led her to pursue the field. While working on her own project, Max realizes that Shrynn is facing her own problems that she hasn't shared publicly, and that maybe Max hasn't been the best friend that she could be. Max and Alexis continue to have horrible fights (that are similar to those in Davis' 2023 Figure it Out, Henri Weldon), and when Max deliberately ruins Alexis' science fair project, Alexis takes revenge in a very public way. This causes the parents to take a look at everything that is going on in the home and how it is affecting the girls, and make some changes. 
Strengths: Instead of killing off all of the middle grade parents, it's far more interesting to see parents portrayed as not only real, slightly flawed humans but also as people whose actions directly affect the lives of their children! As someone to whom students like to tell their problems, I've heard stories that make Max's parents look like good examples, so this seemed very realistic.  I'd love to see more fully developed parents in middle grade literature, and especially loved how the details of things like having flip phones, dealing with technology challenges (I see this all day, every day at school), and not being able to afford school trips impacted Max and Alexis. It's also refreshing to see a student with dental isssues; as widespread as braces are, Telgemeier's Smile and Haston's 2011 How to Rock Braces and Glasses are about the only books that really go into this. Even writer Beverly Cleary wore braces back in the 1920s, so you'd think it would be addressed much more. I liked that school assignments were big deals in the lives of both Max and Alexis, and that they were depicted as having to share resources to complete them. Alexis even uses her artistic creativity to avoid presenting her project with technology. The end of the book does show some hope for a better emotional path forward for Max's struggling family. 
Weaknesses: While my students seem to love the extreme angst of books like Telgemeier's Sisters (2014) or Smile (2010) or Hale's Best Friends, I personally prefer books that more fully investigate one or two problem rather than giving brief coverage to a lot of problems. I would have liked to know more about the father's drinking or the family's financial difficulties, or even the mother's childhood experiences, but these are all just touched on. Also, I was very surprised that the family got a physical newspaper, given how stretched their finances were. Even I have gone mostly to the digital version, and my students look at the Sunday edition I bring to school with amazement. 
What I really think: The cover makes this look like it might be a graphic novel, but it is not. I'll definitely purchase a copy, even though I have to admit that in 25 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who had to wear headgear to school! 

100% of my own personal children wore braces, although I did not. My children had some extensive dental work involving palette expanders and teeth growing through the roof of the mouth, but NO ONE ever made fun of them fifteen years ago. Things have changed significantly since today's authors were children, and I don't think that braces and glasses are something people tease others about now, and my students have confirmed this. I'm not sure that books like Ogle's Four Eyes will resonate as much with young readers. I'm curious. What do YOUR students think about this?

Ms. Yingling

Thursday, December 28, 2023

I Will Find You

Benedis- Grab, Daphne. I Will Find You
December 5, 2023 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

When Gracie's middle school class goes on a camping trip to Frost Peak Campground, not far from their town in the Catskills, everyone is looking forward to getting outside, but things start to go wrong right away. Gracie gets stuck in a cabin with Olivia and Jessica instead of her best friend, Jade. To make things evern worse, because one of the cabins is under construction, Leo and Nicky have to stay in the cabin as well. It has two rooms, and Ms. Becker is in the cabin with them, but it's just... awkward. Leo is just loud and annoying, but Nicky has repeatedly bullied just about everyone in the class. Everyone gives him a wide berth in the cabin, but the next day when they wake up, he's gone. Ms. Becker has already checked the entire campground, and the police have been brought in. They seem to think that it might be a familial kidnapping, but all of the children are sent home. Gracie feels responsible for Nicky's disappearance, Leo has reasons to find him, and Olivia thinks that they should all help look for him. Other classmates have reasons to want Nicky gone; Ryan is planning an expose of everything that Nicky has done, Jessica vowed to get back at him after he stuck gum in her hair, and Chloe, Ms. Becker's daughter, is afraid that her mother will lose her job if Nicky is not found. Starting with the clue that Nicky brought rubber boots instead of hiking boots on the trip, the children start an investigation. When they find Nicky in the cabin that is under construction, they learn things about his life that cause them to want to help him. He's being framed. Is this appropriate pay back, or should Nicky be cut some slack because of things that happened in his life? Will the real culprit be found so that Nicky doesn't get in any more trouble?
Strengths: There is a lot of positive modeling of behavior here; Olivia snaps at Gracie when they are picking bunks, but apologizes, Leo is sort of uncouth but the other kids gently try to correct him, and Nicky's past as a horrific bully is uncovered. His home life has been a mess; children's services got involved, and his mother made changes to their life style. Nicky apologizes to many of the people that he hurt, and most graciously accept. Ms. Benedis-Grab is a school librarian, so there is a warm description of the school librarian, and the details about school trips, and even about the possible trouble that Ms. Becker might be in, are quite good. The children are able to travel around their small town on bicycles, talk to residents, gather clues, and help Nicky out. There is also some good autism spectrum representation, and Olivia, whose brother is on the spectrum, makes sure to let her classmates know how to respectfully treat people who are neurodivergent. 
Weaknesses: I thought this was going to be more of a murder mystery; the cover is great, the chapter titles are in a blood like font, and the police are involved right away. Instead, it's more of a social commentary about bullying, with some detective work figuring out who is framing Nicky. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like Benedis-Grab's other thrillers like I Know Your Secret or I Know You're Lying, or clue oriented mysteries like Brockenbrough's To Catch a Thief or Souders' The Radcliffe Riddle

Ms. Yingling

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Melody Queen

Bhandal, Puneet. Melody Queen (Bollywood Academy #2)
September 5, 2023 by Lantana Publishing
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central
In this sequel to Starlet Rivals, we get to know more about Simi, another student at Bollywood Academy. Simi's father is a famous Tollywood star (the film industry in the south Indian state of Telagana, and her mother is also an actor, but is struggling to find parts as she ages. They are both pushing Simi to practice her acting and dancing skills so that she can get into films as well, but Simi's real love is music. She and her friend Zeeshan have a band with Joya and Raktim, and she loves composing for the group. When she is at home, she spends a lot of time with her mother, and hears a lot about her "perfect" cousin Priya. She is glad to get back to school where she has a bit more freedom. When there is a competition for a school band to play at an awards ceremony, Simi's friends decide to call themselves the "B Tunes" and enter. They get chosen, but Simi doesn't take to the stage. The group gets a lot of attention, and Simi is rather jealous. She is glad when her father introduces her to the famous composer Choudhary, and he refers to Simi as "Melody Queen" and is impressed with her work. Simi also finds, however, that her opportunities are limited because she is a girl, and there is not a tradition of women composing. Her parents make her think that music is "distracting" her, and she even agrees to an audition for a mother/daughter roles because she thinks it might help her mother's acting career. At the audition, however, she is uncomfortable and purposefully does a poor job. When she posts a piece she has composed on social media under the name Melody Queen, the song goes viral. Even CI loved that this was set in Hyderabad, and I learned so much about Tollywood. I knew about Bollywood, but didn't know that different Indian languages have studios devoted to them; Tollywood concentrates on films in the Telegu language of Telagana. Watching Simi's mother struggle to find roles because she was over thirty was also interesting, since her father didn't have any trouble.

I loved that this was set in Hyderabad, and I learned so much about Tollywood. I knew about Bollywood, but didn't know that different Indian languages have studios devoted to them; Tollywood concentrates on films in the Telegu language of Telagana. Watching Simi's mother struggle to find roles because she was over thirty was also interesting, since her father didn't have any trouble.

There are also lots of details about the music that Simi is writing and producing, and about the sorts of classes that she takes at the performing arts academy she attends. There are lots of students at the school, and we see a good cross section of them and the fields that they study.

Young readers who harbor ambitions of going into the performing arts as a career will find this book intriguing, and readers who enjoy learning about Bollywood in books like Chanani's Pashmina, Bajaj's Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, or Krishnaswami's The Grand Plan to Fix Everything will enjoy this look behind the scenes of the entertainment industry in India. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Tow on the Go! and Player Attack

Lakin, Patricia and Galletti, Chiara. The Mambo Rescue! (Tow on the Go!)
August 29, 2023 by Simon Spotlight 
Copy provided by the publisher

Tow Truck Mo is called out on a snowy day to free ten cars that are stuck in the snow. They all want service FIRST, so there is some squabbling. Mo assures them that he can help rescue them all, but he needs them to listen to his instructions and follow them closely. Since Mo is enamored of mambo music, he plays a song on his radio and has the first car hold onto the tow chain. The other cars follow, dancing and singing as they get out of the snow. The trucks are all happy to be rescued, and Mo is glad that he saved the day. 

This is a level one reader, and is nicely formatted for children who are trying to read on their own. The font is very large, and there are two or three sentences on each page. The rhyming verse helps to predict which word will be next, and the repetition of some words like "ten" and "car" will help children with their word recognition. 

Galetti's colorful illustrations showcase the emotions of the trucks' faces and have a 1960s vibe to them, thanks to the boxy nature of the cars and the use of yellows, purples, and blues together. The swirls around the vehicles, which include musical notes, stars, and snowflakes, give this a wintery feeling of motion. 

I like Mo's exuberant positivity in the face of the cars' demands, and how he uses music to motivate himself to do his work. Of course, I now have The Enchanters' Mambo, Santa, Mambo stuck in my head, but maybe I can use it to motivate me to get more work done, just like Towtruck Mo!

Lakin, Patricia and Galletti, Chiara. The Splish-Splash Puddle Dance 
(Tow on the Go! #2)
December 12, 2023 by Simon Spotlight
Copy provided by the publisher 

On a rainy day, Race Car Ro is out frolicking in a field. The fresh puddles are enticing, and he starts to splash in them. Unfortunately, one is deeper than the others, and he gets stuck! Calling on Tow Truck Mo to come and rescue him, Ro hopes to be freed soon. Mo starts to hook his crane to Ro's undercarriage, but Ro is so ticklish that he has to stop. He tried to use his lasso to pull the race car out, but Ro has sunk too deep in the mud for him to reach. Mo has music on his radio, and when he starts to mambo with Ro, the two manage to free him from the mud. The rescue accomplised, the two spend some time splashing in the puddles as they sing and dance. 

Cars and trucks are fascinating to many young readers, and race cars are the best, especially when they are revving their engines. This is a good lesson in being careful; Ro should have definitely assessed the puddles more carefully. He's lucky to have his good friend Mo who can come to rescue him, even if it is a difficult process. 

Seasonal books are always a good choice for preschool children, who are still learning about the seasons and the weather. The first book in this series, The Mambo rescue, has a winter theme, so Mo's fans will be glad to see him back in this spring romp. The pastel colors in the background after the rain clears and Ro is rescued are a nice constrast to the gray, rainy scenes when Ro is stuck! Mo is often surrounded by swirls of stars of musical notes that give a nice fantasy element to these stories; cars can't really mambo their way out of difficult situations, but they also don't have Mo's broad grin!

Emerging readers who enjoy being read to while running Matchbox cars over the pages, and who found titles like Alexander's Mini Mighty Sweeps or Van Dusen's Big Truck, Little Island amusing will enjoy Mo and his antics, but be prepared to adapt the text into a musical format so that this book can be sung with appropriate fervor! 

Wolf, Winston. Player Attack (Minecraft Wolf Diaries #1)
Publication December 26, 2023 by AFK (Scholastic)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Winston Wolf is very excited to start his training for the wolf guard; after all, his mother, Wendy Wolf, is a high commander. Winston, however, doesn't pay very good attention and finds himself biting one of his friends instead of sticks during training, and doesn't seem to understand what "silence" means. Some of his friends, like Felicia Fang and Lobo, are very understanding and long suffering, but even his mother is beginning to wonder if he is really cut out for any of the jobs the wolf pack has. When there is a threat to security, High Commander Okami decides to send the wolf scouts out of the den to see if they can figure out what is going on. Winston heads out with his friends, having stopped by Edwina's shop and picked up some of her technological inventions that the wolves don't like to use. When the group arrives, they wisely tell Winston to stay in one location and watch for suspicious things. When a player comes into his area, he decides that he will tame him, and gets the player to throw him lots of bones. When the two finally talk, Winston tells the player that he will be called Brian; of course, the player thinks that HE has tamed Brian. Something has gone wrong with the other wolves, and Winston's guess that the threat is coming from the baby turtles is correct. He thought that they were criminal masterminds. Luckily, one of Edwina's inventions is an anti-adorbs collar, so Winston is immune to their cuteness. He manages to save his friends and get them back to the den, where he tells his mother that the job he will be best at is secret agent, and that secret agents don't have to worry about their social skills because they don't work in packs, they work alone. 
Strengths: This is written in 30 point font, with many bold words (think Geronimo Stilton) and pictures, and presupposes a really good working knowledge of the Minecraft game and universe. Winston's goofy enthusiasm and his habit of misbehaving because of this enthusiasm will be seen as amusing by the target demographic. This was a nice deep dive into the inner workings of an underrepresented Minecraft subgroup. Their hierarchies, acronyms, and training are well described. Winston "taming" a player was interesting, especially when the player said that his mom told him it was time to stop playing the game, and Winston wasn't quite sure what he was talking about. I can see this being hugely popular with younger readers who enjoy Minecraft. 
Weaknesses: Since I have never played Minecraft, I found this very confusing. I didn't really remember the wolves having any role other than just menacing in the background of games. I'm sure that the average 8 year old Minecraft enthusiast could get me up to speed. 
What I really think: This series will be perfect for readers who love Barnett and Lowery's Mac Undercover (Mac B., Kid Spy #1), but are a tiny bit below the reading level required by Cube Kid's Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior series. (Which I not only purchased, but purchased a second time in better bindings because they were so popular.) I'll probably buy these (if they are available in prebinds) for my school library for the struggling 6th grade reader, but most of my students will prefer the DelRay Books/Mojang Minecraft novels like The Haven Trials

The sequel, Underwater Heist, comes out April 2, 2024.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas! Books and Blather.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Happy Christmas! Have you reduced children to tears? We had odd Christmases when my children were young. There were family elves named Jeek and Glendle who put he gifts under the tree in the front yard, took gift tags off and scattered them around, and one year put all of the gifts in a large LABELED box on the dining room table that the children had to pass multiple times during the morning in order to get their waffles. There was sadness until this was pointed out, and gifts were finally found. 

When my children wrote to Santa, they got brochures about Santa Claus, Inc. in return. I was so distraught when my father told me there was no Santa (using the unctuous Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus) that I refused to lie to my children. I maintained that while some people believed, I did not. As a result, my older daughter was in 6th grade before she realized the truth. She was crushed, but couldn't blame me! 

Cole, Steve. Ten Days of Christmas: Festive Tales with the Tenth Doctor
October 12, 2023 by BBC Children's Books
Purchased copy

Had to buzz through this quickly because I bought it for a gift for a young fan and have to pass it along.

I've never seen an episode of the television program, so felt like I was dropped in medias res; maybe the stories are continuations of episodes? Everything I know about Dr. Who comes from Solomons' The Secret of Vault 13 (2018) and Cooper's What is the Story of Dr. Who (2019). There are a variety of settings and characters, and the stories stand alone fairly well, although I think this would be much more interesting with the background of the television show in mind.

One interesting thing about the book was that I really got a feel for the character of the tenth doctor. He was funny and acerbic, and ready to jump into any situation. I enjoyed reading the stories, and the Christmas connection to all of them was quite fun.

The book itself is very pretty, and I adored the amount of white space of the borders of the pages. It seemed so luxurious. I know that's silly, but it makes reading so much more pleasurable when the words aren't crammed onto the page. I'm not entirely sure why the first story had me turn to page 255, but since we are dealing with a time traveler, it makes an odd kind of sense. Another reviewer said that the last story ties into the new Doctor Who Annual 2024. The concept of annuals dealing with favorite literary characters sounds so delightful, and I'm rather sad that I didn't know about these when my own children were young; they would have loved having a Jacqueline Wilson annual. (If you have any Minecraft fans, there is one available!)

Lindemann, Johanna and Stegmaier, Andrea (illus.) 
One Christmas in Our Building: A Very Merry Mystery
September 19, 2023 by Floris Books

While most books about Christmas are cozy and festive, this book shows that sometimes, things go wrong despite plans being made. In this book, Emma realizes that while her father and stepmom Susan want Christmas to be perfect, there are some problems when traditions are different. Some families don't see presents under the tree until Christmas morning, and some times turkeys can be too be for the pan or even the refrigerator. When the family leaves the turkey outside in the hallway to stay cool, it is a disaster when it is gone the next morning. They ask their neighbors if anyone has seen it, but no one has. There's no other turkey to be found, so the family sits down to Christmas spaghetti. Luckily, the Singhs bring a lamb curry to share, the Wilson-Taylors show up with a cake, and the elderly Mrs. Angel brings some cookies. The neighbors get to know each other a little better through sharing their holiday, although the culprit, a shady gentleman who never talks to anyone, seems unrepentant.

Aside from the fact that I am concerned about the food safety of storing poultry in the hallway (Did their neighbor perhaps save everyone from food poisoning by stealing the bird?) this was a fun book about the importance of community over the holidays. Celebrations rarely go smoothly, and it's important for young readers to see that one can still be happy even when things go wrong. Sometimes people argue a bit about how the day should go. There's even a great picture of the father looking at his phone while Susan is struggling with the turkey that seemed very realistic!

The illustrations have a lot of good details about the celebrations others are having in their apartments, and have a quirky feel to them. They feel very current, with the family in loose sweaters and fuzzy socks, with elements like the aforementioned phone.

While this is a little bit of a mystery, there's not much investigation. It's more of a feel good stroy about the importance of community, especially around the holidays. Hand it to readers who enjoy big celebrations, like those in Ashford's A Winter Candle or Sharff's When Santa Came to Stay.

Sharff, Billy and Eda Kaban (Illus.)When Santa Came to Stay.
18 October 2022 by Dial Books
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

A little girl and her parents find themselve the unwitting hosts of Santa and his extended entourage after the jolly old elf discovers that their cookies are so delicious that he doesn't want to leave. Soon, it's Christmas every day in an increasingly chaotic household. At first, it's fun, but as the year progresses and brings Santa's in-laws, the Easter bunny and her children, and hoards of elves, the novelty of presents, holiday treats, and decorations starts to pale. By Independence Day, the girl and her family start to resort to subterfuge to try to dislodge the holiday visitors. When not even carrot cookies and locking the doors keep the revelers out, the girl has to have a heart-to-heart with Santa and tell him that while Christmas is wonderful, part of its magic is that it lasts for only a brief time. Chastizened, Santa and his family return to their home, leaving the girl and her parents to enjoy their normal, simple life.

I'm a HUGE fan of Santa mythology and back story, and my own personal children may have been regaled with tales of Santa, Inc. and his global domination of the plaything market, as well as Jeek and Glendle, our own personal elves who had a checkered past with legal problems and personal issues! It's fun to think about Santa living in one's house and making himself at home. How does Santa live his daily life? What does Mrs. Claus do when she's not working at the North Pole? There's even a tantalizing glimpse of Santa's children! There is a lot of humor, but also a good message reminiscent of the 1892 short story "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells.

The drawings are appropriately filled with shades of green and red, and become increasingly chaotic as more and more people fill up the house. The pages are rich with detail, and young readers will enjoy locating items and counting how many presents or Christmas baubles fill the pages.

There should be more "biographical" picture books explaining the details of Santa's life at the North Pole; perhaps I should work on Jeek and Glendle's sad, sad tale that still gets embellished every year, since they still visit and leave a scavenger hunt that always involves going outside into the snow at some point! When Santa Came to Stay is a fun backstory to read along with Hale's Super Santa, Berlin's Hey, You're Not Santa, Brockenbrough's Love, Santa, and Furman's A World of Cookies for Santa. Just make sure that you have a plate of cookies nearby!

Stewart, Amber and Beckett, Kyle (illus.) How the North Pole Works
September 12, 2023 by Dynamite Entertainment
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

My own personal children would have liked this, but some of the official comments in this book are at odds with what they believed. This is a great choice for children who are old enough to have a lot of questions about Santa but really just want to believe in him. My only quibble is that some of the text was in white on pale blue backgrounds, making the somewhat small print hard to read. I'll have to take a look at a physical copy; a larger page size than a Nook can support would help a lot. 

From the Publisher:
Have you ever wondered what really goes on in Santa’s North Pole headquarters? Come along for a journey to a place like no other where you will experience all the innovation and wonder the North Pole has to offer. This insider’s guide gives you an unforgettable and unprecedented view into one of the most magical places on the planet. Dive in to learn about the state-of-the-art robot and drone technology, remarkable reindeer, enchanting elves, as well as the best places to visit, stay, and shop. Whimsical text and vivid illustrations make this a book you’ll want to return to again and again.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Sunday Salon

I always mean to participate in Reader Buzz's Sunday Salon, "a place to link up and share what we have been doing during the week (and)... visit other blogs and join in the conversations going on there.

Last week we had three days of school, and thanks to generous donations from a local high school, I was able to give away books to students. I also had classes in studying Spanish speaking countries, as well as learning how to write in cursive the day before break!

A former student was so pleased with the gift he was giving me, and it turned out to be the unicorn Christmas tree below. He made ornaments for it with the covers of both of our favorite books!.

My daughter and her husband are visiting, so there's been some great fun getting out a fifty year old train set, picking up some groceries at an international market, and just hanging out. I also taught my son-in-law how to make an apple pie!

The unicorn tree made me think about what gifts I remember. In 1967, my father (who was working on his master's degree and teaching full time!) made a "Goldilocks House", complete with mailbox and working light! I spent so much time playing in there, and we had it until 2016 when my parents moved into assisted living. I hope everyone has memories of a gift elicits such a smile. In middle school, my mother would get me one Anne of Green Gables book for every Christmas and birthday; I never thought to skip ahead and check the books out from the library, so it was always such a thrill to get the next book. 

My reading goals are more than well in hand (erm... I'm read 948 books of my 850 book goal!), so I'm slowing down a bit and doing some plastic canvas needlepoint. 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday and a good winter break if you have one! 

Juniper's Christmas

Colfer, Eoin. Juniper's Christmas
October 31, 2023 by Roaring Brook Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Juniper Lane lives in London with her mother, Jennifer, after the sudden death of her father, Briar. Briar, an immigrant from Ghana, was the caretaker of the local Cedar Park, and hosted a yearly Santa Vigil there, collecting gifts and supplies for the local homeless population. The Santa Vigil is held because for nine years, there has been no gift delivery from Santa, so many people don't believe in him any more. We do get the complicated back story about why this is, but focus more on Juniper. Her mother has some errands to run leading up to Christmas, and has a local homeless woman they call the Duchess look after Juniper for a few hours. When Jennifer doesn't come back, the two are very worried. Duchess claims that a man who has been building shelters in the park, Niko, can help them. She's not clear on the details, but since the police won't do anything, Juniper tries. Odd things happen, and Juniper discovers that Niko is really Santa Claus. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to try to confuse Juniper, but when she accidentally bonds with a young reindeer, Sk√§ra, the magic in her own system is activated. This is helpful because not only does she have to find her mother, but she has to help Santa battle Tomescu, an elf who is trying to find him and bring him back to the North Pole, as well as a family of Irish criminals headed by Trude Madden. These criminals were orginally hired by the man in charge of the park, Mr. Carnegie, to run the homeless people away from the park and burn the collections for the Santa Vigil. Once they get further into Juniper's world, they think that they can somehow benefit from Juniper's magic and turn their attention to her. There's a lot of chasing around London, but things turn serious when Duchess' health takes a turn for the worse and she ends up in the hospital. Will Juniper, with her newfound Santa magic, be able to find her mother, continue the Santa Vigil, and get Santa back to the North Pole. 
Strengths: Imagine Artemis Fowl with a social justice slant and a Christmas setting, and you've got Juniper's adventurous tale! This was quite a fun and innovative book, with a lot of humor as well as a break neck pace. There was also a lot of sympathy for the unhoused population, and some suggestions for how to help. The characters are all nicely complex, and I was especially fond of the Duchess with her surprising back story. Juniper is a determined character who is fazed by very little, so she definitely helps propel the story forward. Quite a fresh twist on the Santa myth, and Colfer's use of faux Scandinavian terms was on point. 
Weaknesses: This was definitely a quirky fantasy, and most of my readers who ask for holiday tales are looking more for realistic stories with friend and family drama. It is perfect, however, for avid fantasy fans, some of whom are even named Juniper! (I've had two recently, so the name must be up and coming.)
What I really think: This is a great choice for readers who like their Christmas stories to include Santa as well as a lot of action. Similar titles include Fry's The Naughty List, Rowling's The Christmas Pig, Huett's Top Elf, and Haig's The Girl Who Saved Christmas. If you can find a copy of Funke's 1994 When Santa Fell to Earth, this would also be a good one, and not only because it has a great picture of a rather hunky Santa! 

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Beginning Chapter Books

Messner, Kate and Ross, Heather (illus.)
Fergus and Zeke for President (Fergus and Zeke #5)
May 23, 2023 by Candlewick Press
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

When the classroom that the two mice live in start on a unit about the presidents of the United States, Fergus and Zeke are very excited. The two friends have a little bit of trouble deciding which president to pick, especially since they want to find one that had a pet mouse! Fergus discovers that Lyndon Johnson fed the mice in the White House, but that isn't good enough for Zeke, who is busy "supervising", and lounging around in his George Washington cotton ball wig. Fergus is working very hard, but Zeke is not, and the two friends are at odds. Zeke gets very pushy, but the two friends finally learn to work together and are able to present their project with the rest of the class. 

Ah, group projects. Learning how to work together is important, but so, so painful for many students. I'm not sure how people like Zeke feel, but I know exactly how frustrated Fergus must be when Zeke won't get work done! It's good for young readers to see these behaviors modeled in constructive ways. 

Messner, who has written other children's books with a political bent, like The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents and History Smashers: Women's Right to Vote quickly unpacks the racist and sexist history of US presidents, and the children in the class look forward to the day when there is a woman president.

This is a little longer than an I Can Read Book, but not so long that it couldn't be read aloud to a class for a President's Day or election day celebration along with other books about elections like Shamir's What's The Big Deal About Elections, Fleming's Rock That Vote, or Cronin's Duck for President

Kessler, Liz and Stone, Joanie (illus.).
The Truth About Aaron (The World of Emily Windsnap #3)
April 11, 2023 by Candlewick Press
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

In this third book in The World of Emily Windsnap series, an emerging reader prequel to the middle grade one, we catch up with Shona and Emily as they travel to Aaron's island to visit him. Their friend's mother is having a party, and the trio swim around the large ship that is on its way to the island. They overhear men on deck talking about searching for something, and when they meet the men, who look a lot like pirates, they are alarmed. At dinner, one of them admires Aaron's necklace at asks to see it, and it isn't until later that Aaron realizes he hasn't given it back. Suspecting the worst, the three set out to solve the mystery. When Aaron goes on board the ship and is apprehended by the men, Shona and Emily go to his mother for help. What is the big secret?

Well, I wouldn't want to spoil it, but it's nowhere near as serious as our intrepid merfriends think it is! This is a fun story that sheds light on the origins of Aaron, and has just enough suspense for young readers. This is similar in length to Butler's King and Kayla series, Thorpe and Kristy's Disney Fairies, or Malcolm's classic The Ruby Princess. Young readers who want some fantasy that isn't too difficult to read will love the adventure and camraderie in this beautifully illustrated title. 

Ms. Yingling

Friday, December 22, 2023

Guy Friday-- Miles Lewis: Track Star and Ultimate Spotlight: Cars

Lyons, Kelly Starling and Spencer, Wayne (illus.) Miles Lewis #4 Track Star 
August 29, 2023 by Penguin Workshop
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Miles wants to be one of the top runners in the school Fun Run, but he finds that he can barely keep up with his Nana on his walks. He starts to pay attention to the different people in his life who have advice for his running. Even though he's rather eat treats like his classmates, he tries to pay attention to his nutrition. He goes on walks with his Nana, and runs early in the morning with his mother, who reminds him that "Slow and steady wins the race". He has a small dust up with his friend and bruises his leg, and worries that taking a couple of days off will hurt his chances of doing well. On the day of the race, he notices that his friend isn't doing well, and the two talk about the incident and make up. They end up racing each other to the finish line and feeling good about their progress.

I liked that while Miles found running to be hard, he didn't hate it. He thought about what he needed to do to be successful, and worked to get better. Even though this is a tiny bit young for my middle school, I have the first couple of books in the series for my emerging readers and will probably buy this one because it has such a great message.

Miles Lewis will be a huge hit with readers who enjoy short chapter books in series like Dillard and Robert's J. D. and the Barber Shop Battle, English's Carver Chronicles, Mills' Franklin School Friends, Wallace's Game Face books, or Greenwald's new Good Sports League

Dussaussois, Sophie and Caillou, Pierre (Illus.) Ultimate Spotlight: Cars
August 22, 2023 by Twirl
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

This pop-up book is packed with information about various aspect of cars. There are labels galore, and it's so much fun to open the car doors to see the interior labeled, or pull the tab to send a car through a factory assembly line! There's a great map with highways and main streets with highlights labeled, and even a fold down parking garage. The working stop light will enthrall young readers; that will be the first tab that wears out! My favorite pages might be the spread on car maintenance, where we can send a car up on a hydraulic lift to get the oil changed, and also have a dirty car come out the other side of a car wash clean and shiny. The final pop up is a car racing stadium with all its fans.

The colors are bright, and the pictures clean. Because there is so much text, the font is on the smaller side, but emerging readers will be more interested in the activity tabs than the prose at first.

There is a brief discussion about fossil fuels, and how there is a need to switch to other methods. This is illustrated with an electric vehicle that we are able to plug into a power station. This makes the book a snapshot of a very particular time, or at least I hope so. It would be great if this is dated in ten years because there are so many more EVs! The cars pictured look very European (they are small, with many hatchbacks, which are fantastic cars but harder to find in the US) which makes sense since this book was first published in France.

Young motor enthusiasts will love spending time with this book after reading similar titles like All About Cars by Krashiski and Latyk, van Dusen's If I Built a Car, Stein's Cars Galore, and Scarry's classic Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Make Me A Liar

Landers, Melissa. Make Me A Liar
December 5, 2023 by Disney Hyperion
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Tia Dante is a Head-Hopper, although she prefers the term "immersionist". She can go into someone's consciousness and take over their body. The government has said that people with this ability have to register, but Tia hasn't. Instead, she has a small business renting herself out so that she can break up with people, explain difficult situations to parents, or in the latest case, beat up a bully who is making Josh's life difficult. Besides the money, Tia enjoys trading bodies with people because she has many food allergies, so part of her contract is that she gets to have a major food fest while in the other person's body. After beating up Josh's bully, she's in a local diner and sees Nash, her old boyfriend who broke up with her so he could date women at college. As they are reconnecting, news comes on the television; attorney Ben Mitchell was shot and killed... by Tia's body. Since she has taken precautions to lock her unconscious body up in a shed, this is quite odd. She switches back and has to go to the police station, but they are somewhat understanding and believe that she didn't kill Mitchell. She doesn't even get in trouble for not having registered. She decides to investigate the murder, and gets a lot of help from Nash. The two reconnect, and she learns some secrets, like the fact that he is not only an immersionist, but is involved in an immersionists' rights group at college. Investigating the crime takes her down some dark paths, and she spends a lot of time with Blade, the son of the local mafia leader. She ends up owing him a favor, and he eventually asks her to take over his body to do something for him. It turns out that Mitchell was not a good guy, angered many people, and was also involved with the mafia, but is the killer someone closer to his personal life? 
Strengths: This was a well constructed fantasy book that made being an immersionist seem perfectly logical. Aside from Tia's ability to change bodies being central to the murder, this really was more of a detective thriller. It was fun to watch Tia reconnect with Nash, and younger readers will find Blade as weirdlyy enticing as Tia does. Since she's in high school, Tia has a lot of freedom to go out and about, especially since her mother is dead. Her father, however, is supportive, even though we don't see a lot of him. Tia's experiences in other people's bodies was fascinating, and when Nash takes over her body briefly, he is surprised at how achey it is; she has PMS. The mystery is also quite well developed, and took a lot of twists and turns. Quite a fun way to pass the afternoon. This would make a great television series! 
Weaknesses: Tia sounded like she was forty. She had way too many skills and connections to investigate the mysteries. Also, this was so full of casual vulgarities that it really sounded more like adult fiction. There is one f-word, but it's the small mentions of "alpha dicks", Tia flashing her bra covered chest to distract someone, and some genital related humor that places this firmly in the YA category. It's not overly gratuitous, but there is a fair amount of it. 
What I really think: I really enjoyed reading this, and I loved Landers' Blastaway, but will leave this title for the high schools to purchase. I can see fans of Price's Starters or teen thrillers loving this one. I would buy it for a high school or public library collection. 

Ms. Yingling

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

My Week With Him

Goffney, Joya. My Week With Him 
July 11, 2023 by HarperTeen 
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Nikki lives in Texas in somewhat difficult circumstances. She lives with her mother and younger sister in a trailer after her mother divorced her step father, who remains supportive of both Nikki and Vae. Her mother is quick to judgement, so when she catches Nikki in the driveway dressed for a party, she assumes that the young man who dropped Vae off was with Nikki, and kicks Nikki out of the house. Nikki was planning on spending her spring break driving to California for an audition with a promising musical group, and this cements her goal to get out of her small Texas town. The only problem is her long time friend Mal, on whom she has had a longstanding crush. He's asked someone else to Prom, but Nikki wants to at least show him her sexier side and maybe make him jealous. After they talk at the party, Mal breaks up with his girlfriend, and when he finds out that Nikki's mother has kicked her out, suggests that Nikki spend the week with him before going to California, to see where their relationship goes. This is all a bit up in the air, but Mal (whose parents are well to do) books a trip to California with his mother's help, and the two head off to spend some relaxing time over spring break. When Nikki gets the message that her sister Vae is missing, the break becomes anything but relaxing. She and Mal head back, and meet up with Darryl, her step dad, as well as her mother, to look for Vae. Nikki always lives in hope that her mother will become more reasonable, but is always disappointed. It turns out that Mal understands this. Nikki has been trying to hide this part of her life from him, but it turns out that Mal was in foster care before his parents adopted him, so he knows the pain of dealing with a mercurial parent. Nikki figures out where Vae must be, which involves a road trip to Dallas. The audition still looms over her, but as she and Mal become closer, Nikki has to decide if she wants to stay in Texas to be near Mal, or finally make the break and go to California. Is there any way she can do both? 

This is definitely a young adult book, with some more adult vocabulary, as well as discussion of generational trauma, but is more in line with books like Renee Watson, Paula Chase, or Kasie West in the level of other late adolescent behaviors. While I found it hard to believe that high school seniors would be allowed to drive to different states alone and stay in hotels, it is certainly a very appealing thought to teens!

Nikki and Mal's relationship is front and center in this book, but keeps getting pushed to the side by issues like Nikki's mother's anger and Vae's disappearance. It was nice to see that Mal's parents were supportive and understanding, Darryl is involved in Nikki's life even though he doesn't have to be, and we do get some insight into the mother's actions when we find out the history with her mother, Bobbie, and the difficult relationship she had with her husband. 

Young readers will enjoy the trajectory of Nikki's singing career. Mal gets her several local opportunities for gigs, and these go well, so it's not a surprise that she has been approached by the group in California to try out. 

My Week With Him is a fun but realistic look at all of the obstacles that teen relationships can face, and offers hope to readers who also might have dealt with trauma in the past but want to but their dreams, and their own positive relationships, front and center in their plans. 

There were too many f-bombs in this for me to include in my middle school library, so I will pass this on to the high school, where the age of the characters makes it a better fit. 

Ms. Yingling

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Swift and Hawk: Undercover

Maxc, Logan. Swift and Hawk: Undercover
November 14, 2023 by Walker Books US
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

After their experiences in Swift and Hawk: Cyberspies, Caleb and Zen are back. They are waiting for Zen's family to make it back to London, and go on a mission with Mitch that is supposed to be a straight forward assessment of a hacking job. When they get to the robotics company SolTech, however, they realize that it is much more serious. Not only is there a virus in the code, but it is turning the robots in the factory into killing machines. The three get out safely, but the entire building explodes. It turns out that this is probably connected to the Strikers, a group of antiwar activists who have been targeting all sorts of organizations. The director of Mobius, Ms. Clay, is reluctant to send Zen out into the field, but the Strikers are all very young. Operation Supergiant is born, and Zen breaks into a factory and films a video of her writing graffiti that brings her to the head of the Strikers, Celeste. Zen has a backstory for herself; she's of Syrian descent, and her parents were both killed, so she's against all things war related. She in foster care in a home in Chalk Farm, where Mobius has set up a safe house with the librarian serving as a foster mother. Zen gets accepted into the group and heads off on some of their protests, digging up all of the dirt on the organization. While staying back at the school to keep tabs on Zen's operation, Caleb notices that something is going on with the Terrorform video game. This was put together by Caleb's father before he died, and the artificial intelligence that runs it, Sam, assures that the game can never be used for monetary gain. This is why Caleb hasn't sold it to another company, since it is one of the most popular games. He notices that there is a new clan, but they haven't titled themselves, play 24 hours a day, and seem intent on taking over the game. Sam, who can talk to Caleb and has as much of a personality as AI can, is working with Caleb to find out what the Nameless gamers are up to. Meanwhile, Zen is running into problems with the Strikers, and Mobius isn't telling her that her family is on their way back to London, lest she become distracted. I don't want to spoil what happens, but know that Razor has reared its ugly head again, and it will take another book to figure out what has happened to Sam. A third book, Supernova, comes out in the UK in May, 2024.
Strengths: The Brits and spy books are such a good combination! This was like a tech heavy Alex Rider book, and starts off with a fantastic car chase, complete with a pile of manure. Rapidly moving into the SolTech mission, this really doesn't let up for a second. I very much enjoy the fact that Caleb and Zen have each other. They are a little reluctant, and Mobius (especially Caleb's mother) are always a little reluctant to send kids on missions, but then always make exceptions and send them, which leads me to believe that they aren't really that reluctant! Both Caleb and Zen have a lot of freedom to run around, and there is a ton of technology. Definitely quite the thrilling page turner! 
Weaknesses: I had trouble caring about the video game being taken over, since I never play video games, but that will be a HUGE draw for young readers. I would have preferred there to be more character development, and to learn more about the dynamics of both Caleb and Zen's families, but that's not as exciting as blowing things up! 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing for my library, and will hand to readers who enjoy spy books like Ponti's City Spies, McNab's Traitor, and my many readers of Muchamore's 2010 CHERUB series. Clearly, there is room for some fresh new spy adventures with new technology! 

Ms. Yingling