Nomad, by William Alexander--excellent middle grade sci fi

Nomad, by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Sept. 2015), is the continuation of the story begun in Ambassador (here's my review of that one).  I hesitate to call it a sequel, because that implies there's a clear cut book one and book two, and Ambassador ended so abruptly, so cliff-hangery, with so much more to come, that it didn't quite seem a complete book on its own.  On the other hand, Alexander did an utterly amazing job making Nomad able to stand alone (I know two readers who were surprised there was a first book), while simultaneously picking up what was started in Ambassador and running with it, that I am almost able to forgive him for the trauma of how the first came to a close.  But now they are both out, and if you haven't read them yet, get them both at the same time and treat them as one story split into two books, and you will be in for a treat!  These books are absolutely top notch sci fi for middle grade readers, and older ones too!

Gabe Fuentes, once an ordinary kid, is Earth's ambassador to a  universe full of alien cultures.  Every species has an ambassador, and they are all kids, because only kids can use the mind warping mechanism that makes communication possible.   Earth doesn't know about Gabe, though, nor do they know that the planet is in danger from an alien race, the Outlast, bent on taking over everything.  The Kaen, a nomadic clan of space wanderers, has come to our solar system to escape the Outlast, and Gabe hopes they can help defeat them....but he has not a clue how.

Meanwhile, Gabe's ambassadorial predecessor, a Russian girl named Nadia, has also met up with Kaen.  She left her post years back to try a daredevil mission into the travel lanes of another group of aliens...the same travel lanes that the Outlast are using for their intergalactic blitzkrieg.  That journey left her blind, with a fried visual cortex (for those who dislike magical/sci fi healing--it doesn't happen for Nadia), and the Kaen have taken her in.  Gabe and Nadia, and the young Kaen ambassador, continue to try to find out how they can close the travel lanes....but the Outlast are drawing ever closer, and time is running out.

And Gabe is also worried for his family--his Mexican parents came to the US illegally, and his dad has been deported (and his home blown up, as told in book 1).  So the struggle against the Outlast is combined with Gabe's own journey back to Earth to find his father, and sort things out for his family, while being pursued by hostile aliens (as if boarder patrol worries weren't enough). 

It is an utterly compelling set up, with utterly compelling characters.  That being said, these aren't books I'd give to kids who have to have things Happening all the time; there's rather a lot of fretting in place, as opposed to running around like crazy, acting adventurously.  So much fretting, indeed, that I got a bit twitchy from it (possibly I was fretting more than the characters...).  But gee, the scope and wonder of the story are mind-candy for readers who are science fictionally inclined.  And the themes of communication and seeking safety are timely and well-written without belaboring the point.  I also very much enjoyed how much the Kaen appreciated Mayan culture--they met the Mayans when their nomadic path took them past Earth millennia ago, and borrowed many elements of their art and architecture (copying the Mayan pyramids for themselves, in a  nice twist on the regular aliens building them stories).

And this time around, Alexander ends with an ending.  A good one.  (Except I really really want to know what happens to the Outlast ambassador...his story is still a very open ended one and I care about him, even though he was ostensibly the Enemy).

My short answer--it's a bit like David Brin for the young-complicated, very inventive, the believability of its reality stretched almost to breaking point, and memorable as all get out.   If you have a young sci fi minded reader who needs a present, do consider these two books.

disclaimer: review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (11/29/15)

Nothing from me this week--I have been reading lots, but not reviewing; instead I am spending the last of my feeble strength trying to get the living room French doors sanded and reinstalled; they had spent the last fifty or so years down in the basement, which wasn't good for them.  I thought (in my usual haplessly optimistic way) that it would be but the work of moments...ha ha ha.

The Reviews

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Fantasy of the Silver Dragon

The Copper Gauntlet, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Reading Rumpus Book Reviews

A Curious Tale of the In-Between, by Lauren DeStefano, at Winter Haven Books

The Diamond Looking Glass, by Dorine White, at Always in the Middle

Dragon Spear, by Jessica Day George, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

Escape from Baxter's Barn, by Rebecca Bond, at Hope is the Word

Fires of Invention, by J. Scott Savage, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Sonderbooks

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Read Till Dawn

Grounded, by Megan Morrison, at alibrarymama

Hoodoo, by Roland L. Smith, at Sharon the Librarian

I'm With Cupid, by Anna Staniszewski, at Log Cabin Library

The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste, at Randomly Reading

Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill, by Otfried Preussler, at Emerald City Book Review

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, by Jayne Barnard, at Buried Under Books

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

Max Helsing and the Thirteenth Curse, by Curtis Jobling, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, at On Starships and Dragonwings

The Rosemary Spell, by Virginia Zimmerman, at The Nocturnal Library

Shadows of Sherwood, by Kekla Magoon, at In Bed With Books

A World Without Princes, by Soman Chainani, at Sometimes I Read

The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf, at My Brain On Books

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Leaf's Reviews

The Wrinkled Crown, by Anne Nesbet, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Three at alibrarymama--The  Copper Gauntlet, The Hollow Boy, and Nightborn, and three more at Dead Houseplants--Diary of a Mad Brownie, Harriet the Invincible, and Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures.

 Authors and Interviews

Dianne K. Salerni (The Eighth Day) at Project Mayhem, on dispatching the bad guy

Michael Gibney (The Three Thorns) at Diana's Book Reviews

Other Good Stuff

Asteroid mining is now legal, so you can go read MiNRS to get a look at that happy future (some sarcasm, given what happens in MiNRS....)

Guest of the Month Club--Reading Around the World with Emily of Follow the Yellow Book Road

Today I'm taking part in the Guest of the Month Club, hosted by Emily Reads Everything.  This month's topic was "what do you do when you're not blogging," and I was partnered with Emily of Follow the Yellow Book Road.  Here's Emily, travelling around the world while managing to get some reading in!

When I was in the 8th grade, a teacher was organizing an educational trip to France, Brussels, and Amsterdam. In order to go on trip, I fundraised (with quite a bit of help from my parents). That trip was my first taste of travel and I loved it! I enjoyed seeing new places, learning and experiencing history, trying new food, and meeting new people. It wasn’t until after college that I was able to make traveling a significant part of my life. I have been to 21 countries and my bucket list just keeps growing. After travelling I've learned to always stock up my Kindle before I leave.

Here is a quick top 5 destination list for you with some stories about reading around the world. 

Best trip for snorkeling/diving: Maldives! Talk about paradise. These tiny sand bar type islands are breathtakingly beautiful. The climate and the coral reefs are perfect for seeing all types of sea life. Some of the highlights of this trip included: clownfish (Nemo!), manta rays, stonefish, and lionfish.

I went to the Maldives, before I had my Kindle. I brought two books with me on this trip and finished one on the flight there. I finished the other one pretty quickly too. Luckily, the resort we were staying at had a "library" it was a sort of "take one, leave one" library. I was set up by languages and the English section was pretty small, but I was able to find two books to borrow and returned them before we left. I loved being able to read on the beach, completely uninterrupted. I also donated one of my books to the library.

Favorite City: Florence, Italy! I spent two days walking around this city and loved it. The churches were beautiful, there was plenty of shopping, and lots of small cafes. We saw the Statue of David and I was sure to rub the snout of the bronze boar to ensure that I would return to Florence.

Before this trip, I added a couple new books to my Kindle. But the tour was SO jam packed that the only time I had to read was on the flights.

Favorite trip in the US: Hawaii! We did a cruise in order to see multiple islands. I loved how there was the opportunity to experience history at Pearl Harbor. I also enjoyed swimming at various waterfalls in Maui. The views were amazing; we saw volcanos, waterfalls, pineapple plantations, the Na Pali Coast, and more.

Surprisingly, I didn't bring a book or my Kindle on this trip. But the cruise ship had a library, so I borrowed a book to read. Unfortunately I didn't get to finish the book and had to return it. I was pretty engrossed in the book and thought for sure I would remember the title and author. Of course, when I got home and actually looked for the book, I couldn't remember the title or author.

Favorite Country: Greece! Hands down, I have been 3 times and each time I loved it more and more. Greece truly has everything you could want in a travel destination: beautiful beaches/islands, awesome mountainsides, great food, incredibly kind people, history that you can’t get enough of, busy cities, and old fashioned towns.

The first time I went, I brought a couple physical books with me and traded with my sister part way through the trip. The other two times, I brought my kindle with me.

My most adventurous trip: Africa! My husband and I signed up for a group tour. We traveled by bus to several countries and camped most nights. The safaris were amazing (my favorite was the Ngorongoro Crater) and we met some awesome people from around the world. After the group tour we spent about a week on our own and swam in the Devil’s Pool in Victoria Falls.

On this trip, I knew I'd have a ton of time traveling from place to place. I stocked up my Kindle before we left, about half way through the trip I had read everything. Luckily, we had a one night stop in a hotel with wi-fi and I was able to download several more books. There was one day that we were on the bus for 12 hours and I read two whole books.

It's kind of funny, because this is the first time I've tried to remember what books I've read in various destinations and I really can't place everything.

Thank you so much, Emily, for being my partner!  I hope you have lots more lovely trips to come! 

And you can find out more about me (nothing surprising) at my post over at Emily's place...


A Blind Guide to Stinkville, by Beth Vrabel

One of my favorite books when I was a young reader was Light a Single Candle, by Beverly Butler, about a girl who goes blind and how she copes with her new reality.  My fondness for that book led me to look forward to A Blind Guide to Stinkville, by Beth Vrabel (Sky Pony Press, middle grade, October 2015) .  It, too, is about a girl who is almost, but not quite, blind, coping with a new reality, and though it really isn't much like Light a Single Candle, I enjoyed it for its own merits.

For Alice, her minimal eyesight is not new; she has albinism, with profound side effects on her ability to see.  But she doesn't think of herself as blind, because with a strong magnifying glass she can read print, and because even though the world is a blur, it's still a blur she sees.  But it's one thing to live in a blur of the place you've grown up in, and another to be transplanted to a strange town, navigating both a new external world of people and places (and realizing that your ability to be independent is not all that great), and navigating the changes it's brought to her family. Her mom is profoundly depressed, and Alice, her father, and brother, are all feeling rather fragile and tense as a result.  So there's a lot on Alice's plate.  And then her parents decide that she should go to a school for the blind....even as she's beginning to make a place for herself in the seeing world of her new town. 

Alice doesn't feel sorry for herself because she is different, but that doesn't mean she is a Pollyanna (always being Glad).  Her main problems (old friends and family and new friends who are tricky waters to navigate, and her dog being sick) are problems anyone might have, and though in Alice's case her differences don't make things any easier, her reality is her reality and she doesn't once think "if I were like everyone else everything would be better."  She does resist going to the school for the blind, because that's not how she defines herself, but she's sensible enough to realize, once she visits the place, that there are useful things she can learn that will help her grow in independence.

And so the thrust of the book is about growing and listening to other people's stories and finding a sense of place in a strange blurry (metaphorically) world of a new town.  Alice finds her anchor by taking part in a writing competition of essays about the town, and so in listening and thinking about the new place and people she puts down roots, and it is clear that she will thrive.

Light a Single Candle is focused very tightly on the main character's experience of blindness.  It has nothing about what the grown-ups are thinking; "problem" parents, like Alice's depressed mother, are much more common now than they were back in the 20th century when all we cared about was the kids.....The wider spread of issues in A Blind Guide to Stinkville offers a way to make the story of someone unusual, like Alice is, relatable someone whose story isn't all about her.  And so this is one that will appeal to fans of good middle grade realistic fiction, as opposed to the more narrowly focused group of fans of kids with disabilities, although it's certainly one that group will like too!

Humor is generously blended into a story that anyone navigating the new reality of growing up, and/or being relocated to a strange new town, can relate to, and the result is a warm, generous book that I enjoyed lots.  (And I would enjoy a sequel in which Alice gets a guide dog!  I think Alice would enjoy that too...)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (11/22/15)

Please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Afterlife Academy, by Frank L. Cole, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

The Alchemist's Theoremm: Sir Duffy's Promise, by Margaret Chiavetta, at Cindy Reads A Lot

The Candy Shop War, by Brandon Mull, at Hidden In Pages (audiobook review)

Connect the Stars, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at That's Another Story

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, at Great Imaginations

A Curious Tale of the In-Between, by Lauren DeStefano, at Book Nut

The Disappearance of Emily H., by Barrie Summy, at The Write Path and The Write Stuff

Dragon Flight, by Jessica Day George, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

The End of Time (The Books of Umber #3), by P.W. Catanese, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sacher, at SLJ (audiobook review)

The Galaxy Pirates: Hunt for the Pyxis, by Zoe Ferraris, at Sharon the Librarian

The Goblin's Puzzle, by Andrew S. Chilton, at SLJ

The Hill Road, by William Mayne, at Charlotte's Library

Hunters of Chaos, by Crystal Velasquezm at The Book Nut

Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Snuggly Oranges

MiNRS, by Kevin Sylvester, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel, at The Book Nut

Nightmares, by Jason Segel and Kirstern Miller, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

The Poe Estate, by Polly Shulman, at Mom Read It

A Riddle in Ruby (Key to the Catalyst, 1) by Kent Davis, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia
Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, at Pages Unbound

Scary School #3 & #4 by Derek the Ghost, at Geo Librarian

School for Sidekicks, by Kelly McCullough, at alibrarymama

Seven Dead Pirates, by Linda Bailey, at Charlotte's Library

Switch, by Ingrid Law, at My Brain on Books and Project Mayhem

The Sword of Summer, by Rick Riordan, at Good Books and Good Wine

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, by Lisa Papademetriou, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Wrinkled Crown, by Anne Nesbet, at alibrarymama

Upside-Down Magic, by Sarah Mynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, at The Book Nut

Warren the 13th and the All Seeing Eye, by Tania Del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle, at The Book Wars

Two animal fantasies--Escape from Baxter's Barn and Brilliant, at alibrarymama

A look at Edward Carey’s Iremonger Trilogy at Educating Alice

Authors and Interviews

Greg Leitich Smith (Borrowed Time) at Cynsations

Christine Hayes (The Mothman's Curse) at Cynsations

Andrew Harwell (The Spider Ring) at Watch. Connect. Read

Other Good Stuff

Jonathan Auxier (The Night Gardener) wins two big awards from the Canadian Children's Book Centre

"When Maps Came to Oz" at Oz and Ends

A picture book brilliantly reimagining a Xenomorph from Aliens at The Laughing Squid (via Fuse #8)

Rick Riordan celebrates the de-whitewashing of the Russian edition of the Kane Chronices, at the Guardian

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is coming to the big screen; here's the trailer


Seven Dead Pirates, by Linda Bailey

I am not fond of pirates, so the fact that I sincerely (really) enjoyed Seven Dead Pirates, by Linda Bailey (Tundra Books, September 2015) suggests to me that readers who do in fact actively seek out pirate book will enjoy it very much indeed! (with the caveat that the action takes place not on the rolling main but on dry land, with just a splash, as it were, of ocean adventure at the very end....)

When Lewis's mother inherits the old family house by the ocean, they have to live in it for six months before it can be sold.  His mom and dad are unenthusiastic; it's a bit of a fixer upper.  But Lewis loves the tower room he claims as his own...until he finds that it's occupied by seven dead pirates.  He agrees to help them get back to their ship (conveniently located in a nearby museum) and gradually overcomes his (very natural) fear and uncertainty, even coming to enjoy reading Treasure Island out loud to them.  It's not as if he has any other friends; his horrible shyness has seen to that, and he is bullied at school (along with at least half of this year's middle grade speculative fiction protagonists).

So Lewis comes up with a plan to take the pirate ghosts to the museum on Halloween, the one day that even if they turn visible (which they do under stress) people won't be all that consternated.  And in the meantime the pirates are a tricksy bunch, although they do end up helping Lewis grow in confidence....as does the arrival of a not quite but almost manic pixie dream girl at school, who can openly admit to wearing thrift store clothes and still be cool, who finds out about the pirates and is happy to visit them!

Things I liked--

--It's a great old house.  There was tension about whether it would be sold and demolished, but this was resolved.

--even though pirates aren't my first choice, this was a really interesting plot, and it worked well. Pirates and boy helped each other believably. 

--the magic is intergenerational; Lewis inherits the pirates, more or less, from his great-grandfather, and family history is a part of the story.

--there was a really cool kickass kindergarten girl who stood up to the bully on Lewis' behalf.  I really liked her!

So if "ghosts pirates" doesn't appeal, don't be off-put.  It's a fun, fast read, and I'm glad it was nominated for the Cybils, because I wouldn't have read it otherwise.  Although I am glad my own old house is ghost free....I wouldn't want to share my bedroom with them!


The Hill Road, by William Mayne, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Hill Road (Over the Hills and Far Away in the UK), by William Mayne (1968 in the UK, 1969 in the US), is perhaps the most boring time travel adventure to Dark Age Britain I have ever read, and I am pretty much ready to give up on William Mayne (which isn't that hard, what with him having been a child abuser, although I still am very fond of his Hob stories).   But in any event, I have now read The Hill Road, which is at least a better title than the UK one.

So there's this Dark Age girl, Magra, on the Scottish boarder, who has a. red hair (magic!) and b. a magic stone of time travelness (really magic!) and there are bad guys attacking peacefullish villages, and because of her magicness, Magra gets sent off to the big chief guy to share her magic in a helpful way, or possibly to be a ritual sacrifice (neither me or Magra is entirely sure....).  And Magra decides that instead of the dangerous journey through her own time, it would make more sense to hop through time to the future.  And in so doing, her magic time travel stone whisks three ordinary kids from the 20th century, and their ponies, back in time.  The modern kids then have an uncomfortable dangerous journey, sort of like the Dark Ages equivalent of  driving down the New Jersey Turnpike the day after Thanksgiving.

Nothing much happens.  The modern kids get to see Dark Age power struggles and are occasionally in danger.  They don't spend a whole lot of time thinking "gee we've travelled through time" and so miss lots of chances to deeply experience what they are going through.  And when they get to the end of the journey, Magra pops back into her own time and it is over and nothing has happened in terms of character growth, interesting story, or anything.  The modern kids are neither appealing or memorable.

According to the jacket flap, this "series of situations" is "as strange and unpredictable and momentous as any this brilliant author has ever offered us."  This blog post is just as unenthusiastic as any I have ever offered you all.


The Lightning Queen, by Laura Resau

The Lightning Queen, by Laura Resau (Scholastic, Oct 2015), is one of my favorite books of 2015 (I hope it wins the Newbery).  If you are looking for a truly beautiful, heartwarming multicultural story about kids who make their dreams come to happen through undaunted determination, this is one I can recommend wholeheartedly.

Every summer, Matteo leaves Maryland with his mother to visit her family in a village on the Hill of Dust, in Mexico.  The summer is even more special than usual--Matteo's grandfather Teo tells him a magical story from his own childhood, a story that beings when Esma, self-styled Gypsy Queen of Lightning, comes to the village.  Esma's family are Gypsys who travel across Mexico, bringing moving pictures to isolated villages like Teo's, mesmerizing the audiences, but often being met with prejudice and outright hostility. 

But Teo and Esma become friends, real life-long best friends, and the two of them make a peace between the villagers and the Romini so that Esma can stay longer, and be sure to come back.  Which she does...

Esma dreams of becoming a great singer, but her family don't want to let her go pursue her dream.  Teo wants a life of more than goat herding, but Maestra Maria, the teacher at the regional school is harsh and prejudiced against indigenous Mixteco people like Teo (and it doesn't help much that he's accompanied to school by his pet skunk, one of the many animals he's rescued and cares for).   But the two of them persevere, and their dreams come true--Teo gets his education, with Esma's help, and Esma gets a chance to sing, with Teo's.

Music takes Esma far from the Hill of Dust, where Teo stays, living a rich life of his own as the doctor to his community.  But now, this summer in which he's telling the story of Esma to his grandson, he feels Esma's pull on his spirit.  It is time to find her again.

Matteo uses the power of google back in Maryland to track Esma down, and just as he does so, his grandfather flies in from Mexico, having somehow known that the moment had come.   And so they meet again--two best best friends, with Matteo and Esma's grand-daughter all set to continue the family tradition.

There's so much to like here, like the rich cast of supporting characters, and the lovely balance Resau achieves between celebrating Teo's indigenous culture and vividly creating a strong sense of place without being romanticizing or patronizing.   But its the eminently loveable characters of Teo and Esma who really win the reader's heart.  It's not really a fantastical story, except for Teo knowing it is time to fly to America, and perhaps Esma's grandmother's skill at fortune telling.   It doesn't need supernatural magic, though, to be magical--the friendship at the heart of the story does that just fine all by itself.

Backmatter about the Mixteco and the Romini people pushes the story into even more of an mind-broadening experience for young readers who might think of Mexico as a cultural monolith.  Back in 2009 I interviewed Laura Resau about the intersection between anthropology and fiction (both of us have an academic background in anthropology) and it remains one of my favorite blog posts.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (11/15/15)

Here's this weeks round-up; let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

The Copper Gauntlet, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Heart Full of Books

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, at Pop! Goes the Reader and Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

Dead Boy, by Laurel Gale, at Imaginary Reads

The Dragon of the Month Club, by Iain Reading, at Charlotte's Library and Musings of a Book Addict

The Fog Diver, by Joel Ross, at alibrarymama

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Ms. Yingling Reads, Book Hounds, and Bibliophilia, Please

Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel, by Megan Morrison, at Gone With the Words

Half Magic, by Edward Eager, at Leaf's Reviews

The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari, at Read Till Dawn and In Bed With Books

Lilliput, by Sam Gayton, at alibrarymama

The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel, with two suggested atmospheric read alikes, at The Booklist Reader

Neverseen, by Shannon Messsenger, at Carstairs Considers

The Peddler's Road, by Matthew Kirby, at On Starships and Dragonwings

A Pocket Full of Murder, by R.J. Anderson, at Me On Books

Rules for Stealing Stars, by Corey Ann Haydu, at Ex Libris

School for Sidekicks, by Kelly McCullough, at Charlotte's Library

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at Sharon the Librarian

The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf, at Teen Librarian Toolbox

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones, at Becky's Book Reviews

Upside-down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins, at Charlotte's Library

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle, at Word Spelunking and Forever Lost in Literature

Three time travel books coming soon, at Shelf Talker

Authors and Interviews

Anne Nesbet (The Wrinkled Crown) at Project Mayhem

Juman Malouf (The Trilogy of Two) at Publishers Weekly

Krystalyn Drown (Tracy Tam: Santa Command) at The A P Book Club

Other Good Stuff

Which Northern Lights charater are you?  A Quiz at the Guardian (I got Lyra....)

Harry Potter 2016 Book Night theme announced at the Guardian

Two chances to help others--The book fair for Ballou High School in Washington D.C. returns (more info at Guys Lit Wire), and Pat Rothfus has Worldbuilders (supporting Heifer International) up and running again.


The Dragon of the Month Club, by Iain Reading

The Dragon of the Month Club, by Iain Reading (CreateSpace 2014), is a fun portal fantasy with some of the nicest dragons I've read about all year.

A chance encounter in their town's library makes Ayana and Tyler friends--both are outsiders, Ayanna because she is new to town, Tyler because he's a quirky geek.  And a chance encounter of Ayana's foot with a library shelf makes their new friendship into a magical partnership, when "How to Conjure Your Own Dragon in Six Easy Steps" falls at their feet.  The magical conjuring promised by the book really works, and before they know it, the two kids are members of the Dragon of the Month club.  Every month the book offers them the opportunity to conjure a new dragon, and happily the dragons are friendly, cooperative, and easily de-conjured again.   But when they conjure a steam dragon for the first time, they slip up...and find themselves thrown outside of our world, into a land that's a world-sized recreation of Tyler's bedroom.

All the furniture is transformed to geographical features, and the land is populated by characters from the books Tyler had lying around.  The two of them can't think of any way to get home on their own, so they decide to journey across the bedroom land to the tower where a wise scientist (from a factual book series) lives, in the hopes that he can help them.   Some of the books that are now part of reality are not nice at all, like the German fairy tales they find themselves in first.  Others are fun adventures--the Fremen of Dune are helpful, to a point, and their adventure with Sherlock Holmes is lots of fun.  But it takes all of Ayana's and Tyler's dragon conjuring skills to bring them the help they need, and it was delightful to meet all the dragons (it's a really nifty assemblage of dragon-ness!).

The ending, though, is an utter cliffhanger, promising even  more, ramped up and dangerous, adventure to come before they can get home again!

It's a solid book; Ayana and Tyler are perfectly fine young protagonists,  and the dragons are delightful!  The portal fantasy is coherently interesting, and I appreciated that the encounters with fiction (an idea that's been used a lot in middle grade fantasy recently) were ones I'd never seen in similar book-world stories.  That being said, a large part of the fun comes from knowing the stories in question; Dune and Sherlock Holmes might not have been read by the target audience yet!

Short answer-- kids of eleven or so who love dragons might well enjoy it lots. A tad too episodic for my own personal taste, but that's the nature of the story.


Upside-down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Upside-down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins (Scholastic 2015)

Nory's magic is wonkey.  She has a gift for transforming herself, but it always goes wrong.  When she tried for Kitten, for instance, a bit of beaver gets mixed in...and so Nory is, with good reason, anxious about the Big Test that will determine if she gets a place in the school of magic where her father is the headmaster.  Beaver-kittens are not welcome.

Nory doesn't pass.  And her father, who wins my award for jerk father of the year, rejects her utterly, and sends her off to her aunt where she'll be enrolled at a magic school that has a special class for people with upside-down magic like hers.   Her aunt is loving and warm, the other kids, though quirky with regard to their magic, are just fine, and the teacher does her best to make the kids in her class feel good about not being normal, and tries to get them to value their strengths.

But being normal, when it means getting to go home again, and not being teased by the mean kids, is still awfully appealing to Nory.  So she does her best to keep her magic confined in a mental box of Normal.  But just when she's almost mastered strict control, the mean kids with regular magic land (inside joke if you've read the book) one of her classmates in serious danger.  Nory has to tap into her upside-down gift in order to save him, and she does. 

It's a fun story, and though there is clearly a Lesson (different isn't necessarily bad; be yourself!), that doesn't overshadow the fun--Nory knows she's being lessoned to, as it were, so it's not as though the authors were simply moralizing at the reader.  The happy ending of the weird kids happily having a party together, isn't, though, entirely happy--I'm not convinced that they are convinced that their wonky powers are really worth it.  There's not quite enough external validation, and Nory's father is still a jerk, still rejecting her at the end.

Still, it's  one a second to fourth grader might well enjoy; any much older and they might feel the message was too obvious and not quite satisfactorily played out.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


School for Sidekicks, by Kelly McCullough, for Timeslip Tuesday

Ok, yes well.  This is one of those Timeslip Tuesday books where to identify it as such is a spoiler, but to not identify it as such fails to bring it to the attention of those who like time travel (and leaves me without a T.T. book for two weeks in a row).  I'll try not to spoil any particulars, though.

School for Sidekicks, by Kelly McCullough, is about an ordinary kid named Evan (nerdy and  bullied, which is the norm in MG sci fi/fantasy these days) who dreams of becoming a super hero like Captain Commanding, fighting the bad super villains and saving the day.  In Evan's version of earth, that's not as far fetched a dream as it would be in ours, because a strange bomb a generation back gave a bunch of people superpowers (and killed a considerably larger number), and even in Evan's time sometimes kids get powers...And Evan's dream comes true.  He gets them.  Enough powers to be taken by the government and sent to a special school for super power training, along with a bunch of other variously talented kids.

So far, pretty ordinary story.  Here's what makes it interesting--there are secrets at this school (like the fact that it's on Mars).   It's not just a training school, it's a testing ground, and the reason the kids need to be tested is the same reason why no one actually gets to kill a super villain.  Someone has come from the future because they know people with superpowers are going to be needed....And that is pretty interesting, and the time travel is used to good effect.

On a smaller scale, things become interesting as well when Evan is apprenticed as a Sidekick to Foxman, an ex-alcoholic whose superpower is technological enhancement--every gadget he designs, or flying Foxcar he builds, works stupendously when he's the one using it.  Foxman doesn't want to be a warm fuzzy mentor, but he and Evan work things out between them, and Foxman helps Evan build bridges back to his parents, upset because their son has chosen superhero-ness over family (and might get damaged as a result).  Evan's too young for actual sidekick missions, but Foxman isn't a rule-follower, and the result is that Evan gets more adventures than most super-powered kids his age, dragging his classmates along with him.

After a slow start in which Evan is mostly just whinny, the pace picks up and I enjoyed it more and more, and would very much like to read the sequel sooner rather than later! 

Note on diversity: for the first time since I started thinking about rainbow sprinkle diversity, I have found an example, one that bothered me quite a bit and kicked me out of the story:  "The taller of the girls had the ball when I first spotted them.  She was Native American, with long dark hair and a bright smile" (page 69).   How the heck does Evan know a kid in this context is Native American? I don't think he can just by looking at her.  And since the fact that she is Native American  has no bearing whatsoever on anything she says or does in the rest of the book, it seems like she's identified as such just as a deliberate adding of diversity--a rainbow sprinkle.


This week's roundup of middle grade fantasy and science fiction (11/8/15)

Here's what I found this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Afterlife Academy, by Frank L. Cole at Ms. Yingling Reads

Alistair Grimm's Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, at Falling Letters

The Astounding Broccoli Boy, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at Bibliobrit and Randomly Reading

Connect the Stars, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Copper Gauntlet, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Log Cabin Library and Teen Librarian Tool Box

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, at Kid Lit Geek

Darkwing, by Kenneth Oppel, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans, by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, at alibrarymama

Emily Windsnap and the Ship of Lost Souls, by Liz Kessler, at Read till Dawn

A Face Like  Glass, by Frances Hardinge, at Rachel Neumeier

Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage, at Read Till Dawn

Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar, at Semicolon

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Waking Brain Cells, Book NutFiktshun, and Fantasy Liturature

Giving Up the Ghost, by Sheri Sinykin, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible, by Ursula Vernon, at alibrarymama

Horns and Wrinkles, by Joseph Helgerson and Nicoletta Ceccoli, at Hidden in Pages

Island of Graves (The Unwanteds, Book 6), by Lisa McMann, at Hidden in Pages

The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste, at Geo Librarian

The Kat Sinclair Files-Dead Air, by Michelle Schusterman, at Charlotte's Library

Keeper of the Lost City, by Sharon Messenger (series review), at Carstairs Considers

MiNRS, by Kevin Sylvester, at Charlotte's Library

My Diary From the Edge of the World, by Jodi Lynn Anderson, at A Glass of Wine

The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root, by Christopher Pennell, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Operation Actually Read Bible

Shadows of Sherwood, by Kekla Magoon, at The Book Nut and

The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver, at Diva Book Nerd

The Thickety, by J.A. White, at The Book Wars

Took, by Mary Downing Hahn, at Mom Read It

The Tuttle Twins and the Creature From Jekyll Island, by Connor Boyack, at The Write Path

Valiant, by Sarah McGuire, at Kid Lit Geek

Woundabout, by Lev Rosen, at Charlotte's Library

The Wrinkled Crown, by Anne Nesbit, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Two at Dead Houseplants--Clover's Luck, by Callie George, and The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel

A trio of dragon books at The Hub

Authors and Interviews

Sarah Beth Durst (The Girl Who Could Not Dream) at The Book Smugglers and Waking Brian Cells

Dorothy A. Winsor (Finders Keepers) at Project Mayhem

Other Good Stuff

Read an unpublished chapter from Joan Aiken's classic The Kingdom and the Cave at The Guardian

A Tuesday Ten of 2015's Funny Fantstic, at Views from the Tesseract


Woundabout, by Lev Rosen

Reading for the Cybils Awards is a surefire way to get all caught up on the books of the past year.  I noticed Woundabout, by Lev Rosen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2015), when it came out, and thought it looked interesting, and so I was glad to see it get nominated, becoming, ipso facto, part of my reading list.

Woundabout is the story of two siblings who are orphaned when their dads (yes, two dads) are killed in a freak accident while training bomb-sniffing capybaras.  Connor and Cordelia (with Kip, the one remaining capybara) must go live with their aunt Marigold in the strange little town of Woundabout, where there's no internet access, the river doesn't flow or matches catch fire, strangers can't move in, and deviation from the established routines is frowned upon most fiercely.  It is a place of stasis, and the people who live there made that the choice to reject change, each for his or her own reason.  The book's title hints at the mechanism that's keeping things in their place (wound as in clockwork), and if read with the other meaning of "wound," gives a nod to the various sadnesses that its people are trying to escape.

Connor and Cordelia are the first newcomers for ages, and their arrival sets change in motion.  But when they discover the mysterious key that the mayor had guarded fiercely, but not well enough, they use it to unlock the secrets of the city, bringing change with a vengeance! 

Woundabout is an intriguing place.  Although the story moves somewhat slowly as the two kids explore it (they are hampered by the grown-ups insistence that they too develop a routine),  things pick up in pace once they find the key, and meet the young thief, a boy from outside, who took it from the mayor.  The answer to Woundabout's secret pushes the story into the realm of fairy tales--the four elements have left the town, and can only be brought back when the key is used.   And indeed the whole story had the feel of a fable, more than an immediately exciting adventure. The Mayor is kind of an antagonist, but there's never much tension or sense of danger until almost the very end of the book, and I never felt that the mystery, with its unexpectededly fanciful solution, was all that edge of the seat grippingly mysterious.

So this is one I think has more appeal for younger middle grade kids than for the more sophisticated 11 or 12 year olds. I wouldn't leap to press it into the hands of a generic middle grade fantasy reader, but I think it would make a fine evening read-aloud for 8 to 9 year olds, especially those who appreciate character centered stories where the quests are more internal than is the case for more swords and sorcery type fantasy.

Note on diversity:  as well as the two dads, there's a secondary character who uses a wheelchair.  It's her brother who has stolen the mayor's key, hoping to leverage that into Woundabout residency for his family--it's a preternaturally healthy place and he's hoping for magical healing for his sister.  But she's made the decision for herself, after many surgical attempts to "fix" her, that she doesn't want to live her life always hoping to be fixed and always failing.  She doesn't think of her self as broken, and she wants to keep on running her high tech computerized greenhouses without self-pity.  So no magical healing for her!    I'm also thinking the way Cordelia in particular is portrayed in the illustrations (as in the picture below)  suggests she's a kid of color, although I didn't notice any descriptions of her in the text.   I'm going ahead and counting her.....(and possibly Connor too....).


MiNRS, by Kevin Sylvester

MiNRS, by Kevin Sylvester  (Margaret K. McElderry Books, middle grade, Sept 2015) is a grim survival story, in which a group of kids stranded on a mining colony in space must fight for their lives when the colony comes under attack, and all the grown-ups are killed.  It's tremendously exciting, but not for the faint of heart.

An earth depleted of resources turned to a roving planetoid, Perseus, for raw materials, and a mining colony was established there.  Christopher is one of the kids whose parents signed on for the mission, and he takes his life in the semi-terraformed colony pretty much for granted; the food isn't bad, he gets along with his parents just fine, and although the pool of kids with whom to be friends is kind of small, he has his best buddy, smart and creative Elena, to hang with.  When the story begins, the miners are on edge because Perseus' orbit is about to take it out of Earth's reach for two months.  There's enough food to last, and things should proceed as normal, but there's never been a blackout like this before.

And the grown-ups are right to worry.  As the colony's inhabitants gather outside to watch the earth set over Perseus' horizon, beginning the blackout, the mining colony comes under a fearsome attack--and there they all are on the surface, sitting ducks.  Christopher's father forces him to retreat underground as the death toll mounts up above, and so Christopher finds himself alone in the tunnels, with only some cryptic clues from his father about what to do next.  Other kids, wounded and shell-shocked, and traumatized by seeing their friends and families killed, have made it down below ground too...and now they must figure out how they are going to survive. 

Survival isn't just a matter of holding out till Earth can be contacted.  The attackers have settled in up above, and are loading with ore.  Once they're ready to leave, they might well decide to blast Perseus to smithereens.....and so sabotage is necessary.   As the kids learn to use the resources they have left, they discover a dark secret about their colony that strains the bonds of trust they've been building.   Christopher finds himself the leader of the group, and with Elena at his side (but can she be trusted?) he tries to figure out what his father was trying to tell him, and keep the kids alive.

It's fairly brutal. The attack isn't sugar coated, and it's a wonder the kids are able to think rationally at all after what they go through.   The days that follow aren't a picnic either, and there's little comfort to be had from appreciating group camaraderie, because of various stresses on the group.  It's not a fun, hpyer intelligent kids fighting and succeeding against impossible odds while playing clever tricks on the bad guys sort of story.  It's much more believably dark. 

But it is gripping, and page-turning, and utterly engrossing and vivid!  The science-fictional setting is utterly believable, and not just fun window dressing.  So if you or any kids you know want a break from unicorn kittens, this is a book to check out.  Especially good, I think, for kids who like sci fi tech and first person shooter games.  It's one for older midde grade kids (11 years old or so); younger readers might find it all a bit too much.

There's diversity here too- I think the brown kid on the right of the cover is a girl, and based on Elena's last name, Rosales, which suggests she's Latina (there's no description of her in the text), I think that's her being shown.  Other kid's names suggest additional diversity.


The Kat Sinclair Files--Dead Air, by Michelle Schusterman

The Kat Sinclair Files--Dead Air, by Michelle Schusterman (Grosset & Dunlap, middle grade, Sept. 2015)

14 year-old Kat Sinclair's dad is the new host of Passport to Paranormal, a not-exactly-high end ghost hunting show.  When Kat is offered the chance to go to haunted places around the world with her dad for the next year, vs staying with her mom in Ohio, she chose the former (in large part because her mom had walked out on the family a few months earlier, and Kat hasn't been taking her calls).  The Passport to Paranormal's crackerjack team is all set to explore haunted tunnels in Rotterdam, and so it's off to the Netherlands.  There Kat finds out that she'll be joined in on-location schooling by Oscar, the nephew of the producer; unfortunately, they immediately loathe each other. 

But there are lots of distractions from unpleasant Oscar.  Strange things are happening to Kat in particular, and as her blog of her experiences with the show (the titular Kat Sinclair Files) gains traction, and she becomes an observer of its fandom, she becomes aware of unsettling rumors about the show.  Kat was a skeptic, but she's about to find out that ghosts--both the supernatural kind, and the metaphorical kind--are real, and both threaten the lives (and the livelihood) of the crew of P. to P. 

As Kat and Oscar become allies in solving the mysteries of P. and P., which are about to become potentially deadly, they become friends, helping each other come to terms with their own personal ghosts (Kat's mother, and Oscar's father, who doesn't know Oscar is gay).  All this going on in a swirl of actual hauntings, first in the Netherlands and then in an old prison in Belgium, and the result is  great reading for the young fan of paranormal mysteries!

The sprinkling of online chat in the text makes it especially friendly for those who like their attention spans bouncing (kids these days); although I do not need my stories broken up into digestible chunks, this did not stop me from enjoying it myself!  Fans of horror movies will find Kat a kindred spirit, fans of girl detectives will perhaps be critical of her detecting skills (pretty much non existent), but will probably enjoy the mystery none-the-less.   There's not all that much in your face horror (the ghosts are sort of off to the side most of the time) but there's enough to make it appeal to young fans of the spooky.  It's suitable for kids as young as 8 or so (no one actually dies, and there is no unpleasant ectoplasm).

Adding to the appeal is that Kat's a kid of color--her dad is black, her mom's white.  It's not a plot point, but it's made solidly clear in the text, and she's shown as the brown girl she is on the cover.   The last five Elementary/Middle grade speculative fiction books I have read for this year's Cybils Awards have all had diverse characters front and center, which is great!  Mostly brown girls, though, so I'm hoping I'll be happily surprised by other non-whitenesses as I keep reading.

I am writing this just after reading Roger Sutton's editorial at the Horn Book, continuing on at Facebook, about whether throwing characters into a book who happen to be gay, or black, or have disabilities, or other etcs, is like throwing rainbow sprinkles in, to "check off the diversity box."  So of course I had to ask myself whether I thought Oscar being gay was a rainbow sprinkle or not (and I also am of course asking myself about Sprinkling diversity in general).  I decided Oscar's sexual orientation is not a sprinkle.  The emotional situation he is in (a bad one) with regard to his father, which affects his actions and reactions, stems from the fact that he is gay (which his father doesn't know), and so although he didn't Have to be gay, and it doesn't have anything to do with the Plot, it is a perfectly reasonable part of his personal story.  

Kat's ethnicity is also not at all germane to the plot, and I wouldn't have minded her thinking about it more than she does (which is only twice in a not in depth way),  but I'm not calling her a sprinkle just because her skin color just happens to be brown and she doesn't present me with the perspective of a brown girl thinking about race while travelling in modern Europe, which would be interesting to me, but which isn't what Kat happens to be thinking about.  I do sort of see Roger's point, and I have sometimes felt I was being sprinkled at by authors, but I think at this point we need diversity in our children's books so much that I will take sprinkles on my vanilla ice-cream as better than nothing, even though I might prefer a more interesting basal frozen desert unit than vanilla ice-cream if given the choice.   I think having books where it is taken for granted that a bi-racial girl's brown dad can be a tv host, and where she herself can be the heroine of an exciting story are good books to have on hand.


This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs (11/1/15)

Happy November (one can hope....)!  Here's what I found in my blog reading this week; please let me know if I missed your MG SF/F post!

The Reviews

The Astounding Broccoli Boy, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at Charlotte's Library

Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe, at Boys Rule Boys Read!

Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon, at Pages Unbound

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, by Claire Legrand, at The Book Wars

Crystal Keepers (The Five Kingdoms, Book 3) by Brandon Mull, at Hidden in Pages

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge, at alibrarymama

Diary of a Mad Brown, by Bruce Coville, at Log Cabin Library

Dragon Games, by P.W. Catanese, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

The Enchanted Egg (Magical Animal Adoption Agency Book 2), by Kallie George, at Mom Read It

Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, by Hal Johnson, at Book Nut and Guys Lit Wire

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, at YABookNerd

The Glass Sentence, and The Golden Specific, by S.E. Grove, at books4yourkids

The Hollow Boy, by Jonathan Stroud, at School Library Journal and The Book Zone (For Boys)

Hoodoo, by Ronald L. Smith, at alibrarymama

The Jumbies, by Traceyi Baptiste, at Bibliobrit and Wands and Worlds

The Last Ever After, by Soman Chainani, at Leaf's Reviews

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls, by Holly Grant, at Pages Unbound

Lilliput, by Sam Gayton, at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas, at Leaf's Reviews

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, by Linda Urban, at Book Nut

My Diary From the Edge of the World, by Jodi Lynn Anderson, at Read Till Dawn

One Witch at a Time, by Stacy DeKeyser, at alibrarymama

A Pocket Full of Murder, by R.J. Anderson, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

Silverwings, by Kenneth Oppel, at Buxton's Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

Shadows of Sherwood, by Kekla Magoon, at Charlotte's Library

A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Thief of Aways, by Clive Barker, at Always in the Middle

The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, at Books Beside My Bed

Took, by Mary Downing Hahn, at The O.W.L.

The Tournament at Gorlan (Ranger’s Apprentice: the Early Years), by John Flanagan, at The Children's Book Review and Barnes and Noble Reads

The Toymaker's Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith, at The Hiding Spot

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones, at Kid Lit Geek

Warren the 13th and The All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle, at Sharon the Librarian

The Whispering Trees (The Thickety book 2), by J.A. White, at Pages Unbound

The Wild Swans, by Jackie Morris, at The Book Wars

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Leaf's Reviews

Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--The Toymaker's Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith, A Tale of Highy Unusual Magic, by Lisa Papademetriou, and The Peddler's Road, by Matthew Cody

Authors and Interviews

Sarah Beth Durst (The Girl Who Could Not Dream) at Fantasy Literature

Dorothy A. Winsor (Finders Keepers), at Word Spelunking

Other Good Stuff

The Guardian gathers its top ten haunted houses in children's fiction

Imaginary friends are big this year, and IKA is getting in on the trend by bringing to "life" the creautres of kids' imaginations (via Tor)

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