Tag Archives: scholastic

The Quantum League: Spell Robbers

28 Jan

Today’s review is for The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers, by Matthew J. Kirby, published by Scholastic. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Ben Warner has always felt a bit of an outsider. It’s probably because his eccentric mother is always moving them around to new places. When he’s invited to participate in an elite science camp, Ben decides to check it out. After all he likes science, and it means he won’t have to hang out at his mother’s office in the afternoon. He discovers that the camp is actually part of Dr. Madeleine Hughes’s research into Actuation–the ability to change reality through imagination. Even more exciting, Ben seems to be a natural. When a mysterious group of men show up to the lab one day to abduct Dr. Hughes and a prototype device, Ben and his friend Peter quickly find themselves in the middle of a war. It turns out that the world of Actuation is much bigger than they ever imagined–but will they be able to rescue Dr. Hughes before it’s too late?

Kirby has crafted a fast-paced science-fantasy adventure for the middle grade set. His plotting and pacing are spot-on. I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, frantically turning the pages to find out what would happen next. Every time I thought I had figured something out, I was thrown an unexpected twist that kept me on my toes. This in particular impressed me, because too often middle grade fiction feels predictable. While some aspects of the story feel grounded in common comic book story-lines, it is still refreshingly original.

I was pleased with the range of characters in the book, as well as their development. Ben, the protagonist, is an intelligent boy who cares deeply for his mother, no matter how much she frustrates him. Initially he is excited to discover that he can Actuate. But when the Quantum League wants to recruit him to their organization, he has little interest in getting involved. Even when he learns that he’s one of the most talented people they’ve seen, Ben would gladly give up his abilities to return to his mother’s side. Peter, while jealous of Ben’s natural talent, remains a loyal and trustworthy friend. Few of the secondary characters are quite who they seem to be at first guess–which is fun.

I can’t wait until the next book in the series is released! I’m hooked. This would be a great choice for middle grade readers who enjoy action, comics, and science-fantasy. It definitely has the potential become a new hit series for the 9-12 set. This volume gets a full 5 stars for being awesome. Sure, it has some great themes and messages for kids, but in this case I’d rather just focus on it being a fun read.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.


Jungle of Bones

21 Jan

Today’s book review is for Jungle of Bones, by Ben Mikaelsen, published by Scholastic. It is scheduled for release on January 28, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Jungle of Bones book cover

Dylan Barstow has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Ever since his father died, he keeps getting in trouble. But when he steals a car from the junkyard to spin donuts in a field, his mother gives him an ultimatum: spend the summer before 8th grade in lockup or spend it with ex-Marine Uncle Todd. Reluctantly Dylan chooses Uncle Todd. Soon he discovers that Uncle Todd has bigger plans for the summer than early morning jogs–they’re going to take a trip to Papua New Guinea to join a team of 3 other people in search of the wreckage of WWII bomber Second Ace. When Dylan gets lost in the jungle, he finally has to confront the realization that he is not the center of the universe. If he wants to survive, he’s going to have to abandon his assumptions and anger.

Recently I realized that I’d need to push myself to read outside of my “comfort genres” in order to better serve my audience. The synopsis for this title sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try. It turned out that the story was so engaging, I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish the book in one sitting.

It was the descriptions of Papua New Guinea, the jungle and the struggle for survival that really hooked me in. They were skillfully written. I could imagine the smells and the oppressive humidity. I could picture the shanties and villages. Everything felt so vivid, alive and alien. That sort of powerful description can be hard to master. Some writers over-do it, using purple prose and redundant adjectives. Mikaelsen nails it, though.

Sometimes it is hard for me to get into a book when I don’t really like the main character. And I did not like Dylan very much. That said, I knew him (because he was so much like other young men I’ve met in my life) and I cared about him. He was completely self-absorbed, disrespectful, and a real pain in the behind–but I could also recognize the pain underlying his behaviors and wanted for him to heal and move on with his life.

I could have done with a little less of the heavy-handed jingoism, though. The military history in the story was wonderful. In particular, I found the journal entries in the journal of Dylan’s grandfather to be well-done and informative. I also liked when they visited a veteran in a nursing home and got to hear his story. However, there was also a tone of military worship to the book, and a bit too much “The USA is the savior of everyone” attitude (as though Dylan’s uncle forgot that there were other countries fighting alongside the United States in World War II).

In the final assessment, though, I was able to get passes my discomforts and enjoy a well-crafted story. I liked how it encouraged inter-generational relationships, emotional healing, a respect for history, and valuing cultures that are vastly different from one’s own. It’s a great book for young people who enjoy the genres of adventure and survival. It might also be a good selection for young people who are lashing out at the world after dealing with a traumatic life event. I’m giving the book 4 stars.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.


11 Dec

Today’s book review is for Defy, by Sara B. Larson, published by Scholastic. It is scheduled to be released January 7, 2014. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Defy book cover

Defy is a thrilling YA fantasy debut from Sara B. Larson. It follows young fighter Alexa Hollen, who must disguise herself as a boy, Alex, when raiders come to her village and kill her parents. Alex and her twin brother, Marcel, work their way into the palace guard for Prince Damian of Antion. It’s not easy hiding her true identity, but she’s doing pretty good. That is, until a powerful sorcerer breaks into the palace and turns things upside down. Alex, her fellow guard Rylan, and Prince Damian are abducted and transported to a neighboring enemy kingdom. Amidst all of this, Alex’s true identity is found out–and she finds herself faced with Ryland and Damian both vying for her affections. Soon she discovers that she’s not the only one harboring dangerous secrets, and not everything is as it seems in the kingdoms. Will she have the strength to sort out her feelings and save the kingdom before it’s too late? Only time will tell.

I’ve long loved stories of women who feel compelled to live the lives of men. Part of it is because the women are able to demonstrate that, despite social opinion to the contrary, women are every bit as capable as men. Another part is the tension that it creates. As the audience is in on the secret, we can see the dangers threatening to expose our protagonist lurking around every corner. Moreover, we can laugh at the awkward moments and mis-communication that occur as the true identity struggles to assert itself once more (sometimes subconsciously) despite all the risks. Larson was able to deliver all of these things in her story. It was a real treat to see a female protagonist who was so strong, courageous and quick-witted, but also vulnerable and plagued with uncertainty.

Although the character development was strong, what I really enjoyed were the interpersonal dynamics between the characters. There was complexity there. Loyalty to a fellow guardsmen can overcome personal competition. Enemies can become allies, but maybe not friends. Love, no matter how strong, doesn’t have to be acted upon. It was refreshing to see so much nuance and ambiguity in the relationships between characters. People are complex. It felt true to life.

I also loved that even though the love triangle is a major storyline in the novel, there is still a lot of action. There are thrilling battles, ingenious escapes, and troubling treks through the jungle. For readers who don’t feel invested in the romance element, the political plot is equally engaging–and even more complex. The world that Larson has created is fascinating, broad and deep.

Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. I stayed up into the wee hours of the night because I jut had to know what was going to happen. My biggest disappointment is that now I’m going to have to wait for a sequel. For that reason, I’m giving it 5 out of 5 stars. If you’re looking for a gripping fantasy with a side of love triangle, you should definitely consider picking up this book. It won’t disappoint.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Grave Images

29 Oct

Today’s book review is for Grave Images, by Jenny Goebel, published by Scholastic. I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Grave Images book cover

Grave Images is a middle grades thriller. Thirteen-year old loner, Bernie, is having a lousy summer. Between her family’s monument business and a clinically depressed mother who hides in her bedroom all the time, Bernie finds it difficult to make friends. However, when her father hires a new artist, Mr. Stein, to make portrait etchings for the headstones, things start to get interesting. Bernie soon discovers that Mr. Stein is etching portraits of people before they die. She becomes determined to figure out whether Mr. Stein is merely predicting the deaths or if he’s causing them.

The novel is written in the first person point of view of Bernie. One of the things that I immediately liked was the stylized voice that Goebel gave to her main character. It has a sort of rural charm to it, and made it easy to imagine the character telling you the story–but it was just subtle enough that it didn’t disrupt the reading process. And through that voice, Goebel really makes Bernie come alive. Bernie is a likable character. She is flawed and hurting and lonely–but she’s also honest, determined, and caring. She has her flares of temper and frustration just like any other girl just starting puberty. So, on top of being likable, she’s also believable.

I also enjoyed that even though the driving plot of the novel is supernatural and spooky, there was a lot more going on in the story. While Bernie is trying to solve the mystery of the etchings, she is also working through family struggles and the confusion of a budding friendship. She is growing into an adolescent and starting to really explore her own identity.

Which isn’t to say that the driving plot isn’t enjoyable. It certainly kept me guessing for a long time. And I liked that it had just the right level of scary for the target audience. Even though there were deaths, there was no gore. There were no graphic descriptions to keep tweens up at night. In fact most of the fear element comes from Bernie getting herself worked up and spooked over her own speculation.

This is a wonderful choice to put middle graders in the Halloween spirit. Or, they can read it anytime they want a good, creepy read. It’s got solid writing and age-appropriate storytelling, for which it earns 4 out of 5 stars.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.