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! 

A LIST OF CAGES by Robin Roe 

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Julian hasn’t seen his former foster brother since Uncle Russell took him in.  Uncle Russell told him how much Adam and his mom hated him. He was such a burden to them.  And now he’s a burden to Uncle Russell.  He hates himself for all the mistakes he makes.  And for how he can’t even make it to school the days after Uncle Russell’s punishments.  

Adam can hardly believe it when he sees Julian at school.  The kid looks so different!  His new guardian never responded to any of his mom’s requests to check up on him.  It is so wonderful to see him again!  Except that something seems wrong.  As the year progresses, Adam realizes that something very dark is happening in Julian’s life, and he will have to make a choice between protecting Julian’s privacy and reaching out to help.

Through this dark tale of an abusice guardian, readers can see the warning signs of abuse, the wrongness of a child blaming himself for being abused, and the importance of speaking up about suspected abuse, even at the risk of losing a friendship.  Recommended for realistic fiction readers who can handle some disturbing subject matter.

FIRE COLOR ONE by Jenny Valentine

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Iris knows why her mother and Lowell moved them all to England.   They said it was because of her arson charges, but Iris knows it’s really because they ran out of money and need to come crawling back to her filthy rich dad, Ernest, who abandoned them so long ago that Iris doesn’t even remember him.  When they find out Ernest is terminally ill with only months to live, Iris’ mom is ecstatic.  Soon the fortune will be theirs!  At Ernest’s request Iris, her mom, and Lowell all travel to visit him at his estate.  Iris is stunned by Ernest’s art collection.  But everything seems to remind her of her best friend, Thurston, who was a New York performance artist and whom she will never see again.  Or get to apologize to.  She expects to get an apology from Ernest, but soon learns that her mother’s side of the story may not be the whole truth.  With only a few weeks to develop a relationship with the father she has never known, and to figure out her relationship with the mother who has deceived her, Iris knows healing can only come from two things: fire and art.

Rich in imagery, this novel explores the relationships of a dysfunctional family and eccentric friends with an endearing protagonist whose only means of release and escape is lighting fires.  The book will find its audience with teens who enjoy realistic fiction and literary fiction.

A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL by Eric Lindstrom

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None of Mel’s friends know about what happened to her brother.  They don’t even know why she missed so much school last year or why she had to break off her friendship with Zumi, Connor, and Annie.  But as managing her bipolar disorder becomes more of a challenge, Mel worries that they might start to guess her secrets.  Especially as her new friendship with David seems like it could become more than just a friendship.  In order for that to happen, though, she will have to let him in.

I had trouble putting this book down!  Lindstrom masterfully builds suspense as readers yearn to uncover Mel’s hinted-at secrets while at the same time developing his rich and interesting characters.  I highly recommend this novel to teen realistic fiction fans!

A BOY CALLED BAT by Elana K. Arnold 

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Bat got his name because his initials are B. A. T. But it stuck because of the way Bat flaps his arms when he gets excited or overwhelmed. And because of his extra sensitive hearing, which sometimes requires him to wear earmuffs.  It’s okay with him because a bat is an animal, and Bat loves animals.  When he grows up, he is going to be a vet like his mom.  When his mom brings home a newborn skunk kit, Bat is ecstatic.  It will be a perfect pet! There are only two problems.  First, Bat still has to spend Every Other Fridays at his dad’s house, which is bad both because it breaks up his normal routine and takes time away from the kit.  And second, his mom says they have to turn the kit over to a skunk rescue in a month.  Bat can’t change Every Other Fridays, but he embarks on a mission to change his mom’s mind about the skunk rescue.  Step One: contact international skunk expert Dr. Jerry Dragoo.   

A sweet story about a boy’s love for his pet and struggle to find a place in his community.  This novel will be best for readers who have graduated from transitional to full-fledged chapter books (typically grades 3-4). 

THE RADIUS OF US by Marie Marquardt 

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It took less than two minutes for Gretchen’s life to change.  She was hit from behind, crushed into the asphalt, and robbed.  And then she witnessed something even worse.  Six months later she’s still having panic attacks.  Phoenix has them, too.  After what he experienced of gang violence in El Salvador, and his harrowing journey through Mexico, he is now being treated as a criminal for seeking asylum in the United States.  His brother Ari, in his group home in Texas, is worse:not speaking a word to anyone.  A legal adult at 18, Phoenix is grateful to have a place to live in Atlanta, even though he knows he will soon be sent back and killed. Almost no one from El Salvador is allowed to stay, even when deportation is a death sentence. But when he meets Gretchen, things begin to change.  He begins to enjoy his life in the U.S.  And Gretchen begins to venture out of her shell.  Together, they begin to heal from the traumas gang violence brought to their lives.

A horrifying glimpse into the realities of gang warfare and the Central American refugee journey, The Radius of Us does not shy away from graphic violence.   As disturbing as some scenes are, the novel helps teen (and adult) readers understand how gangs can take hold of the lives of children and teens and what the experience of fleeing to the U.S can mean for these children, including being abducted up by drug cartels and trafficked as slaves.  And memories and flashbacks aside, the story is busting with kindness and hope.  It does have the fairly trite plot where the girl kicks the boy out, but once he’s gone suddenly learns from his friends all these wonderful things about him and must therefore go on a road trip to get him back.  But still a worthwhile read.