The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate, by Donna St. Cyr

The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate, by Donna St. Cyr (CBAY Books, 2009, middle grade, 161 pp), required of me a leap of faith combined with an extreme suspension of disbelief (more so than is the case with many other middle-grade fantasies). The reader must accept the existence of the secret order the Cheese Syndicate, some of whom appear to be living cheeses (!!), and who rely on the magical properties of various cheeses (!?!) to bring their goal to fruition--the lofty goal of "restoring peace, harmony, and good taste to our world!"

But Robert Montasio, age 13, has more immediate goals--to restore his obnoxious little sister Janine to her full height (an unfortunate potion gulping incident shrank her more than a little), and to find his lost father. When he learns that his father was an honored member of the Syndicate, who disappeared while on a quest to find the legendary cheese that is the only thing that will save Janine, these two goals combine nicely.

And Robert, bringing along Janine in a waterproof dollhouse, is off on an adventure that has him fighting monsters, bartering with mythical creatures (how much is a wheel of cheese really worth?), and learning the true power of Muenster.

For instance, when riding on the back of a dolphin, being pursued by a very nasty ozaena:

"As we sped closer to the mouth, I hoped all my free throw shooting would pay off. I lobbed the cheese in from about twenty feet away. A perfect shot.

The effect was spectacular. The ozaena shrieked and groaned the instant the Muenster hit. It crashed from side to side across the ocean surface, like a fish flopping on the floor. I guess it was trying to get rid of the cheese. Finally, it vomited out its guts and lay still." (pages 70-71).

It's a fun book, once the cheese is swallowed, as it were. It's not one I'd necessarily be quick to press into the hands of an adult reader, but for a nine or ten-year old (especially one who has an interest in Greek mythological creatures), it might very well strike a chord. The language is straightforward, the adventure episodic (which I think is helpful for readers that age who still don't have tons of confidence), and the monster encounters are exciting.

(review copy received from the author)

Ursula Le Guin's review of Margaret Atwood's new book

I'm not sure I want to read the book (sounds like it might upset me) , but the review is thought-provoking as all get out!

Two books from The Fantasy Chronicles for Non-Fiction Monday

Lerner has a handsome new middle-grade non-fiction series in their Fall list--the Fantasy Chronicles. I've read two--Fairies and Elves, and Fantastical Creatures and Magical Beasts, both by Shannon Knudsen (both on sale now, but published as 2010).

Fairies and Elves (48pp, with index, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading/watching) is a history of European fairies, from the middle ages to the present day (there's just one paragraph on fairies around the world), exploring their dual nature as helpful friend and tricksy foe. This history of the Good Neighbors is liberally leavened with fairy tales-- both classics, like The Elves and the Shoemaker, and more obscure stories (primarily from the British Isles), that illustrate the wide variety of fairies that have populated the pre-mental landscape. Knudsen, in a chatty, companionable way, discusses how beliefs in creatures like this might have helped explain the unexplainable, and how this way of thinking faded:

"A funny thing happened to fairies and elves during the late 1800s. The stories that people had told and believed in for hundreds of years no longer seemed true to most folks. Science and technology had changed the way they lived and viewed the world. Before, for example, parents might have blamed a child's sickness on fairy magic. But in this new era, they were more likely to listen to a doctor's medical explanation" (pages 28-29).

The book brings the history of fairies and elves right up to the present, with the final chapter ("Entertaining Elves") discussing their modern incarnations in icons of popular culture such as the Lord of the Rings movie, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft. I think this is one of the great strengths of the book--kids who are familiar with these fairies/elves may well find their back story very relevant (so it's almost a pity this chapter wasn't put at the beginning, as a hook!).

Fantastical Creatures and Magical Beasts (48 pages, also with back matter), is also dominated by European monsters (10 pages all about Greece, 10 pages on all the rest of the world), which is a pity, because there's not that much out there on, say, the mythological creatures of Oceania (maybe, Lerner, you could do a whole region by region series on magical beasts? I promise I'd read them to my children...). But the monster stories in this book are told with zest, and, as is the case with Fairies and Elves, Knudsen adds interest, and food for further thought, in her discussion of the function stories of fantastical creatures might play in ways of making sense of the world. Being an anthropologist, I found the functionalist approach a bit of an over-simplification, but it was great to see the subject pushed beyond a simple cataloguing of the fantastical. This book also brings its topic into the present--the last picture shows two boys showing off their Pokemon cards.

Both books are written in a friendly, story-telling fashion (my nine-year old, who serves as my benchmark, read them both with ease and enjoyment), and both are copiously illustrated with (primarily) original material (such as Greek vases, Indian sculpture, and Disney's Tinkerbell).

The other books in the series are Giants, Trolls, and Ogres, Mermaids and Mermen, and Wizards and Witches, and later today I shall ask the children's librarian at our library if the Friends could perhaps buy them...*

Non-fiction Monday is at Simply Science today.

(review copies received from the publisher)

* random aside on fundraising: the Decorative Gourd Fundraiser, in which I sell decorative gourds that I have grown, will not bring in much this year, due to rotten weather, likewise the Zucchini Fundraiser (one zucchini to date, and how sad is that), but perhaps I will have enough corn for a Corn Fundraiser (the corn is almost ripe, and has done very well), unless my children decide they really like corn. Pity no-one wants to pay for crab grass.


The Color Me Brown Challenge is ending soon...link now!

Susan, who blogs at Color on Line, has organized a "Color Me Brown" Challenge for the month of August--to date, it's garnered links to 110 books by or about people of color. Tomorrow is the last day to add links. So if you might have an unlinked-to review that fits those simple criteria, or a book you'd like to review but haven't yet, head over before tomorrow ends to leave your link! (there are prizes...)

The Elsewhere Chronicles

The Elsewhere Chronicles: Book One: The Shadow Door, Book Two: The Shadow Spies, Book Three: The Master of Shadows. Story by Nykko, translation from the French by Carol Klio Burrell, art by Bannister. Published by Graphic Universe (Lerner), middle-grade on up.

When we went to the library last week, there they were, front and center on the new books table--The Elsewhere Chronicles, three volumes of a fantasy graphic novel series (with color pictures) for middle-grade kids. Our librarian, who knows my nine-year old son's reading tastes as well as I do, pressed them into his hands before we had even finished saying hello. He has now read them three times.

The Elsewhere Chronicles tells of a journey that begins in a graveyard, where a mysterious old man is being buried. Three boys, with nothing better to do, watch from the cemetery wall. When the old man's grand-daughter, Rebecca, heads over to check out his spooky house, they decide to go with her. Little do they know that Grandpa Gabe had opened a passageway into another place, and that the door will soon be opened again, trapping the kids in a land haunted by the Shadow Spies. Danger is everywhere (including some really nasty fruits with teeth). But there are friends who give help, and there's a cool dragon, and as long as the kids can keep the Shadows away each night, until sunrise drives them off, there's a chance they might make it home again.

Unfortunately, the first book is the weakest (mainly because it's the most confusing in terms of following the plot, partly because things don't get fantastic until a ways into it), but once the kids actually make it to Elsewhere, things pick up dramatically, and it becomes a fun and gripping adventure. It's made memorable not just by the story, but by the distinct personalities of the characters (which likewise become clearer in books 2 and 3). There are details in the vivid color pictures that make the fantasy world come to life (these are beautiful books), and details in the story that make it interesting even for an older reader.

It's great to see an African girl front and center, and the first book has a rather nicly frank discussion of race. When the kids meet, Rebecca tells the boys that she's the old man's granddaughter. To paraphrase (because the first book is back at the library, already checked out again, and the draft post where I'd copied the quote disappeared):

"But, you're..." says one of the boys.

"Black?" she answers. "Yes, I'd noticed."

However, the books do include the stereotype of "red haired child with glasses" (ala Arnold from the Magic School Bus) being the hapless one. Why couldn't the bad insect have bitten one of the two cooler, dark-haired boys? (and this is just one example of the misfortunes that befall poor Theo).

Although at the end of the third book this particular thread of plot comes to a conclusion, not one of the larger questions is answered, leaving so much room for a sequel you could drive a truck through it. I rather hope there is more to come, not just because I'm curious, but because I became emotionally invested in one of the characters in particular (a boy with an abusive mother), and am anxious to see what happens to him...

Here are reviews of the first book at Buffyverse Comic Reviews, and Comics Worth Reading, and a review of the series at Comics in the Classroom.

My six-year old, who liked looking at the pictures, asked that I also show the second book, because that is the one that has the dragon.


New releases of science fiction and fantasy for children and teens--the end of August edition

August is going out with a bit of a bang--there are several books on this list of new releases that I'm anxious to read. Especially the new Skulduggery Pleasant! And the sequel to The Sky Inside, and the sequel to Found, and The Dream Stealer sounds great, and As You Wish and Rampant have been on my list for ages... etc. Vampire lovers should be very happy too. Zombie lovers, not so much (which is too bad, because today is the start of Zombie Appreciation Week). As ever, I got my information from Teens Read Too, and the blurbs come from Amazon.

BLOOD OF THE WITCH: SCREAM STREET by Tommy Donbavand. "What better way to feed the neighborhood vampires than to pipe blood from residents’ cuts and nosebleeds straight into kitchen taps? And how better to foil Luke’s mission to free his folks than to cut off this vital (if icky) blood supply to Luke’s best vampire friend? What’s more, the local sewer rats have been accidentally turned into raging vampire rodents. Now Luke and his pals must keep the critters at bay while searching for the second crucial relic — a vial of witch’s blood — while avoiding being turned into vampires themselves.

CHANTEL'S QUEST FOR THE ENCHANTED MEDALLION by Oliver Neubert. Chantel "...must brave evil-doers and muster her courage to retrieve four ancient relics — the only way to defeat an evil power that's killing nature and corrupting minds. On the way, Chantel encounters different parts of her fantastical world, faces nail-biting challenges, and meets new friends — and enemies. Once she's gathered the four relics, she'll finally have enough power to defeat the sinister spirit."

CLASH OF THE DEMONS: THE LAST APPRENTICE by Joseph Delaney. "As the Spook's apprentice, Thomas Ward's first duty is to protect the County from ghosts, boggarts, and other dangerous creatures. But now his mother has come back from her homeland to seek his help. One of the most dangerous of the old witches, Ordeen, is about to return to earth, bringing with her suffering and devastation. Tom's mother has mustered a powerful army—including Tom's friend Alice, the Pendle witches, and the assassin Grimalkin—to confront Ordeen. If Tom joins them, the Spook will refuse to take Tom back as his apprentice. What sacrifices will be made in the battle against the dark?"

THE DREAM STEALER by Sid Fleischman. "There is a bandit who comes in the night. He does not want pretty silver earrings or dangly gold necklaces, not diamonds or rubies...He wants dreams. He is supposed to take only nightmares—the dreams of monsters and phantoms—but he's grown scared. He's been taking the good dreams instead. But one night he steals from the wrong girl. Susana is clever. She is wily. She is brave. And she wants her dream back."

THE DREAMER, THE SCHEMER, & THE ROBE: THE AMAZING TALES OF MAX & LIZ by Jenny L. Cote. "After saving Noah and family from the evil stowaway Charlatan aboard the ark in The Ark, the Reed, & the Fire Cloud, heroes Max and Liz, along with faithful mates Kate and Al, earn immortality and a directive from God to serve as His envoys for pivotal points in human history. They have waited for centuries for a word from the Maker; now they learn they are to work behind the scenes in the life of Joseph. In The Dreamer, The Schemer, & The Robe the fate of an entire nation rests in their paws."

THE FACELESS ONES: SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT by Derek Landy. "Valkyrie screamed, sprinting toward Skulduggery. He looked up and reached out to her, but it was too late. If you've read the other Skulduggery books by Derek Landy (and you really should have read them by now), you've seen it all before: Some bad guy wants to bring about the end of the world, and Skulduggery and Valkyrie fight valiantly to stop it from happening. A few people get hurt, sure, but everything's all right in the end. Well, not this time."

HALF-MINUTE HORRORS by Various Authors, "How scared can you get in only 30 seconds? Dare to find out with Half-Minute Horrors, a collection of deliciously terrifying short short tales and creepy illustrations by an exceptional selection of writers and illustrators, including bestselling talents Lemony Snicket, James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, R.L.Stine, Faye Kellerman, Holly Black, Melissa Marr, Margaret Atwood, Jon Scieszka, Brett Helquist, and many more. With royalties benefiting First Book, a not-for-profit organization that brings books to children in need, this is an anthology worth devouring."

MORE BONES: SCARY STORIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD by Arielle North Olson & Howard Schwartz. "Have you heard about the man who marries . . . a corpse? Or what about the magic school where one student in every class is never allowed to leave? Many of these tales go back hundreds of years and to the farthest corners of the earth, but as diverse as they are, they also reveal one important truth: everyone loves a scary story. The authors have dug deeply—from Egypt to Iceland—to find the spookiest stories that are perfect to share around a campfire or at a sleepover."

THE NINE POUND HAMMER: THE CLOCKWORK DARK by John Claude Bemis. "Twelve-year-old Ray is haunted by the strangest memories of his father, whom Ray swears could speak to animals. Now an orphan, Ray jumps from a train going through the American South and falls in with a medicine show train and its stable of sideshow performers. The performers turn out to be heroes, defenders of the wild, including the son of John Henry. They are hiding the last of the mythical Swamp Sirens from an ancient evil known as the Gog. Why the Gog wants the Siren, they can’t be sure, but they know it has something to do with rebuilding a monstrous machine that John Henry gave his life destroying years before, a machine that will allow the Gog to control the will of men and spread darkness throughout the world."

Young Adult (sorry there are no pictures; I just didn't have time...)

ANDROMEDA KLEIN by Frank Portman. "Andromeda Klein has a few problems. Her hair is kind of horrible. Her partner-in-occultism, Daisy, is dead. Her secret, estranged, much older and forbidden boyfriend-in-theory, has gone AWOL. And her mother has learned how to text. In short, things couldn't get much worse. Until they do. Daisy seems to be attempting to make contact from beyond, books are starting to disappear from the library, and then, strangely and suddenly, Andromeda's tarot readings are beginning to predict events with bizarrely literal accuracy. Omens are everywhere. Dreams; swords; fires; hidden cards; lost, broken, and dead cell phones . . . and what is Daisy trying to tell her?"

ANOTHER FAUST by Daniel & Dina Nayeri. "One night, in cities all across Europe, five children vanish — only to appear, years later, at an exclusive New York party with a strange and elegant governess. Rumor and mystery follow the Faust teenagers to the city’s most prestigious high school, where they soar to suspicious heights with the help of their benefactor’s extraordinary "gifts." But as the students claw their way up — reading minds, erasing scenes, stopping time, stealing power, seducing with artificial beauty — they start to suffer the sideeffects of their own addictions. And as they make further deals with the devil, they uncover secrets more shocking than their most unforgivable sins. At once chilling and wickedly satirical, this contemporary reimagining of the Faustian bargain is a compelling tale of ambition, consequences, and ultimate redemption."

AS YOU WISH by Jackson Pearce. "Ever since Viola's boyfriend broke up with her, she has spent her days silently wishing—to have someone love her again and, more importantly, to belong again—until one day she inadvertently summons a young genie out of his world and into her own. He will remain until she makes three wishes. Jinn is anxious to return home, but Viola is terrified of wishing, afraid she will not wish for the right thing, the thing that will make her truly happy. As the two spend time together, the lines between master and servant begin to blur, and soon Jinn can't deny that he's falling for Viola. But it's only after Viola makes her first wish that she realizes she's in love with Jinn as well . . . and that if she wishes twice more, he will disappear from her life—and her world—forever."

THE AWAKENING: THE VAMPIRE DIARIES by L. J. Smith. The latest in the series...(sorry, no blurb on Amazon, and I don't have time to hunt)

BLOOD PROMISE: VAMPIRE ACADEMY by Richelle Mead. "The recent Strigoi attack at St. Vladimir’s Academy was the deadliest ever in the school’s history, claiming the lives of Moroi students, teachers, and guardians alike. Even worse, the Strigoi took some of their victims with them. . . including Dimitri. He’d rather die than be one of them, and now Rose must abandon her best friend, Lissa—the one she has sworn to protect no matter what—and keep the promise Dimitri begged her to make long ago. But with everything at stake, how can she possibly destroy the person she loves most?"

DARK OF THE MOON: DARK GUARDIAN by Rachel Hawthorn. "Brittany is determined to prove herself to the Dark Guardians. And yet she's been keeping a devastating secret: She hasn't experienced any of the intense, early signs of change that mark a Dark Guardian's transformation. The only intense feelings she has are for Connor—and she's kept that a secret, too. But she knows she'll never truly have Connor's love if she's not a Shifter like him.At the first full moon after her birthday, her greatest fear is realized: She doesn't transform. Brittany is so desperate to become a wolf that she'll go to extremes she never thought possible... and put all the Dark Guardians in incredible danger."

RAMPANT by Diana Peterfreund. "Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. Fortunately, they've been extinct for a hundred and fifty years. Or not. Astrid had always scoffed at her eccentric mother's stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriend—thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to the prom—Astrid finds herself headed to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries."

SENT: THE MISSING by Margaret Peterson Haddix. "Thirteen-year-olds Jonah and Chip are reeling from the news that they're both missing children from history, kidnapped from their proper time period. Before they can fully absorb this revelation, a time purist named JB zaps Chip and another boy, Alex, back to the fifteenth century, where they supposedly belong. Determined not to lose their friends, Jonah and his sister, Katherine, grab Chip's arms just as he's being sent away. The result? Jonah and Katherine also end up in the fifteenth century, where they decidedly do not belong. Chip's true identity is Edward V, king of England, and Alex is his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York. But Chip is convinced that his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, plans to kill them and seize the throne for himself. JB promises that if the kids can "fix time," he will allow them to return to the present day. But how can they possibly return home safely when history claims that Chip and Alex were murdered?"

SNAP by Carol Snow. "Madison Sabatini thought she knew who she was: an almost-sophomore with a bright future. The newest photographer on her school paper. A shopaholic with great hair and a fabulous wardrobe. Then, in a flash, everything changed. Now she's stuck in Sandyland, a gloomy beach town in the middle of nowhere, living with her parents in a crappy hotel "suite." Instead of spending the summer with her friends at home, she's hanging out with pink-haired Delilah, an artist who works in a shop called Psychic Photo, and a skater boy named Duncan who's totally not her type. Except, maybe he is . . . Determined to make the best of things, Madison throws herself into her one passion: photography. But when strange figures start appearing in her pictures—people who weren't there when she snapped the shots, people who are later reported dead—she begins to question everything about who she is . . . and who she wishes she could be."

THE STONE CHILD by Dan Poblocki. "Eddie Fennicks has always been a loner, content to lose himself in a mystery novel by his favorite author, Nathaniel Olmstead. That’s why moving to the small town of Gatesweed becomes a dream come true when Eddie discovers that Olmstead lived there before mysteriously disappearing thirteen years ago. Even better, Eddie finds a handwritten, never-before-seen Nathaniel Olmstead book printed in code and befriends Harris, who’s as much an Olmsteady as he is. But then the frightening creatures of Olmstead’s books begin to show up in real life, and Eddie’s dream turns into a nightmare. Eddie, Harris, and their new friend, Maggie, must break Olmstead’s code, banish all gremlins and monster lake-dogs from the town of Gatesweed, and solve the mystery of the missing author, all before Eddie’s mom finishes writing her own tale of terror and brings to life the scariest creature of all."

THE STRUGGLE: THE VAMPIRE DIARIES by L. J. Smith (sorry, no blurb on Amazon)

TOMBSTONE TEA by Joanne Dahme. "In order to be accepted by the “in crowd” at her new high school, Jamie accepts a dare to spend one night in a local cemetery collecting rubbings from ten gravestones. Once inside the gate of the dark and frightening burial ground, Jamie meets Paul, a handsome boy who works as a caretaker at the cemetery. Paul explains to Jamie about Tombstone Tea: a fund-raising performance in which actors impersonate the people buried in the cemetery. The actors are supposedly rehearsing on this particular evening, but Jamie quickly discovers that they aren’t actors at all but the ghosts of men and women buried in the cemetery. When one woman decides to adopt Jamie to replace her lost daughter, our heroine fears she may never escape the cemetery."

VIOLET WINGS by Victoria Hanley. "For Zaria Tourmaline, the three years without her mother and brother have been lonely ones, living with a cold and distant guardian while she completes her education. Just as she is ready to join the world of adult fairies and genies, she finds a spellbook written entirely in her mother’s hand. But this treasured object is not safe from a new enemy, a fairy with more power than Zaria ever dreamed existed. Only among the humans–who must never know fairies and genies exist–can Zaria hide the spellbook; but hidden magic, it turns out, can expose a fairy in ways she never thought possible."

THE WALLS HAVE EYES by Clare B. Dunkle. "Martin Glass may have seen his baby sister, Cassie, to safety at the end of The Sky Inside, but his problems are far from over. There's a totalitarian regime in place, murderous game shows on the air, and a host of government agents on Martin's tail. And Martin and his Alldog, Chip, get more than they bargained for when they have to go back to Martin's old suburb to rescue Martin's parents. But spending time in the wilderness with Mom and Dad isn't the worst of it. Because Martin learns that Cassie is still in danger, and to keep her and the other Wonder Babies safe, he's going to have to risk the thing he loves most."


Libyrinth, by Pearl North

Libyrinth, by Pearl North (Tor, 2009, YA, 321pp)

In a not-earth place far in the future, there is the Libyrinth--an immense, underground warren of books, jealously guarded by the Libyrarians. It is an island of literacy on a world where books are threatened. As the book opens, books are being burned to placate the powerful Eradicants, who seek to destroy the evil they feel books represent, and bring every one into the Song, sharing knowledge with the poor and illiterate, instead of keeping it locked away in a fortress of books.

When a word is spoken, it is born, when it is written, it dies. Sacred fire of life, free the shackled dead. (page 1)

Haly, a young clerk in the Libyrinth, takes each book burning especially hard. For Haly, books aren't just words on paper; they literally speak to her inside her head, so that as she wanders through the stacks, she hears a constant chorus of words.

The world of the Libyrinth is one where technology has been lost, and knowledge scattered. One book, The Book of the Night, is said to hold the secrets of the ancients, that might bring back some of the skills Haly's people have lost. But the stacks of the Libyrinth are a maze (Haly's Libyrarian parents died down there), and the book, so eagerly sought by both Libyrarians and Eradicants, who want to know its secrets before they burn it, is lost.

Haly flees from the Eradicant besieged Libyrinth with her companions (Selene, a Libyrarian, Clauda, a kitchen helper, and Nod, a reclusive library imp) in a desperate bid to find help from Selene's royal family. On the journey, Haly hears the voices of the books trapped in a lost branch library buried underground, and finds a copy The Book of the Night.

But soon the Eradicants, the book haters, who imprison and torture anyone found with a book, find Haly. And Selene and Clauda find themselves caught in a web of intrigue that builds to a violent power struggle. And... you can go read the book if you want to find out more.

It's good stuff--the sort of girl gang adventure where smart and strong young women face down people that want to oppress them, in a fantastical place that gives the story room to grow in fantastical ways. Things move along at a brisk pace. One regret I have regarding this book is that there's not more--more background about the planet, more about the ancients, more time in general to enjoy the plot, and more time spent in the company of the very engaging characters. With more, I might have fallen in love with the book, rather than simply enjoying it just fine.

That being said, this is a book for the book lover. Quotations from books speaking to Haly swirl delightfully through the story (Charlotte's Web, The Joy of Cooking, Fox in Socks, etc), and they are all listed in an appendix at the back. Giving this story some depth is a hint of Le Guin-ish-ness, in the tension between oral vs written knowledge, and the effects of this on culture. An especially powerful moment comes when Haly reads The Diary of Anne Frank, a testament to the importance of the written word if there ever was one, to the leaders of the Eradicants.

Libyrinth might well appeal to fans of both fantasy (the adventurous journey side of things) and science fiction (the lost technology side of things). But there's one thing that I bet would raise the hackles of the hard-core science-fiction reader, and which requires suspension of disbelief even by the Luddites among us--why the heck are there all these printed books in a library on another planet? Where are the kindles? Although, if there were kindles, they probably wouldn't work any more...and there would be no story.

Viz diversity in sci fi/fantasy--the cover speaks for itself (and you can read the cover story here, at Melissa Walker's blog). The first draft of the cover is at right--the final Haly is much stronger and more rooted, and, if you look closely, you can see they've added Nod the imp, for a touch of magic. I'd also like to add, speaking of diversity, that reference is matter-of-factly made to women falling in love with women--this is a normal part of some of the social groups in this world.

"Pearl North" is the pseudonym of a published sci fi/fantasy author, and I am consumed with curiosity. Edited to add: thanks to Memory, I now know that Pearl North is really Anne Harris. Why did she feel that she needed a pseudonym??? I hope it's not because this is a YA book...

Here are other reviews and discussions, at Blog Critics, Tor/Forge's Blog, Stella Matutina, and The Book Smugglers.

And here's an interview with "Pearl North," at Writing It Out.


A Samuel Delany link, an Ursula Le Guin link, plus a third bonus mystery link

Wesleyan University Press has released a new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science-Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany, with revisions and expansions of the original essays and a new introduction by Matthew Cheney, a columnist for Strange Horizens. It sounds fascinating. At Omnivoracious, Cheney interviews Delany about, among other things, writing non-fiction about science fiction.

(Speaking of the language of science fiction, here's a diverting post from Eva's Book Addiction about the language of fantasy...)

And here's a chat with Ursula Le Guin, from the New Yorker last July, in which she discusses The Left Hand of Darkness. Topics include the fact that the main character is described, in a very off-hand way, as black, the inclusion of stories within the story, sex, and gender.

She really is in a class all by herself, in my opinion. Wouldn't it be cool if she won the Nobel Prize? Although my money would have to be on The Graveyard Book (it having won just about everything else).

My Unwilling Witch Sleeps Over, by Hiawyn Oram

My Unwilling Witch Sleeps Over, by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Sarah Warburton (Little Brown--Hachette, hardcover edition published 2009, young middle grade, 112 pp)

Rumblewick's job is enough to set his whiskers on edge. Other cats have witches who are witches--Rumblewick is the familiar to a young girl witch who isn't witchly in the least. A witch who can't stand to harm essential ingredients (slugs, toads, etc). Worse than that, a witch who is fascinated by the "other side," where girls do gymnastics, have sleepovers, and do a lot of giggling.

But Haggie Aggie (HA) doesn't let the strict code of witch behavior stand in her way, and she's off to the other side to hang out with her human friends, leaving Rumblewick working frantically to keep the other witches from learning the shocking depths of HA's unwitchly-ness...

Told in the form of Rumblewick's diary, with lots of black and white illustrations and a few magical spells, this is a fun and fast book for the young middle grade reader. Rumblewick's smart and funny point of view keeps the story going briskly, and (in as much as he has no interest in the girl doings of the other side) keeps the books from being just one big girl fest. Although it's aimed at girls, my nine-year old boy read it with enjoyment, and my six-year old boy listened to me read it with interest (helped, I think, by the non-pinkness of the cover--it doesn't scream Girl Book. Even though it really is).

I'm making a point of this because good, entertaining, copiously illustrated, easy books for a kid who is unwilling to plunge into "real" chapter books are so darn useful. These are the books I label Not Quite Middle Grade, if anyone is looking for other examples.

This is the second book about HA and Rumblewick, the first being My Unwilling Witch Goes to Ballet School. (Which also has a rather non-girly cover. Although the spine color teeters on the edge...), and there are several more in the series. They were first published in paperback a few years ago, and are now being reissued in hardcover, which I think adds to their not-quite-middle-grade reader appeal, and possibly to the parent-wanting-child-to-read-real-book appeal too. Hardcover books make nicer presents.

(review copy received from publisher)


Night Runner, by Max Turner

Night Runner, by Max Turner (St. Martin’s, Sep 1 2009, YA), is a vampire book filled with excitement, tension, death, mayhem, and a bit of first love. It's a fast, easy read. And, setting it apart from many other books that fit this description, the main character is a boy.

Zack has spent years living in a mental institution. After his parents died when he was a child, he developed strange allergies that required a liquid diet of red stuff, and left him unable to tolerate sunlight, and so the authorities thought it best to give him an institutional home where he could be looked after. So Zack has the night-time freedom of the place, and life is tolerable....until a strange guy in a motorcycle crashes through the front of the building and tries to whisk him away.

Boy, I failed as a reader here--I don't think it's particularly spoilerish to assume that most people can put two and two together and end up with a teenaged vampire, but it was a surprise to me...and, more importantly, to Zack. He had no idea.

Now Zack is running for his life in a scary world of vampires and vampire hunters, not sure who he can trust, and not at all sure how to live as one of the undead himself. He turns to his best friend Charlie for help, and meets a girl he might like to fall in love with (chaos and threat of imminent death permitting), but they too become drawn into the violent stream of events that is overwhelming Zack as he races to find the mystery of his parents' death...

The characters are interesting, the tension high, the writing crisp.* A good one for the proverbial reluctant teenaged boy reader, or anyone who wants a dark, fast, read. It will leave readers wanting more, so thankfully there's a sequel on its way.

*Today's definition of crisp writing--lots of short, to the point sentences. No unnecessary wittering about feelings, although these are made clear. Not much description for the sake of description. Little, if any, time spent by the characters remembering the past in big chunks. I just read on another blog that "if you love Twilight, you will love this book." I do not think this is the case.

You can win a free copy of Night Runner here at The Vampire Librarian (ends August 31st).

Other reviews at Genre Go Round, Hip Librarians Book Blog, and Tara's Blog.

And now I've read other reviews, I feel that I was so caught up with the plot that I didn't realize this was also, on a deeper level, a book about growing up and finding out who you are etc. Which I suppose it is, but that's not what I was busy noticing. I was wondering, right there along with Zack, if he would a. survive b. get any cool vampire super powers c. hook up with the nice girl.

And here's a quiz you can take, based on the book, to see if you are a vampire, or "just another teenager."

(ARC received from publisher)



The Cybils are starting again! The Cybils are awards bestowed on worthy, kid-friendly children's and YA books by us, the bloggers, and I think this produces the best shortlists of any awards around--I have yet to read a Cybils shortlisted book that disappointed me.

Since the books are chosen by us, the bloggers, obviously bloggers are needed to read the books in all the various genres covered (YA, Middle Grade, Easy Reader, Poetry, Sci Fi/Fan tasty, Picture books, two levels of Non Fiction). The call has gone out, and now is the time to submit yourself if you would you would like to be one of the panelists (who create the shortlists) or the judges (who pick the winners).

The details are all at the Cybils website, but I've copied a large piece of it here, with a few annotations from me in [parentheses]:

There are two rounds of judging, and two types of judges.



Panelists are the first-round judges. You start work when nominations close on Oct. 15th, sifting through scores of nominated books in your chosen genre. [if you are reading something like sci fi/fantasy, which had 161 books last year, you start reading and requesting library holds the moment you find out you made the cut, and as nominations start rolling in, you gather as many together as you can. It is a very serious commitment, especially in December, when it becomes clear that you did not read the fifty books you had planned for November. The wordiest, largest genres (ie the biggest commitment reading time wise) are middle grade, sci fi/fantasy, and YA].

You’ll join a Yahoo! Group or similar list and use a database to keep track of what you’ve read.
Although we make every effort to obtain review copies for you, you may have to track down some copies via interlibrary loans, or plop yourself on the floor of your bookstore of choice (we cannot reimburse you for purchases). [the Yahoo Group part is the BEST. It was so much fun last year talking books with the rest of my gang! You don't have to talk about every book you've read, but the comments group members make, the more rewarding it is for their co-panelists who procrastinate by checking their email too often, and it's fun to get snarky or serious lines of discussion going. Seriously, this is the best chance to have cool online discussions of books in your favorite genre that I know of. I also liked looking at the database to see how many books had been read. Not that I'm competitive, or anything].

One word: e-books. Get used to them! Publishers are getting stingy with the dead tree kind. Review copies were horribly scarce last year. [although we still got lots--when there are 161 books to read, even if you only get 1/4 of them, mail time is still exciting]

We have a 50-page rule. Each panel commits only to making sure every nominated book is read to at least the 50th page by at least one person. This prevents wasting time on marginal books.
You turn in a shortlist of 5-7 titles in late December and then collapse in an exhausted heap. This isn't an exaggeration! [the chat at the end, where you argue about your shortlist, is fun too...]

[there's no requirement that you have to blog about the books you read, but I tried to make an effort to do so, especially for books that were sent by the publishers]


Judges pick up where panelists leave off. You start work on Jan. 1, 2009 and will present us with a winner by Feb. 12th.

While we make a Herculean effort to get review copies to you extra speedy fast, it is UP TO YOU to make sure you read EVERY SINGLE BOOK ON THE SHORTLIST in a timely fashion. [from the panelist's point of view, reading and discussing 5-7 books in 6 weeks seems easy peasy].
We have plenty of librarian volunteers who can familiarize you with interlibrary loans, and there’s always that cozy spot on the floor of your bookstore of choice. Sorry for the harsh tone, but it’s been an issue, y’know?
You don’t need to be Super Extrovert Blabbermouth, but you should be willing to engage the other judges as soon as you’ve read 2 or 3 of the finalists. Jump in there. Go ahead. Please.

Getting rejected:
Please don’t stop the love if we cannot find a place for you on a panel. We’re not judging your looks. It doesn’t mean all your blogging efforts have come to naught.
But, yes, it’s ultimately a subjective decision who to take on and where to place them. Here are a few of the more obvious criteria, in no real order:

A demonstrated expertise in the genre;
A demonstrated enthusiasm for blogging;
A blog that has built a following (not necessarily a huge one -- loyalty counts too);
The blogger’s prestige (ie, you might be an award-winning illustrator, or have a Ph.D. in children’s poetry)

(end of description lifted from Cybils website)

So, if this sounds like something you'd like to do, here's the Cybils post that tells you how to put your name forward. Good luck!

The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron, for Timeslip Tuesday

Today's Timeslip Tuesday book is one that I have been re-reading ever since I was young. I am not alone in liking this book--The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron (Penguin, 1973, middle grade, 191 pp), won the National Book Award when it was first published.

Nina and her parents moved to San Fransisco four months ago from a tiny town up in the mountains, leaving cat and friends behind. Now she is lonely and discontented, hating the strange city. Things change when Nina learns about the nearby French Museum--she knows she must go there, now, immediately. Exploring the garden with its statues of long gone French children, and wandering through the period rooms, that recreate a Napolionic era chateau, Nina begins to imagine herself in the past....and realizes she is not alone. There, curled up on one of the beds, is Dominique, a mysterious French girl who seems perfectly at home in the museum. With reason--the rooms are from her home, a home that she left over 100 years ago. And she needs Nina's help to unravel the mystery that clouded her life.

From the journal of another French girl, who lived at the same time as Dominique, strangely vivid dreams, and listening to Dominique, Nina begins to piece together what happened one fateful week, long ago.

It is a gently eerie story, with intense descriptions of place and atmosphere. Perhaps it is more "ghost story" than time travel story, but the nature of time is a central theme of the book (the characters talk about it a lot, which I as a child found very interesting). Chagall's painting, Time is a River Without Banks, hangs in the museum, and this is the sort of fluid time that lets past and present meet in Nina and Dominique's friendship.

Although I enjoyed the story very much in all my re-readings, it is the setting that makes this a book I love. This particular museum a lovely place--"a long, pale yellow building-no, not yellow; more a pale gold in this brooding storm light--that stood in a sweep of lawns scattered with trees" (page 8). Nina longs to be a curator when she grows up, and begins her apprenticeship here, letting the reader in with her behind the scenes (and in my mind, behind the scenes of a museum is a fascinating place, even now that I've done it quite a bit in real life).

It's hard for me to say if an adult reading this for the first time would enjoy it, and I wouldn't recommend it for the young reader looking for exciting action and adventure (perhaps the descriptions would be a bit much? The characters too eager to tell to much about the workings of their minds to each other (this gets on my nerves a bit, re-reading it as an adult)? The plot a bit slow?) but for an imaginative girl, fascinated by the past, who likes to daydream that magic and mystery might be just around the corner, this book is pretty perfect.

One thing that annoys me, and I wish they had changed it in the more recent edition:

"Why do you want to be a curator?" the boy asked. "Women can, I suppose. I mean, there's no law against it..." (page 4). This seems incredibly dated even for the 1970s.


Diversity in Science Fiction--the lastest failure, and scattered thoughts on feminism in children's fantasy

There was a bit of a stink recently when it was revealed that a new anthology, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, edited by Mike Ashley, had in it not a single story by a woman or a person of color--here's the table of contents, and some interesting reading in the comments. I found at Feminist SF-The Blog this quote from Ashley, explaining that this "...probably has something to do with my concept of “mind-blowing”. Women are every bit as capable of writing mindblowing sf as men are, but with women the stories concentrate far more on people, life, society and not the hard-scientific concepts I was looking for."

As a counter to this, Feminist SF is soliciting suggestions of mindblowing SF by women here, and The Angry Black Woman is doing the same for People of Color here. The lists to date can be seen here at the Tor blog.

Thinking about feminist SF lead me to muse about feminist fantasy for children and young people. This is hard for me, because I find it difficult to read children's fantasy books critically, in part perhaps because I am weak-mindedly trying to recapture my naive childhood reading self.

I'm also working my way here toward defining feminism with regard to children's and YA fantasy. I think that in general it's a lot easier to point out books that aren't feminist, than to find those that clearly are. Many fantasies with strong female characters exist, but I'm not sure I'd call them all "feminist," exactly. If an important female character knows how to use a sword, or uses her wits to extricate self and others from a few situations, is that enough to make a book feminist? No. (I'm thinking David Eddings' Belgariad here, for instance).

I think there has to be some meaningful defiance of the social, economic, and political ramifications of patriarchy, or, by presenting the heroine as a denizen of a land without patriarchy, some degree of less direct subversion of the normative male-dominated culture so ubiquitous in fantasy. The examples from my own childhood reading that stand out here are Dragonsong* and Dragonsinger, the story of how Menolly defies the gender stereotypes of her culture to win a place for herself at the Harper Hall (and boy do I hate Masterharper of Pern for totally obviating the whole point of Menolly's story).

Now I am trying to decide if I think Graceling is feminist or not...

And I am also wondering if in fact I really want l to try to catch my fiction reading self up to my critical academic anthropologist/archaeologist self...and risk loosing my innocent pleasure in a good story. Which in turn leads me to thinking about Ursula Le Guin's short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." A story, incidentally, that blew my mind.

*this is the cover that was on my copy of Dragonsong, and all the other covers are not as nice.

Edited to add: here is a post from Sarah Rees Brennon's blog that is both relevant and amusing.

The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan

"There are demons living in another world....a world side by side with ours, and they are hungry.

They are hungry for the sounds and sights and sensations of our world. None of them can get in, though. None of them can touch you, unless a magicians' circle builds a bridge for the demons. Stay safe. Stay away from magicians." (page 17)

The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon and Schuster, 2009, YA 322 pp) tells of two teenaged brothers who have spent their lives on the run from demon-raising magicians, caring for their mother (who was driven mad by magic), and fighting off magical attacks. Nick, the younger of the two and the central character, is a fierce fighter who cares only for his older brother, Alan. Alan is his opposite--a loving, gentle, book-loving young man who spreads his compassion widely. When a Jamie, a boy from Nick's school, and his sister show up at their door, desperate for help, it is Alan who takes them in. And when Alan takes on part of the demonic sign that has appeared on Jamie's skin, saving the boy's life but opening himself up to death by demonic possession in the process, Nick is furious. He'll do anything to help his brother--including hunting down the most dangerous magician of them all...

It is a fast-paced story of demonic danger set in a nicely realized imaginary world within our world, that features good use of sharp weapons, among other excitements. Nick is one of the more fascinating central characters I've come across in a fantasy novel. His single-minded fierceness, and his inability to understand basic human emotions, might make him an unlikable character, one not easy to empathize with. But Brennan has written him richly and believably, and he is tremendously interesting. So is the relationship between the brothers, and the story itself.

Sure, there's trouble with demons and magicians and people being marked for death, but this is a funny book too--there are quite a few welcome moments of levity that lift the reader out of the dark testiness that is Nick's point of view. Here's an example:

Jamie, at one point on a rather dangerous wizard hunting expedition, is chatting to Nick as they stalk. "I mean, I don't want to offend you, but it's not just that you summon demons. It's not even about the fact that you've got more knives on you right now than a fancy restaurant has in its silverware drawer. You, um, you don't smile, and you look through people, and you're--"
"Quiet," Nick said.
"Yes, you're very quiet," Jamie agreed, "and I have to say, I find it a little disturbing."
"I mean," Nick said, "shut up. I think I see something."
At the left corner of the bar was a magician. He was buying a bag of crisps." (p 154)

(I love it).

But Brennan only puts in just enough humor to lighten the story without distracting--Nick and Alan's journey remains dark, and ominous, and completely gripping, in a "character-driven magical violence and suspense" kind of way.

Viz age of reader--sure, there's scary stuff, a smidge of torture, and a couple of hints of demonic lust lurking around, but not really that much more than is in the Harry Potter books (although, after typing it, I am hard pressed to think of any hints of demonic lust at all in those), but anyway, my point is that younger readers, seventh or eight graders (girl or boy) might really be as thrilled by this as the rest of us.

A sample of other reviews and reactions: Read This Book, Carrie's YA Bookshelf, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Teacozy, and LiyanaLand.


Ripley's Seeing is Believing

Did you know that elephants in India have been trained to carry cameras into the jungle? Because elephants and Bengal tigers are used to sharing their habitat, the elephants were able to get unparalleled pictures of the rarely photographed cats.

Did you know that mooses' antlers act as hearing aids?

That a mother duck, after her babies were swept down a storm drain, followed the sound of their desperate peeping more than mile above ground? (I think this would be a great picture book).

These are a few of the very diverting things I read about about on my bus ride home yesterday. An all new Ripley's Believe It or Not book had arrived--Seeing is Believing (Ripley, 2009), and it added much enjoyment to my commute. As the examples above show, I was especially fascinated by the section on animals (less ethically problematic for me than the section on human curiosities), but the book contains a wealth of curious and eyebrow-raising snippets about a wide range of subjects--extreme earth, incredible feats, travel tales, amazing science, and strange sites, to name a few chapter headings. It's copiously illustrated, and the bullet format of the entries makes it easy to dip into in a relaxed way.

This sort of information is fun to read for its own sake, and the non-fiction loving middle grade kid should find much to enjoy here. But (bringing this into my blog's topic) the subject matter of this book can also serves as a springboard to the imagination--many of the tidbits of fact seem like things out of fantasy or science fiction, and many entries would make great story prompts for young writers creating their own unbelievable stories.

I'd advise some parental discretion--there are some pretty disturbing stories and pictures here, that verge on nightmarish--an x-ray of a kitten swallowed by a snake, some of the strange things people do themselves, human sideshows (baby ducks crying for their mama....it doesn't actually say that the mother ever found her babies, and I'm a bit afraid she never did). That being said, an older kid could conceivably spend hours poring over this, learning and marvelling and shuddering over the almost unbelievable things this book offers. And is rather appealing as well to some of us older readers, who might sometimes procrastinate a bit too enthusiastically by reading odd news on line...I always click on links to articles about two-headed chickens.

(review copy received from the publisher)


"I'll help save the world, but just let me finish this chapter..." Girls who read in fantasy books

I recently got an email from a blog I follow (Grasping for the Wind) soliciting responses to the question: What fantasy world do you want to live in? This is a rather hard question, because I would like very much to live in a world where a girl can read, and has access to books--"Oh, all right, I'll come help you save the world--just let me finish this chapter..." (I also would like to live in a world where I wasn't in immanent danger of difficult deaths, demonic possession, zombies oozing guck onto the pages of my book, etc., which narrows it down somewhat).

So I have been casting my mind through the fantasy books I can remember, looking for girls who read. Here's what I have come up with.

Paula, in Cybele's Secret, by Juliette Marillier. This sequel to Wildwood Dancing features a smart, book-learned and intellectually curious girl (and it's a great mystery/adventure/coming of age story). The medieval setting, however, means that light fiction is not an option.

Beauty, in Robin Mckinley's book of the same name. This is a tempting one, as inside the Beast's castle there is a library that includes books not yet written. Lots to read! But do they all vanish when the enchantment ends? That would stink.

Ash, in Malinda Lo's book of the same name. Ash doesn't have many books, but she does have her favorite book of fairy tales, that she loves and re-reads...There's also a library in the town house she lives in, so it's clear this world has publishers. And it appears to be in general a civilized place, with a nice whaft of magic around the edges--a possibility.

Nepenthe, in Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia McKillip. Here's a girl who was raised by librarians, and who works as a translator...it's a fine library, but rather scholarly, so little chance that she's reading fantasy. McKillip's Riddle Master series also seems like a world in which a girl can read, but I can't recall any girls doing so.

Haly, in Libyrinth, by Pearl North. I'm just starting this one, but it begins with Haly mourning for the loss of Charlotte's Web. Of course, the reason she's mourning it is that a nasty anti-book mob has demanded that it be burned, so this is a bad world for a reader...

Rhis, from A Posse of Princesses, by Sherwood Smith. She has a tower room, in which there is "a small case containing all her favorite books." This sounds hopeful--the implication being that there are lots of other books in her world that aren't her favorites. Also there are no zombies in her world, reducing the chances of unpleasant stains.

That's all I can think of right now--any more fantasy books with girls who read? I feel that there are several others, lurking on the edge of my mind.

Edited to add: Indeed, I left out quite a few.

Deva Fagan suggests Inkheart, and also

"Hermione, but she mostly reads non-fiction from what we see. But she certainly loves books!

Lireal (Garth Nix) is a reader and librarian.

Flora Segunda reads the sensational accounts of her heroes, if I recall, though that's not exactly novels." (I am rather ashamed to say that I haven't read Inkheart, any of the books about Lireal, or Flora...).

Becky reminded me of Charmain Baker, of Diana Wynne Jones' House of Many Ways, who "loved books more than anything else in the world" (page 8) and who wrote the following letter: "Your Majesty, Ever since I was a small child and first heard of your great collection of books and manuscripts, I have longed to work in your library" (page 7). Of course, Charmain's world comes with giant predatory supernatural insecty things, which I could do without...but it would be rather fun to bump into Howl.

And Penthe reminded me of a book I truly love--"Voices by Ursula le Guin, where reading and books are both beloved, and also help to save the day. Memer loves to read in her grandfather's hidden library." I knew there was a Le Guin I wanted to remember!

Els (aka Librarian Mom) suggests "the oldest sister in The Secret World of Og, by Pierre Berton, who reads a series of books about daring adventurer Lucy Lawless [not to be confused with the real-life actor Lucy Lawless of Xena Warrior Princess fame...] [and Og is Canadian and almost unknown in the U.S. but it's still in print & I highly recommend it!]" Sadly, Og isn't in the Rhode Island Library system...

Memory adds "Talia, the main character in Mercedes Lackey's ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, steals time away from her chores so she can read purloined novels. And both the female and male characters in Anne Bishop's Black Jewels books kick back with romances and mysteries."

Please let me know of any other examples of reading girls in fantasy; I'll keep adding to the list (which is now rather longer than I thought it would be) as needed.

And for the advanced challenge, are there any fantasy worlds that have good used bookstores?

In general, though, it seems strange to me that books, which one presumes were written for readers, don't actually show people reading much at all. Here's what I am waiting for--books that show people reading their kindle-like thingys in space, and wondering what paper is. Although this may have already happened. It sure would have solved the problem in The Green Book, by Jill Paton Walsh, in which a family moves to a colony world--the children can only take one book each, and are sad about this. As well they might be.


Ash, by Malinda Lo

Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little Brown, 2009--officially Sept. 1, but Amazon says it's in stock now, YA, 264 pp in ARC form).

In a land where the old magic has become more story than reality, and the Greenwitches, the wise women who practice the old ways, are being challenged by the philosophers spreading a religion of rational thought, a girl grows up reading fairy tales. But Aisling (Ash for short) lives at the edge of the deep woods, where the night can carry the voices of inhuman riders, and the hoof beats of their horses...and she knows there is truth in the stories.

When Ash's mother dies, her father does not wait long before he brings home a new wife and her two daughters from the city. Ash, sad and lonely, is drawn to her mother's grave at night, despite of the warnings that this might draw the fairy folk to her, or perhaps because of them. Her father dies soon after, and Ash is taken from her home to work as a servant in her stepmother's town house. But one day she is pulled back through the woods, along an enchanted path that leads again to her mother's grave, and there she meets a man of the fairy kind, Sidhean.

"What are you seeking?" he said, and his voice was silky and cold. Though they were separated by several feet, she was disconcerted by the intensity of his gaze; she felt as if he could pull her open form afar.

"I came to see my mother." (page 66)

He cannot, or will not, bring her mother back, but he does carry Ash on his white fairy steed back to her stepmother's house. After, when Ash walks into the forest, at times they meet again, and a strange and otherworldly friendship develops...

In the real world, Ash cleans, and cooks, and grows up dressing her stepsisters for their matchmaking endeavours. Scattered through those years like bright lights are Ash's meetings with the King's Huntress, Kaisa, a young woman whose skill at tracking deer for the king's pleasure is unsurpassed. Ash and Kaisa slowly begin to seek each other out, never quite acknowledging that each is pulling the other toward her...and Ash decides that she will do anything to go to the prince's grand ball, where Kaisa will be. So she makes a bargain with Sidhean, and caught in the thrall of his fairy glamour, it does not seem such a bad one. Until she realizes that it Kaisa she truly loves, and she remembers that not one of the fairy tales she has read ends with the human woman coming home, unchanged.

This is a lovely reimagining of the Cinderella story, and I think it is one of the best fairy tale retellings I've ever read. It has a subtle medieval tapestry feel to it (leaping stags, and hunters in pursuit, dark woods imbued with magic--the sense of the numinous, just around the corner), that makes the story sing without overwhelming the narrative. It is told in the third person, which adds to the fairy tale feeling by giving the reader a subtle remove from the action that separates the story from the real world. The elements of the original Cinderella (complete with enchanted carriage) are present, but made fresh by the compelling characters that Lo has created, and the twists she adds to the plot. My one criticism is that I think there should have been more tension and drama at the end--things resolved rather too quickly and easily for my taste. And some readers might find that the book in general moves slowly, and feel that Ash doesn't actually Do enough. I would say, rather, that it was peacefully engrossing.

Lo's use of the third person was a good choice, I think, in as much as Ash falls in love with another woman. First person narrative requires the reader to become the character at a certain level, but by keeping Ash a step removed from this, even readers for whom this relationship might seem foreign are able to empathise with the giddy, dizzying sensation of falling hard in love--and Lo writes these feelings exquisitely! And for those who like to crush on the male lead, the relationship between Ash and Sidhean provides that opportunity. It is, incidentally, a clean read--although it is YA, there is nothing here that would keep me from giving this to an older middle school girl (it's about the same level, romance wise, of something like McKinley's The Hero and the Crown).

Lo has created a world in which heterosexuality is the norm, but where same sex relationships are unremarkable, adding diversity to the fantasy genre without in the least bit didactically belabouring the point. She has also quite simply created a beautiful book, one that I know I will be re-reading through the years.

ps. The cover is rather beautiful too, and kudos to Little Brown for giving us a heroine who is not necessarily white (I stared at for a while today, and decided it was too ambiguous to tell if she was Asian or not, and that each reader would have to make that call themselves). Here are Lo's thoughts about it, in the context of the ongoing discussions about representations of race in YA fiction (ie, Liar).

Other reviews can be found at The Compulsive Reader, In the Booley House, Killin' Time Reading, The Tainted Poet, and Presenting Lenore.

(ARC received from the publisher)

Friends in Time, by Grace Chatwin, for Timeslip Tuesday

Friends in Time, by Grace Chatwin (Macmillan, 1992, middle grade, 127pp).

Emma is facing yet another move--the loss of her best friend, and the lonely prospect of a new school full of strangers. Visiting the old abandoned Bently mansion next door for the last time, Emma wishes for a best friend forever, and, as if in answer to her prays, Abigail Bently appears. She's been whisked from 1846 to Emma's time by the power of a shaman's doll, appropriated by her merchant uncle on his last trip to Brazil.

Emma is thrilled to have a new friend, and delights in showing off such wonders as modern plumbing and electricity. Abigail wants nothing more than to use the doll to go home again...only Emma has hidden it, hoping to keep Abigail as a friend forever.

"Abigail will be much happier here and now, with me, she told herself. Emma thought again of all the fun she'd have, showing Abigail the present day. Going on bike rides together...

Tonight, the bathroom plumbing: tomorrow- the world!" (page 67)

But when at last the way through time opens again, Emma, to her horror, goes back with Abigail. There she must hope her "friend" forgives her enough for trying to keep her as a pet to send her home again.

This is, at its heart, a story of friendship, for which the timeslip serves as a setting and gives added interest, and it's rather successful in its portrayal of the difficult relationship between the girls and the hunger for a best friend that lonely girls often feel. But because this element of the story is more important than their time travelling adventures, the reactions of each girl to the other's time are somewhat superficial, and there's only a small touch, here and there, of the creepy disorientation that often comes with the genre. The doll from Brazil, the mechanism that causes the timeslip, is a somewhat disturbing device--it never quite goes beyond the neo-colonialist cliche of the Dark Magic of Native Peoples, so much so that I don't particularly want to recommend this book--but, to do it justice, it works rather well to make the story cohesive, providing both impetus and explanation.

In a nutshell, this isn't one I'd particularly recommend as a timelip qua timeslip, and I have issues with the doll, but in all fairness, it's a perfectly readable story of middle school friendship with the time travel element making it memorable.


Dead Girl in Love, by Linda Joy Singleton

In Dead Girl Walking, by Linda Joy Singleton (my review), a wrong turn at a local cemetery almost sent Amber on her way up and out of life. But with the help of her dead grandmother, she became instead a Temp-Lifer, inhabiting the body of another girl while that one's soul got a chance to rest. In Dead Girl Dancing, she did it again--this time becoming her boyfriend's older sister. Now, in Dead Girl In Love (Flux, 2009, 282pp, YA), Amber's assignment is a person even closer to her--her best friend, Alyce. When Amber wakes up as Alyce and finds herself in a coffin (fortunately still in the funeral home display room), she starts off on a journey into Alyce's life that shows her things about the person she thought she knew so well that she had never dreamed of. Two bad dates in Alyce's life later (and what will Alyce say when she knows!), Amber realizes what it is that Alyce is really looking for--the answer to a dark family secret.

In the meantime, Amber is getting into hot water on her own accord. The Dark Lifer who was out to get her in the earlier books is back, seeking Amber's help to find redemption. But although Amber is enthralled and attracted, what about her own boyfriend?

This series is smart and funny, with the light humor of the language and its wry portrayal of the potential pitfalls of being in someone else's body enough to thoroughly entertain, while touching on genuine problems and emotional issues.

This is a excellent series for kids at the beginning of adventuring into the YA section--it's not dark, violent, or relationship obsessed, but still has tang (zest? zip?). Having said that, I want to make it clear that hardened veterans of YA fantasy (me being a case in point) should enjoy it too, as a pleasantly diverting read.

Here's one of my favorite quotes:

"Walking among rows of flowers, shrubs, and trees with a dead guy who spouted poetry and stole bodies was weird, but finding out that he wanted me to save his soul was weird squared to infinity." (Page 88)

And here's the story, at Beside the Norm, of how the Dead Girl series took twenty years to come to life. And here are other reviews, at Jen Robinson's Book Page and at Sharon Loves Books and Cats.

(finished copy of the book received from Flux)


New Releases of Science Fiction and Fantasy for Children and Teens--the middle of August edition

Here are the new releases of science fiction and fantasy for kids and teens from August 6 to 18th. Actually, there is no science fiction on the list, but if there had been any released I would have included it (why isn't more sci fi for kids being written/published?)

The list is taken as usual from Teens Read Too, and the blurbs are lifted from Amazon, unless otherwise noted.

For 9-12 year olds:

THE ARCTIC INCIDENT: ARTEMIS FOWL GRAPHIC NOVEL by Eoin Colfer & Giovanni Rigano. "Now, in this second graphic novel installment of the series, fans can follow along as the world's youngest criminal mastermind rushes to save a man who has been kidnapped by the Russian Mafiya: his own father."

THE BLACK CIRCLE: THE 39 CLUES (Book 5) by Patrick Carman. "WHERE ARE AMY AND DAN CAHILL? The two kids were last seen in Egypt, hunting for one of the 39 Clues that could make them the most powerful people on earth. But no one has seen the siblings since. Has the ruthless Irina Spasky finally tracked them down? Or worse . . . the Madrigals?"

THE CURSE OF THE ROMANY WOLVES by S. Jones Rogan. "The creatures of Porthleven are suffering from a mysterious illness that looks like Febra lupi, the curse of the Romany wolves, which has no known cure. The dashing apothecary fox Penhaligon must find a cure or risk losing everyone he holds dear! Penhaligon uncovers a fragment of parchment that just might be a recipe for a cure—and it includes ingredients found only on the haunted Howling Island. But the obstacles Penhaligon must face on his quest for the cure make ghosts seem friendly: Pirates! Sea serpents! Double-crossing ferrets! Can Penhaligon make it back in time to save his village?"

THE HANGING HILL by Chris Grabenstein. "After narrowly escaping a malevolent spirit in The Crossroads, Zack and Judy are hoping to relax during the rehearsals for a show based on Judy’s bestselling children’s books. Little do they know that the director is planning to raise a horde of evil specters from the dead, and to accomplish this, he needs a human sacrifice . . . and Zack fits the bill perfectly."

JOURNEY TO ATLANTIS by Philip Roy. Sequel to Submarine Outlaw (2008), "Alfred, the intrepid young submarine outlaw, once again sets out to sea in his homemade submarine. In Journey to Atlantis, Alfred and his crew (his dog Hollie and his second mate the seagull Seaweed) sail across the Atlantic and enter the Mediterranean in search of the fabled lost island of Atlantis."

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO VAMPIRES by Lisa Trumbauer. "How old is a vampire fledgling? Why do vampires avoid mirrors? What's the best way to slip into a vampire's home? New York Times best-selling author Lisa Trumbauer illuminates the twilight world of vampires in the next edition in the Practical Guide family of fantasy essentials."

THE POISONS OF CAUX by Susannah Appelbaum. "There's little joy left in the kingdom of Caux: the evil King Nightshade rules with terrible tyranny and the law of the land is poison or be poisoned. Worse, eleven-year-old Ivy’s uncle, a famous healer, has disappeared, and Ivy sets out to find him, joined by a young taster named Rowan. But these are corrupt times, and the children—enemies of the realm—are not alone. What exactly do Ivy and Rowan’s pursuers want? Is it Ivy’s prized red bettle, which, unlike any other gemstone in Caux, appears—impossibly—to be hollow? Is it the elixir she concocted—the one with the mysterious healing powers? Or could it be Ivy herself?"

RAGTAG by Karl Wolf-Morgenlander. "Warring birds battle over the city of Boston in an action-packed fantasy. In this engrossing story for older middle-graders, hundreds of birds of prey have been driven out of the Berkshires by encroaching human development. They head toward Boston, which is already occupied by the birds of the city—but that won’t stop the raptors. Soon the Talon Empire and the Feathered Alliance are at war, and as the battle ensues, an unlikely hero emerges to defend his home: a young swallow named Ragtag."

ROSE by Holly Webb. "Rose is an orphan, who has lived at St Bridget's Home for Abandoned Girls for as long as she can remember. One afternoon, a thin woman in a smart black coat comes to the orphanage looking for a maid-of-all-work, and chooses Rose. Rose is delighted. Miss Bridges looks stern, but she is surprisingly pleasant as they walk to Rose's new home -- a tall, thin town house in a smart square. When she's inside and being shown her small attic bedroom, Rose realises that the house is drenched in magic! Rose knows this because she has a certain amount of magic herself. She can tell thrilling stories that transform themselves into pictures on shiny surfaces as she speaks, and she rescues her alchemist master's apprentice from a mist-creature he has mistakenly conjured up. It is this magic that she will call upon in times of dire need, for children are going missing across the town, and none of them show any signs of returning..."

SYLVIE AND THE SONGMAN by Tim Binding. "Sylvie Bartram lives alone with Mr Jackson the dog and her eccentric composer father who invents strange and wonderful musical instruments. One day she returns from school to find a message left in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror; her father has been kidnapped. Later that night, the house is visited by a terrifying apparition - a half-man/half-creature who is searching for something and will not rest until he has found it . . .Sylvie uncovers an underground world of magic and evil, and with help from her friends, she must hold off a power that threatens the lives of all beings in the world. The Songman is at large, and is determined to steal music and use it for his own evil ends . . . " (from the Random House website).

Young Adult:

EMPIRE OF THE SKULL: ALEC DEVLIN by Philip Caveney. "Mexico, 1924. At his father's hacienda, restlessly waiting for adventurer Ethan to arrive, sixteen-year-old Alec and his faithful valet Coates head out into the wilderness in search of an ancient archaeological site...only to discover that Mexico is every bit as perilous as The Valley of the Kings. Pursued by ruthless bandits, involved in a plane crash in the middle of remote rain-forest and finally an unwelcome guest in a lost Aztec city where the inhabitants still practice rituals of human sacrifice, once again Alec must use all of his skills and stamina to survive."

HEAVENLY by Jennifer Laurens. "I met someone who changed everything. Matthias. My autistic sister's guardian angel. Honest. Inspiring. Funny. Hot. And immortal. That was the problem. What could I do? I did what any other girl would do-I fell in love with him. Zoë's sister darts in front of cars. Her brother's a pothead. Her parents are so overwhelmed; they don't see Zoë lost in her broken life. Zoë escapes the only way she knows how: partying. Matthias, a guardian sent from Heaven, watches over Zoë's autistic sister. After Zoë is convinced he's legit, angel and lost girl come together in a love that changes destiny. But Heaven on Earth can't last forever."

FAIREST OF ALL: A TALE OF THE WICKED QUEEN by Serena Valentino. "For anyone who's seen Walt Disney's Snow White, you'll know that the Wicked Queen is one evil woman! After all, it's not everyone who wants to cut out their teenage step-daughter's heart and have it delivered back in a locked keepsake box. (And even if this sort of thing is a common urge, we don't know many people who have acted upon it.) Now, for the first time, we'll examine the life of the Wicked Queen and find out just what it is that makes her so nasty. Here's a hint: the creepy-looking man in the magic mirror is not just some random spooky visage-and he just might have something to do with the Queen's wicked ways!"

MERIDIAN by Amber Kizer. "Sixteen-year-old Meridian has been surrounded by death ever since she can remember. As a child, insects, mice, and salamanders would burrow into her bedclothes and die. At her elementary school, she was blamed for a classmate’s tragic accident. And on her sixteenth birthday, a car crashes in front of her family home—and Meridian’s body explodes in pain. Before she can fully recover, Meridian is told that she’s a danger to her family and hustled off to her great-aunt’s house in Revelation, Colorado. It’s there that she learns that she is a Fenestra—the half-angel, half-human link between the living and the dead. But Meridian and her sworn protector and love, Tens, face great danger from the Aternocti, a band of dark forces who capture vulnerable souls on the brink of death and cause chaos."

NEVER SLOW DANCE WITH A ZOMBIE by E. Van Lowe. "On the night of her middle school graduation, Margot Jean Johnson wrote a high school manifesto detailing her goals for what she was sure would be a most excellent high school career. She and her best friend, Sybil, would be popular and, most important, have boyfriends. Three years later, they haven't accomplished a thing! Then Margot and Sybil arrive at school one day to find that most of the student body has been turned into flesh-eating zombies. When kooky Principal Taft asks the girls to coexist with the zombies until the end of the semester, they realize that this is the perfect opportunity to live out their high school dreams. All they have to do is stay alive...."

SLEEPLESS by Thomas Fahy. "Emma Montgomery has been having gruesome nightmares. Even worse, when she wakes up, she isn't where she was when she fell asleep. And she's not the only one. One by one the students of Saint Opportuna High start having nightmares, and sleepwalking. And the next morning one of their classmates turns up dead. Something is making them kill in their sleep. Emma and her friends need to band together, to keep themselves awake until they can figure out what's behind the murders--before anyone else dies."

And here's one that's historical fiction, but sounds like it would appeal to readers of fantasy:

TROUBADOUR by Mary Hoffman. "A story of persecution and poetry, love and war set in 13th century Southern France. As crusaders sweep through the country, destroying all those who do not follow their religion, Bertrand risks his life to warn others of the invasion. As a troubadour, Bertrand can travel without suspicion from castle to castle, passing word about the coming danger. In the meantime Elinor, a young noblewoman, in love with Bertrand, leaves her comfortable home and family and becomes a troubadour herself. Danger encircles them both, as the rising tide of bloodshed threatens the fabric of the society in which they live."

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