12/30/14

Twin Spell, aka Double Spell, by Janet Lunn, for Timeslip Tuesday

Twin Spell, aka Double Spell in its most recent edition, by Janet Lunn (1969), for Timeslip Tuesday

Twelve-year old twins Elizabeth and Jane didn't particularly want an old wooden doll....but something drew them to the shop where it was housed one wet day, and something drew the owner to let them have it for what loose change they had in their pockets.

And something made Aunt Alice fall down the stairs of the big ancestral home in which she lived alone soon after....resulting in her moving out, and Elizabeth and Jane's family (they are blessed (?) with three brothers).

And then the little doll is used by something, or someone, to draw Elizabeth and Jane into an old, sad, angry story.  Visions of the past over a hundred years ago, when the doll was new, are intruding into their reality, straining their relationship with each other and compelling them to find out what happened to the girl who's doll it was...and the force behind the visions is not friendly (cue creepy music).

But mostly it isn't all that creepy--it's more like a mystery to be solved with the help of supernatural nudges (primarily visions of the past, overlaying the present, as opposed to actual visits to the past), and daily life goes on, broken by trips to the library and hunts for old houses etc.  Until the end, that is, which is rather intense (in a nicely scary way!).

Give this one to a young reader (I'd say an eight year old girl who's reading a bit above her age) who a. likes creepy doll stories  b. likes books in which past and present intersect and c. likes old house stories or d.  hasn't read any of these yet but who you feel might like them.  It's not great (it dragged a bit in the middle, when progress on mystery unravelling stalled, and it's not the best described old house), and if you have already read lots of this story, you don't need to read this one.  That being said, I didn't mind reading it all, and it would probably have thrilled eight-year-old me.  It's one of those books that has lots of five star Amazon reviews from people who read and re-read it as children...

Aside:  as a time travel book this one is rather interesting in that there is both time-slippiness and ghost.  Mostly ghosts just manifest independently (and not as time travelers, but as, you know, lingering dead people), but here the supernatural force at work is really pulling Elizabeth and Jane back toward the past....I think this is the first in two hundred or so time travel books I've labeled as both "Timeslip Tuesday" and "books with ghosts."

12/29/14

Future Flash, by Kita Helmetag Murdock

Future Flash, by Kita Helmetag Murdock (Sky Pony Press, 2014, middle grade, 208 pages)

Laney's an oddball in her small school in rural Colorado--the sort of kid who draws on her sneakers, who's friends with the weird cat lady, who tries her best to stay out of the sights of the class bully.   But Laney would be an odd ball anyway--she sees glimpses of the future.  Sometimes these "future flashes," as she calls them, are happy...sometimes not.

When a new kid, Lyle, comes to town, Laney has the worst future flash of her life.  She sees him consumed by fire.  Now Laney has to figure out if she can save Lyle from the death she saw...but in the meantime, the class bully is inflicting more immediate pain on him.  And Laney doesn't know what to do about that, either.

Nor does she know how to figure out the question of who she really is--is Walt, the man she remember finding her as a baby, her real father, and who was her mother?

And then, just as she saw it happening, the fire starts....

The story is full of tension, as both Laney and the reader move toward the horrible event to come,  and Laney is a girl reader can relate to and sympathize with.  Or they can readily sypathize wiht Lyle, a geeky kid thrust into a horrible situation--the bullying he recieves is rather awful.  And though this isn't a book with tons of nuance, there's enough emotional warmth to go along with Laney's fascinating gift of future flashes to make for a fine read.

This is one to give to the kid, I'd say a fifth or sixth grader or thereabouts, who likes brisk realistic fiction (the themes of bullying and wondering about family secrets will be familiar ground) but is ready for a twist--Laney is an ordinary girl, but her fantastical gift is real, and powerful, and shapes her life.   On the other hand, the reader who loves Fantasy with a capital F may be a tad disappointed.  The flashes of precognition are not part of any larger phenomena, just one aspect of Laney's particular life, so they are more a useful and interesting plot element than the sort of fantastical premise that overwhelms just about everything else.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration

12/28/14

This Week's Round-Up of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science from around the Blogs (12/28/14)


Welcome to the last MG SFF round-up of 2014!  I myself was too busy having Merry Christmas to contribute, but happily others bravely kept on posting....let me know if I missed yours!

The Reviews

Ambassador, by William Alexander, at Semicolon

The City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda, at Twinja Book Reviews

Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George, at Read Till Dawn

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at The Reading Nook

The Ice Dragon, by George R.R. Martin, at Wondrous Reads

The Interrupted Tale (Incorrigible Children of Aston Place #4) by Maryrose Wood, at Semicolon

The Land of Stories, by Chris Colfer, at thebooksage

The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, at Hidden in Pages

Seven Wild Sisters, by Charles DeLint, at alibrarymama

Spell Robbers, by Matthew J. Kirby, at Read Till Dawn

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at alibrarymama

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Ex Libris

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--The City of Death, by Sarwat Chadda and Curse of the Iris, by Jason Fry

Other Good Stuff

"Why the Moomins are fiction's perfect family" at The Guardian

And don't forget to check the Cybil's website on the 1st of January for the announcement of the shortlists!   The elementary/middle grade spec. fic. list is rather nice this year, if I say so who shouldn't! 

12/21/14

Zodiac, by Romina Russell-- zodiac sci fi!!! with interview!

I am rather fond of fantasy that uses the Zodiac as a framing device for either plot or world-building (there's a book list down at the end of this post), and so I said yes with conviction when offered a review copy of Zodiac, by Romina Russell (Razorbill, YA, Dec. 2014).    I was especially curious about this one because it is the first time I've ever seen the zodiac used within a science fictional context taking place far from earth.

Far off in space each sign of the zodiac rules a planetary system, and the people of each system live according to the qualities of their particular governing sign.   Sixteen-year old Rho is a child of the planet Cancer--a nurturing, caring, ocean planet--and though she's heard stories of the other signs and their attributes, she's only met a handful of people who are from different worlds.   

But then Cancer is attacked.  Its moons are destroyed, and a horribly high-number of its people are killed.   Rho saw the attack coming, but no one took her seriously.....until after the fact.   After the tragedy, Rho is the only person with psychic gifts strong enough to lead her people, and in the most horrible of situations, she must put aside her own feelings to save Cancer, and the other signs as well.

For an old enemy has risen again to attack, a figure out of stories--Ophiuchus, the exiled 13th sign of the zodiac.   And no sign is safe.    But how can Rho, young and inexperienced, possibly convince the other leaders that the 13th sign is real?

It's a briskly moving story, with considerable tension as Ophuchus closes in.   For those that like romantic triangles, there's a rather good one here (involving a very appealing and interesting Libran, my favorite character in the book).  Those who like speculative fiction starring young people thrust abruptly into positions of power and desperately fighting against terrible odds should also enjoy it.

But what interested me most was the whole premise behind this universe, and so when I had the chance to send questions off to Romina Russell, that's what I asked about! Her answers are in blue, as befits House Cancer....

1. Were the qualities of each house of the Zodiac clear to you from the beginning, or did you have to change things to make the story work? And related to that, did you know from the get go that Rho would be from House Cancer?

One of the coolest parts of creating the Zodiac Universe was having a cheat sheet for the world building: astrology. I basically took the traditional horoscopes for each sign and built out worlds populated with people that fit each personality type.

As for making Rho a Cancrian, I knew I wanted to explore a different kind of hero in this universe, a character whose strength was in her heart and not her body. I was interested in taking a girl who wasn’t a warrior and discovering what weapon she would use to fight in a war. I wondered how she would save the world(s)…and whether or not she could.

2. And then as a minor related question-- some of the Houses are more appealingly portrayed than others (I would not want to be an Aries in your world!).    Have any friends and family complained because you made their signs of the Zodiac unappealing?

The complaints I’ve received are that people want to meet more characters from their own Houses! Which will happen—I promise! Aries is the most ancient of all the Houses, so it’s seen more civilizations come and go than the other planets. To me, that world most resembles a dystopian Earth because Arieans use military strength to solve their problems.

I think every House is a little imbalanced in this book because they’ve strayed so far apart, and the whole point is they’re at their best when the Zodiac is united and working together. Arieans would be better off if they embraced a little more of Cancrians’ nurturing natures, just as Cancrians would be better off if they toughened their planet’s protections and were better prepared for unexpected attacks.

3. I see in your bio that you are a Virgo- were you at all conscious of what Virgos were supposed to be like when you were little?  (I've known I was a Capricorn forever, and so have always had a firm belief that I possessed all the good qualities of that sign....and perhaps acted in more Capricorn-ish ways as a result...)

Pretty much the only thing I knew about the Zodiac when I started working on this series was my own sign—we’re supposedly practical, obsessive, fussy, controlling, perfectionists…and yes, I’m beginning to see your point! So fun that you’re a Capricorn—that’s where book two begins… (So you can tell me if you approve of its characterization when you read it!)

4. Which how do you make sense of the problem of having everyone each house share particular characteristics of personality?  Is it nature, or nurture?

Because it's based on the myths and figures found in astrology, the ZODIAC world is something of an exaggerated version of ours, as seen in the clear-cut personality types. But as with our world, Zodiac personalities are a combination of nature and nurture—the only difference being that in Rho's world, it's possible for nature to collide with nurture in such a way that it sends the whole galaxy off kilter!

Thank you Romina!   And thank you, Razorbill, for the review copy.

So yes, do try this one if you are at all interested in spec fic fun with the zodiac!

And as promised up at the top, here are other books that feature the zodiac, with links to my reviews:

Ludo and the Star Horse, by Mary Stewart
The Valley of Song, by Elizabeth Goudge
The 13th Sign, by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Which is only three.  I could have sworn there were more.....?

this week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs 12/21/14

It is entirely possible that due to multiple children celebrating the holidays with vim and vigor around me I missed multiple posts; please let me know if I missed yours!

Reviews

Ambassador, by William Alexander, at Charlotte's Library

The Cheshire Cheese Cat, by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright, at Librarian of Snark (audiobook review)

The Curse of the Iris (Jupiter Pirates 2), by Jason Fry, at Tosche Station

Darkmouth, by Shane Hegarty,  at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Dragon's Breath, by E.D. Baker, at Leaf's Reviews

The Foundry's Edge, by Cam Baity & Benny Zelkowicz, at Fantasy Literature

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Catherynne M. Valente, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Charlotte's Library

The Grimjinx Rebellion, by Brian Farrey, at Book Nut

He Laughed with His Other Mouths, by M.T. Anderson, at Original Content

The Ice Dragon, by George Martin, at Speculating on Spec Fic

Lord and Lady Bunny-Almost Royalty, by Polly Horvath, at Librarian of Snark

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Hope is the Word

Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, at books4yourkids

The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman, at Redeemed Reader

Pennyroyal Academy, by M.L. Larson, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale, at Leaf's Reviews

The Scavengers, by Michael Perry, at Redeemed Reader

Sky Run, by Alex Shearer, at Redeemed Reader

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at Librarian of Snark

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at Waking Brain Cells

The Terror of the Southlands, by Caroline Carlson, at The Book Monsters

Wild Born (Spirit Animals) by Brandon Mull, at Kid Lit Geek

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at Becky's Book Reviews

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, and The Twin Powers, by Robert Lipsyte, at The New York Times

Katherine Langrish rereads The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles


Authors and Interviews

Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities) is a featured author at the 2nd Annual Diversity Month at Twinja Book Reviews

Kate DiCamillo at The Washington Post


Other Good Stuff

Lots of good mg spec fic in this Harper Collins spring preview at Fuse #8

And speaking of mg spec fic books I'm looking forward to, Tor has a preview up of The Book of Storms, by Ruth Hatfield

Sherry at Semicolon has assembled a list of  the fabulous creatures/magical beings from the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

A Tuesday 10 of Christmas-y spec fic at Views from the Tesseract

and just as a something to think about end note, here's a look at the town in China that makes 60% of the world's Christmas decorations at The Guardian.

12/18/14

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford--a lovely Christmas time read

If you are looking for a lovely book to read aloud with your young ones (as in, 8-14 year olds) in front of the fire this Christmastime, Greenglass House, by Kate Milford (Clarion, middle grade, August 2014, 373 pp*) is an excellent choice.   So excellent that even though my suitcase is already heavy with books, I am taking it with us to grandma's house so that I can keep on reading it to my own boys.

Greenglass House is an inn perched high on a hill above a riverside town that's been a haven for smugglers for years and years.  And many of them have been guests at Greenglass House....But now it is Christmas vacation, and young Milo, whose parents own the inn, is looking forward to a peaceful time with no visitors at all. 

Ha.  One by one, an assortment of guests make their way through the snowy night to Greenglass House.  Each one thought they would be the only guest.  Each one has a secret.   And each secret has a connection to the history of the house....and one secret is deadly. 

As the snow keeps falling outside, the guests share stories, each adding a piece to the puzzle.  And Milo, with the help of Meddie, a girl his own age, who's shown up along with the extra helpers from the town, is determined to put the puzzle together.   Meddie convinces Milo to make it a game of Odd Trails--a role-playing fantasy adventure.  Given confidence by his new identity as a Blackjack (with its concomitant slate of abilities useful for a thief and a clue-hunter), and added and abetted by Meddie in her own role as semi-spirit character, Milo sets to work....

One story leads to another, and in the telling and finding and living of the stories Milo finds that there were secrets to Greenglass House he could never have dreamt of.

I sold this to my own children as a fantastical Westing Game like-story--the largish cast of characters, each with a mystery, gathered together against their will, reminded me strongly of that one.   It is different, of course, being really truly magical (thought the reader doesn't find our that part of the story till close to the end).    And it's different as well in its focus on one character, Milo, who's grappling with the story of his own adoption (from China) and identity alongside the external questions.  That being said, Meddy, though essentially a sidekick, is a lovely character in her own right!

There's a touch of the quirkily surreal (what with the smugglers and some of the character's backstories, as well as the role-playing game that Milo and Meddy are playing) that might not be to everyone's taste, and it's a bit slow to start, perhaps--a lot of people have to arrive--but once things get going, they go just beautifully.  The result is a rich, lovely story that's one of my personal favorites of the year. 

This is partly because I love old house stories, and this is a gorgeous one--stained glass, for instance, is important to the story, and there is also the sort of attic that is a dream come true for readers who like attics full of Stuff.  It's also because I loved Milo and Meddy (Milo's parents are lovely too, and it is a nice treat to have caring, present parents in a middle grade fantasy!).  And it's also because of the layers of story within story building up on each other, as the snow builds up outside and Christmas gets closer.....


*I put the number of pages in because Amazon inexplicably says it has only 176, which is rather misleading.....

12/16/14

Running Out of Time, by Elizabeth Levy, for Timeslip Tuesday

The best thing I can say about Running Out of Time, by Elizabeth Levy (1980), is that now I have read it I no longer have to keep it in my home.  It is not so bad as to be risible, but the clunky prose, feeble characterization, and truncated plot result in a book that is less than enjoyable for the adult reader.   The magic of a trip back in time to ancient Rome might, however, please a younger reader (judging from comments on Goodreads).

Three kids are training for a marathon.  They run through a fog back in time to Ancient Rome (as one does).  There they are, for no good reason, assumed to be slaves, and are pressed into the gang of gladiators out for a training run (who knew gladiators were taken for runs?).    They meet Spartacus, who takes them under his wing.  He belives they are from the future.  One of the kids, a girl named Francie, has to fight in the arena.  This is the catalyst that sparks Spartacus' rebellion.   The gladiators fight their way out of Rome, and a fog comes up that lets the kids go back to their own time.

Here's the main problem with the book--there are three kids and two would be plenty.  We start with Nina's point of view, and, not unnaturally, I assumed she would be the main character.   Mostly, though, things focus on Francie, who likes pizza more than Nina does and who is not as naturally athletic or spunky.   Nina seemed to have more potential....but it never happened.  Bill did not need to be in the story at all.  He was a waste of page space.  In short, there are no interesting, well-developed characters.

Here's the second, slightly less main, problem--the emotional intensity of Spartacus' desperate position was growing....what would happen?  and then-fog happened and the kids went back to their own time.  Kind of a let down.

Here's the third problem--good time travel plays with the tension of being a stranger in a strange land.  Apart from some questioning along the lines of "gladiators?"  there is none of this tension here.  It's the sort of time travel where all the language/clothing difficulties are magically smoothed over.   Good time travel also offers at least some sort of reason for the thing to have happened, even if it is just a slight connection of sympathy or similarity.   Here the only point of connection was long distance running, which seemed too slight.

The illustrations, by W.T. Mars, do not further enhance the story.  As is clear from the cover, he seems to have trouble with arms.

However, if you want your children to learn about Spartacus they could read this.  I learn history best through fiction, and feel slightly more Spartacus-literate than I did before.  I had not, for instance, known that his wife was involved.  (I've never seen the movie).

12/15/14

Ambassador, by William Alexander--really good alien sci fi for the middle grade reader

Ambassador, by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2014, middle grade)

Gabe Fuentes is a good kid.  His mom knows he can be trusted with his two toddler siblings.   And a mysterious Envoy decides that he can be trusted with the job as Earth's ambassador to the vast diplomatic consortium of alien civilizations.    Yes, he is young (11), but that's actually a requirement for the job--this diplomacy relies on the fact that young people are more open minded and ready to be friends through play than adults.  So Gabe is given the ability to visit the virtual space of the intergalactic embassy, and make contact with other sentient beings.....

But all is not happy playground fun.   An aggressive species is spreading terror as it conquers planet after planet, sending alien refugees fleeing into space.  And there's someone, or something, lurking in Earth's own asteroid belt and not broadcasting friendly messages.  And on top of that, someone/thing is trying to assassinate Gabe.

Life on earth isn't any better.  Gabe's Mexican parents are in the country illegally, and when his dad is caught rolling through a stop sign he ends up in jail, waiting to be deported.   Then Gabe's house implodes (not by chance).   Gabe's family needs him badly....but so does Earth....

Why I liked this Book:

The people:
--Gabe is a Nice, thoughtful, sympathetic, boy--really truly likeable.  

--the Envoy, doing the best he can to help Gabe, makes a likeable sidekick whose powers and knoweldge are never quite up to expectations--he can't magically save the day.

--Gabe's family is warm and idiosyncratic and real and (unusual in MG fiction) alive and caring.

--there are sundry aliens of interest, many of whom I want to know more about, and one of whom doesn't behave the way everyone else is expecting he should.

The story:

--this is a lovely adventure with multiple alien species that is just a perfect introduction to that genre for the 11 year old.   Not only is it a good story qua story, it is also a friendly one for the fan of fantasy--the portal to the intergalactic embassy, peopled by strange beings, might as well be magic (the "science" isn't explained, so on the downside this one might not work for those with trouble suspending disbelief).

--even though the ending suddenly introduces a whole new plot twist, and doesn't actually Finish anything, the story hung together enough that I didn't mind (though I know of others who did object, so your mileage may vary....).  I am actually rather glad to have the sequel to look forward to in an active spirit of anticipation.

--the intertwining of socio-political contexts, with refugees in space and on Earth, was very satisfying.

Final thought:

I am not always on board with the opinions of whoever is reviewing middle grade science fiction and fantasy for Kirkus, but in this case I agree that this one deserves its star.

(I also like it when book covers go well with my blog's color scheme; Ambassador might have been designed with my blog in mind, and I appreciate that.)
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration

12/14/14

This Week's Round-up of Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy From Around the Blogs (12/14/14)

I myself have been missing in action for much of this week--library booksale time (and I miscalculated--I thought  I'd get a rush of holiday shoppers looking for book bargins, but it seem as though most people don't give used books as presents....odd).

Let me know if I missed your link!

The Reviews

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar, at Charlotte's Library

Almost Super, by Marion Jensen, at alibrarymama

The Black Stars, by Dan Krokos, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at The Children's Book Review

Cakes in Space, by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, at Readaraptor

Curse of the Broomstaff, by Tyler Whitesides, at Batch of Books

The Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Dream Keeper, by Mikey Brooks, at Tales from the Raven

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at This Kid Reviews Books

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at alibrarymama

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at That's Another Story

Fyre, by Angie Sage, at The Write Path

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, by Sheila Turnage, at Read Till Dawn

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Book Nut

The Ice Dragon, by George R.R. Martin, at Best Fantasy Books

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini, at One Librarian's Book Reviews

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, by Greg Leitich Smith, at Jean Little Library

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Orphan and the Mouse, by Martha Freeman, at Kid Lit Geek

A Plague of Unicorns, by Jane Yolen, at The Write Stuff

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at Spirit of Children's Literature

The Sixteen, by Ali B, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Spirit Animals: Wild Born, by Brandon Mull, at Leaf's Reviews

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at alibrarymama

The Thickety, by J.A. White, at School Library Journal

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover, at Fantasy Book Critic

Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson, at Dead Houseplants

The Whispering Trees (The Thickety Book 2), by J.A. White, at The Social Potato

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at books4yourkids

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Five short ones at Random Musings of a Bibliophile-- The Ambassador, The Children of the King, Dreamwood, Pathfinder, and The Time of the Fireflies


Authors and Interviews

Sarwat Chadda (The Savage Fortress) at Twinja Book Reviews (part of Diversity Month)

Kelly Barnhill talks fairytales at Nerdy Book Club

Jane Yolen (A Plague of Unicorns) at The Write Stuff


Other Good Stuff:

Neil Gaiman reads Jabberwocky, at Educating Alice

From io9--watch Hayao Miyazaki create Studio Ghibli

and that's it for this week.............

12/9/14

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar, for Timeslip Tuesday

Abracadabra Tut, by Page McBriar (Palm Canyon Press, July 2014, middle grade)--modern magic meets ancient Egypt in an entertaining and educational time travel adventure.

When Fletcher Perry finds out there's an auction of a magician's collection just down the road, he has to go--he's been practicing stage magic for years, and is eager to add to his own collection.  He gets more than he bargained for when a mysterious older woman makes the winning bid on a genuine mummy's coffin....on his behalf.   It's the perfect prop for his upcoming performance at school, and with his ne assistant, the It girl Arielle Torres, at his side, he's sure that this show will really make his mark as a magician.

But there is magic at work....the mysterious woman, who barges into the show, turns  out to be the Egyptian goddess Isis herself--and she has plans for Fletcher.  Unfortunatlly, her final instructions get garbled when she's evicted from the premises, and when Arielle and Fletcher shut themselves in the mummy's case for their disappearing act, they open it to find themselves back in Egypt.  With very little clue what they are supposed to be doing there.

When they find themselves in the palace of Tutankhamen, they think they must be there to save his life.  Fortunately, he's impressed by Fletcher's magic.  Unfortunately, others in power are not.  So Fletch and Arielle must work quickly to save themselves from being stuck in ancient Egypt forever, by figuring out what Isis wants them to do before it becomes clear that Fletcher's "magic" can't save the pharaoh's life.

It's an exciting trip back in time, and King Tut's court is vividly portrayed.  There's lots of ancient Egyptian excitement and intrigue, and Fletcher and Arielle are worthy protagonists.  This is a good one for the younger middle grade reader who went through an Egypt phase as a younger child (which many of them seem to do!).  The adventures are exciting without being so gruesomely intense that they disturb, and the story is straightforward, with Fletcher's magic tricks adding a lightness to ensemble.   It's not quite complex enough to deeply engage older readers, but for the nine or ten year old, I think it's spot on.

Arielle's family is from Mexico, and so this is one I can count for my Multicultural Speculative Fiction list.  Yay!

disclaimer: review copy received for Cybils Award consideration

12/8/14

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan (Ravenstone, October 2014) is not a middle grade sci fi/fantasy such as I usually read and review, nor it is the sort of YA fantasy that shows up here at lot, though it is YA.  In large part this is because Shadowboxer is not your run-of-the-mill YA speculative fiction, and that is the reason I said yes please when offered a review copy, despite uncertainty about whether I'd enjoy it.  Happily, I did...and though I do have to say it isn't really a book for me personally, it's one I'm glad to have on my multicultural spec. fic. list.

The main character is a young black Latina woman, Jade, who is a fierce mixed arts fighter not quite old enough to turn professional.  She is struggling to keep her anger inside the ring, and not screw up her life.   This resolution snaps one night and she punches a Hollywood martial arts star who annoys her (and he is annoying), and  instead of  the star whisking her off on a path to a fame and fortune, her coach sends her away from New York to train at an obscure camp in Thailand.

And there Jade finds her story becoming part of one that's a heck of a lot stranger.  A man determined to live for ever has found a way into an otherworld...and he's prepared to steal the souls of the children he's kidnapped to open its gates for him. 

A young reporter, trying to gather evidence that will stop the kidnappings, got trapped in the other world, and only the magical intervention of one of its powerful spirit persons got him out again.   He comes to New York to continue his hunt, and he and Jade fall in love.  All the while, the minions of the bad guy are hunting them, the NYPD is concerned by the fall-out of all the violent havoc (but since they aren't including a magical otherworld in their calculations they are clueless), and Jade must keep training, keep out of trouble (though it sure has found her) or else she'll screw up the Really Big Chance that's come her way.

And in the meantime, Mya, one of the stolen kids who can enter the otherworld at will, has realized her master wants to move his soul into her body.  Now she is desperately trying to save herself, and save the children her master had already disposed of in the otherworld...with help from the food in Jade's fridge (taken without asking!).

Busy, busy plot.   Colorful fantasy meeting real world story.  Stong, realistically confused, realistically emotionally overwhelmed, character.   Nice appreciation for the work and craft of mixed martial arts.   Sex.  Strong language.  Vivid supporting characters.

It didn't all quite come together into a book I could love, but that might be a matter of personal preference, because the violence of mixed martial arts cage matches repels me.....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

12/7/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (12/7/14)

I'm a little late getting this week's round-up posted, but for a rather relevant, as well as very pleasant, reason--I was busy chatting with Sage Blackwood, who is visiting these parts.   (Here's what was especially interesting--my favorite part of Jinx is the bit before Things Really Start Happening, and Sage wrote lots more of this part that didn't make it into the final book....sigh.)

As always, please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron, at Charlotte's Library

Dark Lord: School's Out, by Jamie Thompson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Shelf Space Needed

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at books4yourkids, Hope is the Word, and Pages Unbound

Hades Speaks! by Vicky Alvear Shecter, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones, at alibrarymama

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas, at Charlotte's Library

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis,  at Charlotte's Library

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach, at Read Till Dawn

Pathfinder, by Angie Sage, at Redeemed Reader

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at SLJ (audiobook review)

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine, at Charlotte's Library

Sleeping Beauty's Daughters, by Diane Zahler, at Tales of the Marvelous

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Semicolon

The Squickerwonkers, by Evangeline Lilly, at Wondrous Reads

Time Square: UFO, by S.W. Lothian, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Nerdy Book Club and A Fantastical Librarian

Zero Degree Zombie Zone, by Patrik Henry Bass, at alibrarymama

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Ex Libris

Two audiobooks at Librarian of Snark--Under Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, and The Magician, by Michael Scott


Authors and Interviews

David Almond at The Guardian

Kate Hall (The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind) at The Book Smugglers


Other Good Stuff

This week's Tuesday Ten at Views from the Tesseract is a collection of  ships.

It's the second Annual Diversity Month at Twinja Book Reviews--check it out!

The most recent short story published by The Book Smugglers, The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind, is up at their site,and is a lovely mg one.

And now I must get back to busy busy reading for the Cybils Awards....I have 40 books left to read out of 155.....

12/6/14

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vincent Compestine (Harry N. Abrams, January 2014, middle grade)

Ming's father is the local archaeologist in a small town in Maoist China in the 1970s.  But Chairman Mao is not a friend of intellectuals--Ming's father is in danger of losing his job unless he can make a spectacular find, and Ming himself is the friendless target of the anti-intellectuals in the community.   One day, when his father is off in the city, men come to Ming's home with the find that will put his town on the map.  They have found the fragments of a life-sized terra-cotta soldier.

Maybe the rumors are true, and the tomb of the great Emperor Qin who united China in 221 BCE, who is guarded in death by a whole army of such soldiers, is nearby....but can what can Ming, one lonely and hungry boy, do to find and claim it for his father's sake?

And then Ming finds he has an unlikely ally--the terra-cotta soldier, once a soldier named Shi, is alive.   Shi shares with Ming the story of his life in the emperor's army thousands of years ago...and as the local communist leaders/bullies move in on the tomb, Shi takes Ming there to save it from their plan to dynamite their way in.

Both stories--that of Ming and Shi in the present, and Shi in the past, are fascinating, and any kid with an interest in archaeology will be intrigued.    The exploration of the emperor's tomb, filled with traps, is especially exciting.   It's also a nice introduction to life in China under Mao, and black and white photographs, some of archaeological finds, some showing life in Communist China, that make it clear that the story is based in reality. 

The mix of the two stories, the photographs, and the crisp narration make this a good one for the type of kid who isn't into voluminous fantasy but prefers non-fiction, who might be ready for an interesting change of pace.

I myself found it made a nice change, as kids books in which fantasy intrudes into Communist Chinese village life are not exactly thick on the ground!

12/4/14

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis (Little Brown, November 2014, middle grade/ages 9-12)

When the Enterprising Kraken, a magical ship sailing the magical waters of the Pirate Stream, shows up in an empty Arizona parking lot, Marrill is (understandably) taken aback.  And when the fates conspire to get her on board, and sailing off with the old wizard Ardent who is its captain, she is less than pleased.   She just wants to get home to her sick mom.   But the waters of the Pirate Stream, which connect all of creation, are not so easily navigated....

At the next port of call, the city of Kaznot, Marrill meets a young thief Fin, caught in a sticky situation of his own, and he too comes on board.   He's just committed the most audacious robbery of his life, and in so doing, he's freed the mysterious Oracle, a powerful lunatic determined to bring the world to an end as he saw it happen in his prophetic visions.   But Fin has a problem that matters even more to him than keeping ahead of disaster--Fin is eminently forgettable, so much so that he can meet a person every day of his life, and they won't remember him.  Except for Marrill, who can, making her friendship of incalculable worth to him.  She is the only person who might ever value him--unless his own mother, who left him at an orphanage when he was four-ish, still remembers....

So Marrill and Fin both want to find their way to their mothers, and the wizard Ardent's own quest might be their only hope.  He is searching for the pieces of the great map that gives its user a measure of control over the Pirate Stream--if they can put it together, they can maybe find their ways to where they want to be.

But the Oracle is also looking for the map--and if he gets a hold of it, he'll be able to end the world.

The first part of the book sets things up just beautifully.  Marrill and Fin quickly become people to care about.  Fin, with his truly poignant curse of forgetability, is my favorite boy character in this year's crop of middle grade fantasy.  The authors do a really good job presenting the problems, opportunities, and pain of his disability, and making them part of the story.  And the world of the Pirate Stream is fascinating, and the quest of the map promises a nice structure for the adventure to come. 

I was, though, somewhat disappointed by the actual adventuring in this first book, which basically consists of two distinct episodes of Magical Encounter on land interspersed with the Oracle showing up, and not being quite ready to defeat the crew of the Enterprising Kraken (because of having to wait until everything is happening the way his prophecies said it would). There were also confusing pirates who I found distracting (but that is a personal weakness).

Both the two magical adventures had a Phantom Tollbooth feel to them--if you like the Phantom Tollbooth, you'll probably enjoy them more than I did.   I myself don't really like episodes of quirky, imaginative fun that feel to me self-consciously aware that they are offering quirky, imaginative fun.  For instance, in the second adventure, which takes place in a setting so cold words freeze when they come from your mouth, the antagonist is identified as "the Naysayer" by the authors, not by anyone within the book (to the best of my knowledge).  It just felt a bit too much "children having a magical adventure!" as opposed to "this is a story that is making me be right there, emotionally committed and believing in it 100%. 

Despite my own reservations, I can imagine young readers being utterly delighted.  And indeed, The Map to Everywhere has gotten tons of glowing reviews, which I include here for the sake of Balance:

* "Ryan and Davis' swashbuckling quest features fantastic world building, gnarly creatures, and a villain who is both spooky and formidable.... The unique details, expert plotting, charming characters, and comic interludes combine in a tantalizing read."—Booklist, starred review

* "Wholly original.... This is an ambitious undertaking, and strong readers who enjoy adventure fiction and fantasy will inhale the first book in what has the potential to be an extraordinary series."—School Library Journal, starred review

* "Vividly cast.... Multifaceted characters, high stakes, imaginative magic, and hints of hidden twists and complexities to come."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

* "Fast-paced and imaginative, this adventure combines action with whimsy, injecting emotion and pathos into an otherwise lighthearted romp. It's a strong start for what promises to be a highly enjoyable series."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

And here's Stephanie's review, at Views From the Tesseract, which is also glowing.

But in any event, though this one didn't work perfectly for me, I myself will be looking forward to the next installment! (Fin....what will become of you????)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

12/3/14

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas

The Magic Thief  was one of my favorite books of 2008. It was one of the first books I read for the Cybils that year, and it stayed firmly in the small group of books I was determined to push onto our final shortlist of elementary and middle grade speculative fiction. Happily, no pushing was required.

The passage of years has not changed my opinion-- it is a great book for a ten or eleven year old fantasy reader.   It has an interesting story, endearing characters, fascinating magic, a tough older man (Bennet) who knits and bakes biscuits (so few middle grade novels shatter gender stereotypes, and this is one of the best examples going!).

Then came The Magic Thief: Lost in 2009, and The Magic Thief: Found in 2010....which were kind of sadder, so it was harder for me to love them personally as much, and then Sarah Prineas wrote a whole different trilogy (Winterling, Summerkin, and Moonkind), which was lovely too, but it resulted in a long and anxious wait for those of us (like me and my target audience member child)  who love Conn and co. to pieces!

Now another Cybils season is here, and lo, The Magic Thief: Home (HarperCollins, September 2014) is not only in the world, it is on the list of nominated books, which means that I actually read it (all to often I fall into the trap of buying books I really really want to read right when they come out, and then letting them sit because, uh, I know I'll enjoy them....so at least this one didn't have too terribly long to wait).



It is a fourth book, and so best appreciated by those who loved the first three.   The action is somewhat slow to get going--Conn, his memories now restored, and his magical dragon Pip at his side, is trying to figure out his place in the world.  And so we meet old friends, see trouble beginning to brew, see Conn not being happy with what other people want him to be....and then Trouble starts, and things really get hopping.    An old enemy has returned to the city, and the fragile peace that Conn has brokered between its two magics is in jeopardy.  As is Conn's life, and the life of dear Pip the dragon, and lots of other things too.

It's all very satisfying.  Those who liked the first three books will like this one too.  

Small things that I especially liked:

Conn's sentimental attachment to the black sweater Bennet knit him.

The nascent romance between Rowan and Embre, and the fact that Embre is a character whose badly broken legs means he uses a wheelchair but that this does not define him.

Bennet's to-do list.

And most of all, the fact that this particular happy ending is one that satisfies my maternal heart--Conn is really truly home at the end.   And having a home where you are loved and your gifts and quirks of personality are appreciated is about the best ending there is.

12/2/14

Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron, for Timeslip Tuesday

Such a happy thing to find a book that you'd never heard about (because of being dense, and never thinking to look) by a favorite author- and then to find that it's a time travel book set in a big old almost castle house in Scotland  (a type of book I like).   In this spirit I began reading Beyond Silence, by Eleanor Cameron (1980).

But then.  Such a sad thing to find that this is actually a pretty bad book.

Oh  Eleanor Cameron.  What were you thinking?  I love Court of the Stone Children, I re-read A Room Made of Windows and the other Julia books lots....you were good, Eleanor, at bringing to life smart, introspective girls.  So why did you think it would be good to write about a teenage boy?  It didn't work.

Andrew, the young protagonist, has come to Scotland to stay in the ancestral home, now a hotel.  His brother died after coming back broken from the Vietnam War.  His parents' marriage is on the rocks.  And Andrew himself is battling demons in the form of haunting nightmares about his brother's death, in a car accident whose immediate aftermath he saw.  And now in Scotland he is being haunted, but much more magically and pleasantly, by a young woman who lived there a hundred years (or so) earlier--Deirdre, who once was loved by another young Andrew, and who knew tragedy of her own.

The timeslip bits involving Andrew seeing Deirdre in the past, and occasionally her hearing/sensing him, are rather pleasant and not fraught with tragedy--it's time slip as window between times.   But the Point of it all, the connection I assume was happening in Eleanor Cameron's mind between the time travel and Andrew's mental healing went right over me.   Sure it gave Andrew something to think about, and put him in a state of open-ness that let him recover the memories of the details of his brother's death, but that isn't all that much of a connection.  And sure it's always nice to read about people time slipping around in a pretty uneventful way, but the level of interaction between times was never great enough to be a worthwhile story arc in its own right.

Instead, what we get is Andrew (boringly) rehashing the same things over and over again in really over-wrought prose:

"The rain was swept and driven all night long.  Even in my sleep, I was aware of it, and that I struggled, not physically, but in  my mind, and this struggle was so exhausting that I could have cried for mercy, yet I would not let my struggles go." (page 131)

Turgid prose.  I was all, like, get over your clauses, Eleanor.  Even as I read, I struggled, not physically, but mentally, as the book continued on its melancholy way, and yet I had to finish it.

And then when Andrew achieves peace, he ends up with Deirdre's portrait which he hangs in his college dorm some years later.  Which is odd, and probably not going help him socially.

Also odd is Eleanor Cameron trying to write about teenage male sexuality in a convincing way, and not being wildly successful.

Short answer:  don't bother unless you are a romantic introspective young teen reader from 1980, back when satisfying books were thin on the ground.  The time travel isn't enough to make it worthwhile to read on that account, and the rest of the story doesn't make up for it. 

12/1/14

Uncle John's Weird Weird World: Who, What, When, and Wow!

And now for something completely different, did you know that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese had its origins in a failed attemped to get Americans to by powdered cheese?    Did you know that virtually all the domesticated Golden hamsters in the world are descended from a single litter, plucked from the wild in 1930?  Did you know that there is a cocktail that's a mix of mild and beer? (gah.)

I now know these things, and many more, thanks to Uncle John's Weird Weird World: Who, What, When, and Wow! (Nov., 2014).


This is the first volume to come from the Bathroom Readers' Institute (the folks behind the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader) that has pictures!  All sorts of interesting, eye-brow raising, and even useful bits of information gathered by Uncle John over the past thirty years are now accompanied by bright illustrations.  The result, for us children's book cognoscenti, is something like a Ripley's Believe It or Not book, only with slightly more grown-up oriented content.  Not so grown-up, though, as to make it one you'd keep from falling into the hands of the young...but heavy enough so that you would not want it to fall on the heads of the young.

Here's what I liked best--reading about Sequoia and his creation of the Cherokee Alphabet.  But there were so many, many good little bon mots for the mind--the fact that "meh" first appeared on tv in a Simpson's episode, the fact that the chicken/road joke first appeared in print in 1847, interesting little stories of people being stupid...so many, many things to learn (many of which were trivial, but some actually useful and enlightening).  Some are little bites of information, but others pleasingly extended to double pages (like "how the ballpoint pen got rolling").

Give this one to the young teen who loves things like The Darwin Awards, and the aforementioned Ripley's Believe it or Not.  Give it to you dentist, or better yet, my dentist, for waiting room entertainment.   I myself cannot put this book in my bathroom (no appropriate shelf, and the floor too often has wet towels on it, thanks to the boys), but other people's bathrooms would be good homes for it too. 

It would also be a good book to quickly dip into before Family Gatherings this holiday season--lots of good topics of conversation.   Like "Someday I'd love to go see the cricket spitting contest at Perdue University."  Or perhaps "did you know that Psycho was the first movie to show a toilet being flushed.  This resulted in complaints about indecency."  But you have to be careful if you try this at the dinner table.  I just tried the Psycho one on my husband, and he went into great detail about how the knife stabbing thing was done, which is not really what one wants at supper....

disclaimer: review copy provided by the publisher

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