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Reviews of middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction
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1. Smasher, by Scott Bly

Smasher, by Scott Bly (Blue Sky Press, March, 2014, middle grade)

The future is in jeopardy--a madman who has managed to combine incredible technology with the psychic energies of nature (the Hum) is about to enslave mankind by with an infections cocktail of computer code and manipulated DNA. In the 16th century, a boy named Charlie can manipulate the hum even more wonderfully than the madman in the future.  And Charlie's ability to solve puzzles has been honed to a razors edge by his grandfather, and his survival instincts have been honed to a razors edge by fear of bullies and inquisitors....

Travelling between the two times is a girl named Geneva, a robot with miraculous powers of her own.   She comes to get Charlie, and take him to the future, where the two will stand together as last hope for humanity.  (There's a dog too, a very nice indeed puppy with enhancements of her own....there's also an enhanced gorilla, which you don't see that often, but he plays a relatively minor role).

And there's plenty of action, as the bad guy and his minions try to hunt down Charlie and Geneva, and they try to escape while foiling.

It was an enjoyable read, and it's a very good introduction to that fine speculative fiction question of how human a robot can be.  I liked Geneva very much!  Charlie was fine too, but with a relatively straightforward, what you see is what you get, character.  Geneva comes with Mysteries and Questions. 

This is one I'm happy to recommend to kids of ten and eleven or so, moving into sci fi action books.  It offers a nice serving of age-appropriate violence, which is to say there are deaths, and torture, but not disturbingly graphic, and balanced by a lot of sewer-related discomfort.   (Even if a kid's read The Hunger Games  and Ender's Game already, I don't think there's any reason to hurry toward ever more violence.)  However, there is considerable cruelty toward animals, which the bad guy is manipulating in  his lab of evil--this could well cause distress!

The action is balanced by dashes of (not tremendously subtle) philosophy about good vs evil, and by the friendship between Geneva and Charlie, which was a pleasure to read about.  And I think the time travel element will appeal to that audience as well--there's a friendliness to a protagonist who's plunked, like the reader, into a strange and alien landscape where much is confusing at first.

That being said, I myself found the time slip element unsatisfactory.  There's not a lot of time spent in the 16th century, and were it not for the fact that we are told the year is 1542, there's really no way to know.   Likewise, I felt Charlie's easy acceptance of the future somewhat unconvincing.  (It's also hard for me not to care about details like names--as I know the name Charles hadn't made it across the English Channel yet....and how can a boy living in a remote mountain village have three tutors, unless he's the aristocracy, which he doesn't seem to be?).

I also wasn't quite satisfied with the back story--when I'm told right at the beginning of the book that the protagonist's harsh grandfather has blood on his hands, and is apparently a murderer, I expect this to be explained, if not resolved, clearly and with conviction, and (even though I read fast I don't think I missed anything) the details stayed pretty murky.

But I don't think my two issues are the sort that will affect the reading pleasure of the target audience, especially the target audience for fast-paced sci-fi excitement.  Especially recommended for the computer geek kid-coding plays a bit part in the story!

Here's the Kirkus review.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

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2. Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe, with long thoughts on how I judge "kids with destiny" stories

Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe (Knopf, April 2014), is a middle grade fantasy that takes the magical creatures of the oceans around the British Isles and transplants them to the coastal waters of Maine.   It's the story of three siblings who find themselves visited one night by a mysterious messenger, and taken out to sea to the island far off the coast where their grandmother lives....where they find that they are shapeshifters, able to take seal form.  And they find (much more disturbingly!) that their destiny is to take part in a age old battle against the darkest creature of them all--a destroyer who wants to ravage the oceans until there is no life left.

I found it a gripping, fast read that I was able to enjoy even in the midst of a frenzied, stressful week, and I appreciated the fact that it stands alone just fine (there's one unanswered question, but it doesn't materially affect this particular story).  

When I read a book about children in our world facing off against ancient folkloric evil, I have a rubric (which I am putting into words for the first time here, so I might well be missing something obvious!) by which I judge it.  Here's how Lost Children of the Far Islands came out in my mind.

1.  Are the young protagonists distinct people, or simply child-shaped spaces?  The kids here are two almost 11-year-old twins, a girl (Gus) and a boy (Leo), and their little sister, Ila.  The story's told mostly from Gus's point of view, but the other two gets some page time as well.  Gus is a girl primary character of the sort whose gender is a non-issue-- if you want your random boy to read books with girls, this is one that won't present problems in that regard.

All three kids are all individuals, especially young Ila, who is tremendously vibrant (she can also shapeshift into fox form, and I have a fondness for young fox shifters).   There are tensions between the siblings that all of us who have siblings can relate to just fine.  The kids have interests and personality traits that set them apart which for the most part become clear organically in the story, as opposed to traits that appear blatantly pinned on the character by the authorial hand. 

2.  Is there a reason for these particular kids being the ones that have to help save the world?   I like to have a clear sense that only these particular characters are in the position to do what needs to be done, and I like it when "specialness" is balanced by a dash of reality.  Harry Potter is convincing as a hero because he has so much support; likewise Will Stanton from The Dark is Rising couldn't have done squat alone.    I get especially nervous when a prophecy is involved (as is the case here), not just because so many fictional prophecies are truly tortured verse (this one was unobjectionable), but because there's often not a satisfying reason why a particular character is the Destined Child of Prophecy.  I think destiny is a fine thing, and can be a good source of character tension, but sometimes I can't help but feel that prophecies are window dressings.  And if I'm not clear that there's a reason it's these particular kids by about a third of the way through the story, it's hard for me to care.

Lost Children of the Far Islands passes this test just fine. The kids aren't simply plunked down into the middle of Destiny...it sneaks up on them with a nicely growing sense of danger, and they have to discover secrets about their mother, and their ancient grandmother, before realizing what exactly they are part of.  Likewise, the catalyst for confrontation comes not from the playing out of predestined roles, but because something goes wrong--there is a betrayal--which is more satisfying, I think.

3.  Are the mythological elements made into something fresh and convincing?  Does the fantasy make sense?   I think in metaphors, and I'm finding myself thinking of this question in Christmasy terms--the single tree, made beautiful, as opposed to the sensory overwhelmingness of Christmas-tree land box stores, too shiny-full for any coherent story to emerge.   This test is also passed just fine--  Emily Raabe doesn't try to bring every single last bit of Celtic mythology into the story--she sticks pretty much to the mythological creatures, and they fill the story just fine.

4.  (This one might be just a matter of personal taste)  Is there a reason for the places that are important in the story to be those places, and are the places described in such a way as to make clear pictures in my mind?  My favorite part of this book was the time spent on the mysterious far island where the magical grandmother lives--it is a lovely island, with lost mundane treasures and a library holding a far from mundane book.   It's not at all clear to me why all the magical opposition of good and evil should have ended up off the coast of Maine, instead of home in the British Isles, but this didn't bother me enough to be an actual objection.

So in short, Lost Children of the Far Island is a fine story, though best, I think, for those that don't already have tons and tons of fantasy under their belts already.  It's one I'll offer to my ten year old, who has yet to meet any seal folk in his reading, but I don't think it's appeal goes far beyond that target audience, which isn't a criticism, just a reality.  I think that to be a book for grown-ups to truly love, there has to be something of the numinous--the sort of magical beauty that leave the reader stunned--and that's a very rare thing indeed, so much so that I don't even include it in my list of mental criteria.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

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3. This Week's Round-up of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction from around the blogs (4/13/14)

I myself have nothing to share in this week's round-up for the first time ever (it was a busy busy week), but happily I found lots of other posts.  Please let me know if I missed yours!)

The Reviews

The 13th Sign, by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb, at Lovin' los libros

Battle  of the Beasts, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Blue Sea Burning (Chronicles of Egg Book 3), by Geoff Rodkey, at Kid Lit Reviews

The Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at Librarian of Snark, Books and Movies, and Pages Unbound

Chase Tinker and the House of Magic, by Malia Ann Haberman, at Blog of a Bookaholic

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at alibrarymama

Dark Days (Skulduggery Pleasant 4),  by Derek Landy, at Book Badger

Deadweather and Sunrise (Chronicles of Egg book 1), by Geoff Rodkey, at Books Beside My Bed

The Dragonlord's Heir, by Christina Kenway, at The Tale of an American Librarian

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at Views From the Tesseract

Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends, by Shannon Hale, at mstamireads and Fantasy Literature

Faery Swap, by Susan Kaye Quinn, at This Kid Reviews Books

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Youth Literature Reviews

The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler, at The BiblioSanctum

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe, at Librarian of Snark

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jayleigh Johnson, at My Precious and On Starships and Dragonwings

Mixed Magics, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Nethergrim, by Matthew Jobin, at Ms. Yingling Reads, The Social Potato, and The Midnight Garden

Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin, at Waking Brain Cells

North of Nowhere, by Liz Kessler, at The Book Monsters

Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, at A Backwards Story, Sharon the Librarian, and Word Spelunking (all giveaways)

Summerkin, by Sarah Prineas, at The Book Monsters

Wildwood Imperium, by Colin Meloy, at Fangirl Chelle

Wonder Light: Unicorns of the Mist, by R.R. Russell, at Geo Librarian

A World Without Heroes, by Brandon Mull, at Log Cabin Library

Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paulo  Bacigalupi, at Kazumi Reads

Two by Ruth Chew at Becky's Book Reviews--Magic In the Park and The Trouble With Magic

Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--Aviary Wonders (fantasy?), In the Stone Circle, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmell, and Listening for Lucca, by Suzanne Lafleur

Authors and Interviews

"Living Up to Your Character" by Jennifer Swann Downey (Ninja Librarians) at Nerdy Book Club

Suzanne de Montigny (Shadow of the Unicorn) at Katie L. Carroll

Other Good Stuff

Project Mayhem's series on Heroes and Villains in Middle Grade Literature continues with editor and author Harrison Demchick talking about how villains are people too.

At The Book Zone (For Boys) thoughts on focusing on a specifically gendered audience, and a nice list of (mostly speculative fiction) books starring girls with appeal to boys.

Visit Views From the Tesseract for a sampler of poetry in stories

Yes, there is someone whose hobby is carving bananas; you can find more on the craft of Keisuke Yamada here (via Rachel Neumeier)

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4. Moldylocks and the Three Beards, by Noah Z. Jones

Some weeks life is busy, and there just isn't time to read and write lots, and so the blogging is slow.  And it's been even slower for me because most of the books I have managed to finish recently didn't move me to write about them, mostly because of me not having the mental energy to figure out and express eloquently why they hadn't worked for me.

So last night I turned to a book from a series (Scholastic's Branches) that promises to build "reading confidence and stamina," both of which I feel I need right about now.

Moldylocks and the Three Beards, written and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (Scholastic, published in paperback in Jan 2014, and in a hardcover library edition April 29) is the first book in a series--"Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe."   My eyes rolled when I read the words "Princess Pink," but not so much so that I was unable to look at the cover more closely.  And lo, Princess Pink seemed pretty cool. 

So I tried it last night, and rather enjoyed it, and can happily recommend it.  If you are a young reader who enjoys the absurd. and who is looking for something fun and easy, this is what you get here.

Princess Pink is not a princess; after seven boys, her mother wanted a one, and so that's what she was named.  She hates pink.  She turned her pink fairy dress into a cowboy caveman outfit.   (Perhaps her hatred of pink, and her taste in dirty sneakers and bugs is a tad polarizing--does the cheesy pizza she enjoys really have to look so gross?  And one can enjoy the outdoors without one's shoes stinking.  But this is not a book that aims for subtly, so I shall let it pass).

And in any event, Princess Pink opens her fridge one night, and falls (literally) into a the Land of Fake-Believe, where she visits the home of three beards (not nice) in the company of a girl named Moldylocks.   The whole beard premise was rather effective, and I enjoyed it.

Recommended for those who don't mind negative portrayals of pink princess stuff.  

Not particularly recommended for those who don't like whimsical stories whose primary point is to make learning to read entertaining.  Also not recommended for those who loath spiders.  There are too many spiders for those readers to take.

Not really recommended to their adults for their own reading pleasure, although it was kind of exactly right for my tired brain last night...........and I might well find myself picking up Little Red Quaking Hood when it comes out in August.

Note:  Princess Pink's family looks to be African-American--pretty darn rare in easy-reader fantasy books!  (quick--name another girl character of color in an easy reader fantasy book.............those dots are me not being able to).

Disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher

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5. This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (4/6/14)

Another week, another collection of links!  Let me know if I missed yours.

The Reviews

Aunt Maria, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Leaf's Reviews

Beyond the Door, by Maureen Doyle McQuerry, at SciFiChick

Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Brightest Night (Wings of Fire book 5), by Tui T. Sutherland, at Charlotte's Library

By the Grace of Todd, by Louise Galveston, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett, at Waking Brain Cells and Charlotte's Library

Dreamwood, by Heather Mackey, at Views From the Tesseract

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Librarian of Snark and Ex Libris

Game World, by Chrisopher John Farley, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Girl Who Cirumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Speculating on Spec Fic

Horizen, by Jenn Reese, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Hunt for the Hydra, by Jason Fry, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Guys Lit Wire

Luminescence, by Braden Bell, at The Write Path

The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Marvelous Tales

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jayleigh Johnson, at books4yourkids and The Hiding Spot

The Ninja Librarians: the Accidental Keyhand, by Jennifer Swann Downey, at Sharon the Librarian and The Reading Nook

Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, at The Book Monsters, A Backwards Story, and Geo Librarian (all with giveaways)

The Seer of Shadows, by Avi, at Fantasy Literature

The Serpent's Ring, by H.B. Bolton, at Log Cabin Library

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

The Song of the Quark Beast, by Jasper Fforde, at Claire M. Caterer

Tesla's Attic, by Neil Shusterman and Eric Elfman, at Booklady's Booknotes

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at Bunbury in the Stacks (audiobook review)

West of the Moon, by Margi Preus, at Educating Alice

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket, at Sonderbooks

 Wonder Light, by R.R. Russell, at The Book Monsters

Ms. Yingling celebrates the reissuing of two Ruth Chew books--The Trouble With Magic, and Magic in the Park.

Authors and Interivews

Maureen Doyle McQuerry (Beyond the Door) at Literary Rambles

Geoff Rodkey talkes about Blue Sea Burning, the final instalment of The Chronicles of Egg series, at Whatever

Jennifer Swann Downey (Ninja Librarians) at The Reading Nook (giveaway)

Marissa Burt (Storybound and Story's End) at From the Mixed Up Files (giveaway)

Other Good Stuff

At Views From the Tesseract, a Tuesday Ten of girls disguised as boys

Kathrine Langrish talks about the colours in fairy tales at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

The winners of the 2013 Aurealis Awards (recognizing Australian sci fi, fantasy, and horror) have been announced (click through for the full list):

Best Children's Book
The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, by Kirsty Murray

Best Young Adult Short Fiction 
By Bone-light, by Juliet Marillier

Best Young Adult Novel (Tie)
These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Fairytales for Wilde Girls, by Allyse Near

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6. The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett

Sometimes I read a book and am stunned by its kid appeal, and other times I read a book and want to urge other grown-ups to read it, and this is not a judgment of book goodness or lack thereof, but simply how the story feels to me.   Falling firmly into this later category is The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick, March 2014 in the US).

One the face of it, it seems like a book young me would have loved, back in the day (for starters, the cover art is total eye candy for the romantic young girl).  Cecily, her older brother Jeremy, and their mother leave London during WW II, retreating to the old family home deep in the countryside of northern England.  There is a bonus additional child, an interesting little girl, taken in along the way.  There is the crumbling old castle on the edge of the estate, that holds secrets of a mysterious past; Uncle Peregrine tells the children its story, which involves Richard III, and does so most grippingly.  There is a strong element of fantasy, lifting it all out of the ordinary.  And the writing is lovely, with pleasing descriptions of food and bedrooms and the books in the library (three things I like to read about).

But yet it felt more like a book for adults, and I'm not at all sure young me would have found it entirely pleasing.

For one thing, Cecily, whose point of view we share, is ostensibly a twelve year old, but she acts much younger, and is thoughtless, somewhat unintelligent, and not really a kindred spirit.  The way she behaves is all part of a convincingly drawn character, but it is not an appealing one.   May, the younger evacuee, is much more interesting, but she is off at a distance from the reader.   I think young readers expect to like the central character; Cecily felt to me like a character in a book for grown-ups, where there is no such expectation.  Likewise, the dynamics among the family (and May), strained by the war, involve lots of undercurrents of tension that are complicated and disturbing.

For another thing, and this gets a tad spoilery, it is clear pretty early on that the two boys Cecily and May meet in the ruined castle are from another time, and what with the title being what it is, anyone who knows the story of Richard III can put the pieces together (it will, of course, take longer for the child reader who has No Clue).   But these two boys aren't directly players in the story taking place in the present, nor does the fact of their existence bring about obvious change.  They are more like ghost metaphors or something and the book would have a coherent story (though a less lovely one) without them, and so they disappointed me.  These sorts of ghost aren't  exactly what I expect in a book for children, but I'd love to talk to a grown-up about them!  And this ties in with a more general feeling I had, that I was being expected to Think Deeply and Make Connections, and I almost feel that I should now be writing an essay on "Power and Metaphor in The Children of the King."

So, the upshot of my reading experience was that I appreciated the book just fine, but wasn't able to love it with the part of mind that is still, for all intents and purposes, eleven years old. 

Here are other reviews, rather more enthusiastic:

The Children's War
Waking Brain Cells
The Fourth Musketeer

I've reviewed one other book by Sonya Hartnett --The Silver Donkey (it was one of my very early reviews, back in 2007).  I seem to have appreciated that one more, but it amused me that I had something of the same reaction to the stories within the story:  "I'm not a great fan of interjected stories in general, because I resent having the narrative flow broken, and also because I feel challenged by them. The author must have put them in for Deep Reasons, I think, and will I be clever enough to figure out what they were?"

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7. Echo, by Alicia Wright Brewster, for Timeslip Tuesday

I love the premise of Echo, by Alicia Wright Brewster (Dragonfairy Press, YA, April 2013).  On an alien planet, settled by two waves of colonization from Earth, the apocalypse has been foretold.   But the council, whose members can control the elements with their minds, is determined to prevent it.  And they are willing to keep trying, even when things don't work out--they simply turn back the clock, rewinding time to give themselves another chance.

When Echo begins, it is the fifth rewind.  The council has tried four times already to avert a disaster whose very nature they were at first uncertain of--and with each rewind, they've gained more information.   And they've determined that what they need this time around is a teenaged girl named Ashara Vine.  This comes as something of a huge, mind-blowing surprise to Ashara, who had no idea that she was one of the very few with the ability to manipulate the ether itself.   And it comes as an additional surprise that the man chosen by the council to train her and a small cohort of other young manipulators is her ex-boyfriend, Loken.

Tension builds as Ashara learns about her powers, and the nature of the threat menacing her planet...and builds as she and Loken rekindle their relationship....and builds still more as information from the previous rewinds is revealed, and plots and machinations within the council, and within her world's society, make it more than somewhat uncertain if this time around, the world will be saved.

Do not, however, expect that because this story takes place on an alien world, it is truly science fiction.  The world building is not such that I felt I was on a different planet, despite the two suns, and the powers of the elemental manipulators read like fantasy. 

Do expect that the romance between Ashara and Loken will sometimes overshadow the end-of-the-world plot, sometimes so much so that I was annoyed (there are times when passionate is appropriate, and times when it is really not to the point).   I would recommend this one to those who like romance books that happen to be speculative fiction, rather than to speculative fiction fans who happen to like a bit of romance.

If you enjoy reading about groups of teenagers being trained together to fight with magical powers, you will enjoy that part of the book.  However, if your mind follows more or less the same trains of thought as mine, you too might find it odd that the fact that there's a coming apocalypse is broadcast to all and sundry, causing rather pointless stress (there's no escaping the countdown clocks).  And you might agree with me that the nature of the threat is ultimately rather unconvincing. 

All in all, it's not possible for me to recommend the book wholeheartedly.  However, I did truly like the premise of time travel being used to figure out how to avert catastrophe, and the interesting ramifications thereof!  And your millage may totally vary; here are some other reviews:

Apocalypse Mama
All In One Place
The Urban Paranormal Book Blog

Final note:  this is one for my multicultural book list--Ashara's father is of African descent, which is made beautifully clear in the front cover picture of Ashara! 

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8. Wings of Fire, Book 5: The Brightest Night, by Tui T. Sutherland

Yesterday my ten-year-old and I headed up to Boston, for the launch party of Wings of Fire, Book 5: The Brightest Night.  We enjoyed listening to Tui talking about the series, and enjoyed meeting her when we got our copy signed, and we enjoyed reading the book very much!  I won by a nose, with a clever rear-guard action (getting up first).   And happily, The Brightest Night (Scholastic, March 25) turned out to be my favorite book of the series.

The basic premise of the books is that five dragonets from different dragon tribes were raised together in isolation, told that they were destined to end the war between the three Sand Wing sisters fighting to become the next queen of those dragons.  It's a bloody struggle that drew all the other dragon tribes in as well (except the Rain Wings).  Each book was told from the point of view of one of the dragons, and this is Sunny's story.

Sunny is the sweet one, the cute one, the Sand Wing who isn't exactly all a Sand Wing should be (she's missing the barbed poisonous tale, for one thing), the one who's kind of dismissed by the others.   But inside Sunny is much more than sweet and cute.  She is smart, determined, and brave, and she manages to do more than any of the others for the cause of peace.  

And that's all I'll say about the plot.  Except that it has "scavengers" aka humans in it, playing actual roles, which was a fascinating new development!  And it also has more magical artifacts in it than the other books.  And we meet Sunny's family.  And there's some dragon romance.  But that's really all I'll say....

 Sunny is my favorite heroine of the year.   Any one who's ever been told they are sweet,  and patted on the head, when really they are smart and brave and tough, will relate to her.  She is a truly excellent role model--it would have been easy for her to give up, and stay just the sweet one of the lot, but it is her conviction that peace is possible that makes her  a truly strong force to be reckoned with.

I could spend a lot more words on how great Sunny is, though the other dragonets all have their good points too, and I'm fond of them all. 

I'm very glad that Tui T. Sutherland is going to be bringing us five more dragon books!  There are so many fine young dragons in these books whose stories I want to know more about that this makes me very happy.

Give this series to any nine or ten year old you have on hand who likes dragons (or who you think might like dragons).   They have just tremendous kid appeal, and the larger themes are truly appealing.  The first book and the fourth are a tad violent (just in case you have a truly sensitive reader), but the point of the series is that violence doesn't solve a thing--friendship and loyalty and understanding and appreciating difference are what is important.

Here are my reviews of the previous books:

The Dragonet Prophecy

The Lost Heir

The Hidden Kingdom

The Dark Secret

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9. This week's round-up of Middle Grade Sci Fi and Fantasy from around the blogs (March 30, 2014)

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week; please let me know if I missed your link!

The Reviews

Back To Blackbrick, by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, at Time Travel Times Two

Battle of the Beasts, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Blood Ties (Spirit Animals Book 3), by Garth Nix and Sean Williams, at Resistance is Futile

The Cheshire Cheese Cat, by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright at Tales of the Marvelous

Children of the Dragon, by Rose Estes, at Views From the Tesseract

Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett, at Sonderbooks

Cinderella Stays Late (Grimmtastic Girls Book 1) by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams at The Book Monsters

Dragon on Trial (The Menagerie, Book 2), by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland, at Charlotte's Library

A Face Like Glass, by Frances Hardinge, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Flame of Olympus, by Kate O'Hearn, at Eastern Sunset Reads

The Green Futures of Tycho, by William Sleator, at Views From the Tesseract

Grimmtastic Girls, books 1 and 2, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, at Small Review

House of Secrets, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia and School Library Journal

The Interrupted Tale, by Maryrose Wood, at The Book Monsters

Juniper Berry, by M.P. Kozlowsky, at Michelle I. Mason

The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde, at Claire M. Caterer

The Last Wild, by Piers Torday, at Good Books and Good Wine

The Lost Planet, by Rachel Searles, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson, at Pass the Chicklets, Book Nut, Fantasy Literature, In Bed With Books, The Geek Girl Project, and Bookyurt

The Nethergrim, by Matthew Jobin, at Scott Reads It

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at Hidden in Pages, Bookends, and The A P Book Club

The People In Pineapple Place, by Anne Lindburgh, at Charlotte's Library

The Race for Polldovia, by James Rochfort, at Charlotte's Library

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer, at Great Imaginations, Charlotte's Library, and Queen Ella Bee Reads

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinston Compestine, at Views from the Tesseract

Seven Wild Sisters, by Charles de Lint, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, at Sonderbooks

Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, at The Book Monsters

Smasher, by Scott Bly, at fanboynation

The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, at Librarian of Snark (audiobook review)

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen, at Middle Grade Ninja

Two at Guys Lit Wire-- Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, and Ludo and the Star Horse, by Mary Stewart

Authors and Interviews

Heather Mackey (Dreamwood) at OneFour Kidlit

Aaron Starmer (The Riverman) at Word Spelunking (also a review)

M.P. Kozlowsky (The Dyerville Tales) at Word Spelunking (also a review)

Scott Bly (Smasher) at The Enchanted Inkpot

Natalie Lloyd (A Snicker of Magic) at The Hiding Spot

Jaleigh Johnson (The Mark of the Dragonfly) at The Children's Book Review, Suvudo, and The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Claudia White (Aesop's Secret) at Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books

Amie Borst (Cinderskella) at Middle Grade March

Other Good Stuff

Steph at Views From the Tesseract looks back at her youth and shares Confessions of a Speculative Fiction Reader

And also at Views From the Tessearct you can find ten books with Dangerous Vegetation

Nahoko Uehashi, Japanese writer of fantasy, has won the 2014 Hans Christian Anderson Award (basically the Nobel Prize for children's fiction).   Two of the books in her Moribito series have been translated; I've read the first book, Guardian of the Spirit, and went and bought the second lo these many years ago, but sadly, as is the case with most of the books I actually buy, I haven't read it yet.

Kate Milford (author of  The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, and the much-anticipated-by-me Greenglass House (late summer) is running a kickstarter for  Bluecrowne--a self-published  novel set "in and around" the world of those books, in which "two peddlers arrive in the city of Nagspeake seeking a pyrotechnical prodigy and a knife shaped like an albatross."  More info. here.  

Random aside--I have come to realize that I will find any book whose blurb includes the word "albatross" strangely appealing.   And apparently albatrosses have no idea where they are going, which makes them even more appealing.

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10. The Menagerie: Dragon on Trail, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland

In my review of The Menagerie, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland, I said, "You want a book that hits the sweet spot for the nine-year old mythical creature lover?  This is what you are looking for."  The second book in the series, Dragon on Trial (HarperCollins, March 2014), has strengthened my conviction.

The menagerie in question is home to all manner of creatures, from unicorns and griffins and dragons to a goose that lays golden eggs.   And it is the apparent murder of this goose that is the catalyst for this adventure.  All the evidence points to a dragon named Scratch--and if Scratch is found guilty, he'll be exterminated.

Zoe and Logan, two middle school kids who are part of the Menagerie team, are convinced Scratch has been framed.  But unless they can find who really committed the dastardly deed of goose murder (if murder it was), disaster won't befall Scratch alone--the whole menagerie might be shut down by those in Authority.  Together with a new friend, a were-rooster named Marcus (a great addition to the cast, who provides comic relief that offsets the tension nicely), they set off on a detective hunt to find the answers they desperately need.

What makes this series a stand-out in kid appeal is that it beautifully combines the angsts of middle school life with a truly wonderful ménage of magical creatures.   The characters and the set-up are so convincing that the  menagerie almost seems possible.  It's clear that the authors are truly enjoying themselves--so many fun details about the creatures!--and this enjoyment carries over into the reading experience. 

Although the case of the missing goose is successfully resolved, bigger questions remain--someone is trying to sabotage the menagerie, and the disappearance of Logan's mom (whom he found out in the first book was a tracker of mythical creatures) remains a mystery.  My young one and I cannot wait till book three comes out!

I didn't see anything in this book that made it clear, but I know from the first book that Logan happens to be African American--I hope it's might slightly more obvious in book 3, because it would be nice for readers to be able to pick up on it!

The above-mentioned young one and I are going up to Boston tomorrow to meet Tui T. Sutherland, at the release party for The Brightest Night, the fifth book in her Wings of Fire series!  So exciting.  We are taking this one for her to sign too if possible.... Read the rest of this post

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11. The Race for Polldovia, by James Rochfort

The Race for Polldovia, by James Rochfort (Book Guild, 2014--published in the UK, but also available in Kindle form)

In our world, a little girl named Sophia daydreams about Polly, a sweet and brave princess of a lovely land called Polldovia.  Polly, on the verge of being a grown-up, is just the sort of princess to daydream about--the sort who rescues wounded animals, can speak to horses, and who is beloved by everyone.  For Sophia, the vivid stories of Polly she daydreams are almost as real as ordinary occurrences (going to school, going swimming) and her ordinary, loving parents.

But one day, Sophia's daydreams stop being harmless pastimes.  Polly is in trouble--dangerous, dark trouble, and Sophia's finds herself drawn into Polly's world.   There Sophia must be braver than she had ever imagined she could be, and help Polly save her kingdom from the evil forces that want to conquer it.  With the help of a brave horse whose speed is unmatched, the two girls might be able to find the magical flower high in the hills that will save the kingdom....if they can win the race for Polldovia.

The Race for Polldovia is very much a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a young girl reader (especially one who loves horses!).    The plot is a straightforward quest, with the evil and the good being clearly demarcated--a story line best appreciated by a reader who is new to fantasy.  And I think that the beautiful goodness that is Polly, and the brave goodness that is Sophia, are likewise best appreciated by those who aren't yet cynically leaving behind the days when they too could dream of saving wounded forest creatures (goodness knows that's how I pictured myself back in the day.....).   If you wince at the thought of a beautiful princess saving wounded forest animals, and tenderly kissing the younger child, this is probably not a book for you. 

However, if you have a child who would find that thought enchanting, they might well enjoy it, especially if read aloud.   It is the sort of story that is clearly being told--the authorial voice is right there, and I never forgot that I was reading a book.   Reading aloud would also allow for breaking up some of the disconcertingly long paragraphs (I couldn't help but feel that a stronger editorial hand could have come into play).

In short, a nice story for younger readers that blends a fairy tale feel with a heroine firmly rooted in our world.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

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12. Bloggiesta Spring 2014

Happily the next few days, d.v., are going to be unfrantic, and so I'm going to take part in this Spring's Bloggiesta.

Here's my to-do-list:

1.  organize my t.b.r. pile, and make sure the review copies are not scattered to the winds of heaven.  I have a nagging feeling that some of them  have crept off into Dark Corners and are being nibbled by dust bunnies, so I shall mount a reconnaissance and rescue mission (side benefit:  house cleaning)

2.  write enough reviews so that I never have to go dark for a single day ever again.  Or at least enough reviews so that I have two or three in waiting.  (side benefit--allows for shelving/returning/deaccessiong books = house cleaning)

3.  do another six or so months worth of indexing.  I have been indexing for a long time, because I have reviewed a lot of books.  (there  is no side benefit to this that I can think of)

4.  enjoy taking part in the mini-challenges and camaraderie (side benefit--will help me tackle house cleaning more cheerfully?)

and that, I think, is plenty!

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13. Waiting on Wednesday for Smek for President and Lockwood & Co.: The Whispering Skull

Today I am sharing my anticipation for two books in a single post--both are from the same publisher, Disney-Hyperion, both are coming out this fall, and both are sequels to past winners in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils Awards (in 2007 and 2013), and, unless their publication dates change, they are eligible for winning themselves in 2014!

Smek for President! by Adam Rex (October 14)

"In this much anticipated sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday, Tip and J.Lo are back for another hilarious intergalactic adventure. And this time (and last time, and maybe next time), they want to make things right with the Boov.

After Tip and J.Lo banished the Gorg from Earth in a scheme involving the cloning of many, many cats, the pair is notorious-but not for their heroics. Instead, human Dan Landry has taken credit for conquering the Gorg, and the Boov blame J.Lo for ruining their colonization of the planet. Determined to clear his name, J.Lo and Tip pack into Slushious, a Chevy that J.Lo has engineered into a fairly operational spaceship, and head to New Boovworld, the aliens' new home on one of Saturn's moons.

But their welcome isn't quite as warm as Tip and J.Lo would have liked. J.Lo is dubbed Public Enemy Number One, and Captain Smek knows that capturing the alien is the only way he'll stand a chance in the Boovs' first-ever presidential election.

With the help of a friendly flying billboard named Bill, a journey through various garbage chutes, a bit of time travel, and a slew of hilarious Boovish accents, Tip and J.Lo must fight to set the record straight-and return home in once piece."

 Lockwood & Co.: The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud (September 16th)

In the six months since Anthony, Lucy, and George survived a night in the most haunted house in England, Lockwood & Co. hasn't made much progress. Quill Kipps and his team of Fittes agents keep swooping in on Lockwood's investigations. Finally, in a fit of anger, Anthony challenges his rival to a contest: the next time the two agencies compete on a job, the losing side will have to admit defeat in the Times newspaper.

Things look up when a new client, Mr. Saunders, hires Lockwood & Co. to be present at the excavation of Edmund Bickerstaff, a Victorian doctor who reportedly tried to communicate with the dead. Saunders needs the coffin sealed with silver to prevent any supernatural trouble. All goes well-until George's curiosity attracts a horrible phantom.

Back home at Portland Row, Lockwood accuses George of making too many careless mistakes. Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in the ghost jar. Then the team is summoned to DEPRAC headquarters. Kipps is there too, much to Lockwood's annoyance. Bickerstaff's coffin was raided and a strange glass object buried with the corpse has vanished. Inspector Barnes believes the relic to be highly dangerous, and he wants it found.

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine

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14. The People In Pineapple Place, by Anne Lindbergh, for Timeslip Tuesday

The People In Pineapple Place, by Anne Lindbergh (1982)

Ten year old August did not want to move with his mother from the countryside of Vermont to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.  He did not want his parents to get divorced, and his mother to work full time.  And he does not want to wait for the college kid looking after him to get off the phone so as to take him outside.

So off he goes, sad and angry, into the streets, and finds a cobblestone alley called Pineapple Place, where six old house are home to a bunch of kids who seem like they could be new friends for him.   But though the kids, especially April, do become his friends, it quickly becomes apparent that Pineapple Place is rather...unusual.

It is not a spoiler to explain why, because it comes up quite close to the beginning of the story, and is the whole basic point of the point.

Back in the 1930s, a Pineapple Place resident decided that Baltimore was not the best place to be, and started moving all six houses around the country.  And although the residents can leave their homes and venture into the new places they visit, only one of them can be seen and heard by the locals.  And none of them have aged a day since Pineapple Place started its hoping.

Strangely, August can see them all....and the last days of his summer vacation become a bit of a mad-hatter series of excursions around the city- playing with invisible kids leads to wacky situations.    And this is fun to read about, although it's a tad stressful that August's mother thinks for much of the book that he's making it all up.

But the fact that the Pineapple Place folk don't age gradually started casting a pall of horror over it all...especially when April's mother talks of how she had hoped to go back to college, and not spend her days pie-making (which is now her fate for eternity....).   It reminded me very much of Tuck Everlasting, but without the clear acknowledgement  on the author's part that immortality is a bitter fate.  Especially when you can't even interact with new people anymore because of being invisible.

However, the invisibility is alleviated somewhat by the fact that Pineapple Place revisits the 1930s on a regular basis to allow for grocery shopping, as  the residents can be seen in their time of origin.  At one point, they take August with him, and he gets to sight see in the past.  This is the part that makes it time travel.

The book must be read with enough grains of salt to kill a thousand slugs.  Why, for instance, must they scrounge around in trash cans for bits and bobs to use in the present when they are regularly going back to the 1930s for groceries?  How are they paying for their groceries?  Why are they putting up with the dictator of Pineapple Place who started moving them around in the first place?  It really makes little sense.    I am very keen now to read the sequel, The Prisoner of Pineapple Place-- will they escape the madness?

Putting that issue aside, though, it's a fun and rather heart-warming story.  The friendship between August and April is nice, the adventures fun, and the premise certainly is thought provoking.  I imagine that the target audience of 8-10 year olds will be a lot less bothered by it than me, and will probably find it truly magical.

(They will probably all have read Wonder, too, and so the name "August" will be like an old friend. I wonder if we will see an uptick in its popularity 15 years from now...).

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15. The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, upper MG leaning YA-ward, March 2014)

Alistair and Fiona were friends, back when they were little kids, then they drifted apart.  But now, years later in middle school, Fiona shows up at Alistair's door, and asks him to write her biography.

"To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here's mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger."

Which is of course impossible.

Fiona has spent days of her life far away from upstate New York in a magical universe called Aquavania.  There she reveled in the creation of her own small world, and there she met other kids, living in the worlds of their own imaginings--bright, extravagant places where to wish is to make things manifest.   But Aquavania is not safe- kids, many of them Fiona's friends, are vanishing.  Their stories, their worlds, themselves are falling prey to the sinister Riverman.

And Fiona is afraid she might be next.

Slowly, as Fiona tells the story of Aquavania, and the shadow of the Riverman falls across its wonders, Alistair comes to believe that there is indeed a darkness haunting his friend...But is it a darkness in our world, or is the magic real?  And what can one ordinary boy do?

Alistair is the single point of view character, and the reader learns and thinks and wonders right along with him.  His fears for Fiona are pretty much those that the reader might have, and his difficulty accepting Aquavania perfectly understandable.   Like Alistair, I found myself dismissive of Aquavania at first, but then, dragged inexorably into a story whose reality was undeniable, I read faster and faster, with sparks of metaphoric connections going off in my mind like crazy.  I grew to have genuine delight in the manifestations of imagination that is Aquavania (accompanied by considerable unease as to the addictive nature of these imaginings), and genuine concern for both kids. And I also developed a really (justifiable) conviction that things weren't going to end up all rainbow-unicorny.

This is the first book of a series, but though the ending isn't neatly resolved, I've read stand-alone books that offered less in the way of closure, and so I did not feel deeply bothered (though I am immensely curious to see what happens next). 

So, yes, I liked The Riverman, and now I am thinking hard about what sort of  reader I would give it too.  I think the older middle school kid, the eighth grader who might be a bit of an outlier, who isn't deeply into more traditional fantasy (there are no dragons, swords, or spells), who doesn't mind being puzzled, might well like it very much indeed.   As well as relating to Alistair, who is a character along those lines himself,  there's much that would appeal--Fiona is a character with spark and zing, the mystery is mysterious, and the reader is not forced to believe, if they don't feel like it, in the magical world, which might appeal to young rationalists.

I would be hesitant to give it to the younger reader who is deeply invested in "story" as a source of emotional comfort, because the whole  point of the book (I think maybe) is stories (beloved imaginings as well as the stories people are living) getting twisted out of true.  There's also mature content--the possibility that Fiona is being abused in real life, and some rather disturbing violence--that makes this not one to automatically hand to the ten year old who loves "fantasy worlds."

Though I am glad The Riverman is getting lots of positive buzz for its own sake, I'm hoping that it will lead more people to Aaron Starmer's first book, The Only Ones (my review, with a white-ed out spoiler at the bottom, so be warned).  I enjoyed The Only Ones lots myself (and it has stuck in my mind just beautifully, always a good sign), but I am particularly fond of it because it is one of the very few books that my hideously picky uncooperative-with-regard-to-reading eighth-grader has truly enjoyed.   So far he is resisting this one, which is deeply annoying, since he fits the description above to a tee.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


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16. This week's round-up of middle grade speculative fiction from around the blogs (3/23/14)

I myself have little to contribute to this week's round-up, since I have been visiting my mama.  But there is plenty without me, and please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

Almost Super, by Marion Jensen, at The Book Monsters

The Art of Flying, by Judy Hoffman, at Charlotte's Library

The Blood Guard, by Roy Carter, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at Good Books and Good Wine

Dark Lord: School's Out, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at A Backwards Story

Dragonborn, by Toby Forward, at By Singing Light

Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities book 2), by Shannon Messenger, at Oh, the Books!

Game of Clones, by M.E. Castle, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins, at Fantasy Book Critic

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw, by Christopher Healy, at Word Spelunking

Hunt for the Hydra, by at By Singing Light

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones, at SJ O'Hart

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood (with the UK cover!), at Wondrous Reads

The Last Wild, by Scott Torday, at Guys Lit Wire and Bookpeople's Blog

The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge, at Things Mean a Lot

Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe, at Word Spelunking

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jayleigh Johnson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Galivanting Girl Books

Mary Poppins Comes Back, by P.L. Travers, at Tor

Moonkind, by Sarah Prineas, at Karissa's Reading Review

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, at Mom Read It

O.M.G. ...Am I a Witch?, by Talia Aikens-Nunez, at alibrarymama

The Race for Polldovia, by James Rochfort, at A Fantastical Librarian

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, at Challenging the Bookworm

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer, at The Book Monsters, Roro is Reading, and Alice, Marvels

Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, at Jean Little Library

Silver, by Chris Wooding, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Sky Raiders, by Brandon Mull, at Book Nut

Stolen Magic, by Stephanie Burgis, at alibrarymama

Smasher, by Scott Bly, at The Write Path and Candace's Book Blog

The Water Castle, by Megan Frazier Blakemore, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Two at Tales of the Marvelous--Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder, and Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale.

300 Pages has taken a look at Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series -- Sandry's Book, Tris's Book, Daja's Book, Briar's Book

Ten Irish fantasy books for kids at Views From the Tesseract

Authors and Interviews

Aaron Starmer (The Riverman) and Laurel Snyder (Seven Stories Up) interview each other at Nerdy Book Club

Aaron Starmer at Great Imaginations and Maria's Melange

Peggy Eddleman (Sky Jumpers) at Kidit, Fantasy, & Sci Fi

Audrey Kane (The Purple Girl) at Thebookshelfgargoyle

Mary Sutton (Power Play) at Word Spelunking

Maureen McQuerry (Beyond the Door) at Word Spelunking

Susan Kaye Quinn (Faery Swap) at Literary Rambles

A. B. Harmes (Bewildered) at Through the Wormhole

Other Good Stuff

The winter issue of Goblin Fruit, a fantastical poetry journal, is out (read more at Once Upon a Blog)

Not specifically middle grade spec fic related, but of interest to those looking for multicultural books--here's the shortlist for the Burt Award for YA literature in the Caribbean, found at Caribbean Children's Fiction

Cake toppers of awesome (from The Mary Sue):

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17. Yesterday, by C.K. Kelly Martin, for Timeslip Tuesday

This review of Yesterday, by C.K. Kelly Martin (Random House, YA, 2012), is something of a spoiler by necessity--I am, after all, reviewing it for Timeslip Tuesday.  But the time travel element is pretty obvious, so I don't feel dreadfully bad.

In the world of 2063, shredded by environmental catastrophe, the rich and powerful still manage to live a comfortable life full of virtual enjoyment.  16-year-old Freya is one of these lucky ones...until her life implodes when her brother falls victim to a new and deadly plague.

In 1985, a girl named Freya has just moved back to Canada after her father's death in New Zealand.  Grief and the culture shock of starting at a new school in a new country are enough to make anyone feel that life is vaguely unreal, but for Freya, this feeling is not diminishing with time as it should.  Her memories all feel distant and shallow, and nothing seems right.  And at night, the dreams come, full of vivid horror....

And then she encounters Garren, boy who she thinks, or rather, knows, she once was close too.  Even though he has no clue who she is, she knows there is some link between them.

Turns out, Freya is right, and there were secrets back in 2063 that changed the course of her life, and Garren's too.  And there are people in 1985 who will do whatever it takes for that course, now that it is set, to remain unchanged.  With  Freya, and then Garren,  remembering their real past lives in the future, they are both in danger.

Yesterday is a slow build-up of suspense-even though it's fairly obvious that the two Freyas are one and the same, Freya's own journey to this realization is a gradually accumulating nightmare.  The first half of the book was perhaps a tad too slow--we aren't in any doubt as to Freya's feelings of disconnect because we are told about them plenty--but the whole ensemble works well enough.  Those who enjoy suspenseful speculative fiction involving teens on the run from bad guys, falling in love as they struggle to survive, will doubtless enjoy it. 

That being said, though this is clearly a time travel book, the time travel is to a certain extent a deus ex machine that allows the story to exist.  Although as Freya recovers her memories (in a truly unsubtle information dump), she is struck by the contrast between the two times in which she has lived,  the dislocation between those two lives has been soothed by mind wiping such that there isn't a huge feeling of cultural dislocation (one of my personal favorite elements of time travel).    And the explanation for the time-travel came out of left field right at the end, introducing whole new bits of possible plot.   Only at the very very very end does the time travel set up produce a real ZING!, which made me a bit sad because that whole story that we don't actually get to read about sounded much more appealing than the story I'd just read....

So I didn't mind reading it, and found the premise interesting, and now that we have gotten the slowish bit of realizing what has happened out of the way I'm rather interested in the sequel, Tomorrow --but it just wasn't quite the book I'd hoped it would be.

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18. The Art of Flying, by Judy Hoffman

The Art of Flying, by Judy Hoffman (Disney-Hyperion, Oct. 2013, MG) is a magical adventure in which a bird is transformed into a boy, and an ordinary girl becomes his friend.

Before I begin, I want to say that though this isn't a book that worked for me, it got a good review from Kirkus, and I am perfectly prepared to acknowledge that my opinion might not be widely shared, because it's mostly based on personal taste.

Fortuna, an ordinary girl, embarks on a most extraordinary adventure when her mom sends her to help out two old ladies nearby.  Turns out the ladies are witches, and one of them has just committed one of the worst magical crimes there is--she's turned three birds into people.    When Fortuna arrives at their home, only one is still there, a boy the witches are calling Martin.   The witches plan to rope Fortuna in to keep Martin safe, so that he can be re-transformed, but Martin has a mind of his own--he must find his brother, who is also a boy, and he takes off into the woods.

And Fortuna, somewhat to her surprise, finds herself his ally, and possible friend, bringing him home with her.   Martin's brother has been befriended as well, by Fortuna's old best friend, Peter.

But in the meantime, there is trouble:

--The third bird transformed was a sadistic owl, and now that he is human, he relishes the thought of having more scope for his nefarious pleasures. 
--a third witch wants to get the fist two witches into trouble
--the council of birds hopes to find all three ex-birds, and foil the bad ex-owl
--if Martin and the other two aren't transformed back in time, they will be human forever.
--Fortuna isn't sure she wants Martin to be a bird again.  As a boy, he still has the power of flight, and shares it her in a most magical way....

So.  There are many lots of bits happening, and the result was that I wasn't reading the book I thought I was going to read.  I thought I was going to read about a friendship between boy/bird and girl that was going to be a slow burn, introspective kind of story, but instead the feel of The Art of Flying tilted much more to magical happenings of an exiting sort.   It's the sort of book that really should have a more colorful cover with witches and brightness to it, like an Eva Ibbotson middle grade fantasy, or an E.D. Baker book.   And fans of those two authors should enjoy it lots.

For me, it wasn't a great fit.   The story felt a tad scattered, rather than reading as an organic whole.  There were many point of view shifts, sometimes the particular words used to describe the characters' reactions seemed odd to me, and there were details that didn't help the world of the story come alive.  The council of birds, or "feathren" as they call themselves, didn't appeal to me--the almost comic way in which they are portrayed diminished the gravitas of Martin's situation, which interested me much more.  And I was deeply disappointed by Fortuna...

That being said, I thought the author did a lovely job with her portrayal of Martin as bird learning to be a boy, and I enjoyed that aspect of the book lots.

If you think "magical fun with witches and birds, in which a girl learns to fly" sounds good, give this one a try; if you think "character-driven novel about identity and learning what it means to be human" sounds good, this might not be what you are looking for.

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19. This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs

Another week (minus an hour), another collection of links.  Please let me know if I missed yours!

The Reviews

The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkoski, at Log Cabin Library

Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Views From the Tesseract

The Finisher, by David Baldacci, at Pissed Off Geek and Reader, Writer, Critic (and not a review,  but if you want my take on the first 119 pages, here it is)

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at alibrarymama

Garden Princes, by Kristin Kladstrup, at Jean Little Library

Gideon's Spear, by Darby Karchut, at Middle Grade Ninja

How To Catch a Bogle, by Catherine Jinks, at The Book Monsters

The Hypnotists, by Gordon Korman, at That's Another Story

The Icarus Project, by Laura Quimby, at The Book Brownie

Janitors, by Tyler Whitesides, at Bookshop Talk

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, at The Book Monsters

Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers, at Fantasy Literature

Midnight for Charlie Bone, by Jenny Nimmo, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Mindscape, by M.M. Vaughan, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Neversink, by Barry Wolverton, at Bound By Words

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at Sarah Monsma

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann, at Log Cabin Library

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Megan Likes Books

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at Charlotte's Library

Sabotaged (The Missing Book 3) by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Time Travel Times Two

The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer Nielsen, at The Book Monsters, She Has Left the Room, and proseandkahn

Simon Bloom: The Gravity Keeper, by Michael Reisman, at Madigan Reads

Sleeping Beauty's Daughters, by Diane Zahler, at Pages Unbound

The Slither Sisters, by Charles Gilman, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at proseandkahn, Welcome to my (New) Tweendom, and Waking Brain Cells

The Wells Bequest, by Polly Shulman, at Leaf's Reviews

Three adventures at sea, at Views from the Tesseract:  Deadweather and Sunrise, by Geoff Rodkey, Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, and Oliver and the Seawigs, by Philip Reeve.

Authors and Interviews:

Natalie Lloyd (A Snicker of Magic) at Literary Rambles (with giveaway)

Laurisa White Reyes (The Celestine Chronicles) at Word Spelunking (with giveaway)

Suzanne de Montigny (The Shadow of the Unicorn) at One Writer's Journey

Other Good Stuff

If you want to go into MG SFF tbr overload, here's a list I compiled of forthcoming books--lots and lots of beautiful forthcoming books--at Middle Grade March, with a bonus giveaway of and ARC of A Hero's Guide to Being and Outlaw!

At GreenBeanTeenQueen, the most recent guest post in the "So You Want to Read Middle Grade" series is Stephanie Whalen, offering lots of MG Sci Fi book suggestions. 

And Stephanie's Tuesday Ten at Views From the Tesseract is "Birds of a Feather."

And for more listy fun, at SF Signal, the current "Mind Meld" asks a variety of great folks what sci fi or fantasy books they'd recommend for kids under ten.

The Canadian Children's Book Centre has announced its shortlist for the 2014 Canadian Literature Association-- which includes Curse of the Dream Witch, by Allan Stratton,   And The Accidental Time Traveller, by Janis Mackay, is the winner in the Younger Readers category of the Scottish Children's Book Awards.

There's a petition at change.org asking publishers to stop labeling children's books as "for boys" and "for girls."  My ten-year-old son, who is personally affected by this issue, has signed, and is very proud of his first foray into activism!

If I win the lottery I shall go to this September's Diana Wynne Jones conference in Newcastle, UK.  

But even without winning the lottery I will probably make it to Boscon (the Boston Sci Fi convention) in February of 2015 because Robin McKinley is the guest of honor....

There's a new issue of Middle Shelf Magazine up, with lots of mg sff goodness in it.

Movie News!  The Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, is coming to the big screen, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.

Living in a sci fi world back in the 16th century-- rocket cats (and birds) as weapons of war.  If only the rocket cats (and birds) could escape afterwards....

The Kombat Kittens, on the other hand, seem to be willing participants...

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20. Switched at Birthday, by Natalie Standiford

Switched at Birthday, by Natalie Standiford (Scholastic 2014, Middle Grade).

Through magical happenstance, two girls who share nothing but their birthday are switched into each other's bodies when they turn 13.  Lavender is an schulmpy, clutzy, poorly-groomed outlayer, who  makes no effort to practice any sort of middle school social graces, in part as a gesture of defiance against the taunts and torments she receives from the Beautiful Girls.  Scarlet is the leader of those girls, star of the soccer team, polished to a shiny gloss, and seemingly safe from all the vicissitudes of life.   But when the girls start living life in each others bodies, they both grow wiser, and when they switch back, their lives are changed for the better.

Although I did appreciate the fact that neither of the two girls ended up perfect in every way.  They are still themselves, just with more self-awareness, open-ness, and empathy.

Here's what I enjoyed--the difficulties the two girls had convincingly living each other's lives.   Among other difficulties, like finding something to wear in each others closet, poor Lavender has to take to the soccer field, and poor Scarlet has to deal with the mean-ness that's part of Lavender's daily life at school, forced to endure harassments of that she had once had a role in inflicting.

I must say that the mean-ness of this particular middle school made the book hard going--I don't like to read about cruel girls throwing chicken pot pies at those they despise (and surely this is exaggeration?  It doesn't really happen, does it????).   Of course, the mean and beautiful girls had to be hateful to make the plot work, but still...

More interesting. though less graphically brutal, than the plot line of outcast girl bespattered by lunch were the familial problems that Scarlet, though apparently perfect, is dealing with.  She suffers from a manipulative, domineering step-father whose main point in the story is to put Scarlet, her mother, and her step-brother down.   Again, his antagonism is not limed with too subtle a brush, but it's not a subtle book, so I wasn't expecting nuance, and was not bothered.   Scarlet actually enjoys the warm family dynamics of Lavender's family, unpolished as they are...

A good one for girls who enjoy reading about the turmoils of middle grade life (and though I am against gender marketing in general, some books just will appeal more to girls, in as much as they are solidly from the girl point of view).   The fantasy premise (explained just enough to make the reader not whiningly question what happened) makes it fun, and the ending is comforting (spoiler--Lavender and Scarlet are now friends, and there's a nice little bit of romance).

Here's another review at Ms. Yingling Reads

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21. The Iron Empire (Infinity Ring Book 7), by James Dashner, for Timeslip Tuesday

And so at last the story of the Infinity Ring comes full circle--with The Iron Empire, we are once more back with James Dashner, who wrote the first book of the series (A Mutiny in Time).   Sera, Dak, and Riq have travelled through the centuries fixing Break after Break--all the bits of history that didn't happen as they should have.   Now they have travelled to the time when it all began.  It is the age of Alexander the Great, and the time of Aristotle--who founded the league of Hystorians who sent the threesome off on their quest.

The mission seems simple.  If Sara, Dak, and Riq can keep Alexander from an untimely death, they will have healed the last break, averted the cataclysm that will otherwise engulf the earth, and they'll get to go home to a better world (except, perhaps, Riq, whose future might have been lost due to the changes in the past*).  But to their horror, they find their old nemesis Tilda has gotten to Greece before them....and nothing is going to be easy.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit--perhaps because I knew that Finally there would be an end to all the trials and tribulations and excitements, which, though exiting, had filled the previous books almost to the point of saturation.   I liked seeing Aristotle play a real role, and Alexander was rather fun to meet as well.  And it did indeed all resolve in a satisfactory way...and although this isn't actually the end of the series, at least there's a bit of a breather!

And in this book, the bickering and tensions between the three kids was diminished--they've come to rely on each other, accept each other, and work as a team.   Since I'm the sort of reader who doesn't thrive on interpersonal stress, I appreciated this.

This isn't a series that is deeply educational--although young readers will acquire a few basic facts (such as Aristotle being Alexander's tutor), it's not the sort of time travel that gives a rich and detailed picture of the past (not a complaint, just saying).  But for those who love action and adventure given point and zest by time travel, these books should be just right.

Nice detail in the cover art I appreciated:  it's not always the white boy (Dak) who's shown front and center in the picture of them that's on every back cover.   On this one, it's Riq:

disclaimer:  review copy received from Scholastic for review

*When reading this, my little one, already wise to the ways of stereotype, said cynically "Oh, the black kid dies."  In case you are worried about this too, he does not die, but stays with Alexander, renamed Hephaestion.

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22. Dark Lord: School's Out, by Jamie Thomson

Dark Lord: School's Out, by Jamie Thomson (Walker Childrens, Feb., 2014 in the US)

Give these books to any young fantasy gamers in your  life.  Give them to any Goth Girls you know who don't mind a bit of fun being poked at them.  Give them to any fantasy reading kid who wants a break from the serious side of the genre.  Give me the third book, even though it's not even out yet in the UK, let alone over here....

As was told in book 1, Dark Lord: the Early Years (my review),  the Dark Lord of the Dark Lands has been defeated by the power of Good, and sent into another realm--our world.   No longer a fearsome being with terrible powers, he's now a kid in foster care named Dirk Lloyd.  His powers are (for the most part) gone, and more importantly, much of the vile evil ichorosity inside him ended up spewing forth onto the parking lot where he landed.  But he still knows who he really is....and he won't let his foster brother, Chris, and the Goth girl Sooz, their good friend, forget either (and  happily all of Dirk's posturing and threats and Dark Lordliness stay this side of funny).

But in any even, an effort to restore Dirk to the Dark Lands at the end of Book 1 went wrong, and Sooz was the one who travelled there!  But fortunately, Sooz (thanks to her Goth proclivities) is undaunted (though with nicely contrasting moments of daunted homesickness and despair, which I liked--so often young heroes are just too brave for me to take).   And fortunately Sooz is in possession of Dirk's dark ring, which gives her magical powers.  She finds Dirk's  Dark Tower, gathers together his minions, and sets herself up as a Dark Queen.  Only, because she'd not actually evil, her rule is more benevolent than not.

(I really really loved this part of Sooz's story.  The exploring of the tower, the redecorating, the henchman befriending, the wardrobe choices she makes-- all delightful).

And in the meantime, Chris and Dirk are working on rescue plans, including the transformation of Chris' cell-phone into a dark phone that can call Sooz....

And also in the meantime, the "good" guys are trying to kill Dirk in our world, destroy Sooz in their world, and throw into prison anyone who disagrees with them...

So basically the tremendously fun premise  of book 1 (Dark Lord in kid's body) is now part of a richer, bigger story that is still tremendously fun, but with more depth to it.  There's a dash of serious-ness viz friendships, loyalty, and the blurriness between good and evil.   Dirk is one of those delightfully ambiguous anti-heroes, and the tension between Dirk the Friend and Dirk the Dark Lord is nicely tense. 

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23. Do you recognize this time travel book?

A blog reader wrote seeking book identification help that I can't provide; maybe you recognize it?

"I originally read it in the UK back in the late 80s/early 90s and it involves time travel (via a magic door?) to a house during world war 2. The home was populated by two children (a boy and a girl) with their dog called Blackie and a housekeeper who looked after them.  The boy used to step through a door in the modern era and end up back in this house where he couldn't leave the home and neither could the children (or they would cease to exist).

The main tension point of the story was where the dog escaped one night during heavy bombing and the children were frantic and desperate to get outside to save the dog leading to some chicanery by the time travel to remedy the situation."

It sounds like one I'd like, and I wasn't able to find it through google.... Read the rest of this post

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24. Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess

I have just read, with much enjoyment, Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess (Greenwillow, March 2014, YA).   It is the story of a teenaged girl, Ileni, who once had prodigious magical ability, and a bright future as a leader of her people, the Renegai.  Now Ileni's magic is deserting her, and soon will be gone entirely.  So her elders send her to teach magic to a clan of assassins, uneasy allies united against a common enemy.  Now Ileni, from a people who abhor violence, must spend the rest of her magic-less life trapped in an all-male world of trained killers, brainwashed to be loyal to their Master (who is fiendishly smart and scary).

Her life, however, might not be long.  Someone murdered her two predecessors, and she might well be next.

She is not sure she cares.

But Ileni refuses to succumb to despair, as slowly begins to unravel the threads of the plot in which she is ensnared.  Though her magic continues to fade, her determination to understand the machinations that surround her grows, and even as she greives for her lost love back home, she finds herself drawn to the young assassin, Sorin, who's been assigned to her as her guide and guard.  And Ileni finds that she can't stop caring about not just her own fate, but about the larger struggle in which she has become embroiled.

And I just ate it all up, because I love character-driven fantasy and really liked Ileni, from whose close point of view the reader sees the story.  I thought her reactions utterly believable, even her feelings for Sorin, which she herself realizes are, uh, complicated by the fact that he is her de facto jailor, and a brainwashed killer.   But Sorin is actually not unsympathetic, and is (possibly) more than just a tool of the assassins' Master....and as the days pass he is shown to be rather likeable (though still, as Ileni reminders herself often, a killer)... and I can understand how a 17-year-old in traumatic circumstances whose life has imploded might not feel like resisting her feelings.  And it is 100% her choice, not his.

The reader does have to make a certain leap of faith viz the whole underground assassin society set up-- it is a wonder that they don't all go more insane than they do, and in retrospect I worry about ventilation and vitamin D deficiency and fresh fruits and vegetables and that sort of thing (presumably the handy underground rivers carry the sewage away, so that's ok).  But I was caught up enough in the story that I refused to let this bother me while reading.

So in any event, I liked Death Sworn lots.

Those who do not like character-driven fantasy set in a rather limited physical environment with only teasing glimpses of the larger political/social point of it all in which there's not much that Happens in an exiting sort of way probably won't like the book as much.  There are maybe forty pages that are Exciting Happenings, but since I have a tendency to skim Exciting Happenings so as to quickly get back to the thinking and feeling part,  this was fine with me.

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25. This week's Round-Up of Middle Grade Sci fi/fantasy from around the blogs

Another week, another round-up-please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Alchemist War, by John Seven, at Sharon the Librarian

The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell, at Great Imaginations

The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander, at Hope is the Word

The Bridge to Never Land, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson at Fyrefly's Book Blog

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston, at Good Books and Good Wine

Dark Lord: School's Out, by Jamie Thompson, at Charlotte's Library

Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Here There Be Books

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Readaraptor
Earthfall, by Mark Walden, at Fantasy Book Critic

The Finisher, by David Baldacci, at On Starships and Dragonwings

The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

Fortune's Folly, by Deva Fagan, at Small Review

Game of Clones, by M. E. Castle,  at Mom Read It

Grimmtastic Girls, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, at The Write Path

How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle, at By Singing Light

The Iron Empire, by James Dashner, at Charlotte's Library

Lord and Lady Bunny- Almost Royalty, by Polly Horvath, at Book Nut

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson, at Word Spelunking (also an interview)

Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers, at Tor

The Mythomaniacs, by Jules Bass, at The Children's Book Review

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Fuse #8

Operation Bunny, by Sally Gardner, at the New York Times and Wondrous Reads

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at My Precious  and Word Spelunking

The Orphan and the Thief, by M. L. Legette, at The Ninja Librarian

The Prince Who Fell From the Sky, by John Claude Bemis, at Dead Houseplants

The Purple Girl, by Audrey Kane, at thebookshelfgargoyle

The Quirks in Circus Quirkus, by Erin Soderberg, at Story Time Secrets

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu, at Batch of Books

The Ruby Pendant, by Dorine White, at Laurisa White Reyes

Rump, by Liesl Shurtliff, at Jean Little Library

Sky Raiders, by Brandon Mull, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Spell Robbers (Quantum League 1), by Matthew J. Kirby, at The Hiding Spot

Switched at Birthday, by Natalie Standiford, at Charlotte's Library

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne, at Nerdy Book Club 

Tesla's Attic, by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, by Kate Saunders, at The Book Monsters

Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Tales of the Marvelous

A World Without Princes, by Soman Chainani, at The Social Potato Reviews

Pushing YA-wards, and not exactly spec. fic., but of great interest--three books about kids creating imaginary worlds at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles  --Peter's Room, by Antonia Forest, They Do Things Differently There, by Jan Mark, and The Traitor Game, by B.R.Collins.

And at Views from the Tesseract, a threesome of aliens

Authors and Interviews

Maureen Doyle McQuerry (Time Out of Time: Beyond the Door) at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Lauren Magaziner (The Only Thing Worse Than Witches), at Word Spelunking

M.P Kozlowksy (Dyerville Tales) at Middle Grade March 

Rachel Searles (The Lost Planet) at Middle Grade March

Other Good Stuff: 

"The 10 best fictional evil children" at The Guardian

Jim Hensen's Creature Shop Challenge premieres on SyFy March 25; read more at Once Upon a Blog

And also from Once Up a Blog, Snow White in her glass casket is on display at the Museum of Natural History in NY, as part of their "Power of Poison" exhibit.

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