The Phoenix Files, Book 1: Arrival, by Chris Morphew

The Phoenix Files, Book 1: Arrival, by Chris Morphew, is the first in an Australian sci-fi thriller series that Kane Miller is in the process of publishing in the US (this first book came out here in June of 2013).

Luke's mother is exited about her new job in the town of Phoenix, Australia--it will be a chance for the two of them to make a fresh life after the divorce.  Luke, however, doesn't want to start afresh, and has no interest in moving to a corporate town in the middle of nowhere.   It is a brand-spanking new town, all shinny and happy....but all is not as pleasant as it appears.

It quickly becomes clear to both Luke and the reader that there are things seriously wrong with Phoenix.   The first clue is that there is no communication with the outside world...but that is just the tip of the ice-burg.  A memory stick pressed into Luke's hand by the town's resident madman (the only discordant note in its gloss) kicks things into high gear.  With the help of two classmates, a girl named Jordan and a guy name Peter, the message on the stick is decoded.   All of the human race, with the exception of Phoenix, will be destroyed in 100 days (and this is not a spoiler--the first two paragraphs of the book warn us that this is what's going to happen).

And so the race is on, as the three kids struggle to crack into the secrets of their town before it is too late....

It's a fairly familiar sci-fi thriller type plot, and it's not exactly subtle.  But what makes this series opener stand out is that it's one I'd recommend to upper middle-grade/tween kids (11-13 year olds) rather than true teenaged readers.    The characters read a bit younger than your average sci-fi thriller teen, and the story is told in a straightforward, linear way.  Yes, there are mysteries, but they aren't densely snarled in ambiguity; yes, there's tension and the pages turn quickly, but thing never quite reached a fever-pitch.  Older readers, well versed in the end of the world genre, might find it all a bit simple (give them (give them Sylo, by D.J. MacHale); younger readers, coming to it for the first time, should find it thrilling.

That being said, it is quite possible that as the series progress, things will become more complicated...and actually I know they are going to because the Wikipedia page for the series has a nasty spoiler snarl snarl.   But in any event, Arrival is very much a first book in a series--it doesn't stand alone particularly well, and you will want to have at least the next book on hand.  All six books in the series are out in Australia...

Here's the Kirkus review.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Jupiter Pirates: Hunt For the Hydra, by Jason Fry- top notch middle grade si fi

Jupiter Pirates: Hunt For the Hydra, by Jason Fry (HarperCollins, Dec. 2013), is the best "kid pirates in space book" I have ever read.  Granted, the kids in question would be the first to point out that they are actually privateers, and also granted, I have never before read a book about space piracy/privateering told from the kids' point of view.  And I was a tad uncertain, because piracy isn't my favorite fictional thing in the world.   But it turns out that the piracy is part of a  fun, exciting space adventure that is really solid sci fi, with engaging characters concerned with more than the adventure at hand, and in the end I liked it Lots and recommend it with Conviction.

(Privateering, by the way, is when you do piracy that's sanctioned by your government--you can still attack and pillage ships, but only if they are under enemy flag.)

So in any event, centuries off in the future humanity has sprawled through the solar system, but not amicably--the Jovian Union and Earth, thought not exactly at war at the time of the story, have been in the past.   The Hashoone family are privateers of the Jovian Union, capturing Earth ships in true 18th-century piratic fashion, complete with salty nautical terminology.  Young Tycho, his twin sister Yana, and their older brother Carlo have spent most of their lives on board the Shadow Comet, learning the family business, and competing with each other--only one of them can inherit the captaincy.

But when an old and clunky earth freighter claims diplomatic immunity from the attentions of the Shadow Comet, Tycho finds himself faced with a problem that's much bigger.  And quickly things lead onward through an inter-planetary adventure of great danger and excitement as mystery is added to mystery and then solved with space battling.

Rather than build a future space-faring society from scratch, Fry uses the familiar trappings of pirate ships to good advantage--the world of the Shadow Comet is a familiar place right from the get go, without the need for explanations.   Because there's this easy familiarity, with not much overt info dumping, the strange difference of life lived far from earth--like never seeing a blue sky-- spring from the story very vividly.

The characters are great too--though there's sibling rivalry, it's not malicious; though the siblings are smart, they aren't all that brilliant.   And it's fun to see a whole family working together--Diocletia, the mother, makes a strong and formidable captain and parent, the father has his own competencies and identity, and Diocletia's father, still a true pirate at heart though he's passed on the captaincy, is a colorful character indeed.

It's easy to imagine this one being very popular with middle grade kids. Here's who I would recommend it too in particular:  young readers who in about five  years are going to become rabid fans of The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I realize this is not as helpful as it might be, but if you've read those books it might give you an idea which kids would like these.

Short answer:  Excellent.

Slightly longer answer:  it passed the "will this book make the reader forget they are on a bus ride home" test with flying colors.  Sigh.  Fortunately I live near the end of the line, and the bus turns around and goes back again.....

Here's another review at Views From the Tessearct


Double Vision: Code Name 711, by F.T. Bradley

If you have a kid who loves heist stories, and the daring goings-on of spy kids and their cool gadgets, present them with F.T. Bradley's Double Vision books.   Code Name 711 (HarperCollins, October 2013) is the second of the series about an ordinary skate-boarding guy named Linc who just happens to be a dead ringer for a spy kid, Ben, who works for a top secret government agency, Pandora.   And the folks at Pandora hope this likeness will come in useful, as it did in Linc's first adventure, and so they whisk Linc off to DC to help foil a plot to assassinate the President. 

It's not your ordinary assassination attempt.  The would-be assailant is plotting to use one of the Dangerous Doubles that are a chief concern of Pandora's--a magical coat that once belonged to George Washington, that protects its wearer from any bodily harm.  Linc and Ben are both charged with finding the Dangerous Double before the bad guy does, and a chase around Washington ensues, with the President's daughter, Amy, enthusiastically getting in on the action.

It's fast paced and fun, and though it does strain credulity early and often (not the coat--I can accept magical doubles easily than I can some of the "real" elements, and not Linc, who is a pretty believable kid turned amateur agent), it never does so enough to spoil things.   There are lots of little bits of history, along with clues and dead ends and quirky characters and cool technology sprinkled along the way to make the mystery fun.

Short answer:  I see no reason why this shouldn't be a great hit with its 4th and 5th grade target audience, and there's enough slightly dry wit to the writing to make it fun for older readers too.

Here's another review, at Ms. Yingling Reads, that goes into more detail about the plot.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the author


Building Blocks, by Cynthia Voigt, for Timeslip Tuesday

It was another one of those Tuesdays when the book I was busily reading turned out not to have any time travel in it, and so I quickly read a book from my (shrinking) pile of "short time travel books I can read in less than an hour."  To whit:  Building Blocks, by Cynthia Voigt (1984).

Brann's parents are at odds with each other. His dad has just inherited a run-down farm in Pennsylvania, and wants to move out to it, his mom wants to start law school in New York.   It is the 1970s, after all--and a woman should be able to make something of her own life....And Brann feels battered by their fight about it, so he retreats to the basement, and begins to build with the blocks that were his father's back when he was a kid.

And Brann travels through time, and arrives back in the Great Depression, in his father's house, and there is his own father, Kevin, a kid a little younger than Brann.  Spending the day with Kevin, and Kevin's family (dictatorial, scary father, worn-down mother, and bratty siblings) gives Brann a new respect for his father's hard-won, quiet courage, and when he comes back to his own time, he's able to come up with a solution that keeps his own family together.

It's a simple story, and I remember when I first read it, back many years ago, being somewhat disappointed that more magical-ness doesn't happen.  The things Kevin and Brann do together are prosaic--they eat breakfast, look after the bratty younger siblings, explore a cave, and trespass to go swimming.   Brann does not run into any time-traveller difficulties; he is accepted as a contemporary kid. 

But reading it a second time, I have more appreciation for the quite character study that is the book's strength.   Poor Kevin really does have a thin time of it, and Brann comes home from his experience a wiser, more understanding person, which puts this one squarely in my "time travel as opportunity for emotional growth" category.   Unfortunately I think it edges into "book as an opportunity to push emotional growth on reader" territory, and though it is a just fine book, I don't think I ever need to re-read it again (having grown as much as I'm going to from it).

Interestingly, this was a1984 School Library Journal Best YA Book, which I think says a lot about how YA was thought of then and now.  It is just utterly Middle Grade by today's standards--absolutely no hint of an adolescent, let alone teenaged, thoughts, but I guess because Brann is 12, that made it a book for older readers.  Plus it is only 121 pages, which is ridiculously short by today's standards (when did books start getting so long? Was it Harry Potter?).  Though the 1980s cover (above) looks YAish, Brann gets progressively more childlike in later editions (although he gets to wear the same clothes).

(Is there an online archive of SLJ best books of past years?  I'd love to browse through it, and a quick search came up empty).


The City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda

The City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda (Scholastic 2013, ages 11ish to 14ish) is the sequel to last year's The Savage Fortress (my review), and it could be said, and almost certainly has been said, that this series is "Percy Jackson with Hindu Dieties," in as much both star boys involved in the doings (mostly violent) of mythological beings.

In any event, Ash Mistry is an ordinary 14-year-old Anglo-Indian boy who, on his first trip to India, became a living avatar of Kali, goddess of death, destruction, chaos, and a bit more death, and took down a major demon lord.  This did not solve his problems.  Rather, it did the opposite.

Back in England, his most pressing problem is that Gemma, the girl he rather liked gets killed by his enemies.  Other problems (his relationship with Parvati, half snake-demon warrior, half teenage-girl warrior, a diamond that's full of ancient nasty magic, the powers of Kali writhing around inside him, and flashbacks to all the past lives of Kali's other embodiments) are also troubling. 

Going back to India wasn't high on Ash's list of things to do, but there's not much choice....only once there, Ash makes some very bad choices indeed (mostly because he is consumed with guilt about the girl who died, but some because he is a fourteen-year-old boy), and I, at least, wanted to shake him at times. 

And though I found his journeys and adventures and mythological encounters not uninteresting, the desire to shake Ash was a bit too strong for me to truly enjoy the book. Because obviously, Ash, Parvati is the coolest character in the whole series and you should just accept that and stop with the guilt over Gemma (the US cover shows a bit of the tension between Parvati and Ash, which makes me like it more than the UK cover at right).  I will trust that he will continue realize this in book 3.  (I think that one of the strong points of the Percy Jackson series is the number of different viewpoint characters who all, at some point, want to shake each other, saving the reader the trouble). 

Shaking aside, I did appreciate that Ash clearly recognizes that his is an unevible position, and that being the "good guy" is not something that's going to come with a nice set of instructions.   His relationship with Parvati is also charged with tension--she is half-demon, he, as the embodiment of Kali's power, is the mythical slayer of demons.   So there's depths here that make this a lot more than just the sum of the adventures.

The titular City of Death is pretty cool too. 

Short answer: facile though the comparison might be, I really do think this would be a good series to give the Percy Jackson fans who enjoy demonic violence in their fiction.  It would also be a good series to give to the kid who has no interest in Greek mythology who enjoys mayhem mixed with a splash of moral tension. 

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher


Will a fantasy book win the Newbery tomorrow? (and if so, which one?)

Some fantasy/science fiction books have had quite a Newbery buzz this year--Doll Bones, by Holly Black, The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, and The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu.    I think Jinx has more kid-appeal than Newbery appeal, but I wouldn't be too terribly surprised to see any of the other three get mentioned tomorrow

But what would be fun if a  Dark Horse middle grade sci fi/fantasy book emerged triumphant!
Here there are two that I think are viable surprises--Parched, and How I Became a Ghost.  Either would make me happy!

Just for the heck of it, I went through Elizabeth's list of the stars of 2013 (as of November) at ShelfTalker (I couldn't find a final star list for the whole year), pulling out the mg sff books.  I've excluded the books that aren't eligible to the best of my ability.

Doll Bones was the only mg sff that got five stars.  It is my favorite to win tomorrow, although in part that is because I have two first editions squirreled away which will help pay for the boys' college education if it wins.  EDITED TO ADD:  It won an honor, which pleases me because I did like it.

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo got four stars, but it didn't feel Newberyish to me.  EDITED TO ADD:  Clearlly I was wrong, since it won!  Jinx and True Blue Scouts were also four stars.

In the three star category are:

 Listening for Lucca, by Suzanne LaFleur and The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, by Richard Peck; I'd be surprised to see either of these recognized.

Two stars went to:

Adventures of a South Pole Pig, by Chris Kurtz
Fallout, by Todd Strasser
Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper
The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, by Catherynne M. Valente
Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli,
Lara's Gift, by Annemarie O’Brien
A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff
The Watcher in the Shadows, by Chris Moriarty

I'm not putting money on any of these; Hokey Pokey and Tangle of Knots both were published early in the year, and had a bit of buzz to them, but then they kind of drifted off people's lists. The one I like best myself is The Watcher in the Shadows, but I doubt the committee would agree with me.

One stars:

The Apprentices,  Maile Meloy
A Box of Gargoyles,  Anne Nesbet
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest,  Charles de Lint
A Dash of Magic,  Kathryn Littlewood
The Grimm Conclusion, Adam Gidwitz
The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, Christopher Healy
How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story. Tim Tingle
Magic Marks the Spot. Caroline Carlson
Parched. Melanie Crowder
Pi in the Sky. Wendy Mass
The Princess of Cortova,  Diane Stanley
Rise of a Legend (Guardians of Ga’Hoole). Kathryn Lasky
Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin. Liesl Shurtliff
Texting the Underworld. Ellen Booraem
The Time Fetch,  Amy Herrick
The Water Castle,  Megan Frazer
The Wells Bequest, Polly Shulman
The Whatnot,  Stefan Bachmann

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (1/26/14)

Welcome to another week of middle grade sci fi/fantasy blog post rounding-up; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

Bigger Than a Bread Box, by Laurel Snyder, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

Dead City, by James Ponti, at Charlotte's Library

Diego's Dragon Book 1: Spirits of the Sun, by Kevin Gerard, at Sharon the Librarian

Dragon Defender, by J.A. Blackburn, at When I Grow Up, I Wanna Write a Kid's Book

The Escape of Princess Madeline, by Kristin Pulioff, at When I Grow Up, I Wanna Write a Kid's Book

Fallout, by Todd Strasser, at Next Best Book

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Laurisa White Reyes

Fireborn, by Toby Forward, at Charlotte's Library

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

How To Make Friends and Monsters, by Ron Bates, at The Book Monsters

Hunted (Spirit Animals 2), by Maggie Stiefvater, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

Jordan and the Dreadful Golem, by Karen Goldman, at This Kid Reviews Books

Joshua Dread, by Lee Bacon, at Ms.Yingling Reads

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, at Book Nut

Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin, at Views From the Tesseract

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at Librarian of Snark, Ex LibrisWondrous Reads, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Quantum League 1: Spell Robbers, by Matthew J.  Kirby, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

The Sandman and the War of Dreams, by William Joyce, at Back to Books

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, guest review by a young reviewer at Teen Librarian's Toolbox

The Serpent's Ring, by H.B. Bolton, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, at Slatebrakers and Rosanne Parry

Song of the Mountain, by Michelle Isenhoff, at The Book Monsters

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at School Library Journal

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at Reads for Keeps

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, at Ciao Bella

The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at The Write Path

Winterling, and its sequel Summerkin, by Sarah Prineas, at alibrarymama

Three Space Adventures at Views From the Tesseract -- Starbounders by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, The Planet Thieves by Dan Krokos, and The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles

Authors and Interviews

Anna Staniszewski (My Very Unfairy Tale Life) at Mother Daughter  Book Reviews

Other Good Stuff:

Ten African American characters in middle grade fantasy and science fiction at Views From the Tesseract

How to Build a Fictional World, a video by Kate Messner (Wake Up Missing), found at Bookshelves of Doom

At Book Nut, Melissa shares ten really good books that didn't make the EMG SF Cybils Shortlist

And finally, a beautiful, though somewhat troubling, installation of fairies from the Royal Shakespeare Company (found at Once Upon a Blog):

Commissioned by and developed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and later adapted for the Enchanted Parks, Sprite Symphony is a magical installation using projections and sound to create a beautiful yet dark display of fairies that have been trapped in jam jars and are trying to escape their glass cages. 

The fairies knock and tap on their jars and thereby create a polyphonic musical composition.

The sprites are currently exhibited in a Victorian display cabinet in the RSC theatre foyer in Stratford upon Avon


Dead City, by James Ponti

Dead City, by James Ponti (Aladdin, 2012)  is by far my favorite middle grade zombie adventure book.  The premise--that zombies live deep in the bowls of Manhattan, some still human enough to come up for sun and live relatively normal (un-dead) lives, others depraved killers--is not outstandingly fresh.  Nor is the twist--kids trained to be elite zombie trackers, though that is entertaining in its own right.  What makes the book so much fun to read is the particular zombie-hunting kids the reader gets to accompany, and the very nice indeed attention to the world-building of the zombie-tracking cabal and those they track.

Molly is not an ordinary junior high school student, in as much as she spends a lot of her free time in the morgue at the medical examiners office (where her mom worked, before she died of cancer).   Cadavers have no ick factor for her anymore.   Zombies, on the other hand, take a bit of getting used, as Molly discovers when she is invited to join three older kids who are operatives in the secret organization known as Omega.  Omega not only keeps ordinary people safe from the depraved killer zombies, but helps out the more human otherly living folk.

Molly's life in Omega, though, turns out not to follow the proscribed routines and procedures.   Turns out there's an undead plot to take over the city....and Molly and her friends find the clues that send them on an intercept course with the evil zombie mastermind behind it.

I utterly enjoyed hanging out with Molly and her smart, science-appreciative companions, perhaps in part because I enjoy books in which kids get training in esoteric pursuits (ballet, ice-skating, zombie-hunting, etc.).  There's nice nuance here too--it's not a question of zombies being universally bad, or smart kids vs. attractive kids.    And any fan of New York city will get  huge kick out of the zombiefied version of its geography!

I shall now hunt down the sequel, Blue Moon, because there is a Shocking Twist at the end of this one, and I am very anxious to find out what happens next!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


The ABC of Fabulous Princesses, by Willy Puchner

Looking at surreal, beautiful painted, whimsically detailed pictures of bird princesses of many lands makes me very happy and strangely peaceful.  Therefore, I love The ABC of Fabulous Princesses, by Willy Puchner (NorthSouth Books), truly, deeply, and sincerely.

The ABC part (each princesses' name, country of origin, interests, etc. all start with the same letter) was a perfectly acceptable framing device for the lovely bird princesses of many lands.  It was reviewed at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly by people who paid a lot more attention to the words than I did.

This book would make a lovely present for the right sort of person.  I bought it as a present for me, because I knew the moment I saw the cover (at Kirkus) that I would be the right sort of person. 

Many of you (though I'm not sure how many) would probably like it very much too.  I want to scan all the pictures so that you could see them in all their lovely detail and we could talk about which one was our favorite, and which ones we would like to be friends with and which secondary creature is cutest and so on, but of course I won't.   But here is the procession of princesses from the endpapers, which you can see in bigger form at NorthSouth's facebook page.

My least favorite is Princess Zenobia (the only one in pink, but I think it is coincidence), but I do not know which is my favorite.

I will probably be drawing bird princesses on and off for the next several days, which will be nice for me.  It would also be very fun to make bird princess paper dolls.  One could, of course, also make bird princes.


Waiting on Wednesday--Dragon on Trial, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland

The Menagerie, by Tui T. Sutherland, is a really good, solid book to offer the nine or ten year old lover of fantasy creatures (and its baby griffins will warm even cold adult hearts).  As an added bonus, it's main boy protagonist is bi-racial, without this making a whit of difference to the plot. 

So I am pleased as all get out to see here at Stephanie's blog that the sequel, Dragon on Trial (HarperCollins) will be out  March 11, and my ten year old is even more so.  He started pining for the sequel the moment he finished the first book...

"The mysteries and adventure are back and bigger than ever in the second book in the Menagerie trilogy! With the magic of Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven and the charm and humor of Carl Hiaasen, The Menagerie #2: Dragon on Trial is perfect for young readers who love myths, fairy tales, and magical creatures.

Someone or something has murdered the goose who laid the golden eggs, and the evidence points to a dragon named Scratch. But this mystery won’t be that easy to solve. . . . Zoe and Logan are back on the case in another exciting fantasy adventure from authors—and sisters—Tui T. Sutherland (Wings of Fire) and Kari Sutherland."

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

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond, by Brenda Woods

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond, by Brenda Woods (Nancy Paulsen Books, January 2014)

Isn't that a lovely cover (despite the missig mouth)!  And it fits the book perfectly--if you think that girl looks like someone you'd like to be friends with, you will probably like the book lots.

Sometimes I feel I can't sum up a book much better than the publisher's blurb does, so today I'm borrowing a bit:

"Violet is a smart, funny, brown-eyed, brown-haired girl in a family of blonds. Her mom is white, and her dad, who died before she was born, was black. She attends a mostly white school where she sometimes feels like a brown leaf on a pile of snow. She’s tired of people asking if she’s adopted. Now that Violet’s eleven, she decides it’s time to learn about her African American heritage. And despite getting off to a rocky start trying to reclaim her dad’s side of the family, she can feel her confidence growing as the puzzle pieces of her life finally start coming together."

Violet has never had any contact with her dad's mom, and now that's she's elven, she's starting to think, and wonder....and so when her grandma, a famous artist, has an exhibit in Seattle, Violet's mom takes her.   And the result is that Violet is invited for a week in Los Angeles, to get to know her dad's family.

It is a lovely story of bonding with a grandparent--Violet's grandma is so happy to be able to put the sadness of the past behind her, and she showers her granddaughter with love.   And in general, the family love that's at the heart of the story is truly heartwarming.  It's not just the grandparent/child relationship, but many others.  For instance, although it wasn't a major plot point, there was a nice sister relationship, which I appreciated--it was good to see an older sister being loving and supportive!  And all in all, it is a book full of good people.

More prosaically, I also liked the fact that Violet's grandma has an interesting house, and although cooking isn't my thing, it's one of Violet's interests, and I appreciated all the foody details!  (It bothers me when someone has an interest, and then we never hear much about it).

The characters deal openly with issues of race, belonging, and religion (Violet's grandma is Christian, and a tad anxious about Violet's beliefs); this part of the book felt candidly refreshing, and I imagine the book would be reassuring for a multiracial child, and thought-provoking for a child who's never questioned racial identity.

Violet was perhaps just a bit too good to be true (there's a whole day she happily spends researching Africa), and perhaps all the reconciliation and healing were a bit too easy, but for those who like books on the soothing side, this is not a problem.

Kirkus gave Violet a starred review, which you can find here.

Disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher


Still She Wished For Company, by Margaret Irwin, for Timeslip Tuesday

The problem with having your heroine hypnotized and in the psychic thrall of another character for most of the book is that said heroine never gets a chance to really grow as a person, or show any gumption or initiative.   It's kind of boring.   This was what kept me from enjoying Still She Wished For Company, by Margaret Irwin (1924).

But it is not terrible, and if  you like tortured romance stretched across a century of psychic connection, with most of the action taking place in a Jane Austin-ish country house, and lots and lots of growing dread and even horror, and don't mind a heroine who is being used as a tool, you might enjoy it. Just to emphasize that others have enjoyed it lots, here is a positive review at Vulpes Libris.

Juliana is the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, living a boring, sheltered life of late 18th-century placidity.  Into her world comes her long-gone oldest brother, Lucian, who has been dissipating himself all around the world, and he brings Interest to things with a vengeance.   Lucian is haunted by a girl he has never met....and it turns out that this girl, Jan, is haunted by him as well--though she lives in the mid-20th century...and it is this that drives him to make Bad Choices.

Lucian makes a pet of Juliana, and she finds him a charming alternative to boredom....and their relationship is oh so warm and friendly and one wonders is it getting too friendly (there is an ickiness to his endearments) and then Lucian draws her into mystic goings on of a disquieting sort and Juliana starts slipping into Jan's present time and Lucian gets creepier and in the end...What will become of poor hypnotized Juliana?  Is Lucian demon or tormented romantic?  Will Jan find happiness, and if so, with whom? The book actually starts from Jan's perspective, which is a bit of a red-herring--she does a bit of timeslipping herself, but primarily exists in the story to be Lucian's dream girl, and this made me sad, because I rather liked her and we see very little of her.

We see lots and lots of Juliana, but like I said above, I tend to find girls with little character to begin with who end up as hypnotized tools rather boring.     The 18th-century country house bits kind of felt like not-Austin-at-her-best; there was no humor anywhere in the book.   I liked the time slip parts best--the were genuinely powerful and moving, and the book had more of them, I would have been much happier!

In any event, this is the earliest tortured paranormal romance involving time slippage that I know of, and as such it is interesting and well worth reading (I guess).  If there are earlier ones, please let me know!


Fireborn, by Toby Forward

Two things about Fireborn, by Toby Forward (Bloomsbury, 2013, upper Middle Grade/YA): it was very good, and I'm glad to have read it.  It was a struggle to read it, and I had to keep putting it down.

It is the story of three kids--Beatrice and Cabbage, who both have magical abilities, and Perry, who is a roffle--a not-exactly-human denizen of a mysterious underworld.   When magic goes terrible wrong due to the schemings of a truly nasty, second-rate magician, these three kids have to face the vicious consequences of the eruption of  power that follows.  And it is truly vicious--the magician and his companion are transformed into creatures of horror who kill, rather terribly, scores of people, and worse than that (in my maternal mind), Beatrice is left horribly, horribly, burned and disfigured.   The adults looking after these kids do their best to handle things, but they are not able to defeat the enemy.  Since Beatrice was there at the beginning of the wild magic, and caught in its birthfire, it is, in the end, up to her to find her way out of her pain into a place where she can use her birthright.

(If you want a somewhat more detailed, lyrical description, this would be a good point at which to read Kirkus' starred review).

Though much of the story distressed me (causing me to put the book down for little breaks), it is not all dolorous.  Cabbage and Perry have a lovely friendship and are both tremendously endearing, and the adults (who aren't the bad guys) are actually good, kind, wise people, which is rather a rare thing, and which I enjoyed.   I have decided that I like books in which the characters Talk to each other, and treat each other as people, and there is lots of good talking here, that both advances the story without tedious explication, and advances the reader's appreciation of the characters.  The worldbuilding is solid, without bending over backward to explain every single detail--the reader has to take some things on trust, and it works (for instance, I still don't know what exactly the roffles are, but no one who isn't a roffle really does, so that's fine). 

Fireborn is the prequel to Dragonborn (2012 in the US), and you should most definitely read this one first.   In my review of Dragonborn, my main complaint was the absence of backstory--and that is what Fireborn delivers.

I also complained about the misleading US cover of Dragonborn, and I make the same complaint again--the US cover art makes these books look like they are great for younger middle grade readers of nine or so, and this is misleading.   I would not give this book to anyone younger than eleven, because it really does have the stuff of nightmares in it, and I think the original UK cover (shown at right) is a more accurate reflection of this.   The nasty, death-bringing beetles aside, the fate of one young character (which I'm not saying anything else about) was Awful, and I am cross that the other characters didn't seem more upset. Jerks.

Bonus challenging of gender stereotypes regarding pink:

Young Cabbage is visiting the college of magic, and is waiting around in the office of the head of the school ( a woman).  "I'll have a room like this one day, he decided.  The light swam in through one of the high, broad windows.  The walls were painted a delicate pink.  It was a good pink, with a blush of rose.  He liked pink.  He wouldn't change the bookcases either."  (page 195).

The school of magic, incidentally, has a lovely library.


This week's round-up of Middle Grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (1/19/14)

It's a rather nice little round-up this week--thanks, you all.  But maybe it could be even better- let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Abominables, by Eva Ibbotson, at Children's Book-a-Day Almanac

Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea, by Lisa Martin and Valerie Martin, at The Book Monsters

Atlantis Rising, by T.A.  Barron,  at The Book Monsters

Code Name 711 (Double Vision), by F.T. Bradley, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Frogged, by Vivian Vande Velde, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Ice Dragon, by George Martin, at Manga Maniac Cafe

The Interrupted Tale, by Maryrose Wood, at A Reader of Fictions

The Jupiter Pirates: The Hunt for the Hydra, by Jason Fry, at Views From the Tesseract

Lockwood and Co.: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Fantasy Book Critic

Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris, by Marissa Moss, at Next Best Book

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

New Lands, by Geoff Rodkey, at Carstairs Considers

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at Sharon the Librarian and Giraffe Days

Pi in the Sky, by Wendy Mass, at The Book Monsters

Risked, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Rose, by Holly Webb, at alibrarymama

Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, at Charlotte's Library, with bonus short list of "magical servant" books

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Pretty in Fiction and Readingrat's

The Secret of Platform 13, by Eva Ibbotson, at Iris on Books

Spirits of the Sun (Diego's Dragon, Book 1), by Kevin Gerard, at Kid Lit Reviews

Thor, Viking God of Thunder, by Graeme Davis, at Fantasy Literature

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at Kid Lit Geek

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World, by Henry Clark, at Books For Boys

William and Mary, by Penelope Farmer, at Charlotte's Library

Winter of the Robots, by Kurtis Scaletta,  at Ms. Yingling Reads

Authors and Interviews

Kate Messner (Wake Up Missing) at Cuppa Jolie

Justin Swap (The Magic Shop) at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Eden Unger Bowdish (The Atomic Weight of Secrets) at In High Spirits

Kristin Pulioff (Princess Madeline and the Dragon) at Books Direct

Other Good Stuff

The Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees for this year's Edgar Awards--I was pleased to see The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, on the list.  

The line-up for School Library Journal's Battle of the Books has been announced, with a number of fine mg spec books represented! 

Laurisa White Reyes talks about finding female in middle grade fantasy at Ellie Rollins

I enjoy Stephanie's Tuesday Tens very much--this week at Views from the Tesseract she looks at sisters in fantasy and sci fi books.

Multicultural Children's Book Day is coming on Jan. 27--more at The Nerdy Book Club

At books4yourkids there are two great posts about Greek mythology--one listing reference and non-fiction books, and one on fiction, from chapter books to YA.

Pat Rothfuss' fundraiser for Heifer International-- Worldbuilders-- ends in 12 days; there are many fine books that donors can win, including these lovelies for us readers of younger books.


Reading picture books to my ten-year-old son - a sentimental post about why it's been rather a nice thing to do

My ten-year-old is the youngest child, and so all the picture books ended up on the shelves in his room...so many, many picture books.   But now that shelf space is needed for books of his own choosing (he wants his own copies of all the Ranger's Apprentice books, for instance) and the picture books have to go.  Of course I had already deaccessioned many of them--Thomas the Tank Engine bit the dust years ago, but there were still lots and lots.   I couldn't stand to just bundle them off the shelves like they were dead fish, so instead, I have been reading them to him again one last time, one or two books a night, snuggling in bed together the way we used to.

We are both find it very comforting.  Ten is a tricky age to be---the prospect of Growing Up is looming on the horizon, but in many ways you are still a child who wants to be little and loved and safe.   It seems to me that re-reading the picture books of his childhood to my son is a way of saying  that just because you are older, it doesn't mean you can't love the things you loved when you were little, and also a way of saying to him that even though he is much bigger now, I am still the same Mama that I was back in the day (more or less, and give or take).   It has also struck me that many of the books on his shelves were about little kids facing change, like starting school or making new friends.  The uncertainty of sixth grade in a new school with new kids is distressing, and I like to imagine he is being reassured, just as he was when he started kindergarten, especially since that  worked out just fine (we read Wemberly Worried last night).

It is also very nice indeed to read picture books to an older child for more intellectual reasons--you can have little chats about the fourth wall, artistic technique, how the words and the pictures are used together, and other little critical divertissements.  Plus at a certain point I stopped bringing picture books into the home, and I have been enjoying reading them again so much I am thinking of getting fresh ones from the library (and this will also beautifully model the fact that grown-ups are allowed to like "childish" things, which is a soothing thought).

Though many of the books are now going to go up to the attic, or on to the library book sale, some he has made the decision to keep in his room (for now, at least).  And I think that's one of the best parts of growing-up (if you are lucky enough to have had a happy childhood, of course, and the marketing surveys I conduct every so often seem to indicate that mine are) --the chance to look back at your past, and pick for yourself the memories that you want to keep, so that going forward you can still have a sense of love and warmth and safety.

(NB:  I never ever ever read my kids Love You Forever. Just saying.)

So here's my ten year old's best loved picture book from his youthArchie and the Pirates, by Marc Rosenthall.    Here's the post I wrote about it, back when my son was six and the book arrived in our house. 

I myself still have two picture books from my own childhood--The Sun Shone on the Elephant, and I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew.  (Both these books are about the failure of escapist fantasy to bring comfort, which disturbs me a tad...).


Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, with bonus (very short) list of magical servant books

Rose, by Holly Webb, was a huge hit in my house--both my boys (10 and 13) read it with tremendous enjoyment, and I liked it rather a lot myself, and helped shortlist it for the Cybils Award.  It was therefore a rather obvious choice to ask for the sequel, Rose and the Lost Princess, as a birthday present, via the magic of The Book Depository--it was released in 2010 over in the UK, and is coming out here in the US from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on April 1, 2014.

In Rose, set in a fantasy version of Victorian England, we met the titular young orphan, whose magical talents begin to blossom when she become a servant to one of the most prominent magician's in the land.  Rose and the Lost Princess picks up just a week after Rose and her friends thwarted a nasty bit of magical murder.  Now Rose is both an acknowledged apprentice, and (because she doesn't want to be a charity case) still working as servant.

But her colleagues below stairs are afraid of magic and its practitioners, and Rose, neither fish nor fowl, is in a most uncomfortable situation.  And not just inside the house--popular sentiment has swung wildly against magic users, and the mood of the people is ugly indeed.   To make things worse, an unnaturally early winter has the city in a tight grip...and then the beloved young princess falls victim to a magical plot. 

Thought that danger is quickly resolved, it is just about the last straw turning people against magic.  But without magic to protect her, the princess is still vulnerable.  Rose is installed in the palace as an undercover magical guardian...but Rose is by no means sure her untrained magic will be of much use against the powerful adversary threatening the kingdom....

It was not a cozy comfort read.  There was an atmosphere of strained tension throughout, that kept me from relaxing.   This is not to say that I didn't like the book.    It  was very gripping, and I am very fond of Rose and her friends, and I read it briskly and with conviction.  Fans of the first should have little to complain about (unless they want to join me in complaining about the tension of  it all, and I do realize I am a particularly pathetic reader in that regard, so probably not many will).

And I have gone ahead and ordered the third book-- Rose and the Magician's Mask, and also, because it looked even more appealing, the first in the companion series about another girl, named Lily.  From Amazon UK: 

"In a world where magic is outlawed, Lily runs wild and neglected. Once rich and powerful magicians, now Lily's family hide away in their crumbling house, while her older sister, Georgie, is trained secretly in magic.  But when Lily discovers her parents' dark plan to use Georgie in a terrible plot to restore the country to its magical glory, she knows she must rescue her sister - and flee..."

In any event, Rose and its sequels utterly deserve to find a wide audience over here in the US, and it was a tad surprising to me, with regard to getting copies of it for Cybils consideration, that it wasn't more widely available in libraries (thanks, Sourcebook, for sending copies to us!).   Tons of kid appeal, enhanced by the US covers, which are much more boy friendly (UK cover at right).

If you enjoy books starring kids who are servants with magical powers in historical fantasy worlds, here are the ones I know about:

Rose, by Holly Webb (of course)
The Silver Bowl, by Diane Stanley
Magic Below Stairs, by Caroline Stevermer
Conrad's Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones (Disclaimer:  it has been ages since I read this one, and can't quite promise Conrad himself is magical.  Update:  it has now been confirmed that Conrad is magical.)

Are there others?????


William and Mary, by Penelope Farmer

Penelope Farmer is best known to me as the author of Charlotte Sometimes, a book I hold dear.   Back in the day, when I was young, I only knew of one other book by her--William and Mary (1974).  It was a frequent summer-at-grandparents library re-read (though not a best beloved one), and so I was very happy indeed when my sister gave it to me for my birthday this year.

And I was even more happy to find that it held up rather well, and in fact I think I like it more now than I did then.

Mary is the only girl at the English boarding school run by her parents; its a lonely life, especially when the school is empty during vacation, and it's made her somewhat socially awkward and diffident.   William is the somewhat older boy forced to spend part of his holiday at the school while his parents contemplate divorce, and to Mary's surprise, he actually seems happy to be friends with her.

And then the magic starts.

William has half a shell, that can transport the two of them into any undersea scenario inspired by art, music, photograph...and so, interspersed with the mundane but not uninteresting story of two kids racketing around an English school and its seaside environs are a series of underwater adventures.  Some are beautiful (coral reefs), some scary (the fall of Atlantis), some amusing (a whale hotel).  And in the meantime, the clock is ticking--will William and Mary find the other half of the shell in time?

It seems to me that in  most books of today, girls are not often realistic adolescents, and it further seems to me that this is a major difference in feel between kids in older UK fantasy (1960s and 70s) and books of today.  Mary mopes.  She is prey to the adolescent despair that reduces one to tears, even when there is no particular cause.   She has no special abilities, talents, or even a major role in the fantasy adventure.   As an adolescent myself, when reading it back then, I think I found this kind of dreary, and insufficiently escapist.  As a grown-up, I thought it added interest, though I wish Farmer had spent a bit more time allowing Mary to think about what she wants out of life next.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat too good to be true...He is extraordinarily mature, and never gets fussed at all.   It is quite a contrast, and almost a bit much.

As far as the fantasy goes, I do have a reservation, which is that the adventures really vignettes, not tied thematically to a larger story, and they don't progress to any point.  They just happen.   So they are pleasant, but not emotionally powerful, and they have no effect at all on events in reality.  However, because they are such a sudden, shocking change from a somewhat chilly and overcast reality, they are bright and engaging as all get out.

So it's still not a best-beloved book, but it made a nice change from heroic epicness and special kids.   Anyone who's a fan of magic invading ordinary life should look for it, although it's not in many libraries any more.  Arlington Central Library, where I first read it, got rid of all their old books when they remodeled, which I will always feel a little sad about.   However, I was pleased to see that the Rhode Island library system has a Penelope Farmer book for kids I haven't read yet--Year King--and that is now on my stack.


After Eden, by Helen Douglas, for Timeslip Tuesday

Warning:  there will be spoilers.  Before I get to that part, though, I will say that After Eden, by Helen Douglas (Bloomsbury, 2013), is a YA romance in which the central tension of the romance comes from time travel.  If you are looking for a (pretty much insta-love) romance involving a beautiful guy, best friend issues, and a heroine who seems to exist only to fall in love with the beautiful guy; a romance that is light on physicality, but given considerable interest by time travel, this book is for you!

On with the spoilers.

So Eden is the girl referenced above, an ordinary English school girl in her last year before university, and a new boy arrives in town.  A very cute boy named Ryan, who seems to want to be friends....and who maybe, just maybe, wonders Eden as time passes, wants more than her friendship....

Eden can't help but notice that Ryan is a little different, but it's not until she accidentally takes one of his books home by accident that she finds out the truth.

Last chance to avoid spoilers!

The book reveals that Ryan is from the future, and he has come back to Eden's time to stop a chain of events that leads to the future destruction of life on Earth.  Eden's best friend, Connor, is about to discover an exoplanet...and this will wreck havoc back on Earth.  So Ryan and Eden find themselves not only allies in foiling Conner's discovery, but falling in love, knowing that they will never be together.  Ryan will head back to the future just as soon as the foiling has been completed.

And he will leave Eden behind, though she knows far too much about the future to be safe from its enforcers...

The time travel part of the story was fine-- it was interesting to see Eden and Ryan busily working together to change things, and the suspense at the end, when Eden is in danger, was exciting.  


For starters, Eden was pretty much a non-character, with no life or interests outside of hanging with her friends and falling in love with Ryan (she's supposed to be a runner, but she only runs for the sake of running once).   We learn that she is a decent, unambitious person who can't draw.  She's basically not interesting.  And yet Ryan is going to go to extreme lengths to make sure they have a happy ending...and I really have trouble with two teenagers just Knowing that they want to be with each other for the whole rest of their lives.  Especially when one has made a major sacrifice to make it happen.

For seconds, the bad guy from the future smokes (hard to believe that in an almost desiccated Earth they are still growing tobacco), and his mutation into Bad Guy is abrupt, exaggerated, and unconvincing. 

So no, it didn't work for me.  But if you are in the mood for a kind of fluffy romance with a bit of a sci fi twist, it might be just the thing for you!


Working toward a better blog--in which I try out Grammarly (with a giveaway of a $25 Amazon Gift Card)

I have just used Grammarly's free plagiarism checker because of my suspicion that wombats from space are stealing my beautiful words and using them in Sinister Ways.  (And if that is the funniest reason anyone puts this month, I get a prize).

But in all seriousness, I agreed to review Grammarly in exchange for compensation because I am keenly aware that my blog is not proof-read adequately; many is the time I have noticed errors in past posts, and winced in pain.  Many is the time I have read the words of others, and felt that their crisp professionalism made my own blog look a little....wilted.  Un-professional.  Run up by loving hands at home.  So I was eager to see how helpful Grammarly would be in solving (at least some of) my problems. 

Grammarly is a grammar and spell checker--you copy the text you want checked into the box, and select the style of your writing--(general, business, academic, creative, casual, etc.).  Though I would like my blog to be "creative," and though "academic" also comes easily, I decided that "casual" was the best fit.   It is incredibly easy to use--you just paste your text into the box and hit the 'start review' button, and all possible issues are clearly and rapidly brought to your attention.  As well as seeing each error with your document in real time, as it were, you can save or print a copy of the report, which would be useful for longer docments. 

The post I selected for my first try was my review of The Misadventures of the Magician's Dog.   The Casual grammar check gave me a score of 82 out of 100, with seven issues found.  It's major issue with my writing was my generous use of commas.   In some cases I disagreed-- for instance, in "Every time he uses it,  anger moves closer to the surface" I feel that the comma is valuable.  But I did take out the comma in "he risks loosing himself, and harming his family."

Next I tried it on  my review of the novel version of My Neighbor Totoro.   A 70 out of 100, with one that made me shudder:   "So the whole package is just lovely and the illustrations by Miyazaki, are charming."   I have fixed this. 

For  my final try, I ran my review of Jinx's Magic.  Eeks!  57 out of 100.  But phew--most of them were words the spell check didn't recognize.  However,  I took out a nasty little extra space, which I'm glad is gone.   Grammarly and I disagreed again about commas.  I can't help it--I like to put them in where I would pause in talking.  I think it sets a nice conversational tone.

Grammarly also has a plagiarism feature that lets you know if your text matches anything else on the web.  So not only are you be alerted to possible plagiarism that you are committing yourself, you can see if anyone else is plagiarizing your work.

In addition, there is a spelling feature that not only catches your common or garden errors but which  alerts you to embarrassing confusions of to too and two, and affect and effect, which fills a gap in most spell checkers.

Final verdict--I think this would be a very useful tool to a professional writer who doesn't have a proof-reader on hand; if I ever were to start writing seriously myself, or if I were still in graduate school, I would definitely consider subscribing.   I think it would be incredibly useful for a writer who wasn't a native speaker of English.   And (deliberate grammatical error) for as long as I have my trial subscription, I will run my posts through it.  

I think that bloggers who schedule posts in advance might well find it more handy than bloggers like me who press "post" when they realize that, once again, the kids are going to be late for school if they don't get up now.  That being said, such bloggers are the ones who might benefit most, since proofreading becomes a sometime thing.

(What I really need, though, is something that checks to make sure that I have characters' names and the spelling of fantasy places correct in my posts.  It took 10 months before someone was kind enough to point out that in Jinx it's really the Urwald, not the Urwold, wince wince.)

If you want to try it yourself, you can sign up for a free seven day trial.  An annual subscription is $11.66 a month; monthly and quarterly subscriptions are slightly more.

Final word--I have just run this post through Grammarly.   It now has three fewer commas.  Sigh.

Disclaimer:  this post was written in exchange for compensation from Grammarly.  To share that with you all, just leave a comment (proof-reading related) by midnight next Sunday, to be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci and fantasy from around the blogs (1/12/14)

Another week, another round-up!  Let me know if  I missed your post!

The Reviews

Back to Blackbrick, by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, at The Book Monsters

Bliss, by Kathryn Littlewood, at A Reader of Fictions

The Bridge to Never Land, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, at Carstairs Considers

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, by Claire Legrand, at Beyond Books

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston, at Reading is Fun Again

The Dragon's Boy, by Jane Yolen, at Sharon the Librarian

The Drowned Vault, by N.D. Wilson, at 300 Pages

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull, at Book Nut

Falling In, by Frances O'Roark Dowell, at Book Banshee Reviews

Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper, at So I'm Fifty

The Grimm Conclusion, by Adam Gidwitz, at One Great Book

How To Catch a Bogle, by Catherine Jinks, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Jinx's Magic, by Sage Blackwood, at Waking Brain Cells and Charlotte's Library

The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Tales of the Marvelous

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carson, at Nayu's Reading Corner

The Misadventures of the Magician's Dog, by Frances Sackett, at Charlotte's Library

North of Nowhere, by Liz Kessler, at The Ninja Librarian

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Path of Names, by Ari B. Goelman, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse, at Not Acting My Age

Rose, by Holly Webb, at Geo Librarian

Secrets of the Terra Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinsonat Compestine, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Skellig, by David Almond, at Bookshelves of Doom

The Storm Makers, by Jennifer E. Smith, at Mister K Reads

Taylor Davis and the Clash of Kingdoms, by Michelle Isenhoff, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Third Door, by Emily Rodda, at Charlotte's Library

Whatever After: Fairest of All, by Sarah Mlynowski, at The Reader's Perch

When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snickett, at The Book Monsters

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, at Here There Be Books

Authors and Interviews

Karen Foxlee (Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy) at The Reading Nook Reviews

Other Good Stuff

Project Mayhem pays tribute to Eva Ibbotson

EMG SF Cybils panelists reflect on books they loved that didn't end up on the shortlist, at Views from the Tesseract,

Anyone who wants to add to their list of MG fantasy and sci fi to look forward to is advised to check out this list at Views From the Tesseract.

And a quick shout out to Mother Daughter Book Reviews, where there's a new weekly round-up of kidlit, where I found several of the links above.

Not middle grade, but I want to put the link where I might find it again:
Last year I vowed to read more sci fi/fantasy for grown-ups....and that kind of turned into reading all of Discworld and not much else.  This year I will try again, with the help of the List of Awesome from Io9 of "All the Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy Books Coming in 2014."

A lot of us wring our hands about diversity in sci fi/fantasy books and fandoms; author and director Balogun is doing something about it.  He's organizing a symposium this spring in Atlanta --"a full day of Black speculative fiction workshops, performances, art, games, contests and vending – all for our youth." More (somewhat preliminary) information here at Chronicles of Harriet.

Finally--Story Time from Space!
"Story Time From Space, with support from CASIS, will send children’s books & demonstrations to the International Space Station.
While in space, astronauts will videotape themselves reading books to the children of Earth.
The videos will be edited and placed in the Story Time From Space library. The library will be housed here on the Story Time From Space website.
Astronauts on the ISS will also conduct and videotape educational demonstrations to complement the science concepts in the Story Time From Space books."


The Third Door, by Emily Rodda

The Third Door, by Emily Rodda (Scholastic, 2013)  is the concluding volume of a Middle Grade fantasy series (the first two books being The Golden Door, and The Silver Door).   That being the case, it seem to me rather pointless to try to recap the whole plot--suffice to say, the plot of the series as a whole is basically plucky kids with magical powers taking on bad guys, who also have powers, and saving their world.   There are interesting twists to the world-building--for instance, the kids in question come from a township deliberately shut of from the rest of the world long ago, setting up a nice mystery, and the revel about the magic of the three titular doors was much more exciting than I had anticipated.   And these mysteries (along with other twists), keep the pages turning nicely.

Those who enjoyed the first two books will be more than satisfied by this installment!  The plot thickens in a satisfactory way, with new characters, dangers, and mysteries, and the central characters once again must rise to the challenge. 

It's a fine fantasy series good for nine or ten year olds--there's some violence, but it's not distressingly graphic, some romance in the air, but it's not the point.  The central hero is a good, decent person, and the girl who is his partner in adventure gets a chance in this third book to truly shine.  As an added bonus, fans of Emily Rodda's Deltora series will doubtless be tickled to find that this particular land is linked to that series. 

So if you have a young devourer of fantasy on hand, this is a nice briskly paced and imaginative series to offer.  That being said, it isn't one I'd recommend to grown-up readers of middle grade fantasy--the individual elements, while all good, and quite often gripping as all get out, never came together quite enough to make the story truly magical for me. 

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publish


Hot (as is temperature) fantasy and sci fi for a cold winter's night

Wet, cold Air Mass Alphonse (not its real name) has brought nasty winter mix to southern New England, and although High Pressure System Daisy (not its real name either) should arrive in a few days, it is Not Nice at the moment.  And so my mind has been escaping to nice warm books in which the desert, with all it's lovely dry heat, is front and center.

Of course, for most of the characters wandering around in your average hot fantasy, it kind of sucks--there really aren't  many books in which people are happy to be hot, mostly because they are (with reason) worried dying of thirst.  But that's their problem.  (I could have included jungle fantasy here too, I guess, because jungles are hot, but I'm trying to avoid dampness too.  My shoes got plenty damp walking home from the bus).

In any event, here are the hot, dry, speculative fiction books I'd recommend unreservedly:

The one hot book I can think off that's escapistly pleasant (as in, no actively unpleasant thirst) is The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley:  "The desert, with the black sharp-edged mountains around it, was a different from what she was accustomed to as any landscape could be; yet she found after only a few weeks in Istan that she was falling by degrees in love with it:  with the harsh sand, the hot sun, the merciless gritty winds" (p 19).   And the first half of the book in particular is filled with lots of lovely warm riding around the desert, enough to banish any chill.

Mirage, by Jenn Reese, is another diverting read featuring a girl charging around in a desert.  In this case, the lack of handy water is made more, um, concerning by the fact that the girl in question is a sea-person.   This one, though, is the second of a series, so you will have to read Above World, the first, to truly enjoy its pleasant warmth.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin, is set on a planet with barely enough water to sustain its people, and the idea of Winter Mix never crosses their minds.  It's also a lovely, complex challenging book about a society in which, along with never being cold, people are never supposed to "own" anything--it is an society that strives to be an ongoing anarchy.   I can't recommend it highly enough.

Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst, starts with a village running out of water, and goes on to sandstorms and sandwolves and plenty of life-draining heat.  It's a book of lovely world building and fascinating characters and magic...with no winter mix in sight.

Parched, by Melanie Crowder, lets you know right off that there's going to be heat and thirst, and it delivers in spades.   This story of two kids trying to survive in a future Africa hit hard by global warming and rising sea levels will take your mind off the cold, and make you grateful for water.

And though it is not set in the desert, The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, involves plenty of trekking across a hot, arid landscape....with olive groves shimmering in the heat etc. 

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