The Secrets of Star Whales

Author: Rebecca Thorne

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press

Release Date: March 23/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Max lives on the small space station of Azura. Since the death of his dad two year ago, it’s just him and his mom, and Max has trouble talking about his dad and not being angry at his friend, Arsenio, whose mom wasn’t able to save him. Max takes comfort in the one thing his dad left behind, an instrument called a decivox which is broken, but which Max is saving up to fix. He wishes his mom would realize that his passion for music is as strong as his interest in engineer that came from years of working with his dad. When a sudden visitor is stranded on Azura and becomes Max’s substitute teacher, Max and his classmates discover there is more out there beyond Azura then they imagined. Mr. Hames wants to make them part of his crew to explore it, particularly in search of the elusive star whales said to travel in space. As Max gets to know Mr. Hames, he realizes he is connected to his father’s past, and is the link to someone who knows more about his dad’s life. But when Max trusts the wrong person and brings danger to his doorstep, and to the star whales, he makes a decision that affects everyone involved.

What I loved most about this story was how unique it felt to me. Life on the space station was described well, and I felt I could picture how Max and his friends lived. Technology like flying ships, and animals like star whales, were similar enough to life on Earth to be relatable and yet original enough to be interesting. I enjoyed watching Max and his classmates become a team, and each bring their own skills to the crew. There was a lot of adventure, and the discovery of the stakes increased the drama. I also enjoyed watching Max start to come to terms with his father’s death, and repairing things that were broken along the way.

I recommend this story for those readers who enjoy books that take place in space, but the star whales and discussion about saving an endangered species that the space station is dependent upon to survive will also make this a great read for kids who like books about poaching and animal conservation. This is the author’s debut novel, but I look forward to reading more by her.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

Hatch

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: September 15/20

Reviewer: Kathie

This was one of my most anticipated fall releases, and it was even better than I had expected. It’s been a very long time since I read a whole book this size in one day, but I just couldn’t put it down.

Anaya, Petra and Seth discover they are part alien, and try to keep their physical manifestations of their DNA a secret. Unfortunately, their secret gets out and they are taken to a confined to a facility where they discover that there are other teens just like them. The more the group communicates, the more they realize what they’re capable of, and alliances start to change. Secrets are kept, others are shared with the wrong people, and before long no one is really sure who they can trust. They know they need to escape before the experiments being run on them take things too far, but are the ready for what the outside world has become in their absence? Are they capable of using their skills to save those they love, or will it only endanger them more?

This story reminds me of a dystopian YA novel like Divergent, and yet it works very well for a middle grade audience. The action is fast-paced, the stakes are high, and the shifting alliances and betrayals leave you questioning what’s going to happen next. Each of the characters deals with their own struggle to belong in some way, and I liked watching how their friendship was tested and responded to new challenges. This story felt more emotional to me than the first one, which is probably why I enjoyed it more.

Once again we are let in a cliffhanger for the third book, THRIVE, which is scheduled for a Spring 2021 release, and I already look forward to picking up where this story left off. In the meantime, you can check out any of the author’s other books while you wait. My favorites include THE BOUNDLESS and INKLING, but if you’re into creepy stories, I suggest you try THE NEST.

Recommended: Gr. 6-8

Cleo Porter and the Body Electric

Author: Jake Burt

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Release Date: October 6/20

Reviewer: Laurie

Thank you to Edelweiss + and the publisher for a digital eARC of this book.

When I first stumbled across my first Jake Burt book (his first book) Greetings From Witness Protection, I knew I had found another author I would be sharing with kids. Why? He GETS middle-grade kids – their humour, what topics and issues THEY want to learn about and how they interact with one another. Ever since reading that first book, I eagerly await and look for his new releases. When he first shared on Twitter that he was writing a sci-fi book talking about the human body, I was EXCITED because I love all things anatomy and physiology.

Mr. Burt wrote this story pre-pandemic, which is another reason this story is relevant. Eerily close to home, Mr. Burt creates a world where there are similarities that we are experiencing today – staying at home due to a pandemic, having items delivered, and young people taught virtually in the safety of their home. 

Set in the future, Cleo Porter and her parents, like the rest of the world, lives indoors. No one goes out, and no one comes in due to a strain of the flu that nearly wiped out the entire human population. Everything they need gets delivered to their portal via drones. Cleo hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a surgeon and studies virtually with her instructor Mrs. VAIN (Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network). Cleo’s life is busy preparing for exams until the delivery of life-saving medicine comes through their portal. The problem is, Miriam Wendemore-Adisa does not live there. Right person, wrong address, and Cleo’s parents preoccupied with their work leave the issue with Cleo thinking it will be a quick fix, only it’s not.

The ordering system does not recognize the mistake, and now Cleo has to decide what to do next. Cleo believes her only option is to deliver the medicine herself. Cleo and readers discover the world beyond the portal. Cleo ventures out beyond the confines of her apartment, into the intricacies of the building and outside. As she figures out how to find Miriam Wendemore-Adisa’s portal, Cleo compares the different components of the building to the various human body systems that she is studying. 

Despite all of Cleo’s good intentions to deliver the medicine, she finds herself outside the building and at the mercy of the environment. Only then does she learn that people exist on the outside when she finds Angie, an older woman and a young girl named Paige. Both become her teacher in other ways and help her eventually get back inside. 

Readers will relate to being inside, and what use to be everyday activities such as playing outside and going shopping now look very different. There are bigger takeaways to this story; how Cleo gains confidence and decides how compassion and empathy will guide her rather than rules and regulations, how the confines of a room are not what is best for everyone and how we look after or don’t look after everyone in a crisis. The lesson of helping out others and doing the right thing is a timely reminder when younger people get bombarded with many adults who are struggling with this during the pandemic.  

I am not surprised that I have another book of Mr. Burt’s to recommend for teaching colleagues and readers of middle-grade books and look forward to his fifth book.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Greetings from Witness Protection!, The Right Hook of Devin Velma, and The Tornado

HIGHLY RECOMMEND: Gr. 4+

Bloom. Hatch. May?!

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Series Name: Overthrow

Publisher: Harper Collins

Release Dates: Bloom (Feb. /20), Hatch (Sept. 15/20), Thrive (May 2021)

Reviewer: Laurie

Well I was able to get my hands on Hatch the second book in the new Overthrow trilogy by Kenneth Oppel and I vowed that I would not rush and would savour the book – well that didn’t happen. This series is creepy. Creepy creatures, creepy setting, and just overall creepy ideas that made me think of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series. Once I got in, I simply couldn’t put it down.

For those who have not had the opportunity to read the first in the series Bloom, which I do think needs to be read to full appreciate Hatch, a quick recap…

Set in Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, a typical rain appears to have triggered a strange and now life threatening event. Plants – thick, black vine-like plants are sprouting everywhere, rapidly taking over land and fields. As the island attempts to solve the problem, they discover it’s not just in Salt Spring, but around the world. No one seems to know how to stop this invasive plant from spreading and its pollen is causing severe reactions and respiratory issues to everyone. Everyone, except for three teens who had unique problems prior to the plant invasion but are immune to the pollen and had nothing in common until now. These teens; Petra (allergic to water), Anaya (severe food, plant and animal allergies and Seth (foster child with strange scars), all have their own characteristics that set them apart, but now are working together to try to help their community survive. The ending gives the reader a chance to predict what may be happening and definitely leaves readers on the hook for the second in the series Hatch with a strange rain that is falling. Bioterrorism? Environmental factors? Invasion? Readers are thrown out possibilities of what may lie at the “root” of the problem as they get to know the three teens and watch them try to solve the same questions we have. 

Enter second in the series Hatch (released September 15), where readers get taken on a roller coaster ride as the rain that has fallen is actually filled with seeds and eggs that are developing into new and terrifying morphed creatures. Now we see Mr. Oppel’s twisted, hair-raising plan, in Bloom, there was the beginning of the creation of an entirely new ecosystem with the plants or vegetation. Now we are seeing the evolution with the introduction of the different species that will live in this ecosystem including Petra, Anaya and Seth.

In the first portion of the book, we learn that these three are not alone in the changes to their physical appearances and Colonel Pearson whisks the three hybrids, (now known as flyers, swimmers and runners) off to a secret location where other hybrids have been sent. We get to know other hybrids and the changes that everyone is undergoing. We realize the doctor collecting and studying the teen hybrids actually has become quite sinister. Dr. Ritter has become fixated on stopping the alien invasion by experimenting and using the hybrids as guinea pigs to find out all they can, even if it means the loss of their lives.

Dr. Ritter becomes the catalyst that vaults us into the next fast paced section as the hybrids plan an escape from the facility. Despite all wanting to escape, there is dissension within the hybrid groups, so now there are more conflicts not to mention the hatching of the new creatures. It is non-stop action from here on in. Will the hybrids be caught or will they all come together? Will the escape affect the aliens invasion plan? Will humans survive and if so how? What will happen to all the hybrids and especially Anaya, Petra and Seth? And all the time as you are reading, you are acutely aware that you are running out of pages for a tight ending. So yes, one finishes reading with a doozy of a cliff hanger, providing us plenty of time to use our own imaginations to attempt and discuss what will happen in Thrive.

Yep this is a series middle grade readers and YA are going to thoroughly enjoy and will be one that spreads through word of mouth – the best kind of endorsement. The sad news is – it’s going to be a long winter to wait until MAY to read the conclusion. Well played Mr. Oppel… well played.

OTHER BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR: Inkling, Every Hidden Thing and The Nest 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Gr 5+