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Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France

Mara Rockliff, illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick, $17.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6351-3

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Rockliff (Me and Momma and Big John) sashays into the scientific and political world of the late 18th century with a playful narrative that explains the origin of the word “mesmerized” as it details Benjamin Franklin’s role in debunking a miracle cure of the day. Dr. Franz Mesmer’s secretive “medicine” is taking Paris by storm: “When he stared into his patients’ eyes and waved [his iron] wand, things happened. Women swooned. Men sobbed. Children fell down in fits.” In a gesture of indebtedness to King Louis XVI, Franklin demystifies Mesmer’s techniques using the scientific method, revealing that the man’s “cures” reside in the patients’ heads. Bruno’s realistic, digitally colored illustrations contrast Franklin’s unadorned American sensibilities with the fancier stylings of pre-French Revolution Paris (embellishments include curlicues, bold and flowery typefaces, and optical illusions on the endpapers). A lengthier retelling of the story is included, along with descriptions (printed on old-fashioned medicine bottles) of the placebo effect and how a “blind” scientific study works. A stylish and humorous exploration of the scientific method and the mysteries of the human mind. Ages 6–9. Author’s agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Utopia, Iowa

Brian Yansky. Candlewick, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6533-3

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Utopia, Iowa, is filled with people who have special abilities. Jack Bell talks to dead people, his neighbor can see and predict events with his glass eye, and the local college offers courses in mind-reading, teleportation, and the like. When Jack, a fledgling high school screenwriter, is visited by a recently deceased Nirvana College student, he learns that she does not remember how she died. Along with best friend Ash, Jack investigates, but soon another girl is murdered, and Jack is threatened by the head of Nirvana College and lead detective Bloodsmith, Jack’s mother’s ex-boyfriend. Yansky (Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences) weaves two separate stories together, and Jack’s dilemma is gradually understood to be part of a much larger (and dangerous) otherworld scheme. Descriptions are initially lackluster (“There is no silence like a room full of silent people”) and Jack’s frequent film references are distracting, but the mysterious deaths and Jack’s concern over his parents’ possible divorce contribute intensity to the latter half of the novel. Yansky’s climactic ending leaves many loose strings, suggesting a sequel to come. Ages 14–up. Agent: Sara Crowe, Harvey Klinger. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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When Reason Breaks

Cindy L. Rodriguez. Bloomsbury, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61963-412-1

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First-time author Rodriguez cleverly represents Emily Dickinson’s dark side and her reclusive tendencies through the two distinct personalities of her teenage heroines, who are studying the poet in English class. Elizabeth Davis, who enjoys visiting a nearby cemetery, is fascinated with death, but her expression of it through drawings and journal entries have gotten her into trouble at school. Classmate Emily Delgado is not nearly as bold, keeping her despair a secret, but the pressure of being the perfect daughter of a rising politician is becoming too heavy a burden to bear. After the girls team for a project on Dickinson, Elizabeth’s ideas are misinterpreted, causing her to become enraged, while Emily, absorbed in conflicts with old friends and the boy she likes, spirals into depression. The question remains whether, in the heat of their individual crises, the newly formed friendship between Elizabeth and Emily can survive. If the numerous allusions to Dickinson’s life (pointed out in an author’s note) are somewhat forced at times, the inner torment of the two main characters and the book’s psychologically intense climax remain gripping. Ages 13–up. Agent: Laura Langlie. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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This Side of Home

Renée Watson. Bloomsbury, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-59990-668-3

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As twins Maya and Nikki finish their junior year of high school, they have things planned out: summer, senior year, then attending Spelman College along with their best friend and neighbor Essence. But things are changing. The twins’ historically black Portland neighborhood is gentrifying; Essence moves out, and a white family with a friendly daughter and an attractive son move in; and the new principal seems to think improvement means making the school less black. Watson (What Momma Left Me) hits key topics of class, race, and changing neighborhoods while telling a story about growing up, growing apart, and how love can come out of the blue, as well as across racial lines. Alas, the welter of issues and events means readers never get close enough to narrator Maya to really know her. Nikki is even less distinct, and the twins often seem like a set of paired opposites (one girl likes the new stores in their neighborhood, the other is suspicious of them, etc.), as opposed to fully realized characters. What results is a story that reads more as well-intentioned than entirely satisfying. Ages 13–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Untalented

Katrina Archer. Ganache Media (www.ganache-media.com), $3.99 e-book (288p) ISBN 978-0-9880512-6-3

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When the Tests reveal that the orphaned Saroya is one of the Untalented—those without the aptitude to succeed in any field—she’s shunned and cast aside, good for nothing but hard labor. Her problems are compounded when she discovers that she may actually be the lost daughter of the current king, but no one will accept the word of an Untalented, and an imposter claims the role of princess instead. Now Saroya must find a way to prove her identity, little realizing that she’s a pawn in a dangerous political game. When plague strikes the city, Saroya may have a chance to rewrite the rules. Archer’s YA debut starts strong, with plenty of potential in its unusual premise. However, the plot suffers from a lack of focus: Saroya careens around the city from one problem to the next, going from Untalented orphan to castle drudge to would-be guild apprentice, all while ill-defined figures scheme in the background. Additionally, the worldbuilding isn’t entirely substantial; readers never get a clear picture of Saroya’s surroundings or how the system is supposed to work. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore and the Secret Traps

Kate Maddison. CreateSpace, $3.99 e-book (292p) ISBN 978-1-4756-0453-5

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Maddison’s self-published sequel to The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore (Holiday House, 2013) finds the intrepid 16-year-old inventor exiled from Buckingham Palace and brooding over her father’s expressed desire to kill her. The poor doctor is unaware that the thief he wants hanged is his own daughter, but Charlotte is certain he’ll pursue his vow regardless of whether she is revealed as the culprit. Against this backdrop, Charlotte continues to steal his medical supplies, practice illicit healing, and spend every moment she can working on mechanical novelties that annoy, unnerve, and awe her circle of less socially exalted friends—especially Peter, the boy she is not supposed to love. There is mystery, adventure, and steampunk, but though these elements are familiar from the first installment, Maddison is less adept at blending them. This is in part because the characters inhabit more firmly circumscribed worlds than in the previous book. The dichotomies of Charlotte’s rigid society create gaps that the narrative traverses with distinct lurches in tone. The thrills carry the day, but it’s an uneven effort. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Kalahari

Jessica Khoury. Razorbill, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59514-765-3

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Khoury follows Origin and Vitro with another exciting novel of teens battling corporate evil in a far-flung setting. Sarah has grown up far from civilization, the daughter of field biologists, intelligent but ignorant of the outside world. She’s also still grieving her mother’s recent, supposedly accidental death. After Sarah’s father hastily leaves their Kalahari Desert camp to trail poachers and fails to return, she finds herself in charge of five ill-sorted American and Canadian teens from a conservation exchange program. When a mysterious silver lion suddenly appears, “as metallic and gleaming as mercury,” and the poachers turn out to be hired guns working for an illegal genetic research laboratory, Sarah and her greenhorn companions make a dangerous cross-country trek to escape. Khoury’s favorite story elements are all on display, including the talented but isolated heroine, evil corporate scientists, and a wilderness setting. Sarah is a believable heroine and the Kalahari a fascinating environment, though the teens’ encounters with dangerous animals come a bit too regularly. Still, it’s an enjoyable biological thriller that will appeal to Khoury’s existing readership. Ages 12–up. Agent: Lucy Carson, Friedrich Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Breakout

Kevin Emerson. Crown, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-39112-2

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Set in Seattle, Emerson’s tale explores the trials of guitarist and singer Anthony Castillo, whose only reprieve from the misery of eighth grade is band practice and the prospect of performing an original song at the school’s upcoming Fall Arts Night. Anthony compares his daily challenges to scenarios in Liberation Force 4.5, a video game he plays with his best friend Keenan: “Every time you tunnel out, you end up against another concrete wall topped with barbed wire and grown-ups in the sentry posts.” Rage at being unfairly grounded inspires Anthony to write heartfelt lyrics that describe his sense of entrapment and include a few emphatic profanities. After Keenan uploads the song to the group’s BandSpace page and it becomes an overnight sensation, Anthony faces daunting pressures and high-stakes choices. Emerson (the Atlanteans series) captures the heady mixture of pride, vulnerability, amazement, and fear Anthony feels in having created something of personal significance that, once public, takes on a life of its own. Angst-ridden romantic undercurrents and well-drawn supporting characters enrich this satisfying coming-of-age story. Ages 12–up. Agent: George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Blues for Zoey

Robert Paul Weston. Llewellyn/Flux, $9.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-7387-4340-0

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From his first glimpse, 16-year-old Kaz Barrett is hypnotized by Zoey, a mysterious street performer with pink dreadlocks and an enormous crucifix-shaped musical instrument. While they explore their frenetic romantic connection, Kaz is also preoccupied with his mother’s immobilizing sleep disorder, a job at the local Laundromat, and untangling the lies and deceptions of the con artists and vagrants he tends to associate with. Beyond a look that Kaz describes as “goth-rock Jesus freak, half Bob Marley, half Kewpie doll,” Zoey is a standard femme fatale with a mysterious, ever-changing backstory and a brassy demeanor that separates her from the other girls Kaz’s age. Although the Zoey he comes to know is an illusion, a shadow of reality steeped in inventions and half-truths, her genuine (if oft-resisted) care and concern for him are also evident. Writing in Kaz’s voice, Weston (The Creature Department) strikes a balance between a teen with the weight of adult responsibilities on his shoulders and a youthful naivety, allowing a twist ending to take readers—and Kaz himself—by surprise. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jackie Kaiser, Westwood Creative Artists. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Beastkeeper

Cat Hellisen. Holt, $16.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9980-5

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Thirteen-year-old Sarah is lonely, and it only gets worse after her mother leaves following a late-night argument. Sarah’s distraught father lets the house fall into disarray and soon sends Sarah to stay with her grandparents. To Sarah’s shock, her grandmother lives in a ruined castle deep in the forest, but that’s nothing compared to meeting a talking white raven and discovering that her grandfather has been transformed into a beast, “great and gray, with coarse fur like matted wires, teeth as long as her fingers, eyes like lost planets.” With the help of a slippery boy named Alan, Sarah searches for a way to free her family from the complex web of curses afflicting them all. Blending modern-day problems and ancient magical curses, Hellisen’s (When the Sea Is Rising Red) novel sparkles like a classic fairy tale, even as it plumbs unpleasant truths. Sarah is precocious, independent, and strong-willed, and the story brims with thought-provoking insights and lyrical descriptions for readers to sink into—especially those who, like Sarah, dream of finding magic in the mundane. Ages 12–up. Agent: Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary & Media. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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