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It’s Up to Charlie Hardin

Dean Ing. Baen, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8030-6

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Best known for his techno-thrillers, Ing (Gyp Artist) changes tack, drawing on his memories of growing up during WWII. The result is a slice-of-life series of escapades starring 12-year-old Charlie Hardin, set in 1944 Austin, Tex. In what Ing admits to being a “naked homage to Mark Twain,” with Charlie as his Tom Sawyer, Ing spins out an episodic story that sees Charlie and his friends getting into trouble and enjoying assorted high jinks as they engage in egg wars, play in storm drains, enjoy unexpected financial windfalls, and unearth a counterfeiting ring in their own neighborhood. There’s a bucolic feel to these youthful misadventures, an innocence and naivety that belongs to a long-vanished era and location. Ing infuses Charlie’s tale with humor and dry wit, though at times the dispassionate remoteness of the voice detracts from the immediacy of the action. Younger readers may have trouble connecting with the story due to its old-fashioned tone (“A stab of uneasiness pierced Charlie’s vitals”), but it remains a fascinating glimpse of youthful life as it once was. Ages 10–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Cottage in the Woods

Katherine Coville. Knopf, $16.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-75573-3

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Coville’s clever, heartwarming fantasy initially seems to be an anthropomorphic version of an English gothic romance, à la Jane Eyre or Rebecca, with echoes of Jane Austen. But the story of Ursula, a young bear who arrives at an English estate to serve as governess, soon segues into fairy-tale lore. In the Enchanted Forest surrounding the estate, some animals are enchanted (able to speak and behave as humans) and some not; some humans are friendly and accepting of them, while others are less so. Expected plot developments—love interests, strange footsteps following Ursula down the mansion’s dark hallways—occur, but the developing hostilities between different populations give the story a more serious framework. What to make, though, of the silent blond girl in a bear suit? Then there’s the especially nasty old woman who lives in a shoe, homeless Bremen Town Musicians, and a revelation as to the fate of one of the Pied Piper’s followers. Artist Coville, in her debut, fuses classic English mystery elements with fractured fairy tales amid questions of prejudice, with droll, satisfying results. Ages 10–up. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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My Secret Guide to Paris

Lisa Schroeder. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-545-70808-1

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Eleven-year-old Nora is heartbroken when her Grandma Sylvia is killed suddenly in an accident. For as long as Nora can remember, Grandma Sylvia has regaled her with tales of Paris’s magic, and they had always planned to travel there together. Then Nora discovers that Grandma Sylvia has left behind a stack of envelopes to be opened in Paris, a map, plane tickets, and a locked box (the key to which Nora is certain is in Paris). It takes some persuasion, but soon Nora is Paris-bound with her mother and teenage brother. With the help of her new British friend Phoebe, Nora follows Grandma Sylvia’s letters on a treasure hunt that takes her from John-Paul Hévin’s chocolate shop to the Musée de l’Orangerie. This love letter to the City of Light will have readers believing that everything’s better in Paris. Schroeder (the Charmed Life series) lets the city’s romance shine in a thoughtful story, laced with mystery and French vocabulary, about losing family and gaining individuality in a place where curiosity can bloom. Ages 8–12. Agent: Sarah Crowe, Harvey Klinger. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Masterminds

Gordon Korman. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-229996-3

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Several teens learn that their idyllic small-town existence is a sham in this first entry in Korman’s Masterminds series. Serenity, N.Mex., has the best standard of living in the country, with zero unemployment and total peace and prosperity. Thirteen-year-old Eli and his friends have never known anywhere else. Honesty, harmony, and contentment aren’t just valued in Serenity, they’re a way of life. Then Eli and the others start to notice odd things: when they try to leave town, they get sick; their Internet is remarkably sanitized compared to outside sites they accidentally come across; and some kids are considered special, while others are less so. After they discover the truth about why Serenity is so peaceful, they must face the fact that their lives have been ruled by a gigantic lie. Rotating among several young narrators, Korman builds tension as the mystery unfolds, leading to several surprise twists that upend the status quo. While an awful lot of dumb luck is involved in the kids’ discoveries, this tense, fast-paced story will have readers racing toward the cliffhanger ending. Ages 8–12. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Incredible Space Raiders from Space!

Wesley King. S&S/Wiseman, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4814-2319-9

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Space travel is common in the year 2156, but Jonah is still shocked to wake up aboard the Fantastic Flying Squirrel, a spaceship piloted by dangerous pirates and home to the Incredible Space Raiders, a band of children fighting extraterrestrial EETs (Entirely Evil Things). Jonah, a shy boy with few friends back home, is unsure why he was chosen to join the ISR, but he begins training and tries to fit in. The more Jonah learns about the ISR, however, the more he senses that something isn’t quite right, starting with the fact that his fellow raiders are all orphans. When the other children discover that Jonah has parents, they resent him and soon everyone is wondering whether he truly belongs on the mission. King (The Vindico) weaves action, suspense, and mystery into a well-crafted coming-of-age story. Readers will relate to Jonah as he struggles to define himself in an unfamiliar setting, while questions about the true plan for the kids aboard the Flying Squirrel will keep them turning pages. Ages 8–12. Agent: Brianne Johnson, Writers House. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mister H

Daniel Nesquens, trans. from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, illus. by Luciano Lozano. Eerdmans, $14 (72p) ISBN 978-0-8028-5440-7

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When a hippo named Mister H persuades a hesitant girl to unlock his cage at the zoo, his long-winded reasoning sets the tone for Nesquens’s (My Tattooed Dad) story: “No one will notice what you’ve done.... Don’t you see that everyone goes around doing their own thing, without thinking about their neighbor? The immeasurable selfishness of humanity. The great evil of the twenty-first century.” Once freed, Mister H embarks on a quest to find his African homeland, but it’s a rocky road: he becomes wedged in a turnstile (“That’s because you’re very fat, if you’ll pardon my saying so,” explains the zoo gardener), crashes into a storefront window, disrupts traffic, and offends restaurant diners. Lozano’s (Operation Alphabet) illustrations bring a chic midcentury aesthetic to this illustrated novel, but like Mister H, the story moves slowly, and a somber, ambiguous conclusion (“Step by step, he walked with the hope that someone would guide him to his home,” writes Nesquens, as Lozano pictures him walking off into the night) leaves readers as lost as the protagonist. Ages 7–10. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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One Red Shoe

Karin Gruss, illus. by Tobias Krejtschi. Wilkins Farago (IPG/Trafalgar Sq., dist.), $19.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-9871099-6-5

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An adult narrator, a newspaper photographer, delivers a pained recounting of the aftermath of a school bus bombing (a note explains that Gruss’s debut picture book is “based on impressions of the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip”). Although the photographer is seen in the book’s opening and closing scenes, the majority of Krejtschi’s b&w images have the feel of on-the-scene photojournalism, with pictures of children playing hopscotch beside ruined buildings and of paramedics rushing an injured boy to a hospital. The boy, whose single red basketball shoe provides a hit of color, becomes the photographer’s focus (the nine-year-old, Kenan, has sustained a grenade hit to the leg, and the unspoken truth appears to be that Kenan’s other shoe isn’t all he has lost). The book’s gritty realism breaks as the photographer’s camera display seems to show Kenan standing up and playing with a basketball, a fleeting moment of wishful thinking. It’s a difficult, upsetting story of the violent unpredictability of life in a war zone, one that will undoubtedly lead to discussions in families and classrooms. Ages 10–up. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Otto the Owl Who Loved Poetry

Vern Kousky. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-399-16440-8

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Kousky’s picture-book debut champions poetry and one passionate aspiring poet, in particular, but his sleepy story seems unlikely to hook many readers on the form. While other owls roost in trees and hunt, Otto recites poetry in the moonlight, to the taunts of his peers. Otto finds an appreciative audience in the smiling moon and forest mice, with whom he shares a poem of his own. Curiously, it is Otto’s owlish recitation of melancholy verse by Emily Dickinson (“I’m nobody! Whooo are you?/ Are you nobody, too?”) that finally wins over his fellow owls. (Otto also shares snippets of poetry by T.S. Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joyce Kilmer, and Christina Rossetti.) Kousky takes advantage of the story’s nocturnal setting, creating shadowy scenes in milky violets and blues, yet the caricatured style used to draw Otto and his fellow animals clashes with these backgrounds, making the animals feel dropped into their surroundings, not part of them. Otto often appears forlorn and mournful, which seems at odds with the message of the power of poetry to lift spirits and inspire. Ages 5–8. Agent: John Rudolph, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Thing About Spring

Daniel Kirk. Abrams, $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4197-1492-4

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The arrival of spring makes Mouse and Bird “feel warm and happy,” but their friend Rabbit finds a lot to complain about. He anxiously shovels the last remnants of snow into a pail (“We won’t see any more of this until next year!”) and grumbles that spring means he can’t follow his friends’ tracks in the snow, build snow forts, or throw snowballs. Rabbit’s friends patiently put up with his litany of Eeyore-like rants, even when they take some strange turns: “The thing about spring,” he says, “is that Bear is waking up! You know how bad he smells at the end of a long winter, and I’m sure he’s going to want a hug.” Eventually, Rabbit’s chirpy pals bring grouchy Rabbit around to their upbeat perspective, though the turnaround comes quickly after all of his griping. Kirk’s (the Library Mouse series) pen-and-ink illustrations are more successful—anthropomorphic touches, like Rabbit’s scarf and Bear’s ball cap, give the characters a bit of personality, while the drab (but brightening) palette evokes the dissipating gloom of spring’s earliest days. Ages 4–8. Agent: Barry Goldblatt, Barry Goldblatt Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rex Finds an Egg! Egg! Egg!

Steven Weinberg. S&S/McElderry, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4814-0308-5

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Rex, a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex whose bucktoothed grin and bowling-ball head wouldn’t be out of place in the Flintstones household, spots a spotted prize next to a nestful of dinosaur eggs: “Rex finds an... Egg? Egg. Egg!” He holds it close when a nearby volcano starts smoking and he has to “Run. Run! Run!” (This ritual repetition, which continues throughout, is guaranteed to fuel readaloud energy.) Weinberg’s (To Timbuktu) artwork grabs attention from the first page. Big, loose outlines in hot vermilion leap out against the soft pastels that tint the rest of the prehistoric landscape. It’s all about action as Rex falls off a cliff, tumbles into an ocean filled with marvelous prehistoric life (a moment of genuine beauty), is lifted into the sky by a pterodactyl and keeps on moving. After Rex’s egg survives a tense and terrible fall, the truth dawns—it’s a rock, not an egg, and Rex’s attention quickly moves elsewhere. This discovery registers more as a disappointment than a punch line, but it remains a visually striking story that moves fast, fast, fast. Ages 4–8. Agent: Marcia Wernick, Wernick & Pratt. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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