The Thief Knot by Kate Milford


cover168401-mediumGhosts, a kidnapping, a crew of young detectives, and family secrets mix in this new standalone mystery set in the world of the bestselling Greenglass House, from a National Book Award nominee and Edgar Award-winning author.

Marzana and her best friend are bored. Even though they live in a notorious city where normal rules do not apply, nothing interesting ever happens to them. Nothing, that is, until Marzana’s parents are recruited to help solve an odd crime/kidnapping, and she realizes that this could be the excitement she’s been waiting for. She assembles a group of kid detectives with special skills—including the ghost of a ship captain’s daughter—and together, they explore hidden passageways, navigate architecture that changes overnight, and try to unravel the puzzle of who the kidnappers are—and where they’re hiding. But will they beat the deadline for a ransom that’s impossible to pay?

Legendary smugglers, suspicious teachers, and some scary bad guys are just a few of the adults the crew must circumvent while discovering hidden truths about their families and themselves in this smart, richly imagined tale.

Kate Milford’s Nagspeake books just keep getting better. The world-building that began in Greenglass House continues with this latest entry featuring characters introduced in The Ghosts of Greenglass House last year. Marzana and her parents are back, as are Lucky and Emmett, in this case living a peaceful (if boring) life in The Liberty of Gammerbund. Marzana chafes at the ordinariness of her life, not understanding why her parents keep her from fully understanding their old lives as smugglers.

As the story picks up steam, Marzana finds herself making friends and taking charge, two things that have been difficult for her. Milford often includes a character who struggles with some sort of issue. For Milo in the Greenglass books, it’s anger. For Marzana, it’s shyness and anxiety that takes the form of a bear gnawing away at her insides. Milford wraps bibliotherapy into a cracking good story, which will keep kids reading at the same time it makes them feel better about themselves. Well done.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Author Spotlight – Robin L. Flanigan


RobinRobin L. Flanigan grew up among the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and launched a writing career in the early ‘90s while living in a Baltimore graveyard.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in language and literature from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she studied for a semester at Oxford University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Robin worked in newsrooms for eleven years, winning several national awards. Her essays have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies.

Her children’s book, M is for Mindful, uses inspiring verses to help children cultivate self-awareness, compassion, respect for diversity, and other practices—for an intentional, balanced, considerate life.

How did you get started as a writer?

I wrote my first story when I was seven, and have been writing ever since. As a newspaper reporter, I came up the old-school way—-writing for free to get bylines, then using those bylines to sell stories to various publications. That led to jobs at newspapers in Maryland, North Carolina and eventually, Rochester, New York. I have been freelancing now for 14 years, working mostly for newspapers and magazines around the country. When it comes to writing, I feel like I’m never off the clock. If I’m not on deadline, for example, I’m usually drafting a personal essay or jotting notes about future book ideas.

Who has influenced your writing career?

One of my friends from the Little Italy section of Baltimore is Rosalia Maria Scalia, and she raised three children on a freelancer’s salary. A former Baltimore Sun reporter named Rafael Alvarez, who taught me about persistence and the importance of place, introduced me to her. Good mentors are critical. For me, these two offered detailed instructions on how to turn my passion into a career. I’ve always wanted to make them proud. Other writers I admire and use as inspiration include Julia Cameron, Jo Ann Beard, and Sonja Livingston.

What prompted you to write M is for Mindful?

The idea for the book started because I wanted to be a better mother. When my daughter was three, I’d wake up early, do a yoga session by streetlight in the living room, and read a book passage or online article about mindfulness. I wanted her to grow up understanding what mindfulness is, instead of having to learn about it as an adult like I was doing, so I started creating poems to help her. This went on for years. At bath time, in the grocery store, we would play with countless versions of verses. I would discard a concept because it didn’t feel right to me; she would reject a rhyme because it didn’t sound right to her. The manuscript spent years in my desk drawer. My daughter just had a birthday—she’s 14. Now that M is for Mindful exists in the world, as the parent of a teenager I’m finding myself relying on many of the verses in the book—especially “A is for ATTITUDE.”

accept what comes
your way with grace
lessons come
from every place

There’s irony here somewhere…

What is your favorite story from your writing past?

Unfortunately, it is a tragic story, one in which a friendship ends in tragedy. I wrote a series of stories for the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper more than a decade ago about a boy who accidentally killed one of his best friends with a bow and arrow. It’s odd to use the word “favorite” here, but the reason I chose this story is because this boy, his family, and his friends let me spend months with them learning about what it’s like to go through something so horrific. Their honesty and bravery live with me and, from my perspective, spotlight how difficult it can be to be human—and how we all can help each other heal.

Praise for M is for Mindful:

“This is the kind of book I want on my shelf, and when I have grandchildren I will read it to them daily—for them and me too.” —Andie MacDowell, Golden Globe-winning actress

M is for Mindful will teach children values and attitudes that will give them a positive direction to live their lives.” —Temple Grandin, PhD, award-winning author of Thinking in Pictures, autism spokesperson, National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee

Robin Flanigan’s book, M is for Mindful, is available from online retailers.

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden


cover165699-mediumFrom the Publisher: Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire. Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the Smiling Man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.

Horror for kids is not an easy genre, but with this second book featuring Ollie, Coco, and Brian, Katherine Arden cements her place as the Queen of Shivers for middle grade readers. Picking up a couple months after the events of Small Spaces, we find our plucky trio trapped in a remote ski lodge by a doozy of a snowstorm. As the action progresses, the three find their courage and friendship tested again by the Smiling Man and a gaggle of ghosts.

Arden is adept at creating an atmosphere that will leave you shivering and glancing over your shoulder at every little sound. She makes this old ski lodge seem like the creepiest, scariest place ever, and that’s before she opens another dimension. The horror is countered by the solid friendship enjoyed by Coco, Ollie and Brian, and by the growing affection between Coco’s mother and Ollie’s father.

Arden also focuses the action on the kids using their brains to think their way out of the scary situations. Coco and Ollie especially rely on deductive reasoning to ultimately defeat the Smiling Man.

With this second entry in the series, Katherine Arden takes her place on my scary story bookshelves with Mary Downing Hahn, R.L. Stine, and Patricia Clapp. Recommended.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019
Published By: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

A Tale of Witchwood Park by S.W. Develin


cover171821-mediumEmily Spellmaker is missing. She didn’t return to Witchwood Park Elementary and Kendra, the shy little girl she befriended, is heartbroken. Kendra waits alone after school each day until the Tuesday a troll walks out of the woods. He chooses Kendra, Jimmy (the school bully), and Daniel (an outcast) to come on a magical journey where they must overcome an evil queen and her Army of the Faceless to free an enslaved land. In the process they learn who they really are and what friendship means, while getting closer to solving the mystery of Emily Spellmaker.

This lovely tale about the power of storytelling will appeal to early-mid level readers who cut their teeth on animated fantasies like Frozen, Rapunzel, and Brave. We’re drawn in to the story as a troll appears in a schoolyard, looking for a Queen, a Knight, and Something Else. He connects with three misfits – Daniel, the boy who never gets picked for soccer; Kendra, a quiet little girl who can’t seem to function when around people; and Jimmy, the bully who can never do anything right.

The story moves quickly, as the troll leads the children into the Witchwood, where an amazing adventure awaits. Each child discovers something extraordinary about themselves as they work together to save the magical kingdom they’ve found.

I thoroughly enjoyed the premise that the Witchwood and the events of the story itself were created through Kendra’s storytelling, which she uses to cope with her every-day life. Relatively short, with a quick, action-packed pace, this will appeal to boys and girls alike.

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo


cover157556-mediumBeverly Tapinski has run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid. By now, she figures, it’s not running away. It’s leaving. Determined to make it on her own, Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mom, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her — and gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes. In a touching, funny, and fearless conclusion to her sequence of novels about the beloved Three Rancheros, DiCamillo tells the story of a character who will break your heart and put it back together again.

Beverly put her foot down on the gas. They went faster still.
This was what Beverly wanted — what she always wanted. To get away. To get away as fast as she could. To stay away

DiCamillo has delivered another poignant story of a young woman searching for her place in the world. Here she focuses on Beverly Tapinski, one of the three friends from Raymie Nightingale. We pick up with Beverly shortly after she has buried her beloved dog and right after Louisiana has left. Beverly decides to leave, too. She has nothing keeping her at home now that Buddy is dead, so she bums a ride with a distant cousin to a new town where she gets a job and moves in with an old lady who needs some help. Even though she doesn’t want to like, or even love people, she finds they grow on her.

The whole trio of books about this group of friends should be read together and by every 12-13 year old. DiCamillo handles friendship, heartbreak, disappointment, and all the emotions that come tumbling down at that age and does it in a gentle, reassuring way. Well done.

Publication Date: September 24, 2019
Published By: Candlewick Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Little Grey Girl by Celine Kiernan


cover159644-mediumFrom the Publisher: In the second book of the Wild Magic trilogy, courageous young Mup and her family are trying to heal and restore the kingdom when they uncover an ancient and powerful anger. The old queen and her raggedy witches have fled Witches Borough, and Mup’s family has moved into the cold, newly empty castle. But the queen’s legacy lingers in the fear and mistrust of her former subjects and in the memories that live in the castle’s very walls. When an enchanted snow blankets the castle, Mup’s family is cut off from the rest of the kingdom, and the painful memories of the old queen’s victims begin to take form, thanks to a ghost whose power may be too much for even Mup and Mam to handle. Celine Kiernan weaves a timely and essential truth into the second book of her trilogy: that dismantling oppression means honoring the pains of the past, and perhaps the most potent magic of all is encouraging joy and hope wherever possible.

Kiernan introduced Mup, Mam, Dad, Crow, and Tipper in Begone the Raggedy Witches (Book One of the Wild Magic Trilogy) last year, and now follows that wonderful debut with a continuation of the same story. After having defeated the Raggedy Witches and dethroned the wicked Queen, Mam moves her family into the other world and takes up residence in the old Queen’s castle. Once there, Mam struggles with the need for a Queen expressed by the people, since she wants to do everything different from how her mother, the old Queen, ruled. There’s no question that Mam has the power, but does she have the will to rule?

At the same time, Mup is struggling to understand her place in this new world, and come to terms with her own power, which sparks from her fingertips. Mup can sense that something isn’t right, and Kiernan does an excellent job of communicating not only Mup’s feeling of being out of place but her powerful sense of something bigger being wrong.

The juxtaposition between Mup’s happy family and the residual sadness, anger, and fear left in the old Queen’s castle is made more powerful by the cursed moon and snow the old Queen sends to disrupt the land. Throw in an unhappy ghost, a confused Raggedy Witch, and a friend who feels betrayed and you have a story that will keep you reading well into the night.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Published By: Candlewick Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Silent Lee & the Adventure of the Side Door Key by Alex Hiam


silent leeA student of the Girls’ Academy of Latin and Alchemy, Silent Lee travels between modern day Boston and the brimming-with-alchemy Boston of 100 years ago as she goes about her school day. How does she do that, you ask? Why, through a magical secret door on the side of her house where she lives with her Great Aunt Generous. Front of the house = modern day Boston; side of the house = old Boston.

Sie goes about her business undisturbed until the day she’s told Aunt Gen has died and she’s going to move in with some cousins. Picked up by her mysterious mother, who may or may not be a spy, Sie is perplexed by her mother’s interest in the side door key and makes the decision to keep it hidden. As Sie settles in at the cousins’ house, mysterious things start to happen which lead her to believe that Aunt Gen may not be dead after all. What follows is a fast-paced adventure as Sie rushes to find her Aunt Gen and return to her studies.

Alex Hiam has begun a fascinating, fun, and original new series for middle grade readers featuring a smart and sassy 15 year old protagonist who is sure to appeal. The time travel and school of magic concepts aren’t new, but Hiam breathes fresh life into them here with the Girls’ Academy. Sie’s relationship with her mother adds needed tension to the story, and her relationship with Aunt Gen is one we all wish for. I look forward to sharing more adventures with Silent Lee and the Girls’ Academy students.

Revenge of Magic by James Riley


revengeRiley starts a new series here with a big whump – horrible, clawed creatures exploding out of the ground in Washington DC and a young hero-in-the-making witnessing it all and then doing something about it.

Similar in broad description to the Harry Potter & Percy Jackson vein of adventure stories for kids, this one comes with a harder edge and a wildly inventive storyline. In most stories of this kind, the adults are often clueless or deceptive jerks while the kids are brave, clever heroes. The interesting thing here is that both kids and adults are equally clever, brave, and manipulative which creates an interesting dynamic. Each side score points, but each side is culpable for what happens.

There is equal time given to male and female heroes which means an appeal to both boys and girls.

The four (or seven?) branches of magic described here, as well as how they were discovered, provides a new approach to the genre. Sure, there are nods to Camp HalfBlood and Hogwarts, but also veins reminiscent of Stephen King’s Firestarter and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, as well as Merlin and Arthur and even a little bit of James Rollins. What pulls the story together, though, are the kid characters – tough, salty, vulnerable, and oh-so-powerful, they save the day and, most likely, the future. This could be the hit of the summer, folks…

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Aladdin
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Griffins of Castle Cary


GriffinsThe Griffins of Castle Cary by Heather Shumaker

Middle grade readers will delight in the spooky adventures of the Griffin family as they navigate their way around Castle Cary in Somerset England. Siblings Meg, Wil, and Ariel are delighted to discover there are ghosts (!) around when they stay with their Aunt in her authentically thatched and ancient cottage while their parents are off doing their geology thing.

What starts off as a pleasant, low-key paranormal mystery quickly gains an edge when the resident ghosts take a very strong interest in Ariel. While Meg worries she’s too old to see ghosts and Wil discovers that he hiccups whenever a ghost is near, Ariel finds herself in real danger of possession. Find out how the siblings work together to save Ariel and put the ghosts to rest.

While there is a certain breeziness to the writing, fans of hardcore ghost stories will not be disappointed and will definitely feel the shivers as they read through this story. Recommended!

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

January Micro-Reviews

1

devouringThe Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman – This creepy, eerie, and imaginative story grabbed me by the back of the neck and held on from first to last page. The plot is a refreshing take on the “monster in the woods” trope and features some sassy, kick-ass characters. The premise of four founding families (shades of Hogwarts, anyone?) isn’t new, but the relationship of the families to the monster and to the town they protect is pretty darn original. The author does a good job of making teens sound like teens, although the adults are portrayed as bullies or dopes. The plot flowed easily and kept my attention. It looks like this will be the beginning of a series, which makes me happy. It would also make a helluva TV series in the vein of Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

prosperThe Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken – How did I miss this book when it first came out? It has everything I love about middle grade fantasy – hip and likable characters, clever humor, a multi-faceted villain, a surprise twist at the end, and a superb story. Here, the likable characters are Prosper and Nell and the villain (one of them!) is Alastor, a fiend who has waited hundreds of years for revenge on the family that bound him. The competing themes of revenge & betrayal and friendship & love can lead to some interesting discussions about relationships. The nods to some of my favorite classic stories (The Crucible and Doctor Faustus) only made this more enjoyable. Bracken successfully delivers what appears to be a prologue to some serious world-building, as she prepares to publish the sequel to this in February. The twist at the end was one of the best I can remember and set up the sequel beautifully.

lastThe Last by Hanna Jameson – This title has been sitting in my To Be Read queue for months and I finally opened it last night out of guilt. Holy smokes! I read it in one sitting, resulting in a foggy day spent at work today! I am not, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction which is probably why it took me so long to open this one. However, when dystopian fiction is blended with a tautly plotted, inventive mystery it becomes a book I cannot put down. The author has done everything right here – good dialog, evocative description, memorable characters, and an unusual plot. I’ll be recommending this a lot in the coming months.
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Published By: Atria Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

arloArlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon by John August – I am late to the Arlo Finch party, having missed the first in the series. However, this second-in-the-series stands pretty sturdily on its own. August explains enough about the Long Woods and the Rangers so a reader new to the series can follow along, although the characters are cool enough that I will definitely go back and read the first in the series. Here, Arlo and his fellow Rangers Wu and Indra, along with other Rangers, find themselves facing some really weird experiences as they head into their two weeks of camp. There are the usual suspects – the trio of friends who overcome great evil, the obligatory bully, the hip adults, and the scary monsters – all stirred up into a stew of steady action and hair-raising adventures. Kids who enjoy imaginative adventures will thoroughly enjoy Arlo Finch, in all his books. Recommended for middle grade readers.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Published By: Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy