1/16/17

Star of Deltora, books 1 and 2, by Emily Rodda

I  have just recently read and enjoyed the first two books of the Star of Deltora series, the latest from prolific Australian author Emily Rodda (author of the Deltora Quest series and the more recent Three Doors series) and I encourage anyone who wants to go adventuring with a brave clever heroine to try the books for themselves!  Long ago, a Deltora trader named Roslyn found such fame that her name became a title, and a line of women known as Trader Roslyn have followed in her path, sailing the nine seas. Now the current Trader Roslyn is no longer young, and is looking for an apprentice....


In the first book, Shadows of the Master, we are introduced to Britta, who is determined to win the competition to be that person.  She passes the initial round of tests, and after a bit of misadventure, becomes one of the four finalists.  In the second book, Two Moons, the finalists all sail on a trading voyage aboard the Trader Roslyn's famous ship, the Star of Delotra.  The ship will visit three islands, and each candidate will have a chance to make a trade.  The one who ends up having made the best trades at the end of the third visit will be the victor.

Bretta is determined to win.  Trading is in her blood; her father was famous for it.  But her father is also infamous.  He found and took control (or was controlled by) an ancient relic that brought death to his last crew and the Hungry Island back to life.  And now his shadows are seeking out Britta....She must keep her identity a secret, or risk being thrown out of contention before the competition ends.  She knows she's not like her father....but secrets and magic seem to be building all around her whether she wants them to or not.  And someone seems determined to get her out of the way; not quite killing her, but coming close. 

The Star of Delotra is sailing on a big ocean, filled with lots of magic, not all of it nice, and some of it downright evil.   Will Britta's intelligence and sharp trading instincts be enough to see her through her adventures safely?  One can assume they will, but I don't have books 3 and 4 on hand.  If I did, I'd already have read them at this point.  Probably back to back immediately after book 2.  

The story reminded me somewhat of Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale (girls being tested and trained), especially the first book, which is mostly about the testing process.  The second book takes Britta off to sea, and there the main interest for me was Britta's research in the ship's library, and the thought she put into figuring out her trading strategy.  I like to read about people thinking.  But if you prefer action, do not be deterred my preference--there are near-death adventures and strange magics and mysteries swirling around, and then there's Britta's rather terrifyingly transformed father on his Hungry Island (one that moves around looking for snacks....)

If you have already read Emily Rodda, you won't be disappointed.  And if  you haven't, this series is a fine place to start.  Give the books to any nine or ten year old who pretended the bed was a boat back when they were littler.  They are good ones for the older elementary school kid wanting to read books of more substance; the covers don't look like "kids" books, yet the content is still kid friendly (the one horrible death so far happened way back when). 

disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher

1/15/17

This week's round-up of mg fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (1/15/17)

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

Baker's Magic, by Diane Zahler, at Leaf's Reviews

The Candy Shop War, by Brandon Mull, at Shannon Messenger Fan Club

Conrad's Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones, at the Book Smugglers

Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi, at The Children's Book Review

The Goblin's Puzzle, by Andrew S. Chilton, at Imaginary Reads

The Ghosts in the Castle, by Zetta Elliott, at Charlotte's Library

Harriet the Invincible, by Ursula Vernon, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Ice Dragon by George R. R. Martin, at the A.P. Book Club

The Icebound Land, by John Flanagan, at Leaf's Reviews

The Inquisitor's Mark, by Dianne Salerni, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

The Left Behinds: Abe Lincoln and the Selfie that Saved the Union, by David Potter, at Time Travel Times Two

Magic Below Stairs, by Caroline Stevermer, at Tales From the Raven

MiNRS2, by Kevin Sylvester, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Of Mice and Magic, by Ursula Vernon, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Pirate King, by Huw Powell, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Ratpunzel, by Ursula Vernon, at Becky's Book Reviews

"Shouldn’t You Be in School?” by Lemony Snicket, at Leaf's Reviews

The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, at books4yourkids.com

Storm Walker, by Mike Revell, at Charlotte's Library

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood, by Robin Jarvis, at Say What?

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin, at Strange and Random Happenstance

The Voyage to Magical North, by  Claire Fayers, at Say What?

Warren the 13 and the All-Seeing Eye, by Tania Del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle, at Geo Librarian, Proseandkahn, and Pages Unbound Reviews

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods, by Tania Del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle, at A Fantastical Librarian

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett, at The Book Nut

The Wizard's Dog, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Read Till Dawn

Authors and Interviews

Cathryn Constable (The White Tower) at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books (possibly YA, but still sounds like a great book!)

Other Good Stuff

An activity book to go with the Warren the 13 (it's probably other places as well, but I found it at The Reading Nook Reviews)

Get Those Kids Out of the Room:  Books to Get Your Students Outside and Immersed in Nature (a list that includes two fantasy books--The Wild Robot and Maybe a Fox) at Nerdy Book Club.  The relationship between fantasy and nature is an interesting topic; I guess a lot of outside pretend games really are fantasy based, so it makes sense to offer kids books that will inspire them to shoot their siblings in the face with homemade bows and arrows (sorry Emily).

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards have been announced, and The Inquisitor's Tale is a gold medalist

1/14/17

The Ghosts in the Castle, by Zetta Elliott

The Ghosts in the Castle, by Zetta Elliott (2017), is the author's latest book giving black city kids a place in both fantasy and history.  It's the story of a Brooklyn girl, Zaria, who goes to London with her mother when her grandpa suffers a stroke.  Zaria is thrilled to be in England, and she's pleased that Winston, a cousin she's never met before, shares her love of fantasy.  When she and Winston visit Windsor Castle together, they find a fantasy adventure of their own when they meet two 19th century African ghosts (who were real people).

One of the ghosts is Prince Alemayehu of Abyssina (Ethiopia), and the other is a young woman named Sally (aka Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies) daughter of a chief in Nigeria.  Both were taken from Africa when they were children, and ended up living in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (I'd assumed they lived at Windsor Castle, but the author has clarified that this wasn't the case).  In a series of encounters with the ghosts, Zaria learns bits of their stories--both were taken to England as colonial possessions.  Alemayehu died when he was 18, and was buried at Windsor Castle.  Sally had a longer happier life, and can come and go between Windsor Castle and other places from her life, but Alemayehu is stuck, and cannot visit the one place he wants most to see again--his home in Africa.  With a bit of help from Sally, Zaria and Winston find a way to free Alemayehu's ghost.

It's good story for any young (nine or tenish, I'd say) fantasy reader who loves ghosts and mysteries and castles.  What makes it special is that Zetta Elliott is unapologetic about directly positioning both modern and historic characters of the African diaspora in a fantasy novel.  She raises issues of colonialism, both its past and its present reverberations (including Zaria's own family history), while keeping Zaria's particular story going at a nice pace, so that the message doesn't overwhelm the reading experience (in large part because Zaria is utterly relatable to any young Anglophile fantasy reader, and also in large part because it's a neat ghost story).

The result is a fascinating, moving story that not only adds diversity to the genre but makes for good reading.  It's just the right length for older elementary grade readers; if you are older than that, you might be left wanting more (which isn't a bad thing....)

There are discussion questions at the end; it would have been icing on the cake to have had more historical information about the two ghosts included in the backmatter as well, but if you go to the links above, you can see pictures of both Alemayhu and Sally and learn more about them.

1/11/17

Storm Walker, by Mike Revell

Stormwalker, by Mike Revell (Quercus, December 2016).  Ever since Own's mom died, his dad has been a wreck.  Owen sympathizes, being devastated by grief himself, but he needs his dad to come back to him.  And so he pushes his father to start writing again.  It seems like a fine plan; the words are flowing well, and his dad is happier.  But then Owen finds himself transported into a horrible future world, one devastated by storms of paranormal darkness, where kids like himself are forced to scavenge for scraps of what once was our civilization, risking the dangers of the zombie-like Dreamless, and where those in power hold secrets almost as dark as the storms.

Oliver bounces back and for between the fantasy world and the real world, realizing to his dismay that he is being forced to live the character his father is writing.  If he breaks the story, he'll loose his father in the real world, but if he keeps going into the mysteries of the dark storm world, he'll keep loosing chunks of his real life (jeopardizing his once in a lifetime chance at soccer success), and he'll have to keep living the horrors being experienced by his fictional alter ego....

It's a strange and engrossing fugue of real life and fictional world, given impetus and conviction by the grief shared by Owen and his dad.  Though I would have liked more obvious interplay between the events and themes of the two worlds earlier than it came, it was still pretty effective, in large part because the fictional world made for a truly gripping read all on its own.  And toward the end, when things are really picking up steam in the fantasy world, it becomes clear that the theme of desperate efforts to forge connections to those lost to you is there in both stories, leading to a moving conclusion.  Grief and darkness are both overcome.

Though the hybrid story telling didn't quite coalesce into a truly satisfying whole for me personally, it's a good one for kids who like reading about other kids plucked from their normal lives and thrust into paranormal hellish futures....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

1/10/17

Passenger, and Wayfarer, by Alexandra Braken, for Timeslip Tuesday



These past few days I have spent reading Passenger and its just released sequel, Wayfarer, by Alexandra Bracken, which is about a thousand pages of time travel romance high body-count adventure through many centuries and many places.  And I have just now finished Wayfarer, and it is almost my bedtime, but I do want to write about the books for Timeslip Tuesday....

So the gist of the story is that a modern teenager, Etta, finds out that she has the gift of travelling through time when her debut as a concert violinist ends up instead with her on board an 18th century privateering vessel.  For the first half or so of Passenger, the reader gets an introduction to the whole set up of how time travel works in this scenario, and Etta and a young man Nicholas (born a slave, but with a rotten-souled white time-traveler father whose gift he inherited) fall in love.  At which point a quest item is introduced--an astrolabe that can control the passages through time, and which many people of varying motivations want to get a hold of.  One of these people is Nicholas' monstrous white grandfather, the head of that time traveler family.  Another group are time travelers who oppose that family.  And then, in Wayfarer, another astrolabe seeker is introduced, even more scary and powerful than the rest of them. 

So Nicholas and Etta search for the astrolabe, and the body count gets pretty high as they travel through time, and then they almost have it, but things go wrong.

In Wayfarer, they are separated, but still searching for this incredibly powerful device that can be used to warp reality horribly, or make the time line regress to what it would naturally have been without time travel interference.  The body count gets higher (and goodness, Nicholas, Etta, and various secondary characters are the most resilient bunch I've ever seen; it is unbelievable how they recover from broken ribs, horrible lacerations, and general exhaustion in order to fight more enemies the next day).  There's a lot of fighting, which got a bit old, but what made Wayfarer gripping was that the motivations of the secondary characters became a lot more interesting, and because Etta and Nicholas weren't on the same page for most of the book, there was less of their passionate romance (which I feel bogged Passenger down a bit). Wayfarer also gives less page time to Nicholas' position as a black ex-slave in the 18th century, which was interesting social history and though provoking, but which has less relevance to the issues of survival central to Wayfarer

Wayfarer, in short, though a bit longer page-wise, has much more action and adventure than Passenger, and a much faster pace.  If you loved the romance of Passenger, you'll get a nice dose of that here, but not infusing the book as a whole.   The best part of Passenger was the way in which Nicholas and Etta were able to put aside their temporally different cultural norms and work as partners, and the best part of Wayfarer was seeing people who had no reason to trust each other learning to do so.   (Aside--a nascent LGBT romance is a part of this, and if I could have one more bit of story from this world, this is what I'd like to see more of.  I sure do hope it works out for them).

Though these two books together constitute a long read, and would not have suffered greatly from the loss of a 100 pages (which equals about 30 violent encounters), and though I would have liked a bit more realism re. wound recovery time, the reading experience is a satisfying one, especially as one reaches the end with its teasing promise of .........(that is me teasing!).  I don't think I'll need to read the books again, but I'm very happy to have spent the past few days with them, mostly because the characters grew on me, but also because of the vivid images of all the different times (though not so much the vivid images of all the ways people died....).

With regard to the time travel--it was one of those time travel set ups that make my brain hurt too much to try to see if it made sense, with alternate versions of the future popping up and down all over the place, and people not being able to go to the same time twice (which I'm not sure was a rule as carefully followed as it could have been).  Passenger is better for time-travel cultural dislocation, and does it well.  Wayfarer is more time-travel as insane kaleidoscope of experience, but with very memorable alternate version of the last czar and a delayed Russian revolution....

1/8/17

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (1/8/17)

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

The Reviews

The Atlantis Saga, by T.A. Barron (series review), at This Kid Reviews Books

Cats Aloft (Anton and Cecil Book 3), by Lisa Martin and Valerie Martin, at Mom Read It

The Crown of Fire, by Tony Abbott, at Kitty Cat at the Library

Darkstalker, by Tui T. Sutherland, at Hidden In Pages

The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at Say What?

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, at Susan Uhlig

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Goblin's Puzzle, by Andrew Chilton, at Say What?

High Wizardry, by Diane Duane, at Fantasy Faction

Jed and the Junkyard War, by Steven Bohls, at B.&N. Kids Blog

The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, at Leaf's Reviews

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge, at books4yourkids.com

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, at Leaf's Reviews

One Way or Another, by Annette Laing, at Charlotte's Library

Rebellion of Thieves, by Kekla Magoon, at Charlotte's Library

Scar Island, by Dan Gemeinhart, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart, at Sharon the Librarian

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Say What?

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters 1: The Jolly Regina, by Kara LaReau, at KidLit Reviews and Always in the Middle

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown, at books4yourkids.com

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads-- Bat Girl at Super Hero High, by Lisa Yee, and The Adventures of Henry Whiskers, by Gigi Priebe and Daniel Duncan

Other Good Stuff

At Semicolon, Sherry has made a timline of MG 2016 fiction (based on year the book was set).

And also at Semicolon, Sherry's taken a look at the magical fantastical animals of 2016

1/5/17

Rebellion of Thieves, by Kekla Magoon

Rebellion of  Thieves, by Kekla Magoon (Bloomsbury 2016), is the second Robyn Hoodlum adventure, the first being Shadows of Sherwood.  This series is a reimagining of Robin Hood, starring a 12 year old girl named Robyn Loxley, whose parents have been arrested by the oppressive regime that controls her city.  Robyn didn't mean to become a famous outlaw with a price on her head, working to thwart the evil dictator Crown and his minions, but with every load of supplies for the poor liberated from Crown's warehouses, her reputation has grown. 

What Robyn wants more than anything is to get her parents back, and so she hatches a daring scheme to free her mother.  She'll compete in Crown's annual Iron Teen tournament, and risk recognition for a chance to get into his stronghold and, with help from her friends, fiddle with the computers and security system, and break her mother free.  But though Robyn does well in the competition (being a thief and outlaw is good for agility practice) there are difficulties, chief among them being that the Sherriff has recognized her.  Robyn and her friends end up deeper in trouble than they've ever been in before...

If you are familiar with Robin Hood, you'll enjoy recognizing folks from those stories.  But even if you aren't, these are good stories in their own right, with compelling characters and interesting and dangerous situations.   A hint of mysticism, including a prophecy, adds fantastical depth and hints ad more overt magic to come, but it is Robyn's struggle to live up to her reputation, and to balance her impetuous desire to get things done with the safety of her friends that really makes this installment of the series hum.

Short answer:  very good adventure reading for the 10-11 year old target audience. And another for my diverse speculative fiction list!

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

1/3/17

One Way or Another, by Annette Laing, for Timeslip Tuesday

One Way or Another, by Annette Laing (2016),  the fourth volume of The Snipesville Chronicles, brings this extraordinary time travel adventure to a satisfying conclusion.  The books are the story of three Snipesville, Georgia, kids--Brandon, who is black and whose family has deep Snipesville roots, and  siblings Alex and Hannah Dias, who are white recent arrivals.  A mysterious professor launches them into a series of time travel adventures, some in England, where they become linked to a particular family there in the early and mid twentieth century, and some to the past of Snipesville. 

As I have come to expect from the previous Snipesville book, Annette Laing is not afraid to tackle difficult historical subjects.  Alex and  Eric (from WW II England) travel to early 20th century Snipesville, and find that there they are grown men, though Alex is still 11 inside, and find jobs at the local newspaper.  Brandon has also travelled to the same time and place, but being a strange black teenager in Georgia means he has to experience a level of  racism that is stunningly awful.  Alex wants to help, but he is only 11, and his efforts to publish articles fighting racism end up becoming a match set to a powder keg, though things were ready to explode in any event.  
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Hannah has travelled back to the same time, but she is in England working as a maid, trying to make sure the life of a young woman named Elizabeth, who she had previously met in the 1940s and 50s, plays out the way it should.  Hannah's story is one of household drudgery and the women's rights movement, and is another interesting bit of social history.

And social history is really the driving engine of this fourth book in particular.  For instance, Brandon's efforts to raise funds for a Snipesville high school for black students take him on a journey to meet W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who had rather different ideas about what education for African Americans should look like, and now I know this.  Although I am favor of learning history through fiction, One Way or Another is a rather long book, and sometimes the stories of the time-travelling  individuals gets lost in the stories of social injustice.  Each story-the Georgia one and the England one-- had enough meat of action and character and history to be a standalone book in its own right.  They are good stories, and if  you are a reader willing to take time with a book, you will enjoy them.

This book will work much better if you have read the first three, but it you are keenly interested in early 20th century social history presented through a fictional lens, do give it a try regardless.  Annette Laing is a former academic historian, and I found no reason to question any of the history presented here (although goodness knows it's not my own time period or place, which is 17th-century New England).

Here are my reviews of the first three books:

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (which was my very first Timeslip Tuesday review)
A Different Day, a Different Destiny
Look Ahead, Look Back

With regard to the time travel, driven by the actions of the enigmatic professor--my head hurt trying to figure it all out, because the kids bounce so very much around in time, meeting old versions of people they knew when young and vice versa.  So I just shrugged and accepted it all.

Finally thought--The Snipesville Chronicles are excellent historical fiction, heavy on the historical information, but not in a bad way, with fascinating scenarios being played out by modern kids visiting the past.

random aside--I love the name of Snipesville's new coffee house, the Sippin' Snipe.  The ambiguity (though grammatically its a sipping bird, it also suggests Sip 'n' Snipe--the opportunity to sit and gossip unkindly) tickles me greatly.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the author

1/1/17

The first middle grade science fiction and fantasy round-up of 2017

Here we are in 2017...I hope it is going well for all of you!  It's a rather light round-up; lease let me know if I missed your post.

The Cybils Finalists for 2016 have just been announced!  Thank you Brenda, Sherry, Kristen, and Brandy for being such excellent Elementary/Middle Grade panelists with me this year; I hope you all like the seven books we shortlisted!  (and if you would like to join the Cybils fun, look for the call for judges next August....)

The Reviews

Bounce, by Megan Shull, at Charlotte's Library

Bounders, by Monica Tesler, at Say What?

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, by Janet Fox, at Say What?

Charmed, I’m Sure, by Sarah Darer Littman, at Mom Read It

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, at Charlotte's Library

The End (Enemy #7), by Charlie Higgson, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Five Days of Famous, by Alyson Noel, at Ms. Yingling Reads

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

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

Raider's Ransom, by Emily Diamond, at Leaf's Reviews

Savvy, by Ingrid Law, at Hidden In Pages

Other Good Stuff

The 2016 Nerdy Awards for Middle Grade Fiction have been announced, and include some excellent mg spec fic books

For Momin  fans--a discussion of Tove Jansson as a painter from the BBC

Beautiful Minecraft, reviewed at Nerdophiles, shows the artistic potential of the game

A look at Astrid Lindgren's diaries at The Guardian

And finally, now that 2016 is behind us, what middle grade fantasy and science fiction books of 2017 are you most looking forward to?  Here's my list; please share your own in the comments!

sequels I can't wait to get--
Dream Magic, by Joshua Kahn (sequel to Shadow Magic)
The Emperor of Mars, by Patrick Samphire

New ones (limited to five, because of course I actually want to read ALL the books)--
The House of Months and Years, by
The Lords of Glasstown, by Catherynne M. Valente
Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Miinded, by Sage Blackwood
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis
The Castle in the Mist, by Amy Ephron

12/31/16

My favorite books from 2016

2016 has the lowest number of books read of any year since I started keeping track--258.  I was generous to myself in not finishing books I wasn't enjoying, didn't take the bus to work very often, and was busy with a big project.  But there were some good ones.

My favorites. based on the simple criteria of "will I give them precious shelf space on the second floor of the house because of wanting to re-read them" (some books get kept for possible re-reading, but on the first floor, others get donated to the library).  This is a different criteria from "books I would save if a fire were threatening to consume all the books I read in 2016" because that would be a rather longer list.

Middle Grade fantasy:

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud (bonus winner of "most intriguing skull character")
The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman (bonus winner of "most helpful magical bookstore")
The Mage of Trellian, by Michelle Knudson (bonus winner of "mg fantasy series that I love that not enough people have read")
Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, by Patrick Samphire (bonus winner of "character most like Percy Blakeney")

YA fantasy:

The Mountain of Kept Memory, by Rachel Neumeier
The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst
The Keeper of the Mist, by Rachel Neumeier
A Thousand Nights, by E.K. Johnson
The Raven King, by Maggie Steifvater

side note:  I seem to enjoy stories of young women caught in webs of political power (Raven King being an exception).  But I am picky about them- at least three I didn't finish this year count as that subject....Now that I am aware of this, I will pay attention in 2017 to see what it is that makes me love some but not others.

Favorite Re-reads:

Sue Barton, Student Nurse, by Helen Dore Boylston  A regular reread. Best nursing story ever, even though it's set in the days of ether cones (see Sue Barton: Neighborhood Nurse).
Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, by Gwendoline Courtney, an English family story of yesteryear about four free-spirited girls whose reviled stepmother turns out to be really good at shopping and home decorating.Soothing.

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, is the fourth book about Lockwood and Co., about a group of kids fighting malevolent ghosts in an alternate England where the dead have become a serious problem.  If you loved the first book, and why would you not, because it is excellent, but found books 2 and 3 somewhat less engrossing, do not let that stop you from reading The Creeping Shadow! 

All that made the first book good is here as well--the hair-raising psychic investigations, including some really horrible ghosts, interesting dynamics between the team members that don't slow down the narrative, and solid world-building.  Here in the forth book, as an added bonus, there begins to be some actual progress on understanding why problem of ghosts happened to begin with, which makes it an even more interesting read.

At the end of book 3, Lucy left Lockwood and Co. to work on her own, which was a real downer of ending.  Happily, she rejoins the team in The Creeping Shadow, and her time on her own offers the opportunity see the other members of gang--Lockwood, George, and Holly, with fresh eyes.  The first ghost they tackle when they are once more together is really really gruesome--he was a cannibal murderer, and if you are squeamish about ghostly body parts, be warned!  I don't generally like horror qua horror, but I was utterly gripped.

So gripped by the whole book, in fact, especially once Larger Elements of the Problem began to unfold, that I stayed up past my bedtime to read it all in a single sitting.  The only downer--it ends with a teasing note--not quite a cliffhanger, but awfully near the cliff's edge, and I want the fifth book Now.

side note--I am now totally shipping George and Lucy.  Although the Skull comes to life as more of a person in this book, and his ambiguous, trickster personality is not as unappealing as one would expect from an evil (?) bottled skull......

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Awards judging

12/26/16

Bounce, by Megan Shull

So last week I had a post up at the  B. and N. Kids Blog of middle grade Christmas-time fantasy books, and I am vexed at myself for not having read Bounce, by Megan Shull (Katherine Tegen Books, September 2016), before I wrote it because it would have been a lovely addition--I didn't have any other contemporary, realistic (except for the fantasy) book.  Oh well.

Bounce is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Frannie who is basically despised by her parents and big brother and sister as being a helpless, clingy wet-blanket sort of person.  Instead of being helpful and supportive of her, they simply want nothing to do with her, so much so that her parents decide that this Christmas the two of them will head down to Jamaica by themselves.  Frannie is crushed (and why shouldn't she be) by this abandonment.  Her siblings, however, see it as a great opportunity to host a wild party....and all Frannie's bleating protests have no power to prevent the trashing of her home.

She wishes desperately that she could be part of another family....and her wish comes true, as she bounces through a series of Christmases spent as other girls.  And here Frannie gets incredibly lucky, because there are lots of girls worse off than she was.  But instead she gets a lovely Christmas riding horses through the snow with a supportive mother, Christmas as a famous pop start, Christmas sailing in the South Pacific, and more soberly, Christmas as a girl whose sister just died, and Christmas as a girl whose young mom is desperate to make a home for her, and who Frannie has seen being bullied at school.

So Frannie learns valuable lessons, and becomes more self-reliant, mostly because when people assume you can do things, it gives you confidence, but also because she has been able to rise to the occasion of quickly adjusting to new experiences and bravely trying them.  Her Christmas bouncing is indeed a seasonal miracle, and just what she needed.  Being a stronger, braver Frannie makes it a lot easier for her to feel at home in her own family.

It's fun, if a bit over the top in places (South Pacific island adventure, I'm looking at you).  It's a nice one for the 10 or 11 year old girl who likes magical stories about girls enjoying improbable fantastic adventures (Princess Diaries, for instance), and though there are lessons, it's not unpleasantly didactic.



12/19/16

The Adventures of Gracie and MonkeyBear, by C.S. O'Kelly

I don't often say yes to picture book review requests, but when I was offered The Adventures of Gracie and MonkeyBear, by C.S. O'Kelly, illustratd by Jordy Farrell, I thought it would make a fun change so I said yes. And it was a cute book and a fun change (although being a picture book, it was about a five minute change; not a criticism, but just a comment on reading time....).

Gracie is one of the imaginative, smart sort of kids, who is able to make her urban backyard into a place of magic and adventure.  With her faithful dog and super intelligent comrade-in-arms, MonkeyBear, she sets out to meet all the challenges that come her way. A  young T-Rex, entombed in soil, is freed and set on its way.  The duo then come to the aid of a distressed Voosurian starship (MonkeyBear has a helpful Voosuiran starship repair manual. He's that sort of dog).  And finally a third adventure, involving a whale in the backyard plastic pool, shows that deep adventures can be found in what looks like an ordinary small city yard....

Spending a day (of book time) skipping from one adventure to the next with Gracie and MonkeyBear is well worth it.  Especially MonkeyBear--he is the most nerdy genius type dog I've met for ages!  There are lots and lots of fun details to point out to young readers (or for them to spot and point out to you).  A good one for kids love pretend games themselves--it will give them lots of encouragement!  It's an especially good for kids who themselves live in a city, who will enjoy seeing adventures happening in their own environment.


For a picture book, it seems on the high on the word count, making a good one to read with an older child of five or so. And just as a final note--Although independently published, there's nothing about the writing, editing or the illustrations that seemed to me at all unprofessional. 

Here's another review at Kid Lit Reviews, and here's the (starred) Kirkus review.

12/18/16

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (12/18/16)

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

The Reviews

Beautiful Blue World, by Suzanne LaFleur, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkoski, at Say What?

Crown of Fire, by Tony Abbott, at Boys Rule, Boys Read

The Dark Talent, by Brandon Sanderson, at Fantasy Literature

The First Last Day, by Dorian Cirrone, at Time Travel Times Two

Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, at Ms.Yingling Reads

Fuzzy, by Tom Angleberger, at Redeemed Reader

The Girl Who Saved Christmas, by Matt Haig, at So Little Time For Books

Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King, at School Library Journal

The Secret of Goldenrod, by Jane O'Reilly, at Charlotte's Library

The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart, at Hope Is the Word

Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty, at Leaf's Reviews

The Shattered Lens, by Brandon Sanderson, at Fantasy Literature

Snow Fright, by Amie and Bethanie Borst, at This Kid Reviews Books

Under My Hat: Tales From the Cauldron, edited by Jonathan Strahan, at Hidden In Pages

Whatever After: Fairest of All, by Sarah Mlynowski, at Renell Aysling's Book Blog

Word of Mouse, by James Patterson, at the B. and N. Kids Blog

Young Scrouge, by R.L. Stine, at Pop Goes the Reader and Charlotte's Library

Authors and Interviews

Monica Tesler (The Bounders series) on meeting Meg Murry, at Nerdy Book Club

Other Good Stuff

Alums from Studio Ghibli are making a movie (Mary and the Witch's Flower) from one of my most favorite children's fantasy books, The Little Broomstick! via Tor

At the Barnes and Noble Kids Blog, I picked ten favorite MG books of the year, which includes five great spec fic titles.

Zetta Elliott has made a list of MG and YA titles of 2016 by African American writers

and finally, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, rendered in Anglo-Saxon at All Things Linguistic



12/17/16

The Secret of Goldenrod, by Jane O'Reilly


The Secret of Goldenrod, by Jane O'Reilly (Carolrhoda Books, October 2016, middle grade), might sound like it is going to be a haunted old house/creepy doll story, but it actually isn't creepy at all (apart from the fact that any doll who comes alive has an inherent creepiness).  It is instead a happy story, which ends up with the doll being happy, the old house being happy, and the main character being happy.  And the reader being happy too (although if you keep waiting for creepy ghostliness you will be disappointed).

Trina and her father have bounced around the country all her life, from one house fixing project to the next.  None of the houses they repair are theirs, so it's always on to the next one, and the next one here is a doozy--a dilapidated Queen Anne mansion named Goldenrod, sitting in the middle of Iowa cornfields, that all the local folks think is cursed.  It is certainly spooky enough to warrant its reputation, with all the old house accoutrements of flickering lights, strange noises, and drafts, but Trina's father firmly tells her that there are no such thing as ghosts. 

It does not occur to him to tell her that there is no such thing as sentient dolls. 

The doll was asleep in its dollhouse bed, but woke when Trina found the way into the secret old playroom, and started conversing with her.  Lonely Trina, who never has had the chance to live anywhere long enough to make friends, does not run screaming, but accepts that the doll is in some measure alive. They become confidants, sharing a love of stories, and encouraging each other as needed.  Both need the encouragement--Trina finds it hard to make friends in the small town where she goes to school, the doll, Augustine, has lost her parents (other dolls, of course), and Trina is about to find her father has been keeping secrets from her about her own mother (who took off years ago to live an exciting life of her own).

Goldenrod, the old house, also is in need of encouragement and hope, and Trina, once she gets over her fear of ghosts, begins to listen to what the house seems to tell her.  As she and her father work to make it bright and shinny again, the townsfolk come to terms with their own past relationships to the house, and bring back all the things belonging to it that they or their families had taken as dares over the years, which had seemingly brought them all bad luck.

All ends well (even a day at school in which Trina has a too chatty Augustine in her pocket ends up without disaster) and there are, in fact, no ghosts, though there are quite a few secrets.  I am not sure I picked up on all the secrets.  The blurb says:   "With help from Augustine, Trina realizes Goldenrod is trying to tell her an important secret, one that may just change her life."  Um...my own feeling was that Goldenrod was actually saying things more along the lines of "I want my furniture back" and "I like my new paint" and "a party sure would cheer up a lonely old house" and "don't put my new septic system where someone is buried" and possibly "a family house needs a family."  But I feel the blurb writer was thinking of something Bigger....beats me.

But in any event, if you love books about lonely girls moving into old houses, and finding friends despite rocky starts, with bonus details like making dollhouse curtains and reading fairy tales to a talking doll,  you will enjoy this one lots.

12/13/16

Young Scrooge, by R.L. Stine, for Timeslip Tuesday


In Young Scrooge (Feiwel & Friendsm, Sept 2016)  R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps fame) reimagines Dickens' Christmas Carol as middle grade horror.

Rick Scroogeman is a middle school kid who hates Christmas (in large part because it's also his birthday and he feels cheated and bitter, with some reason).  He is not just a Christmas-hater; he's also a psychopathic bully with no empathy for the other kids.  He has so little empathy that he doesn't even realize he is an utter jerk and that no one else is laughing at the cruel things he does that he thinks are funny (which is a change from the usual middle grade bullying one reads about, in which the bullies are under no illusions about how their victims feel....).  

One of young Scrooge's Christmas traditions is to find and open the presents his mother has hidden away for him (and why she hasn't learned from past Christmases to hide them better I don't know), and it is there in the attic with ripped paper and a some really not good presents that he is found by  the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  They have decided to take action and intervene in his life to see if it is possible to turn him into a decent kid who can appreciate Christmas and not make life hell for those around him. 

So the time travelling starts.  First Scrooge gets a lesson from some kids in the 19th century of the be-done-by-as-you-did variety, which involves time in a pigpen.   Then he's whisked to the present, where he gets to hear the kids he thinks of as friends expressing their loathing for him, and spends time with a family suffering severe poverty, with creepy snowmen outside their house.  And finally there's a trip to the future, where he finds himself at Dead Middle School with zombie classmates who try to kill him (if there was a moral lesson here, I missed it).

Young Scrooge's redemption is pretty flimsy, not at all convincing, and lacking emotional depth. The story doesn’t even come close to the power of the original, but fans of R.L. Stine may well enjoy it, though the scariest part is the main character's casual acts of cruelty that he fails to recognize as anything but jokes.  The bits of interest that come from the various time travel scenarios are bright (but somewhat pointless) sparks in an otherwise uninspired effort.  

12/11/16

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (12/11/16)

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

The Reviews

The Arctic Incident, by Matthew Kirby, at Lunar Rainbows

Beautiful Blue World, by Suzanne LaFleur, at The Children's War

A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, at Word Spelunking

The Bronze Key, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Leaf's Reviews

Deep Wizardry, by Diane Duane, at Fantasy Faction

The Door to Time, by Pierdomenico Baccalario, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Dragon’s Eye, by Kaza Kingsley, at Leaf's Reviews

Fortune Falls, by Jenny Goebel, at Log Cabin Library

Furthermore, by Thera Mafi, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Insert Coin to Continue, by John David Anderson, at Semicolon

The iPhone that Saved George Washington, by David Potter, at Time Travel Times Two

Lodestar, by Shannon Messenger, at Renell Aysling's Book Blog

Ratpunzel, by Ursula Vernon, at Puss Reboots

Red Moon Rising, by K.A. Holt, at Semicolon

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Charlotte's Library

"When Did You See Her Last?" by Lemony Snicket, at Leaf's Reviews

Young Scrouge, by R.L. Stine,  at Good Books and Good Wine

Three at Semicolon--The Memory Thief, by Bryce Moore, The Last First Day, by Dorian Cirrone, and Time Traveling With a Hamster, by Ross Welford.

Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--the Hammer of Thor, by Rick Riordan, Legendtopia: The Battle for Urth, by Lee Bacon, Lee, and The Battle of Hackam Heath, by John Flanagan

Five at Random Musings of a Bibliophile-- Imperyium, by Henry Neff, Making Mistakes on Purpose, by Elise Primavera, Phoenix, by S.F. Said, The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, by Megan Shepherd, and Voyage to Magical North, by Claire Fayers

Authors and Interviews

Eleanor Glewwe (Wildings) at Cracking the Cover

Other Good Stuff

"Five times we Earthlings messed up a fantasy world" at Tor

12/10/16

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Kahn

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Kahn (Disney-Hyperion, April, 2016) , is an excellent pick for upper middle grade readers (11-12 year olds) who are beginning to look YA-ward, but who aren't yet interested in the more romantic plotlines of much YA fantasy.  It was also an excellent pick for me. It's a story that weaves legends and magic into struggle of a young queen coming to power, with a would-be killer at her heels, and a boy desperate to find out the fate of his outlawed father, coming into his own gifts of magic.

Thorn is not good at being a cooperative slave, yet something about him catches the attention of Tyburn, the executioner of Gehanna, kingdom of dark shadow magic.  Thorn has no desire to spend any time in Gehanna, what with all the stories of vampires and zombies that are told of it.  But he's not given any real choice, though he's determined not to be sidetracked from his quest for his missing father.

Lilleth, the 13 year old queen of Gehanna, doesn't have lots of room to chose her own destiny either.  Her parents and brother were murdered, and though she wasn't trained in the necromancy that is her family gift, because of being a girl, she is now queen of the beleaguered country of Shadows (where most people, it turns out, live perfectly ordinary quasi-medieal lives sans vampires and zombies).  She must marry the heir of a neighboring kingdom (after an engagement of several years), and he turns out to be utterly insufferable.  On a less personal issue, his country's magic is based on light, the antithesis of her own heritage, and she has no desire to leave her home and its shadows for his bright realm.  And then her puppy is poisoned, after drinking wine meant for her (for those distressed by puppy death--this is the kingdom of shadow magic, so the dead aren't necessarily gone for good....)

Lily and Thorn become friends and allies as they work to solve the mystery of the would-be assassin and the mystery surrounding the deaths of Lily's family.  In the process, each explores their gifts for magic.   Lily has a strong affinity for the shadow magic of her ancestors, though it is forbidden to her, and Thorn has an uncanny way with animals, taming and learning to ride the giant bat that has inadvertently been awakened. (Side note--giant bats don't appeal to me, per se, but I found myself making an exception for Hades.  He's a fine giant bat). 

There's plenty of excitement, but the dangerous adventures leave room for the reader to grow to care about the characters.  Though it doesn't feel wildly original to someone who's read 100s and 100s of books with similar stories (give or take), that won't be an issue for the target audience (political intrigue usual happens after middle grade). Shadow Magic works very nicely indeed as a gripping, coherent, and fascinating story of  young people figuring out who they are.  Give this one to a Ranger's Apprentice fan, or a fan of Sage Blackwood's Jinx.  I am very tempted to foist it on my own 13 year old over Christmas break.

The book got a very negative review on Amazon from someone who felt it had a liberal agenda because the good guys are the dark magic ones, and the light magic folks are less good.  However, it's made pretty clear that the magical powers of shadow magic are only bad if the person wielding them is bad, and if there was a more subtle liberal agenda (perhaps the minor point that Thorn's father became an outlaw because the family needed to poach to live, which I guess could be construed as subversively threatening the power and rights of the 1%) I missed it.  Oh, and I just remembered there's a bit that can be read as anti-death penalty.

And now I will go see what Kirkus says.  Hmm, we disagree.  "A kingdom that embraces darkness but not evil is an interesting concept but not enough to make up for choppy pacing and flat characters; here’s hoping the sequel is better balanced."  I don't remember any bits that dragged, but I was reading very quickly because of being interested, and I really didn't find the characters flat...I think it's one of those books where you are given enough to build up the characters in your own mind beyond the actual words on the page, which I am just fine with.  The Kirkus reviewer also says-- "Encouraged by her beloved but chronically drunk uncle to marry for her people’s sake, Lily resists, a decision that seems unlikely, empowered, and selfish simultaneously."  Geez.  The kid's 13, her parents just got killed, and her putative fiancĂ© is an ass.  It's not like she resists with any realistic hope of an alternative, and she realizes she not in a position to decisively say "no."  So I can confidently object to that opinion of the Kirkus reviewer.

Here's another review, at The Book Smugglers, with which I have no quibbles at all (which is nice for me).


12/6/16

The books my boys are getting for Christmas

Since this is Tuesday, I should have a time travel book review, but it didn't happen, so instead I offer the books that my boys are getting for Christmas.  It would be nice if my reading taste just happened to be the same as that of my children, which would be very nice for me, but it isn't. There is only one that I was tempted to get for myself; can you guess which one?

For my 13 year old son--

Homestuck: Book Three, by Andrew Hussie.  Books one and two are out of print and too expensive at this time, so I hope he doesn't mind having just this one.  Since he loves Homestuck, it should be ok.

Year of Yesh: A Mutts Treasury by Patrick McDonnell.  Because all 13 year old boys need love and cute.

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hanna Hart.  My son took John Green's recommendation to heart, and this is the only book he specifically asked for.  I'm not quite sure what he'll make of it; the blurb references lesbian sex, which might make him blush (the sex part, not the lesbian part).

Rocks Fall Everyone Dies by Linday Ribar.  I pointed this one out to him in the bookstore, and the cover and title appealed mightily.

The Answer (Steven Universe) by Rebecca Sugar.  This turned out to be a bit on the young side, but he's a fan, so he'll enjoy it at least for one read.


For my 16-year-old son--

Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 By Joseph Fink.  Night Vale of course is geek teen staple, and I'm hoping his fan enthusiasm carries over into reading.

Hilda and the Black Hound (Hildafolk) by Luke Pearson.  He just read the fifth Hildafolk book for his work as a graphic novelist for the Cybils Awards, and happened to mention that he'd never read this one, and that really he'd like to own the whole series (which isn't going to happen this Christmas...there are limits).

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (Book 2) (Lowriders in Space) by Cathy Camper.  He wanted it for his graphic novel collection.


The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. Another asked for because it was a gap in his collection.

(Here's his graphic novel review tumbler, if anyone wants the authentic target audience opinion....)



12/4/16

This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (12/4/16)

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

The Reviews

A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, at Bibliobrit

The Edge of Extiction: the Ark Plan, by Laura Martin, at Semicolon

Fairies of Dreamdark, by Laini Taylor (series review) at A Reader of Fictions

Fires of Invention, by Scott Savage, at Redeemed Reader

Fuzzy, by Tom Angleberger, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Gears of Revolution, by Scott Savage, at Redeemed Reader

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Completely Full Bookshelf

The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier, at Hidden in Pages

The Littlest Bigfoot, by Jennifer Weiner, at books4yourkids

The Lost Compass, by Joel  N. Ross, at Puss Reboots

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, at  Online Eccentric Librarian

Museum of Theives, by Lian Tanner, at Leaf's Reviews

Phoenix, by S.F. Said, at Charlotte's Library

Princess Between Worlds, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews

The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle, by Gabrielle Kent, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, at Hidden In Pages (audiobook review)

Sophie Quire and the Last Storygaurd, by Jonathan Auxier, at Becky's Book Reviews

Upside-Down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, at Middle Grade Mafioso

Young Scrouge, by R.L. Stine, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Two at  Ms. Yingling Reads--The Secrets of Hexbridge Hall, by Gabrielle Kent, and The Inquisitor's Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

Two at Good Books and Good Wine--Saving Lucas Briggs, by David Teague and Marisa de los Santos, and The Thickety, by J.A. White

Authors and Interviews

Grace Lin (in graphic novel form) at A Fuse #8 Production

Ross Welford (Time Traveling with a Hamster) at Time Travel Times Two

Other Good Stuff

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has announced Jane Yolen as the 33rd Damon Knight Grand Master (read more at Tor)

11/29/16

Timekeeper, by Tara Sim, for TImeslip Tuesday

Timekeeper, by Tara Sim (Sky Pony Press, YA, November 2016), literally starts with time slipping; in this case, two o'clock goes missing from a clock tower.  In this quasi Victorian world, clocks don't just tell time, they keep it running, so the loss of 2 o'clock has repercussions for the people that live around that tower, for whom it is suddenly three o'clock.  17 year old Danny is the clock mechanic sent to repair this tower, but what should be a simple job leads him down unexpected paths when he meets the spirit and driving force of this particular tower, Colton, who has the form of a boy Danny's own age.

Danny has lots on his plate emotionally--his father got trapped in a town where time was stopped, and Danny wants to be on the team working to mend things.  His mother has withdrawn from him, and he himself is caught up in his own problems to an unhealthy point.  Being gay is not a crime in this version of the past, but it's not the done thing either, and that difference also contributes to Danny's loneliness and depression.  But Colton, beautiful, impossible Colton, makes him think of other things.....

This book is both romance and mystery (the mystery being how time was stopped in the town where Danny's dad is trapped).  The dangers that spill over from the mystery solving jeopardize the romance, and the romance jeopardizes Danny's role in freeing his father....The two threads are nicely entangled, making for a nicely balanced whole. This is one for readers who don't expect constant Alarms and Excursions; it's something of a slow burn that requires immersion into the fascinating world of clocks and clock spirits and manifestations of temporal twistiness.

Do try this one if you are looking for a sweet but fraught romance (especially if you're looking for an LGBTQ one).  Do try this if you think that time spent cleaning and repairing clockwork with the clock tower spirit helping, and lots of Danny sensing time bending and moving around him, sounds interesting.  But don't go into it expecting a steampunk extravaganza of strange mechanicals and lots of zapping and zipping.  I myself enjoyed it lots, and recommend it.

And so, in a recommending spirit, here's what the pros said, all of which I agree with without any (substantive) quibbling:

"Part mystery and part romance, this fantasy novel delves into what it means to grow up and make important decisions. With an easily relatable main character struggling to fit in, the novel has a realistic and contemplative voice. VERDICT: A must-have richly written fantasy novel that will have readers eagerly anticipating the next volume." —School Library Journal

"Sim creates a cast of complex and diverse characters, as well as a mythology to explain how the clock towers came to exist . . . an enjoyable, well-realized tale." —Publishers Weekly

“[M]ystery, LGBTQ romance, and supernatural tale of clock spirits and sabotage that explores how far people might go for those they love. Its strongest elements are the time-related mythology and the supernatural gay romance.” —Booklist

"This LGBTQ steampunk romance sports a killer premise and admirably thorough worldbuilding, helpfully annotated in the author’s afterword. The characters—even the bad guys—are sympathetically drawn and commendably diverse in sexuality and gender." —Kirkus Reviews

"An enjoyable start to a promising new trilogy." —BookPage


disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

11/28/16

Phoenix, by S.F. Said

There isn't a whole lot of middle grade space adventure out there, and so it's always a nice change for the reader who focuses on the middle grade (which is to say, me) to get to go voyaging out among the stars.  Phoenix, by S.F. Said (Candlewick October 2016 in the US)  is the story of  a boy named Lucky, whose own chance to leave home and set out on interstellar adventures starts in just about the worst way possible--with the death of his mother. She is killed by the sinister Shadow Guards (the soldiers of humanity out among the stars) before she has a chance to answer  any of Lucky's questions (he has lots, and they are very pertinent), and so Lucky's journey is one where, in true hero style, he must figure out the truth about who he is and what his destiny is.

His mother's last action (besides dying to save him from the Shadow Guards) was securing them passage off the moon of Ares One that was their home.  The ship she found, though, was an Axxa ship, and the Axxa (with their scary red eyes, horns, and hooves) are currently the official enemies of humanity; the two races are fighting a vicious war out among the stars.   And now Lucky is alone with the Axxa, and he's not happy about that, and neither are they. Plus his mother is dead, and his father, who he's never met, is somewhere lost out among the stars....

But it turns out that the Axxa and the humans are more alike than they are different.  And it also turns out that this particular group might be just whot Lucky needs to find his destiny, and to help him control the inferno that he holds with himself.  For Lucky is a rather unsual kid.  When he is threatened, he burns, sending a conflagration out that he cannot (yet) control.   After several perilous adventures in space, the knowledge and mythology (historical truths?) of the Axxa lead him to the answer that he, and the war torn galaxy, both need, and to a choice that isn't really a choice at all....

The setting, stories, and characters were all interesting, and it all moves along at a nice place.  It's a good one for the older end of middle grade (11-12 year olds).  This isn't cute alien fun (though there is an appealling phoenix) but a deadly serious struggle with an ending whose "happily ever after" comes with a twist, and at a cost.  (There's also a kiss, but that's as far as the romance gets).  It's a book with a good message of tolerance for difference, and peace vs. war, and the main female character is nicely strong and self-reliant.  The blocks of text are broken by black and white illustrated sequences of Lucky's dream-trips through the stars, and illustrations referencing the star beings at the heart of Axxa religion/mythology, which bring an element of surreality and other-worldliness to the reading experience that compliment Lucky's own journey nicely.  (Just for the record, I see the blurb on Amazon calls them "remarkable white-on-black spacescapes," which sounds better, if you can swallow "spacescape").

It didn't quite have enough depth or subtlety in terms of writing or story to make me personally love it (for instance, the wise old Axxa sage is named Mystica) and Lucky never impressed me with quick wit and keen intelligence,  but if you have young readers around who like stories of brave kids discovering they are heroes and ending wars etc., it might well resonate with them just fine.

And now, a quick round of "fun with Kirkus."

"An astrological twist on an age-old story; the echoes of Star Wars, The Golden Compass, and A Wrinkle in Time should win it fans."

So Star Wars because it's about a boy with strange powers and an absent father zipping around in space with a war going on, so that's a perfectly fine echo.  The Golden Compass because it's about a special kid with an interesting device (Lucky has a mystical astrolabe) who makes friends with someone of the opposite sex, and that's as far as I get, which seems a rather weak echo.  A Wrinkle in Time because in both books, stars are more than just balls of gas, and that's really all I've got and this really seems a stretch.  If you do read this one, and find other echoes, please share!

But it's clear that Kirkus meant it kindly, so there you are.  And I do agree that though Phoenix is not for everyone, there will be kids whose socks it knocks off.

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


11/27/16

This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (11/27/16)

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

Reviews

The Black Lotus, by Kieran Fanning, at Ms. Yingling Reads

A Curious Tale of the Inbetween, by Lauren DeStefano, at The O.W.L. (audiobook review)

The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Dead Houseplants

Henry Hunt and the Beast of Snagov, by John Matthews, at Read Till Dawn

The Howling Ghost, by Christopher Pike, at Say What?

The Kingdom of Oceania, by Mitchell Charles, at The Write Path

Mission to Moon Farm (Secrets of Bearhaven #2), by K.E. Rocha, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Once Was a Time, by Leila Sales, at Semicolon

Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale, at Tales from the Raven

The Secret Path, by Christopher Pike, at Say What?

This is Not a Werewolf Story, by Sandra Evans, at Semicolon

When the Sea Turned to Silver, by Grace Lin, at The Book Wars

Wildings, by Eleanor Glewwe, at books4yourkids

Wisdom of the Centaurs' Reason (Andy Smithson #6) by L.R.W. Lee, at Log Cabin Library

Authors and Interviews

Henry Neff (Impyrium) at Book Dreaming

Will Mabbitt (Mabel Jones series) at The  Reading Nook Reviews

Abby Cooper (Sticks and Stones) at For the Love of All Things Wordy

Other Good Stuff

"Middle Grade Book Wisdom 2016, Mostly Fantasy" at Semicolon

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