1/28/15

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven (Knopf Books for Young Readers, January 2015), isn't the sort of book I usually post about, or even read--it's not speculative fiction, it's not middle grade....instead, it's a poignant YA book about sadness and mental illness. 

Two teenagers, Finch and Violet, meet on top of their school's bell tower.  Both were thinking of suicide, Finch because that sort of thinking is part of his way of being in the world, a way of convincing himself he is still alive, and Violet out of sadness because of her sister's death.  Finch gets Violet down safely, but Violet gets credit for saving Finch....

And their lives entwine.  Together they explore the wild and wacky corners of Indiana, and learn each other, falling in love.  But Finch, though he does the best he can, is drowning in the swirling extremes of his own mind, and oh goodness, as I read, I was more and more anxious to be reassured that he would be saved for real, by himself or by Violet, but.

So it is dark, and sad.   But yet the experiences Violet and Finch share, and their relationship, are beautiful, and memorable, and heart-warming.   It's one of the more memorable and heart-touching stories of mental illness I've read...possible because Finch seems so help-able, so worth helping, and Violet is so much more than side-kick supporter.

Things this book made me want to do:

1.  Make sure I am a better, more aware mother than Finch's is (this is not hard).
2.  Never let my kids drive on icy roads (this is probably inevitable, so maybe never let them drive on bridges in winter, which is more feasible)
3.  Go on a road trip to Indiana (seriously, this book should have a map included)
4.  Read Virginia Wolff's The Waves, from which Finch and Violet quote (with the help of some quick google searching, which made it much more believable).

Here's the Kirkus review (starred).

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

1/27/15

The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit (1906), was the first time travel book I ever read, back when I was eight.  That is my copy of the 1975 edition at right, and I must say it has held up rather well considering all the many, many re-readings it suffered (though I am not a spine-breaker, and never have been).  It is also possibly the first time travel book published in English for children, although Puck of Pook's Hill, by Kipling, was also published that year, and I'm not sure if there anything earlier from North America. It was also the first of Nesbit's fantasy books I read, even though it is the third of a series about the magical adventures of Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane (and their baby brother, the Lamb), and it was always my favorite, perhaps because of it being first.

The four children had previously (in Five Children and It) met the Psammead, a sand-fairy who granted wishes.  The wishes went horribly wrong, and the Psammead refused to grant them any more.  But when the children unexpectly find him trapped in a pet store they rescue him, and though he won't do magic for them himself he does help them find a magical artifact--half of an amulet.  If the other piece can be found, the children's hearts desire will be granted.   Their mother  and the Lamb, abroad for their health, and their father, an overseas reporter in Manturia, will come back safely.

The half amulet can't do much alone, but what it can do is wonderful.  It can make a gateway into any time in the past when the two halves were together.   And so, aided and abetted (to a certain limited extent, due to grumpiness) by the Psammead, the four children set off into the past on their mission.

Time travelling visits ensue to prehistoric North Africa, Atlantis, Babylon, ancient Egypt, a ship of Tyre sailing to the Tin Islands, just pre-Roman Britian (with added visit to Julius Ceasar), the future, and the very very distant past.  Nesbit does a great job conveying historical accurate vividness (with one exception, noted below)  So much so that it is quite possible that this book influenced my decision to be an archaeologist (made when I was nine and my mother suggested it).  Unlike the historical fiction I'd also read, which has no place for modern children to be part of the past, this might have been the first book that gave me the idea that you could visit the past  and hold the things people made and used and tell their stories.

A girl never forgets her first Fall of Atlantis, and the waves crashing over the doomed city....and I've never forgotten Imogene, an unwanted waif from the book's present travelling back to early Britain and finding a mother who needs her and loves her fiercely.  And I will always love Jimmy, the learned gentleman who lives upstairs from the children, and who not only provides scholarly commentary but who also ends up providing sensible adult guidance.

I did not like it at all when the Queen of Babylon arrived in London and caused mayhem (her time travel came about through a wish that the Psammead had been forced to grant after a visit to the amulet back in her own day).  There was too much chaos, confusion, and difficult as her royal expectations clashed with those of the back streets of London, and her ideas of who owned the Babylonian jewelry in the British Museum were problematic.  I was also put off by the preachy boy from the very dubious utopian future, and continued to be so as a grown-up.

But despite the little prig from the future, when I re-read the book this past month, for the first time in about eight years, I was pleased to find I enjoyed it as much as ever.    I love Nesbit's dryly understated narrative humor (I find sentences like "It was plain that Cyril was not pleased" in a situation where he's very upset indeed to be very, very tasty).  And  she understands that young readers can appreciate recognizing themselves and be amused without everything being spelled out.

As a grown-up, I also appreciated the fact that the children, left to the care of their old nurse, do not remain obliviously to the hard work she's doing to keep them comfortable.   They don't suddenly become young socialists, or even aware of their privilege in a broad sense, but they at least don't take it all for granted.  However, as a grown-up I was profoundly discomfited by a visit to prehistoric North Africa where fair-skinned villages are attacked by darker, less civilized people.   Sigh.

Despite that, this is still a favorite book...so much so that I am having an awfully hard time reading Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, which continues the story of this family and the Psammead.    It isn't Nesbit, and I am having trouble judging it on its own merits.

1/26/15

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith (Viking Juvenile, YA, Nov. 2014)--is the most beautifully character-focused adventure set in a damaged Earth I've read in years.   And as the snow begins to fall in earnest, it's nice to be revisiting somewhere warm--southern California, many years into the future...still hot and dry, but now a place damaged by solar storms that destroyed all things technological.

In wastelands full of strange mutated plants and animals, prospectors scavenge for treasures.  But there still places where people have built communities that work...and one such is the small town of  Las Anclas.   There a diverse group of people keep themselves safe from the threats of the outside world...but though ethnic diversity is taken for granted, there is still tension.  Some of the people have Changed, and some have not.  Some of the Changed can do impossible things with their minds and bodies, some have bodies that are not quite human.   And some of those who are Normal are repulsed and hostile to these changes.  And on top of that tension, there's the fact that many of these people have gone through trauma--horrible things have happened, and there's a good chance that there is more to come.

Into the world of Las Anclas comes Ross Juarez, a badly wounded young prospector who has never known what "community" means.  He brings with him a treasure--a book that holds information that could make Las Anclas safe, or destroy it.  For he is being pursued...

Much of the story is told from Ross's point of view, but many other characters are front and center as well--young people, trying like all teenagers to make sense of their world and their place within it.   For Ross, the whole idea of having a place is itself alien, but slowly he learns that trust, and even love, are possible.  And as an added bonus, there were plenty of older people with interesting stories of their own too.

I loved it. The world building is diverting as heck, what with all the strange things (deadly crystal trees, teleporting squirrels, monstrous pit mouths, and more), the community of Las Anclas and its beautifully characterized residents is a joy, and the depth of caring I started feeling for them made me hold the book more and more grimly as the tensions mounted and the town, and all it stood for, were threatened. 

 I said on twitter that it was "so good I had to keep taking breaks," and since I usually praise a book by saying I "read it in a single sitting" I thought I'd explain.   I was so right there with Ross and Jennie and Yuki and Mia (lovely, geeky Mia!) that my introverted self periodically became overwhelmed by my mental interaction with them, and I had to recharge.  So the breaks weren't because I wasn't enjoying, but because I needed to step away, and let things sink into my mind.

If your curiosity is piqued, do visit the authors' Big Idea post at Whatever, in which they tell how they built their world and peopled it with kickass grandmas, and gay kids and straight ones and wondering ones, where, to quote their post, "an African-American girl who joins the town’s elite military Rangers wonders if she’s their token… telekinetic" and where books are precious things, and education goes on in spite of everything....

There are two interesting things about the publication of this book.   One is that an agent from a major literary agency asked that a gay character be made straight, or else that his viewpoint be removed.  The authors did not do so, and you can read more about that here.  The other interesting thing is that the subsequent books in the series will be self-published; you can read more about the reasons for that decision here.

Note on age of reader--I told my kids about the agent wanted to eliminate the gay character, and this made my 11 year old, the voracious reader, want badly to read it in a show of support (and he liked the cover and the premise).   After reading it myself, I can say it's not one I would have thought to have given him--there is a lot about romantic relationships--thinking about them, finding them, building them, ending them--and he's not (I think) thinking along those lines himself.  Yet.  But it's not a bad thing to be introduced to what's going to happen to you in the future by people you can trust and empathize with (the characters in the book), and though there is violence, and horrible things happen, it's certainly no worse than The Hunger Games.   So I will leave it around the living room for him to try if he feels so inclined...and if he doesn't, I will more aggressively foist it on him a year or so.....

So in short, if you are a fan of challenging futures, this is one for you, if you want to add diversity to your reading, check it out, but even more so, if you are a fan of brilliant characterization, read it now!  (Of course, if you are a fan of non-stop action that leaves little time for reflection, and don't care what's going on inside people's minds, you might like it less well).

And finally, thank you, Rachel, for sending me a copy to review! 

1/25/15

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (1/25/15)

Here's another week's worth of reviews and miscellany of interest to us fans of middle grade sci fi and fantasy; please let me know if I missed your post!  Thanks.

The Reviews

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar, at Sonderbooks

Alistair Grim's Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, at Mundie Kids

Beastkeeper, by Cat Hellisen, at Xpresso Reads

The Bell Between Worlds, by Ian Johnstone, at Bart's Bookshelf

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

The Cat at the Wall, by Deborah Ellis, at Sonderbooks

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, at Read Till Dawn

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Leaf's Reviews

The Door That Led to Where, by Sally Gardner, at Reviews from a Bookworm

The Dream Snatcher, by Abi Elphinstone, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books and Luna's Little Library

Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, at The Book Wars

The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Neilsen, at Bibliobrit

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Redeemed Reader

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway, by Steve Watkins, at The Children's War

Griffin's Castle, by Jenny Nemmo, at Jean Little Library

Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra, by Jason Fry, at Boys Rule Boys Read and Sonderbooks

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis, at Skye's Scribblings

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, at Read Till Dawn

Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton, at Charlotte's Library

Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr, at Cover2CoverBlog

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at Sonderbooks

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

Moon Rising (Wings of Fire Book 6), by Tui T. Sutherland, at Charlotte's Library

Nuts to You, by Lynne Rae Perkins, at Sonderbooks

Operation Bunny, by Sally Gardner, at Becky's Book Reviews

Pathfinder, by Angie Sage, at alibrarymama

A Plague of Unicorns, by Jane Yolen, at Read Till Dawn

The Royal Ranger, by John Flanagan, at Sonderbooks

Searching for Super, by Marion Jensen, at The Hiding Spot

"Shouldn't You Be in School?" by Lemony Snicket, at alibrarymama

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Sonderbooks

The Story Thieves, by James Riley, at Librarian of Snark

The Thickety, by J.A. White, at Pages Unbound

Tombquest: Book of the Dead, by Michael Northrup, at This Kid Reviews Books

Unlocking the Spell, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews


Authors and Interviews

Dianne K. Salerni at Literary Rambles


Other Good Stuff:

Stephanie at Views From the Tesseract talks about a short story that inspired both her and Jason Fry (of Jupiter Pirates fame)

And  not exactly good stuff, because it is sad, but for those wishing to support Egmont authors with purchases--here are their 2015 books

1/24/15

Wings of Fire: Moon Rising, by Tui T. Sutherland- my favorite of the series (because dragons at boarding school is awesome)

I am on a strict mission not to bring new books (bought or borrowed) into the home until I have read down my tbr pile.  But at the same time, being a good mother is important to me.  Therefore, it was with entirely unselfish motives that I bought Wings of Fire: Moon Rising, by Tui T. Sutherland (Scholastic, Dec. 1, 2014) for my eleven year old son (he was very pleased, and sat down and read it in a single sitting), and it would have made the house messy (making me a bad mother) to have left the book lying around until I'd finished my tbr pile, so of course I had to read it myself.  The fact that I truly enjoyed the first five books in the series about young dragons from different dragon factions bring peace to a war-land was immaterial (or not).

Anyway, I really enjoyed Moon Rising.   Tui T. Sutherland had not anticipated the series continuing on  when she started the whole thing, and the first five books tell a complete story ending with Peace.  But of course Peace is something that has to be worked at, and there were lots of loose ends of different dragon stories, and so the story goes on! (Yay!)

This book is perhaps my favorite of the series.  The dragons of the first books have founded a school that will be an institute for cross-cultural dragon understanding and learning, and they've gathered together young dragons (many of whom are deeply scarred by their experiences in the war, and most of whom distrust/fear/loath each other) to be the first students.   One of these students is Moonwatcher, a young Nightwing who has the Nightwing powers of telepathy and prophecy that were thought to be lost.  

Moon is overwhelmed by the mental clamor of all the dragons around her....but then her mind hears what sounds like a dangerous plot that could threaten the school...and then, on top of that, her mind makes contact with another Nightwing (a truly mysterious strange powerful is-he-good-or-bad dragon and it is all very interesting indeed) and she and her cohort of dragons (one from each tribe) are plunged into a dangerous mystery.

The Wings of Fire series is an excellent one to give upper elementary school readers--some tolerance for harsh and vivid violence is required, but alongside the horrors of war and its aftermath, strong messages of friendship, tolerance, and forgiveness are presented in a way that will appeal tremendously to young readers.

But what I really truly liked in this installment is the new kid at boarding school story that's a large part of the book--all the details of the different dragons, and their worries and concerns, and the classes and classrooms and teachers....I love good school stories.  And I love Moon and her friends. 

1/22/15

#buyanegmontbook -- a look back at some of their good books that I reviewed

Saddened by the shuttering of Egmont's US publishing house, and inspired by Leila over at Bookshelves of Doom (because who isn't), I'm joining in the show of support of Egmont authors by looking back at some of the Egmont books I've reviewed over the years.

Anyone looking to travel to Italy and savor delicious food while fighting demons and enjoying a nice bit of romance should quickly read The Demon Catchers of Milan, and its sequel, The Halcyon Bird, by Kat Beyer.   Lovely books, and now I am very anxious about the fate of the next one in the series....(and truly, these books have the tastiest food of any fantasy books I can think of....)

Saving Thanehaven, by Catherine Jinx, is tons of fun for the fantasy game-loving middle grade reader.  It's an adventure set (literally) within a world of overlapping computer games, and it lots and lots of kid appeal.

I myself really enjoyed The Wizard of Dark Street, by Shawn Thomas Odyssey--it's a middle grade fantasy mystery staring a plucky girl with a wild talent for magic....and I am reminded that I have been wanting to read the sequel, The Magician's Tower, for several years now (is exasperated at self).

I am further exasperated at myself after re-reading my review of Human.4, by Mike Lancaster, in which I am so careful not to spoil anything that I don't do any sort of decent job explaining what the book is about.   The one thing I enjoyed in my review was the little aside about my then 8 year old:  "Although I have hopes that things might change by the time I post this review, as of now I am vexed and thwarted; my eight year old finds the cover of this book scary, and keeps hiding it so he won't have to see it. Therefore, it is no longer by the computer where I left it."  I never did try it on my then 11 year old...and now I am wanting to read again myself, and might well try it on my now 11 year old! Unless, of course, he still finds the cover scary.

Frozen in Time, by Ali Sparks, is a really solid middle grade time travel via cybernetic sleep story; I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun rainy day read.

Then there's the Jaguar Stones series, by J. and P. Voekel, the fourth (and happily the final) book of which (The Lost City) is just about to come out.  If you are 12 or 13 and want Mayan fantasy, these are the books for you.  Here's my review of the first, Middleworld, in which I said "the plot is light-hearted, but with scary bits. It was taken to very wild extremes, yet the fantastical, for the most part, avoided the twin traps of jungle-treasure-adventure-stereotype and farce."

And finally I want to mention Brightly Woven, by Alexandra Bracken--an engaging coming of age/romance/fantasy quest story, combining political and magical intrigue with more personal suspense, and a pleasant dash of humor.  She's the same Alexandra Bracken who went on to write the Darkest Minds series, which I didn't read because I was cross about not getting more Textile Fantasy but which I do hope to read someday......

1/20/15

Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton, for Timeslip Tuesday

This week's time travel book is an oldie-- Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton (1974, also published in paperback in 2006; that's the cover shown below right).  It's the story of three kids who are left to stay in Massachusetts with grandparents they've never met when their dad goes missing in Vietnam and their mother has to go to work full time.    Holly, the oldest of the three, is filled with doubt.  The grandparents make a living from the town dump, piecing together and mending and salvaging what is discarded, and she's old enough to find this horrifying, but not so old as to appreciate it; the twins, Judy and Crockett, are young enough to be fascinated....And Holly is also worried about being black kids in a white school.   She keeps herself to herself, and tries to keep Judy safe/isolated too.  And of course all three miss their mom something fierce.

The old dump is located at the edge of what was once a grand estate, now home to ruins and an overgrown maze.   One night Judy dreams of it...and the next day she leads her siblings through it's twists and turns to the home of a wise-woman, named Tamar--who had lived there back in the 17th century.  Tamar, wise in the shaping of thoughts into power (as well as being adept at herbal cures) is able to see into their hearts, and what she sees in Holly does not make her happy....

And indeed, Holly seems to be overtaken by angry, hurtful thoughts.  She's the next to lead the kids through the maze, but she takes them to a different woman--Tamar's sister, Hagar.   Who's not a nice sort of witch wise woman at all.  Holly's choices almost bring disaster to the family....and also to Tamar, when she's suspected of having used her powers in a dark witchy way and a mob of Puritans comes for her.   But all works out well.  Especially happily, for those of us who like gardening, the maze proves to be the key that will save the land by the dump from being sold, and the grandparents from being evicted.

Past and present are nicely twisted, although there isn't a whole heck of a lot of nuance to Tamar and Hagar, and there's not a jot of explanation about their powers (which are indeed real and magical).  These things have to be taken on faith.

Don't be reading this one for a tremendously accurate account of the Puritans, because it isn't.   Do be reading it for the herb-lore, and the descriptive pleasures of finding of old things amongst the junk.  And it is rare and pleasing to see a family of African-American kids at the center of an old and lovely/scary magical adventure.   I would have loved it as a child, and didn't mind at all reading it as a grown-up even though I wanted to shake Holly quite often, which is tiring when you want to be reading for comfort.

And I could have done without the grandmother's dialecitcal English of "laws"-es and apostrophies (jus', etc.).   Long, long paragraphs of this, that I worry would be off-putting to the young reader of today.  And I wish we'd had a chance to see Holly opening to the possibility of friendships at school.   Oh well.  Apart from the grandmother's truly jarring turns of phrase, I thought Norton did a reasonable job with issues of race, making it neither too much or too little of the story.

One thing (a pedantic sort of thing) that I think Norton messed up on is Hagar's name.   I was online today, reading up on Tamar and Hagar, both very interesting Old Testament women.   Hagar was enslaved, raped, cast out with her son into the wilderness...but seen and saved by God, and centuries later her story resonated deeply with many African-American women (you can read more here; scroll down).  Once you know this, it's a bit of a jarring note to have Hagar be the villainous one in a story starring African-American kids.

(And nothing to do with this book, but this bit of research led me on to a lovely book from 1888 called Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature, which is free online here and very diverting and worth sharing).


1/19/15

Altered Perceptions, edited by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Robison Wells

Altered Perceptions, edited by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Robison Wells (2014) is an anthology that is three things within a single cover.   To start with, this project came in to being as a fundraiser to support Robison Wells during a crippling struggle with debt caused by his mental illness.   That part of the story, in which people pledged money in return for a copy of the book, ended last May after raising over $120,000.   

Secondly, this is a book in which a stellar collection of YA Speculative Fiction share their own experiences with mental illness-- and it is eye-opening how many of them have struggled with various permutations of this.   As such, it's tremendously successful at raising awareness and destigmatizing mental illness-- young fans of these authors who are struggling themselves will find they are not alone, that help is possible, that life can still be lived well (and that you can still be a famous author despite it all).

Thirdly, it's an unusual anthology in that it's not a collection of short stand-alone pieces.  Although there are a few of these, it is primarily a gathering of unpublished writings, deleted scenes, and paths that didn't end up being taken from the worlds of these authors' books.   To appreciate these writings, it really helps to be familiar with what's been published.   If you are a Brandon Sanderson fan, for instance, you will be thrilled with a whole long section of a book that wasn't what The Way of Kings ended up being.   If, like me, you enjoyed Jessica Day George's Princess of Glass, you'll enjoy seeing Poppy again in a scene that didn't make it to the final verson.  And so on. If you scroll down here at Goodreads, you can see what the book holds.   This is the sort of thing that will certainly be delicious mind-candy for the current fan, but not necessarily appealing in its entirety to those who haven't read these authors.

Amazon is selling it as a Kindle edition (and B. and N. has it for Nook) and I think it would be a good e-reading choice, as it's not a book you need to curl up with and read all in one cozy sitting.   It's more like a sushi platter or a candy box, with morsels (both autobiographical and fictional) to savor or not according to taste.    I can't seem to find the hardcover for sale commercially anywhere, which is an awful pity, because I really really really think this is a book that is a must for any young spec fic fan who is worried about mental illness/is suffering from it themselves, one that should be on the shelves of public library and high school libraries.  They'll take it out for the authors, and stay to become more aware of mental illness.....

1/18/15

This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy (1/18/15)

Here's what I found this week; let me know if I didn't find your post!

The Reviews

13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass, at Read Till Dawn

Against the Tide (Spirit Animals Book 5), by Tui T. Sutherland, at ReadPlus

Alistair Grim's Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, at The Overstuffed Bookcase

Back To Blackbrick, by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, at Readaraptor

Beastkeeper, by Cat Hellisen, at Bibliophilia, Please

The Blood of Olympus, by Rick Riordan, at The Book Monsters

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

The Dreamsnatcher, by Abi Elphinsone, at The Book Zone (For Boys)

Finally, by Wendy Mass, at Librarian of Snark

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway, by Steve Watkins, at Charlotte's Library

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Hidden In Pages

Icefall, by Matthew J. Kirby, at Bibliobrit

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew J. Kirby, at Bibliobrit

Mouseheart, by Lisa Fiedler, at Kid Lit Geek

No Passengers Beyond This Point, by Gennifer Choldenko, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at Time Travel Times Two

Smek for President! by Adam Rex, at Wandering Librarians

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at alibrarymama

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn, at Kid Lit Geek

Thursdays With the Crown, by Jessica Day George, at alibrarymama

Urban Outlaws: Blackout, by Peter Jay Black, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale, at The Paige Turner

A look at A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, and Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, at Chasing Ray

Authors and Interviews

Dianne K. Salernie (The Inquisitor's Mark) at My Brain on Books

Abi Elphinsone (The Dream Snatcher)  at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books


Other Good Stuff

The language of spellwork in Harry Potter, at Tor, and four new images from the first fully illustrated Harry Potter, also at Tor

The Paddington movie reviewed at SLJ

Of the 16 books taking part in SLJ's Battle of the Books, only one (Children of the King, by Sonya Harnett) is MG SFF.  Oh well....

1/17/15

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Theoretically I am only supposed to be reading books from my TBR pile until I have read 100 of them....but in practice I just had to read The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, January 2015) just as soon as ever I could because how could I not want to read the story of a hideously neglected and abused girl with a clubfoot whose life is saved when WW II happens and she is evacuated to the countryside of Kent and learns to ride a pony and gets new clothes for the first time and finds out what it is like to be loved?????

Ada has spent her life confined to a one room 3rd floor apartment, spending her days looking after her younger brother Jamie...or, as he gets older and goes off without her outside, simply staring out the window, or disappearing into the void of her mind.  She has a clubfoot, and her mother has made it clear--horribly, abusively clear-- that she is so deformed and worthless that she can never go outside herself.   Any sign of spirit in Ada is answered with violence, or worse still, she is shut up in a cabinet.

Then WW II happens, and Jamie is going to be evacuated with the other school children.  And Ada seizes the chance to escape herself,  making her painful way with Jamie to the train station.  Fate smiles on Ada and Jamie--they are dumped on Susan, a woman who doesn't want them, a woman who is grieving over the death of her partner Becky*, a woman who doesn't think she has anything to give two rather wretched children, one of whom, Ada, who has never before even seen grass....

Happily it turns out that Susan is exactly what the two children need, and they are what she needs as well, and Ada slowly gains self-confidence and begins to cast off the years of being told she is hateful and worthless.  Susan reads to them (Swiss Family Robinson to start with), she feeds them and bathes them and braids Ada's hair, and eventually Ada thaws enough so that Susan can teach her to read and write, and to love and be loved.

But in the meantime the war is growing closer....and Kent, where Susan lives, no longer seems safe....

And also in the meantime Ada shows preternatural ability at horseback riding, which both delighted the part of me that still thinks like a ten year old girl and strained the credulity of the somewhat larger part of me that doesn't.  The spy bit also was a bit of stretch....And even more so, I constantly was questioning whether Ada, the bright first-person narrator, was at all believable as a person who had suffered as much abuse as she had, and I am not convinced she was.   I feel that Goodnight, Mr. Tom, by Michelle Magorian, which is a very similar story (abused evacuee finds loving home) is a stronger book, perhaps because it is not told in the first person, allowing greater suspension of disbelief.

Still, my doubts paled in comparison to the pleasure of the minutia of Ada's life with Susan, and The War That Saved My Life was a single-sitting book that I enjoyed very much. 

* It's not explicitly stated that Susan and Becky were in a relationship, but there are plenty of clues that the reader who's aware of the possibility will pick up on pretty easily.   I very much appreciated the bits of backstory to Susan's life as an Oxford educated woman disowned by her disapproving father because of her relationship with Becky, and I also appreciated how Susan's grief over Becky would resurface periodically in small but very poignant, very believable ways.  This book is not just the story of Ada healing but of Susan healing as well, and this was a very nice contrast to the relentless focus on  child protagonists in so much (though by no means all) middle grade fiction.  I think it's nice for kids to think about how grownups feel too!

1/14/15

Owl Diaries: Eva's Treetop Festival, by Rebecca Elliott-- a cute early chapter book

Some days the undemanding and the cute is all that one can cope with, and so I was rather pleased to find Owl Diaries: Eva's Treetop Festival, written and illustrated by Rebecca Elliott (Scholastic, Jan. 2015, from their Branches series of early chapter books) on my shelf of review copies.  This diary-format, cheerful book was just right for today's reading level.

Eva is a young owl of the busy, crafty sort, full of bright ideas and at times a bit bossy.  I warmed to her right from the beginning of her self-introduction, because in her list of favorite things there is a word (pumpkin) and in her list of un-favorite things there was another word (plop) and I always like to meet fellow lexophiles.

Eva decides to make life more interesting by organizing a "flap-tastic" spring festival, and she has tons of great ideas about what it should include.  But Eva thinks she can do it all herself, and it's not until it's almost the day of the festival that she realizes that including others in the work is a good idea!  All goes well, for everyone but Eva, who then gets to learn the equally valuable lesson that yesterday's embarrassments can be left to yesterday.

The brightly drawn young owls with their big big eyes bounce all over the pages, in way that I think will feel very friendly and familiar to young consumers of graphic content--it's very easy to imagine the owls animated in an interactive computer game!

The pinkness of this first book in the series points it toward girls (and the promotional description explicitly says it's for girls)....and Eva isn't exactly smashing gender stereotypes with her main interests (bead crafts and fashion) but I've known several small boys who love those stuffed animals with the really (horrifyingly) huge eyes, and it might well appeal to them too.  Especially since the second book in the series, Eva Sees a Ghost (coming in May), goes more toward the blue end of things....And I know for a fact that even an eleven year old boy might, on being shown the picture of Baxter, Eva's pet bat, say something along lines of "oh iss [sic] so cute...."

So a perfectly nice easy and appealing book for young readers; I'd say the perfect reader would be the older 1st grader/younger 2nd grader.  Though I don't think I myself will be seeking out the subsequent volumes, I'm happy to recommend it for those who like their anthropomorphized animals to come with a cuteness so great it might set a cynical grown-up's teeth on edge if they weren't in just the right mood for it......(except that I don't think I will ever be able not to flinch just at tad at "flap-tastic" and the like....)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

1/12/15

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway, by Steve Watkins

Ghosts of War: The Secret of Midway, by Steve Watkins (Scholastic, December 2014, middle grade) is ghost story with bonus exciting history lesson, so much so that instead of leaving the book at my mother's as planned I am going to take it back home and try to get my picky 14 year old history buff to read it.

Anderson is cleaning out a  basement room full of junk below his uncle's antique shop to make a practice place for his new band--himself, his best friend Steve, and (with mixed feelings on Anderson's part), a not-quite friend named Julie.   There in an old trunk he finds a peacoat from WW II--and when the coat is brought out, the ghost of its owner appears.   William Foxwell, a young sailor who died in the war, needs help remembering what happened to him, and so the three kids begin to unravel just who he was, and how he died.  An old letter in the pocket is the first clue...

And in the meantime, the three of them deal with grief from objectionable elements at school, the bond between them is strengthened, and Anderson tries not to talk to much to the ghost when other people are around....

Always eager to become more educated through pleasure reading, I truly appreciated the history contained in this story--I'd only had a vague impression of the Battle of Midway before, but now I know so much more about it's importance, and the sadness of it.  William's story didn't have a happy ending (he's a ghost, after all), and it's fascinating to find out just what happened to him.   The balance of historical detection and real world issues (the bully at school, Steve's borderline abusive dad, Anderson's mom having MS, Julie becoming less prickly) is well done.    I also appreciated the fact that solving the mystery meant asking men and women who were actually alive back then what had happened, and listening to their stories--it's nice to see the experiences of older generations appreciated.  And a final thing I appreciated was that the tone of the book was not anti-Japan--for instance, Julie's dad is Japanese, and through her family back there they are able to hear from a Japanese officer expressing regret for the last bit of William's sad story.

So in any event, like I said, I'll be offering it to my distressingly difficult reader--it's fairly short (191 pages) and it's a fast read, and I think he'll enjoy the combination of ghost, mystery, and history.  

note--although Julie is half-Japanese, she's not quite enough of a main character for me to put this one on my multicultural spec. fic. list.  Maybe in subsequent books in the series (which I look forward to reading) she will be less a side-kick and more central....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


1/11/15

Reading the TBR pile--The Museum House Ghosts, by Judith Spearing, and progress update

So I have spent the last few days at my mother's house, helping her over a bad attack of gout, and as a result I broke my TBR vow of no new library books or purchases in order to read Beating Gout: a Sufferer's Guide to Living Pain Free, which was not as helpful as one might like (how big a serving of sprats is one being warned against? does anyone actually eat sprats anyway?).   And I picked up a free book while I was getting the gout book from the library, which resulted in some intellectual gymnastics--"shelves of free books are really pretty much shelves of tbr books that just haven't been moved into one's own home????" or possibly "if I read this one while at my mother's and lend it to a friend down here it doesn't count for reasons."   It's sloppy thinking like this that got me into the tbr hole I'm in today....But I had to take this one (Summer of the Zeppelin) because it seemed a very Charlotte-ish book--English girl in WW I finds abandoned house and wants to live in it (it was pretty good).   Apart from that little slip, things are going reasonably well-- 16 books from the TBR pile have been read in 2015.  

One of these was The Museum House Ghosts, by Judith Spearing (1969), and if you are in the mood for the sort of high jinx that occur when a family of ghosts decide to try to pass as living people you might do worse.  It is the sequel to Ghosts Who Went to School (shown at right; I couldn't find a picture of Museum House Ghosts on-line)  in  which two ghost boys decide to make friends among the living.   I brought this one home from my own library's discard pile several years ago because I liked the premise--the ghost family (parents and the two boys)  are going to be the caretakers of their own home that's being turned into a history museum.  

 I myself could have used rather more "how do you make a house into a museum" and less "ghosts go shopping" and "ghosts play ball", but the family were pleasantly amusing, and the little episodes of interaction with the living were just fine.  And I appreciated the humorous challenges faced by the ghosts with regard to modernity.   Interestingly, it's the only book I know of in which ghosts eat for good purpose--it takes energy for them to become substantial enough to look alive, and food is required......And it was nice that so many members of the community were open to having neighbors who were otherly living.

But still, more museum, less Fun, and I would have liked it more.

Progress summary:  This one was one I chose from the TBR challenge at Roof Beam Reader, so 11 more to go for that.   84 to go for the  TBR Double Dog Dare at James Read Books.



This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (1/11/15)

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

The Reviews:

The Abominables, by Eva Ibbotson, at Mister K Reads

Alistair Grim's Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, at Book Pleasures

Arrgh! by Stacey Campbell, at Log Cabin Library

The Battle for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, at The Hiding Place 

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Paranthetical 

Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty, at Charlotte's Library

The Chosen Prince, by Diane Stanley, at Charlotte's Library

The Courage of Cat Campbell, by Natasha Lowe, at NYX Book Reviews

Finally, by Wendy Mass, at Read Till Dawn

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Rcubed's Reads and Reviews

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung, at The Book Smugglers

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Sonderbooks and The Reading Year

The Inquisitor's Mark, by Dianne K. Salerni, at The Social Potato

The Legacy of Claw, by C.R. Grey, at The Hiding Place

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

Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, at Read Till Dawn

Mousenet, by Prudence Breitrose, at Mister K Reads

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Sonderbooks

Once Upon a Curse, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews

A Plague of Bogles, by Catherine Jinks, at BooksForKidsBlog

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at For Those About To Mock

Snow in Summer, by Jane Yolen, at Marvelous Tales

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at Sonderbooks

Winter Wolf, by Holly Webb, at Readaraptor

And some short looks at several MG Spec Fic books at Semicolon



Authors and Interviews

Dianne K. Salerni talks pacing at Project Mayhem


Other Good Stuff

Middle Grade Speculative Fiction--What's In,What's Out at Semicolon

A book list of thread and yarn magic at Views from the Tesseract

And also at Views from the Tesseract, a look at books coming out in 2015 that many of us will put on our tbr lists

Kate Saunders wins the Costco Children's Book Award for Five Children on the Western Front

Betsy Bird's post on Risky Business: Trying Something New in the 21st Century Children's Publishing Market includes discussion of Jason Fry's Jupiter Pirates series.

Dawn Lairamore talks about violence in MG at Project Mayem

Thanks for stopping by!



1/10/15

The Chosen Prince, by Diane Stanley

The Chosen Prince, by Diane Stanley (HarperCollins, January 27, 2015, middle grade) -- a nice one for the young romantic.

Alexos is a prince of a people who have offended Zeus, and who are cursed with a never ending war against the other kingdom with whom they share an island.  But the people have pinned their hopes on Alexos--the auguries read when he was a baby showed he might be the chosen one of Athene, the tool she will use to bring peace and plenty back to the island.

Alexos does his best to be a good prince, though he can never please his stern and distant father. But though he may (or may not) be Athene's chosen one, fate is unkind--when he is twelve, he is stricken with a polio-like illness that leaves one leg all but useless and the other weak.   Just as he begins to recover his strength, learning to walk again with brace and cane, he hears his father deciding to make his younger brother Teo the heir.  And then Alexos finds himself betraying Teo, committing an act for which he can never forgive himself.  All the years that follow he tries to do good for his people....but always there is pain, both of the body and of the mind.

Yet to Athene, Alexos is not broken at all.  He is but one of the pieces she is moving in her game against Zeus, a game that will take him and his companions to a magical island, where ghosts must be confronted and enemies faced....

You may read in other descriptions of the book that there is a girl involved, but she is not exactly "the heroine." Though her role is important, she herself is a minor character who enters the main story toward the end.  She is brave/smart/beautiful for her small number of pages and then gets to have (rather sweet) romantic attachments of the insta-love sort to Alexos.

You may also read that The Chosen Prince is a take on the Tempest--and yes, there is the magical island with the above-referenced girl and her father, and yes, a shipwreck brings strange men...but that's about it, so don't be expecting a Tempest retelling as such.

[End of plot summary part]

So. I read this in one day, and enjoyed the reading, but alas, I kept comparing it to The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, which is totally unfair, but there it is, and as a result I am somewhat tepid in my feelings.    I can imagine this book being loved, though (especially by people who aren't already fans of The Thief), and so my thoughts aren't entirely positive, I don't want to be utterly off-putting.
Therefore I will quickly start by sharing the positive thoughts of others:

"Alexos is a strong character, capable of accepting and adapting to change, even as he struggles with heartbreak and almost insurmountable odds. The language is lyrical and accessible, and the end is satisfying in the extreme." (School Library Journal (starred review))

“Stanley’s storytelling infuses each character and hardship with distinct purposes that coalesce and become clear to readers by book’s end for a tidy finale that leaves no unanswered questions.” (Publishers Weekly)

Percy Jackson fans will not be put off: Stanley uses short sentences, an immediate present tense, and basic vocabulary, and the plot races along. Alexos is a touchingly relatable character, and his relationships make the plot meaningful. (Horn Book Magazine)

Why it didn't quite work for me--

The Chosen Prince is very much a character driven novel, and the reader has to care about Alexos for it to work.   He's a very sympathetic character, certainly, and his situation is interesting---but he didn't quite sink his claws into me, as it were-- I never cared that passionately about him.   Possibly this is because he is so very worthy--no snark at all, bravely accepting his disability, determined to be good.   Possibly it is because the book is written in the third person present, which gave it a rather cinematic effect; I felt I was watching a movie (in large part because Diane Stanley is a masterful describer) as opposed to being inside his story.  (The third person present is not my favorite tense, and I'm not sure it was the best choice for this story).

I was also somewhat disappointed by the generic-ness of Stanley's ancient Mediterranean, which seemed more a generic past of standard palaces, mud, and peasants than a truly realized classical era in which the Olympian gods were worshiped.  The gods are real, but the reader doesn't get much sense that the characters truly think about them much.

Who I think it might work really for--

In my mind, the perfect reader for the book is any 10-12 year old who might want to crush on a sweet, sensitive boy who is all but broken by fate but is still trying (and succeeding) to be a good person.   I would not suggest it as a Percy Jackson read-alike (Greek gods do not a P.J. read-alike make).  I would not suggest it to anyone who likes their fantasy brisk and magic-filled; the plot here is a slow-burning fuse.   But that young, romantic reader who dreams of strange places and beautiful boys and the magic of the gods making everything all right in the end may well love it lots.



(My copy of The Chosen Prince came to me when I was a weekly winner in the sci fi/fantasy round-up at On Starships and Dragonwings that goes up every Friday--thank you, Anya!)

1/8/15

Superheroes Anonymous, by Lexie Dunne

After focusing so much on middle grade speculative fiction for the Cybils these past few months, it was nice to turn to a fun, fast adult book--Superheroes Anonymous, by Lexie Dunne (Harper Voyager Impulse, Nov. 2014) .

No-one calls Gail by name anymore, not even her boyfriend--instead, she's just known as "Girl," short for "Hostage Girl."  Over and over again, Gail is abducted by super-villains, and over and over again, her own personal superhero Blaze saves her.  He never speaks, just saves...and though Gail is tired of being a hostage ad naseum, she's at least got her role down pat.

Then her boyfriend (who everyone--media, co-workers, and, it seems, super villains) moves to Miami...and the kidnappings stop--if Blaze isn't going to be there to save her/be lured to villainous traps, there's no point.  But one villain doesn't get the message.  He kidnaps Gail, and in his lair of evil insanity he inadvertently bestows superpowers on her.

Now Gail isn't going to be the victim anymore....but when she's taken to the headquarters of the superheros, she becomes virtually a prisoner there.  Her body is now strange to her, and her days are spent having her new-found powers honed (with a focus on her fighting ability) with little discussion of what her future might hold.   But on the bright side- now she gets to meet the man who inhabits Blaze's costume, and romance blossoms.  On the less bright side, there's a whole Plot of Evil going on outside headquarters, and Gail's past has implicated her in how it's going to play out....

So yeah, fun and fast.  It's an entertaining set-up of superhero/villain high-jinx, and the pages turned quickly.  I couldn't help but be annoyed by how the Superhero folks treated Gail-sticking her in a windowless room, giving her standard issue workout uniforms to wear, and not explaining details like food or future or anything and not giving her books or electronic devices.   And I was annoyed at Gail, for not being more bothered--sure, she's used to being a passive victim, but she could question things just a tad more proactively.   On the other hand, I enjoyed her relationship with "Blaze" very much (he's rather attractive in personality as well as appearance), and on the strength of that, I can recommend this with conviction to fans of romantic spec. fic.  It's one I think YA spec fic readers, used to sharing adventure with romance, would enjoy in particular.

This is the first book in a series, and it literally ends with "to be continued..." just as the action/tension side of things has really been ratcheted up.  It almost reads as an extended prologue, which might be off-putting for some.  For me, used to this happening all the time in middle grade spec fic, it was not troubling at all....

(minor thing that's troubling me--what the heck happened to Vicki in the bit at the end?  I re-read it to see if I'd missed something, but didn't see anything about what was up with her.....odd).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

1/6/15

Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty, for Timeslip Tuesday

Children of Winter, by Berlie Doherty (middle grade, 1985, reissued in the UK in 2007; that's the cover shown at left), for Timeslip Tuesday-- the cold of winter and the horror of plague combined make for a gripping read.

On what should have been an easy hike in the Peak District, three children are separated from their parents.  They take shelter in an old barn.....and there the oldest, Catherine, finds herself living the life of another Catherine--a girl from the 17th century.  That Catherine, also with two younger siblings, was sent to the isolated barn when plague came to their village--their parents hoped that if the children could survive the winter alone, they would be safe from the sickness.

What follows is a tale of cold and hunger, and longing for home, as the three children eek out their food supply as best they can, all the while fearing the worst for those left behind in the village.   (That being said, for the historic children, I'm not sure if life in the barn was a dramatic reduction in their standard of their living!)  The pain felt by the children, and their mother, is vivid, and the descriptions bring all the details of the past vividly to life.  It's rather a nice survival story--and being a fan of that genre, I appreciated the small triumphs of mushrooms and fleeces and such that kept the children alive.

Modern Catherine is totally immersed in the past--there's no reflection here of any dissonance between past and present.  As a result, it reads more like historical fiction with little end pages of modern times, and not much like a timeslip at all, except right toward the beginning, when Catherine in the present feels the pull of Catherine in the past.  This separation is especially clear at the end, when the modern parents return to the barn and the family is reunited--suddenly the children are back in their own time, and there's no attempt to wrap up the loose ends of the past.  

Did historic Catherine's little brother, who was sick (possibly with plague) at the end of the book, live, for instance?  Did the boy back in the village who Catherine fancied live? I would have liked a coda in which modern Catherine finds something out about what happened to the children in the past.  The abrupt ending was an emotional let-down, especially coming at it did after moments of acute emotional pain when the children were forced to isolate themselves from the very real, horrible, suffering of others.   This is the dilemma that really raises the emotional tension of the story-if someone is suffering, and if to help them means you might die as well, do you put yourself in harm's way and break the promise made to your mother, who might already be dead?

Kids who enjoy learning through historical fiction, enlivened by a touch of the fantastic, will probably enjoy it lots.  It's based on the true story of the village of Eyam in Darbyshire, which cut itself off from the rest of the world when the plague came in 1666--here's more historical background at the author's website.   And those who like stories of kids surviving on their own in harsh circumstances will like it also.  Those who love time travel stories, though, might be disappointed--the story would have been  much the same if the modern children had been cut out altogether.

1/5/15

Elephantastic! by Michael Engler, illustrated by Joelle Tourlonias

I don't often review picture books these days....but a little while ago, one came unasked, unlooked for, unexpected, in the mail-- Elephantastic! by Michael Engler, illustrated by Joëlle Tourlonias (Peter Pauper, Jan. 2015).  And I enjoyed it (in as much as a klutsy person can enjoy reading an unbound galley--there were droppings and muddlings of pages) and I shall now try to review it, unpracticed though I am in the gentle art of the picture book critique.

The rich, warm tones of Tourlonias' illustrations invite the reader to go on a journey far from the confines of an urban apartment deep into an imagined Africa....or something.

Basically, an imaginative boy opens a large box that wasn't meant for him and inside is an stuffed elephant who is alive.  Boy and elephant play games of African exploration and adventure...but then, Sadness!  The elephant must go to its intended recipient, the girl in the apartment upstairs....tears are shed.

Happily, the girl and the elephant come back down to play with the boy, and all is well.

The elephant and the kids were drawn all friendly-like, with a pleasingly skritchy line quality.  The story was a good one of imaginative fun.    The pedant in me questions the idea that Mount Kilimanjaro is "so high only elephants could climb it" but since elephants can't talk either, I let it pass; just don't go to this one expecting to learn Valuable Information about Africa/elephants.  Do expect romanticized stereotypes offered uncritically--lions roaring on the savannah, a rain dance, a dense dark jungle...

I now go to check what the pros (in this case, Kirkus) had to say.

My eyebrows shoot upward at their leading line-- "Inattention results in a potential domestic tragedy in this German import."   This is more sturm und drang-ish than I think is warranted.  I do, however, agree that the type is rather small (reading it aloud in dim bedrooms with inadequate light might be tricky) and more happily, I can agree that it is "a sweet celebration of the imagination" (although with reservations viz portrayal of Africa...).

1/4/15

My TBR pile and me

Which of these is the reason why I have so many unread books in my house?

a.  Once I was a girl who didn't have enough books to read.  I read the encyclopedia for fun.  And deprivation in childhood leads to hoarding....(which is of course not to say that book deprivation is the worst thing that could have happened.  Sometimes, for instance, I was forced to play outside because of not having anything to read).

b.  A library nearby was relocating and they were selling their entire collection of YA and kids books for ten cents each or 15 for a dollar.  And on top of that, I run the library booksales at my own library and they keep deaccessioning books I want (mercifully, I think this is going to end soon).

c.  I feel that I should support local bookstores/authors I like/genres I support and so I buy books that I know I won't have time to read

d.  When I need cheering up at work, I use my break to place library holds, which means I get further behind at home.

e.  I get books to review

f.  I never read anymore, but people still keep giving me books and I wish they would stop. 

If you answered f, you are wrong.  I am looking forward to unwrapping my birthday presents later this evening, and they all look like books..........

But in any event, I'm trying to Face my Problems this year, and so I thought I should know how many unread books I should be feeling guilty about.   I stopped counting at 200, figuring that running away from the menacing silhouette of this particular Problem was almost as good as having faced it.

Resolutely clinging to the idea that being proactive is a Good Thing, I am seriously trying to read down the piles (5 tbr books read so far this year).  And in order to strengthen my resolve, I'm joining two challenges:

The Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader, and the TBR Double Dog Dare, hosted by James Reads Books.

The former requires a list of 12 books, and I went deep into the shelves to find books that have been languishing for years:

The Privilage of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner
Dragonfly, by Julia Golding
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Amber House, by Kelly More et al.
The Diary of Pelly D. by L.J. Adlington
The Doom Machine, by Mark Teague
Bansi O'Haa and the Edges of Hallowe'en, by John Dougherty
The Boy From Ilysies, by Pearl North
Radient Darkness, by Emily Whiteman
Saving the Planet and Stuff, by Gail Gauthier
The Return of Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac
The Museum House Ghosts, by Judith Spearing (read and blogged)

The later challenge requires simply that you read nothing but books from your TBR pile between now and April 1.   I feel that books given to one, as gifts or for review, are exempt, but I am going to try to read 100 books from my pile before I actually seek out any books from stores or the library.....95 more to go.

This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs

Welcome to another week's worth of gleanings from around the blog!  Since this is the first round-up of the new year, I though it was time for another explanation of what this is.  Five or so years ago, I realized I wanted someone to make it easier for me to find all the blogs posts about my favorite subgenre, middle grade science fiction and fantasy.  But there was no other someone, so I started doing it myself.  In these weekly round-ups I offer links to reviews, interviews, and other good stuff; I don't generally include short, mostly summary posts or reviews of Harry Potter and other popular books that have reached a saturation point (defined based on how I feel on a given day).   I always welcome links I missed, and if you want to send me a link in advance of Sunday, please feel free to email me at charlotteslibrary@gmail.com.

The Reviews

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, at Read Till Dawn

Alistair Grim's Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, at Mom Read It

The Blood of Olympus, by Rick Riordan, at A Reader of Fictions and Fyrefly's Book Blog

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Sonderbooks

The Chosen Prince, by Diane Stanley, at The Social Potato

Everblaze, by Shannon Messenger, at Carstairs Considers

Fairylicious, by Tiffany Nicole Smith, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, at Educating Alice

A Hero for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, at Hidden in Pages (audiobook review)

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw, by Christopher Healy, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

The Left Behinds and the Cell Phone that Saved George Washington, by David Potter, at Mom Read It

Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, at Hidden in Pages

A Plague of Bogles, by Catherine Jinx, at Wandering Librarians

Rouge Knight, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature

Smasher, by Scott Bly, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Swap, by Megan Shull, at Guys Lit Wire

The Terror of the Southlands, by Caroline Carlson, at This Kid Reviews Books

Twin Spell, aka Double Spell, by Janet Lunn, at Charlotte's Library

Whatever After-Fairest of All, by Sarah Mlynowski, at Wondrous Reads

Other Good Stuff

The Cybils Awards Shortlists are up!  Here are the seven books chosen in Elemenatary/Middle Grade Spec. Fic.

Graphic novelist Faith Erin Hicks shows us what really happened in A Wrinkle in Time, at Tor

There are lots of good middle grade spec. fic. books on the Nerdys list

I love Sherry's alternate Speculative Fiction awards here at Semicolon!

"Why we need science fiction for kids" at Views from the Tesseract

And also at Views from the Tesseract, a look back at some diverse titles in MG Spec Fic from 2014

And finally, "Monsters in America"-- a map showing where to find them via BoingBoing, available at Hog Island Press

1/2/15

Pureheart, by Cassandra Golds

Sometimes books are just too sad for me, and the reading of them is just like pulling the covers of someone else's misery over my own life, and even if I can appreciate the characters and the writing and the descriptions, it doesn't make me feel any better.   This was my reaction to Pureheart, by Cassandra Golds (2013, Penguin Books Australia).  

And there were no beautiful rainbows of warm snugginess at the end to cast a glow on all the sadness that had come before.

In essence, this is the story of how a grandmother who hates with passionate intensity uses that hatred to chain her granddaughter Deirdre to her--using cruelty, expert psychological manipulation, and occult horror.  Deirdre is trapped in the crumbling, insane old apartment building where departing tenants are never replaced until it is just her and her grandmother and all the stories of the miseries of the grandmother's life...and she has been so expertly molded with guilt and ignorance that she cannot believe that there is anything else in the world.

Except.   There is a boy, a cousin, who came to visit when she was five, and who she met again when they were twelve....and they love each other.   But the boy, Gal (short for Galahad), is hated by the grandmother who forces their love to be a strange and stifled thing.  Gal wants, desperately, to rescue Deirdre, but she is so tightly chained that she cannot believe it can happen.

Then the grandmother dies, and Deirdre drifts on alone in the old crumbling building....and Gal comes to find her.   But the grandmother is still there, as a ghost, and the Gal and Deirdre are caught in a fun-house of horror as she forces her memories of bitter sorrow and rage on them.

There is one memory that both know they have lost, one thing that could save them, maybe.  If they can find it before everything crumbles around them, and if Deirdre can choose life...

So if you like dark, creepy, horribly sad psychological manipulation with a magical twist and an awful, cruel, rabbit death, this is the book for you!!!!  You will admire the way layer after layer of twisted guilt and warped memories pile on, the way past and present are obscured and twisted in the narrative, the way the empty halls of the vast building lead nowhere, except when they are leading to dark secrets.

I myself just wanted Gal and Deirdre to be happy, maybe with new rabbits to care for in some sunny place far away...

So nope, not a book for me! BUT!  others have chimed in in the comments saying they loved it, including Katherine Langrish whose review is here so your reaction may be very different from mine....

1/1/15

It was sad that we could only have seven books on our Cybils shortlist

My eleven-year old was a bit sore at me last week--he felt that I should have been a stronger advocate for the books he wanted to see on the Cybils shortlist.   His own nominee--The Last Wild, by Piers Torday--wasn't there, and nor were two books he'd recently devoured in single sittings--Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, and The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier.  It's true that seeing your kid absolutely love a book to pieces does make you feel fondly toward it (unless it's a wretchedly awful book, in which case you start wondering where you went wrong), but it was also true that we only had places for seven books, and we had 155 from which to chose.  (It is like picking just one kitten at the animal shelter....)

So the book I myself nominated, Dark Lord-School's Out, by Jamie Thomson (so funny) isn't on the shortlist either.  Sigh.    And I wouldn't have minded Space Case myself, or another sci fi one, Ambassador, by William Alexander, which I liked lots, and anyone looking for a great book to give a nine year old girl should consider The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman (but you might have trouble because of the cover, and there's a difficult Mouse Death right at the beginning) and The Whispering Skull  and The Magic Thief: Home, and Jinx's Magic and The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw were all great series continuations and Ninja Librarians was so much fun and I could go on and on..............

We had to make hard choices.  

But in any event, Space Case, Ambassador, and Dark Lord-School's Out are all 2014 personal favorites of mine.  And I just want to wave them a little bit at readers, because I think they deserve it....



And the eleven-year old would like me to do the same for The Last Wild and The Night Gardener.




And now I'm already starting to think about next year!!!!  Will we reach 200 nominated books???? Will it be even harder to pick just seven?????   Please do think about joining the fun--although it is true that there are more people who want to be panelists than there are slots, newcomers are welcomed and encouraged!  The call for panelists will go out in mid-August, 2015.

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