9/21/18

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab (Scholastic, August 2018) is a fun middle grade ghost hunting story, not desperately original but full of spooky atmosphere with an engaging heroine.

Cassidy Blake's parents are famous ghost hunters, and they've been offered a TV show that will take them around the world searching out hauntings.  What they don't know is that ever since her nearly fatal drowning, Cassidy herself can see ghost, and in fact her best friend, Jacob, who saved her life that day, is a ghost himself.

When the Blake's arrive in Edinburgh to film the first episode of the show, Cassidy is overwhelmed.  She can cross the veil that separates the living from the dead, in in Edinburgh, there are lots and lots of ghosts, dragging her into the supernatural realm.  In her experience, ghosts are uninterested in the living, but here in Scotland she meets a formidable ghost, who is very interested in the living indeed--dragging living children into her supernatural realm.  And she also meets another girl who can cross the veil, and who does so in order to put ghosts down, which Cassidy finds disturbing, because of her loyalty to ghostly Jacob.  But the immediate threat of the murdering ghost takes precedence, and Cassidy, with help from Jacob, must find a way to put this evil ghost to rest, or loose her own life, for real.

The spooky atmosphere of Edinburgh is wonderfully done, and the ghost stories are interesting and deliciously macabre.  There's nothing particularly fresh about it, but it's a fine fast read for kids who like ghosts!

(I myself was a little creeped out by Jacob; I wouldn't want my own adolescent daughter being constantly haunted by an adolescent boy who isn't great at privacy boundaries).

minor note--the family brings their cat from the US to Scotland, and I was all "but what about rabies quarantine?" and felt distrust towards the whole book as a result, until I looked up current law and found the quarantine regulations have been relaxed.  So don't worry about that!

If this is the sort of story you like, try the Suddenly Supernatural books by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (daughter of a medium starts seeing ghosts and lays them to rest) and Michelle Schusterman's Kat Sinclair series (dad has ghost hunting tv series, daughter gets involved in spooky mysteries).  And if you like your ghost hunting really spooky, try Ellen Oh's Spirit Hunter books.

9/18/18

Gregory and the Gargoyles, by Denis-Pierre Filippi, for Timeslip Tuesday

Today's Timeslip Tuesday offering is a French import-- Gregory and the Gargoyles, by Denis-Pierre Filippi, illustrated by J Etienne and Silvio Camoni, translated by Anna Provitola (Humanoids, August 2017).  It's a must-read for young graphic novel fans of fun fantasy! (which isn't always me....).

Gregory is put out as all get out when his father moves his family to a new city.  He doesn't want to make new friends and start at a new school.  But that night, he finds a medallion on which is a drawing of the church next door, and so he decides to go exploring.....when he reaches the top of the church, the medallion begins to shine brightly, and Gregory is hurled back in time to the 17th century!

There he meets the church gargoyles, come to life, and finds that they defend of the city and its magical creatures against dark magicians, and they need his help. Gregory's life in the 17th century parallels his real one--same annoying sister, same getting into trouble at school, same parents trying to corral him, same horrible Aunt Agatha.  But there's a big difference--Gregory discovers he has magical talents, and that his Aunt Agatha isn't just annoying--she's the leader of the bad guys!

In a swirl of magical adventures and encounters with magical creatures, including meeting up with a girl who's gifted with magic as well, Gregory tries to help the gargoyles....but the end of this particular mission is ambiguous, setting the stage for more to come. I've said before that I'm not a great graphic novel reader; I have trouble slowing down to look at the pictures, and have a hard time not skimming speech bubbles.  And I was even more confused than usual here-it really is a brightly colored, madcap swirl of adventure and I had trouble keeping the story straight.

But I was still entertained, and feel confident that graphic novel/fantasy/magical creature fans (with younger eyes and more tolerance for intense visual stimulation) will love it! It's fun time travel-wise--I really liked Gregory's plunge into his 17th century alternate reality.  That part I understood perfectly, and thought it was very well done.  There are other time travel hops later in the book, but they are more bubbles of adventure and less integral to the plot.

The target audience really will enjoy this one lots, and will be glad that the 2nd and 3rd books are already out there in English and  ready to read!

In case, like me, you were not familiar with Humanoids, here's a recentish article from Publishers Weekly about their kids/YA graphic novel imprint.

9/17/18

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Candlewick, September 25, 2018, middle grade/YA), is something of a tour de force.  It is a spy story/revolution/cross-cultural misunderstanding/what is history? fantasy, that keeps readers, and the main characters, on their toes and happy (the readers at least) to be there.

Brangwain Spurge, a scholar in Elfland (aka The Weed to his old classmate, now the Elfland's spymaster) is chosen to deliver a magnificent gift to the goblin king.  He will be the first Elf diplomat to travel to the Goblin realm in centuries; for a thousand years the two lands have been at war, with many atrocities and casualties.   His goblin host is Werfel, an archivist who does his best to offer magnificent hospitality and show off the best of goblin culture.

Things don't go well.  Brangwain Spurge is a horrible guest, and is blinded by his prejudices against the goblins; he sees them as the savage creatures he had in his mind before he met them, totally ignoring the bedside chocolates Werfel has set out with such care (jerk).  And he's more interested in spying then he is in having the historical conversations Werfel had looked forward too with innocent pleasure, which in any event would have been tricky, because goblins and elves have such very different ideas about the "truth" of their past hostilities.

And then Brangwain betrays Werfel's hospitality utterly, and the two become targets of the goblin secret police, and must flee for their lives, and Werfel's lovely, lonely home (his fiancĂ© was a warrior, killed a while back), full of small items of great personal meaning, is destroyed (and my despising-ness of Brangwain, and sadness for Werfel was great).   However, as is so often the case, fleeing for your life is a great way to get things out in the open, and talk more openly, and in this case, come to appreciate prejudice for what it is and start moving past it (good!), and they finally have interesting discussions about history (good!).  However, as is also often the case, fleeing for your life means that people are trying to kill you (bad.).

Final however--this being a fantasy book for young readers, it doesn't end badly, and instead there is hope for cross-cultural reconciliation, and new stories, shared by both kingdoms (very good!).

This is a fine plot, very thought-provoking and emotionally involving (Werfel....so poignant!).  Those who like somewhat whacky espionage stories, and those who like thinking about conflicting histories and those who like goblin archivists with endearing tentacled pets of great loyalty (such as Werfel has)  who do their best, damn it, to give difficult guests a good time (with bedside chocolates), will enjoy it lots.

What lifts it to the tour de force level is the way the story is told.  There are black and white picture sequences, many pictures, that show Brangwain's spy mission point of view.  They are complicated, detailed, and make more sense after you read the book (this could be my own particular problem, since when I'm reading I have trouble stopping for picture looking....).

There is Werfel's third person narration of his point of view.   And there are letters from the elven spymaster to his king, giving us a whole nother story brewing under the main adventure.....and it all works to make a cohesive, gripping whole!

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is on the National Book Award Young Readers long list, the only fantasy there this year.  It is indeed a book for young readers, but it is not a book for every young reader.  10 and up into YA..., I guess, but if pressed I'd put it more in Middle Grade than YA, because the adventure and intrigue has that pure immersive excitement of MG adventure (or something), and even though it might seem that YA readers would be more likely to appreciate the Weighty Themes, MG readers should not be underestimated....

Kirkus liked the book lots too...

but gee, nothing gets me more than good people trying to do the best they can in all the small things because that's what needs to be done and really trying and it all going to hell and all the personal things that reminded them of their dead beloved being trashed.  Werfel and Brangwain are friends at the end, but still.  The adorable tentacled pet makes it safely to the end too, thank goodness.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

9/16/18

this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (9/16/18)

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

The Reviews

The Afterwards, by A.F. Harold, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Akata Witch, and Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor, at The Children's Book Review

Argos: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog, by Ralph Hardy, at Middle Grade Mafioso

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, at Waking Brian Cells

Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan, at Word Spelunking and Charlotte's Library

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, at Browsing for Books

Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel Jose Older, at Great Kid Books

Escape to the Above, by Adam Jay Epstein, at Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Inventors at No.8, by A.M. Morgan, at  Semicolon

The Wells Bequest (Grimm Legacy 2), by Polly Shulman, at Say What?

The Last of the Lost Boys (Outlaws of Time 3), by N.D. Wilson, at Semicolon

The Legend of Greg, by Chris Rylander, at Always in the Middle

The Phantom Tower, by Keir Graff, at Say What?

The Poe Estate (Grimm Legacy #3), by Polly Shulman, at Say What?

A Rat's Tale: The Adventures of Wilhelm, by Maria Ritter, at The Children's Book Review

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Say What?

Skulduggery Pleasant (1), by Derek Landy, at Jen Robinson's Book Page

Spindrift and the Orchid, by Emma Trevayne, at Semicolon

The Storm Runner, by Jennifer Cervantes, at Fantasy Literature and Take Me Away

Swallow's Dance, by Wendy Orr, at Log Cabin Library

The Third Mushroom, by Jennifer Holm, at The O.W.L.

Voyage of the Dogs, by Greg van Eekhout, at Fantasy Literature

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--The Golden Tower, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and The Lost Continent, by Tui T. Sutherland

Another two at Ms. Yingling Reads--Otherwood, by Pete Hautman, and  The Red Fox Clan (Royal Ranger 2), by John Flanagan

Authors and Interviews

Zetta Elliott (Dragons in a Bag) at The Horn Book

Krista Van Dolzer (Earth to Dad) at Michelle I. Mason
nat book awrds

Other Good Stuff

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin is bearing the middle grade fantasy torch on the National Book Award longlist for young people's literature

"25 Adventurous Books Like Percy Jackson" at Book Riot

"To mark three decades since Roald Dahl’s heroine first appeared, her illustrator, Quentin Blake, has imagined her life now" at The Guardian

I always enjoy Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books' looks at what's new in the UK; here's today's post

9/12/18

Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan

Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan (Candlewick, September 11 2018), is a lovely new middle grade fantasy for kids who delight in exploring magical worlds along with brave kids finding their own magical powers!

Mup had no idea her mother came from a world of magic until the night her great-aunt died, and the raggedy witches stole her father away.  Her father was the bait that would pull her mother back into that world to save him, so that the queen of the witches, Mup's own grandmother, could eliminate her as a rival.  This comes as a surprise to Mup's mother; her great-aunt had decided to raise her in mundane Ireland, with no knowledge of her magical heritage.

Mup, her little brother (transformed into a puppy), the ghost of the great-aunt, and her mother cross the boarder into a place where the witch queen has clamped down on all magic that is not part of her cabal of evil, raggedy witches.  Mup's mother comes into her inheritance of magic.  And, this being a good, proper, middle grade fantasy, it turns out that Mup has a magic of her own that she must learn to draw on if she is to get them safely home again.  But will her mother want to leave, now that she knows she is the heir to this place of wonders?

It is a really satisfying story, with a nice balance of internal anxiety for family and new friends and external anxiety about formidable magical opponents.  The initial journey through the magical world that sets things in motion gives the reader, and Mup, time to figure out what's happening, and introduces Crow, a shape-shifting boy, with his own desperate need for family, who both helps Mup with her quest and becomes another person for her to care for.  Mup isn't interested in saving the world; she's interested in saving those she loves, and so, though there's plenty of vividly described fantasy-type adventuring and  battling against evil magic (with Mup manifesting fascinating magic of her own!) there's plenty of emotional heart here too.

This was first published in Ireland, and remains un-Americanized; Mum is not corrected to Mom, for instance, making it even more interestingly foreign to American readers.

There's scary stuff (the raggedy witches, though their name makes them sound, perhaps, a little silly, are very nightmarish), and there's one rather no-punches-pulled death, but all in all I'd be happy to give this to a fantasy fan at the younger end of middle grade--the magic-loving 4th grader.  And I'd also be happy to give it to the magic loving upper end kid--the 7th grader feeling pressured by controlling grown-ups (like Mup's Great-aunt) and wanting to escape the mundanity of middle school,

I enjoyed it lots, and am very happy it's the first book of a trilogy!  There's lots of work to be done in the world of the raggedy witches, and it will be a pleasure to see Mup and her family set to it!

and now I go see what Kirkus thinks...and although theirs was a metaphor that did not occur to me, I am happy to see we ended up in the same place.

From their starred review:

"Kiernan has crafted something at once familiar and delightfully surprising with this fantasy quest. Like biting into an unassuming brownie to discover it has a heart of Nutella, Mup’s narrative has all the hallmarks of a traditional misadventure with the fairy folk, but the unusual deployment of the “chosen one” trope, a plot-driving interweave of magic and family tension, and ineffably Irish elements of worldbuilding and characterization deliver readers an unexpected twist of richness.

It’s fortunate a trilogy is planned, for readers will surely demand more of Mup."



disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

9/9/18

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (9/9/18)

Here's this week's round-up; please let me know if I missed your post!

First--today's the last day to throw your name into the hat to be a Cybils panelist!  It is really fun, and really rewarding, and there are lots of great categories besides middle grade speculative fiction!  YA speculative fiction could use a few more applicants, for instance....

The Reviews

Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan, at Whispering Stories 

The Cat at the Wall, by Deborah Ellis, at Millebot Reads

Escape to the Above, by Adam Jay Epstein, at Say What?

A Festival of Ghosts, by William Alexander, at Charlotte's Library

The Five Sisters, by Margaret Mahy, at Fantasy Literature

The Nebula Secret, by Trudi Trueit, at Always in the Middle, Word Spelunking, and Charlotte's Library

Otherwood, by Pete Hautman, at Waking Brain Cells

The Splintered Light, by Ginger Johnson, at Semicolon

The Storm Runner, by J. C. Cervantes, at Word Spelunking 

Storm Witch, by Ellen Renner, at A little but a lot and Book Murmuration

The Third Mushroom, by Jennifer Holm, at The Winged Pen

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery, by Allison Rushby, at Geo Librarian

The Wide-Awake Princess, by E.D. Baker, at A Backwards Story

Willa of the Wood, by Robert Beatty, at Sharon the Librarian

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads--The Voyage of the Dogs, by Greg Van Eekhout, and The Third Mushroom, by Jennifer Holm

Authors and Interviews

Greg Van Eekhout (Voyage of the Dogs) at Whatever

Ginger Johnson (The Splintered Light) at Nerdy Book Club

Josh Levy (Seventh Grade vs the Galaxy) at MG Book Village

Other Good Stuff

What's new in the UK, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

8 cold middle grade books (many of them fantasy) in case you are still suffering in the heat, which is not the case today here in Rhode Island....gathered by me at the B. and N. Kids Blog

9/8/18

A Festival of Ghosts, by William Alexander

In A Properly Unhanted Place, by William Alexander, link goes to my review)  young Rosa Diaz was instrumental in dismantling the dangerous barrier that that had been constructed around the town of Ingot to keep the dead away.  But now that the town is properly haunted again, will the living be able to cope?

A Festival of Ghosts (Margaret K. McElderry Books, August 2018)  picks up right after the first book ends.  Rosa is forced to go to the local school, where she must act as a semi-official ghost appeaser; and her role in the whole ghost business has not made her wildly popular with many of the other kids, so there's social as well as spooky tension!

The school is not the only supernatural hot-spot--Ingot is in danger of being overwhelmed by the influx of unsettled spirits, and its inhabitants have lived without having to deal with the dead for so long that they don't know how to cope.  Rosa herself is troubled by the possibility that she herself is being haunted by the ghost of her dead father, and her best friend Jasper and his family are troubled by the haunting that's taken over the grounds of the town's Renaissance festival--spirits of Renaissance re-enactors and the minors of Ingot's past are at war over the site.  And the haunting of the school proves not to be a case of ordinary restless dead, but part of the tragedy at the heart of Ingot's troubled past....

So basically, there's a lot on Rosa's plate!  She and Jasper continue to be a great team, and the details of ghost appeasement make for entertaining reading.  The larger struggle of recognizing history and past wrongs, and making places for those wrongs to be remembered in the landscape of the living, adds a profound and thoughtful depth.

The first book was great spooky fun, this book is perhaps less fun, but possibly even better.

Note--illustrations by Kelly Murphy, one of my favorite middle grade fantasy illustrators, add lots....for those who are better than I am at noticing that there are pictures.  I have to go back and look at the them once I finish the book, because I get so fixed on the reading that I don't even see pictures.  I had not even realized that there were pictures until I started writing this.  This blindness, and my sadness that I have this failing, is why I have organized a panel on "illustrated middle grade" for Kidlitcon 2019, with Kelly Murphy as one of the panelists.  I would like to be able to think more intelligently about the pictures!

9/6/18

Seafire, by Natalie C. Parker

Seafire, by Natalie C. Parker, is a new YA speculative fiction story of a crew of female pirates who are fighting in a post-Apocalyptic world not for gold and glory, but to strike back at the asshole oppressors, patriarchal violent men with a leader who's the sort who wants to hold everyone in an iron fist, etc.  Caledonia, the main character, had to watch as her family's ship was destroyed by the Bullets (the oppressors soldiers)...and she had to live with the guilt that it was she who betrayed them (which she kind of did, though not on purpose).  But Caledonia and her friend and childhood shipmate Pieces decided to fight back.  They found other strong, smart young woman, rebuilt the ship, and took to the seas themselves, attacking the Bullets whenever possible.  But they are of course fighting against overwhelming odds, and don't even dream of "victory."  Yet as events unfold and they pass from danger into danger, still fighting back, they begin to think that hope might not be as impossible as it seemed....

I very much enjoyed the all female, found family of the crew.  Since there were 52 of them, we don't get to meet them all personally, just those who are close to Caledonia, but the ones we meet are interesting and unique, and contribute to the functioning of the ship and its missions each according to their strengths.  At times reading this I was reminded a little bit of classic naval warefare fiction (like the Hornblower books)--tricks and guile and strategy are more important than brute force of arms.  Yet Caledonia is no Hornblower--she doesn't rise to that level of brilliance, and it is her crew that comes forward with the ideas and initiatives needed (which is fine-go crew!).

Tension specific to the story (as opposed to the evil bad guy they have to fight tension) is provided when a young Bullet soldier begs for sanctuary.  Caledonia has his life in her hands, and it is hard for her not to kill him outright.  As well as providing moral and ethical struggle to the plot, this provides a romance sub-thread....a pleasing one, that I did not object to, though I found the relationships between the women, including one murmur of a lesbian relationship, more interesting because less predictable..

I didn't think this was the greatest book since sliced bread, mostly because I was frustrated by a fuzziness to the worldbuilding (I like more history, more backstory to how the bad guys came to power, the sort of thing that lets one imagine how they can be overthrown), and I was also frustrated that the women weren't thinking about end goals (being pirates is all very well, but where does it get you?), but this certainly leaves the story wide open for sequels!



9/5/18

Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret, by Trudi Trueit

If you have kids around who love (or loved) the 39 Clues series (by which I mean kids who like to read about kids following clues on wild adventures around the world), who also love technology of the very cuttingest edge, and elite schools where high tech survival games are the core of the curriculum, here is good news--they will love the Explorer Academy series from National Geographic Kids Books!

The first book, The Nebula Secret, is out today.  It introduces the young hero, Cruz Coronado, a 12 year-old Mexian-American surfer dude from Hawaii whose mom used to work as a scientist at the Academy before she died in an accident there (a mysterious sort of accident....).  Cruz is accepted into the Academy (a place sort of like Hogwarts for science), and is thrilled to start training as an explorer with his diverse classmates from around the globe.  At first his days there are full of ordinary school-for-the-brilliant sort of happenings, and full of science-y goodness, but then Cruz starts picking up clues that his mother's death wasn't just a sad accident.

And so after this set up first volume, Cruz is launched into a dangerous hunt for the secret she hid from everyone but him...putting his own life in danger!

It's fun, fast, geeky, has lots of full color illustrations that help move things along briskly, and it should be a hit with its target audience.  Here's the book's website if you want to learn more!

nb--I stuck a science fiction label on it, because a lot of the tech is not exactly mainstream yet, but I have reservations about this because, as explained in a note at the end, it is within the realm of near-future possibility (4-D printing, for instance.....)

9/2/18

This week's round-up of middle grade sci f and fantasy from aroudn the blogs (9/2/18)

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

But first--apply to be a judge for the Cybils Awards!  Spend your fall in a beautiful orgy of reading the children's/YA book genre of your choice, and discussing it frankly and lovingly with others! One especially fine category is Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, but there's also YA speculative fiction, which could use a few more applicants.....it might seem daunting to be given a list of 150 or so YA speculative fiction books to read in three months, but fear not!  Not every panelist has to read every book (every book is read by a minimum of 2 people, and with a panel of 7 readers, this cuts down the reading load tremendously), and if it becomes clear to you that a book is not one you're falling in love with, you don't have to force yourself to read it till the bitter end!  Plus if you're interested in the category, you've probably read a bunch of the books that will be nominated already.

The Reviews

Beggone the Raggedy Witches (Wild Magic 1), by Celine Kiernan, at Mom Read It

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, at Book Murmuration

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker, by Matilda Woods, at Magic Fiction 
Since Potter
City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schawb, at Fansided, Avid Reader, NJ Family, and Hypable

City of Islands, by Kali Wallace, at Charlotte's Library 

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, at Howl's Moving Library

Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Fantasy Literature

A Festival of Ghosts, by William Alexander, at Bookworm for Kids

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at Say What?

The Girl in the Locked Room, by Mary Downing Hahn, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Missing (Shadow House 4), by Dan Pobleki, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Rose Legacy, by Jessica Day George, at Locus

The Scroll of Kings (The Lost Books 1), by Sarah Prineas, at Redeemed Reader

Sweep: the Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier, at proseandkahn and Reading Rumpus

The Third Mushroom, by Jennifer L. Holm, at My Brain on Books

The Wild Robot, and The Wild Robot Escapes, by Peter Borwn, at The Whispering of Pages

The Wizard's Dog, by Eric Kahn Gale, at Susan Uhlig

Authors and Interviews

Rebekah Stelzer (The Queen and the Knights of Nor) at Chanticleer Book Reviews

Ginger Johnson (The Splintered Light) at Nerdy Book Club

A look at Joan Aiken's life and books at The New Yorker

Other Good Stuff

The latest news from Rick Riordan presents! Lots of new books announced;  basically a series of squees.

How to design a trashy mg book cover at YouTube

8/30/18

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries 1), by Martha Wells

What with folks (Maureen and Rachel, in this case) whose book taste I share all enthusiastic about the Murderbot novellas of Martha Wells, it was only a mater of time before I started reading them.  And now I have read the first one, All Systems Red (Tor 2017), and want the second and third ones now, in that irrational sort of way someone with hundreds of books to reads wants the ones that aren't on hand.

From what I'd read about Murderbot, trying to avoid spoiling the series, I'd formed an impression of what the books were about--a killer robot, slightly snarky, who's gone rouge and enjoys escapist video watching more than murdering, who makes friends with a human woman in a sci fi adventure of some sort.  This was not entirely accurate.

Murderbot is the name the main character has given itself, although it is actually a Security unit and not designed or educated to kill.  It is neither a robot or a murderer, being instead a mix of the mechanical and living human-ness, and not having ever killed anyone in a murderous sort of way.  And rather than snark being its primary characteristic, shyness is.  The good human friend is true, though, and one of the best parts of the book is watching Murderbot let its guard down to trust and care about that person, and the other secondary character, who are really nice people.

I somehow missed acquiring any details about the actual story, which was, happily for me, one I liked.  Murderbot is working as a security guard for a group of scientists assessing an alien planet, a simple enough assignment until everything goes horribly wrong and it is all Murderbot can do to keep its team alive.  I don't like lots of description of excitements, and though there were plenty of tense things happening here, I didn't feel burdened by too much action, which I appreciated lots.  Murderbot's character held center stage throughout.

So if you like character-driven sci fi, do try these!  I'm going to be pressing this one on my 15 year old son this weekend--the short length of the book makes it a friendly introduction to exo-planet sci fi for the young reader who doesn't read as much as I think he should!  (the last exo-planet story he read was The Green Book, by Jill Patton Walsh, which is very good and which he loved, but clearly it's time for something new!).  I think the tension between Murderbot's status as mechanical property and the person-ness that is just as much a fact of its being will appeal.

8/28/18

Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue, by Kate Messner, for Timeslip Tuesday

Hurricane Katrina Rescue, by Kate Messner (Scholastic June 2018), is my first venture into  the Ranger in Time series for elementary/younger middle grade kids (this is the 8th book).  Ranger is a rescue dog who failed at the last step of his training because of squirrels.  But with the help of a magic first aid kit, which he keeps carefully stashed away from his human family, he travels through time to put his skills to good use.

In this most recent installment of the series, a girl named Clare is struggling to survive the horrific catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, which has flooded her home in the Ninth Ward.  She must keep herself and her grandmother alive while the water rises, until they are trapped first in the attic, and then up on the roof of the house....Ranger can't make all the dangers go away, but he can help, and does, and gradually Clare, her grandmother, and the dog make it to safety, in small, risky steps. Full page illustrations make it even easier to visualize what Clare is going through, although Kate Messner's writing makes everything vivid on its own!

It's the sort of time travel I think of as educational--using the conceit to coax kids who wouldn't be drawn to straight-up historical fiction into learning about the past.  Ranger adds tons of kid-appeal, and is helpful, but the story could exist without him in it.  This isn't a criticism of the book, just a thought on what sort of time travel it is!  Of course, another adventure to having a friendly rescue dog around is that it keeps the horror from being overwhelming; the fact there's a happy ending helps too.

As a story, it's a vivid portrayal of the devastated Ninth Ward, starring a particularly brave girl. A fast, gripping read.

8/27/18

City of Islands, by Kali Wallace

City of Islands, by Kali Wallace, takes readers on a  journey through the oceans between islands, where a young girl meets old magic...and must quickly learn to be part of it before it takes all that she loves away from her!  Actually, it takes readers on a journey to various islands, though there is much ocean travel involved (as islands demand), but I thought "through the oceans" sounded more poetic....

In any event.

12-year old Mara has been twice orphaned, first when her parents died when she was 5, and second when the eccentric bonemage, Bindy, who had been her foster mother, left home one night and never came back.  After a tense year scrounging in the fish market, she became a diver for one of the great ladies of the islands, search for relics of the founders, the sea people who built the city scattered on a small archipelago centuries ago with their magic.  The founders may be long gone (no one knows where, or why), but magical relics can still be found down in the depths, and some people of the islands have enough magic themselves to do small workings of their own.

Mara and her diving partner and best friend Izzy hope for an extraordinary find, one that might give them enough money to secure the futures they want--Izzy happily married with the young woman she loves, Mara getting the education in magic she's been longing for since she found out what magic was.  But the remarkable collection of fantastical bones they find that day when the story opens doesn't bring peace and plenty.  Instead, it cracks open what little stability their lives had.

The mystery of the bones draws them into the horror of magic being used by a man blinded by ambition for a truly ghastly purpose, one that combined with grotesque surgery leaves its victims monsterous...yet still themselves.  With Izzy and her other best friend, a boy named Fish Hook, are captured by that man, Mara must do everything she can to save them...before they too end up at the bottom of the ocean.  (note--horrible things are done to people, and there is no magical healing at the end, though there may be in future.  The courage of these victims, who may look strange and different, but don't hide what they are, is actually one of the most reaffirming parts of the book).

Fortunately Mara has more affinity to the magic of her world than she'd guessed at, but still it is touch and go, with a whole panoply of desperate deeds, fiendish magic, unlikely new friends, and unguessed at old betrayals....

It's a very gripping story, and the magic is truly fresh and memorable.  Part me also wants to praise the world building--the island city is also fresh and memorable--but the archaeologist in me wasn't satisfied that it was a sustainable maritime economy....I wanted more certainty that the author had thought out all the details of how things worked.  Greenwood Island, as shown on the map, is huge compared to the other islands, but it seems totally irrelevant to Mara's world, which is confined to smaller, stonier islands, built into cities by the founders' magic (and also, less importantly, to the island where the dead are laid to rest). And how do the rich elites stay rich and elite? Yes, they control magic, but where does this actually get them?  And are there reliable sources of freshwater? (these doubts could well just be grown-up me, and therefore irrelevant to the target audience experience).  

But my own doubts aside, Mara is an utterly engaging character, heroic without being unbelievable, talented without being in any way over the top in her gifts.  Like most of her fellow islanders, she has “brown skin, brown eyes, and curly black hair,” and the cover illustration of her does her lovely justice!

Kirkus gives this one a star, saying "Inspiration and excitement from beginning to end."  I would have held back on the star, but can't disagree with their conclusion.


8/26/18

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (8/28/18)

Here's this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs; please let me know if I missed your post.

BUT FIRST--the call for 2018 Cybils Awards panelists is up!  Being a Cybils panelists is a really excellent way to explore a specific genre in depth, in the company of other readers who are ready to think hard, talk hard, and have a good time together! Middle Grade Speculative fiction is only one of the categories....and all of you who appear these round-ups on a regular basis should think about applying!

The Reviews

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, by John August, at Say What?

Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, at proseandkahn

Burning Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Say What?

The Cat and Mrs. Cary, by Doris Gates, at Charlotte's Library 

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel Jose Older, at Pages Unbound

Dragon Daughter, by Liz Flannagan, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

The House in Poplar Wood, by K.E. Ormsbee, at Waking Brain Cells

Joshua Dredd, by Lee Bacon, at Say What?

The Language of Spells, by Garett Wyer, at Kid Lit Geek

The Long-Lost Home (Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #6) by Maryrose Wood, at Stray Thoughts

Ms. Mulligan and the Enchanted Ice Cream, by Tiffany Blaine, at Not in Jersey

Nevermore, by Jessica Townsend, at Real Life Reading

The Phantom Tower, by Keir Gratt, at Ms. Yingling Reads and Cover2Cover

The Scroll of Kings (Lost Books #1), by Sarah Prineas, at Elizabeth Fais

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier, at Hidden In Pages

Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, at Geo Librarian

You Wish: The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff, by Jason Lethcoe, at Tales from the Raven

Authors and Interviews

Gregory Funaro (Watch Hollow) at Literary Dust

Jonathan Rosen (From Sunset to Sunrise) at From the Mixed Up Files

A look at Alan Garner's new autobiography, Where Shall We Run To, at Magic Fiction Since Potter

Other Good Stuff

A birthday tribute for Percy Jackson, featuring the jewelry of the gods, at Elizabeth Van Tassel

8/23/18

The Cat and Mrs. Cary, by Doris Gates

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1088940.The_Cat_and_Mrs_Cary
The Cat and Mrs. Cary, by Doris Gates (1962), came into my home last weekend when my sister was visiting.  Every visit she sends me a list of a few books to check out of the Rhode Island library system (less ruthlessly weeded than those of many other states) for her, and this was one she'd read as a child and wanted to revisit.  So of course I read it too, and enjoyed it very much.

It's the story of an oldish woman, Mrs. Cary, a widow who has bought herself a little house by the sea, where she lives alone in perfect order.  Then one day a cat enters her life, a cat who can talk to her, and only her.  She'd never wanted a cat, but The Cat is a force to be reckoned with, and he has decided to stay.  Soon after she finds herself agreeing to  host her nephew, who's been badly ill, so that the sea air can revive him, even though she's very doubtful about this.

Brad, the nephew, is doubtful as well, but when he turns out to be a bookish, good-natured boy, Mrs. Cary is much relieved (as Brad is too when he finds out the same about her).  And Brad likes cats very much, so he and The Cat get along like a house on fire, even though they can't speak to each other.  Brad finds Mrs. Cary's one-sided conversations vastly amusing, though some of the neighbors have been startled by them....

The author clearly felt that Plot was needed, so into this gentle story comes Danger and Suspense, in the form of a (small) ring of....wait for it...Parakeet Smugglers!  Brad, Mrs. Cary, The Cat, and a girl also visiting the town foil the smugglers, and all ends well, with The Cat and Brad going home together and Mrs. Cary getting three kittens.

Although ostensibly a children's book, Mrs. Cary is definitely the main character (perhaps the children's book-ness is why her first name is never given), but this story of a woman more lonely than she admits to herself finding companionship has as much, if not more, appeal for grown-ups. Prefect reading when you need something companionable and undemanding, with bits of humor, if you can cope with/more or less ignore parakeet smuggling as a plot point.  I'll be returning it tomorrow, if any fellow Rhode Islanders are in the mood for such a book....

8/21/18

Gordon: Bark to the Future, by Ashley Spires (a PURST adventure for Timeslip Tuesday)

I utterly adored Binky the Space Cat, the first book of Ashley Spires PURST (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) graphic novels perfect for early elementary readers (who can read but still not up to large text blocks), but not having readers of that age in my life for a while now, I hadn't kept up with the series.   Browsing in my local library (where I try to check out a few books every time I go in to pick up all my holds so as to support circulation numbers) I was very pleased to find Gordon: Bark to the Future, the newest PURST book (Kids Can Press, May 2018), because it filled two immediate needs--a dog book (for possible use in post I'm working on elsewhere) and a time travel book that I could read in one night (because that is the planning level at which I operate).

Gordon shares a space station/house with Binky and Gracie, the cat commanding officer, working tirelessly to keep out alien invaders (house flies).  But disaster strikes! A horde of aliens descends, Binky is captured, and Gracie neutralized, so it's up to Gordon to save the day!

Gordon is not a PURST of vigorous action; he's a thinker, not a fighter, and on top of that he's a dog, with a short doggy attention span.  He is, however, not a bad scientist for a dog, and has on hand a working time machine!  He uses it to go back five years, to warn Binky so the disaster can be forestalled.  But things go badly wrong when he accidently meddles with the path of the past, and Binky never becomes a space cat.   He has to go back in time to try again...but doesn't have enough fuel.  Is everything doomed?  Of course not.

So it's a cute graphic novel for the young, and it's also a very nice introduction to time travel paradoxes and convolutions.  It might not be fully understood by the young reader, but I think the fact that the pictures show what's happening helps, and most young readers in my experience (basically me and my own children, so an admittedly limited sample) are happy to accept not understanding, absorbing rather than dissecting things that don't make sense.

Personally I liked the conceit of the original Binky book (that Binky just thinks he's a space cat, but isn't really) better than the actual sci fi story of this one.  I like cats better than dogs too (favorite part of this one-- seeing kitten Binky!).  But it's still fun.

Sort answer: a really good time travel story for a demographic with few time travel books to choose from.

8/20/18

Spell and Spindle, by Michelle Schusterman

Spell and Spindle, by Michelle Schusterman (Random House, middle grade, July 2018), is  an excellent pick for kids who like fairy-tale infused creepy noir! I liked it lots too, and found it both clever and moving.

The Museum of Peculiar Arts is shutting down.  The neighborhood around it has gentrified, and now that it's 1952, people aren't interested in the old oddities and curiosities that it holds.  11-year-old Chance loves it, though; he's been helping its old owner, Fortunato,  maintain it, and is especially fond of a Penny, a child-sized marionette, who's possible the last survivor of a legendary puppet show from long ago.  The museum's closing isn't the only big change Chance faces--his family is moving out of the city to one of the bright new suburbs, and Chance hates that idea. 

Penny is likewise unhappy.  Though wooden, she is alive inside...and though her memories are foggy, she knows she does not want to spend years in storage.

Then Forunato offers her to Chance...and he accepts.  When he touches her strings, he hears her voice inside his head, as clearly as she's always been able to hear him.  And then things get creepy. There's a villain in the piece, a puppeteer who is pulling many strings.  One string that he pulls swaps the spirits of Penny and Chance, and now it is his soul trapped in the wooden body, while Penny is free to be alive.  Being a decent person, she's appalled by Chance's fate, but has no clue how to swap back, and conflicted feelings about giving up her new life.

But Constance, Chance's big sister, figures out what's happened. And she is not conflicted at all--she's going to rescue her brother, using her pretty astounding gift of conviction (the sort of conviction that can change reality through shear determination).  And Chance, though for all intents and purposes a damsel in distress held by an evil warlock, is simultaneously doing his best to rescue himself, and his fellow imprisoned marionettes, using the tools he has--his ability to see, and to think (the narrative shifts between his point of view and the two girls).  Penny is also in need of rescue, though the exact particulars of the magic in which she is trapped are a mystery for most of the book, and she also helps with the rescue; not with ostentatious heroics, but mainly with her decency.  

So basically this is a book about three strong characters who are all very likeable, whose relationships are founded on sibling loyalty and complicated feelings about what it means to be alive, trapped in a magical mystery with a distinct touch of 1950s noir (for instance, a radio character named The Storm provides inspiration to the kids, and is alluded to, and even quoted, often).   There's an emotionally satisfying mystery to be unraveled that's bigger and more deeply rooted than the immediate situation.  It also has lots of nice gender-stereotype confrontations, like Chance's parents' dismay when he brings the marionette (basically a giant girl doll) home with him, and Constance's attitude toward fairy tales--"I just don't think it's fair.... that boys with magic are written as exceptionally smart, but girls with magic are written as exceptionally mean." (p 118)

Or as Kirkus (in agreement with me) says in its starred review:

"The beautifully creepy plot deftly weaves together old-time–y fears with fresh outlooks through richly realized characters who feel immediate and modern despite the 1952 setting. Especially well done is the approach to gender, as Chance, Penny, and Constance all struggle with different realities of embodiment and expression without resorting to cheap sentiment or heavy-handedness."

8/19/18

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (8/19/18)

A light week; perhaps I was not alone in not having much time for reading because of family visits, summertime fun, home renovation projects, and going to work.....Please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Amulet Keepers (Tombquest #2), by Michael Northrup, at Say What?

The Brimstone Key (Clockwork Chronicles #1), by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis, at Say What?

A Dragon's Guide to Making Your Human Smarter, by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, at Say What?

Everland, by Wendy Spinale, at Prose and Kahn (audiobook review)

The Girl in the Locked Room: a Ghost Story, by Mary Downing Hahn, at The O.W.L.

The Language of Spells, by Garrett Weyr, at Read Till Dawn

The Rose Legacy, by Jessica Day George, at Kid Lit Geek and Pages Unbound.

The Law of Finders Keepers, by Sheila Tunage, at The Winged Pen 

Rune Warriors, by James Jennewein and Tom S. Parker, at Say What?

Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Snared, by Adam Jay Epstein, at Geo Librarian

Sputnick's Guide to Life on Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at Always in the Middle

The Way Past Winter, by Kiran Milwood Hargrave, at alittlebutalot

two at alibrarymama--Aru Sha and the End of Time, and The Serpent's Secret

8/12/18

This week's roundup of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (8/12/18)

Welcome to this week's roundup of all the middle grade sci fi/fantasy blog posts I found; let me know if I missed yours!  Nothing from me this week, because instead of blogging I took my oldest boy to start his freshman year at Bard College, where I'm sure he'll be very happy, but sob.

The Reviews

Aru Sha and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at Indictoday

The Assassination of Grangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, at Prose and Kahn

Bites Back (Project Terra #2), by Landry Q. Walker, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Chalice of Immortality (Magickeepers 3), by Erica Kirov, at Say What?

Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel Jose Older, at The Booklist Reader

A Darkness of Dragons, by S.A. Patrick, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

 Dreaming Dangerous, by Lauren DeStefano, at Say What?

The Girl With the Dragon Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, at Chrikaru Reads

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, at Prose and Kahn

The House With Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson, at Hit or Miss Books

Ice Wolves, by Amy Kaufman, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

The Language of Spells, by Garret Weyr, at Redeemed Reader

The Legend of Greg, by Chris Rylander, at Redeemed Reader

Money Jane: The Hunt for a Legendary Magic Thief (How to Set the World on Fire #2), by T.K. Riggins, at Chanticleer Book Reviews

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee, at Book Nut

The Scroll of Kings (The Lost Books #1), by Sarah Prineas, at Puss Reboots

The Selkie of San Francisco, by Todd Calgi Gallicano, at The Neverending TBR

The Surface Breaks, by Louise O'Neill, at What Vicky Read

Tilly and the Bookwanderers, by Anna James, at Alittlebutalot

Toaff's Way, by Cynthia Voigt, at Reading Rumpus

Tribute (The Cleaners #1), by Chris Knoblaugh, at Thrice Read Books

The Turning, by Emily Whitman, at Magic Fiction Since Potter

Authors and Interviews

Roshani Chokshi (Aru Sha and the End of Time) at The Story Sanctuary

Charlotte Salter (Where the Woods End) at The Winged Pen

Gavin Neale (The Price of Magic) at Read it, Daddy

Other Good Stuff

New in the UK, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

8/7/18

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, adapted to graphic novel form by Edith, for Timeslip Tuesday

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, is a lovely classic timeslip story, and I'm thrilled that it's now out in the world as a beautiful graphic novel, from French artist Edith (Greenwillow, 2018).

Here's what I said in my post from years ago on the original book (published in 1958):

Tom had been looking forward to the summer vacation--he and his brother Peter had great tree house building plans. But when Peter came down with measles, Tom is sent off to stay with his uncle and aunt, in a small flat that had been chopped out of an old Victorian house. Unable to sleep, Tom is drawn downstairs by the grandfather clock in the hall outside striking thirteen, and opening the back door of the house, finds the Garden...

"a great lawn where flower-beds bloomed; a towering fir-tree, and thick, beetle-browed yews that humped there shapes down two sides of the lawn; on the third side, to the right, a greenhouse almost the size of a real house; from each corner of the lawn a path that twisted away to some other depths of garden with other trees."

Great and terrible is Tom's disappointment the next day, when he opens the same door and sees only dustbins--the land belonging to the old house had been built up years ago. But the next night, the clock strikes again, and Tom steps back again into the past when the garden still existed. There he meets small orphaned Hattie, who also longs for a playmate, and night after night they share the trees, the hiding places, the orchard, meadow, and river, and all the other things that every perfect garden has.

But time doesn't stay still. In the past, Hattie grows older, in the present, Tom grows more desperate to enjoy the garden before he has to go home, and his brother Peter grows lonelier. And at last, one night Tom opens the door, and the garden is no longer there.

This isn't a book where Lots of Things Happen. It is subtle in its buildup, and unhurried in its descriptions. The small adventures that Hattie and Tom have in the garden and its environs are not particularly strange and wonderful--but because these two children have become friends across time, each one suspecting that the other is a ghost, their encounters are magical. And because Pearce takes her time in describing each of Tom's visits to the garden, and describes at length as well Tom's daytime thoughts, as he tries to figure out what is happening, the reader gets to follow at Tom's pace, and appreciate it all along with him.

So I was curious to see if the graphic novel would be able to convey both the shear wonder of the garden, and the tight focus on what Tom is thinking.  Yes to both counts, although perhaps more successfully for the later.  Which is a bit ironic perhaps, but the garden the words built in my mind pretty much defies illustration.   Still it is beautiful.  And we really do get a very good sense of Tom in the daylight world struggling to make sense of what is happening, and the ending as presented here is I think even more successful than in the book; it is a bit more sustained and given a bit more weight by the juxtaposition of words and images.

So in short, yay for this wonderful opportunity for kids who wouldn't be drawn to an old English book to meet this lovely story!


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