Looking for feminism in middle grade fantasy, inspired by the Amelia Bloomer Project (whose 2013 list just came out)

The Amelia Bloomer Project, which creates list a year of recommend feminist literature for kids up to 18, just posted the titles its recognizing from the past year.   There are four criteria a book has to meet to be recognized--

1. Significant feminist content
2. Excellence in writing
3. Appealing format
4. Age appropriateness for young readers

The first criteria is what sets this award apart-- "Feminist books for young readers must move beyond merely “spunky” and “feisty” young women, beyond characters and people who fight to protect themselves without furthering rights for other women. Feminist books show women overcoming the obstacles of intersecting forces of race, gender, and class, actively shaping their destinies. They break bonds forced by society as they defy stereotypical expectations and show resilience in the face of societal strictures."   (Here's more on the specific criteria used to evaluate "feminist content."

The lists are always interesting, and this year's is no exception.   Do go check it out!

Me being me, of course I looked to see what middle grade fantasy books were being recognized.  Answer--none (although there is one fantasy graphic novel--Princeless Book One: Save Yourself).

None?  I said sadly.  Were there really no great middle grade fantasies that transcended the ubiquitous spunky girl and embodied true feminism?  Surely not.

So I started thinking, and here are my top picks of Feminist Middle Grade Fantasy from July 2011 to December 2012 (which is the eligibility period of the Amelia Bloomer Project--an important point to remember, because two of these books are eligible for next year's list!)  Note:  there are many books with strong girl characters, but I tried really hard to think of books that truly embody my personal reading of the Amelia Bloomer criteria!

 My Winner:

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung (October 1, Arthur A. Levine).   This Cybils shortlisted book is told from the point of view of a boy who thinks that super heroes are boys.  He's finds out how wrong he is, when his classmate Polly is forced to confront the gendered expectations of super heroness head-on, overcoming stereotypes right and left, and showing tons of resilience as she whacks societal strictures to pieces.    I do not hold the fact that the main character is a boy against this book--in fact, I think it's a plus to have feminist books on hand that will appeal strongly to boys.  (disclaimer: review copy received for the Cybils).

The Runners-up:

Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse (March 2012, Random House), is the story of Hild, an Anglo-Saxon girl sent to a marriage that will make peace between to warring kingdoms.   During the course of her journey, she begins to question the social injustices that are woven into the fabric of her life, and, in what I think is a profoundly feminist way, she realizes that though she could try to run away from the destiny of her arranged marriage, she also has the choice to go through with it.  She recognizes that though her future may be set in place for her, she can shape the way in which she lives that destiny, and make it something worthwhile on her own terms.

Icefall, by Matthew Kirby (October 1, 2011, Scholastic)  This is the gripping tale of Solveig, a Viking girl sent with her siblings  and a handful of retainers to an isolated holding far in the north, to keep them safe while their father wages war.  In the dark and crowded wooden hall, boredom gives way to unbearable tension when it becomes clear that somewhere nearby, perhaps in the hall itself, there is a traitor, working to sabotage the group's chances of survival. But Solveig finds that she herself has the gift for telling stories...one that she will be forced to use when treachery is compounded by the arrival of her father's enemy, come to claim her older sister as his bride.  Solveig's path toward becoming a skald, (the Viking equivalent of a bard, a role traditionally reserved for men), and the way she finds her place in the world through her own talents, makes this one feminist in my opinion.  And it's a great read!

Sword Mountain, by Nancy Yi Fan (July 2012, HarperCollins), is the story of an orphaned eagle girl, Dandelion, who refuses to be trapped by the rigid strictures of class and gender that shape her world.  She recognizes them, and successfully overcomes them, setting a precedent that will change her society for the better.  Eagle girl sword-fighting ftw!  My one reservation about this book, qua book, was that there was no particular need for the characters to be birds--though it added interest, I think the fact that I never quite believed I was reading about birds makes me question whether it embodies "excellence in writing."  Though this is the sequel to Sword Bird, which I have not read, it stands on its own just fine and should appeal to fans of other feisty animal stories (ie the Warriors series).  (disclaimer: review copy received for the Cybils)

Edited to add, thanks to Brandy Renegade Magic, by Stephanie Burgis.  Kat, the young heroine of this Regency Period magical adventure, is most certainly a heroine who is doing her darndest to actively demolish the restrictions that gender and class are imposing on her.  

So there's my list--what did I miss?  Which would your winner be? (remember--July 2011 to Dec. 2012)


Waiting on Wednesday--Hero, by Alethea Kontis

Hero, by Alethea Kontis (Harcourt), doesn't come out till October, but I was so excited by the thought of a companion book to last year's Enchanted that I felt compelled to share it.

"Rough and tumble Saturday Woodcutter thinks she's the only one of her sisters without any magic—until the day she accidentally conjures an ocean in the backyard. With her sword in tow, Saturday sets sail on a pirate ship, only to find herself kidnapped and whisked off to the top of the world. Is Saturday powerful enough to kill the mountain witch who holds her captive and save the world from sure destruction? And, as she wonders grumpily, "Did romance have to be part of the adventure?" As in Enchanted, readers will revel in the fragments of fairy tales that embellish this action-packed story of adventure and, yes, romance."

And not being a pirate person, really, I'm pleased that it sounds like there's much more too it than adventures at sea! 

(personal note--that's a very tricky dress color to pull off successfully.  I'd avoid it, myself).

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


The Crimson Shard, by Teresa Flavin

The Crimson Shard, by Teresa Flavin, is the sequel to The Blackhope Engima, the story of three young teenagers who enter the magical world of a Renaissance painting, where an artist/alchemist has hidden many secrets... It continues the adventures of two of these kids, Sunni and Blaise, recently returned from that journey, and enjoying being simple sight-seers in London.  But a trip to the home of an 18th-century painter, master of trompe l'oeil, turns into a nightmare when their tour guide, the sinister Mr. Throgmorton, opens a painted door into the past.

Now Sunni and Blaise are trapped by Throgmorton and his nasty daughter in the workshop of the artist who painted the door--a place where semi-starving boys are forced to draw and paint constantly, copying "borrowed" masterpieces of art.  They think they are learning their craft, but the whole setup is much darker than that....

Throgmorton wants Sunni and Blaise to help him get back to the Renaissance painting they visited in The Blackhope Enigma, so that he can master its magical secrets.  And so they are forced to labor alongside the boys, with the threat of death hanging over their heads...and won't get to go back through the door, unless they betray secrets they should never tell.

Me--at this point I was rather doubtful. Yes, it was an interesting plot, but the plight of Sunni and Blaise back in the 18th century was very grim reading.  There seems to be no way out!  The orphan boys are in a miserable situation, that occasionally turns fatal on them.  Blaise is being something of a lump.  Living conditions are dire.  Thankfully, they manage to escape.

With the help of two questionable associates of Mr. Throgmorton, whose job is to pilfer the masterpieces to be copied, the two kids find themselves on the grimy streets of London.   But to get home, they must somehow find a way back through the painted door....

Me--things are much more cheerful now, and I'm enjoying my reading much more.  There is hope, in the form of a group of young gentleman (and one gentlewoman) who are interested in their plight.  With a mix of alchemy, luck, and determination,  Throgmorton is thwarted.

Those who like historical adventure with art and magic should enjoy this one.  It's a vivid portrayal of 18th century London, full of lots of detail, the plot is interesting, and the stakes high.  I had a few reservations-- the plot and the descriptive details drive the story, and though Blaise and Sunni are appropriately Determined, Blaise in particular never develops much character-wise.   And I was never quite convinced by the semi-romance between the two of them, thrown in at odd intervals--it felt forced.   But those who revel in oppressed orphans, 18th century pick-pocketing, and feisty gentlemen (along with a sister who wants to be feisty too) may feel differently!  In fact it has been nominated for the 2013 Teen Choice Book of the Year.

Though I very much appreciated the Craft Fantasy aspects of this story (it's the best incorporation of art forgery into a fantasy novel I've ever read), I much preferred the mysterious beauty of the Renaissance painting in The Blackhope Enigma--that was truly magical.  And, you know, I much prefer Renaissance Italy to 18th century London--I've never much cared for the 18th century, what with all the wigs.  But though The Crimson Shard wasn't entirely a book for me personally, I am looking forward lots to the third book in the series--The Shadow Lantern, coming in the UK in May.


Award winning books as investements....

My approach to ALA Award Day is not pure happy celebration of childrens' books, but is somewhat twisted by the trill of personal challenge I've added--as soon as the winners are announced, I charge off to the local bookstores to try to buy first editions.  This constitutes a considerable part of my college savings plan for the children.  

This particular Newbery Day didn't add much, however, in terms of book hoard value--The One and Only Ivan came out too long ago, and was too popular, for first editions to be ripe for the picking, and the Caldecott winner, This Is Not My Hat, is too recent, and probably has too huge a print run, to be worth stocking up on in bulk--I only bought two.   However, it might well prove very difficult to find mint condition copies in ten or so years (when I'll be paying for college), because I noticed in today's shopping that the black cover shows every bit of shelf wear, and every fingerprint that's ever touched it.  Happily, though, I was able to correct my local bookseller's misapprehension that it was I Want My Hat Back that had won.  She really wasn't believing me, and I had to be very firm about it before she was doubtful enough to go check.  I feel pleased that I was able to be helpful.

I actually have read the Printz Award winner for the first time since I started paying attention to it--In Darkness, by Nick Lake.  Here's my take on it.  I am a little sad that I didn't keep the ARC, but I think it would be really unreasonable to keep every ARC one gets just on the off chance of them being collectible in the future.  Limits.


Me reading adult fantasy--Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout

This week's adventure in reading fantasy books for grown-ups (though it has huge YA crossover appeal) was Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout (2009), one I enjoyed very much indeed.  It is a swirlingness of Norse mythology in which two main characters try to fend off the annihilation of Ragnarok, and are forced to be very brave indeed. 

When the story starts, Fimbulvetr, the unending winter, has arrived--three years have passed on earth with no spring.  And Kathy Castillo, an MBA student, has been murdered, only to find her newly dead self offered a new life as a Valkyrie.   Recruitment for Odin's army has been stepped up, and NorseCODE, a secret project funded by the Aesir gods, is tracking down every mortal descendant of Odin it can.   Even ordinary ones like Kathy, now known as Mist.

But Mist goes AWOL.  Instead of being a good Valkyrie, recruiting others, she decides that what's really important is finding her way to the kingdom of Hel, where most of the dead end up-- like Mist's sister, also murderd. To get to Hel and save her sister, Mist needs a guide, and the only choice is the Vanir god, Hermod, who made the journey himself once before (to save his own brother--it didn't work out).   Hermod is a kind of loner god, not really into the mead-soaked fun and games of his family, and rather preoccupied with tracking down the wolves who are going to devour the sun and the moon....but off they go to Hel.

And then lots happens.  Basically, Mist and Hermod team up to try to diffuse Ragnarok, despite all the weight of prophecy and immortal machinations pushing it forward to its deadly conclusion.  They don't have much going for them--some help from Odin's eight-legged horse, and a bunch of dead farmers from Iowa (tornado victims) who, along with Mist's sister and the blind god Höd, have formed a resistance movement in Hel.  Odin's all-seeing eye might help if they can get it, and then there's a sword partly forged from Nothing, that might be useful....

So there's a lot happening, and Mist and Hermod don't really know what the heck they are doing for much of the book, and even when they do know, they have a hard time being special enough to do it, and sometimes people die, and Ragnarok keeps on progressing--yet it wasn't depressing!  I do not like depressing books, so this was good.

Reasons why it wasn't depressing, even though when the story begins it is never ending winter and it's all grim and one isn't at all sure if one wants to read it:

--Mist and Hermod manage to muddle through at every turn; they keep on trying, even when things look their darkest.  This keeps the reader from losing hope too (I hate it when I lose hope). 

--There are lots of little funny bits, little zingers that made me chuckle and longer bits of the author not taking things too seriously but not falling into farce.

--There is violence, and there's at least one graphic mentions of intestines, but it doesn't have the off putting pages of gore and fighting that one might encounter in grown-up books (and some middle grade fantasies)

--I liked the romance.  If this were written as a YA book, there would be lots more about the romance, with angst and thrawtingnesses etc.  This is a nice grown up romance, tastefully presented--growing tension, followed by brisk mutual enjoyment snatched from despair,  conducted offstage.  Though I wouldn't actually have minded a bit more conducted onstage.....

--I really liked the farmers from Iowa.  Plain People of Middle America ftw!

--It is also not any longer than it needs to be.  Clocking in at a brisk 292 pages, there was no wallowing in pointlessness.

In short, Norse Code is the best Ragnarok novelization I've ever read, and the best girl with bare shoulders holding a sword on the cover book I've ever (though it was my first, as far as I can remember, on both counts, so that isn't saying much), and, much more meaningfully, a cracking good read.

Note:  I do not think you have to be deeply conversant with Norse mythology to appreciate it, but on the other hand, I think you need to have at least heard of Ragnarok and Odin's gang and Valkyries etc.

Additional note:  Mist is from Mexico--her family immigrated when she was a child-- which is neither here nor there as far as the story goes, but there it is, so I'm counting this as multicultural fantasy, and anyone who has been wanting to read about a Hispanic Valkyrie need look no further.

This week's middle grade sci fi/fantasy roundup

Here's this week's round-up of what I found in my blog reading.  Let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, at Mister K Reads

The Big Beast Sale, by David Sinden, at Back to Books

The Claws of Evil (The Battles of Ben Kingdom), by Andrew Beasley, at The Book Zone 

Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen, at Charlotte's Library and The Book Brownie

Escape To Witch Mountain, by Alexander Key, at This Blog Belongs to Emily Brown

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung, at Ms. Yingling Reads
and a joint review in three parts at The Brain Lair, Maria's Melange and Library Fantatic

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Sonderbooks

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Book Angel Booktopia and Sonderbooks 

Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Island of Silence (The Unwanteds, Book 2) by Lisa McMann, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, at In Bed With Books and Karissa's Reading Review 

Keeper of the Lost Cities, by Shannon Messenger, at The Write Stuff 

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

On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave, by Candace Fleming, at books4yourkids

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann, at alibrarymama

The Prairie Thief, by Melissa Wiley, at Bookie Woogie and Sonderbooks

Signed by Zelda, by Kate Feiffer, at books4yourkids

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy, at Read in a Single Sitting

Small Medium at Large, by Joanne Levy, at Annie McMahon

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeline L'Engle, at Secrets & Sharing Soda

The Vengekeep Prophecies, by Barb Middleton, at Nerdy Book Club 

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, at Time Travel Times Two

When You Wish Upon a Rat, by Maureen McCarthy, at Charlotte's Library

Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom, and Poseidon and the Sea of Fury (Heroes in Training books 1 and 2), by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams at Small Review

Two by Eva Ibbotson at Read in a Single Sitting-- Not Just a Witch, and Dial a Ghost

The 100 Cupboards series, by N.D. Wilson, at Mister K Reads 

Authors and Interviews

Catherynne M. Valente at Wondrous Reads

Other Good Stuff:

Wondering if a mg sff might win the Newbery, I made a list of all the mg sff books that got stars (shamelessly plucking them from Elizabeth Bluemle's comprehensive list at Shelftalker)

My sister and I had fun making up our own tunes for Menolly's songs, but these guys almost certainly a. did a better job b. took it seriously (found at  Tales of the Marvellous, where you can read more about them).  I just want to add that the cover of Dragonsong used for the second cd is just about my favorite book cover illustration ever, and it works exquisitely as a cd cover!

Lolcats of the Middle Ages (found via Light Reading):

And finally, speaking of book covers, though not mg sff covers, here is a new book called Doomed:


Here is what I saw....

....a rather cute cyclopedian (cyclopsian? one-eyed?) animal (my son saw a "really weird tube worm"...)  It has taken me a lot of effort to see it as the hand it is supposed to be.


Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen

Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: the True Tale of Sleeping Beauty, by Jane Yolen (Philomel, middle grade, Nov. 2012), has a somewhat misleading title.  It is actually the tale of the family of fairies who came to the christining, and how the princess ended up falling into her enchanted sleep.  And more particularly, it's the tale of the youngest daughter of this family, young Gorse. 

Gorse was left home sick when the rest of her family--aunts, siblings, and parents (no uncles--they were humans and didn't stick around long, but Gorse's father is an elf, and stayed), troop off to the castle to fulfil their part in a bargain made with the human king long ago.  The fairies swore an oath to do the bidding of the royal family, and bestowing Christening magic on the baby princess is part of the bargain. 

But Gorse--thoughtful, brave, impetuous, and somewhat sickly--is horrified when she realizes she's been left home alone.  Will she (and perhaps all her family) explode into light if the family oath isn't fulfilled because she isn't there?  So off she goes by herself to the castle....only to fall into an underground maze.  There a prince of the Unseely fairy court (Orybon),  along with his sworn companion (Grey),  and a clan of cave trolls (called "the McGargles" by the two fairy dudes) are were trapped underground by an imprisoning spell cast long ago (the trolls were innocent, unlucky, bystanders).  Orybon could be free any time--all he has to do is truly repent the wickedness that he's being punished for, and then Grey and the McGargles would be free too.  But repentance isn't actually on Orybon's agenda--he'd rather coerce Gorse into using her family's gift of magical shouting to batter a way through the locked gate to the upper world....

Not surprisingly, Gorse manages to save those who deserve saving, and makes it to the Christening, in time to see her mother cunningly work magic that will free her own family from their bondage to the human royals.  

Surprisingly, Grey, once restored to the upper world, reverts to the age he was when he was first imprisoned--now he's a boy again, just a bit older than Gorse.  And so, with this rather squicky implication that love will blossom despite the age weirdness, we leave them to their magic...

A few quick pluses--An imaginative look at a part of the Sleeping Beauty story that I've never seen looked at before.  Plucky, intelligent, well-read heroine.  Really cool magical book delivery system in which Gorse's father can reach into a magical book delivery slot and pull out random books, allowing Gorse to quote Through the Looking Glass. 

My less plus-like thoughts:  I just never do truly fall for Jane Yolen's books--they just never seem to me to fully deliver numinous enchantment, characters I can take to my heart, and truly gripping stories (and I do recognize that this is my issue--plenty of readers seem to love her just fine).  In this case I was put off by how long it took for the story to actually start--there are seventy six pages of backstory in which Gorse is born, grows older, hears family stories, and tells things to the reader.  Then she falls into the pit, and the pace picks up, albeit in a somewhat choppy fashion.

However, though the story now becomes genuinely interesting reading, the pit has its own problems.   Although the relationship between Orybon and Grey was fraught with all sorts of dynamics (which is the sort of thing I appreciate), I can't really call it a masterpiece of subtle character building.  And I know that I might be over-reacting, but I really didn't care for the patronizing, almost neo-Imperialist way the cave trolls are presented, both with the ridiculous name and the whole sense that I got of them as an exploited indigenous people, in an --isn't it nice that they can care about their families even though they are less than human-- way.

And finally, I was squicked out by Grey suddenly getting younger and loosing memories of what happened underground (which basically erases all of the character development that had happened in his life) and becoming a potential love interest for a girl who started things young enough to be his daughter.

I didn't mind reading it once, but I won't be reading it again.

Other reviews:

The Book Brownie
and the Upper Hudson Library system has gathered the School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, and Booklist reviews here


The Friday Society, by Adrienne Kress

Sometimes even picky readers of historical fiction (ie, me) are allowed to just enjoy the ride, especially when the ride in question is to a steampunk 19th-century London that never was.  The Friday Society, by Adrienne Kress (Dial, YA, Dec. 2012), is a playful mystery/thriller in which three teenage girls--an inventor's assistant, a magician's assistant, and a would-be samurai warrior from Japan find their paths (littered with dead bodies) crossing....and they end up working together, in a sisterhood of mad talent, to foil your basic megalomaniac evil genius plot to destroy London.

(Yay!  A one sentence summary!)

So sure, it isn't historical fiction at its most un-anachronistic, but a lot of the fun comes from the author's relaxed and playful use of modern turns of phrase.  As in the first two sentences, which made me feel all happy to read the book:

"And then there was an explosion.
It was loud.  It was bright.  It was very explosion-y."

I liked all three girls--Cora, the serious inventor, Nellie, the beautiful girl who's an ace escape artist, and Michiko, formidable swordswoman confronted by barriers of language and culture.  They were each strongly individual, with nicely doled out back-story and motivations and opinions.  The point of view shifts between the three girls, which was good, in large part because it gave the reader a chance to get to know Michiko, and hear her thoughts.  I liked how Cora and Nellie, even though they couldn't exactly have complicated conversations with Michiko, never treated her as an exotic other--she was a person and an equal.  The one real reservation I had, regarding Cora being swept off her feet by feelings of physical attraction to a jerk, proved to be a reservation that the author shared, and not something she thought was ok, which was a relief.  

I liked the story--it was enough of a steampunk thriller to be interesting, without the thriller-ness using up too many pages with violent chases etc, which I often find tedious.  (nb--people who actually like tightly plotted thrillers that exercise their brains might find it untightly plotted, and might put in some critical thinking type comments here, but I am not that reader).

In short, I liked reading the book! It was just the sort of escapist fun that makes for excellent bus ride reading.  This came as a very pleasant surprise, because I did not much care for the author's two middle grade fantasy books.  I think her writing has improved lots--I felt here that she was in control of her story, which was not quite the feeling I had gotten in the past.


Will a fantasy book win the Newbery? A look at the stars (literally)

The winner of the Newbery Award will be announced Monday--and I have been spending much thought on the chances of a fantasy book winning.

Obvious contenders that have been mentioned many times in many places are Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz,  Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin, and The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.   Of these, Starry River is my favorite, and I'd be happy to see it win.

But what of the other fine fantasy books published this past year?

Elizabeth at Shelftalker posted her masterful list of all the books that got stars from the professional reviewers last year.   And I, in turn, have gone through and extracted the sci fi/fantasy titles.   Here they are, with my commentary in italics:


SIX STARS-- none.
The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver (Harper)

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz. (Candlewick)

Starry River of the Sky. Grace Lin. (Little, Brown)

There's two of the three mentioned above; I'm surprised that The Spindlers got so many--I found it a perfectly fine book, but not at all outstanding.

Who Could That Be at This Hour? Lemony Snicket, illus. by Seth. (Little, Brown)

It would be fun to see this with a shiny sticker on it, but unless this year's committee was very quirky, I can't see it happening.


The Fire Chronicle (Books of Beginning #2). John Stephens. Knopf,

Greyhound of a Girl, A. Roddy Doyle. Abrams/Amulet

In a Glass Grimmly. Adam Gidwitz. Dutton

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! Polly Horvath, illus. by
Sophie Blackall. Random/Schwartz & Wade

The One and Only Ivan,  Katherine Applegate, illus. by Patricia
Castelao. HarperCollins

The Seven Tales of Trinket, Shelley Moore Thomas, illus. by Dan
Craig. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

My own favorite of these is Greyhound of a Girl, but it's not eligible.   The Seven Tales of Trinket might be a dark horse in the race--I can imagine people agreeing to agree on it.  And there Ivan...which I didn't care for much myself, but those who love it seem to do so with a passion.   The people handing out stars this year seem to have appreciated humorous books--lots show up in the two star list too.


The Brixen Witch,  Stacy DeKeyser, illus. by John Nickle. S & S, McElderry

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again. Frank Cottrell Boyce, illus. by
Joe Berger. Candlewick

Cold Cereal. Adam Rex. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,
Catherynne M. Valente, illus. by Ana Juan. Feiwel and Friends

Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, The. Christopher Healy, illus. by
Todd Harris. HarperCollins/Walden Pond

Last Dragonslayer, The. Jasper Fforde. Harcourt

Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plan. R.A. Spratt, illus. by Dan Santat.
Little, Brown

Oh No! Not Again! (Or How I Built a Time Machine to Save History) (Or
At Least My History Grade). Mac Barnett, illus. by Dan Santat.

On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave. Candace Fleming.
Random/Schwartz & Wade

Remarkable. Lizzie K. Foley. Dial

Summer and Bird. Katherine Catmull. Dutton

What Came from the Stars. Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion

Lots more humor--and The Last Dragonslayer, which I love but which isn't eligible.   I could easily see The Girl Who....coming home with something.   


Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated. Gerald Morris, illus. by Aaron
Renier. Houghton Mifflin

Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent (The Father of Lies Chronicles).
Alan Early. Mercier Press

Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind. Gary Ross; illus. by Matthew
Myers. Candlewick

Castle of Shadows. Ellen Renner, illus. by Wilson Swain. Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Claire LeGrand, illus. by
Sarah Watts. Simon & Schuster

Deadly Pink. Vivian Vande Velde. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Deadweather and Sunrise. Geoff Rodkey. Putnam

Dragonborn. Toby Forward. Bloomsbury

Earwig and the Witch. Diana Wynne Jones, illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky.

The Empty City,  Erin Hunter. HarperCollins

The False Prince, Jennifer A. Nielsen. Scholastic Press

Five Nights to the Crimson Moon. Walter Renfrey. Walter Renfrey

Goblin Secrets. William Alexander. Margaret McElderry/S&S

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange
Adventure. Lissa Evans. Sterling

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book III: The Unseen Guest. Maryrose Wood. HarperCollins/Balzer and Bray

The Lost King, by Ursula Jones. Inside Pocket Publishing

Palace of Stone (Princess Academy). Shannon Hale. Bloomsbury

The Peculiar, Stefan Bachmann. Greenwillow

The Secret Prophecy, Herbie Brennan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins,

Ship of Souls. Zetta Elliott. AmazonEncore

Time Snatchers. Richard Ungar. Putnam.

The Traveling Restaurant: Jasper’s Voyage in Three Parts. Barbara
Else. Gecko Press

The Vengekeep Prophecies, Brian Farrey, illus. by Brett Helquist.

There are quite a few here I haven't read, mostly the ones that came out after October and so weren't part of my Cybils reading.   Of those I read, the two I like best that are eligible (Earwig and Horten aren't) are The Peculiar and The False Prince.  But I can't quite see them winning anything.   Betsy Bird really liked The Vengekeep Prophecies--"this is a standalone first novel that fulfills its promises and yet leaves you wanting more. In other words, the best kind of fantasy there is."  I will try to read it by Monday, so I can, if moved to do so, predict that it will win...

All of the 2012 books that I helped shortlist for the Cybils are on here--Ivan, The Peculiar, The False Prince, The Last Dragonslayer (Beswitched is 2011)-except for two.  Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung, didn't get a star, which I think is too bad.  I'm not saying I think it should get anything on Monday, but it should have gotten a star, so I'm glad we shortlisted it and showed it some love.  Likewise, The Cabinet of Earths is a really rich and tasty fantasy that should have been starred.  Much more interesting and better written (in my opinion) than some that did get stars....I could see this one with an honor, perhaps, maybe....

Conclusion:  My money is currently on Starry River to represent for mg sff.  What do you think?


When You Wish Upon a Rat, by Maureen McCarthy, for Timeslip Tuesday

When You Wish Upon a Rat, by Maureen McCarthy (Amulet Books, Sept. 2012 in the US, middle grade) is the first book I can remember reading in which a sentient stuffed animal magically transports the main character back in time....

Months have gone by since eleven-year-old Ruth's older brother threw her stuffed rat into the river (a special, antique sort of stuffed rat, not taxidermy, that was a gift from her favorite aunt).  Months in which Ruth's aunt died, and Ruth grieved...months spent despising life in a family consisting of absentminded, overly relaxed parents and distasteful brothers.  Indeed Ruth has it rather hard--as the only one who cares about organization, and clean dishes, and Standards, she does more than her share of the housework.  Her parents really do pay more attention to her brothers than they do to her, and on top of that, the cool girls who were her friends are now hostile.

The rat episode was pretty much the last straw that cemented Ruth's dislike of her family, and she's been furious with her brother ever since.  But when she strikes up the beginnings of a friendship with Howard, a boy who's even more an outsider than she is, things change.  Howard suggests that she might go back, long trip via public transportation though it is, to the spot where she last saw her rat....

And she finds it again.   And it is alive, in a magical, still a stuffed rat kind of a way.   Not only that, but it can grant wishes--wishes that can change her life.

So, in classic be careful what you wish for style, Ruth experiments with three different lives.   One makes her an only child, the center of attention of dotting, well-off parents, who smother her.  One wish, for an "ordered, quiet life.  No family," fulfils her request nicely--the catch with that is that she's an orphan in a strict convent boarding school.   And the final wish has Ruth about to win a kids television quiz show--but there's  a nasty twist to that too.

You can probably guess the end, but I couldn't help but continue to feel sorry for Ruth and to wish her parents tried harder with the dishes and with her birthday presents. They really are somewhat neglectful, and the fact that I thought Ruth's original life was pretty awful made me a little disappointed that, after all was said and done, her house was still a mess.

So the story as a whole is fairly predictable in the general way things play out, but the ways in which Ruth's various lives play out makes for interesting reading.  The time travel sub-story, which did come as a surprise, was especially nice for me, fan of orphan and school stories that I am. 

Ruth's reactions to the strictures of Catholic school life, which comes complete with despotic nuns, are spot on, and the friendship she makes with another student is a genuinely real relationship with reverberations into the present that cause Ruth to change for the better.  Those who are left hand might find this section of the book particularly interesting--her new friend is left-handed, and is being pretty much tortured into using her right hand.

In short, a fun contemporary addition to the "kid who tries on other lives through magic" sub-genre.

This was originally published in Australia in 2010, as Careful What You Wish For; here's that cover.  I much prefer the US version--the Australian cover looks like the girl wished for a boyfriend and it ended badly.

Other blog reviews:  Tsana's Reads and Reviews, Sharon the Librarian, and Teen Book Reviews

Disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.


The Bird King--an artist's notebook, by Shaun Tan

If you want to be inspired to start keeping sketchbooks of your own, or if you want a child in your life to do the same, or if you want to peek into the creative processes of one of the greatest creators of graphic novels around (and a fine artist in general), or if you simply want to spend a little while delighting in whimsy and magical possibility, look for The Bird King--an artist's notebook, by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 128 pages, technically out Feb. 1, but in stock at Amazon now....)

It is just what the title promises--a notebook of drawings and paintings, culled from twelve years of scribbles, works in progress, and practice pictures.  Some are just for fun, some were the start of stories, and some are images from stories or illustrations in progress.    In the author's note, Tan says that each piece was done in a single sitting of less than two hours, and so they have a spontaneity and joy to them--and this is what makes me want to break out the colored pencils and play too.

Many of the pictures in the book, although things of joy in themselves, would also work very nicely as story prompts, something that Tan finds holds true for himself as well:  "While there is no set meaning in any of these drawings, there is an invitation to seek one..." (page 3), and this in part how The Lost Thing and The Arrival came to be.   I think many of the pictures may be too dark or creepy to share with younger kids--some are a little nightmarish, what with tentacles and such, but for those who have, say, a 12 year old on hand (as I just happen to do), it's awfully fun to look at them together, wondering what is going on and what on earth will happen next.....

In short, this notebooks if full of little mechanical marvels and strange creatures and sketches and paintings from life that are quite lovely.  The book itself, qua book, has a lovely solidity to it's binding--it's one of those very pleasing type of books that makes one want to give it as a gift.

Here is the picture that tickled me most, entitled Summoning:

This post is my contribution to today's Nonfiction Monday round-up, hosted at LibrariYAn.

(disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher)


Me reading adult fantasy--The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I have vowed to make 2013 the year in which I bravely read fantasy books for grown-ups, and thanks to many of you, I have a lovely long list of recommendations.  After a false start with City of Dark Magic, I moved on to one I've been meaning to read for years--The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.  And once I got over the shock of the main character peeing in the shower, I enjoyed it...pretty much.

(this post contains spoilers)

What I liked:

1. The college of magic which the main character, Quentin Coldwater, attends is lovely and fascinating and very nicely described.   Quentin's sojourn at the antarctic campus is also good reading.

2.  The epic, post-graduation adventure of Quentin and his circle of college chums in the magical land of Fillory was also fascinating.  It's a riff on Narnia, asking what it would be like if adults were the ones crossing over to save a fantasy realm--an interesting premise, and rather gripping.

3.  The whole beautiful, charming, lovely, and ultimately sinister story of Fillory--there's a series of books about them that were the favorite childhood reading of the main characters.  (I especially love the fact that the Fillory books have their own website).

What I didn't like:

1.  Quentin is not appealing.  I can understand, and even empathize, with many of his feelings, but gee, the dude is self-centered.   Many years pass, and few meaningful words are exchanged between the characters.

2.   I found very off-putting indeed (though my rational brain admits it was important to the plot) the bit after Quentin graduates and he is doing nothing useful in New York and spending his time drinking too much, and Alice, his girlfriend who had all sorts of plans and potential is stuck there too (beats me why, except for reasons of plot).

What annoyed me:

1.  The author assuming I didn't know what the word "vixen" meant.  Please. 

2.  One of the central young student magician characters, Eliot, is gay, and I was not happy with his portrayal.  Early in the book we see him in a very off-kilter sexual encounter, and he's in great emotional pain, and trying to douse it with alcohol and forced sophistication.  And why did Eliot have to be the one who hooks up with a sex partner the moment they start meeting the Fillorians?

 I had the feeling the author was making some sort of point about how open and adult he (the author) was going to be about gay sexuality or something, and though it could be argued that sexuality and the emotional reverberations thereof are a huge part of Eliot's character, and the author was just being true to the character he was creating, but it felt gay unfriendly.

 There is another gay character, the author of the Fillory books, who turns out to have been a pedophile.   Great (sarcasm font).

(Just as a general observation, there was lots of sex in the book that didn't bother me; it didn't much interest me either, since it was mostly of an "and then they had sex" variety, and even the development of the relationship between Quentin and Alice, which took ages,  and was tremendously important, didn't make rainbow sparkles in my mind the way a good lusty fictional romance should).

3.  The whole business about Quentin cheating on Alice, and she is justifiably hurt and angry and he is all sad and wants her forgiveness, and then when she sleeps with someone else he gets his little knickers in a twist and is all Angry and How Could You and I had no sympathy for him at all.

What I am not sure about:

I am pretty sure that if I were attacked by a naked demon who happened to have enormous genitals I would indeed notice them, and perhaps even remark on them, as the characters do.  But were these enormous genitals really a detail that needed to be there?  Possibly, in that it underlines the point that this Fillory adventure isn't kids in fairyland, but I had gathered that already.  I'm not sure I wanted this particular image seared into my young, impressionable mind.

Did I like it?  Well, I read it with absorption and found it a pleasingly immersive experience, but I don't think I'll ever re-read it.  I will, however, add the sequel, The Magician King, to my list.

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

Welcome to this week's listing of what I found in my blog reading of interest to fans of middle grade fantasy and sci fi!  Please let me know if I missed your post! (n.b.--authors and publicists, you are welcome to send me links too!)  Caveat--I do exercise a modicum of judgement as to what I include; if something is too short and vague, or too much just an ad for a book, I probably won't include it.

The Reviews:

Benjamin Franklinstein Meets the Fright Brothers, by Larry David Tuxbury and Matthew McElligott, at  KimberlyLynKane

Chase Tinker and the House of Magic, by Malia Ann Haberman, at Helene's World of Books

Divide and Conquer (Infinity Ring, Book 2), by Carrie Ryan, at Charlotte's Library

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffery, at Kid Lit Geek

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, at Random Musings of a Bilbliophile

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, by Suzanne Collins, at Fyrefly's Book Blog 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling, at Random Musings of a Bilbliophile

Horten's Incredible Illustions, by Lissa Evans, at Semicolon

In a Glass Grimmly, by Adam Gidwitz, at Abby the Librarian

Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill, at Barbara Ann Watson

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood at the NY Times and Charlotte's Library

The Merman and the Moon Forgotten, by Kevin McGill, at Candace's Book Blog 

Museum of Thieves, by Lian Tanner, at Fantasy Literature

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann, at Teen Reader's Diary and The Book Zone 

The Secret Room, by Antonia Michaelis, at Project Mayhem and Charlotte's Library

The Shadow Mask (Sound Bender 2), by Lin Oliver & Theo Baker, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

Spirit Fighter, by Jerel Law, at Semicolon

Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin, at Geo Librarian and Fantasy Literature

The Sword of Six Worlds, by Matt Mikalatos, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

Tales from Lovecraft Middle School:  Professor Gargoyle, and The Slither Sister, by Charles Gilman, at Good Books and Good Wine and The Slither Sisters, at A Bookish Way of Life and Ms. Yingling Reads

The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, at One Librarian's Book Reviews

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, at Geo Librarian

Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldren, edited by Jonathan Strahan, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia 

The Volcano Disaster, by Peg Kehret, at Time Travel Times Two

The White Mountains, by John Christopher, at That Blog Belongs to Emily Brown

Authors and Interviews:

Diane Zahler's guest post for the fabulous Retell Me a Story series at One Librarian's Book Reviews  (anyone interested in retellings should definitely check out all the week's posts!)

Mike Young (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities) at Book Nut

Charles Gilman (Lovecraft Middle School) at Good Books and Good Wine

W.H. Beck (Malcolm at Midnight) at From the Mixed Up Files

Other Good Stuff

The Edgar Shortlists (honoring mysteries) have been announced, and the juvenille books include two fantasies--Fake Mustache and 13 Hangmen.

Fake Mustache: Or, How Jodie O'Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind by Tom Angleberger (Abrams - Amulet Books)
13 Hangmen by Art Corriveau (Abrams - Amulet Books)
The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo (Abrams - Amulet Books)
Spy School by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage (Penguin Young Readers Group - Dial Books for Young Readers)

Sheila Ruth, who blogs at Wands and Worlds, and who is in large part responsible for the success of the Cybils (she's the one who contacts publishers asking for review copies of books the panelists can't get themselves), is embarking on an effort to publish a graphic novel version of Ratha's Creature--the story of a brave and charismatic prehistoric cat.   She's turned to kickstarter to help fund it--more info here.


Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff

Yesterday I woke up early, and in the dark peacefulness of the morning I began to read Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff (Razorbill, YA, Jan, 2013).  It is always hard to wake everyone else up and go to work...but when that time came, after a solid hour of reading, I was so deeply immersed in this story that it was almost torture.   Sigh.  Happily my son had a half day, so 11:30 saw me back on the sofa, zipping through the last sixty pages....

No, this was not the escapist middle grade fantasy fun that I so often enjoy.  It was a dark YA, whose main character, Hannah, is haunted (pretty much 24/7) by the ghost of her best friend Lillian who died from anorexia six months before--it is an unwholesome relationship, but Hannah cannot end it (nb--there is no pussy-footing around the terribleness of Lillian's death by anorexia).

As if that were not dark enough, Hannah's town is now home to a serial murderer--girl after girl is being found bashed to death, each with a paper valentine left by the killer.   Hannah, already ghost-haunted, finds that she and the dead girls are drawn to each other...and (with constant interruptions, comments, and advice from ghostly Lillian, who's tormented in her own way) Hannah tries to unravel the mystery of their deaths.

(Although Hannah actually finds the killer by coincidence, not by supernaturally-assisted sleuthing  skills (the ghosts never do communicate anything all that useful), and the resolution of the murders is something of an anti-climax.  Just saying, in case mystery lovers end up feeling disappointed, which is very possible).

And in the meantime,  Hannah falls in love--with a boy who's been labeled bad and dangerous all his life, but who actually turns out to be one of the sweetest boys in YA literature (I can't think of any other teenage boys shown affectionately looking after the baby their aunt's fostering),  and it's not a love triangle situation, or too much of a Big Deal Plot Element, but rather it's a looking past years of stereotyping into the real person situation, and all very genuine and nicely done (once the sight improbability of them hooking up in the first place is over with.  And why did he have to be wearing a wife-beater the first time we meet him?)

Not only did I appreciate the warm fuzziness of this relationship, and the tension of whether it would work out or not, but Hannah has a great 12 year old little sister who I liked very much. 

So in short--a dark ghost filled mystery story, that is not just the unravelling of what the serial killer is up to, but the unravelling of what went wrong for Lillian, and a close examination of her years of friendship with Hannah.   It is very much a character development book--the murders give Hannah a chance to move forward.   What with Lillian's ghostly presence, she's been in a position of forced passivity for months, and the murders serve as a catalyst for her to define herself as a person, and get out from under the skeletal shadow of Lillian.

I was rather pleased with how much I enjoyed it.  I have not been enjoying much YA sff lately, and was afraid I was getting stuck in a MG rut, so I'm glad to know that I can still love reading a dark, edgy YA!

 (At least, I think it's edgy?  Maybe real readers of dark edgy YA would find it a unicorn kitten book????)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

When I went to Kidlitcon last fall, I was treated to an afternoon at Harper Collins, wherein the editor of Jinx, by Sage Blackwood (January 8) sold me on that one by saying it was reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones....And now I have read it (with great enjoyment), and look forward to re-reading it (which I don't say about all that many books).

Jinx is only six or so when his stepfather takes him out of the safety of the mingy clearing where he's lived all his life out into the Urwold--the dangerous forest where monsters lurk..  The stepfather plans to abandon him out there...but instead, it's the stepfather who doesn't make it out alive.   There in the forest they meet Simon, a mysterious magician, who saves Jinx from a viscous troll attack...the stepfather isn't so lucky.

Simon takes Jinx home with him, to his mysterious house full of magic....but Simon is no loving surrogate parent, nor does he immediately start introducing Jinx to magic.  Instead, Jinx spends the next few years mostly left to his own devices, with only occasional visits by Simon's wife Sophie (who has secrets of his own), and the odd visiting witch, arriving by bouncing butter churn, to break the monotony.  

But outside there is the great forest, and Jinx learns over the years that he can hear the thoughts of the trees.   Not only that, but he can sense the emotions of others, taking visible form around them.   And then Simon betrays him (perhaps), by somehow sucking that part of himself away in a magical spell.  Jinx, devastated by his lose, and furious at Simon, heads off by himself in the woods...

And the tone of the story shifts, when Jinx is joined by two young companions, a boy and a girl each suffering from a curse of their own, and they all set out to confront the Bonemaster, the dark wizard who might be able to set them free.   From a contemplative story of a boy growing up in mystery, the reader is plunged into Adventure and Danger!

Because the Bonemaster isn't helpful.  Instead he imprisons the three kids...and unless they escape, they are toast.  And so is Simon, who had his own reasons for doing what he did, and his own backstory with the Bonemaster...

Like I said, I enjoyed it lots! I can, to some extent, see similarities with DWJ, most particularly in the character of Simon-- charismatic guy with secrets, ala Chrestomanci and Howl, and in the character of Jinx--sympathetic boy with magical potential, and indeed this is one I'd be happy to recommend to her fans, though it's not....quite.  But what is.

My main hesitation with regard to this book is that it is two different types of story.  From the somewhat slow and peaceful pace of Jinx's life with Simon, which are very "home" focused, Jinx and the reader are plunged into a brisk adventure with very high stakes indeed.  I liked both very much, but I think the reader who will most truly enjoy the second half of the book might have trouble staying interested in the first.  I myself had the opposite problem--I was initially very doubtful about the adventure part, mainly because I was suspicious of the two new characters thrown into my reading, and wanted to stay quietly at home with Simon and Sophie and Simon's multitude of cats and books, but I was pleasantly surprised by how gripping I found it, and how avidly I turned the pages.

And indeed, between writing the summary part and the Deep Thoughts part of this post, I did just go back and re-read it.  And enjoyed it again the second time through.

Note on cover--tons of kid appeal for the nine year old boy who finds elves appealing (probably for other nine-year olds too, but I don't have any others on hand).

Edited to add on June 21--I'm now counting Jinx as a diverse mg fantasy, thanks to Sage Blackwood alerting me to his description, which I totally missed:  "He saw himself reflected in the glass, a thin boy with black hair, brown eyes, and tan skin" (page 23 of the ARC, which is what I have), and indeed, Jinx as shown on the cover is several shades darker of skin than me (not that this is hard...).   And given the fact that he lives in a dense forest, the tan part isn't from time in the sun...


My pet peeves, viz books...

At Reads for Keeps, you can see some of my pet peeves with regard to books....at least, the peeves that were foremost in my mind when I was asked last week!

One pet peeve (that I go into in more detail over there) is a dislike of intrusive narrators--which, thinking about it more, is not just knee-jerk hostility on my part, but hostility arising from a very good reason--I don't want to be reminded that I am reading.  I want to be dead to the world.  And someone coyly sticking their head around the page and saying "isn't this a wonderful journey we're having together, dear reader?"  is almost as bad, viz achieving total immersion, as one of my children needing help pouring the milk but not asking me for it in time.


Pictures of my house, starring my new econobookshelf and dining room wallpaper

I imagine that I am Not Alone in always needing more shelf space, and so I offer a tip to those reluctant to spend the money it takes to get a decent bookshelf--the shoe rack!  Below is my new shoe rack, bought at a thrift store for $4.99 (click to embiggen).  Light-weight (Will not damage anyone if it falls over on them! Easily tied to door handles with strong rope to keep falling from happening!) and easy to move, it can be stored in a closet once you've caught up on your reading, and brought out again when you come back from ALA or Book Expo America.

Here are all my current review copies, books waiting to be reviewed, and some miscellaneous tbr pile over flow.  So much better than keeping your books in the bathtub, which is what I was doing before the renovation of the dining room:

This is no longer an option, as the dining room renovation required that the bathtub go (since it had been installed sticking out into the dining room), so I appreciate my shoe rack lots.

Speaking of new bookshelves, and the dining room renovation, we did treat ourselves to a real new bookshelf...

and you can see our new color scheme and wallpaper nicely too (though the African bird might go--it's perhaps too ominous where it is...., and a picture must be hung in that empty space...)

And here is another dining room picture, just cause we like our new mirror so much:

And finally, here's the dining room, before:

Except that the floral loveliness was hidden behind 1970s fake paneling, and it all looked even worse!  Someday when we finish wallpapering (we've had to order more sigh sigh), I'll have a picture showing where the bathtub used to be....


Divide and Conquer: Infinity Ring, book 2, by Carrie Ryan, for Timeslip Tuesday

 Infinity Ring:  Divide and Conquer, by Carrie Ryan (Scholastic, November 2012)

In an alternate reality, history played out very differently.   Deliberate interventions were made with the course of events by an evil (in a power-mad, ruthless sort of way) organization that dominates the present of three kids--Dak, Sera, and Riq.   But the Hystorians are fighting back, and their hopes rest on these kids, who are able to travel back in time to fix the mistakes with the help of the powerful Infinity Ring.  (This is all explained in Book 1-- A Mutiny in Time, and if you really want to understand what's happening, you have to read that first).

But how to fix mistakes when you don't know what really should have happened?  In Paris of 885, are the kids supposed to be keeping the Viking raiders from sacking Paris?  That's the puzzle that Dak, Sera, and Riq have to solve in this episode of their ongoing saga, all the while somehow managing to stay alive as Beserkers attack.  The whole survival thing becomes particularly challenging for history obsessed Dak--he just can't resist going out to get a closer look at a real Viking longship.  Unfortunately, he gets a closer look at the Vikings than he bargained for....

So, there's lots of historical mayhem, puzzles to solve, Vikings to outwit, etc., with a dash of the three kids growing up a tad for good measure.  Raq is still somewhat unlikable (though he's improving), Dak too impetuous, and Sera, always the most sympathetic of the bunch, is falling in love---with a dude from the 9th century (no future in that).  

It's a fun, fast, read--time travel made relatively easy with the help of technology, with an emphasis on excitement rather than deep thoughts.   A fine addition to a series that many older elementary/younger middle school kids should enjoy, and dog fans in particular should appreciate this instalment--there's a great Viking dog.

My only complaint is that few concessions are made for the reader who doesn't know her history all that well.  In book one, any school kid would know that it was Columbus who was supposed to have discovered America.  But who knows all that much about the Viking invasion of France? I now know a lot more than I did, for which I am grateful.  But though a little historical background, detailing what actually happened, would have given things away if put at the beginning, would have driven the history lesson home if placed at the end....

added bonus:  the adventures of the three kids play out on-line, with the code given in this book opening the way to a new episode....

added bonus 2:  the kids are multicultural, as shown on the back cover. 


The Secret Room, by Antonia Michaelis

Antonia Michaelis is the author of three YA books translated from the original German into English--Tiger Moon, Dragons of Darkness, and 2012's The Storyteller.   The Secret Room (Sky Pony Press, October, 2012) is, as far as I know, her first middle grade book to be translated.  

Achim has lived all his life in an orphanage, and he's pretty sure that, because of his asthma,  he'll never be adopted. But then Paul and Inez come, and want him to be their son.  Their own little boy died years ago.  If he had lived, he would be the same age as Achim.

In the house of Paul and Inze there is a secret room, where no room could really exist, a prison tower with strange paintings on the walls.  And in that secret room, Achim meets Arnim, his lost brother.

Arnim is trapped, unable to move beyond the tower room to fly free into what lies beyond.   To free him, Achim must become a bird, and fly to the palace of the dark and terrible Nameless One, built of stones of longing and sadness, stolen by Nameless One, and it is surrounded by trees full of caged birds, who had themselves tried and failed to free their own loved ones.

To succeed where they failed, Achim  must solve a series of riddles and conquer his fears, while navigating the dangers of the Nameless One.  Day after day, he slips through the paintings in the secret room, journeying ever closer to the answer he needs.  

But it is in the real world where Achim will find what he needs to free his brother, because what is really imprisoning Arnim is grief and loss, both that of Paul and Ines, and Achim's own, barely recognized sadness that he himself lost his own parents.  As Achim, Paul, and Inez become a new family, ready to love each other, the chances that Achim can free his ghost brother grow....

So in part this book is a fantasy quest, a hero's journey through a magical realm, where he is armed only with bravery, compassion, and his wits, and the help of magical birds.  In the larger story arc, though, the fantasy elements are an extended metaphor, highlighting and complementing the truly moving poignancy of Achim's journey into a new family.

This real world side of things was tremendously worthwhile reading--my heart ached for Achim, breaking a plate and hiding it under his mattress in stress and shame, and  trying to keep his asthma a secret, in case Paul and Inez didn't want a child they had to worry about.   And my heart ached for the grown-ups, too, as they carefully try not to think too hard about the son they lost, and try to make a family with their new son.

The fantasy side of things is, up till the great confrontation at the end, somewhat dreamlike and unhurried--it might not appeal to every young reader.   Indeed, it's the sort of book that will be just right for just the right child--the introspective one, the one who loves metaphorical stories, may well love this book, find it incredibly powerful, and appreciate the rich descriptions immensely.

I don't think its for everyone, though--kids who are avid consumers of modern American fantasy might find it lacking in zippy immediacy and too surreal, and they might find Achim's very mater-of-fact narrative voice distancing.  These kids, however, might well find their interest picking up toward the end, when things start to really get going, and a knife turns into a flying horse (!) and the Nameless One attacks...

On the other hand, I'm happy to recommend it to adult readers of fantasy who enjoy Fun with Metaphor.   As an adult, it was the real world side that gripped me most, and so I'd primarily recommend it to those who love stories of orphaned children trying to find a loving place in the world....And I'd also suggest keeping this one in mind to give to kids who might themselves have loss and grief in their lives, who might find comfort here.  That being said, it's not a book with a message of "helping kids deal with death" front and center, but rather a story in which letting go, with love, those who have died, is the central theme.

I sure hope, though, that The Secret Room does well enough here in the US that its sequel gets published in English too (so please do go seek it out).  This particular fantasy adventure has ended, but I care very much about Achim and Paul and Inez and want more of them.

The German title of the book is Das Adoptivzimmer, which translates as The Adopted Room, and the German blurb on Goodreads underlines this metaphorical connection that I missed.  The secret room is not part of the real house, but is there on sufferance---adopted, like Achim himself.

I'm not sure which cover I like better--the American one, which emphasises the emotional weight of the story, but is kind of depressing, or the German one, which I think has more overt kid-appeal, but which might be misleading....this not being a bubbly fantasy fun type book.

Here's another review, at Kid Lit Reviews

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)


This week's round-up of middle grade speculative fiction from around the blogs (1/13/13)

Here's this week's round-up of middle grade sci fi/fantasy from around the blogs; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

13 Hangmen, by Art Corriveau, at Time Travel Times Two

The Cabinet of Earths, by Anne Nesbet, at Sonderbooks 

The Dragonet Prophecy, by Tui T. Sutherland, at Good Books and Good Wine

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Sonderbooks

The Girl Who Cirumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Fantasy Literature

Gobin Secrets, by William Alexander, at Night Writer

In a Blink, by Kiki Thorpe, at Sharon the Librarian

The Lost Heir, by Tui T. Sutherland, at Charlotte's Library

Lovecraft Middle School--Professor Gargoyle, and The Slither Sisters, by Charles Gilman, at Mr. Ripleys Enchanted Books

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, by William Joyce, at Wondrous Reads

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, at The Book Smugglers

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann, at Reads for Keeps

The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, at Fantasy Literature and Good Books and Good Wine

Spirit Fighter, and Fire Prophet, by Jerel Law, at Bookworm Dreams

The Tell-Tale Start, by Gordon McAlpine, at The Book Cellar

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne, at Bunbury in the Stacks

Z-Apocalypse, by Steve Cole, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Other Good Stuff:

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, is being made into a movie.

The People (at least34, 435 of them) have petitioned the Obama administration to build a Death Star.  Here's the Official Response, from Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

"The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.

The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?"

Thanks to the Fourth Annual Blog Comment Challenge I found myself visiting Sarah Albee's blog, where I found a lovely post on WW II carrier pigeons that includes this extraordinarily helpful piece of information.  Being unable to wrap anything neatly, I shudder to think how bad I would be at this (although I think I could cope with Item 8, which appears to be "open box").

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