RESTART by Gordon Korman

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When he wakes up, he is in the hospital, surrounded by strangers.  A woman is crying and calling him Chase, but the name doesn’t seem right.  He looks in a mirror and realizes he doesn’t know himself.  After falling off the roof, Chase has lost all memory of the first thirteen years of his life.  What’s even stranger than not knowing people is that people do seem to know him.  And most of them don’t like him–even seem afraid of him.  The more he learns about himself, the more Chase dislikes himself.  But how could that be?  Did the fall change who he was?  Or is Chase the bully still inside him somewhere?  As he grows closer to the people who once feared him, Chase must figure out who he really is or risk hurting the people he cares about most.

A wonderful coming of age story in which a boy is able to rebuild himself, piecing together those parts of him that he likes and discovering a new capacity for compassion.  It gives inspiration to all of us who fall short of our ideal hopes for ourselves and strive to be better friends and citizens.  I highly recommend it to middle grade fans of realistic fiction.

CALICO GIRL by Jerdine Nolen

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Callie knows that one day she will be free like her father, who was granted his freedom by Mistress Catherine, his half-sister.  But slavery’s cruel reality has never felt more real than when her brother is sold to an unknown plantation in Alabama only a few months into the war.  Callie can hardly bear to think that she will never see him again, even though she knows it is likely.  It’s a good thing Master is leaving to fight for the Confederacy, or else Callie might not be able to hold her tongue.  Just a few weeks after Master’s departure, unbelievable news reaches the plantation.  Since Virginia has seceded from the Union, Fort Monroe has been accepting runaway slaves as “contraband of war” and refusing to return them to their masters.  The slaves in the fort are free.  The children can even go to school!  Embracing the possibility of freedom, Callie and her family head to Ft. Monroe to begin a new life as “contraband.”

Although I was raised in Virginia, I never learned about Ft. Monroe and the thousands of Virginian slaves who found their freedom there.  Callie’s story presents a fascinating history as well as a thought-provoking reflection on what it means to be a slave, “contraband,” or free.  Although I wasn’t fond of the omniscient narration style, I would highly recommend this book to middle grade historical fiction readers.

FRICTION by Sandra Brown

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The minute Judge Spencer starts asking about his past, Crawford knows he’s lost.  His in-laws will keep custody of Georgia, and his sweet little girl will only see him on weekends.  A split second later, a masked gunman enters the courtroom, kills the bailiff, and aims for the judge.  Crawford’s Texas Ranger instincts kick in.  He tackles Holly Spencer to the ground, shielding her bodily, and kicks out at the gunman, who flees the scene.  Crawford follows.  After a rooftop shootout, the man with the gun is killed, but no motive can be found.  And Crawford’s reckless pursuit has likely sealed the fate of his custody case.  But when Crawford  goes to Holly’s house to check in on her, things take an unexpected turn as their mutual attraction leads to one amorous encounter after another.  Their relationship gets more complicated as Crawford becomes a suspect in the shooting–and it turns out that Holly might not have been the target after all.

This fast-paced romantic suspense novel is marred only slightly by the stereotypical tall-dark-handsome male lead.  But his love for his daughter rounds out his character a bit, and the compelling female protagonist makes the relationship more engaging.  The sex-at-first-sight is a little ridiculous, but it is not atypical for the genre.  Overall, a fun read for romantic suspense fans!

HELLO, UNIVERSE by Erin Entrada Kelly

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Virgil has a problem.  He knows that he and Valencia are destined to be friends. (They have the same initials! It is fate!)  But Valencia doesn’t know he exists, and unlike the brave Filipino heroes in his grandmother’s stories, Virgil is a shy and quiet and too scared to introduce himself.  Fortunately, he knows just who to take his problem to: Kaori.

Valencia has a problem, too.  She has been haunted by nightmares that she doesn’t understand.  Not to mention being tormented by the local bully, Chet the Bull, who mocks her for being deaf.  When she discovers an advertisement for Kaori, the child psychic, she decides to take the risk and make an appointment.  But her appointment is interrupted when Kaori realizes that one of her other clients has vanished, and Valencia joins in the search.

This story of the intertwined lives of four children has just enough intrigue and suspense to keep the reader going.  I wasn’t personally fond of the switching point of views and mixture of first and third person narration, but the story itself is engaging.  I’d recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy realistic fiction.

YOU DON’T KNOW MY NAME by Kristen Orlando 

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Reagan Elizabeth Hillis has been known by many names.  The type of work her parents do for the Black Angels, a secret branch of the CIA, has required them to change homes and identities more times than she can keep track of.  Reagan is being groomed to join the Black Angels as soon as she graduates from high school, which will at this point be in only a few months, but Reagan isn’t sure she wants to go to the Academy.  Even though she’s been training all her life, and her martial arts skills do come in handy for taking out bullies, she kind of just wants to go to college.  With Luke.  She can’t bear the thought of leaving Luke.  And she fears she might have to even sooner than graduation.  A mysterious new janitor is following her around at school. If she tells her parents, they’ll have moved before the end of the day.  But Reagan soon learns the consequences of keeping a dangerous secret and must fight to save her parents’ lives–and her own.

Fast-paced with engaging characters and a storyline that comes to a thrilling, impossible-to-put-down climax, I highly recommend this novel to teen thriller fans.

THE GAUNTLET by Karuna Riazi

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Farah sometimes hates having to spend all her time with her little brother, Ahmad.  She knows that his ADD makes it difficult for him sometimes and that she should be nice.  But on her birthday?  When her two best friends from her old town have come to the new house to spend time with her?  Thinking she has finally shaken him off, Farah, Essie, and Alex slip upstairs to open Farah’s present from her Aunt Zohra.  But Ahmad has gotten there first, tearing off the paper and discovering what seems to be a game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand.  Farah has a bad feeling about it.  It seems to have a heartbeat.  And when they open it up, the game grows before their eyes into a miniature maze-like tower, almost like a whole city.  Before they can stop him, An excited Ahmad leaps into the game and vanishes.  It turns out The Gauntlet was not meant to be Farah’s birthday present.  The Gauntlet is the harrowing, sentient game that stole Aunt Zohra’s best friend decades ago–a game that Aunt Zohra has kept ever since to keep other children from becoming ensnared.  But now it is too late, and Ahmad’s only hope is for Farah, Essie, and Alex to enter the game world as well, to win each of the Architect’s challenges, and to make it out alive.

A neat read, this book is a sort of Middle Eastern Jumanji.  The game world is richly imagined, and the challenges the children face remind me of The Mysterious Benedict Society.  Young readers who enjoy fantasy that is rooted in the real world and/or books with riddles and puzzles should check it out.

FROSTBLOOD by Elly Blake 

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Ruby thought her life of running and hiding her powers was torture.  That was before the real torture began–before the Frostblood king’s guards found her, killed her mother, and imprisoned her in a dungeon of ice.  After six months in prison, even her fire powers can’t warm her.  But when two mysterious figures with frost powers rescue her, she isn’t sure whether to be grateful or afraid.  Surely a Frostblood would never help a Fireblood.  They take her to a monastery and the older Frostblood, Brother Thistle, begins to train her to control her powers.  He needs her to carry out a mission for him to destroy the cursed throne, and hepledges to keep her safe, no matter how suspicious the other monks may be.  The younger Frostblood is definitely not a monk.  A warrior with a scarred face and a surly disposition, Arcus initially infuriates Ruby, but soon earns her respect and maybe something more.  But nothing–not even love–will get in the way of Ruby’s own mission.   She will destroy the throne for Brother Thistle, but then she will finally avenge her mother’s death by killing the Frostblood king.  

I am so glad I picked up this book!  I hesitated since the plot seemed so tired (boy and girl with opposing magic powers fall in love and kill the king), but what it lacked in originality, it made up for in compelling characters, good pacing, and a complex picture of good, evil, and the human heroes and villains who fall somewhere inbetween.   In many ways, the story reminded me of the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamara Pierce.  The romance itself is very Elizabeth Bennett-Mr. Darcy.  As the ending was left open for a series, it will be interesting to see how Blake keeps the relationship tension alive in subsequent books, since the romance was completed in the first.    

Very highly recommended to teen fantasy readers!