Armchair BEA topic of the day--Non-fiction

An Armchair BEA post.

I read a lot of non-fiction that I never talk about here.   I read scholarly, historical, archaeological stuff for work, and I read adult non-fiction for pleasure as well--it cleanses my reading palate when I feel glutted with sci fi/fantasy.

For instance, I've just finished The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Dollar Kiva Loan at a Time, by Bob Harris.   It tells how Bob started lending money to Kiva, and then travelled the world to see just what his money was up to.   He tells of the logistics of his travels, the lives of the people that he meets, and the historical and social contexts that have shaped those lives.   And he gives some nice economic lessons about the potential impacts of micro-loans, without making it dry and boring.

I was inspired to pick this up because I have a young Nerdfighter in my home, and the Nerdfighters are busily decreasing "world suck" via Kiva-- 40, 244 of them (including my son) have loaned almost $2,500,000 to date (here's the Nerdfighter Kiva page).  So I thought it would be useful for me to have details to share with him, and even hoped that if I left the book around the house, he'd pick it up....

He did, but it's a bit dense for him; fortunately, I have now been educated, informed, and entertained, and we can have nice little chats about the break-up of Yugoslavia and its horrible consequences, every day life in Rwanda today, the vast complexity of India, etc.

Next up on my non-fiction reading list--Quest for Kim:  In Search of Kipling's Great Game.  I know Kipling must be read critically viz English Imperialism, but still I love Kim very very much (I've been to Lahore, and seen the canon Kim sits on at the beginning of the book, shown on the cover--very exciting for me!).   As I type this, I'm wondering to what extent Kim influenced writers of children's fantasy.  So many of the things that are now common tropes of middle grade speculative fiction are right there--the plucky orphan with special gifts who must play a role in an epic greater than he had ever dreamed of, the quest through fantastic lands, the adults who help and hinder....

Please feel free to share any good non-fiction recommendations of a sciency/historical type! I'm always on the look-out for more.


Armchair BEA--giveaway time!

Today is giveaway day at Armchair BEA! Edited to add--the winners have now been picked; Sabrina won Sylo, and Claire won K. of L. W.  Thanks all of you for stopping by to enter!

I'm sort of relieved I'm not actually at BEA--I am trying hard to keep the number of books on hand to a manageable pile, and I know that when I am BEA or other place where there are ARCs of forthcoming books to be had I begin to behave irrationally (more so than usual).   That being said, I've been busily working through the list of Armchair BEA-ers giving away books today....

And I have two ARCs to giveaway myself, which I carefully picked to have appeal beyond my regular Middle Grade niche!  I'm going to pick a different winner for each book, so let me know when you leave your comment which you'd like.

Sylo, by D.J. MacHale (Razorbill, July 2013) "They came from the sky parachuting out of military helicopters to invade Tucker Pierce’s idyllic hometown on Pemberwick Island, Maine.

They call themselves SYLO and they are a secret branch of the U.S. Navy. SYLO’s commander, Captain Granger, informs Pemberwick residents that the island has been hit by a lethal virus and must be quarantined. Now Pemberwick is cut off from the outside world.

Tucker believes there’s more to SYLO’s story. He was on the sidelines when the high school running back dropped dead with no warning. He saw the bizarre midnight explosion over the ocean, and the mysterious singing aircraft that travel like shadows through the night sky. He tasted the Ruby—and experienced the powers it gave him—for himself."

The Kingdom of Little Wounds, by Susann Cokal (Bloomsbury, October 2013) "On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion. Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can."

So just leave a comment to enter (making sure that I can find you if you win), by midnight next Thursday, June 7th, and please let me know which of these you'd like!

(sorry, I can only ship to the US)


Armchair BEA- Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy and me

So over at BEA, bloggers are meeting in person today...talking about blogging things.  Here at Armchair BEA, the topics are paths to becoming a better blogger, and genres.  I'm kind of combining the two, with a few thoughts on how I became a happier (not necessarily better) blogger by focusing on my favorite subgenre--middle grade science fiction and fantasy.  If you are already a reader of my blog, this post doesn't say anything much you haven't read before; if you are not, welcome!
About two years into blogging, I niched myself.  I realized that the books I was most happy to read and write about were middle grade sci fi/fantasy, and the younger feeling sci fi/fantasy Young Adult books.  

On the up-side, I've chosen to blog about the books I most enjoy reading, and why not.   I've always loved fantasy books written for kids, but I think I might be enjoying them even more these days, in as much as I have a voracious 10 year old reader of my own to share them with (he's currently reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Loki's Wolves).

And also on the up-side, I know with a conviction that survives even the darkest moments of blogging doubt that my blog is a useful resource to people who want to know about mg sff.   That's hugely important to me--although there are other fine reasons to blog, I want to feel that there is a point to all the time I put into this that goes beyond simply having a place to talk about books for my own enjoyment.   Mg sff doesn't get a whole lot of coverage by the pro blogs (School Library Journal, Kirkus), and so I feel that I'm helping fill a void.

I'm proud of two things in particular--I have reviewed over 200 time travel books, making my blog pretty much the best resource around for people looking for time travel for kids.   And I've reviewed around a 100 multicultural sci fi/fantasy books, most of them for kids.   Another thing I do to be useful is that every Sunday I round-up all the mg sff posts I can find--something I started doing because I wanted someone else to already have done it! (Here's last week's).  Next week will be the 180th round-up...almost four years... (If you ever review a mg sff book, please send me the link!).

The down side is that it's hard to reach lots of readers if you are niched.  I'm pretty sure I'm reaching a number of grown-ups who share my reading tastes, and I'm pretty sure I'm reaching librarians and teachers.  But I know I'll never have as wide a readership as people blogging more popular genres, and I would love, love, love, to know how to reach out to all the people out there busily providing books to young readers--the parents, for instance, of the voraciously reading middle graders.

But anyway, here I am, happily blogging the mg sff, and planning to continue so doing for the foreseeable future!

If you have an eleven year old on hand, or want to try some fun mg sff yourself, here are some favorites from my 2013 reading so far--

Doll Bones, by Holly Black
The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore
The Menagerie, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kai Sutherland
Bot Wars, by J.V. Kade
Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

Speaking of genres more generally, I'd like to put a plug in for the Cybils Awards.  If you are looking to explore all the various subgenres of children's and YA books, the shortlists for different categories of Cybils Awards are an excellent place to start!  The panelists who pick these books are all bloggers like us, so if you review lots of books in one of these genres, watch out for the announcement calling for panelists for the upcoming Cybils season!

Tommysaurus Rex, by Doug Tennapel

Tommysaurus Rex (Scholastic, 2013, though it was first published in 2004 by Image Comics), is the latest graphic novel for the young reader from the masterful pen of Doug Tennapel (Ghostopolis, Bad Island, and Cardboard, to name a few).    It's the story of a boy named Ely whose beloved dog and only friend, Tommy, is killed by a car.   Ely goes off to spend the summer on his grandpa's farm, which was supposed to be fun, but there he becomes the target for a nasty bully.

But then Ely finds a T. Rex--a real, live, friendly dinosaur who seems to have a lot in common with Tommy.

Of course, there are logistical problems, and safety concerns, etc., but fortunately the town's mayor sees the T. Rex as a campaign prop, and allows Ely to keep his new friend....forgiving even the dino pee filling his convertible (bad luck, not deliberate T. Rex maleficence).

Randy, the boy who had bullied Ely earlier, though, is getting madder and sadder (his own dad took off and left him), and he can't stand the happiness of Ely and his Tommysaurus.  So he tries to prove to the town that the dinosaur is a dangerous, ravening monster....and ends up in danger of loosing his own life.

Then there's a tear-jerking moment, but it only lasts a page or so, and then all ends happily.

Many of Tennapel's books involve loss of one kind or another--here it's the loss of a beloved animal friend, taken seriously and respectfully, and Randy's lost father.   It's also a book about bullying (note-- Ely is forced to eat dog poo, which distressed me), and forgiveness (also serious topics), but it isn't all heavy stuff!  There also lots about T. Rex training that's pure light-hearted fun, and the side-story with the mayor is very amusing.

So basically there's some bad, sad stuff, and some funny, whimsical, loving stuff, and if you have a graphic novel loving 10 year old around, it's spot on.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgeway

The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgeway (Penguin, 2013), is a new time travel novel for grown-ups, with a generous helping of romance and a bit of sex, set primarily in the early 18th-century, that is more than a little gripping with regard to both plot and character.

And really, do I need to say more than that?

I guess I do, so that I can put it in my List of Time Travel Books.  But I will make it snappy.

Main male character:  And 18th-century nobleman named Nick is off fighting with Wellington in Spain when he escapes death by jumping forward in time to the present.  He is welcomed into a powerful and rich Guild, which seems to be a basically benign time traveller friendly society--helping people settle in to their new time and taking care of their finances.  That sort of thing. 

But few incredibly rich, powerful organizations are as friendly as they seem.  And so, when the Guild demands that Nick travel back to his own time (after ten peaceful years of being rich in the 21st century), he gets the (unwanted) chance to start unwinding various machinations within machinations.

Turns out there's a rival organization of time travellers.  They are fighting with the Guild.  And the Guild wants Nick to be a spy.

What Nick wants is to live a peaceful, happy life.  What Nick didn't expect was that he would a. fall madly in love  b. become implicated in a tangle of double-crossing time travellers c. start worrying like heck about the fact that the future seems to be disappearing....

Most important questions (for me as a reader)--is Nick likable, believable in his motivations, and interesting?  Are the time travelling complications of his life fully considered in creating his character?

Answer:  yes.

Main female character:  Julia, the grand-daughter of 18th-century nobleman who kicks the bucket almost immediately, leaving her at the mercy of a nasty cousin.  Julia's grandfather was able to do tricks with time...and the cousin wants to find out the secret to how he did it.

When Nick comes home, Julia is saved, but ends up trying to figure out just what the heck is going on with all this time travel business.  And it turns out that Julia can do a few interesting things with time herself, making her Important to a lot of people (once they start figuring things out).

And Julia also can do interesting things with Nick, which they both enjoy.

Most important questions (for me as a reader)--is Julia likable, believable in her motivations, and interesting?  Is she a believable 18th-century heroine?

Answer:  mostly although because of her eccentric up-bringing, she's not exactly typical...though she is perhaps too quick to yield to passion, I thought her impressions of it all were rather well done...

Other Characters:  An interesting, and wildly varied supporting cast from a generous number of periods and places adds to the reading experience.  Even the small characters, who only get a paragraph or two, are fun-- I particularly liked Meg, elderly escapee from the Irish potato famine who ends up in a happy lesbian relationship in Brazil.

The Time Travel:   I'm not entirely sure just what was going on with all the time travel difficulties everyone ends up being worried about.  It ends at a good stopping point, but I think there is going to have to be more to come, in which we explore the mechanics of time travel, Julia's abilities, and find out if the future can be saved. 

Lots of metaphoric time as river flowing to the sea (like the book title); there are few answers, yet one does not drown in confusion.

Final Answer:  I'm glad I read it; I'll definitely read the second one.  If I'd read it as a teen there would have been three pages I would have read over and over again while swooning.

Non-Review related Question:  if you find out very near the end that a main character in a book might well not actually be entirely a white European, and might actually have a parent who came from pre-contact Mesoamerica (I think), can one then count the book as a "reading in color" book?   

Answer:  I don't think one can list it in one's Multicultural Sci fi/Fantasy list, because of the reader not actually knowing for most of the book.  But the sequel might well count.   And having raised the issue, one can put a "reading in color" tag on the post, just as a little flag...especially since there are non-white members of the supporting cast, who we will hopefully get to see more of.

Armchair BEA- introducing myself

Armchair BEA is kicking off today with introductory posts from those of us taking part!  Here's mine.

I am, in fact, named Charlotte.   I live in southern New England (cunningly disguising my true location to protect my children in case there are crazed stalkers out there (you never know) but it is kind of a moot point because I can be located anyway with a bit of clever googling.  This is because I am an archaeologist (if you google Charlotte, archaeology, New England, voila). Today for work I am going to go see a runestone.  

My first blog post was on February 1, 2007, and I can't imagine giving it up, especially since I am now just as focused as all get out on the Middle Grade and YA fantasy/sci fi side of things.  This is my second Armchair BEA--the past two years, I made it to New York for the real thing, but I'm taking a break this year.   So my first Armchair BEA was nice because it helped me get over the disappointment of not being in NY; this year it will be nice because it will be much more relaxing, yet still fun!

My favorite new to me book this year was Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett (my review).  I am currently reading my way through the whole Discworld series--it was a gap in my reading that needed filling.

I'm not going to list my favorite blogs, because I will no doubt be leaving out blogs I love by accident.  My side-bar list is pretty accurate...(does anyone click on blogs listed in sidebars anymore?).  But I will say that in general the children's book blogging community is awesome.  If you blog primarily about kids books, do check out the Kidlitosphere!  It comes with a very helpful and supportive list serve, good for both the minutiae (I was just helped in creating a sitemap) and for the bigger discussions.   And the Kidlitosphere has a meeting every year that is my favorite conference ever (this year I'm pretty sure it's going to be in Austin in the fall).

But gee--looking at the long long long Armchair BEA participants list, where I know very few of the bloggers, its clear to me that I have perhaps become to comfy in my niche, and need to branch out more in my blog reading!


Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Doll Bones, by Holly Black (Simon and Schuster, Middle Grade, May 2013)

Zach and Poppy and Alice have been friends forever.  For years they have played a great game of imagination, in which their dolls and action figures became pirates and thieves and mermaids and warriors in a great fantasy epic.  Ruling this world was the Great Queen, an antique bone china doll of much creepiness, locked inside Poppy's house in a glass case.

But Zach and Poppy and Alice are getting older, and middle grade kids aren't supposed to play with dolls.   One night Zach's dad throws out his action figures, and Zach, heartbroken, abandons the game without explanation.

The Poppy begins dreaming about the Queen, and her dreams bring the three kids together for the most reckless adventure of all--one that takes place in real life.  For the Queen is no ordinary doll--she was made from the bones of a dead child, Eleanor.  And Eleanor wants to be buried.

So Zach and Poppy and Alice set out in the middle of the night to the town where Eleanor died and the doll was made.  Their ghost-haunted journey that will test not only their willingness to bend a few laws here and there (like breaking into a library, and "borrowing" a boat),  but more importantly, it will make or break their friendship...

These three kids had me on their side right from the start.   I was lucky to have a little sister, so I could keep playing games like theirs safely away from the pressures of middle school, but it is so, so, so easy to be right there feeling Zach's pain.   Add to that the fact that there's girl/boy growing-up tension starting to happen, and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading...

But I bravely kept on going, and was rewarded with a very satisfactory fantasy meets real life story full of historical details, clues being uncovered, logistical difficulties with money and food, all described in the sort of beautifully on-track writing that makes the reader feel caught up in each moment of the story.

What wasn't fully described is what actually happened to poor Eleanor...there are tantalizing glimpses, through the dreams they send, and a few tantalizing scraps of information uncovered by the kids...but she remains a mysterious sad figure.

(It just occurs to me, having typed that, that Eleanor's fate could be a metaphor for the whole adolescent condition.  A living, breathing, child dies and is reborn as a china doll, her vital creative spark and individual personality sublimated into society's rigid mold...This could be why the doll exercises such power in the great game the kids play--she is not something that can be a part of childhood imagining, except as something to be feared).

But in any event, the ending was deeply satisfying, with the kids talking openly about the fact that things are changing, but realizing that change doesn't have to mean loss.

"Quests are supposed to change us," Zach said.

"How about real life?" asked Poppy.

Alice picked up a blade of grass and folded it in her fingers.  "What's that? Seriously.  This was real.  This was a story that we lived.  Maybe we can live other stories too" (p 243).

And that is true, and wise, and hopeful.

But then a few lines down it gets even better:

"This was our last game," Poppy said. "This is the end of our last game."

"Oh, I don't know," said Zach.  "With the Queen gone, the kingdoms are going to be in turmoil.  Lots of people want her throne, all of them willing to manipulate, scheme, and battle to get it.  And with William and so many other heroes dead, it's going to be a different world.  A world in chaos.  Maybe we can't play it the way we used to, but we could still tell each other what happens next"  (pp 243-244).

I am so glad they get to keep their story, and that the end of childhood doesn't have to mean the end of imagination.

(I am also glad that Zach's dad ended up being really, really, sorry for the terrible thing he did).

(The cover offers lots more Fun with Metaphor, what with the three kids sailing rough waters to an unknown destination, while the doll sits below the water, like a Freudian Leviathan in the depths of their unconscious minds, she herself dripping water like she has just emerged in a new birth...or something.)

Other reviews--  Random Musings of a Bibliophile and The Book Smugglers


This Week's Middle Grade Fantasy and Sci Fi Round-up (May 26, 2013)

Welcome to this week's middle grade sci fi/fantasy round-up!

Please let me know if I missed your post, and I hope your Memorial Day weather is nicer than ours.

The Reviews:

The Ability, by M.M. Vaughan, by Leila at Kirkus

Apprentice Cat, by Virginia Ripple, at Escaping Reality

Bad Unicorn, by Platte F. Clarke, at Librarian of Snark

The Boy With Two Heads, by Andy Mulligan, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books 

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint, at Fantasy Literature

Chasing the Prophecy, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at For Those About to Mock 

The Fire Chronicle, by John Stevens, at Librarian of Snark

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

A Hero for WandLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, at Sonderbooks

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy, at Bunbury in the Stacks

House of Secrets, by Ned Vizzini and Chris Columbus, at Beyond Books

The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore, by Kate Maddison, at Charlotte's Library

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, at Wrighty's Reads

The King's Equal, by Katherine Paterson, at Slatebreakers

Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr, at Guys Lit Wire  and The Book Smugglers

Mousenet, by Prudence Breitrose, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

The Mysterious Howling (Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place) at Shelf Love

New Lands, by Geoff Rodkey, at Librarian of Snark

Oddfellow's Orphanage, by Emily Winfield Martin, at Rosanne Parry

The Planet Thieves, by Dan Krokos, at Ms. Yingling ReadsBook  Spot Central and The Book Cellar

Reckless, by Cornelia Funke, at alibrarymama

The Runaway King, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Beyond Books 

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Wondrous Reads and an audiobook review at Book Loving Mom

The Spies of Gerander, by Frances Watts,  at Charlotte's Library

Teacher's Pest, by Charles Gilman, at Good Books and Good Wine

The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker, at Fyrefly's Book Blog

The Trap Door (Infinity Ring 3), by Lisa McMann, at Books for Kids

The Trouble With Toads, by Danyelle Leafty, at Writer's Alley

Wednesdays in the Tower, by Jessica Day George, at Cinjoella and MG/YA Book Reviews

Wonder Light, by R.R. Russell, at A Dream Within a Dream

The Year of Shadows, by Claire LeGrand, at Great Imaginations (giveaway)

Two quick ones: Frogged, by Vivian Vande Velde, and The Colossus Rises, by Peter Lerangis, at In Bed With Books

Time travel toys at Time Travel Times Two

Authors and Illustrators

Tim Tingle (How I Became a Ghost) at edmundsun.com

Polly Holyoke (The Neptune Project) at Cynsastions and Project Mayhem

Jessica Day George (Wednesdays in the Tower) at The Write Path

Dorine White (The Emerald Ring) at Literary Rambles (giveaway), She Writes, and Carrie Dalby Cox

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle fun continues, with posts at Small Review (giveaway), Alison's Book Marks, There's a Book, and Bunbury in the Stacks (giveaway)

Other Good Stuff

I won't be at BEA this year, but I will be taking part in Armchair BEA!  I've done it before, and it's a lot of fun.

And the weekend after that is the annual MotherReader 48 Hour Book Challenge, hosted this year at Ms. Yingling Reads.  Also fun.

And finally, this is a lot of lego:


The books that followed me home today

So next weekend I'm running my library's used booksale, and today I went on over to organize the dangerously high en-pilements of library discards.  

Here is what came home with me (displayed on my shoe rack shelf, stripped of its previous inhabitants so as to go to the booksale and hold videos).  I never took these out when they were on the shelves I peruse every week...but somehow, seeing them there for the (very cheap) taking, I couldn't resist.  They can always go back....

The Garden, by Carol Matas (1997) "Ruth Mendenberg, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, has risked her life to help smuggle a group of refugees into Palestine. Now she wants to forget the past and forge a new life. But violence is escalating all around her as Arabs and Jews disagree over the partitioning of Palestine. Ruth will be forced to fight -- and maybe even kill -- in defense of a long-awaited prize: a place to call home."

I hope there is actual gardening...I prefer gardening to fighting.

The Bronze Chrysanthemum Mystery, by Sheena Porter (1965).  I don't know what this is about...but it's old, and English, and I like the cover...

Adam Bookout, Louisa R Shotwell (1967).  Boy runs away to his cousins in the city....I hope there is something about books in it, and Adam's last name isn't just a snare and a delusion...

The Secret of the Sea Rocks, by Carol Reuter (1967).  18 year old girl in Italy with archaeologist father, romance, mystery. Here's what Kirkus said about it back in the day:  If the frumpy fashion show doesn't put the reader off, she'll probably stomach the routine romant-aches and swallow the good stolid values."  Uh. 

A Castle for Tess, by Ruth Simon (1967) sounds more hopeful.  "When a family of migratory workers comes to their first real home, the ten-year-old daughter is afraid that one of her father's strange black moods will return and they will have to move again."  Moving into old houses is always a favorite plot of mine.

The Lion in the Gateway, by Mary Renault (1964).  Non-fiction Greek battles.  I'm a big fan of Renault, and even if this isn't nice historical fiction like The King Must Die, I'm happy to give this a try and to learn something into the bargain.

How's Business, Alison Prince (1988) "A young boy, sent to the country from London during World War II, comes into conflict with some local boys who find ways to test his courage."  I can't say no to WW II evacuee books.

The Wild Oats of Han, by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1973).  Girl growing up in 19th-century Australia.

The Sunday Doll, by Mary Frances Shura (1988) "Thirteen-year-old Emmy finds herself sheltered again from her family's problems when she is hastily sent to Aunt Harriett's for the summer because of a serious problem involving her older sister Jayne."  Will there be dolls, I ask?  Without dolls, I'm not sure I'll like it....

Anatomy of an Epidemic is about the first big outbreak of Legionaries Disease, and the last two books in the picture above are from the Ghost in the Dollhouse series by Kathryn Reiss; I brought them home because of that rare thing, a black girl on the cover, and I can add them to my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list, and I sure do wish that there will come a day when I do not notice such things because it has become a non-issue.  I seem to have books 2 and 3.

and finally, two that weren't library discards:

From 1980.  A quick glance reassures me that in the future lots of things will be free.

And another from the pen of Harriette Abels, this one pulp sci fi for the young (1979):

I have sent a lot of time with books today, what with one thing and another...I hope tomorrow the sun will shine and  I will get to take on my own little patch of green...


The Spies of Gerander--brave young mice ftw!

The Spies of Gerander, by Frances Watts, is the second book in The Song of the Winns (Running Press Kids, April 2013).  The first installment, The Secret of the Ginger Mice, came out last year, and introduced us to three young mice triplets--Alice, Alex, and Alistair, the only one to have ginger fur.    The Secret of the Ginger Mice tells of how these triplets, along with Tibby Rose, another young mouse with ginger fur, survive all manner of attempted kidnappings and perilous travails.  While so doing, they learn of the persecution of Gerander, once a free country, now a savagely oppressed territory....

And having introduced characters and setting, the second book, The Spies of Gerander, is free to really take off!  The four mice are now part of the Gerander freedom movement.  Alice and Alex set off as spies to the castle of the enemy queen, while Alistair and Tibby venture into Gerander in search of the triplets' imprisoned parents....and it is truly exciting, in the best dramatic style of kids thwarting the enemy! (The first book I found a tad slow, but I genuinely enjoyed the second).

These books are very upper elementary friendly--the adventures are exciting, the plot twists and mysteries interesting, and the young mice are sympathetic characters.  It's told lightly and briskly; serious matters are dealt with straightforwardly, but the truly dark happenings of this world, that the young mice are themselves only gradually become aware of, are off-page.  Here's what I appreciated--the mice kids were kids, and behaved as such.  They are smart and brave enough to make fine protagonists, but they were not preternaturally gifted!  Here's what I also appreciated--there were good, kind people who happened to be in the enemy army.  Yay for avoiding black and white dichotomies in fantasy for kids!

Of course, instead of "people" I should have said "mice." I think the mouse-ness of it all adds lots to its kid appeal, making the books warmer and fuzzier fantasy, as it were, than if the central characters were actual human kids.  These books are pretty much surefire winners with small mammal fans, and probably there are many mammal-indifferent readers who would enjoy the mouse adventures too...

That being said, there's no particular Reason within the world of the story why the characters should be mice--they are for all intents and purposes ordinary historical people with fur.  There's almost no attempt to world-build from a mouse point of view (one can easily forget that the protagonists have tales and whiskers), and there's little consideration of scale.  At one point, for instance, Alex carries two hard-boiled eggs into the room, and I was forced to stop reading and ponder the fact that your standard egg is about the size of your standard mouse....at another point, the mice are uprooting rose bushes...So my reading experience included a firm and vigorous suspension, even stomping and thwacking, of disbelief.

Short answer:  not ones I'd go out of my way to urge my grown-up friends to read for their own pleasure, but definitely books I'd give to an eight or nine year old who enjoys animal fantasy.  Especially because they are Nice books qua books, the sort that say Present, with that thick crinkle-edged paper that there is undoubtedly a technical term for....

Frances Watts is an Australian writer; the third book, The Secret of Zanzibar, is already out over in those parts.

disclaimer:  books received for review from the publisher


The Last Academy, by Anne Applegate

The Last Academy, by Anne Applegate (2013, Point, a Scholastic Imprint, younger YA)

Sometimes one can rely on cold, hard facts to judge one's reaction to a book.  Fact--I started reading The Last Academy at 4:40pm, waiting for my bus ride home.  Fact--when I came home, instead of getting a snack, tidying the house, spending time with the family, I kept reading.  Fact--I read straight on through, finishing ten minutes ago (c. 6:10), and still feel somewhat teary and shaken. 

I guess that I can say of The Last Academy that it was "gripping."  "Moving."  "Memorable."

I was not without doubts at first--it starts with two best friends, fourteen years old, falling out. The beautiful one is mean to our heroine, Camden.   Not so interesting.

Then Camden is on her way to boarding school, in California--I knew it was a boarding school book, so I wasn't surprised; I like school stories, so I kept reading.  A sinister dude shows up on her airplane.  Turns out his last name is Charon.  Turns out the school is called Lethe Academy. I began to expect that Camden would start manifesting Greekly mythological wonderfulness.   My doubts continued.

The appearance of a Handsome Dude and subsequent insta-crush intensified them.

But then...it became clear that I was all wrong about the direction the story would take.  I began to care about the characters--even the new bitchy beautiful girl character and the Handsome Dude.    And I realized, still pretty early on in the book (I take no credit for this--it's spelled out pretty clearly, and I think we're supposed to guess) that things were not all sunshine and roses at Lethe Academy.

And I was teary at the end.  I hugged the nearest child, but it wasn't really what I wanted...I think I would like to call my own mother, but she is currently birdwatching in Kazakhstan.

This isn't one I'd give to a reader who is grieving.  It would be too close to home.  But it's one I can imagine being intensely appealing to the teen girl readers out there who want an emotional punch packaged inside lightly paranormal romance/generic teen angst wrappings.

True, it is not subtle.  True, it is possibly a tad manipulative in its emotional knife twistings.  True, since the clues were all there, the characters really should have figured things out a lot more briskly...But it worked for me.

Be warned--not every one loved this one.  Here are some reviews much less favorable than mine:

Katie's Book Blog
Birth of a New Witch
The YA Sisterhood
Dear Restless Reader
Supernatural Snark

One thing that seems to have been off-putting is how young Camden is; I barely registered this, maybe since I read more middle grade than Young Adult, and so I was unbothered...So in light of that, I'll revise my recommendation--give this to a twelve-year old girl.  Not to a committed reader of YA. 

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher

Waiting on Wednesday--Texting the Underworld, by Ellen Booraem

Just a quick reminder, before I get to the Waiting part--you can win a personalized copy of Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, by leaving a comment on my interview with her by midnight tonight.  If you like middle grade fantasy and haven't read this one, do so posthaste.

Now on to a new book I'm waiting for!
Ellen Booraem has demonstrated with her first two books (The Unnamables, and Small Persons With Wings--my review) that she can write thoughtful and fun middle grade fantasy--and I'm very curious to see how her writing continues to evolve--those first two books are very different in feel!   So I'm looking forward to her forthcoming book, Texting the Underworld, lots.  It comes out August 15, 2013, from Dial. 

Here's the blurb:

Perpetual scaredy-cat Conor O'Neill has the fright of his life when a banshee girl named Ashling shows up in his bedroom. Ashling is--as all banshees are--a harbinger of death, but she's new at this banshee business, and first she insists on going to middle school. As Conor attempts to hide her identity from his teachers, he realizes he's going to have to pay a visit to the underworld if he wants to keep his family safe.

"Got your cell?"
"Yeah . . . . Don't see what good it'll do me."
"I'll text you if anything happens that you should know."
"Text me? Javier, we'll be in the afterlife."
"You never know. Maybe they get a signal."

Ellen Booraem has disclosed that there's a riff on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice here, which I might have guessed, what with the Underworld and all, but which certainly piques my interest more, fan of reimaginings that I am.

(I find it amusing that corvids seem to be continuing their popularity on mg and YA speculative fiction covers...which reminds me of a crow joke--What do call two crows hanging out together?  An attempted murder (as in "a murder of crows").

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


Terra Tempo: Ice Age Cataclysm!, by David Shapiro

Terra Tempo: Ice Age Cataclysm!, by David Shapiro (illustrated by Christopher Herndon with color by Erica Melville; Craigmore Creations, 2010) is a time travel graphic novel in which three kids use a magical map to travel back to the end of the Ice Age in North America, just in time to watch Glacial Lake Missoula break through its ice dam.  It's essentially a science lesson nestled within an adventure story--the intent of the book is to instruct, and indeed it's a clearly presented look at a fascinating moment in time.

Twins Jenna and Caleb find the great uncle's mysterious travel journal that seems to contain instructions for time travel, along with a map showing the Missoula flood.  Along with a third kid, Ari (keenly interested in Ice Age fauna), they follow the directions....and they work. Now the kids must keep from being eaten by the local fauna, with the help of a friendly Thunderbird, who flies them over the landscape, giving them a chance to see the lake, and its flood, from a wonderfully unique perspective.

The illustrations are lovely, and engrossing; the adventures of the kids somewhat less so.  However, because the story is punctuated with didactic intrusions, it doesn't flow all that smoothly as fiction.  I don't mind learning through fiction, but the balance felt a bit off to me here...It didn't help that the great uncle's journal contained important bits of information conveyed in forced rhyme.

At one point, toward the end, the kids see a village from the air, right in the path of the flood, and I was hopeful that some honest to goodness Story would happen (as opposed to sight-seeing and occasionally menacing fauna), but nothing more comes of it.

Sort answer--this would be an invaluable tool to use in introducing kids to the end of the Ice Age.  It is beautifully illustrated, and the subject is interesting.  But it's not one to necessarily offer your kid who loves graphic novels for their stories.

That being said, this one might not have worked that well for my particular family because we have watched Mystery of the Megaflood a gazillion times because that's the sort of kid my oldest is...so I think I'll get hold of the second book, The Four Corners of Time.  We know a lot less about the Cretaceous Period on the Colorado Plateau, and the good thing about visually appealing graphic novels like this is that they will be read by the aforementioned picky reader kid, even if they are not passionately loved.


The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore, by Kate Maddison

The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore, by Kate Maddison (Holiday House, 2013, mg/ya) is a lightly romantic steampunk mystery for tweens (which is not something I get to type every day).  And I love the cover.   It's one I might well hand to the upper middle school girl (7th grade, or so), who isn't quite ready to plunge into the deeper waters of YA speculative fiction/romance, who wants something different and undemanding. That being said, I myself found it somewhat lacking.  It ticked along nicely at a surface level, but never deeply engaged me. 

Charlotte Sycamore, narrator of the story, is certainly not your run-of-the mill alternate-Victorian teenager.  For one thing, her father is Queen Victoria's own physician, elevating her to a social status that may be below that of the nobility but which is very comfortable indeed.   For another, she likes to sneak out of Buckingham Palace at night and practice swordfighting with her friends, Peter and Jillian.  They may be far, far below her socially, but she's happy to defy convention to enjoy their company.

But one night, right as the story opens, the threesome are attacked by savage dogs who appear rabid.  Though their skill at weapons saves their lives, all three are bitten, Jillian gravelly so.  And to add to the horror, the dogs are not normal creatures--they are mechanical monsters.

Charlotte makes it home after summoning help for her friends, but they are placed under guard, presumed victims of rabies.  And indeed, Charlotte herself begins feeling ill.  Snatched perusals of her father's mechanical tomes suggest the worse--that she's going to die.   But even as her symptoms worsen, Charlotte cannot just let the mystery of the mechanical dogs lie. 

Then Jillian and Peter escape from their virtual prison, but are wanted by the law.  Matters get progressively worse, as Jillian nears death, and Peter and Charlotte sicken further.  The rabid mechanical dogs are joined by mechanical bats of death, and Queen Victoria herself is in grave danger....unless Charlotte and her friends can stop the power-hungry twisted genius behind the murderous mechanicals.

So it's a fine story qua story, nicely paced and quite gripping.  The alternate, steampunk Victorian setting was different enough to have zest, without being so different as to overwhelm the story.  I especially like Queen Victoria's magical game pieces! The mystery, however, ends up solving itself--there isn't much actual detection being done by the characters.

There is a romantic triangle, of a mild sort, that is not desperately necessary to the plot. As well as the handsome Peter, Charlotte is good friends with an equally attractive young groom Benjamin; both are attracted to her.  To add to her romantic difficulties, she's been engaged to a naturalist she's never met--he's out of the picture, naturalizing.  For the younger reader, the somewhat unsubtle romantic intrusions may well be appealing; for readers who prefer meaningful build-up to young love, they may not:

"Take care of yourselves," Peter whispered, more to me than Benjamin.  I thought I detected a look of longing in Peter's smoldering eyes, but then he turned away from me to bravely lead his sister out of danger, his shoulders squared and his long stride resolute.  (pp 179-180).

It was hard to see Peter as a real person. 

And indeed, the book never delivers any convincing depths for its central protagonist, let alone the supporting characters.  Charlotte's interest in the mechanical and natural sciences, for instance, were all well and good--but this is presented at a surficial level, and not as a moving, intrinsically essential, part of her character (and she isn't at all convincing as a methodical, thoughtful, scientist).  Charlotte makes friends with people well-below her social class, but this does not present more than an occasional awkwardness, and without contemplating any big, difficult questions, she's happy to help and be friends with poor people.  For instance, she sends one of the Queen's own surplus baby blankets to a very impoverished barmaid, who cherishes it--I think in real life she'd pawn it quick as a wink.

In short, this isn't real life--it's an fairly entertaining mystery that doesn't ask hard questions of its reimagined historical setting,  or expect too much in the way of characterization from its cast.  

Note on age of reader:  My 10 year old agreed heartily with me that the cover and premise were appealing, but I don't think that besotted teens are really his thing so I'm just going to pass this on to the library.  Charlotte's a teenager, there are lots of romantic intrusions--not 10 year old boy stuff.   The 11 to 12 year old girl, however, who hasn't yet read any fictional smolders, is the perfect target audience (the smoldering only goes as far as a passionate kiss).


This week's middle grade science fiction and fantasy round-up (5/19/13)

Welcome to yet another week of what I found in my blog reading of interest to us fans of middle grade sci fi/fantasy, and possibly of interest to people who aren't fans themselves but have to buy the books for others.  Please let me know if I missed your post, please feel free to send me links any time during the week, please feel free to tell me about the posts of others, and please feel free to mention these round-ups on your own blog if the spirit moves you!

The Reviews

An Army of Frogs, by Trevor Pryce, at Journey of a Bookseller

The Bell Between Worlds, by Ian Johnston, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint, at Fantasy Book Critic

The Clan of the Scorpion (Ninja Meerkats), by Gareth P. Jones, at Jean Little Library

The Circle, by Cindy Cipriano, at SA Larsen

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at The Book Smugglers and Cover2CoverBlog

Fyre, by Angie Sage, at Unlikely Librarian

Goulish Song, by William Alexander, at That Blog Belongs to Emily Brown 
and Tor

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, at Between the Pages

Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill, at Great Imaginations

The Last Timekeepers and the Arch of Atlantis, bySharon Ledwith, at swlothian

Loki's Woves, by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr, at One Librarian's Book Reviews

Nation, by Terry Pratchett, at The Book Smugglers

New Lands, by Geoff Rodkey, at Geo Librarian

The Path of Names, by Ari Goelman, at Charlotte's Library

The Planet Thieves, by Dan Krokos, at The O.W.L.

The Princelings of the East, by Jemima Pett, at The Ninja Librarian

The Reluctant Assassin, by Eoin Colfer, at Book Nut

The Rose Throne, by Mette Ivie Harrison, at Kiss the Book

Seeds of Rebellion, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature

Summerkin, by Sarah Prineas, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Tilly's Moonlight Garden, by Julia Green, at Kid Lit Geek

The Tree of Mindala, by Elle Jacklee, at alibrarymama

The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blackwood, at Charlotte's Library

Wednesdays in the Tower, by Jessica Day George, at Sharon the LibrarianThe O.W.L. and Small Review (giveaway)

Wonderlight, by R.R. Russell

A World Without Heroes, by Brandon Mull, at Fantasy Literature

ps:  just once I would love to have a book for every letter of the alphabet.   So please, why not consider reviewing a book beginning with E, I, J, K, M, O, Q, U, V, X, Y, or Z?  Then I would not have to search frantically, and disappointingly, for reviews of The Menagerie, or Undertown.    For a while, Jinx and The Key and the Flame covered those two difficult letters, but that well seems to have run dry... You Only Die Twice, by Dan Gutman, gave me a Y once, but  no one has reviewed Zombie Kid or Zombie Tag or Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom for ages...

It's probably a fruitless task-- I don't know if I have ever been able to include a book beginning with X.  I once read a book beginning with X, but did not feel moved to review it.....

Authors and Inverviews

Sage Blackwood (Jinx) at Charlotte's Library (giveaway)

Anne Nesbit (Box of Gargoyles) at The Enchanted Inkpot

"Lemony Snickett" (Who Could That Be At This Hour?) at The Children's Book Review

Soman Chainani (The School for Good and Evil) at The Enchanted Inkpot

Ari Goelman (The Path of Names) at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia and Brooklyn Arden (who edited the book; giveaway)

Jessica Day George (Wednesdays in the Tower) at Small Review

Kelley Armstrong (Loki's Wolves) at Literary Rambles (giveaway)

Kit Grindstaff (The Flame and the Mist) at Cynsations

R.R. Russell (Wonderlight) at A Backwards Story

Barbara Brauner and James Iver Mattson (Oh My Godmother: The Glitter Trap) at All For One and OneFour Kidlit

Dorine White (The Emerald Ring) Blog Tour stops so far:

Tuesday, May 14From The Mixed up Files of Middle Grade Authors- Author Interview and giveaway
Wed, May 15- I am a Reader, Not a Writer- Author Interview and giveaway
Thurs, May 16- Word Spelunker- Spotlight/Giveaway
Fri, May 17- The Writing Blues- Review
Fri. May 17Adventures in Reading- Review
Sat. May 18Mels Shelves- Review

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle blog tour continues, at Candace's Book Blog, The Modge Podge Bookshelf, and The Hiding Spot

Other Good Stuff:

There's a Book has a giveaway for all three books of the Lovecraft Middle School series

Fair Coin, by  E.C. Myers (Pyr) has won the Andre Norton Award (I've not yet read it--should I?); here's the list of all the Nebula winners.

The Vindico, by Wesley King (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/ Penguin Group) has won the 2013 Red Maple™ Fiction Award  (grades 7-8). I haven't read this one either....

Here's a nice little list of Historical Fantasy at Views from the Tesseract

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, has been optioned

Finally, here is my favorite new fantasy animal--the alot.  I like the alot a lot.  I think it needs its own book.


Bout of Books update

I've read embarrassingly little for the Bout of Book Readathon....I was actually too sick to want to read in the middle of the week (the horror!) and work does get in the way something fierce...

But for what it's worth, here's what I've read in the past five days:

3 Terry Pratchett books--Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, and Soul Music, plus 104 pages of Hogfather (there's a reason why I am reading Pratchett straight through....but I'm not quite convinced its going to happen, so more later on that score....)

The Secret of the Ginger Mice, by Frances Watts

197 pages of The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgeway

89 pages of The Bank of Bob, by Bob Harris (a nonfiction book about Kiva loans)

56 pages of Penelope, by Penelope Farmer


2013 Mythopoeic Award finalists announced

 I quite like the choices made by the folks handing out the Mythopoeic Awards--they have historically have very good taste.  The awards are given in the categories of Adult Literature, Children's Literature, and two categories of scholarship--Inklings Studies, and Myth and Fantasy Studies.

The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature honors books for younger readers (from “Young Adults” to picture books for beginning readers), in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.

I'm not at all sure that this year's finalists actually meet that criteria, but it's a nice list none the less (special yay for Giants Beware!, a book I adored):
  • Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, Giants Beware! (First Second)
  • Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel (Margaret K. McElderry)
  • Merrie Haskell, The Princess Curse (HarperCollins)
  • Christopher Healy, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (Walden Pond Press)
  • Sherwood Smith, The Spy Princess (Viking Juvenile)
The Adult Finalists are interesting too:
  • Alan Garner, Weirdstone trilogy, consisting of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Collins), The Moon of Gomrath (Collins), and Boneland (Fourth Estate)
  • Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl (Roc)
  • R.A. MacAvoy, Death and Resurrection (Prime Books)
  • Tim Powers, Hide Me Among the Graves (William Morrow)
  • Ursula Vernon, Digger, vols. 1-6 (Sofawolf Press)

The Path of Names, by Ari Goelman-- fantasy rooted in Judaism

Quick!  How many current middle grade fantasy books can you think of whose magic is rooted in Judaism?  There was a flowering of Golem books a little while ago--here's a good summary,  and there's The Inquisitor's Apprentice, and its forthcoming sequel.  There are a number of other fantasy books whose protagonists are Jewish, but which don't take place in an imagined space in which Judaism and magic co-mingle.

This space, however, is exactly where The Path of Names, by Ari Goelman (Scholastic, April, 2013), is set, and to make it even more unusual, it is primarily contemporary.  The setting is a camp for Jewish kids,  and the magic that drives the plot comes specifically and exclusively from the magic of the Kabbalah.

13-year old Dahlia did not want to go to a camp for Jewish kids.  She wanted to spend all her summer at magic (the stage kind) camp, honing her skills as a magician.   As a math and magic geek, she's pretty certain that this paritular camp isn't going to full of new friends. (Irrelevant aside--I tried going to camp only once--Scottish dancing camp--when I was a grown-up.  It was horrible.  All the other campers knew each other already.  I felt for Dahlia.)

And Dahlia did not want to start seeing ghosts--two little girls who only she could see, who seemed to be trying to communicate to her.  And she most certainly did not want to be possessed (on occasion) by the spirit of a long-dead young Rabbi from New York, whose book of esoteric writings just happened to show up on the camp bookshelf...

And Dahlia most certainly did not want to be involved in a life or death struggle in which she is forced to use her fledgling understanding of the Kabbalah against an extremely powerful enemy willing to kill children in his quest for magical power... 

I think this is one that will appeal most strongly to the self-identified geek girl.  The mystery and the magic and the backstory and the subplots are complex and somewhat esoteric, and as a result it helps to pay close attention while reading.   Happily for me, I found the story more than interesting enough to do so.   The parts that I liked best were the flashbacks to the story of the young Orthodox Jewish man who is haunting Dahlia.  He's a young man who has found the 72nd Name of God, in a system of belief where names and numbers have real power--power for which bad guys will kill-- and his story is tremendously exiting.

But sadly for me, I never managed to care all that much about Dahlia as a person.  She's kind of cross at life for most of the book, and rather stiff--and not tremendously sympathetic, emotionally, although intellectually she was more so.   And, again on a personal level, I never quite found that the supernatural elements of this story (and there were lots of them, very interesting ones) ever roused in me more than intellectual curiosity.  In short, this isn't a book that pulled on my heart or made my hair stand on end. 

Your mileage may, of course, vary--and I do, as I said above, think that there is an audience for this one--the smart, mystery-loving 10-12 year old girl (especially the one who likes math puzzles and who doesn't care for summer camp bonding activities).

So, having written my own review, I'm now curious to see what other people thought, especially since I myself had a trouble deciding whether I really liked it (interesting, engrossing story!) or not (left kind of disappointed emotionally).

Here's what Kirkus had to say.  I don't know why they put 12-15 for age of reader.  There isn't any sex, and the horrible deaths (not that many of them, and not that horrible) happened in the past, the bad guy is less scary than Voldemort, and Dahlia is only 13.   The Kirkus reviewer calls the book "challenging," so maybe that's it, but if that's the case, I think it underestimates the 11 year olds of today, whose minds seem to me considerably more agile than those of most adults.  Typical smart 11 year old--oh, esoteric system of numerology that involves the hidden names of God?  Bring it on. 

You can read the starred Booklist review at Amazon, but here's the punch line: "With the help of her friends, she uses her mystical powers to confront the Illuminated One, who selfishly seeks the name for himself. Debut author Goelman’s story is full of exciting plot twists and well-rounded, engaging characters—all amped up by thrilling esoteric magic."    Ok, maybe it was just me not hitting it off with Dahlia. 

And finally, here's an interview with Ari Goelman at The Lucky 13s.

Feel free to mention any other contemporary fantasy books drawing on Judaism in the comments (which is to say, not books in which the main character just happens to be Jewish and then meets a unicorn or whatever).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Interview with Sage Blackwood, author of Jinx

I am thrilled as all get out today to present Sage Blackwood, author of the excellent middle grade fantasy, Jinx (my review).  Jinx is the only book I have re-read this year, and I can easily imagine happily reading it a third time.  Since re-reading is the highest level of personal favor I can give a book, this is saying a lot.

So when Sage Blackwood asked if I might be interested in hosting her for her first interview, I said yes, with quick conviction!  My questions are in bold.

The most important question first:  Will there be a next book, and can you tell us anything about it?  I want to know what happens next!  I am hoping for more about Sophie and her world...  

Yes! A sequel, Jinx’s Magic, is due out from HarperCollins in January, 2014, and yes, there will be more of Sophie and her world. Jinx will go to Samara and, of course, get into all kinds of trouble. And Sophie… well, you’ll see. (She said annoyingly.) 

And speaking of Sophie, one of things I loved about Jinx was the sense that there is lots of backstory to her, and to others in the book, that is very nicely implied without being spelled out.   Because the characters give such a full feeling of lives lived outside the pages of this particular book,  I'm wondering which people from Jinx actually became known to you first, and in what imagined context(s) did they first appear? 

Oh, great question! The characters wandered into my head at different times, over the course of several years, before finally hooking up with each other. The first character was the Urwald… the fairy tale forest which I think is inside each of us. I wanted to evoke it, hopefully in a way that begins on the page but ends in the reader’s imagination. Then came Elfwyn… a girl in a red hood who was smarter than history has given her credit for being. Elfwyn would not have any difficulty distinguishing her grandmother from a wolf.

Next was Simon Magus, a legendary figure about whom we know very little… and from what we know, it’s not really clear if he’s good or evil. Simon Magus had a wife named Sophie. Or possibly Helen. But Sophie seemed like a better name for the character. I forgot that it was also the name of the protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle.

I was on my front porch drawing pictures of these characters when another one showed up—Jinx. There’s a rather enigmatic comment in the Simon Magus legend: that he got his power from a boy who had died a violent death. (The boy in the legend doesn’t actually seem to be dead, though, violent death notwithstanding.) So I planned for the first scene to be Simon strangling Jinx. When I actually sat down to write the scene, though, Simon refused to do that. So I had to figure out what really happened, as it were.

So I doodled some more, and eventually drew a picture of a boy, a troll and a wizard in a forest. And there the story begins.

Jinx is a book with tons of appeal for those of us adults who still sincerely love reading (good) fantasy for kids.  Are you yourself one of those?  When you were writing Jinx, did you consciously recall books you loved when you were the target audience?  Or to put it another way, what books helped shaped your writerly experience?  And are there any favorite books of yours that you could recommend to the reader (young or not so young) who enjoyed Jinx?
Oh yes, I’m definitely one of those!

My favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. My memory insists I have loved her since childhood, when I came across a copy of The Magicians of Caprona at the village library. Unfortunately the publication date doesn’t back me up on that. Apparently I was 15 when the book came out. Anyway I sat down on the little bench in the children’s section, opened the book, and was hooked.

You know what’s different about Ms. Jones? It’s that her characters live in a real world. They’re not too noble to be irritated by life’s little annoyances. They’re not too concerned with truth and justice to care who gets the last brownie. And that makes her heroes more heroic, not less.

Books I’d recommend: All of DWJ, but especially Drowned Ammet (sheer brilliance), Cart & Cwidder (especially to writers), The Homeward Bounders (more brilliance), The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Magicians of Caprona… I feel as if I’m forgetting something important, so everyone please insert your favorite DWJ book here.

I highly recommend Terry Pratchett too, but to your blog readers, that’s probably like saying I highly recommend breathing. Of his children’s books, The Amazing Maurice is my favorite.

I know that my personal representative of the target audience (in this case, a 9 year old fantasy loving boy) enjoyed the adventure/danger/questy part of the story most, whereas I (and I bet more of the other grown-ups who've read Jinx), enjoyed the more personality-driven first half (although I could be wrong!).   Which part of the book was more fun/more challenging to write? 

I’m so glad to hear he enjoyed the book. I really enjoyed writing the first half, with its focus on character and everyday life. I think a lot of people like reading about everyday life, which is why Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana books are such a hit.

It was a lot of fun creating the Urwald, and creating Simon’s house, both of which are somewhat archetypal so it was largely a matter of writing my way into familiar places. And of course it was fun getting to know the characters. Then of course the story developed out of who the characters are.

My impression so far is that children like the idea that Jinx can do magic. They would like to do a bit themselves. They like the action, the monsters, the scary stuff at Bonesocket, and they think it would be pretty cool to live in a wizard’s house.

And just dragging Sophie back into it, I don't think I'm alone in feeling that if you ever felt like writing Sophie and Simon stand-alone stories they would be welcomed....

Simon’s and Sophie’s backstory! I’d love to write that. Not sure if I’ll ever get the chance. It’s a bit darker than Jinx’s, so it might not make good middle grade material. 

If there are any questions that I didn't ask, that you have answers to all ready to go, do feel free to ask them of yourself!

Oh, thank you! I do have one of those, and no one is ever going to ask it. So here goes:

Some have called Jinx’s ability to learn foreign languages a form of magic. But isn’t it an application of second language acquisition theory, meaning that pretty much anyone could do what Jinx does, and isn’t this a rather loaded question?


Thank you so much, Sage, for the fascinating answers to my questions!  I'm so glad there isn't going to be a long wait for the next instalment.

The winner of the giveaway was alibrarymama.


Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, for Timeslip Tuesday

By the end of June, I hope to have read all of the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett.  This, like so much else in my life, is an unreasonable expectation, but whatever; at any rate, I've been enjoying the process.   Especially since I have just finished my favorite of the series--Night Watch (2002).   It knocked my socks off, wrung them out, and left them to dry.

Sam Vimes has risen through the ranks to become Commander of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork.  He is a duke. He is rich.  He loves his wife, and looks forward to the birth of their first child.

Then time turns ugly on him.  A magical storm sweeps down on the city, and with bolt of lightning, sends Sam back to the very year he first joined the City Watch.  The mysterious History Monks reassure him that history really wants to make things come out the way they should, but their vagueness is hardly comforting.   Sam's arrival coincides with the untimely, and temporally wrong  death of the Watch's sergeant--  the man who was supposed to be Sam's own mentor.   Unhappy, confused, and wanting home to still be a place that he can someday get to, Sam is at first uncertain about what he should do.

But he knows what's about to happen in the city--it's about to go up in flames of violence and rioting and death, and there are bad, bad people there pushing the violence forward.   And he knows that young Sam needs his mentor, or he won't grow up to be himself.  But most of all, he knows that he is a policeman, and he knows he is needed.

So he takes the place of the dead sergeant, and does the best he can to keep as many people safe.  Even though he knows that people will die, regardless.

And oh my gosh, I love books so much where the hero is a truly decent, good person, who knows that things are hopeless, but does the best he or she can because that is the only thing do to.   And I love books where that hero not only clings to a dogged, hard-won refusal to give up, but also is smart enough to see chances where none exist.  Sam Vines reminded me, to my great surprise and pleasure, of two of my favorite heroes-- Phaedrus from The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff, and Eugenides, from Megan Whalen Turner's Queen Thief Series.  

Of course, since this is Pratchett, it isn't the same as either of those two.  It's funnier, and more farcical, in true Discworld style.  There were plenty of bits that made me chuckle.  But I wept a little, at the end...

It is, I think, the time-travel of it that makes it so poignant--because Sam knows what's going to happen.   Because he can see his young self, about to face things that shouldn't happen.  Because he doesn't know if he'll get home again, to see his wife and unborn child... And still he does the best he can.

If you've not read any Discworld books before, but are intrigued--this can be read as a stand-alone, as long as you don't try to make sense of the things you don't understand, and just accept, for instance, the fact that the librarian of the Unseen University of wizards is an orangoutang.

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