Category: Middle Grade

Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies

Cover image for Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Liesby Jordan Jacobs

ISBN 978-1-4022-7560-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013.

“With her entire being, Samantha wanted to be an archaeologist, just like her Uncle Jay. On weekends, her parents would sometimes drive her from their home in Davis, California, and drop her off at her uncle’s university on the far side of San Francisco Bay. Samantha and Jay would talk for hours, sprawled among his notes and photographs.” 

Twelve-year-old Samantha Sutton dreams of being an archaeologist when she grows up, just like her Uncle Jay. So when her Uncle invites her to spend the summer helping him on an excavation at Chavín de Huántar in the Peruvian Andes, it’s a dream come true. Unfortunately, the only way to convince her parents to let her go is if her thirteen-year-old brother, Evan, goes too. Sam is determined not to let her brother ruin her summer, even when the grad student assigned to supervise them seems to prefer Evan, despite his lack of interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, Adam’s prejudice isn’t her biggest problem. Chavín de Huántar is being looted despite the careful precautions being taken at the site, and tensions between the archaeological team and the local government are rising. Residents of the valley blame El Loco—the Madman—for the thefts, and it is up to Sam to figure out if El Loco is really the culprit, or just a ghost story.

I picked up this title to fill out the Action Adventure category of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, but for the most part, there was more mystery than action or adventure, as Samantha tries to suss out who is looting the site. Most of the action and adventure comes towards the end of the novel. The mystery takes a while to build up, and the interim is about archaeology, navigating a foreign culture and language, and sibling rivalry. These are all great themes, and Jordan Jacobs does them justice. I particularly liked his attention the ethics of the situation, and the conversation Sam and her Uncle have after the grave of an Incan girl is unearthed on the site. Jacobs is an archaeologist himself, and this book does a much better job of representing the realities of the discipline than other media kids might be familiar with, such as Indiana Jones, or Tomb Raider.  However, I think that young readers might appreciate a little more action mixed in with the educational material. If I found this book to be a bit slow-paced, I can only imagine how it would feel for a kid. I would recommend this title for middle grade readers with a strong interest in archaeology or South America, but I think other young readers might struggle to get through it. It could also work well in the classroom in conjunction with a unit on Peru, or ancient civilizations.

Volume two, Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen, is due out in January.

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2013eclecticreaderThis title fulfills the Action Adventure requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.

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Fortunately, the Milk

Cover images for Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Skottie Young (US) / Chris Riddell (UK)

ISBN 978-0-06-2224077-1 (US) / 978-1-4088-4176-1 (UK)

I think there should have been some nice wumpires,” said my sister wistfully. “Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.”

“There were not,” said my father.

Mum has gone off to a conference to present a paper on lizards, and Dad is left alone with his two kids. He thinks he has the situation under control, but after making tea and hot chocolate, there’s no milk left for breakfast cereal, or worse, for that essential morning cup of tea. Dad goes out for milk, and returns much later, spinning a wild tale about being kidnapped by aliens, held captive by pirates, traveling through space and time with a stegosaurus, and nearly being eaten by wumpires before finally making it home. Or possibly he got caught up talking with Mr. Ronson from over the road. But whatever happened, fortunately, the milk made it home, too.

Playfully told by Neil Gaiman and comically illustrated by Skottie Young (US edition) or Chris Riddell (UK edition), Fortunately the Milk is an imaginative lark through space and time. Dad’s adventure is filled with shameless exaggeration and matter-of-fact ridiculousness. Parents will appreciate the lengths to which Dad will go to spin his story, and kids will delight in the way his children try their best to catch him out. The plot has a slightly Whovian feel, albeit the sort that you might find from a Dad telling his kids a story about the legend of the Doctor, as opposed to an episode of the show itself.

The American edition is illustrated by Skottie Young, whose exaggerated art style lends itself excellently to Gaiman’s over-the-top narrative. Look especially for Sister’s imagining of “nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.” Young also wins extra points for depicting bottled milk, while Riddell opts for a carton.

The Dad of Chris Riddell’s book is reminiscent of Gaiman himself, although the hair isn’t nearly wild enough. If you are reading the UK edition, don’t skip the afterword on the artist; keep a special eye out here for the wumpire Pale and Interesting Edvard. There is also a fantastic fold out page in the middle of the book, featuring Splod, the “god of people with short, funny names.”

The good news is that no matter where you live and which edition you will be getting as a result, Fortunately, the Milk is an excellent tongue-in-cheek adventure. Though different, both artists bring their own sense of humour to bear to complement Gaiman’s writing.

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Also by Neil Gaiman:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Chu’s Day

The Graveyard Book

Sandman Volume 1

Click-Clack the Rattlebag 

Poison

Poison by Bridget Zinnby Bridget Zinn

ISBN 978-1-4231-3993-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

She didn’t like children at the best of times, and now was certainly nowhere near the best of of times. It was even possibly the worst of times, though Kyra kept thinking she’d hit bottom only to discover that things could still get worse.”

Sixteen-year-old Master Potioner Kyra had made a pretty good life for herself in the Kingdom of Mohr. After defying her parents’ wishes and becoming a potioner’s apprentice at age ten, she quickly mastered her craft. She set up the Master Trio of Potioners, and met her fiancé in the process. But after attempting to assassinate her childhood best friend, the Princess Ariana, Kyra has been forced to go on the run. Her former teachers, business partners and the entire King’s Army are all out to get her. With nowhere left to turn for help, Kyra makes an uneasy bargain with master criminal Arlo Abbaduto, who provides her with the means to track down the princess, who has gone into hiding. Accompanied by her pet pig, Rosie, and a strangely persistent young man named Fred, Kyra sets out to save the Kingdom from certain doom which only she can prevent.

More fairy tale than fantasy, Poison is a whimsical, irreverent romp through a classic magical kingdom. Although the publisher has recommended this novel for grades seven to twelve, I would suggest it for readers at the lower end of that spectrum, as well as upper middle grade readers. While not without its surprises, Poison may be a little too predictable for older teens. Fortunately, Zinn’s saucy and impertinent attitude and her willingness to make fun of the clichés and conventions that make the plot predictable ultimately save it from itself. Despite the potentially dark premise—what if you had to kill your best friend to save the world?—Poison is much more humour than drama. I suspect that The Princess Bride was a strong source of inspiration for this novel. Although it was not my cup of tea, I would recommend it as a fun read for readers in the 10-14 range.

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