7/23/17

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (7/23/17)

Here's this week's round-up; let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Aleks Mickelsen and the Twice-Lost Fairy Well (Zaria Fierce #4) by Keira Gillett, at Log Cabin Library

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, at Leaf's Reviews

Boy X, by Dan Smith, at Original Content

Code Name Flood (Edge of Extinction #2), by Laura Martin, at Say What?

The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood and Co. #4), by Jonathan Stroud, at Bookends

The Descendants series, at A Backwards Story

Dragon Captives, by Lisa McMann, at Say What?

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, at Sonderbooks

Dragon's Green, by Scarlett Thomas, at A Reader of Fictions

Emperor of Mars, by Patrick Samphire, at Charlotte's Library

Exile, by Shannon Messenger, at Pages Unbound

The Girl with the Ghost Machine, by Lauren DeStefano, at Cracking the Cover

Hitty, her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field, at Leaf's Reviews

The Lion Hunter Series, by Elizabeth Wein, at alibrarymama (note--this is actually two groups of books, the second, later in time books (The Mark of Soloman sub-series) are middle grade.  They are more fantasy-flavored historical fiction than fantasy).

The List, by Patricia Forde, at Mom Read It

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at The Bookshelf Gargoyle

Maggie and the Flying Horse, by E.D. Baker, at Jean Little Library

Magic in the City, by Heather Dyer, at Charlotte's Library

Max Brooks’ Minecraft:The Islandat B. and N. Kids Blog

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, at Pages Unbound

Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban, at Ms. Yingling Reads

One for Sorow: a Ghost Story, by Mary Downing Hahn, at Cracking the Cover
and Books4KidsBlog

The Rogue World (Dark Gravity Sequence, Book 3) by Matthew J. Kirby, at Hidden in Pages

Spaced Out, by Stuart Gibbs, at That's Another Story

Spirit Hunters, by Ellen Oh, at Randomly Reading

When Worlds Collide (Land of Stories #6), by Chris Colfer, at Say What?

The Wingsnatchers (Carmer and Grit, #1) by Sarah Jean Horwitz, at Sharon the Librarian


Authors and Interviews

Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) at Pagan Dawn

Annette Laing (The Snipesville Chronicles) at Time Travel Times Two


Other Good Stuff

Ten middle-grade fantasies with incredible world-building, at Pages Unbound

For fans of Studio Ghibli, and those who have never had the pleasure of seeing these lovely animated movies--there a Studio Ghibli Fest, showing classic Studio Ghibli films in theaters around the US during 2017! (more at  Once Upon a Blog)

7/22/17

Emperor of Mars, by Patrick Samphire

The Emperor of Mars (Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, #2)The Emperor of Mars, by Patrick Samphire (Henry Holt and Co, July 2017), is the sequel to one of my favorite books of last year, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb (my review), and so, not unexpectedly, I enjoyed reading it lots!  It picks up where the first book ended, but it actually would work fairly well as a stand-alone, because it has it's whole own plot and all the details and world-building and past adventures are folded in nicely (without info. dumping).  I think this one is an easier sell to kids--it is a heist type story, with a rush to figure out mysteries and recover a stolen item from a truly formidable enemy with lots of mechanical monstrosities at his command. So steam-punk adventure sci fi/fantasy reading kids should like it lots!

I can't do any better summarizing the set-up than I did in my first review:

The basic premise of the worldbuilding is that there are slip-ways created by Martian dragons long ago that connect Mars to Earth, and the discovery of these paths in the 17th century allowed the British (and other terrestrial civilizations;  for instance, there are also Chinese, Turkish, and Patagonian colonies) to establish colonies on Mars. It is now 1816, the Napoleonic era, and a boy named Edward and his family live a very comfortable British Imperial existence on Mars.  The ancient Martian civilizations are no more, although there are still plenty of native Martians around (they are human as well, though physically different due to centuries of life on a planet with lower gravity).  And the tombs of the Marian emperors of centuries past are rich repositories of wondrous technology...the sort of technology that could tip the balance of the ongoing war on Earth in Napoleon's favor if he could get a hold of it....

After the adventures of the first book, Edward has decided to give up trying to look after his family and instead is hoping to find his own passion.  It doesn't work.  Instead, he gets caught up in new adventures totally beyond his control, and once again, instead of being the hero, he ends up battered and bruised and lucky to be alive (mechanical monsters and attacking Martian sea serpents will do that to a person) with the somewhat justified feeling that he made a mess of things.  But the fault of course lies not with Edward, but with the self-styled Emperor of Mars, who has reclaimed ancient Martian technology to fuel his own ambitions.

Edward continues, as well, to be over-shadowed by his sisters.  Although Olivia is only a minor presence in this installment, Putty is still as brilliantly wild and determined as ever (she is a STEM role model par excellence if you don't mind adventurous, somewhat amoral, expression of mechanical genius), and Jane, who was written off in the first book as being marriage obsessed, comes into her own with her intellectual abilities saving the day (poor Edward, outshone again...).   A new character, a girl thief, adds interest, because the reader knows from experience that characters in this world might not be exactly who they seem.  Sadly (for us readers who loved him), Freddy is back on Earth, working to foil Napoleon.

Speaking of which, there's also a spy in the mix, busily feeding secrets of Martian technology to Napoleon that could make him unstoppable....a problem that will presumably be dealt with in a future book because goodness knows there were enough problems to be dealt with here!

My review of the first book closed with me saying  "I hope it goes into the culture conflict on Mars more than the adventure/danger plot of this first book allowed."  And it does--there are very interesting (particularly to me, because critical examination of colonization is part of what I do for work as an archaeologist) moments of questioning the imperialist attitudes of the British, poking at the assumptions of the colonizers.  I was happy to see a native Martian get a chance to speak directly of the history of the Martian Emperors (much more technologically advanced than Earth) of long ago, and speak also of the attitudes of contemporary Martians to their past.(complicated).  Archaeologist me, though, was horrified by the destruction of the museum, and I hope the artifacts can be restored.....

And than as a special magical bonus, the dragon's egg that Putty claimed for herself in the last book hatches, and now there is once again a real live dragon on Mars!

Lots of action, interesting characters, and fascinating world-building make for another good book!  I can't help but prefer the first one, because of Freddy, but I enjoyed this one lots too and can't wait for the next installment and more of Putty's dragon, more of Jane's intellectual pursuits,

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher





7/20/17

What Goes Up, by Katie Kennedy

I very much enjoyed last year's Learning to Swear in America, by Katie Kennedy, so I was very happy last week to plunge into her new book, What Goes Up (Bloomsbury, 2017).  I find it very easy to grow fond of her characters, and to find their predicaments very engrossing, and the fact that What Goes Up has a more blatantly sci fi element to it made it all the more interesting.  I don't want to spoil what exact form that sci fi element takes, so I will try to be coy in my reviewing.

The story begins with  a group of ultra-select teens being tested by NASA's Interworlds Agency for some unclear purpose involving preparing for encounters with aliens; the two teens that pass the testing with the higher markers will be retained for said purpose.  There was the standard math and physics part to the testing, which I would fail, (though in the story there were about an equal number of girls, so positive re-enforcement for girls in STEM) but  NASA also wanted to see how well they could think outside the box, and how they'd react in conditions of life threatening danger, which required an element of excitement, as it were....(I would probably fail this part too.  Sigh.  The ability to improvise bad puns is not valued by NASA).

We are given two teens to root for right off the bat--Rosa Hayashi and Eddie Toivonen.  Rosa has basically been raised to take this test, Eddie has had a struggle.  His dad isn't a pre-eminent scientist like Rosa's; instead, he's in jail.   His engineer grandmother who brought him up was able to teach him lots, and they happily launched rockets together in her backyard, but coming to NASA for the testing wasn't an easy thing for him; the shadow of his abusive father weighs heavily on him. (I am glad we unexpectedly get to meet Eddie's grandma--she is great!)

So there are the kids, and the tests, and it is fun reading about the training and the group dynamics and the efforts of their instructor Reg to prepare the teens for the question mark of possible alien encounter.  There are poignant bits, and amusing bits, and tense bits, and then the sci fi part starts! All that testing--very useful.  All the lessons they'd just had about trusting themselves--also unexpectedly, more literally than you might imagine, useful! The bonds of friendship formed between Rosa, Eddie, and the third boy who's their alternate--essential.  The chances of saving Earth--slim.

So in any event, the sci fi part required a big suspension of disbelief, and really can't be poked at too hard or the belief crumbles, and if I read the book correctly there is a big plot thread left hanging (perhaps someone who has read the book can enlighten me--what happens to the guys who arrived first? did they ever leave again?), but I enjoyed it all lots and lots.  It is funny and friendly and a wild ride.  I'll be re-reading it, which in this day and age of book buildup in the home is the best compliment I can give a book.

There's diversity here--Rosa is of  French and Japanese descent, and Reg is black.  Which makes Rosa the first Japanese/French American fictional teen in space, to the best of my knowledge....

Kirkus agrees with me, except in the matter of how much of the plot to give away.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

7/18/17

Magic in the City, by Heather Dyer, for Timeslip Tuesday

Magic in the City, by Heather Dyer (Kids Can Press, April 2017), is a pleasantly old-fashioned sort of magic story (which is to say, in the tradition of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, and other Nesbit-esque writers).  It's also this week's time slip Tuesday book.

So the lives of the three children, brothers Jake and Simon, and their cousin Hannah, are more or less ordinary, except for the boys and their mother have come to England to live with Hannah's family, and their home in Canada is being sold.  But then an encounter with a street magician makes things most extraordinary indeed, when he give each of them a gift--a flying carpet, a time stopper, and a camera-shaped device that takes it's user into whatever picture it's focused on.  None of them come with instructions.

This means, of course, that the kids have to figure out how the magical things work by trial and error.  Misteps and mischances result in confusions and annoyances to the grown-ups affected (although the Queen of England, visited with the help of the time stopper, appreciates its magic very  much....).   The picture device lands the kids on the ship of Sir Walter Raleigh, who assumes the strangers who have suddenly appeared on board are pirates. A mischance leaves them stuck there for rather longer than they'd like, and when they return to their own time, the cabin boy comes too.  Though he's happy to have been transported away from the voyage he was loathing, he still presents a problem that must be somehow dealt with....But everything works out in the end.

I think it was Edward Eager who had one of his young characters say her favorite type of book was one where the children found magic and had to tame it and figure it out and make it work for them....That's pretty much the type of book this is, and although it was not as ambitious and powerful as Nesbit at her best, nor as amusing and rich in character as Eager at his, it is a book that will be enjoyed nicely by fans of both.   It is a stand-alone story, which means that the ending is an ending, but there is room left for more adventure.  It is also not a long story, being a mere 143 pages, but though I would have happily moved more slowly through the magical adventures, 143 pages did the job just fine.

The reader will be left wondering which of the three magical devices would be nicest to have.  Not the camera, though time travelling into favorite pictures would be fun, the chances of things going wrong are too great.  The magic carpet is too visible, and doesn't work when wet, so it's a bit chancy.  The time stopper would potentially be addictive, and I would end up looking old before my time because of using it for a few hours every morning before I go to work.  But goodness, imagine if instead of hitting the snooze button you just stopped time for ten or so minutes!

Looking at review on Amazon, this quote from a 10 year old made me feel a little sad-"I found the reading level a little bit easy for me. I found the interest level very good for my age."  Kids shouldn't have to be preoccupied by reading levels once they get past the learning to read with confidence stage.  Or interest levels for that matter, with the implication that higher levels are desirable....You will all be pleased, but perhaps not surprised, that I had no problem reading the book, but I cannot make any sort of blanket statement about whether its interest was age-appropriate for me.

Which reminds me--today I was telling an academic colleague about 20 years younger than me that I review kids books, and she told me how adorable it was about five times.  Sigh. I will go play with my dolls now, I guess.



7/17/17

Horizon, and its sequel Infinity, by Tabitha Lord

Today, for a change, I'm not blogging about middle grade books. Instead I offer the first two books of a space-opera(ish) sci fi romance, books that should please teen readers in particular very much (though it was not written, as far as I know, with teens in mind). Horizon (2015) nd its sequel, Infinity (2017) by Tabitha Lord, are self-published, but there is no need to be judgey on that account; I would not have guessed.

Horizon begins with an almost destroyed space craft falling from the sky. A young woman, living alone in the wilds nearby, senses it happen, and rushes to see if she can save either of the two men on board. She saves the life of one, Derek, healing him with her mental powers. And as he regains his strength, Caeli shares her story. It is a sad one.

Caeli once had a pretty idyllic life--loving parents, her life to come with the man she loved, a fulfilling career in medicine--until the genocide began and almost everyone she loved died. Her planet is home to two societies of people, one empathetic with mental powers, living a more rural life, and the others more urban, lacking mental gifts.  The new leader of the second group fears and loathes Caeli's people, and wants to do away with the protective cloak established over the planet that has kept them a peaceful, unknown backwater. So he launches an assault on that levels their homes. Caeli and the other survivors (mostly women and children) are marched to the city, a hellish journey on which Caeli is raped by one of the guards (in the second book, she projects that experience directly into his own mind, make him feel as if it happened to him...). In the city, she makes contact with the resistance, and when she finds hereself in danger, she must flee. And now she has healed Derek, they fall in love.

But Caeli's homeworld is not currently a place where happiness is possible, and Derek has his own commitments as an operative for an interplanetary alliance that strives to keep the galaxay safe from oppression. So the two of them rejoin Derek's mothership, and fly off to his homeworld, with a brief stop for interplanetary adventure. In the second book, Infinity, things really get going back on Caeli's homeworld. It can't be part of the interplanetary alliance with an evil dictator ruling it, so Caeli and Derek lead a somewhat off-the-record mission to strengthen and revitalize the resistance. In what was a very realistic result, they don't offer a miracle cure, and it is only when the reistence is a battered, almost destroyed fragement of itself that success seems possible.  Alongside the current desperate struggle is back story from an earlier conflict, that illuminates the origin of the mental powers of Caeli's people.

The books didn't seem to me to offer that much truly original or exciting, but they are perfectly fine reading fare for those who enjoy high-body-count tension on alien words (my own preference is for the good guys to start saving the day before the high body count part), with a generous helping of racey sex! Caeli seemed to much of a wonder girl for me to really take to her, and Derek was not a deeply three dimensional character (although he got points, in my book, for remembering in a sensitive way (I mean this sincerely) Caeli's dead former lover and fiancĂ©.   In any event, the books were fine, it was a solid story, and I read through to the end with interest, and maybe you will love them more than my own lukewarmness.

My idea of the perfect reader--a fifteen year old girl whose just starting to read sci fi.

7/16/17

This week's roundup of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (7/16/17)

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

The Reviews

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor, at Great Imaginations

A Babysitters Guide to Monster Hunting, by Joe Ballarini, at Say What?

Bean Stalker and other Hilarious Scary Tales, by Kiersten White, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, at Book Murmuration

Gabby Duran books, by Elisa Allen and Daryle Conners, at Ms.Yingling Reads

The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, at Fantasy Literature

Hamster Princes: Giant Trouble, by Ursula Vernon, at Jean Little Library

Jorie and the Gold Key by A.H. Richardson, at Log Cabin Library

Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban, at Charlotte's Library

Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder, at Fuse #8

Skybreaker, by Kenneth Oppel, at Puss Reboots

Stolen Magic, by Gail Carson Levine, at Leaf's Reviews

The Thirteenth Princess, by Suzanne Zahler, at Tales from the Raven

Time Jump Coins, by Susan May Olson, at Children's Books Heal

The  Truest Heart (Fairy Tale Matchmaker #3), by E.D. Baker, at Pages Unbound

Two at the New York Times--The Song from Somewhere Else, by A.F. Harrold, and Apprentice Witch, by James Nicol

Other Good Stuff

Registration is now open for Kidlicton 2017 in Hershey, PA the first weekend in November!  If you are interesting in presenting, please contact me--charlotteslibrary at gmail.com  (I'm the program organizer).  I have a few nascent panels that could use more folks (authors, bloggers, librarians, teachers, etc.)--one discussing gender (the boys book/girl book issue), one discussing historical fiction, a STEM book panel, and a panel on reader age (what's the difference between middle grade/YA and YA/adult?).  Other ideas welcome too!

Writers of color--Lee and Low Books New Visions and New Voices awards are accepting submissions

If you like Narnia, here are suggestions for other books at Semicolon

At Once Upon a Blog, a look at the new animated movie from Japan, Mary and the Witch's flower, which is based on one of my most favorite childhood books, The Little Broomstick, by Mary Stewart.

and you've probably already seen the trailer for the new Wrinkle in Time trailer, but if not, you can here.


7/12/17

Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban

Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban (Chicken House/Scholastic, July 25 2017) falls beautifully into that early middle grade slot of books for kids who are strong readers, but still young and developing their reading stamina.   Which is to say, it is shortish (185 pages) and generously fonted and margined (which is to say, comfortable to read).  Content-wise it is good for the younger end of middle grade (8-9 year olds) as well--there is danger and jeopardy for the two kids who are the main characters, but there is a wise old adult who steps in to help them, and they are helped as well by a bevy of imaginary animal companions.

Sienna's art historian mother, Kate, vanished on a research trip to China, and Sienna's dad tries to tell her to accept the fact that her mom is dead.  She doesn't.  When her father has to move the two of them to Shanghai, she thinks maybe they'll have a chance to look for Kate a bit more....But it doesn't seem likely that she'll get the chance. Stuck inside their apartment, with a truly unpleasant woman named Ling as language instructor and minder, Sienna's only company is her imaginary dog, Rufus.  Though he's invisible to everyone else, he is real as all get out to Sienna, and talks to her. 

Sienna soon finds that Ling is up to no good, and when she confronts her, Sienna realizes that she might have put herself in real danger.  She runs out the building, pursued by Ling, and is saved by Feng, a boy her own age, who pulls her to safety.  Feng is missing a person of his own too-- his brother Gege--and his brother had been working with Sienna's mother when they disappeared.  So the two of them set off to follow the few scanty clues they have to the far away temple where Kate and Gege were last seen...

With the help of a wise old man who has an imaginary friend of his own, and who has kept the ability to see the companion animals of others, Sienna and Feng unravel the mystery that is hidden below the temple...and this being a good book for kids, they find their loved ones (subverting what seemed at first to be yet another instance of the dead mother in middle grade fiction!).  The actual mystery is not itself fantastical in any supernatural sense, and so the only fantasy element is the invisible animals, making this one that might well appeal not just to fans of the magical but to kids who would rather read about heists and outwitting criminals than full-on magic.  (In short form--if your 8 or 9 year old kid doesn't like fantasy but has to read one for school, this would be a good pick.  But if yours does like fantasy, especially imaginary magical animal friend fantasy, it is an even better pick!).

Sienna's view of China is that of an outsider, which makes the story an introduction to China, but not a cultural immersion, and which allows the author to convincingly set her story there without falling into obvious pitfalls of cultural appropriation or cultural error (I was on the look out, though from a place of ignorance myself, and didn't see anything that bothered me, except the relatively minor feeling, perhaps particular to me, that the  long fingernails of Ling, the villainess, which are mentioned a lot, seem like a stereotype...).   The alliance between Feng and Sienna is believable and appealing, and the banter of the invisible friend animals (Feng's is a dragon, that he had lost the ability to communicate with) adds a nice touch of humor to the emotionally tense plot.

So yes, as I said above, a good one for 8-9 year olds who will be tickled by the idea of the imaginary friends, interested in the journey through China, and sympathetic to Sienna's feelings and tribulations!

(Moon Princess was originally published in German in 2011, and was that year's winner of a major children's book award in Germany.  The translator, Helen Jennings, did an excellent job of crafting the English version--I would never have guessed it hadn't been originally in English).

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

7/9/17

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (7/9/2017)

Welcome to another week of middle grade sci fi and fantasy!  Please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, at Leaf's Reviews

Eden's Wish (Eden of the Lamp) by M. Tara Crowl, at Sharon the Librarian

The Fallen Star, by Tracey Hecht, at Imaginary Reads

Frogkisser, by Garth Nix, at Sonderbooks

The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts, at The Write Path

Hamstersaurus Rex vs Squirrel Kong, by Tom O'Donnell, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Impyrium by Henry H. Neff, at Nerdy Book Club

Joplin, Wishing, by Diane Stanley, at Charlotte's Library

Katana at Super Hero High (DC Super Hero Girls Adventure Collection #4), at Ms. Yingling Reads  and The Reading Nook Reviews

Keeper of the Lost Cities, by Shannon Messenger, at Pages Unbound
/
The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones, at alibrarymama
/
Seraphina and the Splintered Heart, by Robert Beatty, at Nerdophiles and Barnes and Noble Kids Blog

Shadow Cipher (York book 1), by Laura Ruby, at books4yourkids.com

The Song of Glory and Ghost, by N.D. Wilson, at Say What?

Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, at Say What?

The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Villain Keeper (The Last Dragon Charmer trilogy) by Laurie McKay, at Boys Rule Boys Read!


Authors and Interviews

A.F. Harrold (The Song from Somewhere Else) at Nerdy Book Club

Jaleigh Johnson (The Quest to the Uncharted Lands) at Nerdy Book Club

Brian Farrey (The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse) at PCS Reads (podcast)

Sarah Carroll, (The Girl in Between) at Barnes and Noble Kids Blog

Other Good Stuff

At Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books, a look at some MG books coming out in the UK

Is there a particular conversation you'd like to have with like-minded folks about children's books and book reviewing?  Make it happen by presenting at Kidlitcon!  November 3rd and 4th in Hershey, PA, lots of book folks of all stripes to make friends with!  The call for session proposals is now live (I'm the program organizer, so contact me with any questions!).  Registration information should go up next week.



7/8/17

Joplin, Wishing, by Diane Stanley

I sincerely enjoying reading kids books even though I'm an adult (otherwise I wouldn't).  But sometimes there are children's books that even though I like reading them now just fine, I really really want to be able to give to my young self, because I would have loved them back then.  Such a book is Joplin, Wishing, by Diane Stanley (Harper Collins, June 2017) which I would have adored back when I was eight or nine.  It would have hit the sweet spot of beautifully fantastical with hint of melancholy most excellently.

Elven-year-old Joplin's grandfather has died, and when the book begins, she and her mom are  returning to their home in New York, with boxes and boxes of his papers (he was a famous writer).  She's also bringing back a treasure she found--the broken pieces of a delftware platter that once showed a girl tending geese.  Thanks to a family friend, the pieces are reassembled, and the platter is hung on Joplin's wall.  She's going through a bad time at school; her once best friend has taken up with the It girls, and she's being tormented by classmates who've seen unflattering stories about her grandfather's eccentricities (distorted by the media). Looking at the sweet-faced painted girl on the platter, Joplin wishes that she could be her friend. 

Joplin's wish comes true, and the next day she finds Sophie in her building's garden.  Sophie was once a real girl in 17th century Holland, enchanted when she was eleven into the platter to serve its owner as a granter of wishes. For centuries, she's watched the world from her prison...except for one previous stint as a girl in the real world.  Now she is real again, and ready to be Joplin's friend (though she has no choice in the matter, because since Joplin now owns the platter, Sophie must grant all her wishes).  Sophie (with a bit of wishing help) is taken in by the upstairs neighbor, solving the practical problem of where she'll live, but a much bigger problem looms.

The alchemist who created the platter wants it back; he needs Sophie to grant him one last wish, and he is not a nice man at all.  And Sophie has a wish of her own--to go back to her own time and place. But only the alchemist can undo the magic.  Joplin and a new friend she made a school, a really cool and smart boy named Barrett (a bibliophilic friendship--they are thrown together by the school librarian, and then Joplin lends him her set of Sherlock Holmes), are determined to figure out how to help Sophie, and fortunately they have adults who are willing to accept the impossible circumstances and provide help. (I can't remember any other books where a helpful family friend who's a lawyer steps in to write a magical contract!)

Sophie's story is entwined with Joplin's mother's past, and not only does Sophie bring friendship to Joplin's life, she brings healing and closure to her mother (which also bring a nice emotional depth and poignancy to the story).  And Joplin is able to appreciate her brief time with Sophie as a precious gift, without trying to use the magic of her wishing power for selfish reasons.  It's all very satisfying, and fans of 17th century Dutch art will be particularly charmed by the ending.

Joplin's contemporary friendships are also sensitively explored.  She is a big enough person to allow for the possibility of mending fences with her old best friend, which is nice, but I particularly like her attitude to become friends with a boy.  To paraphrase, she says that eleven is too young to have a boyfriend, but that it's nice to have a boy as a friend  that she might want as a boyfriend later, which seems to me a beautifully appropriate attitude.

So it was a lovely, magical, positive story!  Like I said, 8 or 9 year old me would have loved it, but I was a tremendously precocious reader, so kids a bit older might like it too!  5th grade, I think, is the sweet spot.

For what it's worth, Kirkus and I are in agreement on this one; here's their starred review.

7/6/17

The Reluctant Queen (Queens of Renthia Book 2), by Sarah Beth Durst

I loved Queen of Blood, the first of Sarah Beth Durst's books about the queens of Renthia, set in a world teeming with vicious, bloodthirsty nature spirits kept from unleashing destruction only by the queen's power.  That book ended with Daleina, an unlikely candidate, become queen of Renthia in a bloodbath, and the second book, The Reluctant Queen (Harper Voyage, July 2017), picks up right after that. And I liked if almost as much as the first book (which was very nice for me!).

And it starts with an awful surprise (which I reveal, since it is right at the beginning, and since any plot summary is dependent on it).  Daleina might not have been the most "powerful" queen ever, but she was all set to be a good one, except that suddenly she has started having blackouts.  These turn out to be the onset of a fatal illness, the False Death, for which there is no cure.  Daleina is going to die, without an heir, freeing the spirits to wreck murderous havoc, and even while she is still alive, when she's in the throes of a false death, the spirits are free to kill with great enthusiasm.  Daleina needs an heir fast, someone who can provide back-up spirit control right away, and take over after the few months she might have left before false death becomes real.

But possible heirs are thin on the ground, most of them having been killed in the first book.

Ven, the Queen's Champion, sets off into obscure parts of the realm, looking for a woman whose power to command spirits might never have been recognized and formally trained.  And he finds one, Naelin, a mother of two children who has absolutely no desire to have anything to do with spirits (except keeping her children safe from them).  What follows next is the story of Naelin's reluctant journey to power, Daleina's struggle to keep her kingdom safe, a side-story of a psychopath's alchemical endeavours to find a cure for Daleina, and several betrayals, an enemy invasion, and lots of horrible deaths (spirits aren't tidy killers). There is also a pleasing romance.

It is good that Naelin turns out to be an interesting and sympathetic point of view character.  Daleina is also a point of view character, and since I am very fond of Daleina and  she is dying it would have been hard to enjoy reading the book unless we had Naelin there to shoulder the narrative. 

The first book is a story for the young escapist side of me--girl at a sort of boarding school learns to master her powers.  This second book is one for actual aged me--woman no longer young fights to protect her children by honing her innate powers, while dealing with her failed marriage and figuring out what the rest of her life might entail.  It is true that protecting children is an incredibly strong motivator, and sometimes one must protect the whole realm in order to keep the children safe, and it makes sense that this would drive a heroine of a fantasy story; it's somewhat reaffirming to see a book about this!  Because clearly I myself am not a chosen child of destiny, unless my own mother has kept the rhyming prophecy secret from me, so finding untapped powers in middle age is really my current best shot at fantasy heroine-ness.

There was, perhaps, a tad of rushed-ness at the end, but it's also possible that I was feeling rushed to get to the end to find out what happened, because it was all very tense!  But in any event, I can recommend these books to anyone who likes other world fantasy with strong female characters, and doesn't mind a bit of unpleasant chewing (by evil nature spirits).

disclaimer: review copy received with utmost pleasure from the author.

7/2/17

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (7/2/17)

Here's this week's gathering of the middle grade sci fi/fantasy posts I found in my blog reading this week; let me know if I missed yours!

The Reviews

A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, by Joe Ballarini, at Always in the Middle

Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! by Matthew McElligott and Larry Tuxbury, at Jean Little Library

The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate  Chase, by Wendy Mass, at Puss Reboots

The Children of the King, by Sonya Hartnett, at Puss Reboots

Death Bringer (Skulduggery Pleasant 6), by Derek Landy, at Say What?

The Door Before, by N.D. Wilson, at Pages Unbound

The Door in the Alley (Explorers book 1) by Adrienne Kress, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, at Reading Violet and Charlotte's Library

Emily and the Spellstone, by Michael Rubens, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

Felix Yz,  by Lisa Bunker, at Completely Full Bookshelf

Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi, at On Starships and Dragonwings (audiobook)

Gregor and the Code of Claw, by Suzanne Collins, at Fyrefly's Book Blog

Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton, at Redeemed Reader

Katana at Super Hero High, by Lisa Yee, at Word Spelunking 

Lord of Monsters, by John Claude Bemis, at A Backwards Story

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, Gail Carson Levine, at Redeemed Reader

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson at Rachel Neumeier (audiobook review)

The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, by Christopher Edge, at The Reading Nook

Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder, at happily ever elephants  and For Those About to Mock

The Path of Names, by Ari B. Goelman, at Pages Unbound

Prisoner of Ice and Snow, by Ruth Lauren, at Kitty Cat at the Library

Seeker (Noble Warriors Trilogy book 1), by William Nicholson, at Say What?

The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn, at Mom Read It

Unidentified Suburban Object, by Mike Jung, at Finding Wonderland

Wizards at War, by Diane Duane, at Fantasy Faction

Other Good Stuff

Kelly Barnhill's Newbery Award accptence speech at The Horn Book

7/1/17

Hunted, by Meagan Spooner

I don't have all that much to say about Hunted, by Meagan Spooner, other than that if you were someone who read and reread Beauty, by Robin McKinley back until you almost knew it by heart, and if you desperately wished you hadn't ever read it so that you could have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again, try Hunted. 

That being said, it's not a copy, but it's own retelling. Hunted sets Beauty and the Beast in the woods of late medieval (?) Russia, and Beauty here is a smart, skilled huntress (though she also likes books lots); she's a self-reliant person full of wanting for more than a safe life, married inside walls. It's somewhat grittier than the McKinley version, and less pure wish fulfillment, with more discomfort and pain involved, both emotional and physical.  And in Hunted we also get glimpses from the Beast's own point of view, which makes for interesting reading!  Plus there's a whole magical world just beyond, or inside, or alongside, the snowy woods.

All this was very good, but what made it a personal joy to read is that it also works into the story one of my own most favorite fairy tales--the one where the firebird is stealing the golden apples, and the youngest brother kills the fox when the fox asks him to.  It gives a whole rich additional layer to the story that I enjoyed lots!

So yes, I recommend it! 

6/28/17

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis

I feel a little late to the party on this one; everyone I know seems to have already read and loved The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury, middle grade, May 2017).  It was a book that I put off acquiring because I knew I'd enjoy it, which is a twisted sort of logic that makes sense only to those who have tbr piles of disastrous proportions.  But ignoring the importunings of the piled books, I bravely sought out Dragon, and did indeed like it lots!

A restless young dragon girl, Aventurine, leaves the safety of her home to actually Do something; she thinks she's pretty much invincible with her brave dragon fierceness.  Turns out she isn't, and instead of being easy prey, a puny human transforms her into a human herself with a magicked up of hot chocolate.  Aventurine is appalled by the transformation, but desperate for more chocolate, she makes her way to the nearest town to find it.

It is not an easy thing to be a dragon transformed into a human, and Aventurine has much to learn.  Fortunately, she soon makes friends with another human girl, who teaches her many valuable lessons (like 'money'), and equally fortunately, she finds a place working at a chocolate house, one of three such chocolate emporiums in the town, though the least economically successful.  The woman who runs it is more interested in the quality of her chocolate than making money, and Aventurine proves to be equally dedicated to the art.  So far, utterly delightful!

The chocolate house is in danger of economic failure, though.  And then the whole town is set on edge when Aventurine's family comes looking for her.  Though these twin difficulties worked well to more the plot along, and give it exciting emphasis, they kept the book from being pure comfort reading; I found it all very tense (I am sensitive).

But happily all ends very well indeed, and subsequent rereadings will doubtless find me less agitated! Aventurine is a delightful heroine, both because of her own strong personality and because of her very interesting conflict between the human world and her draconic nature (which gives rise to many touches of humor).  I found her convincing as both dragon and girl, but most appealing as an apprentice chocolate maker, just because I personally like books in which people learn crafts....The chocolate is also of course delightful, being chocolate.  So I am happy to add my voice to the legions of recommenders!

6/27/17

Time Sphere, by Murray C. Morison

I was recently offered the second of Murray C. Morison's Timepathway books, and having said yes please, I went out to buy the first one.  Happily, I enjoyed it and can recommend it with no qualms whatsoever. Time Sphere (Lodestone Books, 2014) is a an especially good one for kids on the younger end of YA--it looks old enough to be clearly not a book for "kids", but the plot and age of the main characters (young teenagers) make it friendly for those still not interested in romance or independence.

Rhory's adventures begin with a trip to the British museum.  There he meets Shoshan, a teenaged priestess from ancient Egypt, who has sent herself forward in time as best as her abilities allowed to make contact with him.  They forge a link through the pathways of time, and use their connection to work toward balance and order.  The followers of the God Set back 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and the sinister secret society that's their modern counterpart, seek to disrupt their efforts and unleash chaos.  And so Rhory finds himself with his life in danger.

In the meantime, there's still school, and its concomitant bullies to be dealt with (in this case the bullies are trying to coerce Rhory into being a mule for their drug ring; a seemingly minor episode that ends up having repercussions).  Alongside the mystery of the time-slippage there are ordinary things, like friendships, and very sadly, a tragedy.  It is satisfying reading, with tension and humor and good characters nicely mixed.  Neither the fantasy nor the realistic overwhelms the other.  Instead, they work beautifully together, rooted in a very nice sense of place--the small town in England where Rhory lives is as solidly written as just about any fictional town I can currently think of.  As the story unfolds, the town becomes part of the metaphysical fantasy, as the mystical place of England and the power of their connections becomes important to the story.

The book begins by interspersing bits from Rhory's and Shoshan's points of view, but by the end it's almost all Rhory, and the feeling of unbalance this gave me is really my only substantive criticism.  Shoshan is pretty much left in a backwater for a long part of the book.  Another point of view character is a young Greek boy with a passion for story telling who also makes a connection to Rhory's time and who also has a role to play in the final confrontation, which takes all three of them to Shoshan's time to confront the forces of Set. It's a dramatic and fierce confrontation, though not one with great quantities of gore (which is just fine with me).  And then Rhory is back in his own time, returning to a very satisfying ending in which the bullies and the secret society bad guys get their comeuppance.

Though there is actual time travel back to ancient Egypt, the mystical experience of connections across time is more important to the story than the excursion part of the time travel.  The fantastical elements are rooted in mysticism, and  the reader has to accept and go with the flow.  It works, though.  I really do recommend it to 13-year-olds who are growing tired of magical swords, who want a more thoughtful, real-world rooted, fantasy adventure.  I don't recommend to all adults unilaterally, because I have a feeling that not all adults can suspend disbelief as well as I can (when so moved), but I do also recommend it to people who enjoy the same sort of books I do.

So now I can look forward to book 2--Time Knot, which comes out on June 30, 2017, with a properly anticipatory heart!

6/26/17

The Winged Girl of Knossos, by Erick Berry

Thanks to Betsy at Fuse #8 who has been mentioning it as a favorite for years* The Winged Girl of Knossos was for many years a title I looked for in used bookstores....I never found it, and since it was long out of print, I wondered if I'd ever get the chance to read it.  Now it is back in print (Paul Dry Books July 2, 2017), and I have read it, and I have found it good.

Inas is the daughter of the great Cretan inventor Daedalus.  She fills her life with daring adventure, free diving down to harvest sponges for fun, taking part in the bull dances, which involve doing dangerous gymnastics with a live bull.  And she is the test piolet for her father's most recent project--gliders.  Gliding practice has to be done in secret, because it smacks of sorcery to ordinary creatures, but Inas relishes her chances to soar like a bird (before crashing....).

When a young Greek, Theseus, arrives at the court of King Minos as tribute for the bull dancing, she becomes involved in the most serious adventure of her life.  Princess Ariadne enlists her in a plan to help Theseus escape...and that sets in motion a chain of events that ends in Inas and her father having to flee Crete to save their own lives (and yes, the gliders come into the story, taking the place of the wax wings Daedalus built for Icarus in the original story).

Inas is a young heroine to cheer for, with her indefatigable energy and her plucky determination.  She's not the most introspective or thoughtful heroine going, though, and I enjoyed, but didn't much emotionally connect with, her adventures.  The action is brisk, the Cretan setting fascinating, and it is fascinating as well to see a familiar myth told from a brand new perspective.  It's a great story for middle grade readers who love myth-infused adventures (though the gods themselves aren't players in the story).  Don't expect any fantasy elements; there is nothing here that couldn't be real.  But if you are looking for an adventurous vacation in ancient Crete, this is the book for you!

Erick Berry was a pseudonym of Allena Champlin Best; she was an illustrator as well as a writer, and her original illustrations, based on the actual art of the Minoans, adds lots to the atmosphere in my opinion, which being that of an archaeologist, tends towards appreciation of illustrations based on the originals....

*I poked around to see if I could find the earliest recommendation from Betsy I could.  The earliest link, from this post at A Chair a Fireplace and a Teacozy back in 2007 when there was a weekly (?) round-up of overlooked books in the Kidlitosphere no longer works, but I found this quote from 2008 preserved at the much loved and deeply mourned blog Collecting Children's Books:

“This is only a mystery in the sense that I can't figure out why it isn't available or in print. The Newbery Honor winner The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry is perhaps one of the best American children's books out there. Try finding it sometime, though. Rare doesn't even begin to describe it. If you do get a chance to read it, it's pip. I believe it won the honor in 1929. Fingers crossed that it gets its due someday.”

The Collecting Children's Books post adds to Betsy's endorsement, and is interesting reading in its own right!  Peter, the blogger whose site it was, mentions that were "overtly offensive racial references" in the original, but I did not come across any that registered in my read, so they seem to have been removed.

Final answer: I don't really think this is one of the best American children's books there is, but it's a good, quick read, and the right kids (interested in archaeological mysteries, liking stories of physical pursuits of an adventurous kind, liking brave girls to cheer for)  will love it.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

6/25/17

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (62517)

Here's what I found this week.  Please let me know if I missed your post, which is more possible than usual; I've been a little fussed the past few days getting ready to send my oldest off to Colorado for three weeks cumulating in a piece of wisdom I will gladly share--do not put a book down on top of your kid's cell phone the night before he has to leave because it is a really good hiding place especially if there are books everywhere and because of course his phone will not be turned on so you can't find it by calling it.

The Reviews

D-Bot Squat, by Mac Park (series review) at The Bookshelf Gargoyle

The Door in the Alley, by Adrienne Kress, at The O.W.L.

Dragon's Green, by Scarlett Thomas, at Puss Reboots

The Fallen Star, by Tracey Hecht, at This Kid Reviews Books

Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Finding Wonderland

Last Day on Mars, by Kevin Emerson, at Guys Lit Wire

The Legend of Sam Miracle, by N.D. Wilson, at Say What?

Lord of Monsters, by John Claude Bemis, at Tales from the Raven

Rules for Thieves, by Alexandra Ott, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Shadow Cipher (York book 1) by Laura Ruby, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Spell Thief by Tom Percival, at Cover2CoverBlog

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at The Book Monsters

The Supernormal Sleuthing Service, by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, at Finding Wonderland

Time Jump Coins, by Susan May Olson, at Kitty Cat at the Library

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--Joplin, Wishing, by Diane Stanley, and Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

A gathering of Revolutionary War time travel at B. and N. Kids Blog

Authors and Interviews

John David Anderson (as part of the cover revel for Granted) at The Hiding Spot

Michael Rubens (Emily and the Spellstone), at Word Spelunking

6/23/17

Dark Breaks the Dawn, by Sara B. Larson

If you are fan of YA fantasy in which a teenage girl struggles to become the strong queen her country desperately needs, you have lots of books to chose from these days.  I feel I've almost read enough for now, but I didn't mind Dark Breaks the Dawn, by Sara B. Larson (Scholastic, May 2017), and if you are a fan of this particular sub-genre, you may well enjoy it lots.

Evelayn did not expect to become queen of the Light Kingdom of Eadrolan, just after she'd come of age to claim her personal magical heritage.  But when her mother was killed, fighting against the dark,cold magic armies of the Dorjhalon, queen Eelayn became.  And though she was able to claim the light magic of her people that only the queen can command, strongest during summer's warmth, she has no time to master her gifts, including shapeshifting into her one particular affinity animal (nb for reassurance not "spirit animal," which isn't a term used) before she must be the one to keep her country safe from its would-be conquerors.

Force of arms, and force of light magic against dark were not enough for her mother, so Evelayn devises a cunning ploy that will deliver the heir of the king of Dorjhalon into her hands, and, she hopes, give her the chance to end the war and restore balance. She's guided, comforted, and distracted by a handsome young lord, who takes equal pleasure in long runs through the woods.  But mostly she's grieving, and uncertain, and unsure that she will ever be the queen her country needs.

So basically it's girl learning to be a queen with magical powers with bonus love story (not a love triangle, at least not yet), under really difficult circumstances.  Though the initial steps go as she hoped, things go crashing down horribly wrong at the end, setting the stage for the next book in the series.

There wasn't anything here that made this one rise above the crowd for me personally, and I was a tad thrown off by the author's choice to use "males" and "females" instead of men and women--it made it hard for me to think of the characters as entirely human, which was perhaps the point.  But it was a gripping enough read to keep me going, especially toward the end when we move from Evelayn's emotions to actual full-on-page conflict with the bad guys (although I wish we could all just stop with equating dark/bad light/good....).

One of the more interesting things about the book, for those of us who like retellings, is that it is a prequel to the Swam Lake story (princess who ends up enchanted swan).  The set up for the actual Swan Lake story is strong enough for me to want to read book two, hoping that the stage is set, the story will have a chance to be stronger.  Likewise, some of the plot points that look to be set up could well make for an interesting read.  But this first volume on its own just doesn't offer much that's particularly fresh or new, and Evelayn isn't quite a compelling enough character as presented here to compensate for the lack.  So I only recommend it to people who just can't get enough of the young queen and her tender young romance, or to Swan Lake fans who can join me in wanting to read book 2....But if you are not cynical and jaded like me, perhaps your reaction will be more enthusiastic than my somewhat tepid response!

Here's a more enthusiastic review at blackplume. And Kirkus calls it "an appealing if imperfect girl-power fantasy that ably sets the stage for its sequel" although the Kirkus review and I don't seem to have read exactly the same book because really although it seems possible/likely that a third party will enter the romance next book, the romance here and now is not a triangle!  And Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying ""Larson is especially effective in her portrait of Evelayn's need to summon maturity before she thought she would have to, a sweetly innocent romance underscores the bite of betrayal, and the cliffhanger ending will easily build anticipation for the second book."

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

6/19/17

The Hush, by Skye Melki-Wegner

The Hush, by Skye Melki-Wegner (Sky Pony Press, YA, June 2017), is a fascinating story set in a world much like our own in many ways, except that here, Music is power.  The Song can change reality, and make things magical.  But only the Songshapers, the licensed practitioners of Music, are allowed to tap into the power of the Song.  This poses a problem for a teenager named Chester, on the road looking for his missing father and earning a bit here and there by playing his fiddle.  To his dismay, Chester starts inadvertently reaching into the Song when he plays, and the punishment for this is death.

When Chester is captured, an unexpected group of rescuers save him.  They are the members of the infamous Nightfall Gang, who have been operating a Robin Hood-like enterprise to take from the rich and give to the poor.  But Susannah, their leader, and her colleagues have an even bigger heist in mind, and for that they will need Chester and his untrained ability to connect to the song.

Travelling through the Hush, an alternate reality shaped in dangerous ways by wild music, full of deadly echoes, Chester learns that the mission of the Nightfall Gang and his own search for his father are connected.  But can he control his music, and can Susannah lead them through the most dangerous mission she has ever attempted?

One detail at a time, the world slowly unfolds in a riveting adventure.  Gradually Chester gets to know his new companions, and learns why they too are determined to strike a blow against the power of the Songshapers.  All have been damaged in some way; foppish Travis searches for his sister, Dot searches for the girl she loved, Sam and Susannah seek for revenge against the Songshapers who wrecked their lives.  Chester must learn not only to use his music for the planned attack, but to trust this ragtag group of people with his life.

It's a deeply engrossing story, with tension building up beautifully in the days leading up to the grand heist.  My only complaint is that the encounter with a villain at the end was not as carefully executed as the buildup; an issue of a particular Song that all are supposed to sing every night, with withdrawal symptoms setting in if they don't, doesn't seem to apply, and the villain basically delivers the whole explanation of the entire set-up of the world and its magic in one big chunk at the end, which was rather abrupt.  Up until that point, I was thinking this was a five star book, but it dropped to four.

Still, it was vivid and memorable as all get out, and anyone whose intrigued by magical music with touches of steampunk should definitely seek it out!

If you want a second opinion, here's the starred Kirkus review.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

6/18/17

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (6/18/17)

Welcome to this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs.  Please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Dark Days (Skulduggery Pleasant 4), by Derek Landy, at Say What?

The Door in the Alley, by Adrienne Kress, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Dragon's Green, by Scarlett Thomas, at Cracking the Cover

The Faceless Ones (Skuldugger Pleasant 3) by Derek Landy, at Say What?

Felix Yz, by Lisa Bunker, at Always in the Middle

The Gateway Quartet: The Four-Fingered Man, the Warriors of Brin-Hask, the Midnight Mercenary, and the Ancient Starship, by Cerberus Jones, at alibrarymama

The Girl with the Ghost Machine, Lauren DeStefano, at B. and N. Kids Blog

Greenglass House, and Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Hamster Princess: Giant Trouble, by Ursula Vernon, at Charlotte's Library

The House of Months and Years, by Emma Trevayne, at Semicolon

If The Magic Fits (100 Dresses), by Susan Maupin Schmid, at Charlotte's Library

Lord of Monsters, by John Claude Bemis, at B. and N. Kids Blog

Mortal Coil (Skulduggery Pleasant 5) by Derek Landy, at Say What?

Paint by Magic, by Katherine Reiss, at Charlotte's Library

The Princess and the Page, by Christina Farley, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Quest to the Uncharted Lands (World of Solace #3), by Jaleigh Johnson, at Word Spelunking and books4yourkids.com

Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder, at twentybyjenny

Rebellion of Thieves by Kekla Magoon, at A Reader of Fictions 

The Secret of Goldenrod, by Jane O'Reilly, at Nerdy Book Club

Shadow Cipher (York 1), by Laura Ruby, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

The Song from Somewhere Else, by A. F. Harrold, at Waking Brain Cells

Sputnik's Guide to Life On Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at Librarian's Quest

Authors and Interviews

Gwenda Bond (The Supernormal Sleuthing Service) at YAYOMG!

Lauren DeStefano (The Girl With the Ghost Machine) at Nerdy Book Club

Other Good Stuff

The Riverbank Review of Books which was active between 1998 and 2003is now available online for  your reading pleasure (via Monica at Educating Alice)

And from the Department of Things to Want, this half-octopus half-teapot (read more at Bored Panda)

6/17/17

If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses), by Susan Maupin Schmid

Squeezing in a review...I've been writing quite a bit for B. and N. Kids Blog, and it shows in the paucity of posts here.  But I have a nice one to share this evening--If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses), by Susan Maupin Schmid (Random House Oct. 2016).  It is a very good book to offer the 8-10 year old who enjoys wish-fulfillment type fantasy set in castles, who likes gentler stories as opposed to blood and gore.

Darling has been part of the staff of the castle since she was born.  Adopted by a kindly Under-Slicer Jane (this is the sort of castle where everyone on the staff has a very clearly defined position), Darling assumes that she'll rise in the ranks to a solid position of her own.  When she's ten, she gets her first position, as a pot scrubber, slaving in the under-cellar under the stern eye of the Supreme Scrubstress.  But luck is with her, and she gets promoted up to the rank of Under-Presser, ironing Princess Mariposa's linens.

Darling is the sort of girl who dreams of magic and adventure (her year of pot scrubbing was mostly spent telling stories to her fellow comrade in suds), and so immediately starts imagining the Princess befriending her.  Mariposa is preoccupied by the pressure being put on her to marry, and though she and Darling do cross paths, it's not through the princess that Darling finds herself caught in a web of magic.  Near to the room where she irons, there's another room, used to store 100 old dresses.  The dresses are magical, and want to be worn, so that they can help save the castle from those who would destroy it by waking the enchanted dragons who built it.  Mariposa can't resist the lure of the dresses, and finds that they transform her into other people when she wears them.  They are the perfect disguises for her to wear as she tries to figure out just what is happening!

And there is plenty going on.  An evil prince seems about to win Mariposa's hand and claim the kingdom, there's the plot to wake the dragons, and there's other treachery within the castle.  Gradually more and more magic, and more danger, is woven into the story, and Darling must be as clever as she can be to figure everything out and save the day.  Fortunately, as the reader expects, she has good friends to help her.  Including not just other castle kids, but some very helpful enchanted mice....and the dresses themselves, who seem almost like characters in their own right.

The 100 magical dresses are a very appealing premise, and the story is pleasantly entertaining.  It moves along at a quick pace, with a nice build up of complexity, and has a charming fairy tale feel to it.  Offer this one to elementary school readers who have been enjoying all the magical creature books that everywhere these days, to expand their reading horizons into castles and (introductory level) intrigue and mystery!


6/14/17

Hamster Princess: Giant Trouble, by Ursula Vernon

I am a huge fan of Harriet the Hamster Princess, whose fairytale mashup adventures take her and her riding quail, Mumphrey,  into all sorts of magical dangers.  In Giant Trouble, her fourth outing (Dial, May 2017),  Harriet meets the story of Jack and the Beanstalk when a mysterious cloaked chipmunk tries to sell her magic beans.

Harriet knows enough not to trust the chipmunk and his beans, but Mumphry pecks one up.  That night, when the bean comes out the other end of Mumphry, it sprouts into a gigantic beanstalk.  Her first reaction is concern; a beanstalk several miles tale could cause considerable damage to her family's kingdom if it fell.  Cutting it down isn't an option, and when she hears harp music wafting down from it, she decides to go up it to see who's there.

She and Mumfry find a giant's cabin in the clouds at the top, and inside the cabin is a captive harpster--a girl who is part hamster, part harp.  Appalled at the injustice of the harpster's captivity, force to play lullabies when really she wants to start a rock band, Harriet starts thinking of how to rescue her.  But then the giant comes home, and proves to be a formidable advisory, too much for Harriet to handle on her own.

Fortunately her friend Wilber has come up the beanstalk to find her, and fortunately, Strings the Harpster and even her co-captive goose can take part in their own rescue.  But what was just a simple rescue attempt becomes a dangerous and touch and go escape attempt, involving a desperate race across the clouds.

It's as exciting and charming as all of Harriet's adventures, but rather more tense. Harriet really can't pull this one off on her own, and it's good to see her working as part of a team.

If I were working in a bookstore, I'd be trying to handsell this series to every 8-10 year old girl who walked through the door.  Harriet is just about the most kickass female role model going for kids this each, and with the acknowledgement that even the most kickass hamster can't do everything alone, her story becomes even stronger.  Plus she's going to play drums in String's band.

6/13/17

Paint by Magic, by Katherine Reiss for Timeslip Tuesday

Time travel mixed with art is a satisfying combo, and Paint by Magic, by Katherine Reiss (2002) delivers on both elements to make a diverting, though ultimately a bit unsatisfying, read.

Connor's parents both work full time plus, and so he and his sister don't see much of them at all, but at least they have the multiple tvs in their house, and their computers, to keep them company.  Then one day Connor comes home to find that his mother is actually there waiting for him, and is cooking dinner.  More bizarrely still, she's gotten rid of all the electronics in the house, and insists that Connor's dad reads out loud to him that evening.  She is not herself at all, sometimes seeming to lapse into trance like states where her body is frozen, but her face shows fear. 

And indeed she is not herself, because she has just escaped from the 1920s, though some strange magic is still asserting itself within her.  Connor looks for clues, and when he finds a sketch of his mother, it draws him back into the same family she spent a year living with.  His visit to the 1920s doesn't overlap with hers, and the family (grandparents, grown son who is an artist, widowed daughter in law and her four kids), and  takes him in. 

Like his mother, he is appropriated as a model by the artist who lives a reclusive life up in the top of the house.  The reader has been given a few flashbacks to a Renaissance artist who was a nasty piece of work, and so is primed to draw the connection between that artist's sadist manipulation of his own model, and the 1920s artists manipulation of first Connor's mother, than Connor.  This evil magical painting mystery is a satisfying one, and its resolution makes for interesting reading.

And in the meantime, Connor, like his mother before him, finds the simple, wholesome life of the past much more pleasing than he would have thought.  The days are full of fun and business (puzzles, games, homemade lemonade and household tasks), and when Connor does return to his own time, he replaces his Star Wars bed with a more traditional wooden one.  This part is really a bit much.  Yes, family game night and home-cooked meals are nice, but the black and white contrast between Modern Life and Happy Past  is exaggerated so much here it becomes just annoying.  Especially since it is possible for both parents to work and still be present in their children's lives. I'm not sure what kids would make of this message, but as a parent I was put off.

Despite this, I did not mind reading the book at all, and indeed found the art aspect, with its truly creepy mystery, enjoyable.

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