12/18/14

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford--a lovely Christmas time read

If you are looking for a lovely book to read aloud with your young ones (as in, 8-14 year olds) in front of the fire this Christmastime, Greenglass House, by Kate Milford (Clarion, middle grade, August 2014, 373 pp*) is an excellent choice.   So excellent that even though my suitcase is already heavy with books, I am taking it with us to grandma's house so that I can keep on reading it to my own boys.

Greenglass House is an inn perched high on a hill above a riverside town that's been a haven for smugglers for years and years.  And many of them have been guests at Greenglass House....But now it is Christmas vacation, and young Milo, whose parents own the inn, is looking forward to a peaceful time with no visitors at all. 

Ha.  One by one, an assortment of guests make their way through the snowy night to Greenglass House.  Each one thought they would be the only guest.  Each one has a secret.   And each secret has a connection to the history of the house....and one secret is deadly. 

As the snow keeps falling outside, the guests share stories, each adding a piece to the puzzle.  And Milo, with the help of Meddie, a girl his own age, who's shown up along with the extra helpers from the town, is determined to put the puzzle together.   Meddie convinces Milo to make it a game of Odd Trails--a role-playing fantasy adventure.  Given confidence by his new identity as a Blackjack (with its concomitant slate of abilities useful for a thief and a clue-hunter), and added and abetted by Meddie in her own role as semi-spirit character, Milo sets to work....

One story leads to another, and in the telling and finding and living of the stories Milo finds that there were secrets to Greenglass House he could never have dreamt of.

I sold this to my own children as a fantastical Westing Game like-story--the largish cast of characters, each with a mystery, gathered together against their will, reminded me strongly of that one.   It is different, of course, being really truly magical (thought the reader doesn't find our that part of the story till close to the end).    And it's different as well in its focus on one character, Milo, who's grappling with the story of his own adoption (from China) and identity alongside the external questions.  That being said, Meddy, though essentially a sidekick, is a lovely character in her own right!

There's a touch of the quirkily surreal (what with the smugglers and some of the character's backstories, as well as the role-playing game that Milo and Meddy are playing) that might not be to everyone's taste, and it's a bit slow to start, perhaps--a lot of people have to arrive--but once things get going, they go just beautifully.  The result is a rich, lovely story that's one of my personal favorites of the year. 

This is partly because I love old house stories, and this is a gorgeous one--stained glass, for instance, is important to the story, and there is also the sort of attic that is a dream come true for readers who like attics full of Stuff.  It's also because I loved Milo and Meddy (Milo's parents are lovely too, and it is a nice treat to have caring, present parents in a middle grade fantasy!).  And it's also because of the layers of story within story building up on each other, as the snow builds up outside and Christmas gets closer.....


*I put the number of pages in because Amazon inexplicably says it has only 176, which is rather misleading.....

12/16/14

Running Out of Time, by Elizabeth Levy, for Timeslip Tuesday

The best thing I can say about Running Out of Time, by Elizabeth Levy (1980), is that now I have read it I no longer have to keep it in my home.  It is not so bad as to be risible, but the clunky prose, feeble characterization, and truncated plot result in a book that is less than enjoyable for the adult reader.   The magic of a trip back in time to ancient Rome might, however, please a younger reader (judging from comments on Goodreads).

Three kids are training for a marathon.  They run through a fog back in time to Ancient Rome (as one does).  There they are, for no good reason, assumed to be slaves, and are pressed into the gang of gladiators out for a training run (who knew gladiators were taken for runs?).    They meet Spartacus, who takes them under his wing.  He belives they are from the future.  One of the kids, a girl named Francie, has to fight in the arena.  This is the catalyst that sparks Spartacus' rebellion.   The gladiators fight their way out of Rome, and a fog comes up that lets the kids go back to their own time.

Here's the main problem with the book--there are three kids and two would be plenty.  We start with Nina's point of view, and, not unnaturally, I assumed she would be the main character.   Mostly, though, things focus on Francie, who likes pizza more than Nina does and who is not as naturally athletic or spunky.   Nina seemed to have more potential....but it never happened.  Bill did not need to be in the story at all.  He was a waste of page space.  In short, there are no interesting, well-developed characters.

Here's the second, slightly less main, problem--the emotional intensity of Spartacus' desperate position was growing....what would happen?  and then-fog happened and the kids went back to their own time.  Kind of a let down.

Here's the third problem--good time travel plays with the tension of being a stranger in a strange land.  Apart from some questioning along the lines of "gladiators?"  there is none of this tension here.  It's the sort of time travel where all the language/clothing difficulties are magically smoothed over.   Good time travel also offers at least some sort of reason for the thing to have happened, even if it is just a slight connection of sympathy or similarity.   Here the only point of connection was long distance running, which seemed too slight.

The illustrations, by W.T. Mars, do not further enhance the story.  As is clear from the cover, he seems to have trouble with arms.

However, if you want your children to learn about Spartacus they could read this.  I learn history best through fiction, and feel slightly more Spartacus-literate than I did before.  I had not, for instance, known that his wife was involved.  (I've never seen the movie).

12/15/14

Ambassador, by William Alexander--really good alien sci fi for the middle grade reader

Ambassador, by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2014, middle grade)

Gabe Fuentes is a good kid.  His mom knows he can be trusted with his two toddler siblings.   And a mysterious Envoy decides that he can be trusted with the job as Earth's ambassador to the vast diplomatic consortium of alien civilizations.    Yes, he is young (11), but that's actually a requirement for the job--this diplomacy relies on the fact that young people are more open minded and ready to be friends through play than adults.  So Gabe is given the ability to visit the virtual space of the intergalactic embassy, and make contact with other sentient beings.....

But all is not happy playground fun.   An aggressive species is spreading terror as it conquers planet after planet, sending alien refugees fleeing into space.  And there's someone, or something, lurking in Earth's own asteroid belt and not broadcasting friendly messages.  And on top of that, someone/thing is trying to assassinate Gabe.

Life on earth isn't any better.  Gabe's Mexican parents are in the country illegally, and when his dad is caught rolling through a stop sign he ends up in jail, waiting to be deported.   Then Gabe's house implodes (not by chance).   Gabe's family needs him badly....but so does Earth....

Why I liked this Book:

The people:
--Gabe is a Nice, thoughtful, sympathetic, boy--really truly likeable.  

--the Envoy, doing the best he can to help Gabe, makes a likeable sidekick whose powers and knoweldge are never quite up to expectations--he can't magically save the day.

--Gabe's family is warm and idiosyncratic and real and (unusual in MG fiction) alive and caring.

--there are sundry aliens of interest, many of whom I want to know more about, and one of whom doesn't behave the way everyone else is expecting he should.

The story:

--this is a lovely adventure with multiple alien species that is just a perfect introduction to that genre for the 11 year old.   Not only is it a good story qua story, it is also a friendly one for the fan of fantasy--the portal to the intergalactic embassy, peopled by strange beings, might as well be magic (the "science" isn't explained, so on the downside this one might not work for those with trouble suspending disbelief).

--even though the ending suddenly introduces a whole new plot twist, and doesn't actually Finish anything, the story hung together enough that I didn't mind (though I know of others who did object, so your mileage may vary....).  I am actually rather glad to have the sequel to look forward to in an active spirit of anticipation.

--the intertwining of socio-political contexts, with refugees in space and on Earth, was very satisfying.

Final thought:

I am not always on board with the opinions of whoever is reviewing middle grade science fiction and fantasy for Kirkus, but in this case I agree that this one deserves its star.

(I also like it when book covers go well with my blog's color scheme; Ambassador might have been designed with my blog in mind, and I appreciate that.)
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration

12/14/14

This Week's Round-up of Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy From Around the Blogs (12/14/14)

I myself have been missing in action for much of this week--library booksale time (and I miscalculated--I thought  I'd get a rush of holiday shoppers looking for book bargins, but it seem as though most people don't give used books as presents....odd).

Let me know if I missed your link!

The Reviews

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar, at Charlotte's Library

Almost Super, by Marion Jensen, at alibrarymama

The Black Stars, by Dan Krokos, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at The Children's Book Review

Cakes in Space, by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, at Readaraptor

Curse of the Broomstaff, by Tyler Whitesides, at Batch of Books

The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Dream Keeper, by Mikey Brooks, at Tales from the Raven

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at This Kid Reviews Books

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at alibrarymama

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at That's Another Story

Fyre, by Angie Sage, at The Write Path

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, by Sheila Turnage, at Read Till Dawn

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Book Nut

The Ice Dragon, by George R.R. Martin, at Best Fantasy Books

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini, at One Librarian's Book Reviews

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, by Greg Leitich Smith, at Jean Little Library

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman, at Kid Lit Geek

A Plague of Unicorns, by Jane Yolen, at The Write Stuff

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at Spirit of Children's Literature

The Sixteen, by Ali B, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Spirit Animals: Wild Born, by Brandon Mull, at Leaf's Reviews

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at alibrarymama

The Thickety, by J.A. White, at School Library Journal

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover, at Fantasy Book Critic

Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson, at Dead Houseplants

The Whispering Trees (The Thickety Book 2), by J.A. White, at The Social Potato

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at books4yourkids

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Five short ones at Random Musings of a Bibliophile-- The Ambassador, The Children of the King, Dreamwood, Pathfinder, and The Time of the Fireflies


Authors and Interviews

Sarwat Chadda (The Savage Fortress) at Twinja Book Reviews (part of Diversity Month)

Kelly Barnhill talks fairytales at Nerdy Book Club

Jane Yolen (A Plague of Unicorns) at The Write Stuff


Other Good Stuff:

Neil Gaiman reads Jabberwocky, at Educating Alice

From io9--watch Hayao Miyazaki create Studio Ghibli

and that's it for this week.............

12/9/14

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar, for Timeslip Tuesday

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar (Palm Canyon Press, July 2014, middle grade)--modern magic meets ancient Egypt in an entertaining and educational time travel adventure.

When Fletcher Perry finds out there's an auction of a magician's collection just down the road, he has to go--he's been practicing stage magic for years, and is eager to add to his own collection.  He gets more than he bargained for when a mysterious older woman makes the winning bid on a genuine mummy's coffin....on his behalf.   It's the perfect prop for his upcoming performance at school, and with his ne assistant, the It girl Arielle Torres, at his side, he's sure that this show will really make his mark as a magician.

But there is magic at work....the mysterious woman, who barges into the show, turns  out to be the Egyptian goddess Isis herself--and she has plans for Fletcher.  Unfortunatlly, her final instructions get garbled when she's evicted from the premises, and when Arielle and Fletcher shut themselves in the mummy's case for their disappearing act, they open it to find themselves back in Egypt.  With very little clue what they are supposed to be doing there.

When they find themselves in the palace of Tutankhamen, they think they must be there to save his life.  Fortunately, he's impressed by Fletcher's magic.  Unfortunately, others in power are not.  So Fletch and Arielle must work quickly to save themselves from being stuck in ancient Egypt forever, by figuring out what Isis wants them to do before it becomes clear that Fletcher's "magic" can't save the pharaoh's life.

It's an exciting trip back in time, and King Tut's court is vividly portrayed.  There's lots of ancient Egyptian excitement and intrigue, and Fletcher and Arielle are worthy protagonists.  This is a good one for the younger middle grade reader who went through an Egypt phase as a younger child (which many of them seem to do!).  The adventures are exciting without being so gruesomely intense that they disturb, and the story is straightforward, with Fletcher's magic tricks adding a lightness to ensemble.   It's not quite complex enough to deeply engage older readers, but for the nine or ten year old, I think it's spot on.

Arielle's family is from Mexico, and so this is one I can count for my Multicultural Speculative Fiction list.  Yay!

disclaimer: review copy received for Cybils Award consideration

12/8/14

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan (Ravenstone, October 2014) is not a middle grade sci fi/fantasy such as I usually read and review, nor it is the sort of YA fantasy that shows up here at lot, though it is YA.  In large part this is because Shadowboxer is not your run-of-the-mill YA speculative fiction, and that is the reason I said yes please when offered a review copy, despite uncertainty about whether I'd enjoy it.  Happily, I did...and though I do have to say it isn't really a book for me personally, it's one I'm glad to have on my multicultural spec. fic. list.

The main character is a young black Latina woman, Jade, who is a fierce mixed arts fighter not quite old enough to turn professional.  She is struggling to keep her anger inside the ring, and not screw up her life.   This resolution snaps one night and she punches a Hollywood martial arts star who annoys her (and he is annoying), and  instead of  the star whisking her off on a path to a fame and fortune, her coach sends her away from New York to train at an obscure camp in Thailand.

And there Jade finds her story becoming part of one that's a heck of a lot stranger.  A man determined to live for ever has found a way into an otherworld...and he's prepared to steal the souls of the children he's kidnapped to open its gates for him. 

A young reporter, trying to gather evidence that will stop the kidnappings, got trapped in the other world, and only the magical intervention of one of its powerful spirit persons got him out again.   He comes to New York to continue his hunt, and he and Jade fall in love.  All the while, the minions of the bad guy are hunting them, the NYPD is concerned by the fall-out of all the violent havoc (but since they aren't including a magical otherworld in their calculations they are clueless), and Jade must keep training, keep out of trouble (though it sure has found her) or else she'll screw up the Really Big Chance that's come her way.

And in the meantime, Mya, one of the stolen kids who can enter the otherworld at will, has realized her master wants to move his soul into her body.  Now she is desperately trying to save herself, and save the children her master had already disposed of in the otherworld...with help from the food in Jade's fridge (taken without asking!).

Busy, busy plot.   Colorful fantasy meeting real world story.  Stong, realistically confused, realistically emotionally overwhelmed, character.   Nice appreciation for the work and craft of mixed martial arts.   Sex.  Strong language.  Vivid supporting characters.

It didn't all quite come together into a book I could love, but that might be a matter of personal preference, because the violence of mixed martial arts cage matches repels me.....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

12/7/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (12/7/14)

I'm a little late getting this week's round-up posted, but for a rather relevant, as well as very pleasant, reason--I was busy chatting with Sage Blackwood, who is visiting these parts.   (Here's what was especially interesting--my favorite part of Jinx is the bit before Things Really Start Happening, and Sage wrote lots more of this part that didn't make it into the final book....sigh.)

As always, please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron, at Charlotte's Library

Dark Lord: School's Out, by Jamie Thompson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Shelf Space Needed

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at books4yourkids, Hope is the Word, and Pages Unbound

Hades Speaks! by Vicky Alvear Shecter, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones, at alibrarymama

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas, at Charlotte's Library

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis,  at Charlotte's Library

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach, at Read Till Dawn

Pathfinder, by Angie Sage, at Redeemed Reader

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at SLJ (audiobook review)

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine, at Charlotte's Library

Sleeping Beauty's Daughters, by Diane Zahler, at Tales of the Marvelous

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Semicolon

The Squickerwonkers, by Evangeline Lilly, at Wondrous Reads

Time Square: UFO, by S.W. Lothian, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Nerdy Book Club and A Fantastical Librarian

Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass, at alibrarymama

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Ex Libris

Two audiobooks at Librarian of Snark--Under Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, and The Magician, by Michael Scott


Authors and Interviews

David Almond at The Guardian

Kate Hall (The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind) at The Book Smugglers


Other Good Stuff

This week's Tuesday Ten at Views from the Tesseract is a collection of  ships.

It's the second Annual Diversity Month at Twinja Book Reviews--check it out!

The most recent short story published by The Book Smugglers, The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind, is up at their site,and is a lovely mg one.

And now I must get back to busy busy reading for the Cybils Awards....I have 40 books left to read out of 155.....

12/6/14

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine (Harry N. Abrams, January 2014, middle grade)

Ming's father is the local archaeologist in a small town in Maoist China in the 1970s.  But Chairman Mao is not a friend of intellectuals--Ming's father is in danger of losing his job unless he can make a spectacular find, and Ming himself is the friendless target of the anti-intellectuals in the community.   One day, when his father is off in the city, men come to Ming's home with the find that will put his town on the map.  They have found the fragments of a life-sized terra-cotta soldier.

Maybe the rumors are true, and the tomb of the great Emperor Qin who united China in 221 BCE, who is guarded in death by a whole army of such soldiers, is nearby....but can what can Ming, one lonely and hungry boy, do to find and claim it for his father's sake?

And then Ming finds he has an unlikely ally--the terra-cotta soldier, once a soldier named Shi, is alive.   Shi shares with Ming the story of his life in the emperor's army thousands of years ago...and as the local communist leaders/bullies move in on the tomb, Shi takes Ming there to save it from their plan to dynamite their way in.

Both stories--that of Ming and Shi in the present, and Shi in the past, are fascinating, and any kid with an interest in archaeology will be intrigued.    The exploration of the emperor's tomb, filled with traps, is especially exciting.   It's also a nice introduction to life in China under Mao, and black and white photographs, some of archaeological finds, some showing life in Communist China, that make it clear that the story is based in reality. 

The mix of the two stories, the photographs, and the crisp narration make this a good one for the type of kid who isn't into voluminous fantasy but prefers non-fiction, who might be ready for an interesting change of pace.

I myself found it made a nice change, as kids books in which fantasy intrudes into Communist Chinese village life are not exactly thick on the ground!

12/4/14

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis (Little Brown, November 2014, middle grade/ages 9-12)

When the Enterprising Kraken, a magical ship sailing the magical waters of the Pirate Stream, shows up in an empty Arizona parking lot, Marrill is (understandably) taken aback.  And when the fates conspire to get her on board, and sailing off with the old wizard Ardent who is its captain, she is less than pleased.   She just wants to get home to her sick mom.   But the waters of the Pirate Stream, which connect all of creation, are not so easily navigated....

At the next port of call, the city of Kaznot, Marrill meets a young thief Fin, caught in a sticky situation of his own, and he too comes on board.   He's just committed the most audacious robbery of his life, and in so doing, he's freed the mysterious Oracle, a powerful lunatic determined to bring the world to an end as he saw it happen in his prophetic visions.   But Fin has a problem that matters even more to him than keeping ahead of disaster--Fin is eminently forgettable, so much so that he can meet a person every day of his life, and they won't remember him.  Except for Marrill, who can, making her friendship of incalculable worth to him.  She is the only person who might ever value him--unless his own mother, who left him at an orphanage when he was four-ish, still remembers....

So Marrill and Fin both want to find their way to their mothers, and the wizard Ardent's own quest might be their only hope.  He is searching for the pieces of the great map that gives its user a measure of control over the Pirate Stream--if they can put it together, they can maybe find their ways to where they want to be.

But the Oracle is also looking for the map--and if he gets a hold of it, he'll be able to end the world.

The first part of the book sets things up just beautifully.  Marrill and Fin quickly become people to care about.  Fin, with his truly poignant curse of forgetability, is my favorite boy character in this year's crop of middle grade fantasy.  The authors do a really good job presenting the problems, opportunities, and pain of his disability, and making them part of the story.  And the world of the Pirate Stream is fascinating, and the quest of the map promises a nice structure for the adventure to come. 

I was, though, somewhat disappointed by the actual adventuring in this first book, which basically consists of two distinct episodes of Magical Encounter on land interspersed with the Oracle showing up, and not being quite ready to defeat the crew of the Enterprising Kraken (because of having to wait until everything is happening the way his prophecies said it would). There were also confusing pirates who I found distracting (but that is a personal weakness).

Both the two magical adventures had a Phantom Tollbooth feel to them--if you like the Phantom Tollbooth, you'll probably enjoy them more than I did.   I myself don't really like episodes of quirky, imaginative fun that feel to me self-consciously aware that they are offering quirky, imaginative fun.  For instance, in the second adventure, which takes place in a setting so cold words freeze when they come from your mouth, the antagonist is identified as "the Naysayer" by the authors, not by anyone within the book (to the best of my knowledge).  It just felt a bit too much "children having a magical adventure!" as opposed to "this is a story that is making me be right there, emotionally committed and believing in it 100%. 

Despite my own reservations, I can imagine young readers being utterly delighted.  And indeed, The Map to Everywhere has gotten tons of glowing reviews, which I include here for the sake of Balance:

* "Ryan and Davis' swashbuckling quest features fantastic world building, gnarly creatures, and a villain who is both spooky and formidable.... The unique details, expert plotting, charming characters, and comic interludes combine in a tantalizing read."—Booklist, starred review

* "Wholly original.... This is an ambitious undertaking, and strong readers who enjoy adventure fiction and fantasy will inhale the first book in what has the potential to be an extraordinary series."—School Library Journal, starred review

* "Vividly cast.... Multifaceted characters, high stakes, imaginative magic, and hints of hidden twists and complexities to come."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

* "Fast-paced and imaginative, this adventure combines action with whimsy, injecting emotion and pathos into an otherwise lighthearted romp. It's a strong start for what promises to be a highly enjoyable series."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

And here's Stephanie's review, at Views From the Tesseract, which is also glowing.

But in any event, though this one didn't work perfectly for me, I myself will be looking forward to the next installment! (Fin....what will become of you????)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

12/3/14

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas

The Magic Thief  was one of my favorite books of 2008. It was one of the first books I read for the Cybils that year, and it stayed firmly in the small group of books I was determined to push onto our final shortlist of elementary and middle grade speculative fiction. Happily, no pushing was required.

The passage of years has not changed my opinion-- it is a great book for a ten or eleven year old fantasy reader.   It has an interesting story, endearing characters, fascinating magic, a tough older man (Bennet) who knits and bakes biscuits (so few middle grade novels shatter gender stereotypes, and this is one of the best examples going!).

Then came The Magic Thief: Lost in 2009, and The Magic Thief: Found in 2010....which were kind of sadder, so it was harder for me to love them personally as much, and then Sarah Prineas wrote a whole different trilogy (Winterling, Summerkin, and Moonkind), which was lovely too, but it resulted in a long and anxious wait for those of us (like me and my target audience member child)  who love Conn and co. to pieces!

Now another Cybils season is here, and lo, The Magic Thief: Home (HarperCollins, September 2014) is not only in the world, it is on the list of nominated books, which means that I actually read it (all to often I fall into the trap of buying books I really really want to read right when they come out, and then letting them sit because, uh, I know I'll enjoy them....so at least this one didn't have too terribly long to wait).



It is a fourth book, and so best appreciated by those who loved the first three.   The action is somewhat slow to get going--Conn, his memories now restored, and his magical dragon Pip at his side, is trying to figure out his place in the world.  And so we meet old friends, see trouble beginning to brew, see Conn not being happy with what other people want him to be....and then Trouble starts, and things really get hopping.    An old enemy has returned to the city, and the fragile peace that Conn has brokered between its two magics is in jeopardy.  As is Conn's life, and the life of dear Pip the dragon, and lots of other things too.

It's all very satisfying.  Those who liked the first three books will like this one too.  

Small things that I especially liked:

Conn's sentimental attachment to the black sweater Bennet knit him.

The nascent romance between Rowan and Embre, and the fact that Embre is a character whose badly broken legs means he uses a wheelchair but that this does not define him.

Bennet's to-do list.

And most of all, the fact that this particular happy ending is one that satisfies my maternal heart--Conn is really truly home at the end.   And having a home where you are loved and your gifts and quirks of personality are appreciated is about the best ending there is.

12/2/14

Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron, for Timeslip Tuesday

Such a happy thing to find a book that you'd never heard about (because of being dense, and never thinking to look) by a favorite author- and then to find that it's a time travel book set in a big old almost castle house in Scotland  (a type of book I like).   In this spirit I began reading Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron (1980).

But then.  Such a sad thing to find that this is actually a pretty bad book.

Oh  Eleanor Cameron.  What were you thinking?  I love Court of the Stone Children, I re-read A Room Made of Windows and the other Julia books lots....you were good, Eleanor, at bringing to life smart, introspective girls.  So why did you think it would be good to write about a teenage boy?  It didn't work.

Andrew, the young protagonist, has come to Scotland to stay in the ancestral home, now a hotel.  His brother died after coming back broken from the Vietnam War.  His parents' marriage is on the rocks.  And Andrew himself is battling demons in the form of haunting nightmares about his brother's death, in a car accident whose immediate aftermath he saw.  And now in Scotland he is being haunted, but much more magically and pleasantly, by a young woman who lived there a hundred years (or so) earlier--Deirdre, who once was loved by another young Andrew, and who knew tragedy of her own.

The timeslip bits involving Andrew seeing Deirdre in the past, and occasionally her hearing/sensing him, are rather pleasant and not fraught with tragedy--it's time slip as window between times.   But the Point of it all, the connection I assume was happening in Eleanor Cameron's mind between the time travel and Andrew's mental healing went right over me.   Sure it gave Andrew something to think about, and put him in a state of open-ness that let him recover the memories of the details of his brother's death, but that isn't all that much of a connection.  And sure it's always nice to read about people time slipping around in a pretty uneventful way, but the level of interaction between times was never great enough to be a worthwhile story arc in its own right.

Instead, what we get is Andrew (boringly) rehashing the same things over and over again in really over-wrought prose:

"The rain was swept and driven all night long.  Even in my sleep, I was aware of it, and that I struggled, not physically, but in  my mind, and this struggle was so exhausting that I could have cried for mercy, yet I would not let my struggles go." (page 131)

Turgid prose.  I was all, like, get over your clauses, Eleanor.  Even as I read, I struggled, not physically, but mentally, as the book continued on its melancholy way, and yet I had to finish it.

And then when Andrew achieves peace, he ends up with Deirdre's portrait which he hangs in his college dorm some years later.  Which is odd, and probably not going help him socially.

Also odd is Eleanor Cameron trying to write about teenage male sexuality in a convincing way, and not being wildly successful.

Short answer:  don't bother unless you are a romantic introspective young teen reader from 1980, back when satisfying books were thin on the ground.  The time travel isn't enough to make it worthwhile to read on that account, and the rest of the story doesn't make up for it. 

12/1/14

Uncle John's Weird Weird World: Who, What, When, and Wow!

And now for something completely different, did you know that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese had its origins in a failed attemped to get Americans to by powdered cheese?    Did you know that virtually all the domesticated Golden hamsters in the world are descended from a single litter, plucked from the wild in 1930?  Did you know that there is a cocktail that's a mix of mild and beer? (gah.)

I now know these things, and many more, thanks to Uncle John's Weird Weird World: Who, What, When, and Wow! (Nov., 2014).


This is the first volume to come from the Bathroom Readers' Institute (the folks behind the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader) that has pictures!  All sorts of interesting, eye-brow raising, and even useful bits of information gathered by Uncle John over the past thirty years are now accompanied by bright illustrations.  The result, for us children's book cognoscenti, is something like a Ripley's Believe It or Not book, only with slightly more grown-up oriented content.  Not so grown-up, though, as to make it one you'd keep from falling into the hands of the young...but heavy enough so that you would not want it to fall on the heads of the young.

Here's what I liked best--reading about Sequoia and his creation of the Cherokee Alphabet.  But there were so many, many good little bon mots for the mind--the fact that "meh" first appeared on tv in a Simpson's episode, the fact that the chicken/road joke first appeared in print in 1847, interesting little stories of people being stupid...so many, many things to learn (many of which were trivial, but some actually useful and enlightening).  Some are little bites of information, but others pleasingly extended to double pages (like "how the ballpoint pen got rolling").

Give this one to the young teen who loves things like The Darwin Awards, and the aforementioned Ripley's Believe it or Not.  Give it to you dentist, or better yet, my dentist, for waiting room entertainment.   I myself cannot put this book in my bathroom (no appropriate shelf, and the floor too often has wet towels on it, thanks to the boys), but other people's bathrooms would be good homes for it too. 

It would also be a good book to quickly dip into before Family Gatherings this holiday season--lots of good topics of conversation.   Like "Someday I'd love to go see the cricket spitting contest at Perdue University."  Or perhaps "did you know that Psycho was the first movie to show a toilet being flushed.  This resulted in complaints about indecency."  But you have to be careful if you try this at the dinner table.  I just tried the Psycho one on my husband, and he went into great detail about how the knife stabbing thing was done, which is not really what one wants at supper....

disclaimer: review copy provided by the publisher

11/30/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (11/30/14)

Here's this week's round-up; let me know if I missed your post!  And feel free to send me links at any time.  Thanks.

The Reviews

Ambassador, by William Alexander, at alibrarymama

Beauty, by Robin McKinley, at Tales of the Marvellous

Black Suits from Outer Space,  by Gene DeWeese, at Views from the Tesseract

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint, at Books and Other Thoughts

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming, at A Reader of Fictions

The Egyptian Curse (Time Hunter Book 6), by Chris Blake, at Time Travel Times Two

Eight Days of Luke, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Here There Be Books

The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Forbidden Flats, by Peggy Eddleman, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Great Kid Books

The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews

Gabriel's Clock, by Hilton Pashley, at Charlotte's Library

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Children's Book-a-Day Almanac

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell, at Leaf's Reviews

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, at Twinja Book Reviews

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at alibrarymama

The Magic City, by E. Nesbit, at Becky's Book Reviews

Niles Wormwort, Accidental Supervillain, by D.M. Cunningham, at Mom Read It

Pennyroyal Academy, by M.A. Larson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale, at The Bookworm Blog

The Secret of Midway, by Steve Watkins, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Views From the Tesseract

Spellbound, by Jacqueline West, at Librarian of Snark



Authors and Interviews

Anne Ursu is the featured U author at Teen Librarian Toolbox's A-Z feature

Kristin Tubb (The 13th Sign, an upper MG/younger YA that just won a Crystal Kite Award) at  SCBWI: The Blog


Other Good  Stuff

A Tuesday Ten of Cats in Space, at Views from the Tesseract

And also at Views from the Tesseract, a look at the lovely MG Spec Fic coming from Simon & Schuster this spring,

Top 10 things you didn't know about Peter Pan, at The Guardian

A quick shout-out for another nice round-up-- at On Starships and Dragonwings, every weekend (starting Friday) there's a gathering of sci fi/fantasy reviews to which anyone can contribute their posts

and finally, the fourth wish list of books for Ferguson is up--more details here.

11/27/14

Thankfully Giving Books--ways to get them to kids who need them, and the books I'm giving for Christmas to my own family, even though they have lots already

So here were are at Thanksgiving.  Although I'm not thankful for the Pilgrims  (if Europeans had to invade New England, I wish Thomas Morton's Merrymount was the colony we were remembering instead of that of the grave-robbing Puritans) there's lots I'm thankful for.

For instance, I am surrounded by books.  And I'm also thankful that I have the ability to give books, both to kids who need them, and to my own family.

It's an immensely gratifying thing to get books to kids in need, and so I thought I'd share some pretty easy ways to do it. 

--If your library has a booksale, ask the Friends if you can box up the good quality kids books left over and take them to your local Headstart, or check to see if your local food pantry can offer them along with the canned goods.   Homeless shelters, children's hospitals, or organizations helping women in need are other thoughts.  (As President, and pretty much only active member, of my own library Friends group, I would love a volunteer who would get bookmarks printed with basic library info. to put in each book donated to the food pantry and Headstart....your Friends group might appreciate this too).

--If you don't actually want to talk to anyone, you can check to see if there's a near-by Little Free Library in a community that might need books.  This is the case in Providence, RI, for instance, and it is easy peasy just to swing by with a load of kids books and leave them there.

--Right now, the thoughts of many of us are with the kids of Ferguson, and supporting the library that serves these kids is something that we can do.  Here's the library's donation page.   Or if you'd rather send a book, the library is on its third wishlist (yay!) here at Powells.  (Angie, who got the library wish-list going, has more information on how it works here at her blog).

--and of course there's always the lovely Reading is Fundamental, which has strong ties to the world of children's book blogging.

Please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments!


And just because I like sharing my own gift-giving happiness, here's what I have so far (more will probably be added) for various family members for Christmas:

For my 11 year old son (these were all easy, because they are continuations of stories I know he likes):

The Ring of Earth (Young Samari #4), by Chris Bradford

Goblin Quest, by Philip Reeve (the first book of this series, Goblins, is available in the US and is a very fun read)

Mutts: What Now? by Patrick McDonnell


For my 14 year old son (he loves graphic novels and history which also makes things easy)

Sandman Vol. 1--Preludes and Nocturns, by Neil Gaiman

Propaganda Cartoons of World War II, edited by Tony Husband

The Hidden Doors, by Kazu Kibuishi     


For my niece, who is 13 and who lives in Holland and so won't have read them already:

Smile, and Sisters, by Raina Telgemeier


For my big sister (tricky, because she likes books, but doesn't know in advance what books exist that she might like.  Have had previous success with Brief History of Montmarry and Code Name Verity, which gives some idea of her taste....)

The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer (not sure about this one, because she doesn't generally read about demons, but the Italian setting might well appeal)

Maisie Dobbs, and Birds of a Feather, in one volume, by Jacqueline Winspear (got very cheaply at library booksale, so no great loss if she doesn't like them)

and  The Paris Winter, by Imogen Robertson....


For my little sister, who shares my fondness for school stories and English children's books:

Billie Bradley at Three Towers Hall, by Janet Wheeler (a 1920 American school story that I hope is decent)

(this next one is a book you don't know about, Emily, so don't peek)
Impossible, by Michelle Magorian  because Michelle Magorian, and also my sister is a big fan of Arthur Ransom and so after reading this how could I not.


For my husband (because nothing says Merry Christmas like depressing Irish fiction):

Hello and Goodbye, by Patrick McCabe


And finally, a tentative thought for my mother (because she is a mystery fan and is going birdwatching in Japan this January...I have already lent her my own favorite book set in Japan, Hannah's Winter, which she read and enjoyed; she gets to go the very town in which that book is set!  If you have any recommendations for a sort of comfort read type book set in Japan, as opposed to mystical/situational fraughtfulness and unhappy people books, do let me know!)

Rashamon Gate, by I.J. Parker


(I buy UK books via The Book Depository (free shipping, but the time to do it is now, because it can take a while for the books to make it over the ocean), and if you shop there using the link I have in my right hand sidebar I'll get a small commission.....)

11/26/14

Gabriel's Clock, by Hilton Pashley

Gabriel's Clock, by Hilton Pashley, is a middle grade fantasy published in the UK back in 2013; all the reviews on Amazon UK are five stars, and when it was published here in the states this October, it got good reviews as well.  And indeed, there were many parts that were lovely and magical, and I can imagine many young reader being entranced.  But two things are keeping me from a wholehearted recommendation--a nasty bit of torture, and the absence of God (not something that usual bothers me in middle grade fantasy (because if it did, I wouldn't have much middle grade fantasy to read), but in this particular case I was troubled).

Jonathan is not an ordinary boy--he is half angel, half demon.  His grandfather is the Archangel Gabriel, who fell from heaven years ago (for reasons), imbuing one small English village with his heavenly magic and making it a sanctuary for those of goodwill in need of refuge.  And Jonathan is badly in need of refugee--as the only half angel/half demon in existence, he will have incredible power...and the demon Belial is determined to find him and seize that power for himself.  Jonathan's parents kept him safe and hidden for years, but as the story starts, agents of darkness destroy his home, and capture his father.

So his mother sends him, still ignorant of  his true nature, to the village of his grandfather Gabriel.

All the residents of Hobbes End know Gabriel is an angel and that he has made their village a magical place.  Along with Jonathan, it's a delight to meet the people and beings that inhabit it--the gargoyles, the talking cat, the young daughter of a werewolf, Cay, who becomes Jonathan's friend.   This part of the story I loved unreservedly (great gargoyles always delight me, as do smart-aleck cats).

But the agents of Belial have found a way to by-pass the safeguards of the village....and they come with their horrible violence to seize Jonathan, causing his powers to abruptly awaken.   And though the villagers (gargoyles and all) fight fiercely, Gabriel is kidnapped, and tortured, and Cay too is held hostage.  Belial demands that Jonathan surrender himself, and bring with him the back-door key to heaven that his grandfather made-the clock of the title.  Or else.

And there is exciting action and action-filled excitement, and it is very easy to see the fantasy-loving young reader enjoying things very much.

But with all this war in heaven, and the archangels being real characters, and Lucifer being real, I just couldn't help wonder -- where was God?  It just didn't make sense to me, not because I am a stickler for doctrine, but because the internal logic of it felt off; if you are going to have the Archangels, surely God has to be there somewhere....If there'd been just a smidge of an explanation about divine non-interference or some such, it would have felt more satisfactory. 

I also do not like graphic torture.  Gabriel's wings are ripped from him, and his eyes are gouged out and sent to the vicar with whom Jonathan is living.  And though this happens off-stage, we see the bloody bandage and the fallen feathers, and when the box arrives, though the reader is not told what it holds, it's clear.   Rather strong stuff, and though there's not much of it, it would make me hesitate to offer this one to a sensitive younger reader.

But the village of Hobbes End is lovely, and I adored its inhabitants (there's a rather English quirkiness to the whole ensemble I appreciated), Jonathan is a character to cheer for, and the story is brisk and engrossing.    So I guess my short answer is recommended, with personal reservations.

Note:  that is a dragon on the cover, and it is a very cool dragon who ends up playing cricket with the villagers, but she doesn't get quite enough page time (coming in at the end as she does) to make this a dragon fantasy.

Note 2:  I appreciate that little or no meddling seems to have occurred with the Englishness of the original; it's nice to read an English book that really does feel English!  And moving further down that line of thought--at one point the talking cat is only just stopped in time while reciting a rude limerick about "a young man from Venus, who had an unusual...."  I don't think you'd be able to get away with this in a book first published in the States, prudes that we are...

Disclaimer: review copy sent by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for Cybils Award consideration.

11/25/14

The Other Face, by Barbara C. Freeman, for Timeslip Tuesday

I think I am pretty well read as far as 20th century UK time travel books go, but oh, how nice it is to be proven wrong and to find a new author!

A little while ago, I got the following time slip book id question:
"It's set in England, must have been published before mid-1970s because that's when I read it (I was 11 or 12 at the time so I suspect it was for upper-primary school level).

The girl-protagonist was in the present; in an antique shop she found an old china-cottage pastille-burner (if you know what those are), but it only had a few pastilles left. She took it home and burned a pastille, which transported her into the past (from memory, 19th-C England). Because there was a limit to the number of pastilles left, she knew her visits to that time would have to come to an end (which was very poignant!)."

And I had absolutely no idea.  Happily I am a member of an online community called Girls Own, made up of passionate readers of girls books from the 20th century, and happily a list member recognized the book as The Other Face, by Barbara C. Freeman (1976).   And also happily I live in a state that does not believe in aggressive library weeding, and lo, there was The Other Face still in the system, and it was good.




When Betony was a child, her parents died and she was taken in by her two elderly aunts.  Now that she's seventeen, she's had to leave school to be their caregiver...and slowly she is being ground down by their domestic tyranny.   But a visit to her grandfather, the first since she's lived with her aunts, offers a respite....and he makes her welcome, as do her young cousins.

And in the cupboard of her grandfather's art and miscellany shop she finds an old china cottage (the pastille-burner above--not something those of us in the modern US know anything about!  It seems to be a type of incense whose smoke comes out the china chimneys...).  And the smoke takes her back to the 19th century, where her ancestors need her.

Betony lets herself be needed (it's what she's used to)...and takes on the job of a 19th-century serving girl (years of slaving for her great-aunts means this isn't too much of a leap of face).   And there she meets the young botanist who will be her ancestor, who has fallen in love with an unsuitable girl....one who bears a striking resemblance to Betony.

And things come out right in the end.

The business of time travel has no explanation, and only minimal anxiety for Betony.  Partly this is because her roots in her own time are so stunted by lack of affection, partly because the time travel is an episodic thing, with two short visits in which she successfully returns to her own time before she burns the third, last, pastille and commits herself to a longer stay.  In any event, the reader has to just accept it, and move on....

Books really were shorter back then--this one has only 155 pages--but still it manages to fit in a lot of character, place, and story.   And it is a fine example of  a particular type of 20th century UK book for young readers that is so very recognizable (such as  many books by William Mayne or Ruth M. Arthur).   The reader isn't told what people are thinking and feeling in much detail, but must absorb things through the dialogue and the descriptions.  I think that being a "reader as spectator" in this way can actually be more immediate and moving than being barraged with emotaional information from the main character, because there are never any jarring moments when you are asked to feel thing and think things along with that character that you just don't.   Perhaps (reaching for metaphor, as is my wont) it is like entering a painting vs. going to the movies.....the result in the former being a reading experience that is simultaneously removed and distant from the main characters, while being utterly absorbing (if you are me).

So basically, it's one that those who love mid-20th century UK girls books would love.  Which would be me, and I am very happy to find that Barbara Freeman has written lots of other books, even though only one other is still in the Rhode Island library system.

There are also some nice pen and ink drawings of plants, a smidge of botany, and the prospect of a garden brought back to life right at the end.   I like these things!

note on age:  this was put in the YA section here in RI back in the 70s, I guess because Betony is 17,  and there is a romance in the past (and some hope for one for Betony in the present).  But there is no swearing or sex or violence that would make it unsuitable for the middle grade reader of today, or yesterday.....

11/23/14

This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs (11/23/14)

Welcome to another collection of links to blog posts of interest to us fans of middle grade science fiction and fantasy!  Please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

Bad Magic, by Pseudonymous Bosch, at The Bookworm Blog

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Fantasy Faction

Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at alibrarymama

The Dragon of Trelian, by Michelle Knudsen, at Leaf's Reviews

Dreamer, Wisher, Liar, by Clarise Mericle Harper, at Charlotte's Library

Dreamwood, by Heather Mackey, at Cover2CoverBlog (audiobook review)

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, by at Becky's Book Reviews

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Fantasy Book Critic and Hope is the Word

The Imaginary, by A.F. Harrold, at Diva Booknerd

Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, at Worthwhile Books

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Fantasy Literature and Jen Robinson's Book Page

Jinx's Magic, by Sage Blackwood, at Semicolon and Sonderbooks

The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly, by Ted Sanders, at from my bookshelf

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at WTF Are You Reading?

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis, at Waking Brain Cells

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach, at Read Till Dawn

My Zombie Hamster, by Havelock McCreely, at Semicolon

Nuts to You, by Lynn Rae Perkins, at Semicolon

Rise of the Wolf, by Curtis Jobling, at Hidden in Pages

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at alibrarymama

The Secret of the Key, by Marianne Malone,  at Always in the Middle

Shouldn't You Be In School? (All the Wrong Questions, Book 3), by Lemony Snickett, at Semicolon

Storybound, by Marissa Burt, at Hidden in Pages (audiobook review)

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at Once Upon a Bookshelf and Hidden in Pages

Tesla's Attic, by Neil Shusterman and Eric Elfman, at Librarian of Snark

The Time-Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, by Bianca Turetsky, at Time Travel Times Two

Vampire Attack (Sammy Feral's Diaries of Weird) by Eleanor Hawkin, at Wondrous Reads

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, by Caroline Carlson, at Ex Libris

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at Charlotte's Library

WhipEye, by Geoffrey Saign, at Mother Daughter Book Reviews

The Wide-Awake Princess, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Heavy Medal

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass, at Charlotte's Library

Zombies of the Carribean, by John Kloepfer, at Ms. Yingling Reads


Authors and Interviews

Jake Kerr (Tommy Black and the Staff of Light) at Word Spelunking

Kathleen Andrews Davis (Emerson's Attic) at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia


Other Good Stuff

A lovely collection of quotations from (mostly middle grade fantasy) books at Semicolon

A Tuesday 10 of "Food Fantastic" at Views from the Tesseract

YA, but of interest nonetheless--dragons of the past few years at Stacked

Neil Gaiman talks about "Why Disney's Sleeping Beauty Doesn't Work" at The Telegraph

11/19/14

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass (Scholastic Inc., August 2014, not quite middle grade) -- an exciting story of fourth-graders vs ice zombies!

Bakari Katari Johnson never wanted to be on the election slate for the position of Hall Monitor.  Poised, popular Tariq had always done a fine job, and to go up against Tariq meant encuring the wrath of his most fervernt supporter, tough-as-nails (but sweet as all get out to grownups) Keisha.   But to his horror, Bakari finds this his best friend Wardell has added his name to the list.

That is just the start to a very bad day indeed, one that involves the frozen seven-foot high lord of a land of ice zombies...who just happens to think that Bakari has his lost ring.   Turns out Keisha has it.  And so an unlikely alliance of the four kids is formed in order to take down the ice zombies popping into their school with evil intent.

But disposing of the zombies traps the kids in the ice realm, and the outlook gets rather chilly indeed....

This is one for the older elementary aged kid, the seven to nine year old/third or fourth grader, and it's short (131 pages of generous font with illustrations).  So there's not really room to fully explore the backstory of the ice realm zombies and their overlord, and if there was an explanation of why the ring ended up in this particular school, I missed it.   Those looking for full blown fantasy will therefore be disappointed.

But the four kids avoid being simple stock sterotypes, and the action is fast (zip!  a trip to the ice land!  Zap--more ice zombies after you in the halls!  Cool ice-ring lassoing job, Keisha! etc.). If you have kids who aren't interested in  the heft of full blown fantasy, who are simply looking for a fun book in which real life kids have real life problems alongside the excitement of ice zombie attacks in the cafeteria problems, this might very well be a good one.   The illustrations add friendliness for the uncertain reader.

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone is, as far as I know, unique in that the entire cast is African American--four pretty cool looking kids, as shown on the cover, and not one of them white.   So a good one for those actively seeking out multicultural kids' fantasy.

It is also a nice example of how to gracefully get out of running for an office you never wanted in the first place without loosing face (Bakari does a great job of this at the end of the book), which is truly a useful life lesson..........

11/18/14

Dreamer, Wisher, Liar, by Clarise Mericle Harper, for Timeslip Tuesday

Dreamer, Wisher, Liar, by Clarise Mericle Harper (Balzer + Bray, April 2014, middle grade) is a lovely home-based timeslip fantasy to offer the introspective young girl (which is to say, if you don't know me already, it was a lovely book for me!). By "home-based" I mean a story in which the time travelling doesn't lead to grand adventures in exciting elsewheres.   This is one that sticks close to home, and so it isn't one for those who want excitement--more for those who are fans of realistic fiction about ordinary girls, but with a magical twist.

Ashley is miserable.  Her best friend has gone off to camp, and her mother has invited the child of a friend to spend the month with them--a seven year old girl named Claire, who's lost her own mom, and who Ashley is expected to babysit.   But two things happen that make the month the opposite of terrible. 

The first is that Ashley finds herself warming to determined, spunky Claire, whose drive and energy forces Ashley to do things she'd never have done on her own, like hanging out at the local senior center, doing crafts, hunting for thrift store treasures, and talking to people she doesn't already know.  The last is especially hard for Ashley, because she has face-blindness--she cannot recognize people when she sees them out of context, and without her best friend at hand to tell her if she knows people, she's tremendously reluctant to reach out to strangers.  But thanks to Claire, she makes new friends, one of whom a boy she would never have talked to otherwise...

The second thing that happens to Ashley is the discovery of a jar of wishes down in the basement--wishes written on scraps of paper by a girl named Shue years ago.  When Ashley uncrumples each wish paper, she sees Shue living the experience that inspired it....and so, making a chronology of the wishes, she sees the story of all the ups and downs of Shue's friendship with another Ashley (Shue is a year younger than Ashley, and so parts of her story, when Ashley is off with older girls, are rather poignant....)

I've never read a book whose main character has face blindness, aka prosopagnosia.  Ashley's experiences dealing with it seemed convincing, and the effects of it on  her life, and her self-esteem, are made clear without being over-dramatized.  This make it a good one to offer the young reader who's interested in physical/neurological differences and how they affect life experiences.  (It also helps keep one of the sub-plots plausible!)

Both the Claire story and the timeslip story are interesting in their own right for those who like character-driven story full of small happenings and several nice surprises (one of which involves Ashley's favorite author, so especially pleasing for us bibliophiles!).  The whole ensemble comes together very nicely indeed to make the story of this month in Ashley's live a lovely, warm reading experience that I enjoyed lots.

11/17/14

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts

Anyone looking for a lovely wintery story with bit of Christmas to share with an eight or nine year old should consider Winterfrost, by Michellle Houts. (Candlewick, Sept. 2014).

It should have been an ordinary Christmas at the Danish farm that's home to Bettina and her baby sister Pia.  But this is the first Christmas without their grandfather...and then to make things worse, her parents both have to leave home.  12 year old Bettina is sure she can manage to look after Pia and the animals just fine...but in the rush and confusion, no-one things of the family Nisse, the helpful little magical being who looks after the barn.

Disgruntled that he didn't get his own Christmas treat, the Nisse takes baby Pia off into the winter frosted woods.  Bettina must somehow get her back before her parents come home, so she sets of herself, and finds that the tales of the Nisse are just as true as her grandfather believed them to be.   The Nisse of the woods are friendly and helpful (and Bettina even gets to shrink so that she can join them in their cozy home), but baby Pia isn't with them.   Another Nisse, one with a grudge, has taken Pia further north, and Bettina must bring the divided Nisse family together to reunite her own, flying off on the back of a goose into the magical winter....

Though the anxiety about baby Pia is great, happily for the more sensitive reader the actual danger isn't.   Though Bettina's parents aren't there to help, the Nisse family comes through with support, comfort, and a bit of magic.  The young barn Nisse who was responsible, and who's (rightly) sorry for what he did, proves to be a fine friend and ally, and all is well.

There's a lovely sense of wintery place here, and the descriptions of the secret world of the Nisse are especially delightful (young animal lovers will especially appreciate the Nisses' care for small forest creatures!).*  Thanks to her time with them, Bettina learns to see more clearly the small enchantments of nature, a gift that will stay with her forever.   It might not be believable to grown-ups that a 12 year old could be left in charge of a farm and baby, but Bettina proves her mettle and young readers won't have any problem relating her as they follow on her adventures.

*if you think your young reader would especially enjoy this part of the book--the visiting the Nisse home, and seeing how they live on a small, small scale, the tending of animals, and the whole idea that the woods are full of tiny people--be sure to have a copy of Gnomes, by Wil Huygen, on hand to offer them next.  The gnomes in that book are very Nisse-like!  I loved that book back when I was a child, spending hours pouring over all its many details, and it makes a lovely pairing with this one.

Here's what I am--jealous that we never get winterfrost, which happens when fog freezes, here in New England (at least I haven't seen fog cover everything with frost crystals).  "Wintery Mix" and ice storms just aren't the same.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.


11/16/14

The Halcyon Bird, by Kat Beyer, with Guest Post and Giveaway!

The Halcyon Bird, by Kat Beyer (Egmont, November 2014, YA), is the sequel to The Demon Catchers of Milan (2012), a book I enjoyed lots.  The first book tells how Mia, an American girl, comes to Milan, where her family have been demon vanquishers for centuries, to be sheltered from the demon who has already possessed her, and to be trained in the ways of demon hunting herself so that she can eventually (if all goes well) vanquish him once and for all.   In my review of the first book, I said that it offers "a most enjoyable sense of place and people and family history with enough of the supernatural to keep things very interesting indeed" and having read it in a single sitting, I closed it and began waiting for the sequel.

So I was very pleased indeed to be offered the chance to participate in the blog tour for The Halcyon Bird (not least because it meant I would get a copy of the book!).

And happily I enjoyed this one too.  I was tickled to see Mia falling in love (romance is a pretty big part of this book), happy to see how all the extended family are doing (and as is the case with the first one, envying them their delicious Italian food and wine),, and happy to spend time going through archival materials looking for clues from the past.  Things are somewhat slow to get going on the demonic front (making this not one for those who like their supernatural danger non-stop/ever present), but good for those of us who like descriptions of places and people and slow burning mysteries.   Which isn't to say there aren't mysteries and dangers and threats and supernatural adventures--they just aren't right there in the readers face until just toward the end of the book when BOOM!

As a direct result of the BOOM!, I am now waiting for the next book even more earnestly than I was waiting for this one....

So (just on a personal note) these books are the sort that would make good presents to offer (naming no names) one's older sister who likes Italy and is an ex-pat American and who doesn't really know what sort of books she really wants to read -- lots of engrossing detail and character, some supernatural excitement but not so much as to be off-putting for the reader who isn't already a fan of paranormal romantic suspense.  Also they are Pretty books, which I think helps makes for better gift-giving!



But in the meantime, it's an honor to welcome Kat Beyer!  Kat is sharing a reprint of a flash fiction piece originally published on the Daily Cabal.   She says  that "It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces besides The Demon Catchers of Milan. It deals with a spirit, and in some ways has a feel of the Demon Catchers novels."

The Year’s Question

by Kat Beyer

It was Siobhan woke me up. The smell of honey wine on Summer’s End does it. (Whiskey works too.) To my surprise and hers, it still worked, even after so many years when no one left anything beside my notched stone.

Scared her bowels loose the first time. I got a laugh out of that.

“You’re allowed one question a year, granddaughter,” I said out of the air beside her.

When she got her breath back she said, “I’m not your granddaughter. She must be gone long ago.”

“I know that. I spoke with her for years after; she’s moved on now. I stay. And so does the customary name.”

“Well then,” she said, drawing herself up. She asked grimly, “There’s a man I want. How do I get him?”

Oh, the living.

“The answer is in the question you asked, and the way you asked it.”

“What do you mean?”

“One question a year,” I answered, and went for the honey wine and apples.

“I hate you,” she announced, and went down the hill.

She was back again the next year with a bigger plate.

“You were right,” she said sadly. “This year’s question. There’s a man who wants me. Should I have his child?”

“Certainly not.”

“You were right,” she said next year, holding the baby, a little girl with her same lively eyes and three-cornered smile. But I’d said no because she’d put no value to herself. I’m not all-wise; how was I to know that a baby would help her do that, instead of making the matter worse?

“There’s a job, overseas,” she told me ten questions later. “I want it. They want me. A good job. Will you hear me across the ocean?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “We used to stay at home, your family. Try. The baby and her father going with you?”

She smiled. “Sarah’s eleven. And his name is Ian; I’ve come to love him.”

“I’m glad.”

This year I was up early, moving things around in the grave, scaring birds off the stone, nervous. Well after dark came the scent of honey wine and flowers, candles and apples, drifting across the salt sea, and I climbed up out of my old bones for a taste of it. I heard her voice clearly, but with a sound of waves in it.

“Are you there?” She asked.

“Yes, I am,” I replied.
                                            *****************************

Thank you Kat!  Here are all the stops on The Halcyon Bird's blog tour, and you can visit Kat at her own blog,  The Real Money’s in Poetry.

And you can win a copy for yourself-- just leave a comment between now and noon next Sunday (the 23rd), US/Canada only.

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