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Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Theodosia's parents both study ancient Egypt and work for London's Museum of Legends and Antiquities. As a result, eleven-year-old Theodosia spends almost all her time at the museum which is wonderful since she is interested in antiquities, but it's not so great because she can sense the ancient curses that surround many of the Egyptian artifacts. When her mother finds and brings the legendary jeweled Heart of Egypt to the museum, Theodosia is not the only person who knows of its devastating powers, but it appears that she may the only one who can save Britain from the doom to come.

What a rip-roaring adventure! It's almost like The Mummy but with children as protagonists (and I mean that in the best possible way: action, adventure, Egyptian curses, chase scenes, but unfortunately for me no Medjai, sigh). Serpents of chaos also involves pickpockets, a stowaway, hidden burial chambers, a demonized cat, and a secret brotherhood. How's that for excitement!

Amidst it all, Theodosia as a character is solid as a rock. She is clever, independent, daring, and is rather attached to her cat's presence while she sleeps in an empty sarcophagus most nights (her father is the Head Curator and rarely leaves his place of work while his wife is away on a dig). She also realizes that her ability to sense curses makes her different from her parents, and as a result she is essentially an expert in neutralizing Egyptian curses due to her extensive studies while she is stuck at the museum. The adults who surround her on a daily basis fail to recognize her knowledge, which causes Theodosia much frustration. This frustration drives many of her actions throughout the book, and she is determined to prove to her parents that she is of great worth.

The historical setting is an interesting one. The events occur in what seems to be early 1914, and the author does a stand-up job of simply explaining the complicated international relations that existed at that time and which provide a backdrop to the significance of the Heart of Egypt. I'm curious to read the sequels to Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos for many reasons, but one of the main ones is to find out how the advent of the First World War will be incorporated into the plot if, indeed, it is.

This is a novel that should appeal to boys and girls with its wit, adventure, and magic, and will likely spur interest in ancient Egypt as well.

 
 
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When you reach me by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2009

It's 1978 and Miranda is in sixth grade in New York City. She and her best friend Sal are drifting apart, and mysterious letters keep appearing which are addressed to her and accurately predict the future. Miranda doesn't know what to make of the notes and the events they describe, but her absolute favourite book  - A wrinkle in time by Madeleine L'Engle - may turn out to be the key to the mystery.

There is so much going on in this brief (197-page) novel that it would take another few paragraphs to write a synopsis that covers the key plot points. I do not say this disparagingly in the least, as the author handled the story's complexities extraordinarily deftly and, for the most part, linearly. It is quite a feat, as is the fact that I hadn't the slightest clue who the mysterious letter-writer was until it was revealed. In fact, it is a book I intend to re-read in order to discover what I missed the first time.

The characters are what made this book a joy for me to read. Miranda is intelligent, perceptive, and valiantly trying to make some sense of the world around her. I appreciated the little details about her inner life, such as how she balances her fears with her realism by approaching people she's afraid of to ask the time so she can see that they are, in fact, not so scary. Also, she is aware of the little moments of poetry in daily life while not noticing that a close friend eats a special diet, which is that odd mix of worldliness and obliviousness that can be found in many 11-year-olds.

When you reach me is, at its essence, about the interactions between people in Miranda's world: Miranda's relationships with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, sixth-grade friendships that form almost as mysteriously as they end, and Miranda's observations of the people within her neighbourhood. The characters are lively and real and had their own things going on outside the walls of the story, especially Marcus and Julia. There always seemed to be a lot going on for Miranda, even if big events didn't happen very often. And if that isn't an accurate depiction of real life, then I'm not sure what is.

When you reach me is the Newbery-winning novel of 2010 and rightly so.

 
 
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The Secret of Grim Hill by Linda DeMeulemeester
Lobster Press, 2007

Cat and her younger sister, Sookie, have just moved to a new town with their mother, and Cat is not enjoying Darkmont High at all. Soccer-playing Cat soon finds out about soccer scholarships to the nearby private Grimoire school that are earned by the winning team of a Halloween match. Despite continually hearing from Sookie and their neighbour, Jasper, that something just isn't right about Grimoire, Cat goes ahead with her daily team practices until the bizarre events of an early Halloween party change her priorities.

I was spurred to read The Secret of Grim Hill by a new student who wondered if the library had the sequels because he enjoyed this book so much. He reads a lot and very quickly, so I thought if he liked it then it must be pretty good. Happily, it is.

Cat is a realistic tween protagonist: she is easily annoyed by her younger sister, very aware of her school's social hierarchy and endeavours to climb it, fulfills her household responsibilities despite wishing she didn't have to, and is quintessentially likable. When push comes to shove, Cat's priorities are in order (soccer and family at the top with homework dead last). Sookie is as much or even more compelling as a precocious, Monopoly-loving little girl who is generally as seemingly as annoyed with Cat as Cat is with her.

The atmosphere of Grim Hill is generally light with escalating indications to the reader that something dark is afoot. DeMeulemeester's incorporation and explanations of Celtic mythology and traditions are seamlessly done, and the tension builds to a peak that is exhilarating and urgent but not full-on scary. I look forward to reading one or more of the sequels (loaned from another school library for the student mentioned earlier) to see if the Celtic theme is maintained or if other mythologies are incorporated into the series.

Overall, a solid beginning to a middle-grade fantasy series.