Category Archives: Middle-Grades

Alina: A Song for the Telling by Malve von Hassell

Alina: A Song for the Telling is a wonderfully told story set in the Christian court of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

During his lifetime, Alina and Milos de Florac’s father, Guy, had been far more interested in his family and music than estate management, and the holdings, as well as the retainers that depended on its success, had all suffered due to its neglect. And when his beloved wife, Beatriou, and eldest daughter, Maria, tragically succumbed to the sweating sickness, he sank into immovable despair, and things only got worse. Not long after, he was found drowned, a suspected suicide, and his brother, Garsanc, and his wife, Marci, arrived, determined to set things right and repair the damage to the family name.

The brother and sister felt increasingly stifled, trapped under their new guardianship. Milos was constantly in trouble for one scrape or another. He was young and undisciplined; their father had been lax with the boy’s education in estate management much as he had been. Nor were there the funds to send Milos as a page to the household of a knight where he could learn and trained as a squire before returning home to take up his duties when the time came.

Although bright and musically-talented like her father, Alina was not considered a great beauty, and lacking an attractive dowry, her prospects for an advantageous marriage were dim. She dreamed of becoming a trobairitz, a female troubadour, traveling the country, perhaps the world, playing her lute, and singing songs of her own devising.  She became alarmed by the parade of unsuitable men her aunt keeps thrusting in her path, and the threat of the convent starts to look more desirable.

As the tension at home mounted, the siblings formed an escape plan: they would join one of the parties of knights, merchants, and pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land on the pretense of praying for their father’s endangered soul. Aunt Marci and Uncle Garsanc agree, glad to have the pair out of sight for a while as they continue to mend the damage to the estate all the years of neglect had wrought. Uncle Garsanc knows of a group preparing to depart soon and led by a reputable knight from right there in Provence, Baltazar de Aurignac. With money from Uncle Garsanc in their pockets and Alina’s lute carefully wrapped for the journey, the young brother and sister set off for Lyon to join their new companions and head off on the trip of a lifetime.

Author Malve von Hassell has written a wonderfully immersive tale set in 12th century France and Jerusalem. Set during the time of the Crusades, the long journey by horseback is interesting and exciting and so descriptive that I felt I was right there with Alina and Milos. The arrival in Jerusalem was full of sights and smells, dust and heat, color and antiquity. There are mystery and political intrigue galore that kept me turning the pages as I soaked up the atmosphere the author so skillfully and effortlessly crafted. ALINA is historical fiction, so real people and events are included in the story, and fact and fiction fit together flawlessly. It is amazing to me thinking about the massive amount of research this author did in completing this wonderful story. This realization only came to me later after putting the book down because I never felt like I was reading history; the story was so lively and entertaining.

I enjoyed that the book was told from Alina’s point of view, and the thoughts and feelings of the young teenager felt true and natural. I also liked that she’d learned how to behave properly from her mother and had enough self-discipline to control her emotions and reactions to how she was treated at the court in Jerusalem. I felt this enabled her in her role as an onlooker of the various political schemes and drama. Well-behaved and a proper lady, she was useful yet overlooked and dismissed at times, allowing her the freedom to move about without being missed.

I recommend ALINA: A SONG FOR THE TELLING for readers of historical fiction, especially those that would enjoy the 12th century setting of the Crusades, France, and the history of the Christian court in Jerusalem. The book is suitable for YA and adult readers, and I could see this as a read-aloud book for middle grades and younger and something the entire family would enjoy.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from the author through France Book Tours.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Middle-Grades, Young adult

Dog Town by Debbie L. Richardson

Dog Town

Harry, a small brown dog of indeterminate breeding, lives in Little Rover, the small-dogs-only section of Dog Town, with his best friends, Junior, a beagle, and Fleabag, a Chihuahua. He’s a good boy that loves to run and, mostly, obeys the Dog Law. Mostly. Because each time Harry wins a race around Little Rover, he leads an excursion of small dogs into the forbidden territory of the large dogs, Big Rover.

One night on one such tour, Harry and his doggo tourists are surprised by the appearance of the leader of the large dogs, Grizzly, a Doberman pinscher, and his two hench-dogs, Chains and Diesel. The small dogs escape except for Harry who gets left behind, knocked unconscious, behind a large, blue dumpster. Unbeknownst to Grizzly and his pals, when Harry comes to, he realizes the big large dogs are searching for something, and it’s not him. As Harry creeps away, he discovers a hidden underground passage, a stormwater drainage pipe that leads him to a most amazing place: Cat World.

In Harry’s town, there are no cats; they have been extinct for as long as Harry can remember. It is only in dreams that Harry has ever seen a cat, or so he thought. But there in Cat World were all sorts of the creatures: playing, laughing, singing, even watching TV on a comfy sofa. Stealthily, Harry finds his out and back home to Little Rover where he now has a dilemma. If he tells the dogs of Dog Town about Cat World, Grizzly and his gang will destroy the place and harm the cats which Harry doesn’t want to happen. But the cats are hiding an awful secret. Inside their hidden world is a big, horrendous statue of a cat and it is made out of puppy teeth!

Author Debbie L. Richardson has created a fun world of dogs and cats long separated due to an argument among the best of friends – the worst kind of argument you can have! With fun, distinctive characters, readers young and old will enjoy watching them work out their differences. The races incorporated into the story are exciting and the big dogs and night-time settings provide the right amount of menace for thrills. There are doggy puns woven in every now and then that will have readers smiling as will the fun and appropriately doggo names of the streets in the town: Chew Toy Lane, Good Girl Avenue, Fat Belly Road, and the like.

I highly recommend this book, especially for middle-grade readers, and it would be perfect as a school or family read-aloud selection. The writing is so clear and descriptive you can easily see the action, colors, and characters in your mind’s eye. It would make a wonderful film!

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving a free copy.

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Minor Mage, a novella by T. Kingfisher

Minor Mage

Up until now, 12-year-old Oliver has lived a fairly peaceful, if not exactly normal, life with his mother, a retired mercenary, in the quaint village of Loosestrife. But as the village’s wizard when Loosestrife experiences a prolonged drought the villagers expect him to do something about it. However, even though he is the village mage, he is still very young and still trying to figure out magic spells. He had been apprenticed to the village’s previous wizard and although the man was very kind, he was also very old and passed away before fully completing Oliver’s training.

With his mother away visiting his older sister and new baby and armed with the three spells he’s mastered, Oliver and his faithful familiar, an armadillo named Eglamarck, set out for the distant Rainblade Mountains to find the rumored keepers of rain, the mysterious Cloud Herders, and to save his village.

Minor Mage is a great story with genuinely likeable characters, witty dialogue, lots of action, exciting obstacles to overcome, and bad guys to foil. I read this one is one sitting and loved it. The story is suitable for both adult and juvenile audiences, and may be one that would keep even the most reluctant reader coming back and turning pages. (There are short, easily completed chapters, too.) I highly recommend this book for readers that enjoy fantasy quest stories and tales of magic-infused journeys, child or adult.

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Margin of Errors (Stygian Menace, #2) by Henry McAndrews

Margin of Errors

Margin of Errors, a sequel to the excellent series debut, Imminent Domain, has our hero, Evan Trystan and his two friends, Yna and Anil, back on board the Sydney, and trying to evade the Skukulkang, remove the ship, Sydney, from the influence of the Skuk, and alert their former companion vessels that the Alpha Centauri system they are headed for is under Skuk control.

With Anil’s help, Evan is able to override Sydney’s SI and free her and the operational droids from the influence of the Skuk. By commandeering some of the loyal droids, he is able to awaken his friend, Lieutenant Flynn Olafsson from stasis, but before they can get the rest of their squad operational, the Sydney is boarded by Skuk soldiers including Yna’s lost mother, Nadissa. The Skuk torture Flynn and Nadissa grabs Yna to present to the Skuk leader, Baron Kryt, and eventually, to the Suzerain Ugrot himself.

Retrieving his marine squad from stasis, Evan is dismayed when their commander, Lieutenant Elijah Moretti, decides to contact and reunite the Earth vessels in Alpha Centauri rather than pursue the Skuk and their captive, Yna. But when Eli succumbs to the after-effects of coming out of stasis, Evan takes advantage of his incapacitation to take a Skuk ship left onboard the Sydney to the Skuk’s home planet to rescue Yna.

As with Book 1, this story is a never-ending tale of action with Evan trying to determine what’s real and what is only a simulation, and who is a friend and who is not. More is revealed about the mysterious and quirky alien, Anil, and readers are introduced to Evan’s best friends and fellow marines. The story is fun and fast, with the look and feel of a top-notch, and addicting, videogame. I recommend this series for readers that enjoy middle-grade to young adult scifi stories, books featuring aliens, first contact, and generational spaceship travel. As each book builds directly on the action of the previous one, I recommend they be read in order.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving a free copy.

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Imminent Domain (Stygian Menace, #1) by Henry McAndrews

Imminent Domain

When 16-year-old Evan Trystan awoke from his Simulated Reality-distributed studies, he expected to see a crew of over 200 people manning the generational spaceship, Sydney. What he found instead was a nightmare: the crew missing – left behind on a small planet when the ship was contaminated by gamma rays, their companion ships nowhere in sight, 240,066 people including his parents still in deep stasis, and he without the medical knowledge to safely awaken them. Oh, and as the ship approaches the nearest habitable planet, he suddenly found himself smack in the middle of a war between two scientifically-advanced alien races.

Knowing he needed help to keep his fellow travelers alive, he descends to the planet to meet with the inhabitants, the alien race that has protected him thus far, the Enilingu shravat. Greeted by an alien doctor, Dar, and his daughter, Ynayilsaruviga, and reassured that they will assist him, he is shocked to discover the Sydney has abandoned him there on the planet.

Before he and Yna can come up with a plan to reunite Evan and the Sydney, the other alien race, the Skukulkang or Skuk, break through the En’s planetary defenses and invade the planet. The two escape the Skuk on the ground, procure a shuttle from the closest base, and flee the planet just in time to see the En home world destroyed. Now they must elude discovery by the Skuk and get back to the Sydney before they run out of oxygen and luck.

Imminent Domain is the first book in the middle-grade science fiction series, Stygian Menace, by Henry McAndrews. This book has non-stop action, good “good guys,” bad “bad guys,” and others that you just aren’t sure about their loyalties. And with the presence of the Simulated Reality Unit, you can never be quite sure if what is happening is actually happening or a simulation. This is a book the entire family can enjoy and would make a good one to share as a read-aloud. I think even the most reluctant readers would find this a page-turner as well.

(At this time, there is a second book available, Margin of Error, which continues Evan’s story. The author points out that he wrote Imminent Domain for his own children and since its publication, they’ve, of course, matured. This second book contains heightened action intended for a little older audience: 10 and above.)

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The Sacred Artifact (The Young Alchemist, #2) by Caldric Blackwell

Sacred Artifact

When Craig, Audrey, and Cornelius defeated the dark alchemist, Meeks, for the second time, they also secured the source of this dark power: the Sacred Artifact. The three set out to discover what they can about the crystal so it can be destroyed and prevent its immense power from being used for evil ever again. Along the way to the city of Tarvel, where the training ground for alchemy has always been, the trio runs into pirates, exciting adventures, make new friends, and reconnect with old friends from Cornelius’ past.

The Sacred Artifact is a nice follow-up to the first book in The Young Alchemist series, The Missing Alchemist. Once again, the characters are confronted by a variety of interesting and exciting circumstances as they go about their mission that would hold the young, reluctant reader’s attention. I recommend this book for elementary and middle-grade readers as well as for reading aloud to the whole family.

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The Missing Alchemist (The Young Alchemist Series) by Caldric Blackwell

Missing Alchemist

Good, middle-grade adventure quest with magic!

Fourteen year old Craig Pike is an apprentice to Cornelius, one of the last alchemist’s in the realm. A kind, gentle, and overall, excellent man and master, Craig is devoted to him and pulls out all the stops when Cornelius goes missing, and presumed kidnapped, at a feast his honor.

Along the way, Craig meets challenge after challenge, gaining confidence as he perseveres. He teams up with the multi-talented orphan, Audrey Clife, after he helps her escape from town soldiers for running an illegal gambling operation. (She really regrets that she has had to stoop to doing this in order to support her elderly grandparents.) Craig and Audrey continue the quest together, each helping the other through some very exciting situations.

This is a medium length chapter book with constant action that will hold the attention of even the most reluctant readers. Craig is a likeable second to his master, Cornelius, but he really shines when he must come to the rescue. Audrey is a breath of fresh air. She is a strong, confident, female character who young readers will appreciate. I think that this would make a great read-aloud book for the family as a whole but would work really well for the every evening reading assignment that many middle-graders have. I look forward to continuing the saga with Craig, Audrey, Cornelius, and Lily, the horse, too.

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Creatures of the Night (The Horror Diaries #11 – 15) by Heather Beck

This was my introduction to the short scary world of Heather Beck and it was fun. This particular collection of spooky tales is part of her Horror Diaries series currently consisting of 24 horror stories for the middle grade age group.

Each of the stories featured here were scary but not too horrific for the younger set. Each one featured a different creature and regular people dealing with the unnatural circumstances. I can easily see me pulling these stories out in the future to read aloud to grandchildren having a sleepover.

Other reviewers have compared them to the R.L. Stine books from their own youth or that of their children and although I agree, with each coming in at under 50 pages, I think they would have been more attractive to my reluctant (or too busy) readers in the family than the longer Goosebumps.

I recommend these stories for the middle grade age group and parents who, like me, had a reader in the family that needed coaxing to complete their reading. I personally enjoyed reading one a night leading up to Halloween and have already sought out an additional handful to read in the future (Halloween or not!)

I voluntarily reviewed a copy of this book.

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