In this month’s Between the Bookends, we’ll be covering two months’ worth of reading thanks to me unexpectedly ending up in hospital when the last column should have been published! This double column is also (unintentionally) entirely middle-grade, so sit back and check out what we’ve been reading since the end of July.
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Fire on Headless Mountain by Iain Lawrence
Eleven-year-old Virgil Pepper and his older siblings Josh (19) and Kaitlyn (14) are taking their very first road trip together in their old camper van, Rusty. They’re headed to Little Lost Lake which sits at the foot of Headless Mountain and at the end of an eighty-mile long dirt road known as the Boneyard. It was their late mother’s favorite place and the Pepper siblings are on a mission to fulfill her final wish and scatter her ashes there—a mission their father couldn’t bring himself to join them on.
However, the mission turns deadly when Rusty breaks down halfway along the Boneyard leaving the kids stranded on the deserted road. Lightning has set a tree alight on the other side of Headless Mountain and as the flames edge closer and closer, the three siblings end up separated as they race for survival. Thankfully, Virgil can recall the lessons his mother—a science teacher—taught him about wilderness survival, nature, and more. Can he use them to survive the wildfire, and does every choice need to be perfectly logical when lives are at stake?
Fire on Headless Mountain was a brilliant middle-grade novel that I devoured in barely a day. Virgil’s story is terrifying in just how believable it is as an ordinary trip on an ordinary day transforms rapidly into a fight for survival in a hostile environment. We are constantly reminded of just how dangerous wildfires can be and how quickly they can take hold and spread. Woven into the story are lessons about science (Virgil builds a water distiller from items lying around his van), ecosystems (we see how the fire impacts everything including plants, animals, and people), and even politics (one of the reasons the fire is allowed to take hold is that a lookout tower isn’t being manned due to budget cuts).
For adult readers, the writing style is a little heavy-handed at times with dozens of flashbacks formatted in italics where Virgil recounts lessons from his mom ahead of following the wisdom she imparted, but this didn’t detract from the story and may well be helpful for younger readers. Overall, this was a great book that helped me learn more about wildfires and will be especially useful for youngsters living in areas prone to these catastrophic natural disasters.
Read Fire on Headless Mountain: Amazon
The Hayley Mysteries: The Haunted Studio by Hayley LeBlanc
Hayley LeBlanc and her two best friends Aubrey and Cody are the stars of Sadie Solves It, a TV show about an amateur sleuth that has recently been renewed for a second season. For season two, production has moved from a remote soundstage in the LA Valley to a stage at Silver Screen Studios in the heart of Hollywood and the team is excited, but for Hayley and her friends, it all feels a bit like the first day at a new school. There are new team members on set, everything feels unfamiliar, and the crew seems to be taking things a bit more seriously than last year.
But as soon as production begins, weird events start happening on set. A heavy light falls from the ceiling right where Hayley should have been standing, an electrical fire breaks out delaying production, and someone is nearly crushed by falling crates. Meanwhile, people keep whispering about the ghost who supposedly haunts the very stage they are working on and rumors begin to spread that the ghost wants their show to fail. With the future of Sadie Solves It now in jeopardy, and Cody at risk of being moved back to Texas if the show fails, Hayley decides that she needs to solve the mystery just like her on-screen persona would. But what is really behind the haunting, and can Hayley stop it before her show is canceled for good?
The Hayley Mysteries: The Haunted Studio is the first in a new middle-grade series from 13-year-old YouTuber and actress Hayley LeBlanc with two more books—The Missing Jewels and The Secret on Set—due for publication before the end of the year. Whether or not this book was actually written by Hayley herself is debatable and writing a series with yourself as the star is perhaps a little weird, but given her 1.5million YouTube subscribers, presumably, there’s a strong market for this series.
Personally, I found the book itself rather lacking. The plot feels like something out of Scooby Doo but lacks the comedy elements that make Scooby a success (sadly there are no towering sandwiches to be found). The characters are relatively diverse—Aubrey is Black and Cody has two moms—but one-dimensional to the point where I could barely recall anything about them after finishing the book, and the writing feels quite simplistic, closer to a chapter book than a full-on middle-grade novel.
Fans of Hayley LeBlanc will no doubt be clamoring for this one, but I can’t see it appealing much outside of that existing sphere.
Read The Hayley Mysteries: The Haunted Studio: Amazon, Bookshop
Empty Smiles (Small Spaces #4) by Katherine Arden
The Small Spaces series by Katherine Arden has been an ongoing favorite of mine since I read the first book in 2018. This middle-grade horror series finally reached its conclusion when the fourth and final book—Empty Smiles—was published this summer. So did the final book live up to expectations? Absolutely not.
In Empty Smiles, Coco, Brian, and Phil are desperately trying to figure out how to rescue their best friend Ollie from the clutches of the Smiling Man, after she willingly sacrificed herself to him at the end of the penultimate book in order to save her father’s life. The trio has been promised one chance to win her back and has been trying to prepare. But with no idea what that chance will look like or when it will arrive, they’re finding themselves stumped.
Ollie, meanwhile, has found herself aboard a train that seems to run endlessly through nowhere. But after several weeks, the train magically transforms into a carnival, and Ollie sets out to explore, soon learning the horrifying secret behind the clowns that stalk the midway. She has also begun to strike up a relationship with the Smiling Man himself through the pair’s regular games of chess, Ollie using the time to try and learn more about her adversary so she can help her friends in their rescue attempt whenever it may happen.
As the summer stretches on, the carnival draws closer to the town where Coco, Brian, and Phil are waiting, and their one chance to reunite their group for good.
The first three-quarters of Empty Smiles were as brilliant as the previous books in the series, filled with a genuine sense of looming terror than at times feels too much for middle grade. The secret of the clowns is bone-chilling and the Smiling Man’s carnival is creepy in ways that reminded me strongly of Ray Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. But it’s the final few chapters that absolutely destroyed this book for me. The game for Ollie’s freedom ended up being such a non-event that I thought we were still in the buildup to it when it was almost over, and the climax was about as anti-climatic as it comes with everything building to an ending that effectively read “and then the mean man stopped being mean and everyone went home the end.” I turned the page expecting the story to continue and found myself looking at the acknowledgments.
I can’t begin to convey how much of a letdown Empty Smiles ended up being after the three such brilliant books before it. Perhaps younger readers will enjoy it more, but for me, I will no longer be recommending this series to new readers based entirely on this finale.
Read Empty Smiles: Amazon, Bookshop
Amari and the Great Game (Supernatural Investigations #2) by B.B. Alston
After saving the world, Amari Peters could be forgiven for thinking that her second summer at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs and first as a Junior Agent were going to be easy. However, she quickly realizes that is not the case as her fellow Junior Agents are antagonistic and bullying rather than supportive and friendly, the new Head Minister tries to impose anti-magician restrictions, and Amari’s brother Quinton’s curse worsens, sending him into a coma that threatens his life.
As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the League of Magicians offers Amari the chance to become their leader—something she initially refuses. This results in a dangerous magician coming forward to try and claim the leadership instead, one who plans to use the League to start a war. To stop this from happening, Amari must agree to a competition where the prize is not only the leadership of the League but also the cure for Quinton’s curse.
With the stakes higher than ever and Amari forced to cope with increasing pressure, hostility, and prejudice from all sides, can she juggle multiple crises and still make it through?
Amari and the Night Brothers was universally praised by readers when it hit bookshelves in early 2021. The first of a planned trilogy by first-time author, B.B. Alston, readers delighted in the vivid supernatural world of wonder with engaging characters swept into a breathless page-turning adventure full of twists and turns, and so the follow-up book, Amari and the Great Game, had high expectations riding on it to carry on the high standards already set.
As with the first book, the story moves along at a good pace, nicely mixing exposition with action and tension while the supernatural community is explored further and Amari learns more about this secret world (and the even more secret League of Magicians). Most readers captivated by the first novel should find those high expectations met with this second book.
The magical and adventurous elements are tempered with real-world realities endured by minorities and persons of color as the lead character, Amari Peters, a Black 13-year-old girl from a low-income housing project in Rosewood, faces suspicion, derision, and prejudice from the magical community she has just joined—the same issues she faced every day in the mundane world. The allegory of fear, prejudice, and hate Amari endures from her fellow Junior Agents, senior hierarchy, politicians, and wider supernatural society is handled subtly but clearly by B.B. Alston.
Scott found Amari and the Great Game to be another engaging, page-turning adventure that will appeal to all ages with its mixture of supernatural wonder, humor, and excitement. The final book in this trilogy can’t come quickly enough.
Read Amari and the Great Game: Amazon, Bookshop
GeekMom received a copy of these titles for review purposes.