Category Archives: Middle Grade Fiction

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben Winters

Bethesda Fielding is an over-achiever.  And when she is given the assignment to solve a mystery in her life, she takes it seriously.  Her target is Ms. Finkleman, the entirely unremarkable, and unnoticed music teacher.  No one in the school (staff, students) know anything about Ms. Finkleman, and it is only when Bethesda finds a scrap of paper that leads her to some 1990s punk rock music, that she discovers that Ms. Finkleman was apparently once Little Miss Mystery, lead singer of the popular band, The Red Herrings.

The school is quickly in an uproar over the jaw-dropping news, and Ms. Finkleman becomes the most famous teacher in school, when all she really longs for is continued obscurity and to forget the past.  However, wheels are in motion, and before Ms. Finkleman can regroup, her program for a multi-school music competition is switched from 16th-century English folk ballads to rock music.  In order to cope, Ms Finkleman makes a secret bargain with Bethesda and rock-obsessed loner Tenny Boyer to get the show off the ground.

Full of quirky humour, zany side characters and plot twists, this book feels like a tribute band for Gordon Korman (he gives the book his recommendation on the cover) or Louis Sachar.  And, as my co-worker points out, it’s very clever and smart, built for eager middle-grade readers like the over-achieving Bethesda.  As a classroom read-aloud, it would be perfect, and I’m sure anyone reading it will be keen to share it with the teachers in their life (I have plans to give it to two middle grade teachers I know).  A little School of Rock, a little Harriet the Spy, Ms. Finkleman is a fun and engaging read for those looking for a mystery and a little wackiness.

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Middle of Nowhere by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson is a Vancouver, BC author with a lot of awards, and award nominations behind her.  She’s chiefly known for I, Bruno, a book for younger readers that I always feel I should have read, but haven’t yet made time for.  Her latest, Middle of Nowhere, is a bit of a granola book (teachers and other adults will love it), but is very well written and well told.

This is yet another story with a mother who is MIA.  I’ve encountered a lot of these lately – I guess mothers are a huge obstacle to interesting adventures – though usually there’s been a father kicking around.  Here it’s just twelve-year-old Curtis and his five-year-old brother Artie left on their own.  When their mother doesn’t return from work on time, Curtis is 100% positive she will – soon.  So rather than risk their being sent to a foster family, Curtis covers for his missing mother – scrounging to feed them, show up for school dressed and clean, and generally look like there’s an adult in their lives.  His faith in his mother, and all his efforts and worries are heart-breaking.

Things change for the better and more interesting when the boys make friends with Mrs. Burt, a frighteningly cranky old neighbour who asks them to run errands in exchange for some much needed food money.  Soon she is offering them an escape from their desperate situation (with landlords demanding rent and teachers closing in on the scent), and they take it.  As the trio begins their escapade to a cabin in the woods, the book becomes very complex.  It takes the reader and Curtis a long while to figure out what is up with Mrs. Burt – why she is so unhappy, so kind, and also so shifty.  I’m not sure what kids will get from this book (probably an interesting read), but adults will certainly sympathize with her and find her to be a rich and fascinating character.  And because it’s a children’s book, everything does end up ok, with a twist I truly didn’t expect.

Well told and with a bit of freshness, Middle of Nowhere is a solid book for 8-11 year olds and a nice addition to the children-abandoned-by-their-mothers genre.

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Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a big-name children’s author.  She’s had two of her books turned into films (Inkheart and Thief Lord) and for a few years when Harry Potter and magic ruled the shelves, Funke was all the rage with the under 13 set.  And I still think she’s a big name, though her previous book, Reckless had a much quieter reception than usual.  I have to admit I come late to Funke – Reckless was the first novel I read by her, and now Ghost Knight is the second.  Ghost Knight is a return to her usual target audience and tone – a light fantasy adventure story for 8-12 year old readers, though not without some scary moments.

Set in Salisbury, England, Ghost Knight takes advantage of all the legendary hauntings in the city and its cathedral.  The main character, Jon Whitcroft, has just been sent to boarding school in Salisbury by his long-suffering mother.  With all the furore of an eleven-year-old, Jon hates his mother’s new boyfriend, “The Beard.”  His attempts to sabotage their relationship seems to have made him very unpopular in the family – and his latest stunt has resulted in him being packed off to boarding school.

The story really gets going when Jon is chased through the school grounds by a evil-looking gang of ghosts intent on killing him.  None of his classmates can see them, but thankfully his attractive schoolmate Ella, who has experience in these matters, believes him and offers to help.  Together they summon the spirit of Sir William Longspee to help, and together the three face a vendetta and a mystery dating back several centuries.

As I said, this book is fun and rather charming.  The illustrations are beautiful, and would make it a very pleasant read for most 9-11 year olds (and their parents).  What I found frustrating is that the plot seemed to have mostly resolved itself about 2/3 of the way through the book.  Though there were still mysteries to solve, there was no big climax at the end.  Instead there were a number of smaller climaxes scattered through the last two-thirds of the novel.  So while I was pulled along enough to finish Ghost Knight, I wished the suspense and pace had been more intense during the last hundred pages or so.  Also odd was the narration, which told the story from the future.  One got the feeling that an adult Jon was narrating in a wiser voice-over, much like The Wonder Years.  This led to some so-so foreshadowing, but mostly it took another chunk out of the suspense and supposedly life-threatening situations.

I wish I had read Inkheart to know how Ghost Knight compares.  For me, this was a decent read, with some nice imagination and ok characters.  However, I wanted it to be just a little bit better and more-attention grabbing throughout.  Perhaps I’ll have to  bite the bullet and watch that terrible Brendan Fraser movie after all?

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The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (September 2012)

I picked up The Vanishing Act a few days ago.  Someone asked me  if it was good, but I told them it was still too soon to say – I was only on page 6.  Later I was 50 pages in, and still not sure what I felt.  When I was 100 pages in and still reading, I felt it must be good, but was still not certain who it was written for.  Then I was 150 pages in and thinking how odd and quirky and charming it was, without really knowing if I would recommend it to anyone.  Now I am done, and it is only in the process of writing about it that I am really coming to understand what I read.  Perhaps for a book interested in thinking and philosophy, this is a strong compliment.

The closest comparison I have for The Vanishing Act is to novels by Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie’s World, or to the odd but charming Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne.  This is a whimsical book with the feel of a fable or parable, with a decent heaping of philosophical content.  On a tiny island in the ocean somewhere, after a horrible war, we find Minou (a young girl), her father (a fisherman and a philosopher), Priest (a priest who bakes pretzels and makes origami cranes), Boxman (a magician) and No-Name (a performing dog).  Minou’s mother used to live there also, but she disappeared almost a year ago, and Minou is desperately focused on her return.  Unlike her father and the other Island’s inhabitants, Minou is certain that her mother has not died, but has simply disappeared.  The story begins when Minou and her father find a dead boy on the beach – an oddly comforting discovery for the two of them.  The body smells of oranges, and seems to enter their lives with a promise to connect them to what they desire most.  For Minou, this is her mother; for her father the philosopher it is to find the fundamental truth from which all others can be drawn.  In the end, as they care for the body during the three days it takes for their delivery ship to arrive, Minou and her father both experience closure for her mother’s death.  No longer reliving the past, Minou is able to look towards her future and imagine the day when she will leave the island.

Like Waiting for Godo, we don’t know where the characters are, or why, but it does not matter.  They have been collected here by the author precisely so she can tell Minou’s story.  Reason and imagination, the head and the heart, are in constant tension in this book which pays homage both to philosophy and to art.  The writing is lovely, the characters interesting (if not entirely unique) and the mystery surrounding Minou’s mother’s disappearance intriguing enough to keep a reader hooked.  I was not a fan of the philosophy – whenever the characters overtly tried to think “rationally” or “philosophically” they ended up closing their minds to the world around them.  Some philosophical questions were opened up for the reader, but I think in the battle between philosophy and art, art came on top, when I think it should have been a tie at least.

So while I enjoyedThe Vanishing Act, the question still remains of who is intended to read this novel.  My most likely guess is sophisticated young readers and their sophisticated parents.  Anyone who likes a healthy dose of whimsy.  Voracious readers looking for something unique.  The literary-minded.  Above all, I am curious to see how others will react, and what page they will be on when they know what this reaction is.

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Wisdom’s Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Wisdom’s Kiss is an odd little book.  I did enjoy reading it – it is very whimsical and clever.  The storytelling was unusual enough to add a degree of freshness to what might otherwise be a hackneyed fairy tale.  Several characters tell the story in a diary style, or as a memoir, and there are other chapters written up like encyclopedia entries and a play.  Each character’s very individual voice makes for an interesting series of observations on the plot – from the level-headed and kind-hearted Queen Mother Ben, to the opinionated Princess Wisdom (“Dizzy”), and to the pompous and self-involved performer “Felis El Gato, Impresario Extraordinaire, Soldier of Fortune, Mercenary of Stage and Empire, Lord of the Legendary Fist of God, Famed Throughout the Courts and Countries of the World and The Great Sultanate: The Booted Maestro”.  Admittedly, several of these voices (like the last two) were rather annoying and I found myself feeling very grateful that they were interspersed with so many others.  In particular, the play was entertaining with its out-dated and purple language – full of asides and overly-dramatic speeches.  The one aspect of the form that I didn’t enjoy was the tendency to introduce some unfamiliar thing with a mention, and then have it fully explained in a following chapter written as an encyclopedia entry.  It was both a bit obtuse (because I felt like I was missing something) and too explicit (because by the time the encyclopedia entry came along I felt like I had pieced it together).

In terms of the plot: there is Princess Wisdom who finds herself engaged to a man she doesn’t love and whose mother is after the kingdom.  There is Fortitude, a maiden who can intuit the future and who has been in love with a young fellow named Tips, now a soldier, her whole life.  Throw in an emperor, a circus, a conspiracy or two, a giant golden orb, a cat and a bit more magic, and you have yourself an entertaining fairy tale.  I wasn’t able to predict the exact climax, or one of the pairings, and that was a nice feature.  Again, for a fairy tale type story, I found the plot relatively fresh.

My preference is still Dianna Wynne Jones or Ella Enchanted author Gail Carson Levine for this type of book.  However, Wisdom’s Kiss was fun and reasonably unique.  Good for those young, clever readers looking for a magical tale (9-12).

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Outlaw by Stephen Davies

Outlaw goes on sale in a couple of weeks.  It’s another book passed on to me by a publisher’s rep a couple of months ago, with a promise that it is an absolutely fantastic boy book.  Action, adventure, the whole deal.

And, you know, it was pretty good.  Davies tells the story of Jake Knight, a fifteen-year-old completely bored with his stuffy British boarding school.  To spice up his life he creates urban adventures with his friends – elaborate games of “find the thimble” using GPS and parkour skills to find and hide objects in improbable areas around town.  When he breaks into a local prison to retrieve an item, Jake is kicked out of school for the rest of the semester.  To his delight, he is sent back to his current family home – in Burkina Faso in West Africa.  His dad is the British Ambassador there, and as Jake arrives he fantasizes about the adventures he could have in Africa.

Because this is a novel, Jake’s desire is granted with a vengeance – he and his younger sister are kidnapped from an elaborate dinner.  They are taken to the desert and find themselves among thieves, terrorists, outlaws, and at the centre of a large military conspiracy.

What I liked:

The action is well done.  I liked the parkour and building hopping.  Technology was well-integrated into the story and rather believable.  The evil gold companies and Robin Hood themes running through the story were fun and appealing.  The character of Yakuuba Sor, the outlaw they run into, was absolutely fantastic; it is impossible not to fall in love with him a little.  The use of African languages and a bit of French added depth, and I so enjoyed all the African proverbs.  Finally, I was won over a bit by the fact that this is an honourable book, written by someone who lives in Africa, used actual places and cultures, and who is concerned to educate and inform people about the issues of the region.

What I didn’t like:

The simplicity of some of the supporting characters, like Jake’s rather one-note mom.  The inconsistent reading level was also frustrating.   Except for a shocking bit of violence, Outlaw would be fine for ages 10 or 11 and up; because of that one scene, I wouldn’t want to give it to anyone under 12 or 13, even though the story and writing level is generally pitched younger.  Jake’s sister frequently bothered me – I wanted either more or less from her.  She obviously had stuff going on (like a crush on Yakuuba, I think), but she came off as rather flat all the same.

Overall, a good action-adventure.  I would probably recommend buying it in paperback rather than hardcover.  But the setting and story combine to make it a relatively unique and fun read, with important enough themes to make it a somewhat thoughtful book.

 (The much-superior British cover)

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Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence

For days I have been in a land of ice, snow and frozen vistas.  I have shivered through the nights and sweated with back-breaking labour during the days…  Well, not really.  I’ve been sitting indoors on comfy furniture reading the extremely evocative new novel by Canadian author, Iain Lawrence.

A co-worker passed Winter Pony on weeks ago with high praise.  But true to form, I had other books on my list, and I put it off.  I had no idea what was waiting for me.  This is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s epic quest to reach the South Pole – a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  The novel is told from an overarching historical vantage point, and from the point of view of one of the animals brought by Captain Scott – a plucky, if tired, pony called James Pigg.  Lawrence imagined much of this story, but he also stayed true to the facts wherever possible, and obviously immersed himself in the historical record, and the lives of ponies.  This book was startling and left me feeling mournful and rather chilly.

I won’t ruin the story for those who don’t know the tale of Scott’s voyage – as I didn’t.  Lawrence claims he might not have written the book if he had known what it would entail; similarly, I’m not sure I would have read it if I had known the journey I was on.  But once I started I was captivated.  The writing is excellent, and though there is a lot of bleakness, there is humour and comfort also.  The scale of hardship, compassion, and betrayal in this book is hard to fathom, and I sat puzzled by the recommended age level of 9-12.  They want 9 year olds to read this?  I’m not sure I was old enough for it!

To sketch it out: our white pony is captured in his youth from the mountains where he was born wild and free.  For years he is overworked and beaten by cruel men.  One day he is bought and sent on a long journey by train and then boat.  He finds himself among kinder men than he has ever experienced, but also in an unimaginably harsh climate.  Named James Pigg by the Englishmen, he is part of a team of ponies and dogs gathered together to help Scott reach his destination.  The scale of these preparations is remarkable: first the men, dogs and ponies travel south during the summer, laying down the supplies they will need the next year.  Then they return to their base camp to wait out the winter.  The next spring they venture out again in a long dash over hundreds of miles to reach the South Pole.  And this is all in a tense race against Amundsen – never really knowing if he has already stolen their prize of becoming the first to reach the Pole.

The relationship between the men and ponies was incredibly touching to read.  Through James Pigg’s eyes, the reader sees Captain Scott as a brave, compassionate, and driven man who refuses to yield before his ambitions.  The themes of this novel are incredibly grown-up – but they are told largely through the eyes of a rather child-like pony, which renders it all a bit softer and more bearable.  I think it would be a wonderful book to experience with children.  I cannot help but think it would be a memorable read, and one that might lead them into finding more fiction or nonfiction about these adventurers.

By all means, immerse yourself in this frozen world – but make sure you pack plenty of provisions, and that you don’t get lost on your return journey.  This is not a voyage for the faint of heart.

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Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

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Odd Ball by Arthur John Stewart

Odd Ball is a new book set in my hometown, Victoria BC.  It’s actually set in a real school – Central Middle School – though Stewart does change the school’s age range from grades 6-8 to 7-9, and presumably lots of other details as well.

So I was bound to read it at some point, despite the tragically Canadian cover.  I picked it up now because it has just been nominated for the Victoria Book Prize (in the children’s category).  Seeing as I had already read and enjoyed last year’s Death Benefits, and I was still looking for a good YA book to put in my teacher newsletter, I picked up Odd Ball over the weekend.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read, but quite quirky, and I caught myself chuckling out loud more than once.  It reminds me most of Gordon Korman’s Schooled (a fantastic novel, as so many of his are) or Origami Yoda.  But it isn’t a rip-off: it’s got a character all of its own.  Like the two books above, it is told by many characters, particularly three middle school students: Kevin (the “coolest” geek of the school who refuses to accept this label because he can talk to girls unlike real geeks); Stephanie (a girl concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere of her school); and Paula (who is getting deeper and deeper into trouble at home and at school).  Other chapters are descriptions of past or present events by an omniscient narrator, and contributions by Victor, a first-year university student and former Latvian.

The plot really centres around Jobbi, a recent immigrant from Latvia who is target number one for bullies at Central Middle School.  While most students ignore or mock Jobbi and his thick accent, Stephanie and Kevin find something special in this kind and mysteriously insightful boy.  Unconsciously and effortlessly, Jobbi demonstrates that he might just have the abilities to solve the school’s social problems and bring the student body together.  It takes Stephanie, Kevin, a school dance, a trip to Latvia, some fancy skating, a sarcastic fortune-telling ball, and Jobbi’s unique sixth sense for matchmaking, but they make it happen.

As with Schooled and Origami Yoda it was fun learning about a very quirky character through the eyes of other people.  The Baltic connection reminded me of Holes, particularly the way problems and solutions were passed down through the generations.  Stewart also includes some good hockey scenes – you can tell he loves the game (though I can’t think of any middle school that actually has a team).  And the themes of bullying and gangs were handled quite well – the stakes were real and worrisome.  Occasionally there was a hint of a lesson-of-the-week kind of voice, particularly from the do-gooder Stephanie, but it didn’t harm the story in any serious way.  Overall, I thought it was unexpectedly delightful and I’m looking forward to recommending it, particularly to teachers.

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The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

I probably wouldn’t have picked up this novel, except that I needed to review something for a teacher newsletter I’m doing.  A staff member said her kid loved this one – so what the heck, I thought.  Might as well try.

Again, I’m very glad it did.  This was another fun and funny read.  It’s not the best or most complex book – but it’s quirky and clever, and even a bit deep.  So not bad, not bad at all.  The idea is that Dwight is the school loser – most kids think he’s completely insane.  Maybe because he digs holes in his backyard and just sits in them; maybe because he wore the same shirt for a whole month; maybe because he says crazy things all the time.  In any case, one day Dwight (who is also amazing at origami) creates his own origami Yoda finger puppet.  Soon Yoda (who doesn’t sound much like Yoda) is giving students advice – and it is far more helpful, farsighted advice than Dwight could ever give.  So Tommy sets out to chronicle the Yoda incidents in order to sort out whether there might be supernatural powers inspiring Yoda’s advice – or whether Dwight is behind a very convincing hoax.

A very good read – and nice to watch the character of Dwight develop through his classmates’ eyes.  Great for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Star Wars, or even Gordon Korman’s Schooled (an even finer read that this one reminded me of).

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