Three 2009 Cybils middle-grade fantasy nominees

Realizing that, if all goes well, I am going to be adding 12 books to my "to be reviewed pile" tomorrow during the 24 Hour Reading Challenge, I am facing the fact that I have more books already waiting to be reviewed than I have hours in the day. So this evening I am playing catch-up, offering short reviews of three of the books that I received from the publishers/the author during my stint as a Cybils panelist in the middle grade science fiction and fantasy category last fall, that have been waiting ever since...

Fairest of All, A Tale of the Wicked Queen, by Serena Valentino (Disney Press, 2009, 250 pages). Valentino pulls off quite an accomplishment with this book--she tells the story of Snow White from the "evil" stepmother's point of view, making the Queen a sympathetic character. For the Queen was not always evil--once she was the young bride of the king, finding in her love for him and his little girl happiness that had escaped her growing up under the shadow of a truly evil father. But her father, even though ostensibly dead, still casts a shadow over her life, lingering in the sinister magic mirror that haunts her...Its twisted messages to her, combined with the malevolent doings of three old women, distant cousins of the king, gradually drive the queen to cruelty toward her beloved step-daughter.

The cover does the book something of an injustice--although plenty dark toward the end, much of the book is not so black as the cover would suggest, and the Queen is, as I said, a sympathetic character. I would have chosen a cover showing her in a beautiful dress, in a brightly lit room, with the mirror front and center. Recommended highly to fans of fairy tale retellings.

The Magician of Oz, by James C. Wallace II (Scientia et Vox Press, 2009, 240 pages). As the title indicates, this is an Oz story, one that takes the great grandson of the Wizard of Oz to that magical land, where he has an Oz-ian adventure of his own. Looking through the contents of an old trunk up in the attic, young Jamie discovers the magical paraphernalia of his great-grandfather, and embarks on the study of conjuring (I enjoyed this part of the book, in which he is mastering his new skills, quite a bit). But there is more than just sleight-of-hand awaiting Jamie when he finds himself in the marvellous land of Oz, meeting many of the old Oz-ian friends familiar to readers of the Oz canon. There is danger waiting for him too--ancient trees seek vengeance on the Tin Woodsman who chopped many of their number down years past, and now they want revenge. Conjuring won't be enough to stop them--with Ozma's help, Jamie must tap into the true magic of Oz.

Wallace certainly captures the "oddness" of Oz--the extravagant and bizarre magical nature of both the place and all its inhabitants is here in full force. As with many other Oz books, logic is not front and center, and although Jamie is firmly established as a real character through the reader's time with him in the real world, the cast of supporting Oz-ians remains dreamlike, even though the point of view jumps between them at times. The plot of the evil trees likewise never felt real to me (and anyway, I felt they had a justifiable grievance). Why, I wondered, couldn't Ozma have taken care of the problem herself?

It's been a while since I read any Oz books, so I don't know how Wallace's prose style compares--I found it a tad overblown at times, in its use of formal structures and latinate words, and occasionally his language is plain confusing:

"The Leader of the Sycamores looked down at the Flowering Plum tree, pleased at his promptness and recalled his command to the band of bushes which had scattered them to the four winds in search of comrades for his plan of revenge" (page 149).

Although I appreciate Wallace's clear admiration for Oz, I'm not at all sure how this contribution to Oziania will fly with ardent fans, or if it will attract any new ones.

Skeleton Creek--Ryan's Journal, by Patrick Carman (Scholastic Press, 2009, 185 pages and several on-line video clips). This one scared me! Two teenagers, Ryan and his friend Sarah, stumble across a dark and scary mystery off in the woods, where the great rusting hulk of an ore-crushing monstrosity lurks...along with its resident ghost. Sarah is determined to get the bottom of the mystery, and Ryan, more reluctantly, finds himself drawn in too. Ryan's journal entries are interspersed with (scary) clips filmed by Sarah...

Ostensibly middle grade, I think this is a book more comfortable in the YA section. Unless I am just a wimp....At any event, it's as gripping as all get out (I thought I might find it jerky to move back and forth between text and video, but I managed just fine), and it should appeal greatly to mystery fans.

And that's it for now....


  1. There's a TON of oz, well, fanfiction, out there. Some contemporary writers are good, very ozzy - Sherwood Smith and Eric Shanower for example. Some are pretty bad, and that includes, imo, Martin Gardner's Visitors from Oz. Just being a big oz fan (or scholar) doesn't necessarily mean you can write a good oz book. But nothing could possibly be worse than one bit of oz writing I found years ago...Invisible Inzi of Oz. It was dictated to two children via ouiga board.

  2. Ouiga board????? That sounds very wrong........


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