It seems like it was just yesterday that I read 11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, for Timeslip Tuesday...but it was back in April of 2009 that I typed up my reaction to it, calling it "a beautifully realistic book, with the angsts of eleven-year old life front and center, but ... also a beautifully magical book, a what-if story of the nicest sort, that leaves the reader with lots to day-dream about." And I went on to help short list it in Middle Grade Sci fi/fantasy in that year's Cybils Awards. (It didn't win, but that was perhaps the strongest MG SFF Cybils shortlist ever).
The Last Present (Scholastic, Sept. 2013). And it is a good ending, a satisfying one that ties up all the plot threads, and leaves the reader feeling that the kids will be just fine. But in as much as it is this particular type of a final book, it really requires the reader to have read the first ones...and since they are fun, fast reads, there's absolutely no reason why you wouldn't want to!
So. The Last Present tells how Amanda and Leo, best friends forever, have to travel back to the past nine birthday's of ten year old Grace to save her from a coma she's mysteriously fallen into. Angelina, the mysterious old lady whose magical string pullings have made life so very interesting for Amanda and Leo in the past, wants them to make Grace's birthdays go the way Angelina had intended them to go, which would have brought Grace into the fold of Angelina's magical protection, hence no coma. A straightforward mission of time travel and quick thinking--they only have to get three of the birthdays right, and they've gotten hold of the home videos of all of them so that they can see just what went wrong with each one.
Except that the things that went wrong weren't random chance. Angelina's schemes were being actively opposed...and the young time travelers are caught up in a much less straightforward endeavor than they had anticipated. With a full ensemble cast of all the other characters from all the other books, nicely bound together by friendships and developing romantic relationships, and with an even more direct confrontation with Angelina's magic, this is a book that's very satisfying for a fan of the series.
It's a very nice sort of time travel too, with each birthday party visit (Grace getting younger each year) it's own juicy little bite of adventure. I liked how it was structured--each birthday party presented new challenges of infiltration (easy at first, but harder as Grace and her friends became younger), and each one they fixed resulted in a change in Grace's present state (like unlocking a level in a game), and every birthday party raised more questions and doubts about just what Angelina was up to.
Fortunately Angelina's magic disguises Amanda and Leo, so they don't have to worry about being recognized (especially the time they arrive in the past in cow costumes), but they, of course, get to see the younger selves of people they know, which makes things interesting. And they are good, thoughtful, time travelers, making sure they don't pay with money that hasn't been minted yet, and trying not to change things (except the things they have to change--the lost gift bags, the untied balloons, the squashed present, etc.--that got messed up the first time around).
It's perhaps a more external adventure than the other books, in that it's not the lives of the main protagonists that are changing, and there's never any real tension about things working out all right, and so it's not a book with great heft in its plot and its character development. But if you are a middle grade reader wanting a pleasant page turner with magical intrigue and lots of small excitements (or a grown-up reader wanting the same, and why not), it's a good one. And if you have read the earlier books, you will definitely want to read this one!
Also reviewed today at Ms. Yingling Reads