Diverse Energies--an anthology of stories from Tu Books

Diverse Energies, edited by Tobias S. Buckell and Joe Monti (Tu Books, Oct. 2012), is an anthology of short strories (most new, some rediscovered) describing futures full of a diverse set of characters from a group of authors who are basically the stars of diverse speculative fiction--Ellen Oh, Daniel H. Wilson, Greg van Eekhout, Malinda Lo, Paolo Bacigalupi, and more.   There's also a reprinted story by Ursula Le Guin, the grand dame of diverse futures.

It's a pretty fierce collection of stories--happy endings are in short supply.  The heroes and heroines are almost all in desperate, dystopian circumstances--kids and teens living on the margins, in poverty or slavery.   The imagination of the authors is here in full force, with wild creations, such as Paolo Bacigalupi's living architecture in "A Pocket Full of Dharma", robots running amok in "Freshee's Frogurt" by Daniel H. Wilson (not a good one for those of us with tooth anxiety--bad things happen to teeth), and robot miners controlled by the minds of enslaved children, in What Arms to Hold, by Rajan Khanna.

And there are dystopias, with miserable and desperate children and teens, struggling to stay alive, and to love (when love is still possible).   The collection starts with one of these--Ellen Oh's memorable story of the effects of a totally senseless war on one starving boy (not for the faint of heart), and that beginning warns the reader that this anthology is no romp with multicultural unicorn kittens.

As with any anthology, there were some stories that appealed more to me than others.  The story by Ursula Le Guin--Solitude--, though one I had read before, is so fully real and so powerful, that I'm always happy to read it again---it takes place on a planet of culturally-imposed introversion, where there are only persons, and no people.   Again as always the case when I read short fiction, I often found myself wanting the story to go on!   If K. Tempest Bradford, for instance, continues the story of Iliana, caught in a stream of time slippages and forced to live a kaleidoscope of disparate futures, I will be right there in line waiting for it.  

So, in short, this anthology is pretty dark, very memorable, and very gripping.   Too dark, really, for my personal taste (though I do have a mind above rainbow kittens), but one that should appeal lots to those who enjoy their futures both diverse and murky!

Here are Tanita's thoughts, at Finding Wonderland

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

Waiting on Wednesday--Elemental, by Antony John

Always there are more books that I want, though I have so very, very, many to read...Today I'm looking forward to Elemental, by Antony John, author of Five Flavors of Dumb, which I've heard many good things about, and which I want to read too!  With his new book (coming November 21 from Dial), John has turned to sci fi/fantasy, and it sounds great:

Here's the Amazon blurb: "In the near future, most of the population of the United States has been destroyed by the plague. The few remaining survivors live in colonies on the barrier islands off the East Coast. In one colony near Cape Hatteras, almost all the members have elemental powers and can control wind, water, earth, and fire. All but sixteen-year-old Thomas. When the Guardians, the powerful adult leaders, are kidnapped by pirates seeking to take over their colony, it is up to Thomas and a small group of teens to save them and preserve the mysteries of the island.

Fast action, strategy, and mystery churn together into a bold and fresh fantasy from an award-winning author."

And here's the Goodreads blurb"Sixteen-year-old Thomas has always been an outsider. The first child born without the power of an Element—earth, water, wind or fire—he has little to offer his tiny, remote Outer Banks colony. Or so the Guardians would have him believe.

In the wake of an unforeseen storm, desperate pirates kidnap the Guardians, intent on claiming the island as their own. Caught between the plague-ridden mainland and the advancing pirates, Thomas and his friends fight for survival in the battered remains of a mysterious abandoned settlement. But the secrets they unearth will turn Thomas’ world upside-down, and bring to light not only a treacherous past but also a future more dangerous than he can possibly imagine."

I'm always intrigued by sff that involves the elements...

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.


Giveaway deadlines extended thanks to Sandy

We came through Sandy unscathed--just one tree down in the woods--but lots of people are without power, and the coast got pretty hard hit.   I know there are lots of folks in dire straights, with much more to think about than entering giveaways (and of course my thoughts are withe everyone badly affected), but just in case there are a few more would-be winners, I'm extending both my on-going giveaways till midnight on Friday.

So, leave a comment here to win a copy of Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris (great for your middle grade girl reader), or enter here to win a bundle of elementary/middle grade fun from Penguin (and now I myself am off to enter to win that very bundle at the other participating blogs! and to fix the formatting that Blogger decided to play with on my Penguin giveaway post...)

And now we must carve our pumpkins.  And I must help my son put together his costume--he wants to be an Internet Troll.  I find this a difficult cotume concept....

A Wrinkle In Time: the Graphic Novel, for Timeslip Tuesday

Hope Larson has done a magnificent job bringing Madeline L'Engle's classic story, A Wrinkle in Time, to graphic novel form (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct., 2012).  All the words that I remember so very, very clearly from my multiple re-readings are there--the thoughts and words of the characters that I can almost quote verbatim--and the descriptive elements are captured very nicely indeed by the straightforward, blue/black/white illustrations.   A Wrinkle in Time is certainly a story that deserves a wide audience, and it's great that it's now accessible to those who prefer to read graphic novels.  It could not be more faithful to the book--here is Meg's whole journey, from the storm that begins things, with all the little details still there, continuing on through to her rescue of her little brother from a dark, alien planet with nothing left out (at least, nothing I noticed).

This close adherence to the original is reflected in the length of the book--389 pages--so those who have young readers reluctant to tackle long books that are all words can feel comfortable that lots of actual reading will be done.  Making it even more reluctant read friendly is that just about every word is either dialogue, or Meg's thoughts--everything else is told in the pictures.  One exception I just found in leafing through was on page 19, when Meg is coming down from her attic room.  The creaking seventh step that she steps over is labeled "creaking seventh step," which tickled me very much, and which reassured me that this would be beautifully true to the original!  And the other exception is the opening-- "It was a dark and stormy night," which I would have been sad to have seen cut!

Despite the sound of the story, it does not, to me, have the taste of science fiction.  It feels more like a quest fantasy, with the three chosen children heading out into danger, with powerful guardians helping them as much as possible, but ultimately sending them on alone to meet the Dark Power.   The fact that the adventure takes place on alien planets, and that the mechanism for travel between them is "scientific" (because scientists are doing it) isn't enough to counterbalance the magical force of the three guardians, and the utterly unscientific gifts, located deep within the characters themselves, that make the story happen.

Likewise, several people over the years have suggested A Wrinkle in Time as one to include on my list of Time Slip books, but I've been reluctant to do so.  For me, this isn't most truly a time travel book (it's space travel).  But reading it again, I found a little snippet of conversation that I hadn't ever focused on before.  "We made a nice little time tesser," [says Mrs Whatsit], "and unless something goes terribly wrong we'll have you back about five minutes before you left.  Nobody will know you were gone at all" (page 147).  Which I guess is the titular wrinkle, and it's enough to convince me to give it a slot on my list!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


Magisterium, by Jeff Hirsch

Magisterium, by Jeff Hirsch (Scholastic, October 1, younger YA, 2012)--a good one for the younger YA reader who enjoys sci-fi and magic mixed together to form a high-stakes thriller.

It's the year 2153; over a hundred years have passed since the cataclysmic formation of the Rift divided Earth into two distinct parts.  On one side, a girl named Glenn has grown up in a high tech world, living at the edge of the Rift, with no desire to explore its forbidding, and forbidden, wastes.  But when a government raid on her father's workshop ends up with her father imprisoned and no where else to run, Glenn, along with her friend Kevin, flees across the border.

There she finds a world of magic--a place where she is taken under the protectin of a sentient feline warrior, known as Aamon, a place where those with Affinity can feel the magic, and bend it to their own ends.   And no one can control the Affinity more powerfully than the sinister figure known as the Magistra, who rules with an iron hand.

Glenn is shielded from the force of the Affinity by the bracelet her father had made, a marvel of magic and technology that is the reason for the government's all to fierce interest in her family.   But Kevin becomes drawn into the world across the rift, sharing his memories with a boy cruelly executed by the Magistra.   And Aamon (Glenn's own cat) was the one responsible for bringing her to power.

As the secrets of this new and blood-soaked land gradually reveal themselves, Glenn is forced to determine where her loyalties lie...and what will happen to her when she takes the bracelet off, and all the wild magic of the Affinity threatens to consume her, just as it did the Magistra.  And the arrival of a high tech attacking the people of the Magisterium forces Glenn to decide if she will use her power...or watch people die.

It was a gripping and interesting story, with revelation following on revelation, danger following danger.   It's one I'd recommend to the younger YA reader looking for a high-stakes science ficitony/fantasy adventure, especially the reader who isn't drawn to stereotypical other-world-with-magic fantasy--there are strange creatures here, to be sure, but no unicorns or wands!  I say younger YA because Glenn presents as being young--she's resisting Kevin's romantic nudgings in a very prickly adolescent not wanting things to change way, her plot arc is still focused on family, as opposed to her own life, and she has not become the fully "strong teen protagonist" type that I be she'll be in later books.  And this isn't a criticism--just an aspect of the book that might make it appeal more to a 12 year old than to a 17 year old.

The story is told in  tight third person perspective--we see what Glenn sees, and understand what she does.   Since she's in a situation that is as confusing as all get out, at times I myself was confused, especially with regard to minor characters.   The fast progression from one dangerous encounter to the next allowed little time to fall back and regroup, which was somewhat off-putting to me personally.  I like to spend peaceful time with characters, getting to know and care about them when they aren't in danger/disagreeing vehemently with each other/totally self-absorbed, and I get muddled if too much World Building Extravaganza is heaped on top of itself.

However, the tight concentration on Glenn's perspective allows the emotional tension of her situation to come through with vivid clarity, adding intensity to the story.  The relationship between prickly Glenn, desperate for order and things that makes sense, and Kevin, busily introducing the disrupting force of romance into her life, and a fine character in his own right, is very nicely done indeed.

Conclusion:  I found it an absorbing read, not quite to my own personal taste, but one that I would happily offer to a seventh or eighth grade girl who wants a good speculative fiction adventure (especially the girl who is really fond of her cat.  The Girl-Beloved cat relationship is important here).   For those concerned about such things, there's quite a bit of violence, but no sex--just one passionate kiss (with Kevin, not with the cat, just in case anyone was confused).

Other reviews:  The Book Smugglers, The Cozy Armchair, and YA Litwit

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's middle grade fantasy and sci fi round-up (October 28, 2012)

Welcome to another week's worth of my middle grade fantasy/sci fi blog gleenings!  Please let me know if I missed your post.

First:  I have two giveaways going on right now, and it would make me happy if more people entered.  First, Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris, and second, an awesome prize pack of middle grade goodness from Penguin.   Please enter.

The Reviews:

Be My Enemy (Planesrunner), by Ian McDonald, at The Intergalactic Academy

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, at alibrarymama

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, at Semicolon 

The Cloak Society, by Jeramey Kraatz, at Charlotte's Library and Ms. Yingling Reads and also at Book Aunt (scroll down)

Deadweather and Sunrise (The Chronicles of Egg, book 1), by Geoff Rodkey, at Book Nut

The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, by  Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams, at Parenthetical

Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Semicolon

The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood, by Barb Ullman, at Jean Little Library

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at That Blog Belongs to Emily Brown

Freakling, by Lana Krumwiede, at My Precious

Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry, at Becky's Book Reviews

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung, at Book Aunt (scroll down)  

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, at janicu's book blog, Book Harbinger,  and Chachic's Book Nook

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Catherynne Valente, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Gobbolino the Witch's Cat, by Ursula Moray Williams, at Nayu's Reading Corner

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy

The Golden Door, by Emily Rodda, at Sharon the Librarian

The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, by Scott Nash, at books4yourkids 

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill, at BooksYALove and Charlotte's Library

The Iron Ring, by Lloyd Alexander, at Quirky Bookworm

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis, at Fantasy Literature

Liesl and Po, by Lauren Oliver, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan, at Book Nut and Kid Lit Geek

Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris, by Marissa Moss, at Charlotte's Library (giveaway)

The Ninnies, by Paul Magrs, at Strange and Random Happenstance 

Once Upon a Toad, by Heather Vogel Frederick, at Charlotte's Library

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, at Sonderbooks

Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse, at Semicolon

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachman, at One Librarian's Book Reviews

Renegade Magic, by Stephanie Burgis, at Book Nut 

The Rock of Ivanore, by Laurisa White Reyes, at Semicolon

The Secret Prophecy, by Herbie Brennan, at Book Aunt (scroll down)

Small Change for Stuart (aka Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms), by Lissa Evans, at The Book Smugglers

Snow in Summer, by Jane Yolen, at Semicolon and Becky's Book Reviews

The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, at Book Nut

The Storm Makers, by Jennifer E. Smith, at alibrarymama

Stout Hearts and Whizzing Biscuits, by Daniel McInerny, at Middle Grad Mafioso

Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull, at Great Imaginations

The Supernaturalist, by Eoin Colfer, at Maria's Melange

The Tilting House, by Tom Llewellyn, at By Singing Light

Time Twister: Journal #3 of a Cardboard Box, by Frank Asch, at Time Travel Times Two

The Undertakers--  Rise of the Corpses, and Queen of the Dead, by Ty Drago, at The Book Smugglers

The Voyage of Lucy P. Simmons, by Barbara Marionda, at Book Nut

The Whispering House, by Rebecca Wade, at Good Books and Good Wine

Authors and Interviews

Morgan Keyes (Darkbeast) at The Enchanted Inkpot

William Alexander (Goblin Secrets) at Nerdy Book Club

Katherine Catmull (Summer and Bird) at Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing

Jeannie Mobley (Katerina's Wish) at The Children's Book Review (I think this might well be historical fiction with a fantasy-esque side story nestled inside it, but it's still of interest

Ty Drago (The Undertakers) at The Book Smugglers

Shelby Bach (Of Giants and Ice) at Literary Rambles (giveaway)

Jacqueline Kelly (of Calpurnia Tate fame) on her new book, Return to the Willows (as in, Wind in the...), at the NY Times

Anne Ursu (Breadcrumbs) at the New York Public Library Blog

Other Good Stuff

Click-Clack the Rattlebag, a short story written and performed by Neil Gaiman, free at Audible until October 31.

Harry Potter and The Quiet Book--a cute as all get out interactive felt version from Julie's Blog (thanks to Finding Wonderland for the link)

S is for Satyr, with Philip Womack, at Scribble City Central

Cool author chat today: 

In Conversation with Rachel Hartman,
Stefan Bachmann, and Christopher Paolini
10/28/12 2PM - 3PM 2012

 Tor has a piece on horror stories for children, and also offers this comparison of Dwarves then and now (I love that original Dutch cover to pieces):


Once Upon a Toad, by Heather Vogel Frederick

I have always appreciated the story of the two sisters who are rewarded/punished for their behavior with flower and jewels, or reptiles and amphibians, coming from their mouths when they speak.  It was a very unambiguous story--the good child is rewarded, the bad child punished.  End of story.  Clearly spraying those around you with flowers and jewels is better than drooling toads.

Or maybe not. 

Once Upon a Toad, by Heather Vogel Frederick is a retelling of this fairytale, set very much in the present day, but with a magic that makes no concession to modernity!  It's the story of two girls--stepsisters--who loathe each other.  One of whom, Cat, is blessed (?) with a fairy godmother, her Great Aunt Abyssinia, who leaps in to set things right (?).  Suddenly Cat finds herself speaking toads, and her mean girl stepsister, Olivia, speaks in diamonds and flowers (the species of flower changing depending on her mood, which I thought was a nice touch).

Of course, this being the 21st century, a secret branch of the government becomes keenly interested when Olivia's gift becomes public knowledge (Cat manages to maintain a charade of laryngitis).  And diamonds, being diamonds, attract the interest of would-be profiteers....When Cat and Olivia's mutual little brother is kidnapped by these bad guys, the two girls head off to find Great Aunt Abyssinia, desperate to get him back, and to have their "gifts" rescinded.

It's an entertaining retelling, nicely fractured and reassembled into a coherent adventure.   There are Issues dealt with--coming to terms with family relationships that are forced on you, learning to get along with, and even appreciate,  people very different from yourself --but though these issues are very clearly present, even underlined, they don't take over the story (much).   This is a fantasy that might well appeal to  middle school girls who would generally prefer realism, and who think they don't like magic.  And for those who do like magic, the contemporary setting makes a nice change.  Not necessarily a deep or powerfully moving change (it's not subtle or profound enough for that), but fun nonetheless.


Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill

Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill (Little Brown, Oct. 2012, middle grade) is a moving and memorable story of a brave girl confronting a terrible darkness.

(That's me deciding that I should start every review with a little teaser sentence so that people will keep reading.  This is me thinking my teaser sentence is somewhat banal.  Oh well).

Violet is the princess of a land that lies beneath a mirrored sky lit by two suns, one of many worlds in a multiverse of all the possibilities the creator gods imagined.  She is not a beautiful princess, but she is beloved, and as the only child of the king and queen, she is her country's hope and heart.   She is a child of stories, listing to all the tales the old story master shared with her, and making up her own spellbinding sagas.  And she and her friend Demetrius, the son of the stable master, grow up in happy exploration of the castle...untrammeled (through deliberate avoidance on Violet's part) of social and situational expectation (which is to say, Violet isn't exactly a docile pupil).  And though she knows that she isn't beautiful, as a true princess should be, Violet is happy.

But one day, in their explorations of the mysterious, miniature labyrinth of panelled passageways, secreted within the castle walls, the two children come across a hidden chamber.  In it was imprisoned a dark secret...an ancient power of evil, desperate to be free, that latches onto Violet with wily tendrils of mental malevolence.

And then everything goes wrong.  Horribly, sadly, wrong...except, as is always the case in the best sort of stories, there is hope--hope that Violet can stay true to herself, hope that Demeterius will be a stalwart friend and defender, hope that the stories of the ancient gods are true...and hope that the last of the dragons might find his hidden heart...and take up, once more, the burden of love.

Iron Hearted Violet was a book that held my attention raptly, but one that made me so sad and discouraged in its middle section that it was painful to keep reading.   But that was never an option, because I was so interested I needed to go on...

It was a book that made pictures in my mind (which is important to me), and looking back on it, I find that the pictures are clearest of the two places on which the book hinges most deeply....the two places where the heart of the matter lies--the hidden room deep within, and the enclosure outside in which the last dragon is imprisoned (for his own good--the king does not wish him ill).   It's a book full of stories told and lived and changed....and I am always a sucker for books in which such stories are key to the change that must happen for there to be a happy ending.

It's a book that I won't give to my nine year old, because it is too sad.  But it's a book that I think will be just right for the right reader--the dreamy 11 or 12 year old girl, or the grown-up who still appreciates "children's books" without getting all critical because of them not being written for adults.  Except, that is, for those like me who don't like it when things go deeply wrong for young protagonists.   It's a book I think I might like much more the second time around, knowing that it will be ok!  (That being said, the black and white illustrations by Iacopo Bruno were rather warmly comforting in their small details, which was a help to me).

One very personal thing that kept me from loving this one is that Violet, under the influence of events, becomes rather unsympathetic for much of the middle.  So not only are things going wrong in general, but instead of rooting for Violet, I found myself wanting to shake her somewhat.  Edited to add: happily, she throws off the enchantment while there is still much of the book left to read and enjoy, and I became able to root for the new, heroic Violet whole-heartedly.  A second thing I didn't care for (and again, this is personal)-- there's an intrusive narrator, the court storyteller, who didn't add much value for me. 

Still, it was thought-provoking, and magical, and strong...and I really hope that some of you who are regular readers read it too and tell me what you think!  I'd recommend it in particular to anyone who enjoyed Reckless, by Cornelia Funke (though this skews slightly younger).

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher.


My stop on Penguin's Halloween Tour of fun and prizes, starring Undead Ed!

I'm thrilled to be part of Penguin Young Readers Halloween blog tour of awesome! At participating blogs, you'll find a variety of fun books highlighted, each with a costume idea, and each with a giveaway of the books being featured! My book is:

Undead Ed by Rottertly Ghoulstone
"When Ed Bagley wakes up in a yucky sewer --and discovers he's a zombie-- things can't get any weirder! That is, until his evil arm scurries off his shoulder and into the town of Mortlake to cause all sorts of trouble.

Un-armed and dangerous, Ed teams up with his werewolf buddy Max Moon to track down his rogue limb and save Mortlake from the evil at the center of it all.

This formerly unlucky kid is out to prove he really is all guts! But when he's faced with gross ghouls, wormy wraiths, freaky fat babies, and some seriously sinister clowns, will Ed and his undead friends have enough skin on their bones to save the day? Or will this arm-y prove too tough to hand-le?

Hilariously illustrated zombie antics make this the perfect next book for fans of Zombiekins!"

The Costume:

If you you want to take Undead Ed as your inspiration, and zombie it up, here are some ideas:
  1. Grab an old t-shirt and pants and use a pair of scissors to create tears and frayed edges.
  2. Use some black, white and brown make-up (either bought at your local halloween store or even borrowed from mom!) to hightlight your cheekbones and give you that zombie paleness. You can even use some red lipstick to create gashes and blood stains!
  3. Make sure to practice your zombie moan before heading out the door! (I've also noticed my own young zombies shambling around muttering Brains!  Brains!)
  4. This next one is my very own idea, inspired by Undead Ed's arm--cut the sleeve of an old shirt.  Sew an old mitten or glove on one end, with some bent clothes hanger tucked in the finger area, so that it can serve as a bag holder (until your bag gets too heavy).  Put a stick, or something else straight and rigid in your sleeve (make sure it's a bit longer than the sleeve), then stuff it.   Use food color to dye some cotton balls red.  Sew up the end of the sleeve (with the stick poking out), and allow the red cotton balls to kind of ooze out of your seam.  Then you can keep one arm hidden inside your shirt, and hold your detached arm, using it to offer your bag to whoever answers the door!  When your bag gets to heavy for your undead arm, simply carry it in your concealed hand...
Purchase Undead Ed here!
Barnes and Noble IndieBound

Blog Tour Schedule 

Mon 10.22 MundieKids  IN A GLASS GRIMMLY 
Tues 10.23 Green Bean Teen Queen GUSTAV GLOOM 
Thurs 10.25 Shelf Elf  CHRONICLES OF EGG 
Fri 10.26 Bookalicious  CREATURE FROM THE 7TH GRADE
Mon 10.29 Book Chic WEREWORLD 
Tues 10.30 Books Together BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE 

And now, the Giveaway--one lucky commentator will win all the books featured!  Just leave  comment with enough info. to allow me to get in touch, by the stroke of midnight on Halloween! (which is to say, 11:59 EST, Oct. 31).  DEADLINE EXTENDED till Friday, 11: 59 EST

Wereworld: Shadow of the Hawk, by Curtis Jobling 

In a Glass Grimmly, by Adam Gidwitz
The Creature from the 7th Grade, by Bob Balaban
Books of Elsewhere, by Jacqueline West Gustav Gloom and the People Takers, by Adam-Troy Castro
Undead Ed, by Rotterly Ghoulstone Deadweather and Sunrise: Chronicles of Egg, by Geoff Rodkey


Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris, by Marissa Moss, for Timeslip Tuesday (plus giveaway!)

Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris, by Marissa Moss (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, September, 2012, middle grade) tells of a 13 year old girl's trip back in time to late 19th century Paris--a time of brilliant art, and virilunt anti-Semetism.

After weeks of anxious waiting, a postcard arrived from Mira's mother, who had disappeared without a trace.  She was in Paris, on some sort of quest, unable to return home....So Mira's family--her father, herself, and her older brother--set off to Paris to look for her.  And there Mira finds herself touching a gargoyle, and being whisked back into the past.  At first 1881 seems like a nice place to visit.  Mira is very lucky, as time travellers go, in that she finds herself dressed appropriatly, and even more so, in that she becomes friends with Degas' handsome young apprentice, Claude.   But though she can't help but be fascianted by the world of the French Impressionists in which she finds herself, this is no holiday.

Her mother is back there in the past too, leaving mysterious notes and forbidding Mira to try to make contact with her.  Something in the past has gone wrong, and now Mira's mother, and Mira herself, have to try to fix it...despite enemies trying to stop them.   And despite the fact that Mira can't control her time-travelling---no sooner does she get settled in one time, then the years shift and she's jumped ahead.

And meanwhile the Dreyfus Afair, the framing of a Jewish soldier for espionage, has lit fires of public anti-Semetism, and sullied the international reputation of the French Governement.   Somehow Mira, herself Jewish, must help exonerate Dreyfus, or else...

This is very much Time Travel as historical learning experience, a sub-genre I happen to appreciate--I've always enjoyed learning through fiction, and I certainly know much more about Dreyfus now than I absorbed back in 11th grade!   But it is not all dry facts and events.  Some fictional lightness is provided by Mira's doomed crush on Claude--it's hard for a girl who disappeares, only to pop up again a few years later, to keep  relationship going! Just so as to avoid raising false expectations--this was very much a somewhat shallow, not central to the plot, romance of the 13-year-old girl having a crush kind--not the in-depth passionate sort one might expect in a book for older readers. 

For me the most enjoyable aspect of the book was meeting all the Impressionist painters--it was very pleasantly diverting.  Mira herself draws, and her sketches fill the book, adding further lightness to the heavy weight of the Dreyfus afair.

It's possible that this will be too didactic for some readers, but those who enjoy historical fiction, stories of girls on fact-finding missions, and, of course, Paris and the French Impressionists, will find much to enjoy here.

Thanks to the publisher, I'm offering a copy to a reader (US or Canada) who leaves a comment (with enough contact info. to be contactable) before 11:59 EST next Timeslip Tuesday, October 30!  DEADLINE EXTENDED to Friday, Nov. 2 at 11:59pm.


The Cloak Society, by Jeramey Kraatz

Superheros are a trend (a small one, but trendy nonetheless) in middle grade sci fi/fantasy right now (Gary Lyga's Archvillain books, Powerless and Super, by Matthew Cody, the N.E.R.D. series, by Michael Buckly, the Vordak books, and Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, coming from HarperCollins next June). Still, each one that I've read has managed to put a new twist on the basic premise of "kid with special powers," and The Cloak Society, by Jeramey Kraatz (HarperCollins, October 2012), is no exception.

Alex has known no other reality than that of The Cloak--an organization of supernaturally gifted masterminds who are bent on assuming control of the world, giving all the huddled masses of humanity the chance to live beneath their glorious dominance.   "Hail Cloak!" has been his mantra all his life, and he has never questioned the future his parents, leaders of the society, have chosen.  It's a future in which his own gift of telekinesis will tip the balance in the Cloak's fight against the League of Justice, overthrowing them once and for all!

But then a chance meeting (of the desperate confrontation involving great violence kind) with young members of the League of Justice changes everything.  Because Alex saves the life of Kirby, a girl who is his enemy....and slowly Alex questions life in the subterranean fortress of the Cloak--a world in which those in power demand unquestioning loyalty from their minions, a world in which his parents might want him more as a tool, than as a son.

Sure, it was easy for me to read lots of Nazi parallels into the story--it's pretty clear that the League of Justice are the good guys, and that the Cloak is sinister as all get out.  And sure, I knew pretty early one where Alex's journey of introspection was going to take him.  But there were lots of diverting super powered adventures along the way that I enjoyed lots.  I enjoyed even more the attention payed to Alex's relationships to the others of his Cloak peer group---a little home schooled cluster of villains in training (I like school story-ish elements)--and to the tension of his illicit friendship with Kirby.  The superpowers were interesting too, offering a nice variety of twisty talents.

I think it has tons of kid appeal for the nine or ten year old, for whom it will be fresh and new, and I can enthusiastically recommend it to that demographic!   However, it's one that requires a certain amount of disconnect, perhaps, from the adult brain to truly enjoy, because it is predictable and not very subtle.   I seem to have managed that disconnect just fine, because I swept through it, enjoying it very much (though I don't think I'll need to re-read it, to pick up fine points I missed).   And I'll be on the lookout for the next book.  It ends at an ending, but there's clearly more that needs to happen....

(I'm putting the sci-fi label on this one, because it's genetic mutation-ish...with high tech. gadgets).  


Another week's worth of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction links, rounded-up for your reading pleasure!

Please let me know if by some horrible chance I failed to link to your post, or to the posts of your loved ones.

The Reviews

Beswitched, by Kate Saunders, at Semicolon

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, at Reading To Know

Down the Mysterly River, by Bill Willingham, at Fyrefly's Book Blog

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne M. Valente, at Tales of the Marvelous 

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, at The Book Smugglers

Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins, at Quirky Bookworm

Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman, at The Telegraph

The Hidden Gallery, by Maryrose Wood, at Confessions of a Bibliovore 

Island of Silence, by Lisa McMann, at Michelle Mason

The Maelstrom (The Tapestry Book 4), by Henry H. Neff, at The Write Path

Margaret and the Moth Tree, Kari and Brit Trogen, at Jean Little Library 

The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan, at Guys Lit Wire

Monsters on the March (Scary School 2) by Derek the Ghost, at Good Books and Good Wine 

Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plot, by R.A. Spratt, at Semicolon

On the Day I Died, Candace Fleming,  Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Semicolon

The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda, at Charlotte's Library

Seeing Cinderella, by Jenny Lundquist, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Shadow of the Hawk, by Curtis Jobling, at In Bed With Books

The Sixty-eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone, at Wandering Librarians

The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, at The Musings of ALMYBNENR and Charlotte's Library

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz, at Sonderbooks

Tilly's Moonlight Garden, by Julia Green, at Books Beside My Bed 

Time Snatchers, by Richard Ungar, at Semicolon

The Time-Travelling Fashionista at the Palace of Marie Antoinette, by Bianca Turetsky, at BooksYALove

Troll Hunters, by Michael Dahl, at The Book Monsters

User Unfriendly, by Vivian Vande Velde, at Books & Other Thoughts

Verdigris Deep (aka Well Witched in the US), by Frances Hardinge, at The Book Smugglers

What Came from the Stars, by Gary Schmidt, at Waking Brain Cells, and a chat review at Reads for Keeps

The Whispering House, by Rebecca Wade, at Charlotte's Library

Authors and Interviews

Cornelia Funke (Ghost Knight) at The Telegraph

Adam Gidwitz (In a Glass Grimmly) talks spooky fairy tales at Educating Alice 

Nikki Loftin (The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy) at Cynsations

Marissa Moss (Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris) at A Backwards Story

Jennifer Nielsen (The False Prince) at A Thousand Wrongs (giveaway)

Craig Everett (Toby Gold and the Secret Fortune) at A Thousand Wrongs (giveaway)

Other Good Stuff 

R is for Ravana at Scribble City Central, with Sarwat Chadda

How cool is it to use lego minifigures in your book trailer? Here's one at Cynsations for Chronal Engine that does just that, plus a giveway of the book.

A lovely list of time travel book series for kids at Time Travel Times Two

And a list of middle grade science fiction at Educating Alice, that inspired me to make my own page of reviews.

Portal Fantasies--agents diss. them, writers and readers react (conversation starts at Dangerous Jam, with lots of comments, and continues at Making Light)  My take: the portal fantasy is alive and well in middle grade fantasy).

Neil Gaiman explains All Hallows Read at Tor

To mark 200 years of the Brothers Grimm, Germany has established a fairy tale route--over 375 miles of German castles, forests, and medieval towns.  Here's a review from the Guardian.


Science Fiction for kids--a new page I just made

Over at Educating Alice today, I saw that she had compiled a list of middle grade science fiction titles, and asked for suggestions for others.  This inspired me to go through all 1994 posts that I have written and pull out all the middle grade science fiction books I've reviewed....

And now they have their own page.

As usual, I was left wondering why there aren't more sci fi books being written/published for kids.  Specifically, why aren't there more sci fi books about robots for 10 year olds? Why isn't there more cryptozoology?

And, also as usual, I am left pondering the fuzzy nature of the boundary between sci fi and fantasy.  For instance, I've never understood why A Wrinkle in Time is considered sci fi, or time travel, by so many other readers (that being said, I just parsed my feelings in a comment below, and conclude that since they are traveling to alien planets and meeting aliens, it is clearly sci fi!  though it will always feel like fantasy to me...)  Likewise, there are probably books on my list that others would say weren't sci fi at all!  So much easier, but perhaps less helpful, to use the catch-all term of Speculative Fiction.


The Whispering House, by Rebecca Wade

I almost missed my bus stop this morning--I was so utterly engrossed by the ghostly shenanigans going on in The Whispering House, by Rebecca Wade (Katherine Tegen Books, 2012, middle grade), that we could have been driving through the Sahara Desert, for all I knew.   And when I arrived at work (having mercifully finished reading just before my stop),  I was still so caught up in the story that, instead of saying "Hello" politely to my co-worker, I said Oh my gosh your daughter likes ghost stories doesn't she this one is excellent (with wavy motions of the book).

Here's what happens in it:

Hannah (likable girl, good at art) moves temporarily into old house of reduced rent with locked room.

She begins to dream--creepy, fairytale like dreams that don't seem like nightmares till she wakes up.

Her friend Sam (her partner in adventure) opens the locked room.  And the blocked way up to the attic.  In the attic is one of the most creepy, spooky dolls ever.

It belonged to Maisie, a little girl who died in the house in the late 19th century.

And Maisie turns out to be rather desperate for attention....and oh my gosh it is so spooky as the whole house deteriorates around Hannah and things get really creepy and how can Hannah focus on her exams when her mind is full of questions like--How did Maisie die?  Was she murdered?  Is the doll cursed?  Why is the house deteriorating? EEKKK!

The pacing is spot on, the mystery is satisfyingly twisty, and it gripped me at pretty much the highest level of book grip there is.   A fine supporting cast of reasonable adults adds value.  Plus extra bonus points for information about Napoleon's death (you never know when that will come in useful).

So, like I said up at the top--if you have a sixth through eight grader who wants a good ghost story that isn't gory but is tremendously creepy, this is a good one.  Or heck, if you want a good girl in old haunted house story for yourself, go for it.  (I think the cover will winnow its audience very well indeed--those who find the ghost girl too young looking, or too girl looking, will not be the right readers).

Those who are put off by witchcraft (which I, myself, am not) might be disturbed by the inclusion of a not-unsympathetic Wiccan character, but she's nicely balanced by the Bishop, who's tremendously sympathetic.

This is a sequel of sorts to The Theft and the Miracle, which tells of Hannah and Sam's previous adventure, and which is now on my wish list.  The events of that story are alluded too, but it's not at all necessary to have read it before this one.

A final musing--Rebecca Wade is English, and this was published at the same time in the UK and the US.  At last one change (chips to fries) was made (edited to add--round-about changed to merry-go-round.  Sigh).   But the more familiar one is with both versions of English, the harder it is to spot things that are particular to one or the other.   If you're going to make changes (and surely they mostly unnecessary these days) you need translators who are the opposite of fluent in the other English.... (edited to add:  I wish publishers wouldn't bother.  Keep local color!  Keep things interesting, instead of trying to homogenize the language!)


The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda

The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda (Scholastic, 2012, middle grade/YA)*--in which an Anglo-Indian boy of no particular talents (except at computer gaming) must use the power of Kali, Goddess of Death, to take down Ravana, the legendary Demon King!

Ash Mistry had been looking forward to his visit to his uncle in India.  But after three weeks of heat and people and confusion, home in England has never looked so good...but he's not going to get to go back any time soon.  Instead, he has to save the world from an evil sorcerer, a wealthy Englishman named Lord Savage, who is scheming to reawaken Ravana, the demon king.  If Ravana returns, he will bring utter annihilation.

The chance (?) find of a golden arrowhead sets Ash on the path to becoming the one hero who can stop  Lord Savage and his demonic henchmen.  But Ash isn't at all sure that he is hero material.  It's not until his little sister is kidnapped by the enemy that he steels himself to fulfill his destiny--to use the golden arrowhead to finish the job that the great hero king Rama started millennia ago, and destroy Ravana once and for all.

Fortunately, Ash has help, from the beautiful half-demon Parvati who will fight at his side, and from Rashti, a mysterious old man who gains him entry into a secretive school where he will be taught to fight.  But he has more than that--he has the golden arrowhead was a gift to Rama from Kali, goddess of death.  To use it is to invite Kali into his very soul, but when faced with an army of demons, the imminent destruction of the world, (and the danger his own little sister is in), what choice does he have?

Ash, at first, is not the most likable protagonist--he's rather a sullen adolescent type, not displaying many sterling character traits.  And the book starts rather slowly.  But as it becomes clear just how nasty a piece of work Lord Savage is, people start dying, demons start being demonic, and Ash accepts his fate, the fast paced action and violence of his adventures makes it almost irrelevant what Ash's particular character is like--the story (an a very exciting one it is) has taken over.

Far more interesting is the character of Parvati, the half demon teenager.  Her motivations and her conflicts are deeply rooted in the history of all her many reincarnated lives.  She is fierce, and very kick ass, and yet emotionally vulnerable, and although I was mildly pleased that Ash made it through his adventures, it was Parvati I was really anxious about!

The Savage Fortress is an excellent book for those looking for a rather thrilling fantasy questy/adventure, set far outside the tropes of Europe.  With its violence, which is rather gruesome at times (demons are messy eaters), and which includes upfront deaths, and its tremendously high stakes, it won't be for every young reader.    But for the slightly older Rick Riordan fan (yes, I know "Rick Riordan" has almost become a cliche, but I think it's true) this might very well be a good fit.  I put both middle grade and YA labels on this one--the perfect reader (if such a thing exists) is probably about 12 or 13.

Bonus feature:  go check out the Ash Mistry website, where you'll find lots more about the characters and the mythology.

Archaeology bonus:  a nice little introduction (more of a teaser than an educational treatise, but still) to the Harrapan civilization

Other reviews:  The Book Smugglers -- "Brilliantly done and definitely a highlight of my reading year so far."

Book Lust  -- "I found it to be a much deeper read than I expected, and I really appreciate Chadda's willingness to bring to light both the positives and negatives of Indian culture.  Definitely looking forward to more in this series!"

Final side note: Fans of Chadda's books about Billi SanGreal (Dark Goddess and The Devil's Kiss) will be pleased to see those stories obliquely referenced.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

*first published in the UK as Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress


Waiting on Wednesday--The Moomins and the Great Flood

I first met the Finn Family Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson years and years ago, and fell hard for them.  Moominland Midwinter is one of my top ten books of all time.   But I was always vaguely confused as to which book counted as the first in the series...because there was a reference to a book that didn't exist, that came before all the published adventures.

Finally my confusion will end.  There will be a clear first book.

Shamelessly quoting the whole press release from the Guardian:

"Written in 1945, The Moomins and the Great Flood comes out in Britain this November

Tove Jansson's first ever Moomins book, a quest to find the lost Moominpappa which has never been published in the UK before, is set for release next month.

Written in 1945, The Moomins and the Great Flood sees Jansson using a mix of sepia washes and pen and ink line drawings to tell the story of Moominmamma and young Moomintroll's hunt for the long lost Moominpappa "through forest and flood". On the way, they meet a little creature – an early version of Sniff – and what publisher Sort Of Books described as "the elegantly strange Tulippa".

The translation, by David McDuff, was published in Finland in 2008, but will be released in the UK for the first time on 1 November. "We delayed the UK publication as we wanted to launch it in the approach to Tove Jansson's centenary year (2014) and did our best to make it a lovely possession," said publisher Natania Jansz. "I now wish we had similar works for all our great children's titles – the earliest Pooh, or Alice. It offers such a fascinating insight into the creative process."
Jansz called the book "a revelation … showing how Jansson's ideas and artworks evolved as she developed the Moomin themes and series".

"Written in the dark days of war – and as an escape from them – she uses a mixture of beautiful sepia and ink washes and pen and ink line drawing," she said. "It would take another decade before the Moomins could burst into full colour with The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My."  "

I am so there.

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.


Transcendence, by C.J. Omololu, for Timeslip Tuesday

Before I get started on this review, look at this cover.  Here is a black teenage boy front and center as the romantic lead in a paranormal YA story.  He is not one of an ensemble cast, and he is not shown from behind, or in shadow.  I cannot think of one single other contemporary YA speculative fiction book cover that does this (tell me if I'm wrong!).   I hope it is selling well, so that having a black main character on the cover can become something normal and unremarkable (I have made a point of leaving it face up around the house for several weeks, to brainwash my boys into thinking it normal.  I'm not sure it registered, but you never know).   Now that's out of my system, here's the review.

Transcendence, by C.J. Omololu (Walker, 2012, YA) is a type of time travel book that I've never reviewed before--on in which reincarnation is front and center.  But since reincarnation in this story is more than just having memories of past lives--it's actually reliving bits of the past, in a vivid, really being there way--I'm counting it as time travel.

Cole (short for Nicole) had no idea that she had lived many lives before her present, teenage cello playing existence until she is beheaded at the Tower of London.  Fortunately for Cole, this happened in the past...though the experience felt very real.  And also fortunately for Cole, maybe, a handsome boy named Griffon is there to catch her as she faints.   He knows that she's more than just a tourist overwhelmed by the history of the place....because he, too, has memories of many lives.

Griffon and Cole are both from the same California town, and their paths cross again.  And Cole is caught up in a fluster of teenaged crush-ness, which is a new thing for her, because until now the cello has filled her time very fillingly.   But her uncanny visions of the past are happening more often... and Griffon has answers for her that are almost unbelievable.  There is a secret cabral of  those who remember their past lives exists, and Cole has just become eligible to join the club.

But the energies of her gradually remembered pasts have attracted someone who has born a grudge against her for over a hundred years....a deadly grudge.  Murderous, even.  So Cole must figure out the mystery of what happened back then, or else she may well not live long enough to be able to settle nicely into her romance with Griffon....let alone sort out her various pasts, and what her future might hold.

This is definitely one for readers who like their teenage romance right up there, front and center. Following along with Cole's first person present narration, the reader gets to share the anxiety, the attraction, the heat of passion (which takes a while to actually heat up, but which is rather steamy once it gets going.  Although they don't have sex.  Yet.).   The reader, thanks to this first person present, also is privy to lots of miscellaneous details and thoughts that don't advance the story all that quickly.  It is very much a slow build to the really exiting, "will Cole be killed," part (the realization that she can remember past lives, like Griffon, isn't actually all that exciting--explanation from Griffon that he is special, incredulous acceptance from Cole that she is special too...and repeat intermittently).

In fact, things were so slow to get going  that I started and put the book down twice....but I pressed on the third time, and was rewarded with a final third of much more excitingness (the "will Cole be killed"part, and the whole mystery of why).   That being said, if you like teenaged paranormal romances, but want to keep the paranormal on the human end of things, this might really work for you.

Fans of time travel might be a tad disappointed in as much as there really isn't any travel qua travel--there's reliving of things that happened, and as such Cole in the past doesn't have any free will as her modern self.  There's no  culture shock or paradoxes or other time related entanglements, except for the reverberations of the past into the present.   So, time travel fans, be aware that you are going to get more contemporary romance than  time slippishness.

All that being said, the final third of the book redeemed the whole for me, and I do recommend it in a mild way to anyone not off-put by my caveats!


If you don't nominate books for the Cybils, then....5 good reasons and 2 less good ones to Nominate Now!

Nominations for the Cybils close today (at 11:59 PST, Oct. 15)) (edited to add: nominations are now closed)

If you don't nominate a book you love for the Cybils, you won't:

1.  Have your good taste vindicated when it makes it to the short list with your name and link next to it, nor will you have lots of blog visitors as a result.

2.  Be telling a much loved author you love her or his book

3.  Be thanking the publisher of a book you love

4.  Be ensuring that the book is read by up to seven bloggers, who might well love it too and spread the word on their blogs

5.  Be sending a message to anyone who cares about children's book awards that we who are part of the children's and YA blog community, as writers of blogs or readers of blogs or both, are incredibly passionate about great books for young readers!

And if you don't nominate a book in mg sff, and the book you don't nominate is a  really good book that I have never read, I might never get the pleasure of reading it and that would be sad for me! (and, because I am not selfish, sad for my fellow panelists as well).

And YA sff will win viz number of books.   (I am also not competitive.  I just like to add excitement to things by pretending I am.  Really).

Here I am not being competitive:  Middle grade sci fi/fantasy nominations are trailing YA 117 books to 157 (edited to add: this is now the more or less final tally or nominations from the floor; the numbers may change slighty as books get shifted between categories) and although YA gets a boost, numberwise, from accepting ebooks, and there are some over in regular mg that might get shifted to mg sff, still. 

Here's where you go to nominate. (nominations now closed)

Here are the books that have already been nominated.

And here are just a few mg sff books that haven't been nominated (and which I haven't necessarily read, so I have no real idea if they truly should be or not....)

(and just to say--one of the real, sincere reasons I keep bringing up all the books that haven't been nominated is that in YA, the actual audience for the books are people old enough to go forth and support the books they love--in mg, it's the responsibility of the gatekeepers!  This applies to many other categories too, so do feel free to fill out an entire slate of nominations.  And continuing to be sincere, I care about what's nominated because of being a panelist--I want the list of books from which we have to choose to be the best that it can be)

(and this year, since the publishers are going to get a chance to fill in the gaps, I'm not as sad about how long this list is as I have been in years past...)

(this is an incomplete list; I'm sure I'm forgetting many great books, and don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings by not including their book....)

The Crimson Shard, by Teresa Flavin

The Mourning Emporium, by Michelle Louvric

Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Troll Hunters by Michael Dahl

Of Giants and Ice by Shelby Bach

Heart of Stone, by M.L. Welsh

The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer

Crow Country, by Kate Constable (ages 10-14, so perhaps more at home in YA)

Dark Lord, by Jamie Thomson

The land of Neverbelieve, by Norman Messenger (perhaps more at home in picture books)
Unlocking the Spell, by E.D. Baker

Muncle Trogg by Janet Foxley


THE STAR SHARD by Frederic S. Durbin

BLISS by Kathryn Littlewood


THE WHISPER by Emma Clayton



The Golden Door, by Emily Rodda

Claws, by Mike Grinti and Rachel Grinti

The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan

The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated, by Gerald Morris

The Stones of Ravenglass, by Jenny Nimmo

 MOUSENET by Prudence Breitrose


 LITTLE WOMEN AND ME by Lauren Baratz-Logsted 




The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver

Has anyone else noticed how many siblings need rescuing these days in middle grade fantasy?  The missing sibling is a much more popular quest item than some non-human object of destiny (although these still exist).   Usually (though not always) it is a younger sibling of the opposite gender of the protagonist.  Examples include The Peculiar, Summer and Bird, Claws, Seven Sorcerers, 13 Curses, Wildwood, Breadcrumbs (if you count really close friendship as almost siblingness), The Golden Door....

Well, maybe that's not all that many.  But in any event, The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2012, middle grade), begins with the hideous Spindlers of the title, nightmarish soul stealers, infesting Liza's little brother Patrick,  and I felt as though I was on familiar ground.  Liza, as expected, must go on a quest through Below (accessed via her basement) to rescue Patrick's soul.  On the way to the dark and mysterious stronghold of the Spindlers, she encounters dangers and is almost killed.  She finds an unexpected ally, a large sentient rat named Mirabella who seems mentally unstable; she is able to overcome her repugnance of Mirabella's ratish ways and think of her as a friend.  She outwits the Spindlers thanks to some clever thinking and frees her brother. 

It's all perfectly fine--nicely imagined, competently written, briskly paced.  The only thing that raised my eyebrows was Liza's relationship with the rat, Mirabella--Liza seemed both ungrateful for the help and companionship, and totally uninterested in why Mirabella might be risking death to accompany her--but that was resolved by the end.

I seem to be the only reader of this one who doesn't find it all that much to write home about.   It felt somewhat programmatic to me- finding the way to another land, then moment of danger, miraculous salvation, repeat,  then outwit a more a powerful enemy and return to a home that is made better by the experience.  It didn't move me emotionally, and it didn't strike me as a particularly three-dimensional fantasy world (more like a series of fantasy vignettes).

Yet the starred review at Kirkus said:  "Richly detailed, at times poetic, ultimately moving; a book to be puzzled over, enjoyed and, ideally, read aloud."

School Library Journal gave it a star, and said "This imaginative fantasy emphasizes individual initiative and the power of hope and friendship. Below is a fully realized alternate world with echoes of both classic literature and mythology."

Publishers Weekly also gave it a star, and said "[this] magical, mesmerizing quest affirms the saving power of story, friendship, and love."

And I say, gee.  It was a fairly entertaining, not unpleasant, fast little read, that I think lots of kids (and clearly, at least some adults) will enjoy lots, but I don't think it's all that.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher at Kidlitcon

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