The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

In light of the anticipation of a new Star Wars movie with many original cast members, this reviewer (who has been a fan of the films since their first appearance) would like to introduce readers to a sci-fi series that will have readers enthralled. So many of the themes and elements that have made the flicks memorable abound in these blockbuster stories: family secrets, discovered identities, the struggle against an evil, all-powerful monarch, nonstop action, surprise revelations, narrow escapes, a bit of romance, and even droids with personality. The ingenious incorporation of well-known fairy tale characters (with a twist) is icing on the cake. Without further ado, here is an introduction to this series. Move over, Star Wars.

The heroine of the inaugural tale in the series is an unusual teen. She is a master mechanic, an orphan living with a stepmother and two stepsisters, and a girl whose body is not entirely her own. For Cinder is a cyborg: a human with artificial parts (including eyes that cannot cry but display news feeds and information on demand) making up a large part of her anatomy. As her story opens, Cinder, viewed as something less than human by many, is attaching a better-fitting foot brought by Iko, her droid sidekick with a personality to rival C3PO’s. Who should choose this awkward moment to visit her shop but Prince Kaito, heir to the throne of the Eastern Commonwealth. His own droid is not functioning, and he has heard of her stellar reputation. During his conversations with the mechanic, he mentions an upcoming ball–and invites Cinder to attend. The romantically-inclined Iko is thrilled at the prospect, but Cinder does not share her enthusiasm.

However, there is little time to dwell on Prince Kai’s offer. Another shopkeeper is stricken with letumosis, a mysterious, fatal disorder. As the patient is removed to a quarantine facility, the panic grows, and the emperor himself falls victim. And one of Cinder’s stepsisters, the only family member with whom the teen has a positive relationship, develops the telltale rash. The girl’s distraught mother exercises her right as guardian and “volunteers” Cinder as a research subject in the search for a cure (a fate shared by many cyborgs). Angry but resigned to her fate, she is puzzled when palace researcher Dr. Erland discovers that Cinder is immune to the pathogens injected into her body and a Lunar as well. The confused teen learns something even more earth-shaking: as Prince Kai is crowned Emperor, Cinder uncovers the plan of the evil, all-powerful Queen Levana of Luna to murder the new monarch. Can she discover a way to warn Emperor Kai before it is too late?

Debut author Marissa Meyer has penned an edge-of-your seat thriller that is a masterful reworking of the Cinderella story. She effortlessly ties all the threads of Cinder’s tale into an impressive tapestry. The reader is privy to the thoughts, internal struggles, and dreams of all the people (and cyborgs) in this story that so effectively sets the stage for the future volumes in the series. Stay tuned to this site for juicy details about Scarlet and Cress, the spellbinding continuation of The Lunar Chronicles.

The Cherry Thief by Renata Galindo

Chef Armand decorates all the cakes he bakes with tasty, brightly-colored cherries. His beautiful and delicious creations make LaCerise a very popular bakery. However, the roly-poly baker is becoming aware of a problem: his cakes are suddenly cherry-less. Unaware of a trail of footprints leading away from the bakery (which his trusty dog checks out), Chef Armand becomes furious and determines to find the culprit. From their hiding place under a cake-laden table, the pair sees a shadow approach. When the baker emerges, he confronts the cherry-snatcher: a small animal with the fruit stuck onto spines on its back. Chef Armand gives chase, but the little critter gets away. The despondent baker is once again oblivious to something that his perceptive pooch notices: a tree growing from a cherry in a broken spot on the floor. When his canine companion alerts him to the presence of the rapidly-growing tree, the amazed chef makes a decision that is a perfect solution to the dilemma of the cherry-snatcher.

With brief text, first-time author Renata Galindo tells a delightful story with a message. Humor abounds in her simple but lively illustrations. The facial expressions and body language of human and animal characters and the perceptiveness of Chef Armand’s savvy dog highlight the tale and are sure to delight readers and listeners. The lessons of effective problem-solving, cooperation, and the importance of attention to detail are as palatable as one of Chef Armand’s delectable cherry cakes. This multi-faceted tale is another winner from the publisher of such treasures as Grandma, Momo and Snap Are Not Friends, and Never Ever.

Published by Child’s Play in 2014

 

Darling: Mercy Dog of World War I by Alison Hart

Darling is the beloved pet of Robert and Katherine, two English children. She has one fault: a penchant for running away with her friend Rags, a rat terrier. The collie’s instinct for herding sheep sometimes lands her in trouble with a local farmer.

As Darling begins to tell her story, World War One is raging, and Robert and Katherine’s father joins the military. The realities of the days don’t concern her: “I didn’t care about war and hard times.” However, the family is hard pressed to pay the increased tax levied on dogs and feed her–so the decision is made to send Darling for training as a messenger or sentry dog. Providingher with a note reading,

“Dear soldier,

This is Darling. She is smart and brave. Please take care of her and send her home to us. We love her even though she runs away sometimes.

Yours truly, Robert and Katherine.”

the children sadly send her off.

At first determined to escape and return home at the earliest opportunity, Darling is put under the care of Sergeant Hanson, who becomes fond of the impish dog. After rigorous messenger training, she fails the test because she perceives her handler is hurt. This gives those in charge an idea: train Darling as a mercy dog. So, after learning to seek out wounded soldiers, detect a pulse, and lead others to their location (all against a backdrop of battlefield conditions and under fire), Darling begins a new career.

Alison Hart presents young readers with a little-known piece of history with this first volume in the Dog Chronicles series. We experience with Darling the realities of life in the trenches, the dedication to her mission no matter what the circumstances (even wearing a gas mask), and the camaraderie of the soldiers, human, canine, and equine. Darling is a perceptive narrator, and the dog’s-eye-view of the events provides a fresh perspective. The wartime experience is presented with a delicate blend of realism and consideration for a young audience. Animal lovers, historical fiction buffs, and anyone who loves a good story will eagerly follow Darling’s adventures and look forward to more books in the series.

Published by Peachtree Publishers in 2013

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Darling, Mercy Dog of World War I (Dog Chronicles)

Code Blue by Miriam Luxenberg

Chavi Weintraub is 35, intelligent, gainfully employed, financially independent, and single. However, she believes that the last status may be about to change. So, for that matter, does 32-year-old Moishe Shapiro, who has purchased a magnificent ring. However, when the couple meets, the young man makes a condition for their engagement—one that shocks and disturbs Chavi.  So the confused young woman, instead of finally becoming the bride and wife she longs to be, returns home to a night of weeping.

Leah Kanowitz is ecstatic. After giving birth to four daughters, she and her husband Shulem are the new parents of a baby boy. His mommy believes he is perfect, but his father—and his doctor—notice that something is not right with the newborn. After a frightening crisis, the baby is in a coma, and no one is sure if he will ever awaken.

Hudis Shapiro is convinced that she knows what is best for herself and her children. However, when her domineering personality threatens not only her children’s futures but her own home life, it becomes evident that someone must take a stand. But will anyone have the courage to do so?

Dr. Mark Sampson is a gifted and prestigious physician. His talent in the medical field is matched only by his certainty that modern medicine provides all the answers. An encounter with the father of one of his patients demonstrates that there is another way of thinking and perceiving the world around him.

Miriam Luxenberg deftly weaves together the experiences of these diverse individuals. As their paths intertwine, each gains insights into the others and themselves. And when a series of crises bring everything to a head, the lives of all those involved are forever changed. This is a satisfying novel that whose twists and turns (and cliffhanger chapter endings) will keep readers turning the pages. Ages 14 up.

Published by Feldheim Publishers in 2013

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Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac, so well known for his extensive repertoir of novels, picture books, and nonfiction painting a vivid picture of the Native American experience past and present, turns his literary attention to the other side of his heritage. The author takes us on a journey to Slovakia of old and introduces us to a culture as rich as that of the Abenaki society with which he is closely identified.

Prince Rashko may be the younger son of the king and queen, but he often feels he is the only one with any sense. Why is it, he wonders, that he has to come to the rescue when his father is fascinated by a rainstorm while he is being thoroughly drenched or as his mother strokes a bee she claims would not hurt her? And then there’s his brother Paulek. The heir to the throne is blissfully unconcerned about the fact that their parents rode away in the middle of the night two days ago without a word. He’s more interested in the near-readiness of some baby swallows to fly from their nest. If that weren’t enough, an imperious messenger has just arrived at Hladka Hvorka, their castle, with the news that Baron Temny, Lord of the Twelve Lands, is about to visit. Rashko is disconcerted: he has no idea who the Baron is or where the twelve lands are. They are certainly not any of the kingdoms surrounding their own peaceful domain. He can’t even remember when the last time was that his family heard from any of their neighbors, isolated as the peaceful kingdom is by mountains on four sides and the Silver Lands of the Fair Folk on the other.

The scene changes. The day the peaceable king and queen had hoped would never come has arrived. As the royals watch from their castle, St’astie Dom (the House of Happiness), a dark storm cloud, said to accompany an evil lord bent on conquering kingdoms simply because they are there, appears on the horizon. The parents command their six-year-old son to run and hide, and the child obeys. When he reaches a tall pine tree he has climbed before, the young prince ascends until he reaches the top. He watches in horror as someone who can only be the Dark Lord summons lightning from the cloud, and the castle, together with its inhabitants, is obliterated. The devastated child falls from the tree, glimpsing the disappearance of the silver light marking the lands of the Fair Folk. The little boy, wishing only to join his parents, is caught by a pair of strong arms and hears the words, “It is not your time to die yet.”

As we rejoin Rashko, the young prince finds himself having to greet Baron Temny and his daughter and retinue, all of whom proceed to take over Hladka Hvorka. The young prince is suspicious of their “guests” and vexed by his brother’s enthusiastic reception of the Duke–and the enchanting effect the young woman has on Paulek. It seems that only Georgi, the castle’s wise steward, share’s Rashko’s sentiments. However, as the Baron’s hold on the castle and its inhabitants intensifies and takes a sinister turn, the prince discovers there is more than meets the eye: not only concerning the the castle’s usurpers but about his seemingly clueless family. And he discovers the connection between his reality and the story of the little prince. In a marvelous conclusion, Rashko calls upon the assistance of some unexpected friends to help eradicate the evil in their midst.

Joseph Bruchac is at his best in this enchanting tale of family, courage, surprise discoveries, and the power of love. As soon as we enter the world of Hladka Hvorka, we know we are part of something as magical as the aura surrounding the tiny kingdom and the Silver Lands of the Fair Folk. With his trademark combination of humor, sensitivity, endearing and loathsome characters, and nonstop action, the author weaves a tapestry as huge and fascinating as the one on the wall of Rashko’s beloved castle.

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2011

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Thirteen Treasures Trilogy by Michelle Harrison

Tanya has an unusual ability. The 12-year-old is able to see fairies. However, they are not the sweet, helpful magical creatures from Disney movies. Tanya’s fairies are not above making her life miserable; and, since only she can see them, her interaction with these beings is a cause for concern on the part of her parents.

As the story opens, three fairies named Raven, Gredin, and Feathercap are reprimanding Tanya for writing in her diary about them. After hinting at a more dire punishment if she makes the mistake again, the group leaves her room in disarray. When Tanya’s mother, hearing the commotion, sees the results of what she thinks is the girl’s long-standing misbehavior, she has had enough. Over her daughter’s protests, she decides to take Tanya and her Doberman, Oberon, for a two-week stay at Elvesden Manor, a sprawling estate currently occupied by her emotionally distant maternal grandmother. To make matters worse, she’ll have to deal with Fabian, the caretaker’s rather annoying son.  

After her mother leaves her at the manor, Tanya discovers grandmother Florence’s library. To her delight, the room is full of books, including some on magic and fairy lore. What’s more, Tanya finds a tarnished but beautiful bracelet sporting thirteen charms. After choosing a a number of books to take with her, she opens a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and is fascinated by a newspaper clipping tucked inside. The subject of the piece is Morwenna Bloom, a girl who mysteriously vanished in nearby Hangman’s Wood 50 years before. Before Tanya can slip out of the library, her grandmother finds her there and, to her surprise, gives her the bracelet.  

Armed with a book containing information about the fairy realm, and intrigued by the story of Morwenna Bloom, Tanya sets out to learn what became of the girl—and what her connection was to Fabian’s grandfather Amos, the former caretaker who lives at the manor.  She finds an ally in Fabian, who is disturbed by allegations that his grandfather was involved in the young woman’s disappearance.

As Tanya delves into the mystery, she makes another discovery: a girl is hiding in the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the manor. What is the teen, who calls herself Red, doing there, and what is her connection to the fairy world? Things come to a spellbinding head as Tanya and Fabian, with the help of an old gypsy woman, traverse secret passages and enter the dangerous woods to try to solve the mystery and clear Amos’ name. As the pair discovers the truth about Morwenna Bloom, Tanya is trapped in the fairy realm. Fabian must act in time to save her from being lost there forever.

Debut author Michelle Harrison has penned a magnificent edge-of-your-seat thriller. With richly-drawn characters whose lives intertwine in surprising ways, this first novel in the 13 Treasures trilogy takes the reader on a marvelous journey of discovery. Tanya and Fabian’s quest for the truth leads them on a harrowing adventure that will please fans of fantasy and adventure alike. The satisfying conclusion provides closure—and sets the stage for the next volume in the series.

Red (real name Rowan Fox), the mysterious girl who appeared in 13 Treasures, has achieved her goal. She has found a way into the fairy realm, a domain avoided by most humans aware of its presence. However, Red has an agenda. For, eight months earlier, the teen’s beloved younger brother James was taken by fairies. Since their parents are dead, the little boy (with the exception of an eccentric aunt) is the only family Red has, and she is determined to get him back.

However, before she can even begin to search for James, she falls into the trap of the Hedgewitch. While in the malevolent creature’s clutches, Red becomes acquainted with two others she has ensnared: a fairy known as Eldritch and Warwick, the caretaker of Elvesden Manor. After  the Hedgewitch is killed by a spell gone awry, the humans make their escape. As they leave, Red takes a coat that, when she wears it, allows her to assume the form of a fox. The girl refuses to free Eldritch when she learns he has been involved in capturing human children.

Red and Warwick, thanks to the assistance of a sympathetic fairy named Gredin, gain an audience with the fairy court. The monarchs agree to return James if the girl can retrieve thirteen charms that are scattered throughout the human world. Warwick is detained while Red completes the task. Returning from the fairy kingdom, she begins a race against time to retrieve the charms. She does not have to search alone: Tanya, granddaughter of the owner of Elvesden Manor, and Fabian, Warwick’s son, join her in her quest.

Michelle Harrison’s second book in the 13 Treasures trilogy paints a more sinister picture of the world of the fairies. The reader discovers many facets of the personalities of all characters, both human and fey. Surprise revelations and plot twists as winding as the tunnels under Elvesden Manor will keep readers turning the pages until the unanticipated conclusion. A worthy successor to 13 Treasures, this tale will have fantasy fans clamoring for the next book in the series.

As the third novel in the 13 Treasures trilogy opens, fifteen-year-old Rowan Fox is living at Elvesden Manor and attending school. After the harrowing and eye-opening experiences she has lived through, it looks like the teen’s life is happily returning to some semblance of normalcy. However, the appearance of a homeless street musician in Tickey End shows that Rowan’s life is anything but normal. For the young woman, upon discovering who she is, delivers an unwelcome message: that there is a meeting on the 13th, and Rowan should be there this time. When a fairy later appears at her bedroom window with a written announcement of the upcoming gathering, Rowan understands that she cannot put her past completely behind her.

It is understandable that Rowan does not want reminders of the months she worked to restore human children stolen by fairies to their families. Not only does she finally have a home, but the discovery that her beloved Aunt Rose is really her mother makes her long to forget the past and concentrate on the good life she has now. However, the insistent tone of the message compels Rowan to slip out of the manor late one night and make her way to a remote shack.

Unknown to Rowan, she did not leave unobserved. Tanya, granddaughter of the manor’s owner (who shares with Rowan and her grandmother the ability to see fairies), awakens to find her missing. Together, she and the caretaker’s son, Fabian, discreetly follow their friend. After Rowan arrives at her destination, the secret meeting begins. An unusual assortment of individuals faces a serious problem. For this group, which calls itself the Coven, is involved with returning children taken by fairies to their rightful homes. However, some members have mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, before Tanya and Fabian can hear too many details, they are discovered–and an unhappy Rowan must vouch for the eavesdroppers.

Yet their knowledge of the Coven and the dilemma facing it turns out to be serendipitous, for the group has allies in its search for the missing members. As it becomes obvious that foul play is involved in their disappearances, suspicions arise, and no one is exempt from scrutiny. The situation rapidly becomes dangerous for everyone involved, including residents of Elvesden Manor, when deadly nonhuman creatures invade its grounds for the purpose of eliminating the remaining members of the Coven. It is up to the manor’s inhabitants and their friends, both human and fairy, to discover the identity of the traitor and thwart the attackers before it is too late.

13 Secrets is a breathtaking conclusion to Michelle Harrison’s masterful 13 Treasures trilogy. As the many threads of the tapestry are woven into a satisfying whole, and the characters both mourn those they have lost and look forward to a brighter future, readers can look forward to more treasures to come from this remarkable author.

Dancing in the Dark by Shoshana Mael

Daniella and Rikki Coleman are sisters and best friends, and they have a secret. Hardly anyone outside their family knows about the skeleton in their closet, and the teens want to keep it that way. For their mother, Aviva Coleman, is bipolar, with its attendant extreme mood swings, and is often delusional. Rikki and especially Daniella are so keen on hiding this reality that friends rarely come to their home. The girls are so successful that the only other people who are privy to the embarrassing secret are the Kaddens and their daughter Kayla (Rikki’s closest friend), who have witnessed their mother’s erratic behavior.  Daniella, seventeen months older, has no problem with lying to friends, family, teachers, and anyone else. The night Aviva Coleman is admitted to the hospital, both girls are relieved.

But other things are happening in their lives. Rikki, a good student with a penchant for having fun, is a dance head for this year’s school production. She throws herself into this delightful role: when she’s dancing, the tense reality of her life fades away. Unfortunately, Daniella does not share her younger sister’s intellectual and social abilities. She’s often in the principal’s office for one infraction or another. Yet, the strain of coping with their family situation and shielding their beloved little brother Uri takes a toll on both siblings. When it becomes apparent to the faculty, especially Rikki’s teacher Mrs. Zilber, that something is amiss, things come to a head. Rikki finds herself seeing guidance counselor Mrs. Moskowitz, and she begins to envision a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. She knows Daniella also needs help, but it isn’t until the Coleman secret is revealed at school that teachers and principal start the ball rolling. As unfortunate truths come to light, the girls embark on a painful journey and make discoveries about themselves, their parents, and their world.

First-time author Shoshana Mael’s hard-hitting novel not only brings home the realities of living with a mentally ill family member, it sheds light on what it is like to suffer from the disorders that make up the condition. Her goal, based on her social worker experience with distressed teens, of creating a story that packs a strong emotional punch has been realized. Surprise revelations and nonstop action make this a can’t-put-it-down novel.  Rikki’s voice rings true. All the people in her world are believable, from dancer Ayelet with a secret of her own to Mrs. Baumgarten who steps in to guide the sisters. Readers discover, along with the Daniella and Rikki, that even if there is not a rosy solution to every difficulty, life is good. We can expect more great things to come out of this remarkable author’s pen.

Published by Menucha Publishers, Inc., in 2013

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Grandma by Jessica Shepherd

“I’m Oscar and I have the best grandma in the whole wide world.” With this introduction, readers meet a special little boy and his very special grandmother. Oscar describes all the things they do together: play outdoors, read books, smell the flowers they planted, even wash dishes. Grandma has a way of making every activity fun.

But then Grandma begins to change. She often forgets things (even something as important as Oscar’s birthday!) and has trouble performing simple tasks. As Grandma needs more and more attention, Oscar’s dad says she has to live where people can care for her. In a touching scene, after Grandma leaves, the sad, lonely little boy sits alone in her chair. Only when the family visits Grandma, and Oscar meets the “fun” caregivers (who even remember the flavors of cupcakes she likes) and discovers all the wonderful things about the place, is he reassured.

First-time author Jessica Shepherd’s poignant story simply yet eloquently describes the changes that occur when an elderly family member is affected by dementia. Oscar’s unhappiness when his beloved grandma is angry or confused and his discovery that they can still have good times together bring home the day-to-day realities for both patient and family members. Colorful illustrations by the author capture the mood of the story and are a perfect complement to the text.  Youngsters in Oscar’s situation will be reassured, and all children can relate to the little boy. An afterward describing dementia and its effects, addressing the concerns kids may have and listing ways family members can help someone with the disorder round out this treasure. A must-have for every children’s collection and a vital book for any child who has a family member with dementia.

Published by Child’s Play in 2014

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Grandma (Child’s Play Library)

Let’s Meet Community Helpers by Rikki Benenfeld

A young brother and sister introduce readers to the people in the community  who help us in many ways. As the children prepare for an outing with their mother, the mail carrier arrives. Once on the way, they meet a police officer, watch as firefighters respond to a call, see an ambulance race past, cross the street with the assistance of a crossing guard, and go to the library. “The librarian knows just what I need/And finds a book I want to read!”

While they go to the bus stop for a trip to the park, the family greets  a sanitation worker and acknowledges the bus driver. And at their destination, the kids in the midst of their play tell us about the park keeper. In a sweet conclusion, the children express their gratitude to community helpers: “They help us in ways both big and small, And I make sure to thank them all!”

This simple picture book makes the work community workers perform understandable to even the youngest readers and listeners. Laminated pages make it child-friendly and durable. Bright illustrations and rhyming text combine to make Rikki Benenfeld’s story one kids from toddlers to preschoolers will enjoy time after time. A delight.

Published by Hachai Publications in 2013

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Never Ever by Jo Empson

“Nothing ever happens to me!” is the plaint of a little red-haired girl. As she walks along a country path, lamenting the lack of anything exciting in her life, unusual things are indeed happening. Pigs resting in a field dotted with haystacks display wings and take off. A purple gorilla emerges from tall grass when the little girl walks past. As she repeats her “Never, ever” complaint, more creatures emerge and follow her: a roaring lion and turtles masking as stepping stones in a stream. Even after the oblivious child is accosted by a hungry alligator, she exclaims, “See? Told you! Nothing exciting EVER happens to me!”

Jo Empson’s very humorous tale begs to be read aloud. Kids will have a blast pointing out the creatures of which the protagonist is comically unaware. Simple, repetitive text makes this a perfect book for beginning readers. Colorful, slightly abstract illustrations add to the whimsical quality of the story. As to the red-haired girl’s complaint, the rib-tickling conclusion provides an answer. If only she were as savvy as the readers of this gem. Never Ever is a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award Winner, and deservedly so. Ages 4-6

Published by Child’s Play in 2012

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Never Ever