The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston (Razorbill 2013) is a fun addition to the "magical creatures amongst us" sub-genre of children's fantasy.   In this particular case, a whole panoply of creatures of great strangeness are working alongside a human inventor, sharing their magical twists on the laws of possibility to bring fantastical inventions to reality.   The only problem--a rival company is staging a hostile takeover--more magically hostile than normal!  And two ordinary kids, Elliot von Doppler and Leslie Fang, find themselves right in the middle of all the shenanigans.  If they can't help the creatures come up with a new invention in time to keep the shareholders happy, the company will be destroyed...

This is one for those who love Creatures in all their fantastical fantastical-ness (think way past your ordinary griffins, gargoyles, dragons, etc. and more toward the creatures of Monsters, Inc.).  There's humor and adventure, with plenty of excitement--first the thrills of discovery, as the kids explore the world of the Creature Department, and secondly the zippy tension of battling the bad guys, human and creature, who want to take over.  The illustrations add to the fun of meeting all the myriad creatures and their marvelous world of inventions.

That beings said, The Creature Department doesn't push much past the fun of the set-up into any sort of emotionally powerful territory.  Though the beginning promises an interesting character-arc for Elliot and Leslie, two science-loving kids forced by cirumstance to become friends, once they make it to the Creature Department, the focus of the story becomes almost entirely external, and character development falls by the wayside.

So maybe not one for the adult fan of middle grade fantasy, but for monster-loving kids (aged 9 to 10ish) looking for a fun read, it's a good one that might well spark their own imaginations.   Here are some other reviews, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia and Cool Kids Read

(Since Leslie's family is Chinese, this one gets to go on my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list, which hasn't seen many middle grade additions so far this year....)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Thankfully giving books--what my boys, and other sundry loved ones, are getting for Christmas

I am so thankful that I have a family for whom I can buy books!  Buying books is fun in general, but when you buy a book for yourself, there's always the nagging doubt about whether you will find time to read it or not (my mind always fills with visions of the shoes of Imelda Marcos).   Buying books for others, though, is shear pleasure.    There's the Careful Thought, the requests for wish lists, the scouring of the internet and local shops, new and used, and finally, the wrapping (actually the reason I give books is because I am Challenged by wrapping paper and books are just about the only think I can wrap decently and even then it is a struggle because sometimes I try to Save Paper and it all goes horribly wrong).

Here is what they are getting (just for the record, the books for the boys include ones I've asked other relatives to get for them).  You might notice that the books for the boys are rather graphic novel heavy.  I think graphic novels are safer bets as presents for the young than longer books that require more investment; the two novel length books younger son is getting are safe bets because of being series continuations.

Early present, for sharing on the plane ride to Grandma's:

Rat's Wars, a Pearls Before Swine Collection

For my 10-year-old son:

Warriors, Dawn of the Clans 2: Thunder Rising, by Erin Hunter

The Royal Ranger, by John Flanagan

Zed: a Cosmic Tale, by Michel Gagne

Mouseguard: The Black Axe, by David Petersen

The Saga of Rex, by Michel Gagne

How to Betray a Dragon's Hero, by Cressida Cowell

For my 13-year-old son:

Hyperbole and a Half, by Ally Brosh

Romeo and Juliet, by Gareth Hinds

The Lost Islands, by Kazu Kibuishi

The Onion Book of Known Knowledge

March, by John Lewis

Flight, Vol. 4, ed. by Kazu Kibuishi

For my 10 year old nephew:

Akissi: Feline Inviasion, by Marguerite Abouet 

For my little sister

Gypsy's Sowing and Reaping, by Elizabeth Stuart

Warts and All, by Rodie Sudbery

For my big sister:

Code Name Verity, by ElizabethWein

For my mother:

Fugue in Time, by Rumer Godden

The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles

For my husband:

Apples of North America:  Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks, by Tom Burford

World's Best Ciders: Taste, Tradition, and Terroir

The New Cider Maker's Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Craft Producers

For the kids at Ballou High School in Washington D.C. (more info. here at Guys Lit Wire)

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Aren't these nice books!  Which would you like?  I think of all of these I am most looking forward to reading Hyperbole and a Half (which of course I could read now, since I have it on hand, but it is more fun to read Christmas present books at Christmas).  

The only problem with having done all one's Christmas
book shopping is that there are still 27 days left, and it is quite possible that I will find myself buying even more books even though this is Really Enough..


The Locket of Dreams, by Belinda Murrell, for Timeslip Tuesday

When I was offered a review copy of The Locket of Dreams, by Belinda Murrell (originally published in 2009 by Random House Australia, reissued there in 2013, and coming to the US in January of 2014, for ages 10-11ish), I was delighted to accept.  How could I say no to the story of a magical locket taking Sophie, a modern Australian girl, back in to the life of the 19th-century Scottish girl who was her ancestor, Charlotte?  I love a nice girl-centered historical Scottish time travel.

And indeed, The Locket of Dreams is one I would have loved as a child--I would have read it in a day, transported, along with Sophie, to what was, at first, the happy, privileged childhood Charlotte and her little sister enjoyed on her family's estate in Scotland...and my heart would have ached when Charlotte's parents tragically died, and the greedy uncle and aunt moved in.   And though, as an adult, this was somewhat familiar fictional ground, and did not thrill me as much as it would have back in the day, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of the two girls to Australia, and their exploration of their new home (not having read much set in 19th-century Australia, this was fresh ground for me, and I cannot in any way speak to the accuracy of its portrayal of time and place).

 I do think, though, that this is one best read by a younger reader who enjoys somewhat romanticized historical fiction (hard issues of class and race are glossed over, although the plight of the Scottish tenant farmers under the rule of the new uncle is a concern).   Sophie is primarily an observer, rarely doing anything of substance in the past, and so the most intellectually engaging part of time travelling, the intersections of past and present, aren't there.   It's never desperately clear that her experiences in the past are changing Sophie, and so she can't help but come across as a bit of a Device.  Because of this, it lacks any emotional punch in the gut--one feels sadness for Charlotte's situation, but the story as a whole is not desperately Powerful, the way the best time travel books are.

Still, it's a pleasantly written book, full of vivid description, and Charlotte's an appealing character with whom many girls (and possibly some boys) will empathize.   This a good one for the reader who doesn't like Dramatic Adventure; the few bits of Adventure seemed tacked on to the story, and not organic to it.   And there are lots of nice animal bits (horses, a dog, assorted Australian fauna), that will add to its appeal for those who love animals.

Short answer:  I was happy to read it, but would like to give it to ten-year-old me.  I realize this isn't neccessrily helpful, but I think the cover shown above is also useful--if a potential reader loves the cover, they'll love the book.


The Dark Secret (Wings of Fire, Book 4), by Tui T. Sutherland

The Wings of Fire series tells of five young dragonets, taken from their various clans of dragon kind while they were still unhatched, and raised to believe that they were the Dragonets of Destiny, who would bring piece to the war torn world.  Each book is told from the point of view of one of the dragonets, and now, in the fourth book, The Dark Secret (Scholastic 2013), it's Starflight's turn.

Starflight is a Nightwing--mysterious dragons with strange powers and suspicious secrets.  Starflight hasn't yet manifested any powers, and all his life he's hungered for knowledge, and worried that he's not brave enough to help his friends bring the prophesied peace to fruition.   As the book begins, he's been taken by the Nightwings to their island home.  But it's not the place of happy learning he'd hoped it would be.  Instead, the Nightwings are savagely plotting to conquer the land of the Rainwing dragons, to make a new home for themselves there.  And they want Starflight to help them, by betraying his friends, including Glory, his fellow Dragonet of Destiny and the new Rainwing queen.

This is a GREAT series to offer your handy nine or ten year old--it is immensely popular in my son's reading circle, which includes both boys and girls.  There is violence, and some gruesome deaths and maimings, but it is not gratuitous (parental discretion is advised, though, if you have a younger child who isn't ready for very vividly awful dragon deaths).   It has to be real, and bad, in order for the efforts of the Dragonets to be meaningful, and it succeeds with vengeance in this regard!  What I appreciate most is that although there is plenty of action and adventure, character is front and center.  In The Dark Secret, for instance, the focus is on the dilemmas and challenges faced by Starflight as he tries to be worthy of his friends, while trying to thwart the Nightwing plot.

To quote from my review of the first book, The Dragonet Prophecy: "what pleased even cynical me most was that there were themes here that I was happy to have my son think about--loyalty to friends transcending blind loyalty to tribe, the need to empathize with other points of view, the need to try your best to shape your own destiny, and not be someone's tool, and the senselessness of war."  These themes are still there, and still set in a truly exciting story.

The revelations of this book give fresh urgency to the waiting for the next book....me and my ten-year-old are both desperate for book five now!

In the meantime, there is a whole Wings of Fire wiki community to explore, with fan art, forums, etc.  This makes me smile, because when when I reviewed the first book, I wrote:  "this is a series that absolutely cries out for a website, with all the information about the different types of dragon expanded, and legends of the different dragon tribes, and little stories about the characters when they were babies, and printable pictures of the dragons etc."

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs (11/24/2013)

Welcome to a rather chilly round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction; in the past hour, the woodstove has gotten the temperature in the living room up 9 degrees, but it's still not enough...

I just want to start by saying that there will be live Irish music streaming from my dining room tomorrow night (9pm EST)--my husband (the Irish Piper on Loreena McKennett's The Mask and the Mirror) and his fiddle playing comrade are playing rather nice tunes (promise) to benefit the Philippines recovery efforts (more details here).

In any event, please let me know if I missed your review!

The Reviews:

The Alchemist War, by John Seven, at Charlotte's Library

Blueberry Girl, by Jamila Gavin, at The Book Smugglers

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review) and at For Those About to Mock

The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, at Blog of a Bookaholic

Eragon (10th Anniversary Edition), by Christopher Paolini, at Fantasy Book Critic

Ever After High: the Storybook of Legends, by Shannon Hale, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Nayu's Reading Corner

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Mister K Reads

The Grimm Conclusion, by Adam Gidwitz, at The Book Monsters

Heirloom (Seed Savers 3) by S. Smith, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Hero's Guide to Saving the Kingdom, by  Christopher Healy, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

Lara's Gift, by Annemarie O'Brien, at Middle Grade Mafioso

The Misadventrues of the Magician's Dog, by Frances Sackett, at The Book Monsters

The Northern Frights, by Derek the Ghost, at Once Upon a Twilight

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachman, at books4yourkids

A Question of Magic, by E.D. Baker, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, at Book Nut

Saving Thanehaven, by Catherine Jinks, at Charlotte's Library

Sleeping Beauty's Daughters, by Diane Zahler, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at Book Log

Westmark, by Lloyd Alexander, at Tor

The Whatnot, by Stefan Bachmann, at books4yourkids

Winterling, by Sarah Prineas, at The Book Smugglers

The Year of Shadows, by Claire Legrand, at Book Monsters

Two of my Cybils colleagues have posts of mini-reviews of many books--at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and In Bed With Books

Authors and Interviews

Kit Grindstaff (The Flame In the Mist) at Kid Lit Frenzy

Dorine White (The Emerald Ring) at So I'm Fifty

Other Good Stuff

At Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, author Katherine Langrish shares her journey into Narnia

Katy at alibrarymama shares her top ten fantasy books for boys starring girls

And at A View From the Tesseract you can find 10 fantasy birthdays (as in, birthdays in fantasy books)

And finally, the gates of hell (as in the realm of Hades) have been found, so if you ever want to play Orpheus and Eurydice (not one in my own repertoire of imaginative play), you know where to go.  Apparently if you went there as a pilgrim you were given a sparrow to throw inside the cave; the poor birds died almost instantly, as it was full of poisonous gases, and the substantial number of little bird corpses was one reason the archaeologists knew they'd found it (Which makes me wonder how far the locals had to travel to keep finding sparrows.  An interesting little local economy).

Here is a digital illustration of what it might have looked like back in the day.  Notice the absence of living birds.


Benefit concert for the Philippines--Irish music streaming live from my dining room next Monday night

My husband and his fiddle-playing partner in music, whose family is from the Philippines, are putting on a benefit concert to raise money for Doctors Without Boarders live from my dining room next Monday, November 25th, 9pm EST, that you can watch/listen too from the comfort of your own computer!
Patrick Hutchinson (Irish pipes) and Armand Aromin  (fiddle): 
Photo by Niko Alexandrou
(harpist shown is not included)

Patrick and Armand have a tremendous groove and they are pretty much right up there in the top tier of traditional Irish music and I have heard them rehearsing (couldn't really help it since they were in my dining room) and they have picked nice tunes, so if you like Irish Traditional Music beautifully played to raise money for a Good Cause, take advantage of the technology and tune in!

It is being hosted by Concert Window (here is their facebook page, which introduces them a bit better) the only catch is that you have to sign up for an account (but there's a free three week trial period during which you can cancel; after that it's 8.99 a month which gives you access to all concerts).  Once you have logged in, you scroll down until you find Patrick and Armand on Monday night, and then donate whatever you wish.  (I really have no idea how it works, but this is what I've been told...)

You will also get to see my dining room (and if that isn't incentive enough, what is.).  There are several reasons why I haven't been posting very many reviews, most urgent of which is the need to get one of the dining room doors painted and re-hung, so that concert viewers don't have to see the cats' litter box in the laundry room...


Waiting on Wednesday--The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones, with Ursula Jones

Thank you, Tanita, for alerting me to the fact that the new, and the last (meep) Diana Wynne Jones  book (completed by her sister Ursula) has a cover!  (actually 2 covers, UK and US)

It comes out February 27, 2014 in the UK, and April 22, 2014 in the US.  I will be ordering the UK edition, because of not being able to wait, and because I like the cover better.   (I have a vague feeling that UK fantasy books for kids are less gender marketed--in this case the purples and pinks of the US cover look to me like the book is being marketed more to girls...and the UK cover, what with the boy and his sword, looks more friendly to both genders).

From Amazon:   "Aileen was supposed to grow up magical - just like the other women in her family. Unfortunately, she's just found out that the magic seems to have skipped a generation...but that's not her biggest problem right now. In her world, there are four Islands of Chaldea. The largest and most magical island has been cut off from the other three for decades - and is slowly draining the magic from them. But now a prophecy has come to light. Someone from Aileen's island will gather a man from each of the three islands, bring down the magical barrier, and unite them with the fourth island again. And according to the king, that someone is Aileen's Aunt - who insists on dragging Aileen along. AND the boy Aileen is sure she'll marry (one day); AND the local boy with more brawn then brain. Someone seems to want to stop them too...someone with an interest in keeping the Islands apart. But still, with magic on their side, nothing can go wrong. Right?"

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


The Alchemist War (Time-Tripping Faradays), by John Seven, for Timeslip Tuesday

Back when I started reviewing a time travel book ever Tuesday, over four years ago now, I was afraid that by this point I would be scrounging for books.  Not so!  I have a list of over a hundred older books still to read, and new ones keep getting published (interesting fact--the Reagan years are pretty much a desert in terms of children's time travel books.  Why???)

But in any event, today I read a brand new one, nominated for the Cybils--The Alchemist War, by John Seven (Stone Arch Books, 2013), first in the Time-Tripping Faradays series. 

I want to start by commenting on how tremendously appealing I find the cover, with its combination of understated but appealing protagonists in a Mysterious Setting and its historically-sciencey background.  The marketing isn't skewed to either gender, which is nicely in keeping with the book itself, in which a brother/sister team share the limelight.  It's also a small book, which makes a pleasant change from the door-stoppers so common in Middle Grade fantasy, and which I think adds to it's kid appeal--it looks a bit like a geek notebook.

The Alchemist War tells of two kids (brother and sister Dawk and Hype) from a far future earth where time travel is part of the high tech way of life.  The Faradays are a time-travelling family, sent on various missions to fill in gaps in the history databases.  When Dawk decides to see if elephants really are afraid of mice, while observing Hannibal crossing the Alps, the unfortunate consequences result in the Faradays being given a much less prestigious assignment--studying footware in 17th-century Prague.

But Dawk and Hype, and their guard robot (there to keep them out of more mischief), stumble into a much more interesting time travel adventure when they become, almost without trying, the quasi-apprentices of a somewhat dodgy alchemist, and stumble upon hidden technology that has no place in the past.

This is a book that's best suited to the younger end of middle grade--the third and fourth graders who very much enjoyed the Magic Tree House books will feel themselves on firm ground, though with the new twist of futuristic technology.  Much older than that, and there won't be enough complexity of plot or character to hold the reader's interest.    The bulk of the world-building happens in a somewhat ungraceful info-dump, and the presence of the somewhat feeble parents doesn't add much, but once the Faradays head to Prague, the story becomes more cohesive and interesting. 

That being said, it never quite delivers regarding the titular promise of an "alchemist war," nor is the story developed  much beyond its bare bones (there's lots that not clearly explained or explored, which might disappoint the more experienced reader of fantasy).  And likewise, the past--its places, people, customs, etc.--is not described richly enough to make the reader truly feel that she's travelled back in time.  I kind of had to take it on faith.  (Although in fairness the food of the past was nicely contrasted the food of future).

In short, its a perfectly reasonable book to offer older elementary school kids, with a great cover!  But not so much one for the grown-ups.

disclaimer:  review copy gratefully received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.


Saving Thanehaven, by Catherine Jinks

Saving Thanehaven, by Catherine Jinks (Egmont, 20130, is a fun one tailor-made for the fantasy game loving ten to eleven year old. 

When we first meet the hero of the story, Nobel, he is whacking his through a morass of stereotypical fantasy challenges, with no thoughts in his head beyond a. staying alive b. saving Princess Lorellina, and the realm of Thanehaven  c.  more staying alive.   But then he meets a boy named Rufus, a boy that's not part of this normal pattern, who challenges him to think about what else he might want in life.  Sure, staying alive is good, but what if  Lorellina doesn't want to be rescued?  What if there were Choices outside of the script that seems to have been written for him?

So Nobel casts aside his nasty-piece-of-work weapon (when there's no slaying happening, it chews on Nobel instead), and instead of sneaking up to the castle where the princess is, goes to its front gate...and subverts the story.   But Rufus isn't stopping with changing Nobel's life....ever character he meets gets a passionate plea to challenge expectations (including the flock of guard gargoyles.  I liked them lots).  And everyone is much happier not to be fighting each other.

But then the white van comes, disgorging the keepers of what is Right, determined to restore order to the chaos Rufus has caused.   For Rufus is no character in a fantasy game--he is Malware!!!!

A desperate race is on, as Rufus leads the somewhat confused, but undaunted (mostly) Nobel and Lorellina deeper into the computer, into other games, gathering other comrades, and finally to the heart of the operating system, where desperate messages must be sent to the computer's owner, a boy named Mikey, and to the real Rufus, the genius behind the hack....Is malware Rufus hero or villain?  And will the computer characters retain their free will, or will they be deleted forever???

It is a wild and giddy ride of computer game fun.  The pace is fast, even dizzying at times, but kids who know the basics of computer operating systems will have a pretty good roadmap of what's happening, and enjoy seeing the internal workings of a laptop brought to life in a three-dimensional maze populated by strange personified programs. 

It's quite possibly a bit too one note for most adult readers, but one that I'm pretty sure will keep many kids entertained just fine.   The reader realizes Rufus is a virus long before the characters within the games, and it's fun to see them struggle to grasp just how different, and strange, their world really is.  And in the process, the reader gets a nice little message about challenging assumptions, as the characters are forced to ask if they are doing what they want, and what might be best, or if they are blindly following predetermined paths.

The cover of this one does a good job appealing to the audience I think would enjoy it most--the fantasy-game loving boy still on the younger edge of tweendom.   Lorellina, though brave and important to the story, comes nowhere near to challenging Nobel's position as primary hero, and I don't think she was ever quite enough Present in a non-supporting character way to be someone to whom a reader can truly relate.   That being said, if you are looking for a book for a girl who enjoys a good computer-generated smite, this would be a fine choice.    And it reads comfortably young--building bonds of trust between friends is the important relationship here.

Recommended for those who enjoyed Vivien Vande Velde's computer game fantasy series, and especially for those who refused to read Deadly Pink because it was pink, because then you can maybe offer them that after they read this.

Here's the detail I liked most--seeing one of Catherine Jinks' earlier books, Living Hell, in which a space ship comes alive and tries to digest its passengers, presented as a computer game.

Review copy gratefully received from the publisher for Cybils Award Consideration.


This week's round up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (11/17/13)

Welcome to another round-up, on the lighter side this week.  I myself only reviewed one book, and it was YA; although I came back from KidLitCon all enthusiastic about this blogging thing, I am although enthusiastic about getting the windows all back in before it gets really really cold.  In any event...

Reviews (do let me know if I missed yours!)

Book of Enchantments, by Patricia C. Wrede, at Reading is Fun Again

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston, at Librarian of Snark and Geo Librarian

Chupacabra, by Roland Smith, at  Teen Librarian Tool Box

Dragonbreath: the Case of the Toxic Mutants, by Ursula Vernon, at Jean Little Library

Ever After High: The Story Book of Legends, by Shannon Hale, at Becky's Book Reviews

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamilo, at In Bed With Books and For Those About to Mock

Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper, at Book Nut

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Fantasy Literature and Book Nut

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, by Chris Riddell, at Wondrous Reads

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell, at alibrarymama

The House of Hades, by Rick Riordan, at Kid Lit Geek (and lots of other places you can find yourself)

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carson, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Magician's Tower, by Shawn Thomas Odyssey, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail, by Richard Peck, at The Book Monsters

My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending, by Anna Staniszewski, at The Write Path

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

The Queen and the Nobody Boy, by Barbara Else, at Sharon the Librarian

Rose, by Holly Webb, at Fuse #8

Sky Jumpers, by Peggy Eddleman, at Karissa's Reading Review

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy and Book Log

The Wednesdays, by Julie Bourbeau, at Books and Other Thoughts

Plus an interesting foursome at alibrarymama:  Iris Brave (Soul Jumpers 1), by Ali B. Dewey, Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde, A Box of Gargoyles, by Anne Nesbet, and The Princess of Cortova, by Diane Stanley.

Authors and Interviews:

Anne Ursu (The Real Boy) talks character at Falling Leaflets

Matthew J. Kirby (The Lost Kingdom) at The Enchanted Inkpot

Jonathan Stroud (The Screaming Staircase) shares Top Tips for a Scary Story at Nerdy Book Club

Other Good Stuff:

Another fun top ten at Views from the Tesseract; this time it's little folk.

If you want great books for a great cause, visit the Authors for the Philippines auction.

It's A More Diverse Universe weekend; click through for links to spec fic books by writers of color (so far I myself have only read one and half books for this, but the day is young....which means you have a chance to join in too!).

And finally, I couldn't resist sharing this Alice in Wonderland/Doctor Who mash-up by artist Karen Hallion, found at Maria's Melange, which you can find as a print or notecard on Etsy or get as a shirt on The Shirt List:


Feral Nights, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (for this year's More Diverse Universe Blog Tour)

So at Austin last weekend, I turned out to be the audience member whose birthday was closest to that of Cynthia Leitich Smith, and so I won a copy of Feral Nights (Candlewick, Feb. 2013).  I had not sought out her four earlier books, that comprise the Tantalize series, because they did not sound quite my thing, but I had been meaning to find this one, because it stars a werepossum!  And not only a werepossum, but one who moves from sidekick status to hero of his own adventure- and being a reader with a fondness for the underdog, this also piqued my interest.

Feral Nights is a side story to the first four, taking place at the same time as Diabolical, and featuring characters who played secondary roles in those books.  There are many references to the events and places and people I wasn't familiar with, but although my conscious mind noted all this, my reading mind was able to ignore it all in much the same way that one unfamiliar word doesn't have to kill the sense of a sentence.  In short, Feral Nights reads just fine as a stand alone, and I think I actually enjoyed it more because of knowing that all the luxurious backstory was there (I like backstory, whether it's written down on the page in front of me or not).

But in any event, Feral Nights tells how Clyde, a werepossum, a human girl named Aimee, and Yoshi, a werecat, have to a.  figure out who killed Clyde's werearmadillo friend Travis  b. track down Yoshi's missing sister Ruby c.  escape alive (along with other werepeople) from an insane hunt on an island resort of murderous insanity ruled by a very strange species indeed who have a demon as their chef. 

Good times.   The plot is just close enough to the top to be delightful, without going over it into farce.  The characters care about each other, and have plausible relationships of meaningfulness.  And it's funny, full of zesty dialogue and lots of geek culture references.

The one thing I didn't care for was a bit of magical healing.  Clyde's transformation from injured possum teen to something quite different was  a bit disappointing to me--wounded possum boys can be heroes too, and be worthy objects of love/lust, just as much so as any flashy alpha predator.

That being said, just as soon as I finish the 250 books already in my house, I will go back and read the first four.  And regardless, I'll be looking for Feral Curse, coming this February from Candlewick.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and so Feral Nights is the first of what I hope will be several links I offer to this year's More Diverse Universe Blog Tour, celebrating diverse authors of speculative fiction.

And werecat Yoshi counts as a non-white protagonist, so I'm adding this to my multicultural sci fi/fantasy book list as well.

In any event, thanks so much, Cyn, for the book!  I read it on the plane back from Austin, and enjoyed it lots!


Consternated about gender and middle grade books with reference to two sessions at this weekend's AASL meeting

I have been all in a mental turmoil for the past 24 hours or so about two sessions being presented this weekend at the American Association of School Librarians.

Here's the description of a panel entitled Boys Reading: a Focus on Fantasy: "A myth persists that boys don’t like reading, but most of the time engaging young male learners is only a matter of finding the right books to hook them. Exciting fantasy draws boys with its dramatic action, imaginative worlds, and adventure. Authors will talk about what drew them to fantasy and how they lure boys into reading."  ( list of the panelists (all male) here).

This was troubling (ie, made me swear) for several reasons.

For starters, if it's a myth, which I do think it is, that boys don't like reading, why perpetuate it with a panel that implies that boys are Special Snowflakes who will melt if they are not spoon-fed books that cater to a particular set of stereotypes regarding boy personalities?  I have also found in my own experience with a reluctant reader that it isn't necessarily a matter of finding one category of "right books" and all problems are solved, and lo, they are hooked.  Every time he loves a book, I think "now I can relax" but it doesn't work that way.  There is no universal magic formula that works for everyone.  And maybe some reluctant readers aren't hooked by the type of book described above because no matter how many of them you offer, they just aren't the type of book that kid likes (which is to say, kids are individuals).

I am tired of "dramatic action" equals "boy appeal."   How about this: "exciting fantasy draws in readers who enjoy exciting fantasy."  And I am tired of "exciting" being the only good thing. I am tired of the fact that there are lots of fantasy books in which girls subvert gender stereotypes of "girl-ness," and participate in dramatic action like crazy, but very very few books in which boys are allowed to be "un-boyish"--to be quiet, contemplative learners and thinkers, valuing and nurturing relationships, having inner lives, and other non-dramatic-action sorts of things.    (Which makes me think of how our culture values extroverts more than introverts).

Well-written fantasy, regardless of how "exciting" it may or may not be, draws boys in with its compelling characters and mind-blowing insights about what it is to be a person.    That is because boys are not all that different from girls, or anybody else who finds a book that works for them.
If boys are always given books full of dramatic action, sure, they might enjoy lots of them, but they will miss out on a lot. If boys are given books in which boys do things other than have Exciting Adventures, it will expand their concepts of what it is to be a boy.

Which leads to troubling Panel Number 2--"Overcoming Adversity:  Helping Real Kids Learn Resilience through Fictional Characters"

"This discussion will be framed around three main talking points that will provide teachers and librarians with tools to help students discuss adversity, to foster empathy, and to become advocates in the classroom. Authors will include Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Kimberly Newton Fusco, Cynthia Lord,  Karen Day, Jo Knowles, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Erin E. Moulton and Leslie Connor."

Note that in this session, the writers are all women.   Women, it seems, being the ones in our culture whose job it is to foster empathy.   Men, as in session one, are stuck writing adventures.

Noes.  Men, lots of men, write books that foster empathy.  Boys read them.  Girls read them.  I read them.

Here's a panel I would love to see:  "Fostering empathy in young readers through science fiction and fantasy books" with both male and female panelists.

And here's what I'm going to do as a book reviewer and a parent.

One:  I am going to question the choices I make in which books to offer my boys (10 and 13).

With regard to my 10 year old:   Do I offer my avid fantasy reader fast-paced, adventure-filled stories, that aren't that great at being thought provoking, just because I know he'll enjoy them?  Answer: yes.  Am I glad that last year his school reading pushed him outside his comfort zone, introducing him to Wonder and Out of My Mind, both of which he loved and talked about avidly?  Yes. 

With regard to my 13 year old, an incredibly picky reader who mostly enjoys graphic novels, I can't really question my choices much, because he only reads 1 in 20 of the books of all types that I offer him.   But I can make sure that those books include ones that will foster empathy.

Two:  I will be more explicit in my reviews about distinguishing those that have action and adventure stories that are simply fun and exciting, and those where there may well be action and adventure, but which also push against societal expectations of gendered behavior, and which have the potential to foster paradigm shifts in the mind of the reader.   As it is, I have a habit of briskly tossing off statements like "jam-packed with adventurous fun" which just means there was too much action for me to really like it myself.   I think I need to avoid falling into handy little self-referential shorthand like that, and think a bit more critically.

Three:  I will try harder to combat the whole "if you want a boy to read it there can never be a dull moment" idea.

With that in mind, here is a short list of  relatively recent fantasy books for ten to twelve year oldish readers, with boy protagonists, that many boys (not all, because not all boys are the same) will like that do have some excitement in them, but which give their boy protagonists something else to do and think about besides charging around  having adventures:

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood
The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu
Odd and the Frost Giants, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Only Ones, by Aaron Strarmer
The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas
The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh
The Shadow Hunt, by Katherine Langrish

And....uh... That's all I can think of right now, with apologies to the books I'm missing!

Here's Anne Ursu talking about the thoughts the first panel inspired in her, which takes a different angle--what disservice does this do to the girls?


Coming this weekend--A More Diverse Universe, with a list of the books I hope to read

If disaster should strike me, it would be immediately clear here on my blog, because only once in almost eight years have I scheduled a post in advance.   And it was more important, upon returning from Austin, to get the newly lead-free, beautifully re-glazed living room windows back in before the Cold came (whimper) than it was to write reviews- hence there was no Timeslip Tuesday post yesterday, and there will be no review today.

But I do have something worthwhile to share, that I wish I had remembered to bring up at Lee Wind's talk on diversity last Saturday--this weekend it's time for the More Diverse Universe blog tour, celebrating speculative fiction books written by people of color!

So, if you want to add a bit of diversity to your blog, join in here at Aarti's blog, BookLust!

Here are the books I'm hoping to read and review:

Feral Nights, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (which I won at KidLitCon from Cynthia herself because of having the closest birthday to hers.  One of the few times I've been glad to have been born right at the beginning of January, which is a pretty stinky time for a. presents b. parties)

Thorn, by Intisar Khanani, a Goose Girl reimagining that I started ages ago, and was enjoying, but then something must have Happened with life, because I put it down...(rolls eyes at self)

Chasing Shadows, by Swati Avasthi (which I picked up at KidLitCon but then when Sarah and I were packing I decided my bag was too heavy so I kind of encouraged Sarah to put it in her bag instead...since I knew I could get it from the library

And then, by strange coincidence, I have two books both called City of Death that count--one by Laurence Yep (City of Death), and one by Sarwat Chadda (The City of Death).  

And I just remembered to add Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac!

Look how easy it was to come up with more books than I can actually read and review!  Please consider joining in--every collection of links, like the one this weekend will generate, ends up being a great resource for future readers and fun for the compilers!


2 Cute Pictures of My Cat, or what I learned at Kidlitcon (with recap of Blogging the Middle Grade Books)

Here is my official Kidlitcon 2013 recap post!

A thing I learned from Cynthia Leitich Smith's Keynote talk (which was great)-- having a number in your blog post title and having pictures of cats are both good ways to get visitors....

(I know.  They are awful pictures.  Not cute at all.  But I don't particularly like taking pictures of my cats.  This might not be a good idea).

So. The main thing I learn every time I go to Kidlitcon is how much fun it can be to talk to people. Sure, I talk to my family and co-workers and friends in real life, but rarely do I talk to them with passionate interest about really interesting things like children's books and blogging and candy crush. And on top of that, when you know people on line in the book world, but then meet them in real life, you have so much background information that you've never shared with each other, and so you can chat chat chat about that too. In short, I love being reminded that I can be social and enjoy it (and I managed to beat six more levels of Candy Crush during those times when I had to take Restorative Breaks).

Working my way chronologically through my time in Austin:

On Thursday I learned that I enjoy hanging out with Sarah Stevenson lots, and that it is sad to see dead tortoises by the side of the road (both of which I actually could have guessed).

On Friday, I learned that when put in front of hundreds of free books, as happened at the meet and greet that kicked off the con, I loose what little rational thought I start with and want far too many.   First Second sent a lovely box of finished copies, and Bloomsbury sent a lovely box that included such gems as Shannon Hale's forthcoming Dangerous (thanks to the both of you--we were very appreciative!), and the local bookstore (I think it was them) brought boxes and boxes of books, and lots of us brought books, and my luggage wasn't any lighter going home.

I learned Nikki Loftin (Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy) has a new book, Nightingale's Nest, coming out in February that sounds great--it is a reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale, and she let me have her second-to-very-last ARC.  And look at the cover.  Win!

I learned (while on break from socializing) that 12th Street Antiquarian books has no children books at all, but a nice lady (people were so friendly!) offered to drive me to the next closest used bookstore.  Sadly, I had to pass.

Friday summary:  I met lots of new people, and re-met lots of less new people, and it was lovely.

On Saturday I learned that it was not possible to get coffee at our hotel at 5 am.  I learned that Austin goes in heavily for vanilla flavoured creemer [sic] product, and if you want milk with your gas station coffee, you have to buy it yourself.  On the way back to the hotel, I learned the life story of a nice homeless man, and was rather glad he was, in fact, nice, because the neighborhood was somewhat dicier in the dark of the early morning than was comfy.  (On Saturday I bumped into the hotel manager at 5:30, and he got me my coffee. Phew.)

And then Kidlitcon kicked of, with Cynthia Leitch Smith's great keynote talk.  And all the sessions I went to (Jen and Sarah on fighting blog burnout, Kim and Kelly on critical review, and Lee Wind on diversity) were inspiring and thoughtful book and blog-wise, and Lee's session went even further and inspired me, in my dutiful child-like way, to try to be a better person in general (in all sincerity).

Then it was my turn-Katy and I and  Melissa  ran a discussion on Blogging the Middle Grade (thanks to Rosamund for the picture):

We came into it with a pageful of topics, but the conversation got going in just the sort of beautiful audience-participatory way I had hoped it would, so we have enough topics left over for several more kidlitcons.

We agreed that it is important to remember that readers, even if they can be lumped with other readers (11 year old boys who like sports) are still individuals, still in the process of learning who they are, and so, when you write a review, the more you can make clear just what what very particular sort of book it is, and what very particular sort of reader will like the book, the better.   Mentioning other similar titles is really helpful for the parent, or teacher, or other person actually getting the book, and might even bring genuine kids to your blog.

Likewise, middle grade books have tons of variety in theme, content, style of writing, etc, and every blog reviewer is going to pick up on different things.  Linking to other blog reviews of the same book will help clarify a book's appeal, or lack thereof.    And in a similar vein, the point was made that (in general) bookshelves and libraries only put the book in one slot, but a blog review can place a book in many possible categories, helping it find readers.

There are lots of gatekeepers looking for books to offer precocious readers who are still too young for many of the books at their "reading level," and so making it clear when a book marketed for 10-12 year olds actually would be  good read for a second grader too is useful; my co-panelist Katy suggested that such posts could be labeled these specifically in some way  as "Careful Content" (not to be confused with the warning Careful!!!! Content!!!).  

There was more, but that's all I wrote down.

[edited to add:  It occurs to me that I should mention there were concurrent sessions as well, that were also of great interest--I wish I could have gone to everything.  I think this was the best Kidlitcon programing ever.  And the final talk was a round-table moderated by Sarah, in which veteran bloggers discussed how the whole blog thing has changed over the years, and that was great too.]

And after that it was just more lovely socializing, that kept on going right up until Sheila and I parted ways at the Baltimore airport....

Thank you, Kidlitcon Organizers!   Next year is a West Coast year, which is hard for me, but typing this post has made me smile all over again (except for remembering the poor dead tortoise), so I may well go anyway.  Cause it is so nice to have peeps.

Pam is going to round-up recaps at the Kidlitosphere website, so check there for more.  And if you would like to sign up for the Kidlitosphere listserv, here's the link for that:

And here's another round-up from Kelly at Stacked that is considerably more substantive.


And so Kidlitcon 2013 comes to an end....

I type this siting in the lobby of Kidlitcon's Austin hotel...so very happy that I was able to come here for Kidlitcon. Sure, I have loved ones in Rhode Island, but gee, there is so wonderful to be with all the great Kidlit blogger peeps. People that I had never met before in real life (like Sherry and Katy and Jennifer and Liviania and Lee Wind) are now Friends, and people I had met before are now even more Friends than they were before. Because it was small this year, it was easy to spend time with just about everyone I wanted to. So thank you, Kidlitcon 2013 organizers, for pulling it together! It was utterly lovely. And one of the things we talked about was giving yourself permission not to blog if it felt like work, and pulling my regular MG SFF round-up together feels awfully like it would be work, so it isn't going to happen today. But I will be back later today with a recap of the Blogging the Middle Grade session I organized....


Seraphina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg

Seraphina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2013), travelled down to Austin with me today.  I brought far too many books with me, with the idea that I would read them today and tomorrow morning, write notes for reviews, and then swap them.  I am less rational than I would like to be.  But I did manage to read Seraphina's Promise (which, since it was a book for younger readers told in free verse, is not saying much) and ended up in tears on the airplane (which, since I cry readily, also is not saying a tremendous amount).

In any event, Seraphina is a girl who wants desperately to go to school, and someday to be a doctor.   It's a dream she shares with her best friend, Julie Marie,  but it's a pretty tricky dream for two kids growing up in poverty in Haiti to make real.  There is so much work to for Seraphina to do, helping her family...and with a new baby on the way, it just doesn't seem possible to save the money to pay for her school expenses.  When a flood washes away their house, it ends up changing Seraphina's life for the better.  Their new ramshackle house, built of bits of salvaged remnants her father finds, actually has room for a garden, and Seraphina's hard work coaxing the seeds along makes it possible for her to go to school for the first time.

But though Seraphina's brother is born safely, he's failing to thrive, and Seraphina is put into a heart- breaking predicament.  Her first little brother died of starvation when he was infant, and she blames herself, for eating too much of the family's food.  If this brother dies, would her school money have been enough to save them?

So she sets out to find help...and instead finds herself at the heart of the deadly Haitian earthquake of 2010. 

Though the story might seem to be a litany of disaster, pathos and woe aren't the point.  Sure, Seraphina and her family know inequity and injustice and plain old disaster and tragedy well, but Burg manages to make the pity of their situation real to the reader without making them pitiable as people.   They don't spend time pitying themselves--they find joy in life and each other, and are determined to keep going as best they can, and to make what dreams they can (a baby who lives, a garden that grows, school...) come true.

I loved Seraphina, the character, and the only thing keeping me from loving the book wholeheartedly is a regret that Burg didn't make her geographical and historical context clearer.   I went into the book cold, and it took me quite a few pages to realize I was in Haiti of three years ago, and I am reasonable well-informed.  I recognized from the Creole and French that was somewhere that wasn't, as it were, Kansas, but it took a while for the shoe to drop.   And though I am tempted to give this to my ten-year-old,  I worry that without him knowing it is Real he won't be interested and moved the way I think he should be....

In short, I think it's a very powerful book, that might require adult guidance and teaching to make it reach its full potential.   Although, that being said, I bet there are kids who would get the point even without ever having hear of Haiti.  And maybe, by avoiding a statement of "This is book is set in Haiti," Seraphina's story gets to dodge all the preconceptions of that place that so many of us have...and we get to meet her without any built-in pity.


Are You Experienced? by Jordan Sonnenblick, for Timeslip Tuesday

I don't think I would liked to have been at Woodstock (don't like crowds, though I would have liked to hear some of the music live), so it is a good thing that I am not the main character of Are You Experienced? by Jordan Sonnenblick (Feiwel & Friends, 2013).   Rich, who is the main character, is a 15-year-old guitar playing boy of today who loves the music of Woodstock, isn't getting very far with his girlfriend (she says he's too inexperienced), and who is starting to rebel against the oppressive smothering of his over protective, distant father.  A much better candidate.   When Rich finds Jimi Hendrix's guitar in his dad's basement retreat, disregards the enigmatic note of warning fastened to it, and starts to play, he is catapulted back 44 years just in time to be hit by a car on its way to Woodstock--a car that is being driven by his uncle Michael, with Michael's hippy teen girlfriend and his own dad--himself 15 years old.

So Woodstock happens, and Rich is there, with the strange and wonderful opportunity to get to know his dad before his life went wrong.   Rich knows what's going to happen--in just a few weeks, Michael will be dead of a heroin overdose.   But there's nothing he can do, there at Woodstock, but listen...to the music, and to the people there sharing blanket in the mud with him, doing all the wild and crazy things teenagers did back then....

What with all the details throwing up and drugs and lack of privacy when people were displaying affection, as well as more ordinary details of what they were eating, it felt very much like actually being there in the rain with them all.   I was surprised, therefore, by how gripping and even enjoyable I found the book-enjoyable not because it was happy good times, but because it was actually the opposite.  The book is quite a serious, character-driven story about what led Michael down the deadly path he took, and the reverberations of that choice.

Short answer--it worked.  And the time travel part, though somewhat zany with regard to its cause (magic guitar), framed the story nicely.  Sonnenblick did a nice job of letting the 21st century reader see Woodstock through 21st century eyes, while at the same time showing what it meant to the people who were there.  

Here are other reviews at Ms. Yingling Reads and proseandkahn


"When Did You See Her Last?" by Lemony Snicket

"When Did You See Her Last?" by Lemony Snicket (Little Brown, October 2013, middle grade) is the second Wrong Question (there were other, minor wrong questions, but this was the Important One) asked by young Snicket as he ventures ever deeper into the dark mysteries of Stain'd-by-the-Sea.  The "her" in the titular question is Cleo Knight, daughter of the family once made rich from the town's octopi, but now, with the ocean gone and the octopi endangered, facing financial ruin (and other worse things).  One of the worse things is the disappearance of Cleo, and that is the central mystery of this book.

I have a low tolerance for wackiness used to no good point, and I do not like to be confused.  Happily for me, and for like-minded readers, though there is much that is truly bizarre to be found on the seaweed flats and deserted streets of Stain'd-by-the-sea, there is (I'm pretty sure) a Point to it all, and slowly the tangling threads of myriad stories come together to hint at some future resolution when all confusion becomes less confused.   Which is to say--no-one is telling each other all they know, and Snicket sure isn't telling the reader, but it manages to work very nicely indeed as a gripping mystery.

And I like young Lemony and his equally young companions in confusion very much indeed.   They are putting effort into staving off disaster,  care about their loved ones, and are full of grit and intelligence. 

The pace of the story is slowed by disquisitions and distractions, but much as fog lends noir-ness to the urban streetscape (or something), pauses to enjoy fun with vocabulary building obscured the story less than one might have expected.  Here's what I'd like--a list of all the literary allusions, of which there were many.   Some I recognized (Harriet the Spy, for instance, was easy), but others made me want to put down the book and find answers.  But I was enjoying it too much to do so....

Not for the reader who likes a clear path through the trees, but an excellent one for the young reader who doesn't.

"When Did You See Her Last?" is the second in a four volume series of All the Wrong Questions, and needs to be read second.  I liked it more than book one, because I knew what not to expect.

Disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher

(I'm going with fantasy in my label section because it sure isn't realistic, and there might, or might not, be a monster, and because of the implausibility of a. the octopi and b. Cleo Knight's car.)


This week's round-up of Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy from around the blogs (11/3/13)

I myself read less than usual this week, what with beak-making and obsessive Candy Crush playing (it is so sad that one of the things that causes me to rise lark-like from my bed each morning is the five new lives), but in event, here's what I found this week (and please let me know if I missed anything!).

The Reviews

Aesop's Secret, by Claudia White, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Alanna: the First Adventure, by Tamora Pierce, at Librarian of Snark

Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea, by Lisa and Valerie Martin, at Jean Little Library

Blue Moon, by James Ponti, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint, at That's Another Story

City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda, at In Bed With Books

City of Fire, by Laurence Yep, at Here There Be Books

Constable and Toop, by Gareth P. Jones, at Jean Little Library

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at The Writer's Nest and Kid Lit Geek

Ever After High, by Shannon Hale, at Sonderbooks

Fallout, by Todd Strasser, at A Patchwork of Books

A Grimm Conclusion, by Adam Gidwitz, at Book Nut

The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore, by Kate Maddison, at Bookyurt

Johnny and the Dead, by Terry Pratchett, at Views from the Tesseract

The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde, at Leaf's Reviews

The Last Enchanter, by Laurisa White Reyes, at Sharon the Librarian (giveaway)

Mickey Price-Journey to Oblivion, by John P. Stanley, at The Write Path

The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, at A Reader of Fictions and Bunbury in the Stacks (audiobook reviews)

The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root, by Christopher Pennell, at The Book Monsters

Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale, at Not Acting My Age

Rules For Ghosting, by A.J. Paquette, at Random Musings of  Bibliophile

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Into the Hall of Books

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Ms. Yingling Reads and From the Writer's Nest

Seed Savers: Treasure, by S. Smith, at Mother Daughter Book Reviews

The String Quartet, by Dan Hupalo, at Becky's Book Reviews

Villains Rising, by Jeramey Kraatz, at Charlotte's Library

The Wells Bequest, by Polly Shulman, at Dead Houseplants and Ex Libris

Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket, at The Novel Hermit

The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer, at Sharon the Librarian (audiobook review)

The Year of Shadows, by Claire LeGrand, at Slatebreakers

At Reading is Fun Again, a look at Adam Gidwitz's Grimm series

I also reviewed Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow, here, and Brandy reviewed it this week too at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, and though I'm not going to try to call it a middle grade book, I think there are many upper middle grade readers (11 and 12 ish) who would love it.

Authors and Interviews

Greg Van Eekhout (The Boy at the End of the World) at Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Kids

Charles Gilman (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School) at Alternative Magazine Online

Other Good Stuff

At Rinn Reads, it is science fiction month, and here is the jam-packed schedule of contributors, including a post at Maria's Melange on how sci fi benefits young minds.

A brilliant list of books to read if you want something Percy Jackson-esque, at Fat Girl Reading

And a list of ten creepy stories at Views from the Tesseract

At Stacked I found a link to pictures of literary Halloween costumes for pets; this Scarlet O'Hara pug was my favorite:


Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow-- a thing of beauty

Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow (Scholastic 2013), is one of the best books I've read this year.  While I was reading it I was lost to the world in that best of bookish ways, and indeed during the last half of the book there was really no other world than that of the story, and I was no longer reading, but simply being there, and how can one say better than that?

Three children are growing up in safety at the westernmost edge of the world, in the lodges of the free women of the forest--Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket, two girls and a boy, sharing their last summer of sunlight before adulthood.  Three children who know that safety can be found only behind the bound knots of the cords that keep the restless dead outside their village.  

Kestrel will be a Ranger, one of the women who risk the dangers of the dead and travel beyond the bindings.  Cricket will be a storyteller, and already he has the teller's gift of tying words.  Otter, child of the binder's apprentice, already has the power of that magic strong within her, wanting only her mother's teaching before she, too, can tie the knots that bind the dead.

But the dead are bound to the living, tied too tight, and horror comes.  And the sunlight summer ends, bringing a dark winter.   And Otter must listen to the stories, and to her heart, and to the words her mother speaks as she falls into madness, or else there will be no place for the living at the edge of the western world.

Having gotten the somewhat self-consciously written synopsis out of the way, here's what the book really is about, and why I liked it so very much:

--There are three kids who love each other, who live in a world really truly at the edge of horror.  Two love each other romantically, and the third loves both as dear friends.  Their love, and respect, and need for each other makes a triangle of the best possible sort--they are stronger together than they are apart, and they make each other laugh.   It made me happy to be with them.

--There is a really creepy magic that feels convincing and original without being gimmicky.  It is so easy to see how things went wrong with the binding (and the reader realizes it long before the characters, which is perhaps the only weakness of the plot).

--The power of story is at the heart of the book.   This is one I'd enthusiastically recommend to fans of Patricia McKillip--the hidden things in the stories become more and more real in a complicated dance with the daylight world.

--The world turns out to be larger, with more stories in it, than the three kids realize.  The story moves from the claustrophobically bound tightness of the community at the beginning to the wide world outside, which gives plot and character room to expand in interesting ways.

--It is really sad, but not so sad as to break my heart.  

--There's lots of opportunity for fun with metaphor. 

--And finally, there is fantasy world building that takes its inspiration from Native North America, but without being on a mission to create a fantasy version of Native American tribes.  In the same way as so many fantasies borrow from European history and culture, Erin Bow brings details of place and how people lived from North America, and pulls it off to make a world that isn't real, but which convinces.  Not since Ursula Le Guin's books (like Always Coming Home) have I read a North American inspired fantasy that I truly could accept (because I am an archaeologist, working with the Tribes of New England, and think a lot about place and people and how power plays out in representations of both, I am easily bothered). 

One reason why it worked is that Bow manages to avoid the clichés that signpost "Indians" in fiction.  The technological details are there--the projectile points made of stone, the travois of the nomadic people who visit the village, the drums, the clothing--but Bow uses these to craft a world that actually isn't supposed to be an accurate representation--it is a fantasy, in which the reader is allowed to realize and reshape her understanding of who these people are as she goes along.    It is not until page 175 that skin color is mentioned, and I thought it was so nicely done--it is a sad and tense moment, and under the winter pine trees Otter sees "long, fallen, needles the color of a dead woman's skin," and it stopped me in my tracks because my default is cold, white dead skin, and I thought of the dark golden brown of pine needles, and Otter, Cricket, and Kestrel grew a few shades darker in my mind.

But really, what it all comes down to was that it was a book whose writing was so good that I lived it.

Of course, not every book is for everybody.  I loved it, and Brandy loved it, and Maureen loved it, and Kirkus gave it a star, but if you are impatient with subtle, story-filled buildup, and want people to move briskly and decisively to do what clearly needs to be done, and want things explained rather than felt, you might not be happy with it.

And on top of that, the arch of the character's journey is from childhood into their teenage years--it is, thematically, more middle grade than Young Adult.  They are realizing who they might be, journeying away from childhood, rather than moving into true adulthood.   And so though two of them pair up romantically in a profound relationship, and there is the beginning of love toward the end, it read "young" to me.   So--if you are expecting angst-filled introspection and sex, you might be let down.

Here's the first reader who comes to my mind--the 12 year old girl (who isn't put off by nightmares) who wants a book that will make her cry her eyes out because she relates so closely to the characters and what they are going through.  And she will love it, and read it again, and move through its metaphors toward growing up, even if she doesn't want to.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

Free Blog Counter

Button styles