in all blogs
Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: middle grade reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 326
Ragnarok, the end of the world in violence and freezing winter, fortold in Norse mythology, is coming...but instead of taking place far off in long ago Scandinavia, it's about to take place in the modern US. And there's just one little problem--the Norse gods, who were fated to fight in the great battle against the forces of darkness, are dead.Loki's Wolves
But they have descendants.
, by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr (Little Brown, 2013), is the story Matt, a thirteen year old boy who's grown up in South Dakota knowing that he's descended from Thor. What he didn't expect was that he would have to play Thor's part in Ragnarok...and what is worse, the elders of his family are certain that he has no chance of winning.
Guided (cryptically) by the Norns, Matt is determined not to give up, and sets off to gather together descendants of all the gods. The first kids he meets, though, are descendants of Loki--a boy named Fen and his cousin Laurie, and they've never been friends with Matt. Far from it. But though Loki fought with the bad guys in the original story, if Matt can learn to trust these two unlikely allies, maybe they can work together in this new version of the story....
And so the three of them set out, on a quest to gather certain magical items and find the rest of the god-descended teenagers they need--Odin, Fri. But it's not a walk in the park--already the forces of darkness are beginning to work against them...and, as this first book comes to a close, the stakes are getting very high indeed...
Of course, it's hard not to compare this to the Percy Jackson series, and indeed, fans of those books will welcome this series--more mythological fun and mayhem! But Loki's Wolves is somewhat different in feel. For one thing, the focus of the book is on three distinct characters right from the beginning, so there is more character-driven tension, and less immediate mythological mayhem. And here we are immersed more gradually in the struggle at hand--this first book is more a gathering of characters, setting the stage for the Real Adventures to come (although it is not without excitements).
My own response--a fine start with a great premise, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.
I'm happy to be a stop on the Loki's Wolves Blog Tour, in which questions are asked and answers given by the authors. My assignment was to ask about two of the god-descended teenagers-- Reyna and Ray, descendants of Frey and Freya.
He launched into explaining the myths: “The twins are Frey and Freya. In the old stories, Freya is the goddess of love and beauty. Frey is the god of weather and fertility. We need to find their descendants, who are apparently also twins.” Matt paused. “Two for one. That’ll make it easier.”
- Loki's Wolves, page 148
Me: In this first book of the series, the twins Reyna and Ray are somewhat shadowy figures--Fen calls them "Goth Ken and Goth Barbie," with good reason--they aren't exactly bubbling over with rich, nuanced demonstrations of personality. Will we get a chance to know them as individuals later in the series? Will they get to play a more central role, bringing into the story the characteristic of their ancestral deities, Freya and Frey? And will we get more insight into their particular powers?
Kelley: Yes, we definitely don't get a full picture of Ray and Reyna in the first book. They're the most wary of the descendants, unwilling to commit fully to the group and so, unwilling to reveal more of themselves. In Loki's Wolves, the other characters don't have a chance to get to know the twins so, by extension, neither does the reader. Once they become a true part of the team, we'll get to see their real selves. At the same time, they'll learn more about themselves and their powers.
Me: And why did you decide to make them Goth? I'm having trouble imaging Freya and Frey, deities of love and procreation and warmth of all sorts, as it were, as morose Goths hanging around a cemetery! We haven't been told much about their backstory--just that their dad's a (relatively) rich casino owner, and I'm wondering if there's something that we haven't been told yet….
Kelley: Goth culture is known for its emphasis on morbidity and death, but also seeks to find light and happiness in the dark parts of life. Ray and Reyna are two kids struggling to come to terms with their past and their present--their heritage as gods of light and fertility combined with lives of commercialism and cynicism (as the children of casino owners) They've discovered their affinity for magic and without the proper background regarding their heritage, they associate those powers with the dark arts and have embraced that side of themselves. Like many very young goths, they feel alienated and confused, and they're seeking to find their way.
Me: I'll look forward to finding out more about them! Thanks very much, Kelley and Melissa!
The other stops on the blog tour are:
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
"No, they're mine! They live in My room!"
This was the conversation that ensued when it came time to pick a shelf space for the two Astronaut Academy books by Dave Roman, the second of which, Astronaut Academy Re-Entry (First Second, May 15, 2013) was read about five times each in five days by my two boys (nine and twelve).
I would have solved the problem by putting them on my own shelves, if I kept graphic novels in my bedroom. They are that lovable. They are also very funny--both the words and the pictures. And they are also very good value for your money. Not only are they eminently re-readable, but even a fast-reading adult (ie me) will take at least an hour to savor every page the first time through (I didn't let my eyes glide over any of the pictures. I didn't want to miss anything).
On one level, these books deliver sci-fi fun of a very wacky sort. The setting is, after all, Astronaut Academy, where students arrive in robot-cat like school bus in space. There are robots and other high-tech accouterments. There is also a character who is a ninja bunny, and the mysterious Senor Panda. There's the very sci-fi game of Fireball, that plays a major role in the events of Astronaut Academy, and lots lots more.
But what there also is, even more so, is characters to love. From Hakata Soy, the central protagonist, to the kids on Team Feety Pajamas (who spend most of their time in the library, ostensibly Evil, but actually not so much), to the shy, the geek, the sporty kids who make up the gloriously fascinating and diverse student body, there is someone for just about anyone to relate too and sympathize with.
And so the central story line of Astronuat Academy Re-Entry
isn't the Fireball excitement, the way Hakata makes peace with his Past, or even the defeat of the heart stealing fiendish monster from space. Nope, the central story line follows the emotional arcs of lots of kids as they navigate the world of school and friendship and parental expectations (at a wacky school in space, but still universal). And my heart goes out to them all.
(Here at Tor
, you can see nice several pages of the book, staring one of my favorite characters, Thalia Thistle, playing fireball. And some of the heart eating monster stuff).
It's not a straight-forward, linear progression of story--it's told from multiple points of view. And things don't necessarily make Sense, especially if you haven't read the first book. This might make it not a book for everyone. But who cares about sense, says I, when you are given a combination of words that read themselves out loud in your head and pictures that make you smile like crazy?
Plus dinosaur cars. I loved them in the first book, and I was getting worried that they weren't going to be in this book. But they are.
Here's my review of book 1
--Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity.
disclaimer: review copy received very happily indeed from the publisher.
, by Frances Eager, was published way back in 1976, and if I had gotten hold of it back then (when I was eight) I would have loved it to pieces. Alas, as an adult reader I couldn't quite feel the love--it just didn't go far
enough with the magic of its time travel premise to make it wonderful.
Beth is a girl at a boarding school run by nuns in England, whose mother died a few months before the book begins--she is full of (mostly) repressed, and totally understandable, grief, and spends most of her time indulging in extravagant daydreams, which she narrates to herself. Her journalist father was supposed to come back to England to spend Christmas, but he can't. So Beth is going to stay with the nuns, crossing over to their side of the campus, an old manor house (unknown and exciting territory!). She doesn't mind, exactly; though she misses her father, Christmas without her mother was going to be horrible regardless.
One day Beth, wandering the cold woods outside the school, dressed up in her Elizabethan costume from the school play (which strikes me as a sensible thing to do, if you are going to wander around imagining things), and singing Greensleeves to pass the time (as one does), meets a boy named Adam. Turns out, Adam is an actual Elizabethan, who's gotten involved with the Catholic priest underground. And he shares with Elizabeth the information that a Catholic priest hidden in the manor house, and she agrees that she will be the next link in the chain of messengers, and warn him that he must not go to the next house on his itinerary, where he will be captured.
But though Adam can come and go through time (he seems to be visiting the present), Elizabeth, with exception of one vision of the Elizabethan past, cannot. And though she tries to twist the heavily painted-over Tudor rose that opens the hidden priest hole, she cannot...and the chain of warning is broken.
So its a fine story, with lots of bonus points for interesting and sympathetic nuns running a school (not something you see much of, and I've always liked a. boarding schools and b. In This House of Brede
, by Rumer Godden, which is the best book about nuns ever), and Elizabeth is a girl who reminds me of me (not the dead mother part, but the narrated imaginings part), and that is just fine, and Adam is enigmatic and appealing, and the tension is great.
But the ending fizzles, and Adam doesn't get enough page time. Fifty or so more pages, with more time travelling, and I probably would like it lots more, but as it was the balance was off. The two stories-- Beth's life in the real world, and Adam's problems in the past-- seemed to be two separate pieces of bread (unobjectionable bread) with no tasty sandwich filling making them into a glorious whole.
Short answer: if you see this in a library booksale for 25 cents, go for it. If you have an imaginative and introspective book-loving girl around your house who is eight or nine years old, you could even look for it activly.
Note on ghost vs time travel: I am categorizing this as time slip rather than ghost, because Adam is still very much within his own time, objects from the past are solid, and Elizabeth at one point sees backward into the past. But I did get a sense of the author being reluctant to fully commit herself to one or the other, and this, now that I come to type it, may be the root of my dissatisfaction.
The release of Fyre, the seventh and final book of the Septimus Heap series last Tuesday, means that now is the perfect time to introduce any young readers of fantasy in your life to what I think is just about the most satisfying series of the past decade (right up there with Harry Potter and Percy Jackson).
And this is what I did--last Saturday my nine-year old started Magyk
, the first in the series (HarperCollins, 2005). Here's how I sold it to him--boy with magical abilities finds dragon egg. Here's what I didn't say--the boy doesn't know it's a dragon egg, and it doesn't hatch till book 2. But I was pretty confident that once he got started, he'd be hooked.
Indeed, he was. He read with an all-consuming emotional commitment, and I wish Angie Sage could have stopped by our house to hear the stream of exclamations, questions, excited comments, predictions, gasps, etc. coming from the comfy chair in our living room. In all sincerity, I truly do not think any author could ask for a better reaction to their book.
Less than a week later, he has almost finished the fourth book (the fact that is was spring break helped). Listening to his questions and remarks (he wanted me to stay in the same room, so as to facilitate this social aspect of his reading enjoyment) made it clear to me that my memory of the early books has gotten fuzzy, so I've started a re-read of the series myself in anticipation of Fyre.Magyk
is, in a nutshell, the story of how brave kids, with the help of useful adults, defeat a dark wizard. As the story begins, young Septimus Heap, seventh son of seventh son, born to a happy, though not wealthy, family of magic users living in the shadow of a magic filled castle. Septimus is pronounced dead by the midwife...but that very day his father finds a baby girl left outside in the snow, and little Jenna becomes the Heap families daughter. Fast forward ten years. An evil wizard, thought to be dead, but clearly not, returns to try to reclaim the castle. Jenna and the Heap family flee with the help of Marcia, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. A boy, Boy 412, from the sinister Young Army (sort of a Soviet Youth training horror) finds himself reluctantly fleeing with them (he doesn't yet grasp that he is being saved).
Moving right along in a bald summary that doesn't do justice to the story--bad wizard wants Jenna (she is the missing princess), and sends sinister forces against the refugees. The boy from the Young Army turns out to have great magical gifts. The adults do what they can, but things go wrong. Jenna, Boy 412, and the next oldest Heap son save the day with the help of an ancient, living, dragon boat.
That's the plot in a nutshell, but what makes this book so very fun to read is the zest with which Angie Sage has packed it with Magyk
(highlighted thus in the text). Magical creatures abound, there are lots of charms and potions and just plain old fun with magic. And it is packed with characters too--although Sage wisely moves a whole chunk of Heap brothers off-stage, there are more than enough people busily engaged in fending off danger to keep things humming.
I really enjoyed it this second time through. As for my son, he thinks these books are just about the best he has ever read, and plans to book-talk them up a storm to his wide circle of reading friends on Monday. For the younger reader in particular, who still reads with the wide-eyed wonder of the not-yet-cynical, this is great stuff.
Hammer of Witches
, by Shana Mlawski (Tu, 2013, upper middle grade/YA).
Young Baltasar has grown up in late 15th-century Spain, a time when the Spanish Inquisition was going strong, listening to the stories told him by his uncle Diego--many of which were drawn from the Jewish heritage Diego and his wife ostensibly renounced when they chose to become nominal Christians (it was either that, or living in terrible fear of discovery--Ferdinand and Isabel did not want any Jews in Spain). But of all his uncle's stories, Baltasar thrills most to those of the brave warrior Amir al-Katib, who fought for the Christian kingdoms of Europe, was betrayed by them, and ended his life fighting on the side of the Moors who were being driven from Spain. Or so Baltasar has always believed.
But that's not actually how Amir al-Katib's story ended. When a sinister oranization, known as the Hammer of Witches, dedicated to fighting witchcraft with any means deemed necessary, imprisons Baltasar, he is questioned under threat of torture about Amir. And he intensively responds with a gift for magical storytelling he didn't know he had--and raises a golem, who carries him home.
Where, of course, the nice folks (not) from the Hammer of Witches know where to find him.
Now his aunt and uncle are dead, and Baltasar is on the run. But he's not alone for long--his uncle has passed on a slim golden chain that belonged ot Amir al-Katib himself, and, much to Baltasar's wonder, it summons an Ifritah--a girl who is have spirit, half human, and full of magic. And when the Ifritah, Jinniyah, takes him to Baba Yaga for advice, Baltasar finds that a great evil is about to head west from Europe across the sea...and that he might be able to thwart it.
And so Baltasar and Jinniyah sail off with Christopher Columbus....a journey wherein the little fleet is beset by magical enemies. But Baltasar can answer each magical creature with one of his own; the real evil (obviously to the modern reader) doesn't come until land is reached, and the Columbian consequences begin.
So. It is tremendously exciting, what with magical adventures, the voyage of exploration, the fact that the Hammer of Witches has a spy embedded in the voyage, the mystery of Amir al-Katib (which plays a large part in the story), and Baltasar's own growing control of his storytelling magic. In particular, Baltasar's time spent with the Taino people, who are describe in rich detail, and who seem much saner than the Europeans, is worthwhile reading.
Just about any reader who likes excitement will appreciate the high-stakes, fast-moving story; those who are Readers to begin with will especially appreciate the strong link here between magic and storytelling. It is a fascinating take on the story of Columbus' voyage, one that respects the Taino and gives them equal agency to the Europeans. There is a strong young female character, too, to round things off gender-wise, and to my surprise it wasn't Jinnyah but someone else....
I didn't find it a perfect read, though, primarily because Baltasar is a very distant first-person narrator. He's awfully good at describing (his words made beautifully clear pictures in my mind), but not so good at sharing enough of his feelings to make me care deeply about him as an individual. And, in fact, at one point I actively disliked him--after the aforementioned girl character witnessed the rape of Taino women, it was creepy of Baltasar to kiss her uninvited, and then, a few pages later, jokingly say to her that "we both know you're dying for another kiss" (page 286).
I was also disappointed by the fact that Jinniyah, the Ifritah, doesn't end up having much of a role in the story--I kept expecting her to be responsible for some major twist in the plot, but she never took center stage, and was often shunted off onto the sidelines.
Still, there was much to enjoy, and it was refreshing to read a book whose main character not only embodies the clash of cultures in 15th century Europe between Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, but offers an unflinching look at the horror Columbus' voyage unleashed on the native peoples he encountered.
For another perspective, here's the Kirkus review
Note on age: This one felt rather tween-ish to me, which is to say for readers 11 to 14. Baltasar himself is fourteen (though, I think, a rather young 14), and a few specific instance of violence, including what happened to the Taino women, pushes this beyond something I'd give to a ten-year old.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
I utterly adored Tuesdays At the Castle, by Jessica Day George (2011-- my review), and so was naturally looking forward to its sequel, Wednesdays in the Tower (Bloomsbury, 2013; technically May 7, but in my local B and N right now). I found it utterly engrossing.
Castle Glower has a habit of tweaking with its layout--adding and subtracting new rooms, shifting the floor plan, making the rooms of welcomed guests much more pleasant than those of less welcome ones--and generally, though not always, these things happen on Tuesdays. Celie, the youngest princess, knows the castle better than anyone, and she's been mapping its changes through the years.
Then the castle starts to surprise even Celie. First there's the never before seen armory, full of enchantments, but that was just the beginning. One Wednesday Celie finds a new tower, and in it is an egg...and when it hatches, Celie finds herself the surrogate mother to a baby griffin...even though griffins are mythological creatures, with no place in Celie's world.
The Castle won't let her tell anyone but her oldest brother, Bran (the Castle Wizard), making things a bit difficult for her...but more distressingly, the Castle seems to be going haywire. More and more rooms are appearing, and none are leaving, with little regard for the wishes of its current inhabitants.
Celie (not unnaturally) tries to find out all she can about griffins. Gradually she finds clues that lead to a past when the folk of the castle lived side by side with griffins, riding them through the air.
But there's someone in the castle who knows more about its ancient secrets than Celie can imagine...and he's determined to keep all knowledge of griffins from her. Will she be able to keep her own griffin safe? Just what is this strangers mysterious agenda? (and what on earth is the Castle up to?!!?).
It's a more tense read than the first book, which was light-hearted fun (though with emotional twists...). This is essentially a suspenseful mystery, and though there's plenty of lovely castle-magic whimsy, and the young griffin is charming, the sense of possible impending castle-doom made it a gripping page turner.
And though it ended with the primarily mystery resolved, George added a heck of the twist at the end to make it clear that there are many more adventures to come....
Like the first, this is great stuff for the younger reader of fantasy (the eight to ten year old). It's heavy on Mythological Creatures appeal (Celie's bond with her griffin, and her wild flights on its back, are the stuff of many a young reader's wish-fulfillment), with a very likable main character, suspense without violence, and friendships without romance. I liked it lots myself and recommend it whole-heartedly.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
, by J.V. Kade (Dial, March 21, 2013, middle grade), looked to me from its cover and its title to be a story of a boy fighting in a war against robots. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than that, in a good way, and is, in fact, an excellent example of a somewhat rare type of book--a sci-fi dystopian adventure for the middle grader reader.
In a future America, robots were once everywhere, both in the factories, and in the home. Twelve-year-old Trout St. Kroix had been one of many American kids raised by a robot nanny. But then came the Bot War--the robots had become too human, and xenophobia had reared its ugly head, with much bloodshed resulting. Now Trout's America is a land without any robots at all, his father is missing in action, and his older brother is home from the war, minus a leg. But some of the southern states didn't join in the uprising against the robots, and there, behind a wall, is a territory where the robots still thrive.
And there, it turns out, Trout's father is still alive--and an enemy of the northern totalitarian government. With the result that Trout and his brother are suspect, and as well as being potentially valuable hostages.
Just as the government moves to arrest Trout and his brother, Trout escapes--thanks to a robot sent from behind the wall to help him reach his father. But his brother remains behind...captured, tortured, and in danger of death.
Trout has barely time to take in a world in which robots are not beings to be feared, but sentient members of society, before he decides to risk his own life to save his brother. So with the help of (the somewhat stereotypical stock figure) the plucky girl sidekick, he sets off on an impossible rescue mission....
I enjoyed it quite a lot. I thought the whole set-up of dystopian, anti-robot North pitted against enlightened South was a most interesting one, I sympathized with Trout, and found the question of robotic sentience nicely addressed. And, on top of that, I found the pacing brisk without being frenetic. A bit slow to get going, perhaps, but a page-turner once it does.
(Yay! I also just found my bus pass, tucked inside the book).
I just went and read the Kirkus review
; whoever wrote it did not share my positive opinion. I can't help but think that I approached it with a mind-set more akin to that of an eleven-year old, in that I didn't question the science (I generally try to avoid questioning the science, unless it really forces me too), and I did not find it in the least "naïve and condescending." In my case, it was the Kirkus review I found condescending. For the young reader who hasn't read much dystopian sci-fi, I think it will be a very satisfying read, and the robots in particular, scientifically improbable though they might be, may well be utterly enchanting to such readers.
Note on age: There are serious issues of a grim sort addressed, but it is not a dark and gritty book, and so perfectly suitable for fifth grade readers on up. It is undeniable that older readers may well find the made-up slang and the future youth culture in general a bit tough to swallow...and Trout's rather easy conversion from a boy who is terrified by robots to their friend is not exactly nuanced. And, like the Kirkus review points out, the science might not satisfy a sci-fi veteran. But I enjoyed it, and it made my bus ride pass very quickly indeed.
Short answer: there really isn't much sci-fi action/adventure for middle grade kids, and I think this is an entertaining addition to the field that will be welcomed by its target audience.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
Poseidon: Earth Shaker
(First Second, March, 2013) is the fifth of the Greek gods to get his own graphic novel, in the stellar series written and illustrated by George O'Connor.
The series as a whole is an extraordinarily kid-friendly introduction to the Greek pantheon, and although I wouldn't recommend starting with Poseidon, this latest volume is a fine addition to the series.
It's somewhat episodic, beginning with the division of the cosmos between the three main gods (Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon), with Poseidon revelling in his new dominion over the sea. The stories of Odysseus and how he outwitted the Cyclopedian (Cyclopsian?) son of Poseidon, and Theseus, another son, come next, followed by the story of the contest between Poseidon and Athena over Athens. The story concludes with a flashback back to the early struggles between the gods and the Titans, emphasizing the overall theme of the book--Poseidon's conflict between the joy he takes in his dominion of the sea, and his sense that somehow he has been wronged.
Though this is a kid-friendly series, it's not something I'd give to a kid younger than ten or so--there are "adult themes" as is so often the case when one deals with the Greek gods...But for the older, perhaps reluctant reader, this series is a spot-on introduction to the stories--the pictures are powerful and utterly memorable (true for all the books, but I think in this book they are particularly compelling, what with all the ocean action opportunities provided by the subject matter), swinging the events along very nicely indeed. Adding value for teachers, and written in a manner engaging enough for the curious young reader, there's interesting back-matter included as well.
(review copy received from the publisher)
In The Golden Door
), Emily Rodda introduced the walled city of Weld, beset every night by horrible, man-eating skimmers who fly over the wall from the lands beyond. Three magical doors lead out of Weld, and in the first book, a boy named Rye and his chance companion, Sonia, head out through the Golden Door in search of Rye's oldest brother. In the sequel, The Silver Door
(Scholastic, 2013), Rye and Sonia, along with the rescued older brother, Dirk, journey through the Silver Door--searching not just for Rye's other brother, but for the answers to the mystery of the skimmers. Where do they come from, and why?
In the blasted land behind the Silver Door, Rye finds answers...and terrible dangers. It is a darkish book, dystopian in feel, as the characters move from one awful situation to another. And Rodda does a great job making these perils vivid; there isn't gratuitously graphic violence, exactly, but there is death, slavery, and some really scary flesh eating snails (and though bad snails might sound silly, when you are in a hideous blasted landscape about to be consumed by them, they are not nice...). But much worse than the snails is the dark entity behind the evilness of the skimmers.
Fortunately Rye has the magic talismans he was given in book one, and fortunately he has companions who are brave and smart. Most fortunately of all, though, he finds his missing brother in just the right place to overcome the immediate threats, and make it home....where the third door awaits.
So for those who like a darkish middle grade fantasy adventure, with some interesting magic and world-building, it's good stuff. Rye and Sonia are characters kids can relate too. It was a bit too dark a journey from one danger to the next for my own taste, but that being said, although I have a lamentable tendency to skim the "exciting showdown" bits in general, I was utterly sucked in by the excitement at the end of this one!
And I really enjoyed Rye's science-loving middle brother's role in it all. Yay for characters keenly interested in science, even when in mortal peril!
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
Well, you know, you win some, you loose some...and Dragon Magic
, by Andre Norton (1972), sadly fell into the later category for me.
The premise was interesting enough--four middle school boys of desperate backgrounds and interests all living in the same neighborhood in the early 1970s, but not interested in being friends. Then one of them discovers the magic of the beautiful dragon puzzle he finds in an old abandoned house--a puzzle with four dragons. Each boy in turn puts together a dragon, which whisks him on a journey back in time, and they become friends in the present when they share their experiences.
The boys whose interactions in the present make a framing device for the stories of the past are:
Sig--ordinary guy of Germanic heritage, who finds himself helping Sigurd take on Fafnir.
Ras, aka George--a black kid, whose big brother has embraced the Black Power movement, who finds himself a Nubian prince enslaved in Babylon along with Daniel. He gets to watch Daniel overcome an African swamp dragonish creature.
Artie--would be cool boy, who goes back in time to King Arthur and learns a valuable lesson about meaningful relationships.
Kim--adopted from Hong Kong, he goes back to ancient China where there is a very confusing war going on, and comes back knowing he should try harder to make friends.
So a diverse cast of kids who don't get all that much page time, but who actually manage to be somewhat more than stereotypes, which is good, and four stories that varied a lot in interesting-ness, which wasn't so good. The first two (Sigurd and Daniel) were very interesting, the last two I found tedious.
Which could have been just me. But the particulars of the stories aside, the whole ensemble never felt enough like a cohesive story to rise above the fractures of its form and make me really care. In large part this is because the time travel magic put the boys into characters in the past--they weren't themselves, so there was no ongoing metacommentary. The stories were told straight up,with no ties back to the present, in much the same way as you might find stories anthologized in a book of "Dragon Stories of Many Lands." And on top of that, the boys had almost no agency within their stories, which made them even less interesting.
So that's generally why I didn't care for it. Here's a particular thing that vexed me--in Ras's story, Norton keeps referring to him as "the Nubian" and not by his name. All the other boys were referred to by name, and it bothered me that he was depersonalized this way.
But the dragon puzzle was beautifully described...best dragon puzzle ever.
(Atheneum, April 2, 2013, middle grade) by Stephanie Burgis, is the third book in a series about an incorrigible Regency girl, Kat, who just so happens to be a powerful magic user. Unfortunately for Kat, any magic other than that of the Guardians (snooty upper class types) is tremendously looked down on. Although Kat has inherited a place among the Guardians from, she's also inherited more than a little of her mother's distasteful, distrusted, witchcraft....as have her sisters.
In this third book, one of her sisters, Angelina, is about to marry a very high-breed young man, whose mother is a snobby harridan of the worst kind. Kat, Angelina, their father and stepmother arrive at the finance's grand estate....and immediately mayhem ensues.
There are ordinary questions:
Will the schemes of the nasty mother keep Angelina from finding happiness?
Will Kat disgrace her family more than she usually does with her lack of regard for decorum?
There are magical questions:
Will Kat ever get another portal that will allow her to be a true member of the Guardians? She sacrificed hers in the previous book, and unfortunately all the spare portals have been stolen.
Will she and the woman tasked with working with her on finding them (a nasty piece of work from the previous books) come to blows?
Just what sort of spell does Angelina think she is doing?
And there are mysteries:
Who is stalking Kat with Malevolent Intent?
Who is the mysterious marquise who seems to know so much about Kat's family?
And then there is the Really Big Mystery:
Who is trying to kill Angelina?
And then there's a bonus kicker-- a plot by the scheming French that needs foiling (this being the Regency, and things not being too friendly between the French and the English).
So a very busy, entertainingly swirling plot that ends with the introduction of such a delightful appealing new twist that I hope rather a lot that there are more books to come!!!
I couldn't help but wish, as I read this one, that Kat would grow up just a bit more....she seems to have regressed somewhat in impetuosity and lack of empathy. Although that being said, there were times when I would not have blamed her for utterly loosing her temper, and she managed not to! But of course, the fact that I was caring about this as I read shows that Kat was very real to me.
The second book, Renegade Magic, is still my favorite (it has a more mythologically rooted plot, and more sympathy for Kate's poor, put-upon, unappreciated stepmama), but this was a fun, rollicking read, and I highly recommend offering this series to any ten or eleven year olds you happen to have on hand.
Here's another review at The Book Smugglers
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.
Weeding time has begun hereabouts, a time of mixed joy (I find weeding soothing) and despair (I can't weed fast enough). But regardless, I am a weeder. As well as a reader.
So of course I had to get hold of Garden Princess, by Kristin Kladstrup, the first example I have ever come across of a juvenile fantasy whose heroine, Adela, is a weeder! (Weed fantasy--the next big thing? Probably not).
Adela is a princess--plain and somewhat awkward, but royal none the less, which conflicts with her gardening (I hear you, Adela--my job conflicts with my weeding something fierce too!). And because of her love for plants, she gatecrashes a garden party to which she was not invited (though the handsome young castle gardener, and her vapidly beautiful young step-aunt both got invitations) simply because the thought of visiting the fabled garden of Lady Hortensia is irresistible.
Lady Hortensia has a way with plants. An evil, twisted, magical way...let's just say, all the beautiful people who get invited to her parties are changed by the experience...and Adela is about to see her in action! Adela's fortunate escape from the attentions of Lady Hortensia, and the brave efforts of a thief (in enchanted magpie form--he was the most interesting and entertaining character of the story), foil the evil Hortensia, and all is well.
It's a pleasant, fast read--light, fairy-tale fun. There's not much in the way of deep substance to the plot or to the various romances (which were rather rushed), and the moral--that "a beautiful person was someone who was good and kind" (p 190) is underlined repeatedly. But Adela's desire to do her own thing outside societies expectations of what a princess should be, and her growing determination to make those desires come true, are appealing.
A nice one for younger middle grade readers, who don't require their princesses to be beautiful, or their romances more than fairy-tales.
Terry Pratchett is, of course, best known for his Discworld books, but he also wrote (among other things) a three book sci fi/fantasy series for readers 9-12, about a boy named Johnny Maxwell and his friends. Johnny and the Bomb, the third book (1996), takes Johnny and co. back in time to World War II, just as their town is about to be hit by German bombs....
Johnny knows the bombs are coming, and that people will be killed because the air raid siren isn't going to off and warn them. If he can sound the alarm, he can save them...but caught in the temporal paradoxes of changing the past, and hampered more than he's helped by his companions in adventure, he might not be able to.
Johnny and his friends are a somewhat confusing bunch of mis-fits (three boys, and one girl)--they are all rather mad, in the British sense of the word. The madness that they create just by existing is compounded when they encounter the shopping cart of a bag lady, who just happens (though they don't know it) to keep time (or something very like it) in the grotty plastic bags she wheels around. When Johnny and the friend who is a girl (mostly named Kirsty though sometimes she chooses not to be) start poking at the cart (not that they really wanted to, but these things happen), it starts whisking them through time.
And eventually all five kids are back in 1941, not adding much to moral, and not, at first, realizing that if they don't do something, the bombs will kill the very people they are meeting. It does not help that one friend has decided to travel through time wearing a German uniform.
I rather think that I had read the other two books first, I would have been altogether calmer and more receptive, happy to see Johnny and all instead of confused and unconvinced by them (although not un-entertained). But I had not, and so I was. Fortunately, I was curious enough to continue on (chuckling, it must be said, quite often), and was rewarded by a cracker-jack time-travel paradox gem when Johnny must slide around the linear path of time to sound the alarm. That part was really good (or fully realized, if you want something fancier).
Short answer: read the first book first. Read this one first only if you are a. a passionate devotee of WW II juvenile fiction b. reading every time travel book for kids you can.
Bonus: interesting bit of grim humor regarding how the residents of WW II England might react to a black boy (one of Johnny's friends)
Final note: it is never explained how or why the mysterious bag lady and her shopping cart travel through time, so don't expect to be any wiser by the end of the book.
Oh yeah. 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 Menagerie
, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland (HarperCollins, March 2013, middle grade), is your basic ordinary boy meets a family who tends mythical creatures, and finds he has a knack for baby griffin wrangling. It's your basic new kid in town finds a niche and makes friends, with a bit of family dynamic stuff thrown in. And it's your basic scary government bad enforcement types and sinister sneakers off in the background threatening everything.
And the sum of these somewhat unremarkable plot points is an adventure with a generous dose of mystery that is eminently readable and very enjoyable, especially, I think, if you are nine years old. Even more especially if you are my own nine-year old, who turned right around after reading it in one day to begin it over again, and who can't wait for the sequel.
Things I especially appreciated:
1. Great baby griffins! The main story revolves around the escape of six young siblings, and their escapades all over town, which vary depending on their personality (one ends up in the library, because books are her favorite sort of treasure, another makes a hoard for himself with the pirate coins in a toy shop, etc.).
Logan, our central character, has the remarkable ability to converse telepathically with griffins, and here he is talking to baby Flurp (her thoughts are in bold) in the library:
"Flurp ready to write fabulous tales of grand adventure. Furp ready to be most famous author of all time! From nice warm safe cave with much fish
. She clacked her beak. Nothing to eat in here but BOOKS
"Did you actually--?" Logan glanced through the play-house window. The floor was covered in Harry Potter books, as if Flurp had been been making a nest out of them.Eat books?! Flurp would NEVER! Flurp would STARVE first!
The griffin cub let out a tiny burp that smelled of crayons." (p 105)
Plus Logan knows about griffins because he's seen one on a Diana Wynne Jones book, which made me, DWJ fan that I am, smile!
2. The fact that Logan is African American, and that this has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that happens. It's just who he is.
3. The nice balance of description (cool creatures!) with happenings, and an equally nice balance of the funny with the tense----it felt just right to my own internal nine-year old.
4. The fact that Logan has a cat named Purrsimmon.
And, as a small but worthwhile added bonus, "menagerie" is now in my son's vocabulary.
So give this to the kid who isn't ready for Fablehaven
yet, who loves mythical creature fiction, and watch the pages turn...
One last thing regarding my own boy's experience with it--after taking it to school, and talking it up, he came home to report that at least ten kids, including ones he hadn't expected to be interested, all wanted to read it. But he was a good child, and brought it back home to his mama...
I have April of Good Books and Good Wine
to thank for adding Dark Lord: the Early Years, by Jamie Thomson (Walker, Oct. 2, 2012, middle grade) to my reading queue, and it turned out to be a fine choice for reading while snowed in--there wasn't anything about snow in it, but it was nicely diverting.
The titular dark lord has fallen on hard times, and a hard pavement, as the book begins. Thrust by the magic of a good wizard from the fantasy realm where he exerts evil power over thousands of minions, he finds himself inhabiting the body of a 12 year old boy, prone and disoriented on a shopping-center parking lot. None of his evil magic works, and worse than that, no one takes the fact that he is a Dark Lord seriously, and without any power to curse them/blast them to smithereens/etc., there's nothing he can do about it.
Now he is simply a foster kid known as Dirk Lloyd, thrust into a perfectly ordinary middle school.
But Dirk is undaunted, not so much clinging to his Dark Lord identity, but utterly owning it. No measly principal will get the better of him! And with his finely honed Dark Lord military mind, the dynamics of middle school are an easy challenge to master. It helps, of course, that his foster brother and his Goth girl class mate find him diverting as all get out, and, though it strains credulity, his unshakable belief in his true identity does make for interesting conversations....
But, trapped in human form, with real friends and affectionate parents for the first time, and with a large dollop of his wickedness left in the parking lot (in oil smear form), Dirk finds himself changing....how long can he really believe that he is a Dark Lord, when it's not at all clear if he'll ever get home to his orc-breeding pits again (if they even really existed....).
There is tons of kid appeal to this one. Dirk's twisted dark lord memories, though gruesome, are so over the top cliched and exuberantly written that they are entertaining rather than disturbing, and the juxtaposition of his Dark Lord persona with middle school is one that many readers will find amusing. Up to a point, perhaps, for the adult reader, who might find it a bit of a one-note joke, even a tiresome one, but I think the intended audience will be more completely absorbed by it.
And Dirk himself actually works his way from being Bad Guy to being a sympathetic character. It's kind of tricky to truly sympathize with him, of course, because he really did do bad things. But the device of him having had a large part of his wickedness left on the parking lot allows readers to give him the chance to become a decent person, or at least, a decent friend (small steps....). And perhaps at some point he will start admitting that Dark Lordness isn't all that nice for those who suffer under its bloody tyranny...
And yes, there is a sequel! Good thing too, because this one ends on a cliffhanger. This is a UK series, where it was published as Dark Lord: the Teenage Years, and the sequel, Fiend in Need, came out last March, and which I really would like to read this week because the story of Dirk and his friends looks like it is about to really truly get going....
Recommended in particular to fans of fantasy war games, those who prefer black to pink, and those seeking tips on minion management. It's also a natural one to give kids who enjoyed Vordak
last year, but are ready to move on to meatier fare.
Here's Cory Doctorow's take on it at Boing Boing
(enthusiastic), April's review
, in case you missed the link above (which isn't enthusiastic, but which still made me seek out the book), and Pam's review at Bookalicious
(she liked it).
I have raved many times before about the Dragonbreath books by Ursula Vernon. They are my default recommendation for books to give the child who is betwixt and between easy readers and longer books--generous font size, heavy on graphic panels that advance the story (although less so as the series progresses), both girl and boy friendly, and funny as heck. And they are also perfect for giving to your picky 12 year old reader, because they aren't at all patronizing/condescending, so older readers can enjoy them too, and it is so nice to see said picky reader reading a book cover to cover grinning his head off.
So book 8, Nightmare of the Iguana
, is out now, and we get to meet Suki, the smart and sarcastic ex-Ninja gecko, again! Yay! It is especially nice for Wendell, the geeky young iguana, because they kind of fancy each other. Except that Wendell is being plagued by horrible nightmares, with potentially disastrous consequences...and to save him, Danny Dragonbreath and Suki must venture into his unconscious mind...a strange and terrible place....
I probably grinned as much reading it as my twelve year old. I think Curse of the Were-Wiener
is still my favorite, but this one was lots of fun.
And the next book is on its way, in which Danny, Wendell, and their friend-who-is-a girl [sic] must hunt down mutant thieves, in The Case of the Toxic Mutants, coming Sept. 1..... I hope we get to meet the potato salad again (it's my favorite living potato salad of all time).
, by Esther Friesner (Random House, April, 2012, middle grade/YA) tells of the childhood of Himiko, daughter of the chieftain of the small Matsu clan. By around 238 AD, Himiko was a queen, but before she reaches that point (which will presumably happen in the sequel to this book), she has lots of growing up to do....and so this is a book for the reader who has patience, one who is interested in the small things of life, and who doesn't demand happenings (in this, the cover is misleading--Himiko looks like an Action-Oriented princess, but that part of her life is yet to come). It's also a good one for the reader who likes historical fiction that explores the lives of little known women--the author's note at the end explains that Himiko's story is based on fact, which pleased me very much.
Himiko is the only daughter of her father, and so is the "princess" of her village. It is a narrow life, as her father distrusts all outsiders, and Himiko is not permitted to follow her dream of become a great hunter like her older brother (and even if she had been encouraged to follow this path, a fall in childhood leaves with a permanently lame leg). Slowly she realizes that her path lies elsewhere, as a shaman for her people. And so, interspersed with various family dynamics, we are told of her apprenticeship to the village shaman, which is kept secret from her dictatorial, xenophobic father, who simply wants to see her nicely married off.
There are shadows of a danger to come, which finally does arrive right at the end of the book. But until then, there's lots of family dynamics, with nicely drawn secondary characters, some interesting descriptions of Himiko's rather restricted life, some magical encounters with spirit world (although not quite enough for my taste), and hints of more story to come.
I myself rather enjoyed it, though at first I was doubtful--- I felt that it wasn't quite necessary to spend so much time with five-year old Himiko (adolescent Himiko becomes more interesting). But even though I did read it avidly, appreciating the different culture, appreciating Himiko's various dilemmas and her growing familiarity with the spirit world, and hoping that it would all work out, I couldn't help but feel that this story is simply the prologue to a more exciting one to come.
And indeed, this is a good time to have read the book, because I am very much looking forward to its sequel, Spirit's Chosen
, which comes out this April, and will not have as long to wait!
note on age: I'd be most likely to give this one to a ten or eleven year old girl, although it is described as being for ages 12 and up. There is nothing in the book that would give your typical middle grade pause, and I think older readers are more likely to be put off by the fact that Himiko is a little kid!
Oh yay, it's a middle grade science fiction book, oh yay....sorry. It's just that there are so very few solidly middle grade sci fi books, and every time I do a Sunday round-up of "middle grade sci fi/fantasy" I want to apologize for not actually having any sci fi in it, so there you go.
So in any event, The Fellowship For Alien Detection
, by Kevin Emerson (Walden Pond Press, Feb 26, 2013) is true blue sci fi, one to which I can comfortably apply the shopworn, but sincere, adjectives "exciting" and "fun." Albeit with a slight reservation.
Haley thinks aliens have been kidnapping people. Dodger hears a radio station in his head, broadcasting from a town that doesn't exist. When Haley and Dodger both get summer grants from the mysterious Fellowship for Alien Detection, they're off on two separate road trips to find out the truth. Haley and her dad head south and west from Connecticut, and Dodger and his go east and south from Washington. And when their paths converge, they find that the truth is even stranger, and much scarier, than they had ever dreamed....
Each kid's journey to that convergence point is told as a distinct story. I was not expecting this--there I was, happily following Haley (smart girl, would-be reporter) on the track of her interesting mystery (involving missing time and missing persons), and things were getting excitingly tense....then suddenly Haley is left on a metaphorical cliff and the story jumps to Dodger's journey. Haley's story and Dodger's are rather different in mood (Dodger's being darker), and this added to my uncertainty about narrative coherence. And then there were small extracts from the very mysterious life of a third character, another kid....I enjoyed them, and they added suspense, but I was confused...
However, everything does fit together, and very nicely too. All three narrative strands conjoin, and everything becomes very exciting indeed.
My only reservation is that the author spends considerable time making sure that the reader really Knows the characters, which is fine, except that it throws the balance off a tad--there's a lot of character development before Haley's true adventure starts, and then we go back and have lots of character development before Dodger's gets going. I found this made the book less of an all-absorbing read than it might otherwise have been (perhaps because it also made the book longer). And so I'd recommend it to kids who already are strong readers, rather than annoyingly picky ones like some children I live with.
My only other slight reservation about the book is that the cover makes it look a tad younger than is accurate--I think it's one for eleven-year olds, rather than nine-year olds.
That being said, it was great fun to see all the different little mysteries and clues that had filled the first three hundred pages converging into a whole, and I think this one has as much appeal to the mystery loving kid as it does to the reader of speculative fiction. Although if you have a kid on hand who is fascinated by Rosewell, you should definitely offer them this book.
Here are two other review (both glowing) from Maria's Melange
and This Kid Reviews Books
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
, by Patrick Matthews (Scholastic, March 1, 2013, but on shelves now, middle grade) is a just fine fantasy adventure for the 9-11 year-old set. It's an "if they like the cover they'll like the book" book -- boy, sword, dragon, with a title that promises action.
In an alternate, quasi-medieval world, all twelve year-olds are tested to determine their rank in life. Al dreams of getting the highest rank mark--a seven--tattooed on his neck...but instead, he is found wanting. All his ambitions go up in smoke when he is pronounced a zero, something virtually unheard of. Ones are beyond the pale, but absolutely no-one wants anything to do with a zero...except the Cullers, who want to kill them for eugenics purposes.
Fortunately Al gets some help escaping from the castle keep where he's been tested...but how will he survive, despised and alone, pursued by the ruthless killers who want to cull him?
But there is more to his story than that. For Al's world is one ruled by dragons, though they pay little attention to the humans crawling beneath them. As Al flees from the Cullers, he begins to learn that his world is a much more complex and scary place than he had imagined. The dragons are much more than they seem...and Al is forced to confront their power, head on, to save not only himself, but his people...
It's a great story, with a great premise--I give it very high marks for Plot. Seeing how the whole eugenics bit played out was particularly interesting. Though Al and his two good friends (boy and girl) don't rise to memorable heights of characterization, they're just fine, and it's nice to read about a hero who's special because he has nothing going for him but his own pluck and stubborn-ness. Interest is added by several not-quite-human races that co-exist with regular people. The writing isn't exceptional, being your standard, occasionally stilted, quasi-medieval fantasy writing, but I'm so used to that that it didn't bother me.
However, world-builidng-wise this fell short for me. It's not till around page 194 that the reader learns what the whole point of the cast system is, how magic is important to this world, and why the dragons care, and it's not till page 223 that I realized that "Lord Archovar," who had been mentioned several times, was in fact a dragon. It seems to me that if you are going to have overlord dragons and a world with magic, you should make it patently obvious from the beginning.
Just to show that it wasn't (at least, not entirely, my dimness as a reader), here's where we hear of Lord Archovar for the first time:
"A tall man stood in the opening. His black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and his tabard bore the purple and yellow flower of Lord Archovar. He raised a long brass horn to his lips and blew three short bursts. A hush rippled through the crowed, and the man dropped gracefully to one knee, bowing his head. On either side of him, the men at the gates echoed his gesture, as did the guards on the wall above.
The people in the field dropped to their knees as fast as they could, bowing their heads and closing their eyes. Al went to one knee, but kept his eyes open, staring at the dead leaves on the ground.
Glancing sideways , he noticed that Wisp also had his eyes open. The boys shared a look, then watched the dragon's shadow soar across the field and disappear behind the castle." (page 5)
It totally went over my head that Lord Archovar and the dragon were one and the same; when I got to page 233, and his dragon-ness was made clear, I flipped back through to see if I had missed anything, and didn't find any statements of obvious dragon-ness I had overlooked. (However, on page 9 it's clear that another lord is a dragon, so perhaps I should have made the connection....).
And I think that if you have a variety of not quite human races, you shouldn't keep introducing them abruptly, but mention early on that they might be expected. It's less jarring that way, when suddenly you meet people with webbed hands, or white fur.
So though I did appreciate the story, the book as a whole didn't quite work for me because the world wasn't solidly built enough for me, and the characterization and writing weren't quite enough to compensate. It's not one I'd urge grown-up readers to seek out, but kids in the market for a rather exciting "boy becomes hero" story, for whom plot is most important, may well enjoy it lots.
Here's the Kirkus review
, which provides details I didn't. I do not agree the ending was predictable, as the Kirkus reviewer opined--I liked the ending, and found it very interesting and surprising (maybe because the Kirkus reader figured out long, long before me who was a dragon, and what the dragons were up to....). I do agree, however, that it "went down pretty easy."
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
Unlocking the Spell
, by E.D. Baker (Bloomsbury, October 2012, ages 8-11), is the sequel to The Wide-Awake Princess, in which the titular princess, Annie, is the only one who doesn't fall asleep when her big sister falls under the magic curse ala Sleeping Beauty. It's up to Annie, the only person in all the kingdoms who magic has no effect on, to find a prince to come kiss her sister...which she does, with all sorts of fairy-tale mash-up adventures along the way.
However, the prince that Annie comes up with has one little issue--he's a bear. A prince enchanted into bear form, true, but still a bear.
So Annie, her sister, the bear, and Liam (Annie's friend from her first adventure) set out to find the dwarf who worked this malicious magic. And what follows is a pretty entertaining, though somewhat dizzying, whirl of a journey through fairy tale snippet after snippet--from Puss in Boots to the Three Little Pigs, to the Bremen Town musicians to Snow White and many, many, more....and in all these encounters, Annie's gift (?) of magic-suppression plays a part.
So basically it's a show-case of fractured-fairy tale set pieces, amusingly woven into a pretty coherent whole, but it's somewhat light on the character development (although Annie does wonder about the relationship between Liam and herself....). Annie's spoiled and ultra-beautiful sister, for instance, never becomes much more interesting or agreeable than she was at the beginning, despite all the shared adventures and dangers. So for younger readers who want fairy tale fun, it's great; for older readers, it might not have quite enough depth.
disclaimer: this one was received from the publisher ages ago, and has been languishing in my home far too long...
Read the rest of this post
, by Kieran Larwood (Scholastic, middle grade, March 2012)
Kept in cage in a dingy sea-side town, and exhibited to the gawking, jeering, 19th-century English public, Sheba knows there's no place for her in the real world. She is a "wolf-girl"--more than just being covered with fur, strong emotion causes wolfish changes to her body.
When she is nine or so, her world expands. She is bought by a travelling freak-show proprietor, a bloated, unpleasant tyrant, as a nice addition to his collection of human oddities. Although her new life is still that of a freak, dependent on a harsh master, at least she is not so alone. Plumpscuttle's Peculiars--the rat tamer (Mama Rat), the exotic young Japanese woman fighter (Sister Moon), the giant, the monkey boy may all be strange (and, in the case of Monkey boy, rather revolting, viz personal hygiene and disgusting pastimes involving poo and snot), but they are her first friends.
And when the freak show arrives in London, Till, a poor urchin girl, sneaks in to see the show. She and Sheba form an instant bond. When Till never returns from a stint of trash picking in the tidal cess-swamps of the Thames, the Peculiars take on the case.
Turns out a steam-punk robotic octopus is rising from the mud to grab hapless children....and the master-mind behind its operations wants the children for Darkly Sinister Purposes (!). Gradually the Peculiars piece together the clues that lead them to Prince Albert's Crystal Palace at midnight to confront the villain head on--but can they foil the evil plot in time to save the children?
I found it a lot more engaging than I thought I might--I don't like 19th-century London, freak shows, or stereotypes of the Exotic (the broken of English of the lovely but deadly Sister Moon got on my nerves tremendously). And in this particular case, the plot seemed somewhat flimsy--the bad guys didn't seem competent or sensible enough to be worthy antagonists. However, I did like the story arc of the lonely girl finding an unexpected type of family, the steam-punk octopus grabbing children scenes were creepy, and the trained rats of Mama Rat were most excellent.
I also appreciated the way in which Sheba grows to realize that the other Peculiars are actual people too, with names, and histories, and possible futures, and that she herself had a mother who loved her. Though the story ends with the crew preparing to put on another show, I couldn't help but feel hopeful that life might have more in store for them.
Just as an aside--it's rather interesting to read a speculative fiction book in which the central child character is not actually the person who saves the day. Sheba, though appropriately plucky, actually does little that is useful--the adult Peculiars are the ones who come up with plans, take down bad guys, track people down, etc. This is another thing I appreciated!
But what will kids think? I really don't know. I have a vague sense that 19th-century is a hard sell to ten- and eleven-year olds, but the cool cover, promising action and adventure, and the appeal of the bizarre, might draw in kids both genders....and then, having met Sheba, they might well be happy to see how her adventures play out. The first chapter can be read at the author's website
, if you want to try it out....
Final thought: I really could have done without Monkey Boy being so constantly gross.
Final-er thought: trying to label this, I can't decide on sci fi (the mechanical octopus and the reliance of the nefarious plot on Faraday's electrical fun) or fantasy (Sheba is a wolf girl in more than fur, and rats are preternaturally talented). So I will put both.Freaks
won The Times
/Chicken House Publishing Children’s Fiction Competition 2010, and was published in the UK in 2011. Here's the UK cover, which, as Tanita points out in her discussion of this one at Finding Wonderland
, is more than a bit misleading:
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest
, written by Charles de Lint, and illustrated by Charles Vess (Little Brown, March, 2013), was not quite what I expected. I knew that it told the story of a girl who was bitten by a snake out in the woods, and saved from death when a community of cats turned her into a kitten. And so I thought that she would be a kitten for most of the book, learning kitten-ways and such, until she was transformed back at the end (like Jennie
, by Paul Gallico, only in the woods).
Turns out the girl, Lillian, has a much more tangled path to follow--a fairy-tale journey, full of talking animal people, obstacles, forks in the road, and more than a bit of the "be careful what you wish for" motif. And for most of the story, she journeys in human form.
Lillian lives with her aunt on the edge of Tanglewood forest, a place she knows is full of magic, though she's never seen any in all of her exploring. One day her path takes her to the very heart of the old woods, and there, sleeping in the shade of an ancient tree, she is fatally poisoned by a snake bite. But the wild cats of the forest save her, transforming her from dying girl to living kitten; the spell, though, is something they can't undo. Though Lillian is not unappreciative, she wants to be a girl again, and so, guided by first a crow and then a fox, she makes her way to the home of Old Mother Possum, a bottle-witch who's part human, part possum. And Old Mother Possum's magic lets her follow a different path, one in which the snake doesn't bite her.
Much to Lillian's horror, when she goes back home in girl form, she finds that in this reality, it is her aunt who has been killed by a snake. Now she has another tangle to undo, one that will take her to the wise-woman of the Creek Indians who live near by, and then on to the incredible, and dark, world of the bear people, and on...
From one magical encounter to the next, Lillian travels in search of an answer, and at last she returns to the heart of Tanglewood Forest, where all is resolved.
It's very folk-lore-ish fantasy, with bits of magic and story taken from the desperate cultures (African, Native American, and European) that have converged in this forest. The story is given some coherence by Lillian's determined quest, but is primarily episodic, in good fairy-tale like fashion. The illustrations add to the dream-like feel of events, conveying the magic of the forest and its peoples rather nicely.
In short, I think this is a fine book to share as a read aloud with a child--some bits are scary, and darkly magical, so the younger reader might welcome the comforting presence of a grown-up. American fantasy, exploring the convergence of different, is thin on the ground, so this is a welcome book in that regard.
Though I found it memorable, and interesting, and powerful in places, it wasn't quite one that worked for me. I tend not to like episodic stories, and though it is good to have a variety of cultures represented, the jumps from bottle magic and mojo to stories of the Creek Indians were a tad abrupt, and I never felt quite grounded in the story. This feeling was compounded by the fact that the story isn't set firmly in time (a feeling that came more from the illustrations than the story).
Lillian's dress, sleeveless and short (shown on the cover), looks modern (except that if it were really modern, wouldn't she be exploring the woods in jeans, and there's a reference to the Creek Indian "rez," which makes me think its contemporary. The two Creek boys who help Lilian on her way could be contemporary kids, shown wearing denim overalls, but other members of the tribe are shown wearing traditional regalia. There's one illustration that I found particularly jarring, in which members of the Creek community are shown looking like they're back in the 18th-century (reminding me unpleasantly of stereotypes of the timeless, romanticized Indian). And yes, it is a fairy-tale sort of story, so firm time and place aren't necessary, but I would have preferred not having to be bothered wondering about it.....
That being said, most readers seem to have loved this one considerably more than I did--it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, for instance.
One last postscript about expectations--I kept waiting for the cats to get more page time than they did (which wasn't all that much), so be a tad wary of buying this for a kid simply because they love cats. It's not at all like the Warriors books, for instance. However, if you buy books simply because they have excellent fantasy foxes, this is one for you!
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
, by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Orion Childrens, May 2010, UK), is a time slip book like no other I have ever reviewed, in that it involves ghosts time travelling back into the past through a magical portal! I do not know of any other books with actively time-travelling ghosts.
G. is a ghost boy, haunting the old Dublin Button Factory where he died in a freak accident several years ago-- lonely, bored, and at loose ends in death. Jessie is a girl new to the city, whose attention he attracts, leading her into the old factory, which has now been refurbished as miscellaneous business spaces/artists studios. There Jessie meets two private detectives who have a secret--the stairs in their office that lead nowhere actually lead to a time portal that opens every seven years. And there in the old factory is the ghost of the man, Master Greenwood, who inadvertently opened this Timecatcher back in the thirteenth century, and who has been guarding it ever since, hoping to find some way to close it. No living person has ever used it, but ghosts can come and go...
Then there's a third ghost, a bad one, who wants to use the magic of the time portal for the most selfish of ends. He has powers the good guys don't know about....and he's on his way to the Button Factory. The Timecatcher is about to open again...
(and the bad guy has told every ghost in Dublin about this opportunity to be ghostly travellers in time, so that they will mob the Button Factory and distract the good guys--this ghostly tourist episode, though just a side note, was lots of fun!)
As well as the central story plot--the bad ghost trying to take over the Timecatcher and team of ghosts and living people trying to find the secret of how to close it--there's a substantial character-driven plot. G. the ghost boy only the wispiest memory of his life before he became a ghost, and has spent his death years aimlessly working small mischiefs, and watching the artists at work in their studios. G. is not particularly fond of Master Greenwood (who indeed is much too preoccupied with his weighty concerns to be a good friend to a kid), and Master Greenwood does not regard G. in a particularly favorable light. And so G. is faced with a character-growing situation--does he work to become trustworthy, and a good friend to Jessie and the rest, sharing his own particular ghost skill (a useful one) with the team? Or will he let his resentment and care-less attitude to life and death win? And will the others trust him, or not? I liked this aspect of the book.
Jessie is there primarily to be the reader's entree into the story, and for her it is more an adventure than a character-changing experience. But still, she is a likable girl, with a bit of backstory (the missing father, lonely mother, new girl in strange place, etc.) and enough initiative to be a valuable member of the team. Master Greenwood's backstory, on the other hand, though perhaps a bit contrived, is extraordinary.....
There is also a very nice ghost cat who's travelled through time. Jessie's terrier also gets lots of page time, and those who like small dogs will appreciate him.
Short answer: A ghost-filled time-slip story with a nice dash of character development that entertained me lots.
Way back in May of 2009, I began to conciously seek out multicultural children's books, primarily in an effort to add color to my sons' bookshelves
. One of the books that I ended up buying in that initial burst of enthusiasm was The Little Yokozuna
, by Wayne Shorey (Tuttle Publishing, 2003, middle grade). And I have only just now finished it, partly because of tbr pile inertia, and partly, and sadly, because when I started it back then I realized it wasn't very good.
I still think it isn't very good. But as well as being multicultural, it is a time travel book, and so in a vague desire for completeness (someday I will have reviewed every children's time travel book ever written in English, Magic Treehouse books and other series-es for the younger reader excepted) I'm going ahead and posting about it.
Basic plot--Japanese demons have kidnapped an American girl, called Little Harriet. She disappeared in a museum garden, and her six older brother and sisters have found that the garden serves as a portal, that has whisked them, in pairs, into a whole series of other gardens, mostly Japanese. One pair of siblings ends up in Japan in the 1960s, where they meet a Japanese boy, Kiyoshi-chan. He and his family are kind and helpful. Another pair ends up becoming friends with a haiku-writing monkey named Basho. The third pair ends up in an underground pit of demons. They are reunited. They meet an enigmatic old man who is enigmatic. Demons are glimpsed; one is beheaded. More gardens are visited, too quickly to explore in detail.
Finally the six American kids and one Japanese kid end up at a Japanese demon/god sumo wrestling match. The Japanese kid enters the ring to fight for their lives (and Little Harriet).
The enigmatic old man enigmatically leads them to Little Harriet. The American kids go back to modern Boston.
Here is what I liked: Some of the garden descriptions are appealing. I like learning about new things--I now know more about sumo wrestling.
Here are the reasons why I didn't like it:
1. The character names. "Little Harriet." Her brother, "Owen Greatheart." (He wasn't even all that greathearted). Another brother, "Knuckleball." The fact that when we meet the oldest sister, Annie, her brother is calling her "Granny." This confused me. I thought she was a grandmother. The fact that Kiyoshi-chan is never just Kiyoshi (although maybe that's a nod to the reality of 1960s Japan???).
2. The multiple jumps in perspective. I coped reasonably well with all the different narrative strands, but I object to shifts in narrative perspective from one paragraph to the next.
3. The resulting fact that I never felt I knew any of the characters well enough to care about them as individuals. In particular, what with a considerable portion of the book's beginning told from the perspective of Kiyoshi-chan, I felt invested in him, and so was somewhat put out to find him becoming a minor side-kick (even when he took center stage as a sumo wrestler, and thus became the title character, "yokozuna" being the highest rank in professional sumo, he stayed minor). I think, also, that if an author tells me some of the kids are blond, but then goes out of his way to say that one has skin "the beautiful dark color of smooth chocolate," he should maybe tell me more about the familial circumstances of the kids (and make a vow never to use chocolate as a skin color descriptor ever again. I got stuck for a while at this point, thinking deep thoughts like "milk chocolate is smooth but not dark" etc.).
3. The fact that the plot made little sense, with motivations and meanings that never felt properly developed. WHY, for instance, did the kids travel through time? There is no reason, plot-wise, for this, and it didn't add to the sense that I was reading a coherent story. And what was with the talking monkey? I am fundamentally against talking monkeys whose only purpose is to introduce Basho's poetry, in a somewhat twisted fashion, to the young.
In a nutshell: It was like a confused fever dream, and I'm not adding it to my son's bookshelf.
And so that concludes this week's edition of Time Slip Tuesday. Tune in next week for a book I like more than this one.
View Next 25 Posts
, by Toby Forward (April 2012, Bloomsbury, middle grade), goes to show (and very nicely too) that it's possible to take elements that might seem to have been done to death in middle grade fantasy and make them into a book that appeals even to even the jaded adult reader (ie, me). In short, I enjoyed it; not with wild extravagant enjoyment, but it held my interest just fine. I have underlined the common elements in my summary, in a helpful spirit, just for my own amusement and not because they made me think less of the book.
Sam is an orphaned
boy learning magic
from a kindly old wizard
in a cottage of sylvan simplicity (I liked that he was named Sam, which I thought made a nice change in its matter-of-factness), who has a dragon friend
(but not the sort one rides on). The old wizard dies before Sam has finished his apprenticeship, and all his old pupils show up at the sylvan retreat. And none of them believes that Sam was a true apprentice, with magic and all. So Sam, and his dragon friend, strike out on their own
, leaving the other wizards faced with a magically locked door that convinces them pretty quickly that Sam has magic after all, and needs to be found.
Sam's journey takes him to a school of magic, but it is no Hogwarts. Instead it is a degenerate place where the library has been neglected, and a sort of capitalist spirit of magic for profit rules supreme. There at the magic school is a brave and clever girl
, and a mean boy
who plots against our hero.
And then everything becomes a lot more complicated and difficult to explain, with a struggle against malevolent evil in the form of a sorceress who's a really nasty piece of venom, and magic playing out in interesting ways, and the grown-up wizards turn up and are interesting and it was really quite engrossing.
( I liked the simpler first part best).
Things got more tricky to follow, and the climactic scene toward the end (involving the whole "dragonborn" thing) didn't make sense to me (to put it more bluntly, I have No Clue At All what happened in the relationship of the boy and the dragon and how it helped thwart the antagonist) but that could be just my own dimness. And then the book ends, clearly in need of a sequel (which I will read), but not distressingly so.
So I think that this is one with appeal to adults who enjoy middle grade fantasy; I was very happy to keep reading it, and there parts that I enjoyed very much. And I think older, middle-grade readers with many fantasy books under their belts will also appreciate it. The UK cover at right is much more age appropriate than the US cover, which makes it look like a friendly magical book for eight or nine year-olds. It's most definitely not that age, for two reasons:
1. It's disturbing. The good wizard is dead right from the start, and Sam is alone and friendless. The adults who are supposed to be his friends fail him. Sam almost dies at one point, and takes a long time to recover. The magic school is rotten. The (tremendously appealing) dragon friend is separated from Sam for most of the book.
And on top of all that, the bad character is scary and disgusting (I really could have done without so much detail about her beetle eating habits; one beetle, two beetles, I could have taken, but there were lots more), and she tortures people, and we never (in this book at least) find out who or what she really is, so she remains an undefeated figure of nightmare. Voldemort is scary too, but we kind of work our way up to him. This bad beetle-eater is there from the beginning, casting a creepy pall of darkness from her dismal tower.
2. The story is confusing. Not in a muddled writing sort of way, but because confusing things happen without much explication. There is some backstory given for the world in general, through pages from Sam's notebook, but the history of the adult characters (and clearly they have lots of history) is (for the most part) not told to the reader. One has many questions along the way--why were the older wizards so dim about Sam? Is such and such character to be trusted? Who the heck is the bad beetle-eater, and was she always so bad? Why is the dragon doing that? There is no spoon-feeding (and as I said, I failed to understand what happened at the end).
So I'm not going to offer this one to my own nine-year old (devourer of fantasy though he is), but I am going to be on the look-out for the sequel myself....and now I see that the sequel, Fireborn
, has already been out for a while in the UK, but is coming in December over here in the US...