In Darkling Wood, by Emma Carroll

In Darkling Wood, by Emma Carroll (Delacorte, March, 2017) is a UK import that has just hit the middle grade shelves here in the US.   If you are a fan of "kids being sent to live with relatives in the countryside who they have never met" and "kids having magical experiences in said countryside" you should definitely look for it!

Alice's little brother needs a heart transplant, and when a heart is available, there is no one to look after Alice but her father's mother, who Alice has never met.  Her father bailed on his family and now has a new partner and new baby, and he has been no support to Alice's mother during this time of medical crisis.  So Alice is sent off with her grandmother, Nell, to stay in Nell's old dark house shadowed by Darkling Wood.  No internet, great anxiety, and nothing in the way of supportive, loving sympathy from Nell. 

Nell has preoccupations of her own; she is determined to cut down Darkling Wood, whose roots are undermining her house.  She is also sick of living in the darkness of its shade.  But the local community is outraged by this idea, as the old woods are a beautiful and have always been there.  This makes it hard for Alice to make friends when her grandmother packs her off to the local school. And there are others who are outraged as well.

In Darkling Wood, Alice meets a girl who she never sees at school, perhaps, Alice thinks, the child of the local Travelers.  Flo is passionate about saving the woods too, but for the most extraordinary reason--she tries to convince Alice it is home to fairies, who will actively work against any effort to cut their home down.  Alice is not an immediate convert to this idea.  But as the difficulties Nell faces in carrying out her plan mount, becoming more than just coincidence, and as Alice begins to see and feel the magic in the woods, her mind opens to the possibility.  The fairies are tied, in her own mind at least, to her little brother's struggle for life after the heart transplant--will the fairies include him in their animus against her family? 

Alice is roiled by the magic, the heartache, and the loneliness of her situation.  And then, on top of all that, her father and her grandmother finally confront each other, and the mystery of their troubled past helps Alice put the pieces together of what really is going on in Darkling Woods (Flo is an important piece of this, tied to Alice's family history, which includes an episode of post WW I fairie photography, which I found interesting), and she realizes that the fairies are in fact real. 

If you are looking for actual interaction with the fairies in standard middle grade style, you won't find it here; there's no direct interaction with them.  They are sort of like magical chipmunks or other forest creatures, to be seen and appreciated from a distance, though they do affect things in the real world.  So not the most numinously wonderful fairies in the world.   But on the other hand, if you are looking for family mystery with an element of magic, this is the book for you!  Alice's emotional turmoil is really well done, and even unsympathetic characters are shown to be simply human in the end. 

Note to those who are sick of sad books--the little brother is fine in the end.  And the father becomes much less of an ass.


A House Without Mirrors, by Marten Sanden, for Timeslip Tuesday

A House Without Mirrors, by Marten Sanden, illustrated by Moa Schulman, translated from the Swedish by Karin Altenberg (Pushkin Press edition March 2017) , is sort of a Swedish Gothic magical house story for middle grade readers.....It is possible that if you read this, you will find it beautiful and moving.  Or you may find it beautiful and aggravating, like I did.  I have given parts of the plot away here (actually pretty much the whole plot with all its twists), so if you think you are going to find it beautiful and moving, you should stop reading this now and go read the book instead.

Thomasine and her father are waiting for her great-great-aunt to die, staying in her strange old house along with her father's sister and his brother, and their children-one girl and boy younger than Thomasine, one girl older.  None of adults are grieving for the coming death; Henrietta is barely there at all, lying in bed waiting to die day after day.  None of the children are grieving for her either. 

But there is sadness in plenty among the group stuck there in the large house (which strangely has no mirrors in it), rattling around getting on each others nerves.  Then the littlest girl, Signe, finds a closet to hide in, where all the house's mirrors have already been hidden.  And Signe finds that she can make a change happen, that takes her to a mirror-wise version of the house, where there lives a little girl named Hetty.  She shows Thomasine the trick of it, and Thomasine goes to visit Hetty several times, and each time the strange girl is a bit older....The two other cousins get their turn in the closet, and emerge changed, for the better, able to move beyond the stuckness of their own bad times into a more hopeful engagement with life.  And at the very end, Thomasine takes her father to the other house, and he gets to hold Thomasine's tragically dead little brother one last time, and finally move through his crushing grief and guilt.

So that description kind of makes it seem as though the mirror-filled closet is sort of a hand portal of therapy, and it kind of is.  But it is also a time travel portal, because of course Hetty is Henrietta, and in a time-slipness reminiscent of Tom's Midnight Garden, Hetty is growing up.  Some people writing about the book have referred to Hetty as a ghost.  This does not seem to me to be the case, because on her last visit with Hetty, Thomasine makes a scrapbook of pictures with her that she then finds, old and antique, in Henrietta's house in the present, which is a clear case of time travel. It's rather magical, although Hetty and her time don't actually get much page time, and Hetty doesn't get any personality, which I felt aggrieved about.

I also felt aggrieved in a more explicitly critically way that there was more reliance on metaphor and imagery than there was on actually having explanations for all the weird therapeutic attributes of the magical mirror closet.  Whenever I encounter a closet full of mirrors that is whisking people to alternate times and mirror-image houses, returning them to the present with their mental health restored,  I like to know a bit of its backstory.  Someone, probably Henrietta, put the mirrors there, and I'd have liked to have had her reasons spelled out a bit more than they were (I feel the spelling out that was there was sort of a random sprinkle of disjointed letters on the far side of a busy street sort of thing).

More succinctly-- when there is magical therapy going on, I feel it should be supported with a bit more story specific to how it is working.  The story felt to me like mental healing ex machina(closet).

I feel comfortable expressing my frustration because the book won the Astrid Lindren Award in 2015.  Clearly, it has been loved by many, and I myself found things to like:

1.  It is very vividly written.  The reader shares in the claustrophobia of the big house meant to be full of life live large and now inhabited by small, sad, twisted persons.  Lots of good details.
2.  Though small sad and twisted out of true, Tomasine and her family are not unlovable
3.  The mirror closet of time warping is really cool.

But it didn't work for me.  And I'm not sure it will work with 9-12 year old readers, who I think prefer more active resolution of problems than this offers.  I have a feeling, though, that lots of grown-ups might find it very moving...

I just went over to Kirkus to check their review of this one ("A thought-provoking read that will linger long after the last page"), and am now am aggravated (mildly) afresh--just because there is a closet in the book doesn't mean it will remind readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!


What makes a middle grade book one grown-ups will like?

I'm currently working a list for the Barnes and Noble kids blog of "recent middle grade books adults will love."  As usual, I thought at first it would be but the work of moments, but then I realized that I really should read all the best MG fiction published so far this year so I could make a really good list.  And then I realized that perhaps I was not quite the best person to make such a list, because of liking middle grade more that adult fiction as a matter of course, and so therefore finding the mind of the "adult fiction reader" a strange and unfamiliar place. 

There are some commonalities, of course.  Good books, whatever the age of the target audience, need to have good writing (I'm a vivid description sort of person myself), good characters (who act believably and make a place for themselves in the emotions of the reader) and interesting happenings (that don't rely on contrivance.  My sister, also a children's book reader, just read one in which an orphan and a pair of seals are dumped outside the same house on the same night by two different people.  She just couldn't believe in this coincidence enough to enjoy the book.  Although if people are going around dumping pairs of seals all over the place, perhaps a house that already had a baby orphan outside it would appeal as a seal dumping ground...). 

But the thing is, middle grade books are in fact not written for adults, and a mg book can have all the things mentioned above in it (except the seals) and still not appeal to grown-ups.  At least I guess that is true, and certainly books that rely on fart jokes aren't ones I'd recommend to an adult.  The middle grade books that don't work for me tend to be ones that have too much Wild Excitement and zip madly from one such excitement to the next.   The ones I love have excitement on a small scale--the girl finds the garden, and sees the plants are growing.  Some weeding ensues.  In any event, if you ever read in my reviews that a book "should appeal lots to its target audience" that means I didn't personally like it.  If I like a book, I say "I liked this book lots and lots" or something equally subtle.  

My doubts about my ability to predict which MG books adults will love are strengthened by the fact that I have been underwhelmed by books that adults have raved about.  The One and Only Ivan, for instance, just made me feel manipulated, though I was of course sorry for Ivan.  I take a little comfort from the fact that the adults who picked this year's Newbery Award winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, picked one I liked lots too.  I would include it on my list, except that it's no longer all that "recent" and it doesn't need an extra boost.

So in any event, here I am, frantically reading book after book with dead or dysfunctional mothers, and lots of mg speculative fiction that is fun but maybe too much "fun" and not grown-up enough? A children's book blogger, when thinking about a book, will have two trains of thought going--"what will kids think of this book" alongside "what do I think of this book"  (sometimes the trains collide).   Adding the third line of thought about "will grown-ups like the book for their own reading pleasure" is not something that comes as easily, because I have been a kid, and I love MG, but I have never been a committed reader of adult fiction (except of course for Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Jane Austen, and D.E. Stevenson).  Most grown-up fiction leaves me cold, mostly because it takes the books too long to get to the point, and the characters aren't likable, and then endings aren't as nicely resolved.  But I feel no desire to offer a list of children's books with those characteristics.

So getting to my own point--the books I like best aren't the books I'd necessarily recommend to your ordinary grown-up person, and I'm feeling flummoxed.  I have only one realistic one so far that I'm sure I'm going to include--Train I Ride, by Paul Mossier.  Which isn't a book I'd universally recommend to young readers.  It does what it sets out to do with no padding and it's a compelling story, but now I'm wondering if maybe the reason I liked it was the very small subplot elements of the main character finding ways while on board the train to get food which felt a bit like one of those fun survival type stories that I like very much......And I can't put that in the B. and N. post because it will probably just make the grown-ups look at me oddly.

It would be much easier to do such a list post for YA.

Please share suggestions and thoughts!


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (4/23/17)

Welcome to another round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs!  Please let me know if I missed your post (or if you an author, feel free to send me any reviews of your book or interviews/guest posts at any time!). 

The Reviews

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Leaf's Reviews

Dragon Captives, by Lisa McMann, at The Write Path

Dream Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at A Belle in a Bookshop

Enemy of the Realm (Dragons vs Drones book 2), by Wesley King, at Say What?

The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, at Guys Lit Wire

The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, at Me On Books and Charlotte's Library

The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki, at Puss Reboots

Gnome-a-geddon by K.A. Holt, at Sharon the Librarian

Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton, at Geo Librarian

Jorie and the Magic Stones, by A.H. Richardson, at Log Cabin Library

A Little Taste of Poison, by R.J. Anderson, at alibrarymama

The Lost Staff of Wonders (Will Wilder book 2), by Raymond Arroyo, at Ms. Yinglng Reads

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, by Shari Green, at Middle Grade Minded

The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis, at Operation Actually Read Bible

Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King, at My Brain on Books

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, at Charlotte's Library

The Moonlight Statue, by Holly Webb, at Nayu's Reading Corner

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff, at the Shannon Messenger Fan Club

The Will Wilder series, by Raymond Arroyo, at Redeemed Reader

Xander and the Dream Thief, by Margaret Dilloway, at Imaginary Reads

Authors and Interviews

Celeste Lim (The Crystal Ribbon) at From the Mixed Up Files

Bruce Coville at Middle Grade Ninja

Other Good Stuff

Of particular interest to the many middle grade kids who like to draw maps--a glaciologist, dissatisfied by the lack of geological thinking behind many fantasy maps, has created a program to generate them (via Tor)


Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood (Katherine Tegen Books, March 2017), is a book I first heard about from the author herself, when we met in real life in Beautiful Rhode Island (tm) before it was even all the way finished.  So I have been wanting to read it for rather a while (although of course as always happens when I buy a book I really want to read it sits for quite a while unread whilst other books checked out from the library or received for review claim my attention).  But in any event, I read it last week and  there was much to delight me.  A most interesting dragon, who has a lovely library!  Magic!  Orphans!  A city sufficient unto itself, with steps and terraces and bits of garden (I like that sort of city lots...).  And bonus overthrow of the patriarchy and destruction of xenophobic walls (literal walls.  Or more accurately, the one big wall around the city). 

Chantel, the central character, is a student at Miss Ellicott's School for Magical Maidens, where deportment is featured prominently in the curriculum, along with sundry useful spells.  Chantel was always good at the magic part, though the deportment, which basically meant being "shamefast and biddable" never came naturally.  When her familiar, a snake, morphs (rather disturbingly by crawling into her ear) into a dragon, she gives up all together on the biddable part.

This proves to be a Good Thing for the city kingdom of Lightning Pass, when the sorceress who have kept the walls of the city safe from the marauders roiling around outside it (some days more densely than others) disappear. Including Miss Ellicott, leaving Chantel and her fellow students in a pickle.  The council of Patriarchs and the King are not taking any useful actions viz the threat of marauders, which has become more immediate than usual/food shortages among the people of the city/long term plans for economic stability and peace/the state of Miss Ellicott's school. 

Chantel, seeing these problems clearly, and having the wherewithal to do things, thanks to her dragon companion and sundry other old magics, and thanks as well to more mundane, though still powerful young friends (including a marauder boy), she finds herself putting things to rights very satisfyingly indeed.  She is the right person at the right time for the job, and though young, she's smart and capable (and has advice from a long-dead queen who the patriarchs wrote into history as a traitor....).  So it is not difficult for the reader to accept the firmness with which she ends up holding the reigns of the runaway events that have overtaken her city....and it certainly not difficult for the reader to enjoy the rush of alarms and excursions that fill the story.

All in all, a very entertaining and thought-provoking read!

A particular thing I liked--you may have noticed that the school is originally the school for "magical maidens," but in the title of the book is referred to a school for the "magically minded."  Which makes the point that when patriarchal gender divides are smashed, it helps boys too.  In this case, boys who want to do magic.


The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi

The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi (Simon and Schuster, middle grade, March 2017), is the story of three friends and one little brother who get (literally) sucked into the world of a game.  If they can't solve the puzzles of the game world, they are trapped there, so the stakes are real and very high. 

12-year-old Farah is given a birthday game, the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, by her aunt, and she and her friends are intrigued but cautious as they read the strange rules that suggest the world of the game is real.  Then her little brother, who has ADHD, bursts in on them and enters the game, disappearing from the real world.  Farah is used to running after him, and is determined to get him back, so into the game she goes with her two friends, Essie and Alex.

They find themselves in a magical, Near Eastern/South Asian based world of sandstorms and minarets, and learn that there will be a series of timed challenges that they will have to pass to escape.  Challenges that no group of kids has ever made it through before.  Fortunately Farah and her friends are up for the challenge, but it's still a tense mad race through a shifting landscape of magic and menace....and the stakes are high and very real.

I loved the bright clarity of the reading experience here; the descriptions were beautifully vivid. if you like kaleidoscopic colors and rapidly shifting scenes in your middle grade fantasy, pick this one up!  The story was fine, but not great; I found the actual puzzles and the final confrontation with the Architect of the game adequate without being tremendously gripping.  Basically, the pages turned very quickly and I enjoyed the pictures the story made in my mind, and so it was a perfectly fine hour of reading.  Not every book can be a best beloved.

And it was great to see a hijab wearing heroine in a mg fantasy; I think this is a first for me.

I also liked the Lizard Resistance Corps very much indeed, and they will probably be the winners of my "best fictional lizards of 2017."  (That being said, so far they are the only contenders...how is it that I have read almost 150 books this year and have so few lizards to show for it?)

So for the diversity, the mental pictures, and for the humor of the lizards, Karuna Riazi is now an author I'll keep on my radar.

Here is the Kirkus review, which is more or less in line with my thoughts.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (4/16/17)

Happy Easter, those who are celebrating!  I can't resist offering a Victorian Easter card, because it is in their Easter cards that the Victorians show just how really weird they were, but I did at least find one that is sci fi/fantasy-esque:

As usual, please let me know if I missed your post and I'll stick it in.

The Reviews

11 Birthdays, and all the rest of the Willow Falls books, by Wendy Maas, at alibrarymama

Blue Thread, by Ruth Tenzer Feldman, at Charlotte's Library

Camp So-And-So, by Mary McCoy, at Geo Librarian

Dragons Vs. Drones, by Wesley King, at Say What?

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin, at Strange and Random Happenstance

The Fearless Travelers Guide to Wicked Places, by Pete Begler, at The Write Path and Nerdy Book Club

George Washington's Socks, by Elvira Woodruff, at Time Travel Times Two

Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Charlotte's Library

Lucky Strikes, by Louis Bayard, at Pages Unbound Reviews

Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King, at Randomly Reading

The Moon Platoon, by Jeramey Kraatz, at Say What?

Musuem of Thieves, by Lian Tanner, at Say What?

Ratpunzel (Hamster Princess book 3), by Ursula Vernon, at Jean Little Library

Return to Augie Hobble, by Lane Smith, at The Bookshelf Gargoyle

Simple Plans (Evolution Revolution book 2) by Charlotte Bennardo, at Log Cabin Library

Star of Deltora series books 3 and 4, by Emily Rodda, at Charlotte's Library

The Titanitc Mission (Flashback Four book 2) by Dan Gutman, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Well of Witches (The Thickety book 3), by J.A. White, at Say What?

A Wizard Alone, by Diane Duanne, at Fantasy Faction

The Wizard's Dog, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Nerdophiles

Authors and Interviews

Ruth Lauren (Prisoner of Ice and Snow), at This Kid Reviews Books and Cracking the Cover

Andrea Kaczmarek (There's a Stinky Goblin in the Shed), at Middle Grade Ninja

Other Good Stuff

The 2016 Aurealis Awards (from Australia) have been announced, with MG Spec Fic well represented:

  • Blueberry Pancakes Forever, Angelica Banks (Allen & Unwin)
  • Magrit, Lee Battersby (Walker Books Australia)
  • Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket, Caleb Crisp (Bloomsbury)
  • The Turners, Mick Elliott (Hachette Australia)
  • When the Lyrebird Calls, Kim Kane (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Hungry Isle, Emily Rodda (Omnibus Books)

  • At The Guardian--"Fiction for 8- to 12-year-olds reviews – cyborgs, sisters and a girl called Owl"


    Star of Deltora Series--books 3 and 4, by Emily Rodda

    The Star of Deltora is a world-famous trading ship, and 4 young passengers have been taken on board to compete in clever trading to be her next captain.  One of these is a smart, plucky girl named Bretta, who's hiding a secret--her father betrayed his own crew when he seized the magical staff that revived the evil of the Hungry Island, and he betrayed Bretta by putting the staff's magical powers ahead of his own family.  But she's determined to keep the dark secret of her identity hidden, and to make a place for herself on the ocean Deltora...

     In my review of the first two, I wrote that "the Star of Delotra is sailing on a big ocean, filled with lots of magic, not all of it nice, and some of it downright evil.   Will Britta's intelligence and sharp trading instincts be enough to see her through her adventures safely?  One can assume they will, but I don't have books 3 and 4 on hand.  If I did, I'd already have read them at this point.  Probably back to back immediately after book 2."  And I didn't mean this as a direct hint to the publisher, who had sent me the first 2 books....but that doesn't mean I wasn't pleased as all get out to then receive books 3 and 4 soon after my post went up!  And I wasn't at all disappointed in the reading of them.

    The Towers of Illica present the third trading challenges to the would-be captains.  Illica is a place where those at the high end of society have sacrificed almost everything for their collections of treasures--they are wealthy beyond compare in precious things, and rich in status (both things they guard jealously), but have no cash on hand.  Though the central thrust of this one is Britta trying to make a good trade for the sake of the competition, it's fun to get a bit more backstory of her colleagues, and see the relationships between the characters growing. 

    The Hungry Isle is where Bretta expects to find and confront her father, and somehow figure out a way to clear herself of the shadows of dark magic that his control of the staff has caused to haunt her.  This confrontation does occur, and is most exciting, but there's a twist that I wasn't expecting, and happily (for my own personal tastes as a reader) it occurs midway in the book, with plenty of pages left to get everyone home again and get all the loose ends sorted out in an unhurried way. 

    Short answer:  this is my current go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a series to offer a nine or ten year old--lots of excitement, interesting setting and magic, characters to care about, and a strong girl protagonist.  And I say this even as one who is not drawn to seafaring stories! So thank you, Kane Miller, for sending them my way!


    Two new board books from Ripley's Believe It or Not

    Believe it or not--Ripley's has branched out into boardbooks with Wacky 123 and Oddphabet!   And the books are as odd and quirky as one might expect.

    Wacky 123 takes a fairly standard counting format and oddifies it, pairing a picture of an unusual animal, or animals, and a picture of items to count.  So alongside the picture of a narwhal, for one, is
    a picture of its single tooth, a two-headed cow has two hats, three little pigs in a teacup sport three bowties, and so on.  It's quirkiness made me chuckle.

    Oddphabet goes through all the letters with four lines of (sometimes somewhat forced) descriptive rhyme accompanying a bevy of interesting animals.  It's fun to see critters like blobfish and umbrella bird, and there are quite a few eyebrow-raising oddities, like a two-headed viper and a turtle with hair on its head. 

    The bright pictures are easy on the eye, though nothing extraordinary; their cheerful colors go just fine with the words.

    I didn't personally find them particularly outstanding, mostly because some of the oddities seemed somewhat random and not based on real life peculiarities, like a hippo seated at a table eating cupcakes (as opposed to rabbits engaged in competitive rabbit jumping, and an elephant painting, which have a basis in reality).   That being said, these are fun novelty picks for grown-ups who appreciate quirkiness,  who want to liven up their educational boardbook selections.   Little kids might be bemused, but since much is probably bemusing to them in any event, why not.

    disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher


    Blue Thread, by Ruth Tenzer Feldman, for Timeslip Tuesday

    Blue Thread, by Ruth Tenzer Feldman (Ooligan Press, 2012) is historical fiction about the women's suffrage movement in 1912 Portland Oregon with a time travel twist.

    16 year old Miriam, daughter of a relatively well-off Jewish family in Portland, is desperate to work at her father's printing shop, but he is convinced a woman's place is in the home.  She finds some outlet for her frustration by supporting the suffrage movement, secretly printing cards to hand out at the polling places as Oregon, the last holdout state on the West Coast, votes on the issue.  

    Though her family doesn't support women's rights, the strength of Miriam's convictions has been bolstered by a most unexpected source.  A mysterious woman named Serakh, whose abrupt appearance in Miriam's home is tied to Miriam's grandmother's  prayer shawl, leads her on a journey back in time.  Serakh, and the power of the blue thread in the shawl, combine to take Miriam back to several thousand years to inspire a young woman fighting a patriarchal system for her own rights.  Tirtzah is one of the Daughters of Zelophehad, and thanks to Miriam's encouragement, she and her sisters become the first women in Biblical history to own land in their own right.  (I'd never heard of them, and was glad to learn!) And in turn, being part of Tirtzah's story inspires Miriam to take her own future into her own hands.

    Blue Thread is good historical fiction; the suffrage movement was brought to life just fine, as were Miriam's' frustrations and her father's disapproval.   Miriam's a believable character who thinks and grows as her story progress, and, in as much as I enjoy books about girls thinking about careers, I appreciated all the ideas she came up with for her father's print shop and her desire to jump in and start working.  It was such good historical fiction, in fact, that it really didn't need the time travel part and would have worked just as well without it.

    The trips back to Old Testament times were interesting in their own right, but rather brief, and with little real urgency, drama, or emotional investment.  Miriam basically uses her modern perspective to tell Tirtzah and her sisters what to do, they do it, it kind of works, end of story.  Then for much of the book she doesn't even think about Serakh or Tirtzah.  Likewise the story of the prayer shawl and the history of Miriam's maternal line (including a tragedy in her father's generation) could likewise have been expanded with the narrative threads working more cohesively together.   I am reminded of a gourmet doughnut I had last week, in which the chocolate doughnut would have been perfectly tasty without the additional chocolate doodads stuck on top of it to add gourmet doughnut-ness.  Mystical Serakh, acting as a time travel conductor for Miriam's family for generations for unclear reasons just has to be swallowed without explanation....

    Short answer-- if you are willing to take this as good historical fiction and interesting girl seeking career fiction, and don't mind the extras that go along for the ride, do give this one a try!  Though Miriam is 16, the social norms of her time and place are such that she reads a considerably younger than a 16 year old of today, and there's nothing here to make a younger reader uncomfortable, so I think it would work better for 11-12 year olds than for teens.


    Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst

    Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst (Clarion Books, April 4, 2017), is an excellent fantasy adventure pick for the 10 or so year old who thinks the cover looks really awesome (it is a very good cover to story fit!).  Two twin girls, still kids (they are just turned 12), have been trained all their lives for their future places in their kingdom of islands.  Seika, the older girl, will rule it, and Ji-Lin will be her champion and protector.  So Seika learns courtly skills and rituals while Ji-Lin, partnered with a winged lion, is sent off to learn how to fight.

    On their twelfth birthday, the girls are stunned to be told by their father that they will be setting off to make the Emperor's Journey, generally an uneventful visit of the heir to the dragon whose powers keep the islands cut off and safe from the rest of the world.  They had not expected to make this journey for several years, but are rather pleased to have the chance to journey together, flying on the winged lion.  But the Hidden Islands are in danger.  The magical barrier is weakening, and the islands are no longer completely hidden from demonic and human intrusions....Each island they visit on the way to the dragon offers more excitement of a tense and difficult kind than the next, and by the time they reach the dragon, they have learned almost more than their previous 12 years of careful education had taught them.

    But will it be enough to keep their islands safe?

    As is the case with your basic middle grade fantasy journey to save the kingdom, the characters learn to trust each other and themselves as they confront a series of escalating challenges.  Because the two girls have been separated for years, they need to reconnect, and  their loyalty and protectiveness for each other is one of the best parts of the book.  That being said, the winged lion, a character in his own right (he converses just as much as any one else) is lovely too!  The central dilemma of the safety of the Hidden Islands is one that I think will resonate just as resonantly as all get out with young adolescents--change and opening to new experiences is scary and unsafe, but has advantages as well.

    Though the world building brings to mind Asia, it's more inspiration rather than a thinly veiled version of any reality, and in fact I wouldn't have spent any time thinking about its sources of inspiration if it weren't for the names.   As such it offers a nice, though somewhat surficial, change from European inspired world-building, without reading to me as cultural appropriation (which I think is much less troubling an issue when the cultural providing the inspiration is an equal in power relationships, and which I also think involves much more borrowing from another cultural than is the case here). .

    Short answer--enjoyable, not deeply deep but still with enough thought-provoking characters and situation for the fun adventures to have emotional backbone.

    disclaimer: review copy provided by the author


    This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (4/9/17)

    Here's what I found this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

    The Reviews

    Beauty and the Beast: Lost in a Book, by Jennifer Donnelly, at The Shannon Messenger Fan Club

    The Bone Flute, by Patricia Bow, at The Book Wars

    The Castle in the Mist, by Amy Ephron, at The Book Monsters and Geo Librarian

    Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner, at Leaf's Reviews

    Cavern of Secret (Wind and Claw 2), by Linda Sue Park, at Ms. Yingling Reads

    A Crack in the Sea, by H.M. Bouwman, at Charlotte's Library

    The Crooked Sixpence, by Jennifer Bell, at Fantasy Book Critic

    The Crystal Ribbon, by Celeste Lim, at Reading Violet

    Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull, at Say What?

    Dream Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Bart's Bookshelf and Log Cabin Library

    Future Flash, by Kita Helmetag Murdock, at Mom Read It

    The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, at School Library Journal

    Greyling's Song, by Karen Cushman, at Tales from the Raven

    Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton, at This Kid Reviews Books

    Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst, at FIKTSHUN

    The Mesmerist, by Ronald L. Smith, at Charlotte's Library and Leila Roy at Kirkus

    A Most Magical Girl, by Karen Foxlee, at Readings

    The Princess and the Page, by Christina Farley, at The AP Book Club

    The Star Thief, by Lindsey Becker, at The Book Nut

    Tricked (Fairy Tale Reform School), by Jen Calonita, at Sharon the Librarian

    Warren the 13th and the Wispering Woods, by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle, at Pages Unbound

    Villain Keeper, by Laurie McKay, at Dead Houseplants

    A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, at Strange and Random Happenstance

    Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters, by Margaret Dilloway, at Imaginary Reads

    Two at alibrarymama--Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner

    Authors and Interviews

    Sage Blackwood takes The Page 69 Test for Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded

    Sarah Beth Durst (Journey Across the Hidden Islands) at HMH Young Readers Blog

    Jen Swann Downey (The Ninja Librarians) at The Writer Librarian

    Jennifer Trafton (Henry and the Chalk Dragon) at Word Spelunking and Cracking the Cover

    Christina Farley (The Princess and the Page) at Literary Rambles

    C.A. Hartley (The Plight of the Plexus) at Middle Grade Ninja

    Ruth Lauren (Prisoner of Ice and Snow) talks about sisters at Nerdy Book Club

    Other Good Stuff

    The Waterstone's Children's Book Prize has gone to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s  debut novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars (more at The Guardian)

    And for more of what's happening across the Atlantic, visit Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books for an April gathering of new books

    A splash (?), a fin (?) or possibly a mesmarization (?) or whatever collective noun you wish of middle grade mermaid books at Mom Read It

    Faith Erin Hicks' Nameless City trilogy is on its way to television (via Tor)

    Enter to win a middle grade book bundle, and check out the book sale, at Laurisa White Reyes

    A Jules Verne time capsule has been found that might have new books in it (more at PR Newswire)


    The Mesmerist, by Ronald L. Smith

    The Mesmerist, by Ronald L. Smith, is one I'd offer to younger middle grade fans of horror, who don't mind a trip to 19th century London (I have a feeling there are kids who shun historical fiction, which, if this is so, is misguided of them) and who like to read about kids with special powers fighting evil (and winning.  I myself always like the winning part which is why I so often read the end once I get to the middle.  Just to be sure).  I'd also (perhaps obviously) give it to kids who enjoyed Ronald L. Smith's previous book, Hoodoo, because it has much the same atmospheric horror kids fighting evil feel, though in the American south and not London.

    But in any event.

    Jess and her mother have been making a living as fake spiritualists (Jess' father having being dead for some years, it was the only way her mother could think of to keep up a reasonably genteel lifestyle), and they have perfected their performance, with Jess playing the role of the psychic girl getting messages from Beyond the Grave.  When she actually does have an episode of psychic power that isn't faked, Jess's mother upends their peaceful life and whisks them off to London, to meet with a mysterious gentleman known as Balthazar.  There Jess learns that her father and her mother were part of an order with preternatural powers who fought against an evil necromancer and his evil minions, with her father having died a hero while killing the evil necromancer. 

    And all signs point to the evil rising again.

    Jess is pressured to join in the next generation's group of good guys with psychic powers (young people have stronger gifts than older folks, so Jess' mom's powers are but a shadow of what they once were).   She doesn't have much time to train with the two London kids she's now teamed up with, because evil is hitting London pretty hard and fast in the form of a horrible pestilential disease and sundry horrid murders.  But since the leader of the bad guys has his sights set on Jess in particular, she doesn't have much choice about doing her best to destroy him as soon as possible....

    In the murky streets and down below them in rat-ridden hell-holes, the hunt is on.  Jess with her powers of mind-reading and divination, Emily who controls light and flame, and Gabriel, whose magical singing can work miracles, must become a bulwark of all that is good and holy against demonic powers.

    And having  mentioned the holy part, it's rather a departure from standard middle grade fantasy that although some powers on the side of good come from fairy blood and some are unexplained, some are in fact holy and angelic.  Which might make this one have more appeal to Christian readers/parents than other kids-fighting-demonic-evil stories (?)

    But regardless, it's a fast paced story with vivid descriptions, lots of tense moments, and interesting powers at play.   I think it will work best for younger middle grade readers-- the gore and ick level seems just fine for kids, especially for horror reading kids, though adults might not like it much, and although Balthazar isn't with the kids for the big showdown part of the story, he's very much the wise grown-up who knows things, and the reader can trust he won't let anything too terrible happen.  If you've read a lot of historical fantasy about young people in secret societies fighting evil demonic things in London, it perhaps won't seem all that strange and fantastical, another reason to offer it to a 9 or 10 year old and not to offer it to a jaded teen.....

    Interestingly, xenophobia taken to ugly extremes is one of the consequences of the evil blight attacking London, which I appreciated as it is so very germane an issue.  Likewise, through Jess' appalled and empathetic eyes we see the worst poverty 19th-century London can offer, and these elements make the book a good thought-provoker in addition to being a good adventure.

    Here's the Kirkus review, which provides a much clearer synopsis.  Some days I synopsize well, some days less so.....


    The Time Museum, by Matthew Loux

    The Time Museum, by Matthew Loux (First Second, February 2017), is a real treat for fans of time travel and fun graphic novels, and especially for those of us who are fans of both!

    Delia is a science minded kid, and one day her exploration of the flora and fauna around her home leads her to the discovery of her lifetime--the Earth Time Museum!  It's the museum of Earth's history, both cultural and natural, representing our planet to interstellar visitors.  And its collections are developed through time travel!  Delia's offered the chance to apply for a summer internship at the museum, and can't think of anything she'd rather do than work there...but  a group of other kids, boys and girls from both the past and the future, are also contending for the position.

    The kids are tested by being sent on missions of discovery back in time, where they are also asked to repair glitches in the continuum of time--removing things out of place.  It's not the competition with each other that's the complicated part, or even coping with unfamiliar time periods, it's learning to work together that's the real test.  And it's a test that leads to a challenge that no-one expected--confronting a mysterious time traveler who seems up to no good and repairing a rip in time itself.

    It's lots of fun--the kids are an interesting bunch, and seeing them learn to get along and trust each other, while competing with each other at the same time, was most interesting.  As were their journey's back in time, visiting dinosaurs, the library of Alexandria, and London in the year 3029! Laugh-out-loud moments are combined with an exiting story that begs for re-reading. 

    For some of us, additional re-reading might be helpful in figuring out just what is going on with the bad guy, whose degree of badness remains unclear to me...and it's possible that kids who like thinks clear cut and easy to follow will be not as pleased as kids who go with the flow.  It is also possible that it all makes perfect sense on first reading, as I myself am a tad challenged by graphic novels, because I read the words too quickly to absorb the information in the pictures....

    There's a bit of diversity--Delia's room-mate and new friend/competitor is from a future Japan, and a woman who's one of  the museum executives who trains the kids looks African-American.  I wish there'd been a bit more diversity in body type--the girls are all supper skinny, which is a stylist choice I found a bit off putting.  Here's  a picture of the group of them, with Delia on the far left:

    But in any event, it's great to see a girl scientist as the main hero of the adventure! Delia's a great role-model for girls interested in history, both the natural and the less natural kind.....I loved seeing her self-confidence in her identity flower.  And I absolutely adored the museum and want to intern there myself.

    disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


    A Crack in the Sea, by H.M. Bouwman

    A Crack in the Sea, by H.M. Bouwman (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, January 2017), is a middle grade fantasy novel that combines krakens, the horrific tragedy of the Middle Passage, the horrors endured by Vietnamese boat people, a second world where people (some with magical gifts) live on tropical islands and on a floating raft town, and Amelia Earhart.  What unites all these threads is a crack in the sea; unpredictably opening to let people from our first world fall though.

    Three sets of siblings are central to the story at hand.  Venus and her brother Swimmer survive being kidnapped by slavers, and when the captain of the slave ship that's taken them begins to throw the sick and dying captives overboard, Venus and Swimmer use their gifts to lead their people on a walk underwater to the second world. 

    Two hundred years later, two other siblings living in the second world hear their origin story, and embark on an adventure of their own.  Pip, the little brother, is face-blind, so his big sister has always tried to buffer him from the world.  But Pip can talk to fish, and the leader of the raft-people thinks this gift might lead him to the crack in the sea, offering a return to Africa.  And so he kidnaps Pip....In the meantime (which in this case is the 1970s), a family of refugees sets out from Vietnam, and after a voyage full of suffering, finds themselves falling through the crack and being taken in by the raft people. Thanh and his sister Sang find there a most unlikely and truly happy ending.

    And then there are two Krakens, tied to all the stories....and Amelia, though I'll refrain from specifying her part in it all!

    And it is a lot of stories--moving stories, full of sadness, but always with hope. The Second World is a refugee that gives almost all the characters a peaceful life.  In reality, of course, there was no Crack in the Sea that would have saved the captives and the refugees, and this gives a bitter poignancy to the story that the author herself, as she notes in the afterword, is keenly aware of.   It also gives the story a somewhat fairytale feel, as if the Second World were a place that nothing could go wrong.  Happily, though, the people that live there are in fact people, and so have misunderstandings, and personal growth moments, and hurts, like all people do.

    Because it is so many stories, told in layers, it might be hard for some young readers to stay engaged with the book.  And I think that it might in fact work best for many as a book read aloud; as a shared dream within which are other dreams, full of bright images, bright moments of human connection, and the sadness that makes the brightness even more vivid.

    Most powerful image-Venus and Swimmer leading the captives along their long walk underwater, the shackles rusting as they go, feeling neither hunger or thirst as they journey hand holding hand holding hand.  It reminds me of the haunting underwater sculpture, Vicissitudes, off the coast of Grenada--


    This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy (4/2/17)

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

    The Reviews

    Beauty and the Beast: Lost in a Book, by Jennifer Donnelley, at Redeemed Reader

    Beyond the Doors, by David Nielsen, at Word Spelunking

    The Crystal Ribbon, by Celeste Lim, at Cracking the Cover

    Defender of the Realm, by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, at Charlotte's Library

    Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull, at Hidden in Pages

    Frogkisser, by Garth Nix, at books4yourkids

    The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, at Ms. Yingling Reads

    The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, at Next Best Book

    The Goblin's Puzzle, by Andrew Chilton, at alibrarymama

    House of Stories, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, at Say What?

    How to Outsmart a Billion Robot Bees, by Paul Tobin, at the Barnes and Noble Kids Blog

    Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King, at A Year of Reading

    Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, at alibrarymama

    The Princess and the Page, by Christina Farley, at Word Spelunking

    Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, by Patrick Samphire, at Fantasy Literature

    Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit, by Aimee Carter, at Say What?

    The Story Thieves-Secret Origins, by James Riley, at Always in the Middle

    A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, at Leaf's Reviews

    Authors and Interviews

    Karuna Riazi (The Gauntlet) at The Book Wars

    Amy Ephron (Castle in the Mist) at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

    Jacob Sager Weinstein (Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath) at Word Spelunking

    Other Good Stuff

    The shortlist for the Australian Readings Chldren's Book Prize have been announced. I've put stars next to the ones that are MG speculative fiction, though I'm not sure about Elizabeth and Zenobia....

    *Escape to Moon Islands by Mardi McConnochie
    *A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee
    Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters by Ailsa Wild
    The Secrets We Keep by Nova Weetman
    *?Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller
    *Grover finds a Home by Claire Garth

    At the Barnes and Noble Kids Blog I talk about ten middle grade dystopian novels/series


    Defender of the Realm, by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

    If  you are looking for fun hero story with interesting twists of magic to offer a handy sixth grader, or for you own light reading pleasure, Defender of the Realm, by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler (Scholastic, March 28 2017) might be just the thing!

    Alfie is a pretty ordinary boy, overshadowed by the charisma and accomplishments of his younger twin brother, Richard, the golden boy of their form at the English boarding school they attend.  But for all of Richard's gifts, Alfie overshadows him in one very important way--as the older twin, he's the one who's the heir to the throne of Great Britain.  And when his father dies in a most utterly unexpected way, Alfie inherits everything.  Including the unfinished monster slaying business that went so wrong for his father.

    For the kings of Britain are magical defenders of the realm, with a hereditary magical flying horse and suite of weapons. Alfie is forced to scramble not just to get his head around being king, but to learn to fight for his country as the current Defender (neither of which appeals.  He has trouble believing he could do a good job of either.  But the monstrous lizard dragon thing that killed his father is still out there....and Alfie must slay it.

    An ordinary girl, Hayley, finds her own ordinary life disrupted when she sees the monster for herself, and witnesses Alfie's father's early attempt to defeat it, taking home with her one of the creatures scales.   She believes in the Defender of the Realm, and is happy to help Alfie as best she can....And he needs a friend he can trust, because sadly there are those working to bring him down.  She makes an excellent side-kick for him, with her confidence bolstering his faltering efforts to become the true hero he needs to be.

    Many and various excitements ensue, as Alfie races to secure the magical wards of Britain before his adversary seizes them and become invincible.  It's not tremendously Deep, and doesn't dramatically break any new ground, but it is just fine for what it is--a magical, mythical adventure story whose pages turn quickly and pleasingly in fast-paced jaunts around Britain, with some thoughtful elements of character growth.

    (Hayley is mixed-race, of Jamaican heritage, adding diversity.  Though primarily a side-kick, she's character enough in her own right and as a point-of-view protagonist to count this in my Diverse MG and YA speculative fiction list.)

    disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


    This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction (3/26/17)

    I am still missing google blog search something fierce.  I am pretty sure I am missing lots of MG speculative fiction reviews, but can't do much about it, other than to say that if I missed your post, please let me know! 

    The Reviews

    Ben Franklin: You've Got Mail, by Adam Mansbach, at The Reading Nook Reviews

    Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, at Hidden in Pages (audiobook review)

    Dead Air - The Kat Sinclair Files #1, by Michelle Schusterman, at The Write Path

    The Door in the Alley, by Adrienne Kress, at Word Spelunking

    Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull, at The Book Monsters and Word Spelunking

    The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, at Fantasy Literature

    Flyte , by Angie Sage, at Say What?

    The Great Wave of Tamarind, by Nadia Aguier, at B. and N. Kids Blog

    Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar, at alibarymama

    The House of Months and Years, by Emma Trevayne, at Charlotte's Library

    Jed and the Junkyard War, by Steven Bohls, at Always in the Middle

    King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper, at Bookish Ambition

    Me and Marvin Gardens, by A.S. King, at The Book Monsters

    Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R. L. LaFevers, at Leaf's Reviews

    William and the Witch's Riddle, by Shuta Crum, at Tales from the Raven

    The Wizard's Dog, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Kid Lit Reviews

    Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--Dragonwatch, by Brandon Sanderson, Last Day on Mars, by Kevin Emerson, and Dragon Captives, by Lisa McMann

    Other Good Stuff

    The Overarching Conflict in Middle Grade, at From the Mixed Up Files


    The House of Months and Years, by Emma Trevayne, for Timeslip Tuesday

    It's a bit of a spoiler to announce right off the bat that The House of Months and Years, by Emma Trevayne (Simon and Schuster, February 2017), is a book with time travel, but it's the sort of spoiler that might help you decide if its a book your interested in, and how else to review it for this week's Timeslip Tuesday?

    10-year-old Amelia was happy with her family and her house and her best friend.  But when her aunt and uncle are killed, her parents pull up all her roots to move in with her three cousins-- two boys, one her age, one younger, and one baby girl.  The cousins' house is larger, and their lives of course had already been horribly disrupted, so that plan made sense to Amelia's parents.  And intellectually, Amelia can see the point.  Emotionally, however, she's a snarling mass of resentment (and her parents don't, in my own expert parenting opinion, spend enough time making sure she's ok, but of course they have the three bereaved children to look after...).

    So Amelia is sore and cross.  Her cousins' house, however, is not without interest.  It's a calendar house, with all its architectural features tied to numbers related to time passing--the months, the days, the hours are reflected in its rooms, windows, and doors.  Even more extraordinary, it's original architect and inhabitant is still present, in a shadowy form of not quite corporal presence (though not a ghost).  And this occupant can travel through time, and is happy to take Amelia venturing to the past with him.  All he wants in exchange is for Amelia to be his apprentice....and Amelia, being disgruntled, finds the idea of being an immortal time traveler more than somewhat appealing.

    But there are costs.  Horrible costs.  And there's a limit to how spoilery I'm willing to be so I won't say more.  It's this emotionally charged dilemma that is at the heart of the book, and which tilts it almost toward horror in a truly gripping rush toward the ending.

    Though I was gripped by the story, and the pages turned, it didn't truly captivate me. For one thing, the time travel is of a tourist sort of variety.  The people in the past are alive around them, but don't seem them.  So it's not uninteresting, but not emotionally gripping.  The tension comes not from the visits to the past themselves, nor even from excursions to a sort of "other place"frequented by the group of time-travelers to which Amelia's guide belongs (though it is a fascinating scenario) but from within Amelia.  Though Amelia's decision about becoming a time traveler herself takes center stage at the end, the tension in the book begins with her refusal to accept her new situation living in her cousins' home with them as part of her immediate family.  And though I sympathize, it's hard to be all that sympathetic toward  her, because she really doesn't make much effort to be kind to her cousins or communicate with her parents.  This sulky unpleasantness of character is necessary for the plot to work, but diminished my enjoyment. 

    So all in all, a well-written, gripping book with a beautifully memorable house that nevertheless didn't quite work for me personally.


    This week's roundup of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (3/19/17)

    Welcome to another week of links; please let me know if I missed your post!

    The Reviews

    Beauty and the Beast: Lost in a Book, by Jennifer Donnelly, at A Backwards Story

    Bone Jack, by Sara Crowe, at books4yourkids and Charlotte's Librarys

    The Celestial Globe, by Marie Rutkoski, at Say What?

    The Crooked Sixpence, by Jennifer Bell, at Ms. Yingling Reads and Word Spelunking

    Dragonwatch: Revolt of the Dragons, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature and Cracking the Coverhttps://www.crackingthecover.com/13296/brandon-mull-dragonwatch/

    The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, at Jean Little Library

    The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at Geo Librarian

    The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale, at Leaf's Reviews

    The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, at Sonderbooks

    Magyc, by Angie Sage, at Say What?

    The Night Spinner, by Abi Elphinstone, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

    Return Fire, by Christina Diaz, at On Starships and Dragonwings

    The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, by Megan Shepherd, at Hidden in Pages

    Winterling, by Sarah Prineas, at the Shannon Messenger Fan Club

    The Wizard's Dilemma, by Diane Duane, at Fantasy Faction

    Authors and Interviews

    Eric Kahn Gale (The Wizard's Dog) at Word Spelunking

    Joshuan Kahn (Shadow Magic) at Cybils

    Laurel Snyder (Orphan Island) at Word Spelunking

    Kandi Wyatt (Dragon's Future) at Word Spelunking

    Other Good Stuff

    Anne Nesbet "On Fiction, History, and Wishing the World Were Otherwise" with particular mention of A Crack in the Sea and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at Project Mayhem


    Bone Jack, by Sara Crowe, for Timeslip Tuesday

    I just gave Bone Jack, by Sara Crowe (Philomel Books, Feb. 2017, April 2014 in the UK)  five stars over at Goodreads, something I almost never do, not because I think it was an absolutely perfect book, but because it did what it set out to do very well indeed, and because it was a book I would have been so happy to find when I was the age of the target audience-11 -14 years old..  I loved  books in which the old stories and legends of the British Isles slipped through into the present day, with dark and dangerous consequences (books like The Owl Service, and A String in the Harp). (I still do, but a less na├»vely romantic way....).  If I didn't already know better, I'd believe that Bone Jack was written back in the 1960s or 70s; it has very much the feel of so many excellent British children's books of that era. 

    13 year-old Ash has won the competition to be this year's Stag Boy in a race that is now a quaint folkloric custom n his village in the north of England, but which  has dark roots--the other local boys, playing the hounds, are not expected these days to hunt the stag to his death in a ritual to renew the land,  but in the past.....It is a hard time for Ash's bit of the world--foot-and-mouth disease has wiped out the sheep, and a draught is drying up the land.  His best friend Mark's father killed himself after his sheep were slaughtered, and Ash's own father has come home from fighting in the Near East with PTSD.  

    The darkness of the present calls to the past, and stirs up the old pattern.  Ash sees the ghosts of a past Stag Boy hunted till he falls from the cliff at Stag's Leap by merciless boys playing the hounds.  Bone Jack is walking the hills again, and the boundary between the past and present is slipping.  Mark, Ash's friend, will be a hound in this year's chase, but for Mark, who's now living wild in the hills, the Stag Chase has become a chance to bring his father back.  For that to happen, the Stag Boy must die.

    So the story is filled with things inexplicable at first falling into an ancient grove, and the tension grows very nicely as Ash realizes that what had seemed a simple way of pleasing his father by running as the Stag Boy is turning into something that might end up with Mark trying to kill him.  He considers backing out, but he can't bring himself to do so....

    It is not all mythos and ancient darkness--there are side notes of human relationships, giving Ash the opportunity for character growth, that I found moving and convincing--Ash and his mother hoping that Ash's father can come back to them, Ash's feeling of guilt from having pulled back from Mark after Mark's tragedy, Mark's little sister coping as best she can with the tragedy and now with the madness, that has overtaken her life.

    I'm counting this as a time slip not because any of the main characters travel through time, but because the Past, embodied in a sense in Bone Jack, has very much awoken in the present.  The boys of the Stag Hunt long ago are perhaps ghosts, or time slipped echoes, but there is a wolf who has slipped from the past in true corporeal form, and that's good enough for me.

    So if you like Celtic infused fantasy in which there isn't a Prophecy or a Chosen One or an epic struggle against a power hungry Dark Lord, but in which the tension comes from old stories manifesting in the present, you will like this one!  It might look like YA, but it isn't quite; it's being marketed as 10 and up (in the grades 4-6 slot at School Library Journal, and ages 11-13 at Kirkus), which is as it should be.  I don't know how many young Celtophiles/Anglophies there are today, but it's also a good one for kids who like horror.

    My one real, strong, substantial objection to the American edition of Bone Jack is that they Americanized it, most obviously substituting "Mom" for "Mum."  Which subverts the whole point of the book being rooted in its particular, very non-American place.  And which also makes me wonder, in a suspicious and vaguely hostile way, what other changes were made for the American edition...

    But in any event, Sara Crowe is now an auto-buy author for me (I think I will go with her UK editions, although I strongly prefer the American cover of this one; the UK cover is at right), and I can't wait to see what she does next.

    Here's the Kirkuk Review, which more or less comes to the same conclusion as I do.

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