Winter of Ice and Iron, by Rachel Neumeier

NB-I start this post with blathering.  If you want to find out what I think of the book, skip down to the part where I've written the heading: A Brief Synopsis.  Or you could just cut to the chase and go further down to the heading:  What I think of the book.  Spoiler: I liked it lots, and much of it I loved.

Rachel Neumeier is one of my favorite contemporary writers of fantasy.  Her books are very very good at making pictures in my mind that blot out reality in a most satisfactory way, I like her interweaving of the magical, the personal, and the political, and I like her characters very much too.  So  I was thrilled to receive an ARC of Winter of Ice and Iron (Saga Press, November 21, 2017).  And of course since it was a book I really wanted to read, it sat on the shelf...and I was full of good intentions to have it read and ready to review by its release day.  It was with great happiness that the moment finally came- it was time to start reading!  yay!  But it was not to be.  I found, as I turned the first few pages, and was introduced to a rather complicated world, that thoughts of immanent plumbers and electricians and family coming to stay, and the demolition work and house cleaning that had to happen before these three sets of visitors, interfered so much that I couldn't enjoy it.  So I waited to read it until after the Thanksgiving feast, when the visitors were ensconced in comfortable chairs and the plumber came less frequently and the gutter repair people only once. Then and only then could I set my mind to devouring, and it was good.

A Briefish Synopsis

Important fact about this world--there are powers that grow from the different lands and are partnered/channeled by/nested in the people that rule that lands.  They are named, and they have personalities that are shaped by generations of the rulers who held them, and since some places and families are kinder and gentler than others, some of these powers are kinder than others.  If you've ever read Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster series, you'll be reminded of the relationship between rulers and their lands in those books, although the expression of that concept takes a different form and path here; the powers of place have stronger identities of their own, while simultaneously being in a feedback loop with the personalities of the human rulers.

There is a young Duke, Innisth, master of a cold mountain land (the sort that's full of wolves) and the power he inherits from his abusive, sadistic, powerful father is a harsh one.  He does not want to be like his father, so he keeps the power under control as much as he can, focusing on his people and their protection and gaining in return their trust and loyalty.  He is very smart, and I was briefly reminded (in a part of the story that involved political scheming) of Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenidies.

There is a young woman, Kehara, who is the beloved heir to a gentler land and a gentler, though strong, power.

And there are two kings who have gone mad, and the power of one of them threatens to become a god and cast all the lands of this world into desolation.

The Fortunate Gods do not wish this desolation to happen, so they nudge events as far as they can.  Kehara is nudged from her position as heir and from her home on a perilous journey that leads at last to the mountains of Innisth's land, and there her familial power and his become allies.   Innisth has a plan to stop the mad king--to ally himself through marriage with Kehara's family and its power, and to extend the boundaries of his lands into her family's.

So the reader is has two burning questions that keep the pages turning--

Will the good guys win?  The good guys are very smart, and they are very determined, and they almost break on the bad guys and it is tense.  There are plottings and fightings and bad magic used against the good guys.

Will Kehara and Innisth love each other?  Innisth is so broken and hurt by his father and the sadistic power he holds, and he just about breaks my heart.  He cannot think of himself as kind, yet in his actions he shows his decency and fundamental goodness just beautifully.  Kehara has always known she'd make a marriage of policy, but the Wolf Duke of a cold mountain country was not her first pick,and Innisth isn't really good at romance.....and can't imagine himself as someone who could be loved.  So it is tense.  Their relationship is not unlike that of the Pure women and shapeshifting wolves of Neumeier's Black Dog stories; Kehara's innate power brings calm to Innisth's, letting the wolf rest in peace.

Of course the reader assumes it will all work out without the dragons of winter (these are actual, real dragons that make winter rather scary and protective powers rather necessary in the colder climes) breaking free once and for all and the whole land becoming a hell of cold and twisted magic...

What I think of the book:

So by the time I realized that these were these two burning questions, I was hooked as all heck, but it takes a while before they start to burn brightly.  Don't start reading this unless you have time to sink into it, then expect yourself to think --only three hundred and fifty pages left I can finish this before bedtime....At around this point if you are me you are also thinking Innisth you are breaking my heart and I hope you get to be happy; you deserve to be loved.  I liked Kehara very much, but she is not as interesting.  She's sane and steady, and so people don't have a whole lot of interesting reactions to her, as opposed to the people around Innisth who know that he is wolf as well as protector.  Kehara also has no immediate power to wield in the struggle; she is not a shaper of events, but a holder of events to the necessary course they have been set in by others.   But that is an important role too.

My one critical thought is that the author didn't quite give the reader enough credit with respect to the worldbuilding.  I liked the world and its magic a lot, it felt very real. But it is complicated.  There's not a single big info dump, but instead the descriptions of the complicated reality are sprinkled throughout, and I feel that they kept being sprinkled into the story long after the reader had grasped what was necessary, slowing things down a tad and making the book (576 pages) longer than it needed to be (aka taking time away from Kehara and Innisth....).

short answer:  Very good reading! Great characters, fascinating magic, vivid sense of place.


The Painting, by Charis Cotter, for Timeslip Tuesday

I very much enjoyed Charis Cotter's first book, The Swallow (which I helped shortlist for the Cybils Awards back in 2014), and so was very pleased indeed that her new book, The Painting (Tundra Books, middle grade, 2017) , was a Cybils nominee in the Elementary/Middle Grade Fiction category this year and that a review copy came my way for my consideration as a Cybils panelist.  I was even more pleased to find it a time slip book, because my Timeslip Tuesday posting has been a bit spotty of late....and then, most importantly, I was pleased to be reading and enjoying it!  Though it is sad...

Little Annie was only four when she dashed across the street to see a little dog, and was hit and killed by a car.  Her big sister Claire has blamed herself ever since for not holding Annie back, and she feels their mother blames her as well, and would rather she had died instead of the vivacious and talented Annie.  When Claire's artist mother takes them to live in a Newfoundland lighthouse, the two of them pull farther apart, instead of finding peace and common ground.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, another Annie finds a painting of the lighthouse in the attic of her home, and brings it down to her bedroom.  When Annie's mother is in a bad car accident of her own, Annie  slips through time and space to visit the lighthouse, and meets Claire there.. who thinks her little sister has come back to her.  Though the painting of the lighthouse only works once as a portal, Annie finds more of the artist's paintings, which take her back on brief visits to Claire. The visits become increasingly urgent as Annie's mother, gravely injured and in a coma, worsens, and Claire and her mother's relationship moves toward a breaking point of no return.

The reader quickly guesses, and Annie just a bit later realizes, that Claire is her mother.  Seeing Claire struggling with her own difficult relationship with her mother helps Annie better understand Claire not just as another girl but as her own mother (not always warm and sympathetic).  The time slipping leads all three characters to a happy ending where the sadness of the past is soothed and healing can happen.  Though the connections between the characters are predictable, they are moving, and given a nicely magical twist by allusions to Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass.  Is Annie dreaming Claire, or Claire dreaming Annie?  Actually, neither, because Annie has a physical presence in Claire's world, though no one but Claire can actually see her.

I loved the idea of time slipping through paintings that connect two characters in different times, and it serves as an especially pleasing mechanism here (I just with I could see the paintings myself!).  Both girls are sympathetic narrators, taking turns to tell the story.  Because Claire in the past is now linked to the danger that Claire is in as an adult, there's a tension at work in the story as well.  As Claire's life in the past darkens, Claire in Annie's present worsens, and Annie (both back in time and in her own time) is the only hope of relieving the stress that is at play and that is about to snap.

So in short-- if you like atmospheric books with beautiful paintings and scenery, and plots that depend on strained relationships between sad (though sympathetic) protagonists, with a lovely magical time travel element, and a hint of ghost, do try this one. Giving Kirkus credit where credit is due, we are in agreement-- "Full of emotional truth and connection."

Musing about the book as I looked for a picture of it, I found myself wondering about the bulky socks of the girl on the cover, which made me realize that the little dog responsible for Annie's death is on the cover too.  So the girl must be Annie of the 1970s, which at first seems odd, because she's not a protagonist, but which actually works very well....


This week's round=up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs

Here's this week's round-up; a little light this week but that's only to be expected.  I myself was too busy desperately cleaning the house and futsing with the furnace (with limited success), and more happily, spending time with visiting family, to do much reading and reviewing....But here's what I found, and let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Adventurer's Guild, by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos, at Jean Little Library

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, by Joe Ballarini, at Book Nut

Beast and Crown, by Joel Ross, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Countdown Conspiracy, by Katie Slivensky, at albrarymama

The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen, at Fantasy Literature

The Girl Who Saved Christmas, by Matt Haig, The Reading Nook Reviews

Last Day on Mars, by Kevin Emerson, at The Book Nut

Mars Evacuees, by Sophia McDougall, at Reading the End

Mossby's Magic Carpet Handbook, by Ilona Bray, at Charlotte's Library

Mr. Revere and I, by Robert Lawson, at Redeemed Reader

Nightfall, by Shannon Messenger, at Kitty Cat at the Library

Olive and the Backstage Ghost, by Michelle Schusterman, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder, at alibrarymama

Pablo and Birdy, by Alison McGhee, at Book Nut

Penelope March is Melting, by Jeffrey Michael Ruby, at Cracking the Cover and A Backwards Story

Project Terra: Crash Course by Landry Q. Walker, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry, at Playing By the Book

The Silver Mask, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at proseandkahn

Sky Song, by Abi Elphinstone, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Whichwood, by Tahereh Mafi, at Feed Your Fiction Addiction

and now I have to go bang on the furnace some more, hoping that it isn't working because the pump is clogged again (banging worked on Friday, so maybe it will work again today.  Buying a new furnace would also, of course, work.....).


Mossby's Magic Carpet Handbook, by Ilona Bray

Mossby's Magic Carpet Handbook, by Ilona Bray, subtitled "A Flyer's Guide to Mossby's Model D3 Extra-Small Magic Carpet" (Innovation Press, Sept. 2017)  is an oversize book that purports to be, as the subtitle indicates, an instructional manual to the proper techniques of magic carpet flying, with lots of illustrations. There's a framing device that adds a bit of story and gives the instructions a personal touch--the manual has just been handed down by an old great aunt, with the promise of a the carpet to come, and the great aunt leaves marginal commentary on the official text.

What makes this book stand out is that not only is there the fun magical premise of how exactly to operate a magic carpet (with practical advice on bathroom issue and such), but the carpet flying is also a cool framework for expository nonfiction.  There's fascinating information about flying, useful information about map reading, interesting tidbits about strange foods of the world and animals you might encounter, presented in a very kid-friendly way.  (I learned a few things I didn't know, which is always nice for me.  For instance, swing at the playground is 2 G's, a sneeze has the force of 2.9 G's, and a rocket being launched is 3 G's).

The kids shown in the handbook are a diverse bunch; many are not white.  And the inheritor of the carpet is nicely ungendered as well.

The book bears a faint resemblance to the books in Candlewick's "ology" series, though it doesn't have the bling elements of those covers, and doesn't have flaps and pockets and stuff inside.   Kids who like those will be drawn to this one.  Also consider giving it to the kid who is fascinated by looking down on the world from above!  Short answer: a very good book to give as a present, that simultaneously entertains and instructs.

disclaimer: review copy received for Cybils Award consideration.


This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (11/19/17)

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

The Reviews

The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber, at Tor

A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, at Becky's Book Reviews

Children of Refuge, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Mom Read It

A Crack in the Sea, by H.M. Bouwman, at Book Nut

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, at Leaf's Reviews

Felix Yz, by Lisa Bunker, at alibrarymama

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, at Semicolon

Have Sword, Will Travel, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams, at Say What? and Charlotte's Library

Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath by Jacob Sager Weinstein, at Sydne Marie Gernaat

Ivy, by Katherine Coville, at Puss Reboots

Lumberjanes – Unicorn Power!, by Mariko Tamaki, at Nerdophiles

The Painting, by Charis Cotter, at Cover2CoverBlog

Polaris, by Michael Northrop, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

Prisoner of Ice and Snow, by Ruth Lauren, at Book Nut

Rise of the Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste, at alibrarymama

The Silver Mask, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at proseandkahn

The Song from Somewhere Else, by A.F. Harrold, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

The Werewolf of Davenport (The Midnight Glass Volume 2) by D. T. Vaughn, at The Write Path

Whichwood, by Tahereh Mafi, at B. and N. Kids Blog

The White Tower, by Kathryn Constable, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Wolf Hour, by Sara Lewis Holmes, at Becky's Book Reviews

Authors and Interviews

Sara Lewis Holmes (The Wolf Hour) at Liz Garton Scanion

Other Good Stuff

7 middle grade reads for fans of magical realism at B. and N. Kids Blog

Not mg, but pleasant reading--Imagined Botany in Fantasy at Tor


Have Sword, Will Travel, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams

This hasn't been my best blogging week; I've been sick as a dog.  But I was comforted and sustained in my troubles by a really fun book--Have Sword, Will Travel, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams (Scholastic, middle grade, Oct 31, 2017).

Odo is the unremarkable son of the miller of an unremarkable village.  But his life becomes most remarkable indeed when he fishes up a sword from the mud of the unusually low river.  Not just any sword, but a magical one that talks!  The sword, now bound to Odo by blood (just a knick) immediately decides Odo must be a knight, and proceeds to dub him as such, much to the envy of Odo's friend, Eleanor, who (unlike Odo) actually dreams of being a knight herself.  Now that Odo is a knight, with Eleanor stuck in the role of his squire, they set of on a quest--to determine what is causing the dangerously low water level of the river on which their village depends.

Led by the opinionated sword, which is doing its best to train Odo in how to wield it, the two journey upstream, following rumors that a dragon has blocked the river.  Satisfying adventures and dangers await, testing the wits of the two kids, who are heroic within the believable limits of their minimal skills, and Eleanor's dream comes true when she too finds a magic, albeit "cursed" sword of her own.  And at last they do meet the dragon they were seeking....but it's an encounter that turns out to be not at all what they were expecting.

The three main characters (Odo's sword is a personality in its own right) are great fun to adventure with, and there's enough subversion of typical hero quest tropes to make this an interesting story.  Very much recommended to kids, especially those on the younger end of MG, who are just finding their feet as fantasy readers (and to sickly grownups in need of pleasant diversion) who enjoy personality-driven fantasy adventures!

Short answer: I liked it lots.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of mg sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (11/12/17)

No round-up last week because I was at Kidlitcon (yay!).  But here's what I've gathered from this past week; let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Beneath, by Roland Smith, at Redeemed Reader

Blueberry Pancakes Forever (Finding Serendipity, 3) by Angelica Banks, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

The Bone Thief by Alyson Noel, at Kiss the Book 

Brave Red, Smart Frog: A New Book of Old Tales, by Emily Jenkins, at Becky's Book Reviews

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl, at Escape from Reality

A Crack in the Sea, by H.M. Bouman, at Semicolon

Death Dragon's Kiss:The Manakor Chronicles Book #2, by T.K. Kiser, at Hall Ways Blog

Dragonfly Song, by Wendy Orr, at Bluestocking Thinking

Dragon's Green, by Scarlett Thomas, at Semicolon

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken, at Hopeful Reads

Giant Trouble, by Ursula Vernon, at Log Cabin Library

Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst, at alibrarymama

Journey's End, by Rachel Hawkins, at Charlotte's Library

Last Day on Mars, by Kevin Emerson, at alibrarymama

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power, by Mariko Tamaki, at  books4yourkids.com

The Magic Misfits, by Neil Patrick Harris, at Hit or Miss Books

Nervermore: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, at Waking Brain Cells

The Nutcracker Mice, by Kristin Kladstrup, at Charlotte's Library

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Time,by Jane Louise Curry, at Time Travel Times Two

Peter Nimble and His Fantatic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, by Mark Twain and Philip Stead, at the NY Times Book Review

Scavenger's Hunt by Mike Rich, at Log Cabin Library

The Supernatural Sleuthing Service, by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe, at Book Nut

Watchdog, by Will McIntosh, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, at Hit or Miss Books and  Semicolon

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell, at The YA's Nightstand

Two at Falling Letters--The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, and Race to the Bottom of the Sea, by Lindsay Eager

A Lockwood and Co. series overview at Fuse #8

Other Good Stuff

New MG speculative fiction from over in the UK, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Great Superhero stories for all ages (kid ages, that is) by me at B. and N. Kids Blog

Top 5 Middle-Grade Novels Featuring Superheroes, at A Backwards Story


The Nutcracker Mice, by Kristin Kladstrup

The Nutcracker Mice, by Kristin Kladstrup (Candlewick, MG, Oct2017), is  truly delightful reimagining of the Nutcracker Ballet, performed by the mice who have their own ballet company beneath the stage of Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The original ballet is about to have its first performance by the human dancers, and the Russian Mouse Ballet will be staging their own performance at the same time. The mouse ballet must succeed, or else the mouse company will be short of food (received from their audience) and they might have to close their curtains. But the plot of the Nutcracker is not a mouse friendly one, and more and more mice have chosen to watch the human dancers, with their elaborate costumes and scenery, instead of the bare-bones mouse performances.

Esmeralda is a rising mouse star...but can she successfully lead her company to a reworking of the Nutcracker that is both mouse-friendly plotwise, and that is also not a mere imitation of human dance but a reimagining of the art of ballet that celebrates all that is graceful about mice?  With the help of a human girl, who has shown she is a friend to mice, the answer is a resounding Yes!  

Here's what I especially liked:

--the human girl is the daughter of one of the theatres costume makers, and makes lovely (mouse-sized) dresses for her doll, which become mouse costumes  (I like descriptions of beautiful doll dresses made by talented kids) and the mice make miniature posters for their performance (I like miniatures).  

--I know the music of the Nutcracker by heart, and so I could play it in my head for the dancing bits, which made it extra nice for me

--I have mouse issues of my own, and it was a useful tip that mice are repulsed by peppermint oil.  I might well invest in some.

Here are some other good things:

--the prima donna ballerina mouse is mean to Esmeralda but instead of being humbled, comes all be herself to the realization that there are things Esmeralda can teach her about mouse ballet and is willing to learn from her.  And Esmeralda is willing to teach her with no hard feelings.

--Esmeralda is a pioneer of the unfettered tail approach to mouse ballet, which, though I'm not sure the author was deliberately trying to make the point or not, seems a very body positive message.

So all in all, a charming book I highly recommend to fans of people-like animals, ballet, and doll dresses!  I'm not intrinsically attracted to people-like animals, but these were lovely mice!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Journey's End, by Rachel Hawkins

The moment I hear of Journey's End, by Rachel Hawkins (G.P. Putnam, MG, October 2016) back in the early fall of 2016, I knew I wanted to read it--what with time travel, Scotland, magical fog, and written by an author whose YA books I have found extremely entertaining.  But it just missed the cutoff for the Cybils Awards that year, and as an Elementary/Middle Grade speculative fiction panelist, I had to focus on what was nominated.  But read it I did, eventually, and so when the Cybils rolled around again, I made sure that it made it onto the list.

Here's why I like it--

I find the set-up very relatable.  An American girl, Nolie, is spending the summer with her scientist father in an isolated coastal village in Scotland, Journey's End.  He's there to study the mysterious fog bank, know as the Boundary, that hovers just off shore.  Nolie is faced with that all too real tension of "will I make a friend," and happily she does, with a local girl, Bel, who is facing the all too real tension of "my best friend ditched me when a cool new girl moved to town."

The mysterious fog bank is cool as all get out.  It has its origins in a great wrong done to a young woman centuries ago.  It swallows people up.  And has started to creep closer to land....

Not only is the fog spooky, but is has also just spit out a boy it swallowed up back in the early 20th century, a boy who Nolie and Bel find and try to help.  The future is strange to young Albert, and it's fun to see how his abrupt transition plays out.

The two girls solve the mystery of the fog, and thwart its advance, in a believably way, with plenty of good emotional tension.  The Boundary is kept at bay when the lighthouse on the island it enshourds is lit.  Arthur was lost when he tried to relight it back in 1918, and now it has gone out again.  If it isn't relight, the danger is very real for Journey's End and it's people.  But the only way to relight it is to go inside....

So it's both a fun friendship story and a creepy adventure mystery, with a bonus helping of an entertaining time travel plot, and another bonus of a ghost-hunting plot (ghost hunting being Nolie's hobby, and the circumstances giving her plenty to work with).  I found it tremendously appealing, and others who like their fantasy rooted in reality but richly magical will probably agree!

Kirkus agrees with me, and goes into more detail about the plot (thank you Kirkus.)


Dismantling the patriarchy at Kidlitcon 2017

Unfortunatly 1 session wasn't quite enough for me, Caroline Carlson, Melissa Fox, and Sylvie Shaffer to complete our important work. We needed a double session.

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