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God Help the Child

Toni Morrison. Knopf, $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-307-59417-4

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In Morrison's short, emotionally-wrenching novel, her first since 2012's Home, a mother learns about the damage adults do to children and the choices children make as they grow to suppress, express, or overcome their shame. The story begins with the birth of Lula Ann Bridewell, a midnight black baby whose mother cannot stand to touch her. Grown-up Lula Ann transforms herself into Bride, a stiletto-wearing, Jaguar-driving California executive with dark skin proudly accentuated by stylish white clothing. Amid preparations for the launch of her signature cosmetics line, Bride offers a gift-bag of cash and cosmetics to parolee Sofia Huxley, the kindergarten teacher Bride accused of sexual abuse 15 years before, earning Bride maternal approval and Sofia her prison sentence. Sofia's angry rejection of Bride's present, coinciding with the departure of Bride's lover, inspires such self-doubt that Bride fears regressing back into Lula Ann. A car accident lands her in a culvert, where a little girl keeping dark secrets of her own comes to the rescue. Nobel laureate Morrison explores characteristic themes of people held captive by inner struggles; the delusion of racism; violence and redemption. Her literary craftsmanship endures with sparse language, precise imagery, and even humor. This haunting novel displays a profound understanding of American culture and an unwavering sense of justice and forgiveness. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Deep Sea

Annika Thor, trans. from the Swedish by Linda Schenck. Delacorte, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-74385-3

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In the third installment in a series about a Jewish girl sent with her sister to live with Swedish families during WWII (following A Faraway Island and The Lily Pond), Stephie, now nearly 16, is living in a city with her best friend's big family, finishing grammar school. But on some weekends, and when summer comes, she heads back to the remote island home of her well-meaning but distant foster parents. In both places, Stephie worries—she wants to go to high school, but must persuade (and compromise with) the overextended relief committee supporting her. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Nellie, feels abandoned by their parents and is acting out, and a letter Stephie sends to her mother, who is in an Austrian concentration camp, is returned undelivered. This novel about coming of age during a complicated, tragic time in history is both delicate and poignant, as when Stephie and Nellie sit on the dock, remembering a lullaby their mother sang. Thor's novel capably demonstrates the loneliness, powerlessness, and prejudice Stephie faces, as well as her growing inner strength. Ages 14–up. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Burning Nation

Trent Reedy. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-545-54873-1

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The second installment of Reedy's Divided We Fall trilogy, about an Idaho National Guardsman caught between loyalties when the state and federal government end up in armed conflict, opens with a bang, as Idaho resists efforts at forceful suppression. Private Danny Wright, the accidental figurehead of the Idaho rebellion, becomes an insurgent in his hometown, fighting the Feds alongside his closest friends. Matters escalate, turning into open revolution and the beginning of a new American Civil War, and leading to a chilling portrayal of a disintegrating nation where neither side is entirely right or wrong. While Danny's moral conflict is easier now that he's committed to the fight, the increasingly personal stakes keep him from growing complacent. As in Divided We Fall, Reedy spins an action-packed cautionary tale, allowing both state and federal viewpoints their strengths and weaknesses, stopping just short of condemning both sides while acknowledging the validity of their arguments. It's a complex story rooted in current events, all the more worrisome for its plausibility. Ages 14–up. Agent: Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Murphy Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Beneath

Roland Smith. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-545-56486-1

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Smith (Mutation) delivers a tightly plotted mystery that incorporates themes of nonconformity and social rebellion. Pat O'Toole, 13, is not surprised when his 18-year-old brother, Coop, disappears. Coop has always been quirky: he is an avid tap dancer, collects flashlights, can't drive, won't email, and once dug a tunnel more than a mile long in their Virginia neighborhood before a gas line explosion nearly killed the two of them. Pat's parents are preoccupied with their breakup, careers, and new romances, so when Pat begins receiving digital voice recordings from Coop, he sneaks away to New York City to find his brother. Clues lead Pat to an alternative society that exists underground, but he soon discovers Coop has been drawn into an exclusive and dangerous group called the Pod. The narrative is constructed as Pat's "hybrid journal," which has been "transcribed" from the brothers' digital audio recordings, putting their voices front and center. Humor, a perilous setting, intense relationships, and the slow unveiling of the machinations at work behind the Pod give the story emotion and grit. Ages 10–14. Agent: Barbara S. Kouts, Barbara S. Kouts Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Angelina's Prayer

Cheryl Bartky. Bark of the Tree Communications (www.Counseling4theSoul.com), $5.95 paper (48p) ISBN 978-1-4811-6715-4

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In this sweet but underdeveloped Christmas-themed chapter book about generosity, accepting loss, and defining home, nine-year-old Angelina and her mother have just moved to Albuquerque, N. Mex., from New York City. Angelina clings to the hope that her father, who abandoned them two years earlier, will return, but she is uncertain how he will find them now that they have left New York. Angelina quickly befriends two neighbors—Tony, who is Hispanic like Angelina, and Minerva, who is Jewish. After Angelina learns about the local holiday custom of lighting luminarias and their power to answer prayers, she thinks that they could be the way to make her family whole again. While the premise is moving, Bartky's dialogue can often be wooden ("Do you think if I made lots and lots of luminarias and set them all around my house, they would grow so bright that my dad would be able to find me?"). Bartky does a fine job of conjuring the New Mexico landscape and Albuquerque community, but the story feels shoehorned into its slim format. Ages 8–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Honey

Sarah Weeks. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (160p) ISBN 978-0-545-46557-1

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In spite of never having known her mother, 10-year-old Melody Bishop leads a pleasant small-town life in Royal, Ind., playing word games with her good-natured father (a humanities teacher) and hanging around with her best friend, Nick Woo. When Melody begins to suspect her father has fallen in love, she determines to find out who it is. Interwoven with Melody's story are two others: that of Bee-Bee Churchill, the owner of the town's new beauty salon, the Bee Hive, and Bee-Bee's 10-year-old French bulldog, Mo, who has his own significant backstory; the three threads eventually intersect in predictable but pleasing ways. Minor intrigue and misunderstandings drive the slender plot, but Weeks (Pie) succeeds in creating an emotionally credible and moving resolution, as well as a small cast of realistic and engaging characters to flesh out the town of Royal. Readers who like words will enjoy the list of 100 nail-polish names Melody creates for the Bee Hive, which concludes this straightforward, affecting read. Ages 8–12. Agent: Holly McGhee, Pippin Properties. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Courage of Cat Campbell

Natasha Lowe. S&S/Wiseman, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4814-1870-6

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In this lighthearted sequel to The Power of Poppy Pendle, Lowe introduces Cat Campbell, daughter of the now-adult Poppy Pendle, who chose baking over magic. As such, Poppy is not thrilled when Cat finally shows signs of being a witch. After Rutherfield Academy, the local school for witches, rejects Cat for her uncontrollable magical abilities, she devises a plan to gain admittance by capturing feared witch Madeline Reynolds, who has just escaped from Scrubs Prison for erasing half of Italy. Cat captures Reynolds, though she turns her best friend, Peter, into a guinea pig in the process. With patience and neighborly help, Cat becomes the witch she's always wanted to be, and finds a place for herself, balanced between her mother's baking and her own passions. Lowe echoes the whimsy of J.K. Rowling and Anna Dale with vibrant descriptions ("A burst of pink smoke covered the table, with showers of green sparkles shooting out like fireworks"), a cozy atmosphere (several "magical" recipes are included), and charismatic characters. Ages 8–12. Agent: Ann Tobias, A Literary Agency for Children's Books. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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All the Answers

Kate Messner. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61963-374-2

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Ava Anderson, a 12-year-old chronic worrier, comes across a pencil that appears to be able to talk, telling her the answers to her questions about everything from mathematical formulas for a quiz to concerns over family members' health problems. Messner (Manhunt) has created a relatable, sympathetic character in anxious Ava, and her story is at its best when Ava's life remains centered around the norms of her school, friends, and multigenerational family, as well as the lighter dilemmas and possibilities the magic pencil raises, such as whether it's cheating to use it on homework, or which boy likes her best friend. However, despite the potential of the premise, it flounders a bit when too many worries are piled onto Ava's plate, overloading the story with serious concerns over dementia, breast cancer, gambling addictions, and the death of a loved one. Ava eventually comes to learn that "life isn't about knowing all the answers," but she must bear some heavy burdens in order to come to that knowledge. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Angels on My Tree

Lu Ann Schnable Kaldor, illus. by Eve S. Gendron. Four Directions Press (www.theangelsonmytree.com), $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-9627659-4-0

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In a melancholy but hopeful holiday story, a girl's Christmas is shadowed by the recent death of her father. Familiar traditions only deepen the awareness of his absence: "We stood side by side looking at our tree and cried. After a while, my mother said, ‘Let's go surround ourselves with beauty; it always makes us feel better.' " A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City inspires the two of them to spend the season helping others. For each act of kindness—such as cooking for neighbors or arranging for musicians to play at a nursing home—they place another angel on their Christmas tree. The spare line drawings, permeated with a sense of loneliness, become less so as mother and daughter discover cheer through their generosity; gradually, the images acquire subtle warmth and splashes of pale color. Kaldor wisely keeps the story away from overt sentimentality, instead letting the quiet prose and airy artwork carry the message about letting go and moving forward. Ages 4–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Stanley the Sock Monster Goes to the Moon

Jedda Robaard. Bonnier/Little Bee, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4998-0012-8

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Australian author/artist Robaard (Milo and Millie) introduces a bearlike sock monster who dreams of traveling to the moon, but while her sweet-tempered watercolor illustrations are long on charm, the story itself doesn't hold up. Stanley's first efforts involve creating a giant "moonboot" and trying to "hitch a ride on a shooting star," which Robaard depicts in four adorable vignettes of a butterfly net–wielding Stanley pursuing a tiny, smiling star. These and other ideas prove unsuccessful, but after Stanley's father suggests that he "look at it another way" (Stanley is shown doing a handstand), he finally decides to build a rocket. Given Stanley's passion for space travel (and considering that the story opens with Stanley and his father reading a book called To the Moon and Back: Tips for Young Astronauts) it seems unlikely that it would take him so long to hit on the most obvious method of reaching the moon, and the ease with which Stanley knits together a soft, fuzzy rocket and completes his journey don't add up to a satisfying story arc. Ages 4–7. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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