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The World Without Us

Robin Stevenson. Orca, $12.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4598-0680-1

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Ever since Melody got drunk at a party and took a handful of Tylenol, she’s been stuck with the reputation of being suicidal. Melody resents her two best friends for spreading rumors about that night, so when new student Jeremy reaches out to her, the 16-year-old jumps at the chance to have a like-minded, empathetic friend. But Jeremy is obsessed with trying to contact his younger brother, Lucas, who drowned two years earlier, through lucid dreaming—or by taking his own life. Melody plays along with Jeremy’s suicide plans until she realizes he’s serious and she’s unable to stop him from jumping off a bridge. Jeremy survives and turns to religion; meanwhile, Melody is left alone with her guilt. Stevenson (Hummingbird Heart) supplements the main plot with a thread about prisoners on death row, juxtaposing the story’s suicide theme with questions about the ethics of execution by the state. These and other issues threaten to overwhelm the story at times, but readers will be left with plenty to ponder about vulnerability, understanding, and escaping one’s demons in order to fully embrace life. Ages 12–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Cipher

John C. Ford. Viking, $17.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-670-01542-9

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Ford (The Morgue and Me) weaves a twisty, paranoid tale of technology, secrets, and lies, as 18-year-old Robert “Smiles” Smylie, heir to a major software security company, gets caught up in a thrilling caper. By solving the fabled Riemann Hypothesis, Smiles’s friend Ben has developed a program that can crack any private code in the world. In the right hands, it could be worth millions. Smiles’s plan: sell the program to the government for a fortune before they simply take Ben and his discovery away for their own purposes. With the mysterious Erin as their accomplice, the team seems poised to succeed—until things go horribly wrong. With Ben in the hands of the NSA, the program stolen, and Smiles’s father’s company on the line, Smiles has to play all sides against the middle. Ford capably juggles several threads as he pulls off a complicated series of plans and double-crosses, as well as the mathematical angle that makes the story’s MacGuffin possible and plausible. The end result is an unpredictable story with some audacious twists. Ages 12–up. Agent: Sara Crowe, Harvey Klinger. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Paper Things

Jennifer Richard Jacobson. Candlewick, $16.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6323-0

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Ari and her older brother, Gage, have lived with a strict guardian since their mother died four years ago, but now Gage, 19, wants to leave—and take 11-year-old Ari with him. The siblings’ mother implored them to “Stay together always,” but without an apartment or a job for Gage, they bounce around among friends’ places and a homeless shelter, even spending a night in Gage’s girlfriend’s car. As Ari falls behind at school, she wonders if she can still fulfill her mother’s wish for her to attend a middle-school for gifted kids. Despite an overly neat conclusion, Jacobson (Small as an Elephant) elevates her book beyond “problem novel” territory with an engaging narrator who works hard to be loyal to her brother—and to her mother’s memory. Small moments pack big emotional wallops, as when a teacher gives Ari “brand-new, trés cool shoes” to replace her “ratty” ones, or when Ari pretends that the people she cuts from magazine are a family, because, “With a big family you’re likely to have someone watching out for you always.” A tender exploration of homelessness. Ages 10–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Echo

Pam Muñoz Ryan. Scholastic Press, $19.99 (592p) ISBN 978-0-439-87402-1

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The fairy tale that opens this elegant trio of interconnected stories from Ryan (The Dreamer) sets the tone for the rest of the book, in which a mystical harmonica brings together three children growing up before and during WWII. Friedrich, an aspiring conductor whose birthmark makes him an undesirable in Nazi Germany, must try to rescue his father after his Jewish sympathies land him in a prison camp. In Pennsylvania, piano prodigy Mike and his brother, Frankie, get a chance to escape the orphanage for good, but only if they can connect with the eccentric woman who has adopted them. In California, Ivy Maria struggles with her school’s segregation as well as the accusations leveled against Japanese landowners who might finally offer her family a home of their own. Each individual story is engaging, but together they harmonize to create a thrilling whole. The book’s thematic underpinnings poignantly reveal what Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy truly have in common: not just a love of music, but resourcefulness in the face of change, and a refusal to accept injustice. Ages 10–14. Agent: Kendra Marcus, BookStop Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Colonial Madness

Jo Whittemore. S&S/Aladdin, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4814-0508-9

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Thirteen-year-old Tori and her widowed mother have always been a team, but Tori feels like the adult in the relationship (an early scene has her mother hiding in a cupboard to scare Tori). Her mother’s dress shop is struggling, so Tori leaps at a surprise chance to inherit her late Great-Aunt Muriel’s estate. To do so, they must compete against the rest of the family in a “test of wit and will,” living as though in colonial times, without any modern conveniences, and winning challenges like cooking gruel and making arrows for target practice. A cute boy on the staff, conniving cousins, witch trials, and various surprises spice up Tori’s travails, and her dry humor is often downright hilarious. (“Maybe Mom and I didn’t need candles,” thinks Tori during a close encounter with lard. “Maybe we could just develop night vision, like owls, or scream at objects to find them, like bats.”) Making the most of a fun premise, Whittemore (D Is for Drama) adeptly fuses comic moments with a testy but loving mother-daughter relationship and intriguing details about 17th-century life. Ages 9–13. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dragons at Crumbling Castle: And Other Tales

Terry Pratchett, illus. by Mark Beech. Clarion, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-544-46659-3

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In the 1960s, the young, not-yet-knighted Pratchett worked for the Bucks Free Press, a small British newspaper, where he began publishing children’s stories, 14 of which are collected in this volume. In the title story, King Arthur’s most junior knight, Ralph, “a small boy in a suit of mail much too big for him,” is sent to deal with a dragon infestation, but discovers that the creatures are entirely sensible chaps. “Tales of the Carpet People,” a precursor to Pratchett’s first novel, concerns a tiny tribe’s heroically goofy migration across a rug. And in “The Great Egg-Dancing Championship,” a skilled egg dancer (“A lot of eggs are rolled onto the floor and two dancers... have to dance blindfolded without breaking one”) must choose between the championship and the girl of his dreams. Though these stories lack the perfectly timed wordplay of Pratchett’s later work, they are a charming and funny sample of his early fictional imaginings. Accompanied by Beech’s wiry Quentin Blake–like illustrations, as well as numerous typographical flourishes, this volume will please both its intended audience and older Pratchett completists. Ages 9–12. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Stone Lions

Gwen Dandridge. Hickory Tree (hickorytree-books.blogspot.com), $10.99 paper (238p) ISBN 978-0-9893157-8-4

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Debut author Dandridge explores the complex world of 15th-century Islamic Spain in this fantasy. Ara, the unruly daughter of the sultan of Alhambra, and her shy cousin Layla are swept up in a magical plot to destroy the palace and usurp its rightful ruler. Working with a visiting Sufi “mathemagician” named Tahirah and the magically transformed harem eunuch Suleiman, Ara and Layla must learn the secrets of symmetry—an integral part of Islamic art and central to the magic of the Alhambra—to stop a great evil from tearing apart their home. Dandridge brings a deep respect for historical accuracy and Islamic culture to the story, and although her interpretation of Sharia law may sometimes err on the stricter side, her depiction of women’s everyday lives in aristocratic 1400s Spain is spot-on. Her prose is slightly stiff in exposition dealing with the principles of symmetry, but Dandridge plays her own academic background for laughs with the scholarly Tahirah. More importantly, the story never stops feeling like a Rowling-esque adventure, pitting brave girls against seemingly impossible odds—mathematically speaking, of course. Ages 8–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Finding Serendipity

Angelica Banks. Holt, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-62779-154-0

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Writing as Banks, Australian adult fiction authors Heather Rose and Danielle Wood make a sparkling children’s book debut in a novel that bridges and blurs reality and fantasy, while offering a tantalizing spin on the notion of story. Tuesday McGillycuddy lives with her language-loving father and author mother, who, under the name Serendipity Smith, writes a bestselling adventure series starring heroine Vivienne Small. When Tuesday’s mother disappears while finishing Vivienne’s final tale, Tuesday types “The End” on her mother’s typewriter, hoping she’ll reappear. When she doesn’t, Tuesday starts writing her own story (“Maybe what we need is a beginning”). As she types, the words transform into silvery threads that transport Tuesday and her dog, Baxterr, to a world reserved for authors, where she enlists Vivienne’s help to find her mother. Their wild escapade (involving an encounter with a pirate whose bluster rivals Captain Hook’s) becomes interwoven with her mother’s fiction. With cinematic imagery and keen wit, the authors construct an inventive novel that raises intriguing questions about the relationship between authors and their characters, and reaches “The End” all too soon. Ages 8–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Monstrous

MarcyKate Connolly, illus. by Skottie Young. Harper, $16.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-227271-3

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With echoes of Frankenstein and “Beauty and the Beast,” Connolly’s debut offers a premise both captivating and grotesque. Upon awakening, Kymera learns that she has been brought back to life by her scientist father through a series of experiments that leave her with patchwork skin, cat eyes, claws, wings, a barbed tail, and no memories. Kymera’s charge, to rescue girls in neighboring Bryre afflicted with a curse from an evil wizard, proves difficult as she begins to have flashbacks of her former life. Upon meeting a boy named Ren and a dragon that calls her sister, Kymera discovers that her father is not who she thinks he is and must come to terms with her terrifying body in order to defeat the wizard, save the girls, and protect Bryre’s citizens from a deadly creeping briar. Connolly invokes fairy-tale elements with ease, and although the expansive plot can feel disjointed and hastily drawn at times, the formidable theme of sacrifice resonates far beyond the final page. Art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12. Author’s agent: Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary & Media. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Hero

Sarah Lean. HarperCollins/Tegen, $16.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-212238-4

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Eleven-year-old Leo Biggs is an inveterate daydreamer, forever imagining himself in fierce battles with Roman gladiators, presided over by the god Jupiter (“like a tower block in a toga, he loomed in the sky at the end of Clarendon Road”). One day, while Leo is trying to ingratiate himself with a group of popular classmates, a dog belonging to Leo’s neighbor’s daughter gets injured. Leo decides to cover up what happened, claiming that he rescued the dog, Jack Pepper, from drowning in a pond. Leo initially enjoys the attention that this invented good deed brings him, but the guilt of feeling like a “fake hero” and a disastrous incident involving a meteor help him step up to the plate and save Jack Pepper for real. While the meteor strike and what it reveals are an unlikely vehicle for Leo’s growth, Lean (A Dog Called Homeless) has crafted a touching portrait of a good-hearted, loyal, and boundlessly imaginative boy who makes some realistic missteps in his efforts to succeed in the “real world.” Ages 8–12. Agent: Julia Churchill, A.M. Heath. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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