Can you believe it’s time for the final Between the Bookends of 2022? No, we can’t either! In November, Sophie and Lisa read a mixture of middle-grade, historical fiction, thriller, fantasy, romance, choose-your-own-adventure, and more! We wish you a happy holiday season filled with cosy reading time.
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The Reluctant Vampire Queen by Jo Simmons
My first book for November was The Reluctant Vampire Queen by Jo Simmons. This bizarre YA follows 15-year-old Mo Merrydrew who lives in a small, rural village in England. Mo has a detailed plan for her future life, but all of that is thrown into flux when she meets Bogdan on her way home from school. Bogdan is a 600-year-old vampire and has come to deliver a message: Mo is the Chosen One. It’s her destiny to become a vampire and rule as The Vampire Queen of Great Britain. However Mo has no interest in doing any of that, for one she’s a vegetarian, and for another, she believes strongly that the people should elect those in power.
Over the following weeks, Mo struggles with different options for her future as the vampire community threatens her friends and family should she opt not to join them, she meets Bogdan’s gorgeous familiar Luca, and she falls out with her BFF when her plans to try and have the best of both worlds go awry. Can Mo figure out how to handle a future she never even imagined was possible without giving up on her own dreams?
The Reluctant Vampire Queen was probably one of the strangest books I’ve read this year. Despite being a YA, it read more like a middle grade with oddly childish writing and characters who acted much younger than their supposed ages. Throughout the book, it was hard to tell how seriously I was supposed to take it. Bogdan’s caricaturish Eastern European accent and love of the Premier Inn (think Motel 6) where he and Luca have made their base make the whole thing feel ludicrous, but then the romance scenes between Mo and Luca come across far more typical of a serious YA fantasy romance and Bogdan is a vicious murderer on top of everything. It’s as if the author didn’t quite know which direction to take this story and so decided to go in all possible directions all at once. By the time I reached the frankly ridiculous finale, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and how much time I’d spent reading this.
I’m sure this one will appeal to some readers but I just found the whole thing a bit pointless and won’t be continuing with the series should any future volumes be published.
Read The Reluctant Vampire Queen: Amazon, Bookshop
Morning Sun in Wuhan, Image Clarion Books
Morning Sun in Wuhan by Ying Chang Compestine
We’re definitely reaching the point where Covid-19 themed books are becoming more and more commonplace, and as might be obvious from its title if not the cover, Morning Sun in Wuhan by Ying Chang Compestine is one of those.
Set in Wuhan during the first weeks of the outbreak, the book follows 13-year-old Mei who lives in Wuhan along with her father, a doctor at the nearby hospital which specializes in respiratory conditions. Mei’s passion is cooking, both in real life and in her favorite video game. When the grandma of one of her local gamer friends falls seriously ill, Mei tries to get her father to help, discovering as she does just how serious things have become in her city.
Desperate to help, Mei joins with other local kids and adults to help deliver groceries to those locked down inside their buildings. She also volunteers to cook meals for those too sick to feed themselves, helping out friends and neighbors wherever she can while also worrying about her father who is stuck working long shifts in the hospital, surrounded by those with the deadly new virus. Can one young girl really make a difference in such a big city?
Morning Sun in Wuhan was a surprisingly upbeat middle-grade story set in a frightening time when everything about Covid-19 was new and unknown. It’s a story about community and pulling together and it reminded me of the early days of the Covid lockdown in my own area when neighbors formed support groups and helped one another, sewing masks, collecting groceries, and delivering mail to the post office. It’s a time that now feels long ago but also recent and it’s strange to look back on. For today’s middle-grade readers, it’s a period they may not even remember now or if they do, perhaps rather hazily, and so this is a book I’d highly recommend.
Read Morning Sun in Wuhan: Amazon, Bookshop
The Star that Always Stays by Anna Rose Johnson
The Star that Always Stays by Anna Rose Johnson is a middle-grade historical fiction set in 1914. It follows teenage Norvia whose mother has moved her and her siblings away from the island where they grew up listening to old stories passed down by their Ojibwe ancestors and into the city following her shocking divorce from their father.
Soon after their move to the city, Norvia’s mother announces her engagement to Mr. Ward, a widower with a sickly, standoffish, yet highly intelligent son around Norvia’s age. However, Norvia’s mother informs her and her siblings that they must keep their indigenous heritage a secret from everyone, including their new step-family, making the already awkward transition of moving in with people she barely knows even more difficult.
Norvia begins attending a high school where she attempts to live a life similar to those of her literary heroines like Anne Shirley and the March sisters. Yet with her different hair and the scandal surrounding her divorced mother, she struggles to find acceptance. Despite everything and the looming threat of a global war, Norvia is determined to make the best of everything, but how can she do that if she has to hide such an important part of herself?
I really enjoyed The Star That Always Stays and I loved the writing style that mimicked much of the classic children’s literature that Norvia herself loved. I learned a lot about the Objibwe (probably better known as Chippewa) tribe and their heritage, and that sense of understanding was even stronger than usual because Norvia and her family were real people, the relatives of the author who wanted to tell their unusual story.
One thing that surprised me was the strong Christian nature of the story, especially in the second half. While the family’s Christian beliefs were mentioned in the first half of the book, by the second they were regularly quoting psalms at one another and talking in oddly manufactured ways about God, making the book transform from a typical middle-grade historical fiction to one with highly religious overtones that somewhat overtook the story. This came as something of a surprise given that the story’s overtly Christian nature isn’t mentioned anywhere in the blurb and is something that might take many other readers by surprise too.
Read The Star that Always Stays: Amazon, Bookshop
Scattered Showers by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell has been one of my favorite authors for several years now, so I knew I had to read Scattered Showers – her first collection of short stories – as soon as I heard about it.
Scattered Showers contains nine short stories, some of which have been previously published in one form or another. Around half the stories are set around the holiday period, making this collection ideal for winter reading, and several contain characters from Rowell’s previous novels. You don’t need to have read the original books in order to follow along* but some contain what could be considered minor spoilers.
My personal highlights were “Winter Songs for Summer” in which a college student makes a mixtape for a neighbor following her breakup when he can’t bear to listen to the same Tori Amos song through his floor another time, and “Mixed Messages” which is largely told through text messages between two female friends of menopause age. It’s rare to read about women experiencing menopause and discussing hysterectomies – especially in what is ostensibly a romance story – and so this really stood out and also made me laugh out loud multiple times. For me, “The Prince and the Troll” was the weakest link in the collection, possibly because the writing style (the story is a sort of fairytale/fable with strong environmental overtones) is so far from Rowell’s usual style.
Overall, this is a wonderful collection of stories that will fill you full of cheer and warmth this holiday season.
*The one exception to this is “Snow for Christmas” which features characters from the Simon Snow trilogy and would probably be very confusing at best to readers unfamiliar with the books.
Read Scattered Showers: Amazon, Bookshop
Your Adventures at CERN by Letizia Diamante
Your Adventures at CERN by Letizia Diamante is a choose-your-own-adventure style middle-grade book set at CERN in Switzerland that combines a bizarre fictional story with lots of cool facts about CERN, the large hadron collider, and particle physics.
The book contains three interconnected stories to work through following a tourist visiting the complex, a student on a residential trip, and a researcher who works at the facility. You can choose to begin with any of the three characters and will need to work through all of their stories to complete the adventure and find out how everything links together. When you set out, you’ll pick from a range of tools and helpers to support you on your journey but don’t worry too hard about picking the right ones, you’ll always get where you need to go eventually.
As you progress, you’ll need to solve lots of puzzles and answer multiple-choice questions about physics and CERN (don’t worry, the solutions are usually obvious and you can always turn to the back for answers if you need help). Your characters will make their way around CERN, coming across all sorts of excitement along the way including an anxious bird named Cheepy, a hacker with terrible breath, a helpful cat named Schroedy who lives at CERN, and even a terrifying dinosaur intent on destruction. What does it all mean, you’ll need to work through each of the stories to find out.
Your Adventures at CERN was an interesting book but I felt it could have used a little extra work. The stories didn’t always make much sense and came across as very childish, even given that this is a book aimed at younger readers. I also felt that the choices I made had virtually no impact on the overall story – if I picked the wrong tool at the beginning, the book would just effectively shrug and tell me where I needed to go anyway. What I did love was all the information about CERN and particle physics, although I suspect that the kind of middle-grade reader you’d buy a book like this for would already know a lot of this.
This is certainly an unusual take on getting kids interested in physics and will make for a very different Christmas present, but it’s not a book I can see having much if any, re-readability.
Read Your Adventures at CERN: Amazon, Bookshop
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
Lisa picked up a tidy little standalone hardback version of The Grownup, a short story by Gillian Flynn from a Little Free Library. The story was originally written as part of George R.R. Martin’s Rogues anthology, under the title “What Do You Do?”
A thirtysomething “psychic” has a very real ability to access people’s personality and situations so well, she is able to pass it off as aura reading. She also has another slightly racier ability she sometimes performs in the back room at the shop. It is her “aura reading” that brings a well-to-you wife to visit, worried about the hauntings happening in her million-dollar Victorian home, as well as the increasingly troubling behavior of her 15-year-old stepson.
At first, Lisa found the beginning of this tale a little off-putting and the ending of it very frustrating, but everything in between was page-turning and engrossing. The completed tale brings the realization that the information given at the beginning was part of an important plot twist later on, and the frustrating ending really leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. At just 62 pages long, The Grownup is a good, disturbing read for a fall or winter afternoon. It could easily be read in one sitting for a quick escape from the business of all the end-of-the-year happenings. Whatever the reader thinks of the ending, Flynn’s story packs a lot of twisty surprises along the way in a small volume.
Read The Grownup: Amazon, Bookshop
GeekMom received copies of some titles for review purposes.