1/22/19

On the Wasteland, by Ruth M. Arthur, for Timeslip Tuesday

I was so sure that On the Wasteland, by Ruth M. Arthur, illustrated by Margery Gill, would finally be the book of hers that I truly loved.  The plot hits all the right notes for me.  The heroine, Betony, is a smart, orphaned girl drawn to the lonely wasteland at the edge of the Suffolk coast, and happily for her the orphanage gives her freedom to wander around in it alone (nice orphanage!).   She makes friends with the old couple whose house is an overturned boat (this isn't something I actually look for in books, but it is a nice touch).   This friendship leads her to working part time in the manor house (for which I give it bonus points) where she's given the run of the library (lots of bonus points).  And there's the handsome teenaged grandson of the lady of the manor, with romance to come hinted at (this would have gotten more bonus points back when I was a young teen myself.  Hardened cynical me rolls eyes, but in a kind way).

And on top of all that, there's a time slip plotline--in the Wasteland, Betony is sometimes swept into the past, when Vikings were settling in Suffolk (not exactly invading, but not invited by the Saxons either, so not peaceful).  At first she is just an observing shadow, but as she grows from child to teen, her immersion in the past becomes deeper, and the Vikings start to see her, and she steps into the role of Estrith, a girl her own age.  Her Viking family starts to matter more and more to her, though the past is sometimes disturbing.  

It is also disturbing that there have been quite a number of people before Betony who were found drowned in the Wasteland.  

So I should have loved this book to pieces, but once again Ruth M. Arthur failed to deliver that for me, and I ended up simply enjoying it quite a bit.   In this case, it is because Betony is narrating the story from a future point of view (for instance, she checks her journal to make sure she's remembering things the way they happened).  So it's clear that we, the reader, aren't living it with Betony; she's telling us a story that she already lived through, with lots of flashbacks.  And this lack of immediacy and lack of closeness made me not care as deeply about her and her world as I might otherwise.  

The other issue is that, except for the threat of drowning hanging over the time travel, the time travel doesn't do anything much to advance the story or Betony's character arc.  The only noticeable result is that she decides to be an archaeologist/early medieval historian.  I like a nice bit of "time travel as tourism" but to be really good time travel, it needs to accomplish something other than provide a bit of family time and some career counseling.  And when it is floaty magic sort of time travel like this, I really like it  to have some emotional hook to the present  that gives a reason for it be happening over and over again beyond "there were Vikings here once."  The only hook here was that Betony was a Suffolk native yearning for family connections, which doesn't much explain why it was Vikings and not 18th century farmers.  Oh well.

Like I said, though, I did enjoy it; it was a pleasant read.  And there was one part I found especially cool--I myself have family who came from Suffolk to Virginia in the 17th century; they were Knotts, and one of the characters in the book is surnamed Nott, and they talk about how that is one of the local Viking lineages.  However, I spent a summer in Suffolk (on an archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo), and didn't time travel one single bit, even when lying on top of a burial mound floating like an island in the night mist, so Betony wins, even though I am just as much Viking as her.

I stuck both middle grade and YA on it as lables for this post; it's suitable for both ages, although they'll get different things out of it--starry eyed wonder of time travel and romance vs. story of a lonely cranky teenager.

The cover at the top of the post is from the Goodreads edition it doesn't really fit the book much at all.  Why have Margery Gill as an illustrator if she doesn't do a cover with people? Having typed that, I checked the cover of my edition--rather unappealing 1970s teenage love--turns out to be in fact by M.G., which just goes to show.





1/20/19

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (/20/19)

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

The Reviews

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, at proseandkahn (audiobook review)

Albrek's Tomb (Adventurers Wanted #3), by M.L. Forman, at Say What?

Begone the Raggedy Witches, by Celine Kiernan, at By Singing Light

The Boy Who Flew, by Fleur Hitchcock, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

The Buried Crown, by Ally Sherrick, at Staircase Wit

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo, at Saving in Seconds

A Dash of Trouble (Love Sugar Magic 1), by Anna Meriano, at Sirens Book Club

Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, at Tor

Dragons in a Bag, by Zetta Elliott, at Puss Reboots

The Girl with the Whispering Shadow (Crowns of Croswald #2), by D.E. Night, at The Children's Book Review

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at Pages Unbound

Midnight Reynolds and the Agency of Spectral Protection, by Catherine Holt, at Sharon the Librarian 

Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot, by Adam Gidwitz and Joseph Bruchac, at Geo Librarian

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy, at Jean Little Library

The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at alibrarymama

The Storm Keeper's Island, by Catherine Doyle, at Word Spelunking and Inside a Dog

Storm Hound, by Claire Fayers, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Stuck in the Stone Age, by Geoff Rodkey, at Charlotte's Library

Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier, at alibrarymama

We're Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey, at Book Nut

Winterhouse, by Ben Guterson, at Leaf's Reviews

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, at Pamelakramer.com


Authors and Interviews

Greg Howard (The Whispers) at Pages Unbound

Anna Meriano (A Dash of Trouble) at Kirkus Best Books of 2018

Kara LaReau (Flight of the Bluebird --Bland Sisters #3) at Charlotte's Library

Gregory Funaro (Watch Hallow) at The Children's Book Review

Jacqueline West (The Collectors) at Middle Grade Ninja TV

Christopher Paolini (The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm) at Entertainment Weekly

1/19/19

Flight of the Bluebird (Bland Sisters #3)--review and interview with Kara LaReau

Flight of the Bluebird, by Kara LaReau, illustrated with great charm by Jen Hill, is the third and final book of The unintentional Adventures of the Bland sisters (Abrams, January 8, 2019).  Kale and Jaundice, abandoned by their parents, lived a life of utmost blandness and boringness until adventure shattered their staid lives.  First they are kidnapped by pirates, in The Jolly Regina.  Next they whisked off by an unexpected aunt who's a famous magician, on a train ride full of mystery and excitement in The Uncanny Express (my review).  And now, in Flight of the Bluebird, they fly off to Egypt to face an unscrupulous illegal trader in antiquities (not a nice persona at all!) and, maybe, find their parents....

The titular Bluebird is the small airplane, piloted by daring aviatrix, Beatrix, sent by their parents to save them from some unknown danger.  But instead of taking them to safety, the Bluebird flies to Egypt, where they might solve the mystery surrounding the magical scarab Jaundice acquired in their previous adventure, and perhaps even find their long-lost parents...if danger doesn't find them first!  And there is plenty of danger, involving an evil archaeologist selling antiquities, kidnappings, and sundry other threats.  The sisters don't have the chance to peacefully be dull.

It makes for a fun read, and it's lovely to see Jaundice and Kale continue to emerge as three dimensional characters!  The magic of the scarab, and the wild adventures in Egypt, add a fantastical excitement to the story.  It's a fine conclusion to a saga that manages to be both wildly silly (for both grown ups and kids, with cleverness to delight the former and high jinks to delight the later), and at the same time thought-provoking.

And speaking of thought-provoking, it was a great pleasure to get to ask Kara LaReau some of the thoughts provoked in me!


By the time I read the end of Flight of the Bluebird, I realized that the Bland sisters were not Bland at all, and probably never had been; in this third book, when we finally learn why their parents left them, we get (or at least I got) a shock—they were incredibly brave and resilient from the get go (and though their lives and food were boring, this may well have been a coping mechanism rather than a reflection of their characters). So my question is—did the development of Jaundice and Kale into three dimensional characters, distinct from each other, and not at all bland, surprise you, or had you been realizing all along as you wrote them that this was going to happen?

Yes, I think their adherence to routine was a coping mechanism in their parents’ absence; their Blandness is a bit more inherent, though I think it became more extreme when they were left to their own devices.

In some ways, I wish Jaundice and Kale could have just stayed the same throughout the series, but I knew there had to be some character development in order to keep their story interesting. So I knew it was something I had to do, maybe not from the get-go, but gradually. In The Uncanny Express (Book 2), they do start using their brains and realize how much they can accomplish when they work together and apply themselves. So that kind of sets them up for Book 3.

And following from that, to make them over the top interesting and daring etc. wouldn’t have worked; did you have to work hard to keep the girls as bland as you could?
Making them bland was actually the easy part! I’m so in their heads that I just knew, for instance, that Kale’s first reaction to landing in Egypt was to note how much sand there was. (Her favorite color is brown, after all.)

There’s a point when they’re imprisoned in the tomb of Seti I where Jaundice and Kale get really angry, probably for the first time in their lives. That was a harder scene to write, because it was such a departure from their baseline, deadpan emotional state. 

This third book is also the most fantasy-ish of the trilogy, yet it the only one in a real place (and the one in which the girls are the most real, with real parents on hand….).   What made you decide to put in this actual fantasy twist of magical scarabs?

I knew that I wanted the final book to be an homage to Indiana Jones adventures, and there’s always a bit of magic in those stories, whether it’s the Ark or the Grail (let’s not talk about Temple of Doom or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, ahem). Since Jaundice is always pocketing random objects, it seemed natural that she would take something truly valuable at some point—and I thought that would be a nice twist to leave at the end of Book 2 and carry into Book 3. 

The Bland books don’t overtly offer kids ethical lessons (except the obvious one in this third book of don’t illegally sell antiquities!), but when you were writing them, were there any big issue things you wanted kids to pick up on? (other than “you can be an interesting person even if you wear “boring” colors” which is my main take away!).
There are “lessons,” however subtle, in the books. Book 1, The Jolly Regina, has a little subplot about standing up for yourself, as Jaundice and Kale help one of the pirates who’s being bullied by her shipmates. In The Uncanny Express, the Bland Sisters learn about the importance of using their eyes and ears and being present in the world, and that you can’t take anything (or anyone!) at face value. Flight of the Bluebird is about being brave and getting out of your comfort zone. But these aren’t “issues” books, of course. They’re meant to be romps, maybe with a little message peppered in.

Do you think you’ll ever write for older “middle grade” kids—the 11 to 13 year olds--yourself? (which isn’t of course to say that kids that age wouldn’t like the Bland sisters….) 
I don’t think about age range when I’m writing; I just let the story unfold and figure out who it’s for later. So you never know!

Final question—did you ever regret giving them such awful names (euphonious, but awful), or do you stand by that choice?  If you had to pick being named either Kale or Jaundice, which would it be?  

No regrets. I stand by my naming choices!

Of the two, I’d probably want to be named Kale; it’s the closest to my actual name, and it’s evidently gaining in popularity these days!


Thank you, Kara, both for the interview and for writing the very entertaining books!


1/16/19

The Mysterious World of Cosentino, books 1 and 2--great for emerging readers

Here's  the start of a book series for kids 7-10 (ish) about a stage magician (with some real magic as well as some great illusions!) co-written by a real magician!  The Missing Ace (book 1) and Rabbit Rescue, by Cosentino with Jack Heath (Kane Miller, 2018 in the US) are fun adventures full of danger and excitement in a surreal world where many inanimate objects are actually alive and magic is everyhwere, although the practice of magic is forbidden to common folk.

Cosentino, a young stage magician, is a deft illusionist.  He has a secret book of real magical spells, and a kind heart, so when an Ace of Spaces (a living card) seeks sanctuary from the kings soldiers in his theatre, Cosentino tries to help him, but in so doing attracts the attention of the king's henchmen, and he's imprisoned in the royal dungeon!  Will his magic, both real and illusory, be enough to get him out again?

He butts heads with the king again in the second book, in which he and his friends set off to free the magical rabbits of the kingdom, who are about to be served up for the king's eating pleasure.  With help from the young princess, who's not fond of the king's policies, and other, odder friends, Cosentino bends reality to save the rabbits' day, putting his own livelihood at risk.

These are great easy reads for the elementary school aged kid still finding their reading feet.  The font is large, there are illustrations on every page (grey tones, with read highlights), and there is almost always something Happening, on stage or off..


There's no attempt at formal world building, so readers are simply plunged into craziness (which I found a tad off-putting, but I'm not the target audience, and perhaps many emerging readers are put off by explicit world building because it slows things down???).

It's an especially great series for kids who are fascinated by stage magic-- some of Cosentino's tricks are explained to the reader, and there are detailed instructions for a  magic trick at the end of each book.

disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher

1/15/19

Stuck in the Stone Age, by Geoff Rodkey, for Timeslip Tuesday

Stuck in the Stone Age, by Geoff Rodkey (Rodale Kids March 2018), is the sort of romp of a book, generously fonted, with lots of humor (sometimes slapstick) and some poop (not the stuff of jokes, but actually adding value to the story, about which more later) that many elementary/younger middle grade kids love!  In case that isn't clear, the cover art is a good indication of the type of book it is.

It's the story of two adults, the brilliant but social awkward young scientist, Marissa Morice, and the socially brilliant Tom Edison, who stinks at science, but loves it so much he becomes the janitor at the big think tank where Marissa works.  When one of her colleagues invents a working time machine, Marissa and Tom accidently use it, and find themselves stuck in the past, c. 10000 B.C.  Cave men are throwing rocks at them, and a saber tooth tiger is eating them, and the time machine has taken itself home again....

The two have very different takes on being trapped back in time.  Tom feels rescue will arrive, and invents the game of rock ball, which proves hugely popular.  Marissa is less sanguine, and applies herself to inventing agriculture (less popular), ,and using poop as fertilizer (and trying to introduce the concept of hygienic living in the process (also not popular).   Poop also comes in handy when the need for explosive devices arises…. She also single-handedly kills a sabre tooth tiger.

And the two do eventually get home again!  Marissa (shown on the cover as a black woman--so yay for an example of fictional brilliant black woman in a kid's book!)  finds success in science due to her brilliance, and she has learned to appreciate Tom's people skills, and he finds a role in which he can succeed as well.

So it's a fun, and funny, story, that should appeal to the target audience lots (despite the fact that the protagonists are grownups in age, they read a lot like kids, so that's not a problem), and is fine reading for a grownup in need of something light and undemanding!  It is not a book that will teach you anything about Neolithic culture; that part is primarily stereotype, but it's an entertaining example of struggling to survive in a very different culture....if you aren't looking for much nuanced detail about that culture.

What makes this of interest to educators is that it is the first in a series designed to inspirer young writers. Indeed, the premise of the book came from a real kid.  Pages 194 to 267 are a "Story Creation Zone," with lots of tips and helpful guidance for young writers, and in the actually story there are interjections (unobtrusive) that take readers to the section of the Story Creation Zone that deals with a particular topic (like setting) when relevant.  I think the presentation of amusing story and friendly story writing guidance is the sort of thing teachers and their students might well have success with!  

1/13/19

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (1/13/19)

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

The Reviews

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, at Redeemed Reader

The Boy Who Went Magic, by A.P. Winter, at Portland Book Review

Danger Tastes Dreadful, by Ben Langhinrichs, at Always in the Middle 

Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Fashback, by Shannon Messenger, at Carstairs Considers

The Girl with the Dragon, by Stephanie Burgis, at Sharon the Librarian

The Horn of Moran (Adventurers Wanted #2) by M.L. Forman, at Say What?

Knights vs. Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan, at Jean Little Library 

The Language of Spells, by Garret Weyr, at Geo Librarian 

The Midnight Hour, by Benjamin Read and Laura Trinder, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Potkin and Stubbs, by Sophie Green, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Shadow of the Hawk, by Curtis Jobling, at Say What?

Strxia: The Odds are Against Us, by Maggie Daniels and Matt Michel, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier, at Redeemed Reader

Trapped in Room 217, by Thomas Kingsley Troupe, at Booksforkidsblog

The Voting Tree, by Gareth Griffith, at Log Cabin Library

Watch Hallow, by Gregory Funaro, at Falling Letters and Always in the Middle

At Reading Rumpus, 1st round panelist Cheryl shares some first round nominees for the Cybils in Elementary Middle Grade speculative fiction that she loved that didn't advance to the next round.

Authors and Interviews

Samantha M. Clark (The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast) at ReadingWithYourKids.com

A slew of spooky MG authors at From the Mixed Up Files

Bland sisters interview (Kara LaReau--Flight of the Bluebird) at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and Kara herself at Middle Grade Book Village

Other Good Stuff

The top ten middle grade fantasy/sci fi books of 2018, picked by Barnes and Noble

A list of Mg Spec fic books from 2018 that are "weird, creepy, and occultic" at Semicolon

New books in the UK, Part 1 and Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books, part 2 also at Mr Ripleys


1/9/19

The Children of Castle Rock, by Natasha Farrant

My most formative reading years (8-10 years old) were a blend of Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Aiken, and Enid Blyton, which primed me just beautifully to enjoy The Children of Castle Rock, by Natasha Farrant (middle grade, out in the UK last spring from Faber and Faber)!

Alice's mother died several years before the book begins, and her aunt has become her primary caregiver (her father being a somewhat feckless actor).  Alice has withdrawn into writing stories, and her aunt, while recognizing and respecting her gift, is concerned that she is not actually living any stories of her own.  So the aunt arranges to sell the family home, and sends Alice off to boarding school.

Fortunately, that aunt, having Alice's best interests of heart, has picked an unusual boarding school in an old, once majestic estate in the wilds of Scotland, whose headmaster specializes in waifs and strays.  And happily she's given a room of her own.  Slowly she begins to make friends, and appreciate the externals of life.  Then her father, whose communication and dependability have both been lacking, asks her to rendezvous with him at a castle on a remote island. Alice takes advantage of the school's three day orienteering challenge to meet him there.

The two boys who are her team-mates in the challenge rise to the occasion to help her get to the island, and all three face their own personal issues in making it happen.  They also face a bad storm that blows their tent away, forcing them to break into an empty house, and they face other believable outdoor sort of challenges, and more unbelievably, a  dangerous international thief and her lackeys (there are reasons why the kids are in the crosshairs of this villain...).  But the three kids survive, and make it back to school in one piece, their friendships strengthened and their spirits on track for being soothed.

A very good story, mostly because of the friendship part; there were too many authorial intrusions for my taste (I loathe them in general), but very satisfying all in all.  Thinking of the three authors I mention above, I see echoes of what I liked in their books:

For Elizabeth Goudge--the vivid descriptions and sense of place, and the times the characters live deeply in moments of wonder.
For Joan Aiken--the over-the-top international thieves sub-plot (although this is much less remarkable than Aiken's plots!)
Enid Blyton--the plucky school kids on adventures (though with less emphasis on food....)

But in this book, the main point is more the internal lives of the characters--their hurts and their growth, which isn't what any of the three above were primarily concerned with!  More could have been made of the headmaster's six kittens, which none of the kids sufficiently appreciated, but you can't have everything.


1/8/19

The 48, by Donna Hosie

The 48, by Donna Hosie (Holiday House, October 2018) is a fun time-travel story that will especially appeal to fans of Tudor England!  I was pleased to see it nominated for the YA Speculative Fiction Cybils, for which I was a panelist, because I very much enjoyed her Devil's Intern series, and though I didn't like this quite as much, it was still a good read.

Some time in the future, twin brothers Charlie and Alex are young members of the 48, a secretive, almost paramilitary group that uses time travel to shape events in such a way that the influence of religion on the course of history is pruned back.  The twins are thrilled to get their first assignment--travelling back to the court of Henry VIII to make sure he doesn't marry Jane Seymour (I'm not exactly sure what difference this would have made, and Charlie and Alex don't seem to be sure either, not that they give it much thought.  But I was willing to play along).

The 48 (the organization, not the book) doesn't pull its punches--if the marriage can't be avoided by a deft social and political manipulation, they are expected to eliminate Jane directly.  But they aren't killers.  Nor are they well prepared for the cut-throat  machinations of Henry's court.  They scramble to find their feet, though their feet, once found, keep getting swept out from under them.  The court is not the only place where backstabbing and treachery is rampant.  Alice, a fellow trainee and ex of one of the twins has travelled back in time too, an event that makes no sense at first, but which is tied to a rebellion to the organization.

Charlie and Alex are pretty much failures at their mission. And since they finding themselves liking Jane lots, the thought of killing her doesn't appeal.  Will they survive threats against their lives from the Tudor court, and the anger of their superiors if they fail at their task? Are their careers as time-travelling manipulators over before they can complete even one mission?

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Charlie, Alex, and young Lady Margaret, one of Queen Anne's ladies-in-waiting.  Margaret's is the first voice, and I was a little disappointed to see her fading to somewhat peripheral, one-note character, and I would have liked Alice's point of view too! She struck me as being much smarter than the boys! That being said, the boys were engaging narrators, and I found it interesting to watch them grow up and start thinking about what they were being asked to do (and there is a sweet gay romance for one of them, which was fun).

The details of the past are vivid, and lavishly applied, and in good time travel style, there's a lot of observation of all the things that are different, but there's not so much of this that it slows down the story.  The plot relies on social tensions (like treachery and attempted murder) more than on major events (until close to the end), so if you like sweeping Happenings, you might find it a bit slow (I don't have this problem).

If you like the Tudors, you'll probably enjoy this (unless you are a Tudor expert, which I am not, in which case you might disagree with the minutiae of the history...although Hosie seems to have done her research pretty thoroughly!)

disclaimer: review copy received for Cybils consideration.

1/6/19

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs

Not many reviews this week, but I wanted to get back in the swing of things!  Let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, at Waking Brain Cells

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo, at Charlotte's Library

Clash of Beasts (Going Wild 3), by Lisa McMann, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Dragons in a Bag, by Zetta Elliot, at Raise Them Righteous

Etty Steele: Vampire Hunter, by Grayson Grave, at Sci Fi and Scary

Max and the Midnights, by Lincoln Peirce, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Rage of Lions, by Curtis Jobling, at Say What?

Two Cybils EMG Spec. Fic. panelists, Sherry and Katy, share middle grade spec. fic books they loved

Authors and Interviews

Gregory Funaro (Watch Hallow) at Always in the Middle

Other Good Stuff

The shortlists for the Cybils Awards have been announced, and here are the seven Elementary/Middle grade speculative fiction books the first round panelists picked!  (if you think the Cybils sound fun, look for the call for panelists next August and join us!)

1/4/19

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo

Now that my work as a Round 1 judge for the Cybils Awards in YA Speculative Fiction is done, I'm catching up on all the middle grade I missed!  Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo, for instance, came out last October....but better late than never!

Charlie is not an ordinary middle school kid.  His house burned down and his parents disappeared, he hasn't given up on finding them again.  But's what really weird is the horns and feathers he grew for no apparent reason.  This magical manifestation is the start of a wild ride that throws Charlie into the middle of an ancient battle between mythological beings fighting for the fate of the world.  The horns and feathers could mean he is the chosen one who will tip the balance in favor of the side who wants to protect the land of the living....but unfortunately for Charlie, he doesn't have an instruction manual for possible chosen ones.

On the plus side, however, Charlie's grandmother filled his childhood with stories of Hispanic mythology from both the old world and the new, so he's able identify both the beings trying to kill him, and the smaller number of non-murderous beings on his side.  And he also has the help of the smartest, coolest girl in school, Violet Ray, investigative journalist in training, who brings both a cool head and great research skills to Charlie's problems.

It's a fun and exciting ride as Charlie and Violet search for answers, and try to stay alive!  It's perhaps a cliché to say that fans of Rick Riordan will enjoy this lots, but it's the same sort of story, although Charlie isn't a demigod, and has yet to have cool powers under his control (although this seems like it will happen in the next book....).  The conversations are peppered with lots of Spanish, making this especially friendly for Spanish speaking kids, but not so much as to be problematic for non-Spanish speakers.

1/1/19

My 2018 reading

Happy New Year!  2018 didn't leave me with much to show for it (alhough Mia Wengen and I put together an awesome program for Kidlitcon 2019 in Providence RI this March, so do come!).  But I read 458 books, and enjoyed many of them.

I set my goal pretty high (it was 501 for 2018), not because I want another source of stress in my life but because I would really like a smaller tbr pile.  It's not working well.  Of my 458 books, 163 were neither review copies nor library books, but this didn't make a dent.  So for 2019 I've set my goal for 502, and I will meet it and I will start 2020 without the albatross of book guilt/chaos draped around my neck.  (My other resolution for 2019 is to start 2020 with a clean and tidy house and no ongoing renovation projects making life a burden....in the spirit of the day, I have already started working on this).

But I made some good book friends in 2018!

The highlight of my reading year was meeting Murderbot (a series of four novellas by Martha Wells).  Great is my love for Murderbot, fueled not just by my own enjoyment but by watching and listening to my 15 year read them.  (my review of the first, All Systems Red).  I had not read any Martha Wells before this, and will read more in 2019.

The close second highlight of my reading year was reading all the Penric and Desdemona books by Lois Macmaster Bujold; Penric is such a decent person and his relationship with Desdemona is fascinating.

As a result of these two series, I think I will look for more novellas in 2019;  there's lots to be said in books that can easily be read in (literally) a single sitting (a Murderbot takes me about an hour).

Weirdest book I liked--The Adventures of Madalene and Louisa, by L. Pasley.  If you like Victorian girl scientists, check it out!

Weirdest book that I didn't like-- Snowflake, by Paul Gallico (the biography of a snowflake, and her marriage to a raindrop, with lots of religion and little acknowledgement of the fact that rain etc. melt snow...)

Book I really enjoyed that surprised me most-- Not Even Bones, by Rebecca Schaeffer.  Who would have thought that a heroine with a penchant for dissecting corpses that is basically a thriller would have gripped me as much as it did?

Book I really enjoyed that didn't surprise me at all (once I realized I didn't have to worry about the author getting everything wrong) The Key to Flambards, by Linda Newbery.  I have reread K.M. Peyton's Flambards books multiple times, and loved the tv show back in the early 1980s, and it was lovely, just lovely, to visit modern day Flambards.

Books that I really enjoyed and didn't have to worry about enjoying them because of trusting the authors:

Beyond the Dreams We Know, by Rachel Neumeier
The Girl With the Dragon Heart, by Stephanie Burgis
The Lost Books: the Scroll of Kings, by Sarah Prineas
Bluecrowne, by Kate Milford

and also three (!) new books from a favorite author, Sarah Beth Durst -- The Stone Girl's Story, Fire and Heist, and The Queen of Sorrow


And finally, it was lots of fun to be part of the YA Speculative Fiction first round panel for the Cybils Awads this year!  Here are the books our panel selected.  My personal favorites were Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman, and Summer of Salt, by Katrina Leno.  (You too can be a Cybils judge!  Look for the call for panelists in mid August!)



12/12/18

The books my boys are getting for Christmas (a post mostly for future me to remember it by...)

Ever since I've started blogging I've shared the books I've bought as Christmas presents for my loved ones, and it's fun for me to look back at them all!  There was only one year when a child peeked, and he regrets it, so I think it's safe to share in advance....

For my 15 year old son--

Murderbot books 2 and 3 (Artifical Condition and Rouge Protocal) (although he'll get book 2 in advance, to read on the plane)

Made You Up, by Francesca Zappia, who's other book, Eliza and Her Monsters, is his most favorite book of all

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: a Sortabiography, by Eric Idle (which he asked for; he is a big Monty Python fan)

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

For my 18 year old graphic novel loving son--

The Divided Earth (Nameless City book 3) by Faith Erin Hicks

Castle in the Stars: the Moon King, by Alex Alice

Tales from the Inner City, by Sean Tan


Books for my sister (whose reading taste if fairly close to mine, which is nice for both of us)

The Key to Flambards, by Linda Newbery

The Skylarks' War, by Hilary McKay

Emily and the Headmistress, by Mary K. Harris


For my mother (whose taste is less similar to mine, but for whom I can still buy books I want to read too)

The Road Through the Wall, by Shirley Jackson

The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellows

And for my 15 year old nephew-Sanity and Tallulah, by Molly Brooks

12/11/18

Dragons in a Bag, by Zetta Elliott, for Timeslip Tuesday

Dragons in a Bag, by Zetta Elliott (Random House, October 2018), is an urban fantasy for older elementary aged kids (8-10 ish years old, younger if they are a bookworm type kid, older if shorter books are more enjoyable) who are past Magic Treehouse but not yet at Harry Potter.  The main character is a black boy who gets to have a fantasy adventure in his home city of Brooklyn.  There are not many good diverse, urban books, and it's great that this one is out in the world!

Jaxon's mom needs to go to court to fight against them being evicted from their Brooklyn apartment, and so, in desperation, she takes him to the home of an old woman she calls Ma.  Naturally, Jaxon thinks this is the grandma he's never met, but that's not who Ma is.   Instead, she's a witch, who needs a helper with her magical work.  Today the job is to deliver a clutch of baby dragons to a magical world where they can thrive; Brooklyn lacks the requisite ambient magic.  They can't be let out of the bag, or they'll imprint on humans, and they can't eat anything sweet, or they'll grow....

Ma takes Jaxon with her to the portal to the magical world, and they cross through.  But something has gone wrong--they've travelled back in time to the age of dinosaurs!  And the dinosaurs aren't ready to be friends.  Jaxon, at Ma's command, escapes back to Brooklyn with the dragons, and now he has to figure out how to get them where they belong, and find help for Ma, still stuck in the past.

His friends Vikram and Kavita have some experience with magic of their own, as described in Elliott's earlier book, Phoenix on Barkley Street, but they don't know the baby dragon rules...and break them both.  Jaxon's problems keep escalating! Fortunately, help comes in the form of his mother's father, who he's never met before...and Jaxon learns that his own mother once had the chance to be part of the magic community herself!

It's a brisk adventure, with grown-ups to help along the way, as is fitting for this age group.  There's a nice balance of magic and real-world happenings, and I appreciated Jaxon's mother's choice not to get involved with magic--that refusal made the magic more real and weighty to me--something not to be entered into lightly.  The dragons get enough time out of their bag to be cute (although I would have liked to have seen even more of them!), and the dinosaur time-travel element makes it clear how much magic there is out there.  It's great for young readers, and a quick fun read for grownups!  Brooklyn kids will especially love it, since the setting will be so familiar to them.

As I said above, it's great to have a book like this--there really aren't many.  In fact, the only other diverse urban fantasy books for this age group that I can think of (you get more moving into middle grade territory of books for 9-12 year olds) are Zetta Elliott's earlier City Kids books (with links to my reviews where applicable)--the aforementioned Phoenix on Barkley Street, Dayshaun's Gift, The Ghosts in the Castle, and The Phantom Unicorn (which I haven't reviewed yet, so it's a goodreads link).  These earlier books were all self-published.  While it's great to see Dragons in a Bag being traditionally published, with all the greater reach that offers, and I'm really happy about this, I am a teensy bit huffy about people saying Dragons is something new and different, when the other books are all excellent too, but the commenters maybe just don't know about them...


12/10/18

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones

I enjoyed Kelly Jones' first book about Sophie and her unusual chickens, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, very much (my review), and when I treated myself to a batch of new middle grade fantasy from the library last week, the second book, Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? (November 2018) was one I was very excited about! It is just as fun and warm and engrossing as the first book.

Sophie is now more than a beginner keeper of unusual chickens.  She's used to caring for a small flock of poultry who are special in a magical kind of way, with a whole slew of paranormal talents.  But she's never hatched eggs before.  Part of being a keeper of unusual chickens is ensuring the survival of the vaious breeds, so hatching is part of the job, and eggs are on their way to her.  So she must hunt around the chicken farm she inherited from Agnes, a great breeder of magical chickens, for all the incubation supplies she needs.

The eggs arrive, are incubated, and hatch, and Sophie learns a lot (as does the reader); fortunately she has chicken-savvy friends to rely on for help and advice....and in the meantime, Sophie works to get Agnes' place back into order, which means getting help from her whole rural community.  And also in the meantime, summer comes to an end and school starts; Sophie worries that she'll be the only brown kid in a sea of white (she is not; there is a Mexican girl who is also new...)  Sophie's cousin Lupe has come to stay while she attends the local college, and that's a change too, though a good one, and Lupe is also a big help.

And typing that pervious paragraph, it occurs to me that one theme of the book is letting other people help you, and realizing what you need to learn to do to make you able to carry out your passion in life!  And it that sounds like the book is preachy, please don't think it is!  It's told in letters from Sophie to Agnes, her deceased grandmother, and a fellow unusual chicken breeder, and Sophie's voice is fresh and sharp, and her letters are full of descriptive details, making her chickens, her people, and her place all come to vivid life!

The fact that the story is told in these sharp bursts of correspondence help keep the reader's interest going--there's not a lot of Excitement or Danger here, and no adversary to overcome, just the tension of egg hatching and coping with the unexpected chicks that result.  So it won't be to everyone's taste.

But I found it a lot of fun.  I would happily keep reading more about magical chickens, thought there are hints that the whole magical livestock/farming world might contain more than just poultry...

Give this book to kids who want to be zookeepers when they grow up; it is all about caring appropriately for your animal charges!  Or give it to kids who just want a magical pet.   Or kids who just want to spend some time out in the country in good company eating apple-blackberry crisp and watching chickens do impossible things.....

12/9/18

the Sunday round-ups of middle grade sci fi and fantasy will resume in 2019!

I'm taking a break on my weekly round-ups until 2019-- too much else to do! I still have lots of reading to do for the YA Speculative Fiction Cybils, and a lot of home renovation to do ere the snow really gets going (because of wanting to put the downstairs bathroom radiator back in the downstairs bathroom--heat makes a bathroom so much friendlier!).  So happy reading to all of my middle grade spec fic/fantasy friends, and look for the round-ups to resume in January!

12/6/18

Fire & Heist, by Sarah Beth Durst

https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Heist-Sarah-Beth-Durst/dp/1101931000/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Fire & Heist, by Sarah Beth Durst is a great book for the younger YA set that twists dragons, a dangerous heist, and a portal fantasy into a family/friendship/coming of age real-world framework.

Imagine that some people in today's world are actually fire breathing wyverns; not shapeshifting into dragon form like their ancestors, but still busily hoarding gold (and stealing it from each other) and being all wyverny in a somewhat snooty way (but with no scales...).  Sky is a wyvern, and her family used to be very close to the top of the draconic pecking order. But when a heist of her mother's went totally wrong, the family has been shunned by the other wyvern families.  And her mother never came home.

Sky's boyfriend Ryan, and all her high school wyvern pals, have cut her off.  She wants her mother back.  And she wants to know what secrets her father and her three older brothers are keeping from her.  So she sets off to find what her mother was trying to steal from Ryan's father, and steal it herself to redeem her family, and maybe find her mother too and bring her home.  A good heist, especially when there are both magical and technological obstacles in the way, needs a good team, and Sky assembles one--Ryan, who only shunned her to save her from his father (or so he says), a wyvern magician, and a human classmate, Gabrielle, who researches interesting things as a hobby, and who was there to befriend Sky when her wyvern cohort abandoned her (I love Gabrielle!).

But Sky's heist doesn't go as planned....(this is where the portal fantasy part comes in, but I don't want to be too spoilery….).  Dragons are involved, lots of them...

And then there's a happy ending!

Back when I was 13, YA fantasy wasn't really a thing; my local library had maybe 4 fantasy books on the three small shelves labeled "YA."  (The only one I remember being shelved there is The Blue Sword). One went straight from the magical stories in the kids' section to Dragonriders of Pern etc.   Today of course there's lots of YA speculative fiction....and I've read a lot of it, but many of the books don't seem written for readers like 13-year-old me; the concerns are mostly more realistically adult than I would have wanted, since I mostly wanted escapism.  I almost never say about a YA book that I want to give it to young teen Charlotte, but this one is just perfect for the sort of 13 year old I was--not ready to think about growing up, dreaming of dragons and unicorns and kissing cute boys (all equally fantastical).  And grown-up me enjoyed it just fine too!

So if you weren't or aren't that sort of reader, you might find this reads a bit young to you.  But Sarah Beth Durst's writing is lots of fun regardless, Sky is a snappy sort of heroine, and the premise is lovely, so give it a try!

disclaimer: review copy received from the author

12/3/18

Any Second, by Kevin Emerson

I was very impressed by Kevin Emerson's middle grade sci fi story, Last Day on Mars.  So when I saw he had a new book coming out this fall, my ears pricked up.  Any Second (Crown Books, November 2018) is neither middle grade nor speculative fiction, being instead realistic YA, but it's not like I only read mg spec fic, and so I approached it with eager interest, and was not disappointed.  (This one needs trigger warnings, for rape, physical abuse of a child, self-harm, and suicide).

This is the story of two teenagers who met at a mall during dire circumstances.  One, Eli, was there to blow the mall up after being made into the weapon of a crazed zealot after four years of being  brainwashed, tortured, and raped.  Maya was the girl who stood next to him and kept him from letting go of the release mechanism that would detonate the bomb.  Almost a year latter, both are traumatized.  Eli has been reunited with has family, and is trying not to drown in post-traumatic stress.  Maya is also trying to live in the present, and not let her obsessive hair pulling be her one release mechanism (she was dealing with mental health issues even before the mall, and now things are worse....).

And then fate rolls the dice, and they end up at the same high school.  None of the students are supposed to know who Eli is, but Maya recognizes him.  The two are drawn to each other--they were both at that same defining moment, and they are both trying to move away from it.  But will they help or hurt each other?

They aren't left to peacefully discover which it will be.  The evil zealot who kidnapped Eli is still on the loose, and Eli lives with police protection.  Maya is in a toxic relationship with another girl, that's holding her back on her road to recovery.  And Eli makes the worst possible friend at high school--a socially ostracized boy who became obsessed with Eli's story, and who fantasizes, like the kidnapper, of striking a blow against the "sheep." When he finds out who Eli really is, his obsession grows.

So not a comfort read.  But though what has happened, and what is happening, to these three teenagers is grim, it manages not to be a grim book.  It has more a feel of spring slowly coming after long winter.  Maya and Eli practice their coping strategy of living in the present, and really noticing things around them, and their growing friendship, so improbable, brings both comfort.  It is uplifting to see them getting stronger.  Things end for Maya and Eli on a hopeful, forward-looking note.

It is also a very gripping page turner with the reader terribly anxious about the kidnapper and the third kid who might or might not go off...So even if you mostly read MG spec fic, you'll find this a good read!

disclaimer: review copy received from the author


12/2/18

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (12/2/18)

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

The Reviews

A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting by Joe Ballarini at Original Content

The Book of Boy, by Katherine Gilbert, at Mom Read It

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, at Leaf's Reviews

The Hotel Between, by Sean Easly, at Middle Grade Book Village

Inkling, by Kenneth Oppel, at Pages Unbound

The Land of Neverendings, by Kate Saunders, at Read Till Dawn

Lodestar (Keeper of the Lost Cities 5), by Shannon Messenger, at Say What?

Seeing Red (Whatever After #12), by Sarah Mlynowski, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier, at The Book List Reader

The Third Mushroom, by Jennifer L. Holm, at proseandkahn

The Train to Impossible Places, by P.G. Bell, at Pages Unbound

The Wrath of the Dragon King, by Brandon Mull, at BooksForKidsBlog, Why Not? Because I Said So, and The Write Path

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, at The Chronicles of Danielle

Two at alibraymama--The Turning, by Emily Whitman, and Strange Star, by Emma Carroll

Three ghost stories at alibrarymama--When a Ghost Talks, Listen, by Tim Tingle, A Festival of Ghosts, by William Alexander, and City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

Authors and Interviews

Stephanie Burgis (The Girl with the Dragon Heart) at Kick-butt Kidlit

Kenneth Oppel at Fuse #8 (a Walking and Talking graphic interview)

Liana Gardner (The Journal of Angela Ashby), at Wishful Endings

Other Good Stuff

A celebration of Madeleine L'Engle at Tor

Victoria Schwab's City of Ghosts is getting a tv adaptation (more at Tor)

11/29/18

Sanity and Tallulah, by Molly Brooks

This past week has been busy, with family, home-renovations, and determined reading of YA Speculative Fiction for the Cybils Awards.  But now the family are gone the home renovation can take a back seat (no houseguests expected till February) and I should have the time to blog more!  So here's one I just read, that's easy to write about because it is easy to see without much effort that it's good.

Sanity and Tallulah, by Molly Brooks (Disney-Hyperion, October 2018), is a fun science fiction graphic novel, particularly great for science-minded kids who love cats, but also good for story-minded kids/grown-ups who enjoy fun graphic novels.

Sanity and Tallulah are best friends, and so when Tallulah illicitly uses the lab of their space station home to create a three-headed kitten (Princess Sparkle Destroyer of Worlds), Sanity is there to help cuddle , and to be sad when the kitty is taken from them and imprisoned in the lab.  But PSDofW is not lacking in smarts either, and breaks free, disappearing into the bowels of the space station.  And at just about the same time, electrical malfunctions start plaguing the space station, and there are signs of chewed wires....is it the kitten(s) that are too blame, or some other menace?  Sanity and Tallulah set out to investigate (breaking more rules in the process), and discover that the whole space station is in danger of destruction.  Fortunately, Sanity's clandestine work in the lab has given her the skills she needs to fix the problem...but what will become of Princess Sparkle Destroyer of Worlds?

This is a great book for many reasons.  The friendship of the two girls is a joy to see; they are supportive of each other just beautifully!  The parents are involved and caring, though not always able to keep tabs on their kids, especially Sanity's parents, but they try.  And of course it's a joy to see smart girls doing science; it's not clear to me where Tallulah's own gifts lie, but she's there for her friend and perhaps future stories will give her more of a chance to shine.  The characters are diverse--Tallulah's mom, the senior scientist on the space station, is Latina and Sanity is black.

And on top of that, the story is interesting and engaging, and tense without being overwhelmingly so.  The illustrations help keep things light and the story on the fun side, even when things are going wrong, though the entertaining text doesn't need much help.

My only quibble is that I really wanted to have more context for this space station; there's a bigger story hinted at, and hopefully we'll see more of that in future books!

But in any event, if you have a graphic novel loving kid of 8-on up, offer this book!

11/20/18

Knights vs Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan, for Timeslip Tuesday

Knights vs Dinosaurs, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan (Greenwillow, Oct 2018) is a great one to give to kids who love Ursula Vernon's Hamster Princess books, but want a bit of a change!  It's a fun story, and it's a graphic heavy one, with generous line spacing and not too many pages (148), making it friendly for Elementary School readers into the Middle Grade ages (so basically, 7-10 year olds).

Here's the story--

King Arthur's knights roam around the countryside, looking for bad guys/dragons to fight, but mostly they come up empty handed.  Still, they have to boast about something when they gather around the Round Table, and one night Sir Erec boasts that he slew 40 dragons. Merlin decides it's time to teach the knights a little lesson about boasting....and challenges Sir Erec, and three other knights, to a very different sort of quest, one that involves battling giant reptiles...

The knights follow Merlin's instructions to a cave....and once inside, the four of them, plus one squire, Mel, are sent back in time to the age of the dinosaurs!  At last there real monsters to fight, and the knights agree that they must be vanquished to complete the quest before they can return to their own time.  The dragons chomp and chase and swing their spiked tails, the knights thwack and run away and swing maces and throw rocks and run away a bit more.

But after a bit of practice facing off against the dinosaurs, the knights start working together more effectively, and make it home again!

The coolest of all the knights, both brave and level-headed, is the Black Knight, who turns out to be a woman.  Mel the squire is a girl in disguise.  Gender equity in dino fighting!  Harriet the Hamster Princess I mentioned above would be right at home amongst all the wild rampaging.

It is not a great time travel book qua time travel book, because, as Matt Phelan admits in his instructional guide to prehistoric fauna at the end, he included species that weren't contemporaneous.  So it basically a generic "dinosaur past."   But still it is lots of fun, and Phelan's illustrations are delightful.  If ever Merlin planned a second adventure for these knights, I'd welcome it.




11/18/18

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (11/18/18)

Welcome to this weeks round-up; please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones, at Neverending TBR

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

Bluecrowne, by Kate Milford, at Hidden in Pages

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, by Samantha M. Clark, at Semicolon

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, at Pages Unbound and Bookish Wandress

Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel José Older, at Charlotte's Library

A Dash of Trouble (Love, Sugar, Magic #1), by Anna Meriano, at From the Biblio Files

Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic, by Armand Baltazar, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Evangeline of the Bayou, by Jan Eldredge, at Semicolon

Everblaze (Keepers of the Lost Cities #3) by Shannon Messenger, at Say What?

Flashback (Keepers of the Lost Cities #7), by Shannon Messenger, at Kitty Cat at the Library

The Frog Princess Returns, by E.D. Baker, at Sharon the Librarian 

The Hotel Between, by Sean Easley, at Middle Grade Book Village

The House in Poplar Woods, by K.E. Ormsbee, at Milliebot Reads

The House with Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson, at Waking Brain Cells

Inkinling, by Kenneth Oppel, at Always in the Middle

The Jamie Drake Equation, by Chrisopher Edge, at BooksForKidsBlog

The Language of Spells, by Garret Wyre, at Books4yourkids

The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis, at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Ogre Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, at Pages Unbound

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, by Chris Riddell, at Pages Unbound

The Portal and the Veil, by Ted Sanders, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Scroll of Kings, by Sarah Prineas, at Off the Shelf Reviews

The Storm Runner, by J.C. Cervantes, at Book Dust Magic

Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier, at Semicolon

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery, by Allison Rushby, at Cracking the Cover

Unicorn Quest, by Kamila Benko, at alibrarymama

Wundersmith: the Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, at Diva Booknerd

Lots of mini-reviews from Cybils reading at Library Chicken

Authors and Interviews

Tara Dairman (The Great Hibernation) at Bas Bleu

There's a new blog in town--Spooky Middle Grade, a collaboration of authors; here's an intro post, wherein authors share why they write spooky stories, and why these stories are important year round

Other Good Stuff

.A look at popular middle grade fantasy series, at Redeemed Reader

I love the posts showcasing what's new in the UK at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books!

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