It’s the final Between the Bookends of 2021! This month, Sophie shares seven books that helped her transition from Spooky Season to the holidays. This month’s collection is mostly middle grade with some hugely important topics being covered, but look out for a festive picture book and a perfect YA holiday romance straight from the pen of a Hallmark movie screenwriter too. We hope you have a happy holiday season and look forward to welcoming you back to Between the Bookends in 2022.
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Brackenbeast by Kate Alice Marshall
Sophie was determined not to let Spooky Season end at the beginning of November, so she picked up Brackenbeast by Kate Alice Marshall, the sequel to Thirteens – a middle-grade horror she enjoyed last year. Spoilers for the first book are present in this review.
In Thirteens, readers were introduced to Eleanor, Otto, and Pip, a trio of twelve-year-olds all about to celebrate their thirteenth birthdays on Halloween. The kids live in the freakishly perfect town of Eden Eld and all three have the ability to see Wrong Things that the adults and most others can’t see. Soon, the kids discovered that well over one hundred years ago, the town elders made a deal with the sinister Mr. January; in order to have the perfect town, they would sacrifice three thirteen-year-olds every thirteen years on Halloween – and their turn was coming. Although the trio escaped from Mr. January’s clutches, they realized that that would only pass the curse on to a new generation, including Eleanor’s newborn niece, and so instead they made a deal of their own. If they could escape from Mr. January’s two sisters as well, The People Who Look Away could never come after another kid from Eden Eld again.
In Brackenbeast, the spring equinox is approaching and it’s the turn of Mr. January’s first sister to try and capture the renegade kids. Mud monsters have started appearing out of the woods and people are going missing around town, just as the trio meets Karri Prosper, a bubbly saleswoman for the SixSeed cosmetics MLM. Once again, the kids will need to use their special book of fairytales, the hidden room inside Eleanor’s old house, and any help the Cat of Ashes is willing to provide in order to figure out how to evade this latest evil, but they might also find some truly unexpected help too.
Sophie thinks she may have enjoyed Brackenbeast even more than Thirteens. The story certainly leaps straight into the action and rarely pauses to catch its breath with dramatic scene after dramatic scene all the way through. There is some great character development for the kids – Pip in particular who is still reeling from the events of the previous book – and the town itself feels creepier than ever. As an adult reader, Sophie could see all the big surprise reveals coming a mile off and the conclusion did feel a little bit improbable, but this was entirely forgivable given that this is a middle-grade story and part of an ongoing series.
Brackenbeast is a great continuation to the Thirteens series and Sophie is already looking forward to the next book and meeting Mr. January’s other sister.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Sophie’s second book this month was an audiobook from Penguin that she ended up devouring in just one day! A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll is a contemporary middle-grade set in Scotland with an autistic protagonist and a fascinating plot about the Scottish witch trials.
Eleven-year-old Addie is an autistic tween girl living in a small town outside Edinburgh with her parents and two older sisters: Nina and Keedie, the latter of whom is also autistic. Addie is struggling at primary school thanks to a vindictive teacher who has labeled her a lazy troublemaker, and the loss of her best friend who has decided to hang out with the popular girls instead after deciding that Addie is just too “weird”. In the same week, two things happen that change Addie’s life. First, new girl Audrey moves up from London, and second, the class begins to learn about witch trials that took place in their village hundreds of years ago.
Addie immediately becomes obsessed with the witch trials. She identifies strongly with the women who were ostracised by their community and killed just because they were different – too outspoken, too quiet, too clever. Determined that the women shouldn’t be forgotten, Addie begins to campaign for a village memorial to commemorate them but finds herself butting heads with council leaders who are committed to keeping the village’s reputation as “nice” as possible. Working with her new best friend Audrey and sister Keedie, Addie fights back but discovers that society hasn’t moved on as far as we might like to think, with modern-day “witch trials” still happening to people just like her.
This was a fantastic story with a well-rounded autistic protagonist who is far more than just a single label. Addie is an interesting, caring, and often funny character with whom Sophie connected instantly. The book allows neurotypical readers to catch a glimpse of how difficult life can be for autistic people forced to mask their true selves every day, while autistic readers might appreciate reading from a more familiar point of view – some readers might even realize that they might be as neurotypical as they first thought.
A Kind of Spark should probably carry trigger warnings for bullying, and institutional ableism. Some of the scenes between Addie and her teacher were especially hard to stomach knowing that there are real autistic people facing such prejudices every day, and in one scene Addie is faced with classmates using a truly horrific word to describe her. The witch trials are also described in some detail with mention of torture and methods of execution which some readers might find upsetting. While the so-called witches of the book are fictional, their story is very strongly based on truth as over 2,500 people were put on trial for witchcraft in Scotland with many suffering the same fate.
This was a powerful read that Sophie would recommend to any readers, middle grade or older.
This Town is a Nightmare by M. K. Krys
Sophie also picked up another series continuation in This Town is a Nightmare by M. K. Krys. This middle-grade sci-fi is the sequel to This Town is Not Alright and spoilers for the first book are present in this review.
At the end of This Town is Not Alright, twins Beacon and Everleigh along with their dad and Beacon’s best friend Arthur had escaped from their small coastal town of Driftwood Harbor after discovering it had been taken over by an alien race known as the Sov who planned to turn humanity into mindless slaves through “vitamin” injections. This Town is a Nightmare picks up several weeks later with the group hiding out in New York City where their money is dwindling and time is running out to stop the Sov from taking over the planet.
Soon enough, the kids discover that not everyone is who they say they are. They team up with a homeless boy named Galen and his dog Boots to infiltrate their way back into Driftwood Harbor to carry off an important heist but realize as they do that things are much worse than they had initially believed. Former friends and enemies switch sides and help comes from unexpected sources as the kids attempt to save their town and their planet.
This is a fun series provided you don’t look too deeply at it. As with many middle-grade books, the surprising twists can often be seen coming from miles away (at least by adult readers) and the plot can be a little predictable, but that doesn’t stop this from being an enjoyable story and a great introduction to alien invasion stories and science-fiction for younger readers.
Sophie felt like she might have enjoyed this book more than the first in the series as it allowed for some more character development and a lot more action. She was slightly annoyed by the ending which seemed to throw in a last-second setup for another book despite having tied everything up nicely in this one. Whether or not a third book is coming or we’ll just be left with an unresolved cliffhanger, Sophie would still recommend picking this up for the middle-grade literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster popcorn movie.
Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson, Illustrated by Reggie Brown
As much as she didn’t want the Halloween season to end, Sophie also spent November starting to prepare for Christmas, and that included reading her first Christmas book of the year: Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson.
Santa in the City follows a young girl named Deja who lives in an apartment building in a big city. Deja believes in Santa but when her friends cause her to have doubts, she begins asking her mother lots of questions. Where does Santa park his sleigh when there’s no space on the street? How will he get inside when they have no chimney? And how will Santa find them if their building isn’t decorated like the houses in the holiday movies? Thankfully, Deja’s mum, her relatives, and the locals in and around her building are all there to help reassure her that Santa really does visit kids in the city too.
Holiday movies tend to have a certain look (large, heavily decorated houses in the suburbs filled with smiling, and very white, families) and for kids growing up in families, homes, and neighborhoods that look very different from that stereotype, doubts can begin to niggle that perhaps the holidays aren’t meant for people like them. Santa in the City is a beautiful and inspiring picture book that shows how the Christmas spirit is alive and well in big cities too and that Santa will always find a way to visit on Christmas Eve, no matter where you live. It will also show kids that do live in those stereotypical suburbs, that Christmas can look different from what they see around them and on their screens while still being the same holiday underneath.
The Lion Above the Door by Onjali Q. Raúf
The month of Remembrance Day, Veterans Day, and Armistice Day felt like an appropriate one for Sophie to read The Lion Above the Door by Onjali Q. Raúf, a middle-grade novel that looks at not only how we remember past conflicts, but also who gets to be remembered.
Leo and his best friend Sangeeta are Year Four pupils at their primary school in southern England where they are also some of the only children of color. Their class is working on the topic of World War Two and both the children notice that none of the photographs in their history books are of people who look like them, nor do any of the heroes discussed there have similar names. However, on a field trip to Rochester Cathedral, Leo spots something incredible. Inside is a wall dedicated to soldiers from all over the former British Empire and included there is his exact name, along with many others – some sharing Sangeeta’s surname, Singh.
Leo vows to include his namesake’s story in the class project, one that has a chance to be shown on national TV, but no matter how hard he tries, he struggles to learn anything about the man. It seems as if all the men and women on the memorial war have been left out of the history books. He, Sangeeta, and a few allies come up with a cunning plan to make sure the heroes aren’t forgotten, but can they overcome red tape, family tensions, and other people determined to see them fail?
Sophie absolutely loved The Lion Above the Door which handled the sensitive topic of race and racism in history perfectly. Leo experiences the impact of racism in many different ways – from direct name-calling by classmates to the missing chapters in a history book and to his own family’s attitude to those around them – and although this is hard to read, it is also eye-opening to see how the many micro-aggressions he encounters every day have formed what he calls an invisible bruise inside him. She also appreciated that not everything falls into place perfectly by the end, as can sometimes happen in middle-grade books. Not everyone learns the error of their ways by the end, just as they don’t in real life.
Despite handling a heavy topic, this was a fun book that captured young friendship and the feeling of being back at primary school. With a pair of instantly relatable characters and a well-fleshed-out supporting cast too, Sophie found this to be one of the best middle-grade books she has read this year.
The Renegade Reporters by Elissa Brent Weissman
Sophie’s final middle-grade book of November was The Renegade Reporters by Elissa Brent Weissman. This wonderful story introduces three young reporters who make a shocking discovery about something going on within the very walls of their school.
Ash is the former anchor of The News at Nine, a morning news show broadcast every morning in her middle school and sponsored by Van Ness Media, a local company that supplies advertising-free audiovisual software to schools across America. She and her best friend Maya, the show’s former camerawoman, were both removed from the production after an embarrassing incident involving their PE teacher, and Ash is desperate to be back in front of the camera reporting the news. Realizing the school has no plans to revoke their punishment, Ash, Maya, and their friend Brielle decide to found their own local news channel on YouTube reporting on local issues: The Underground News.
Soon, however, the girls stumble upon a bigger story than they could ever have dreamed of uncovering when they realize that Van Ness Media has been secretly creating detailed profiles of every kid using their software and selling their information to advertisers. With the company about to launch a new journaling program for kids to record their supposedly private thoughts and dreams, the girls know they have to break their scoop as quickly as possible, but can three middle school kids really stand up to an enormous corporation that appears to be holding all the cards?
The Renegade Reporters was a fantastic story that tackles a hugely important topic but one Sophie has never seen covered in a book before. Ash, Maya, and Brielle quickly become well-versed in the information economy. They learn everything from what the cookies stored on your computer do, how websites gather information on their visitors, the meaning of COPPA, and how their own personal information can be valuable to advertisers. Even better, the book didn’t completely demonize targeted advertising. It is explained how data gathering can be used to help users see information that is relevant and often useful to them, but then goes on to show that it is important those same users know who is collecting what information about them, and that they have the choice to opt-in or not.
This is an excellent book that explains a complicated topic in an easy-to-understand way and is one I would highly recommend all young people read as they begin spending more and more of their time online.
So, This is Christmas by Tracy Andreen
Sophie’s final book of November was So, This is Christmas by Tracy Andreen, a holiday-themed YA contemporary that would usually be well outside Sophie’s typical reading wheelhouse but surprised her by ending up a five-star read.
Sixteen-year-old Finley Brown is struggling at the prestigious private boarding school she attends in Connecticut so when she returns without warning to her small Oklahoma hometown of Christmas (a recent renaming that the run-down town has gone all-in on in the hope of promoting tourism), she doesn’t intend to go back. However, she quickly discovers that her ridiculously posh English classmate Arthur has also turned up in Christmas with his Aunt Esha, and they are both staying at the inn owned by Finley’s grandmother.
It turns out that Aunt Esha simply loves Christmas, but in an attempt to impress her high society classmates, Finley may have hacked her hometown’s website and filled it with stunning (but also stunningly fake) photographs that made Christmas, Oklahoma look like a festive paradise. Photographs that Arthur saw, and believed, and then used to convince his Aunt to change their holiday plans so they could visit Finley’s hometown instead. That’s how Finley has ended up spending her Christmas break showing Arthur and his Aunt all that Christmas has to offer.
As more and more personal drama spins itself around Finley, she soon finds that the highlight of her days is her time spent with Arthur, but she’s certain she can’t have a crush on the strangely rigid boy from England and even more certain that he couldn’t return it.
This was a ridiculously sweet rom-com of a book that would make for a perfect Hallmark movie, which makes sense given that this is the debut novel from a Hallmark movie screenwriter. Yes, the whole thing is filled to the brim with cliches from Christmas cookie baking to sleigh rides, holiday parades to endless descriptions of snow and hot chocolate, but somehow it all works and still feels fresh. Finley is a likable protagonist, the miscommunications that usually provide eye-rolling moments in romance books are minimal, and there are multiple genuinely interesting side plots. Sophie was especially pleased to note an important LGBTQ storyline running parallel to the main plot, important because it featured older characters when so many LGBTQ stories focus exclusively on teens.
So, This is Christmas really helped get Sophie in the mood for the holidays and she hopes it might do the same for you.
GeekMom received copies of all titles featured here for review purposes.