Audio book: The Wolf Hour

by Sarah Lewis Holmes
Read by David de Vries; Thérèse Plummer
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is violence, though none of it is graphic. There are some biggish words, as well. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Magia lives on the edge of the Puszcza — a huge, dark, magical forest — with her woodcutter father, mother, and siblings. Her mother has big dreams for everyone: Magia’s sister is going to be a healer, her brother a solder. And her mother wants Magia to be a singer. Except Magia wants to be a woodcutter like her father. But, she’s a good daughter, so she goes to music lessons with Miss Grand… and gets stuck in a story. And not a happy one at that.

I really liked this play and mashing of the Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs fairy tales. Actually, what I think I liked was the narration by deVries and Plummer. I loved listening to this one; it had the feel of an oral tale, and I loved how deVries and Plummer interpreted the text. Their narration kept me engaged with a text that I probably would have dismissed otherwise. But, because of that, I stuck through it. And while I wondered if there would be a happy  (or even hopeful) ending because Holmes kept the tension in the story going for a lot longer than I expected, it all does resolve well. Which was a nice touch.

In the end: surprisingly good.

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Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 2

Frogkisser!
by Garth Nix
First sentence: “The scream was very loud and went on for a very long time.”
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Content: There’s really nothing “objectionable”, but it just feels… older. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m sure a fifth grader who really likes quests and/or fairy tales would enjoy it too.

Anya is a princess in a minor kingdom, whose parents have died and left her and her older sister to be raised by her stepmother (who is off doing…something) and her husband (whom Anya calls her “stepstepfather”), who is trying to take over the kingdom. So, Anya is sent on a Quest, nominally to find the ingredients to make a lip balm to turn Prince Duncan back from a frog, but ultimately, for control of her kingdom.

It’s a charming little tale; I enjoyed the fairy tale references (Snow White is a male wizard, etc.) and it was mildly funny, but honestly, it was just too long. I lost interested about 23 of the way through, and skipped to the end to find out how it all finished, and I don’t feel like I missed much. I’m sure it’s enjoyable; I just don’t have the patience for it right now.

Beyond the Doors
by David Neilsen
First sentence: “Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.”
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Content: It’s a bit odd; it’s long, but there are interior illustrations, so it’s like the publisher (what’s up Random House?!) couldn’t figure out if it was for the younger or older end of the middle grade spectrum. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Rothbaum’s mom has been missing for years, and then a freak fire leaves their dad in a coma. So they’re bundled off to their (previously unknown) Aunt Gladys’s house, where there are no doors and nothing to eat but cereal. And Gladys is a bit… off… as well. Through some digging, the Rothbaums discover the real secret: their grandfather discovered an ability to jump into memories, and has gotten stuck there. And it’s up to the kids to figure out how to solve the problem.

This was fun. Nothing super brilliant, but I liked the kids and the idea of memory jumping is a clever one.

A Face Like Glass
by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”
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Content: It’s long and slow moving. So, maybe not for a reluctant reader. It’s in the Young Adult section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Neverfell is an outsider in the world of Caverna, an abomination… because you can see her emotions on her face. So, when Neverfell gets caught up in court politics, the fate of Caverna lies within her hands.

I usually like Hardinge’s books, but this one just fell flat for me. I wanted to like it, and I liked parts of it, but it was just… too long. And it didn’t hold my interest. I would put it down for days and just not care enough to pick it back up. (I would have abandoned it, except for the Cybils.) It’s not that it was badly written, or a bad story… it just didn’t hold my interest. So maybe it was more me than anything else.

Dragon’s Green
by Scarlet Thomas
First sentence: “Mrs. Breathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares.”
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Content: There are a few scary bits. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Effie Trulove’s grandfather spent time teaching her about the magical world, and even though she’s not quite sure she believes him, it was spending time. But, he’s passed on, and suddenly Effie’s thrown into situations where she comes to realize that, yes, her grandfather wasn’t making things up: there really is magic. So with the help of her trusty new friends, she can defeat the Bad Guys (who are out to steal all the magic books), and figure out her place in the magic world.

I said, once, that silly names and magic don’t a fantasy make. And I think that holds here. The names bugged me (so very much), as did the gendering of  the friends (the boys were the Warrior and Scholar, the girls were the Witch and the Healer, though Effie was the Hero). I thought it would have more of a D&D feel, and be predictable that way, but it veered a bit from that, which was nice. It just… bugged me, in the end. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why. But this was was most definitely not for me.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded

by Sage Blackwood
First sentence: “A secret nearly cost Chantel her life, on a dark summer morning when the rains ran down the stairstepped streets of Lightning Pass.”
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Content: There are some frighting parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chantel (pronounced shan-TAL not CHAN-tel) has grown up learning magic in Miss Ellicott’s orphanage/school. She’s quite talented at it, one of the best students, except she has a problem. All the magic users in their walled city-kingdom are supposed to be “shamefast and biddable”, and those are two things that Chantel, well, isn’t. It turns out to be a good thing though, for when Miss Ellicott and the rest of the kingdom’s seven sorceresses disappear, Chantel takes it upon herself to Figure Out and then Solve the problem, which grows to include an invasion, treachery, and a dragon.

On the one hand, this is a delightful magical tale, well and complexly told, by a very talented writer. I loved Blackwood’s Jinx series, and while this one is a stand-alone (hurrah!) it’s much more of the same elegant, interesting writing with a good dose of snark, something that I think the most reluctant readers will enjoy.

On the other hand, this is a fantastic allegory about the state of women throughout history. (Or at least, that’s what I saw.) I saw women taking their power and conforming it to the patriarchy (in this case, there was a king, but the men who ruled the kingdom were called The Patriarchs), working to maintain the Status Quo, because upending it is unthinkable. And then there was a girl who asked “WHY?” and started doing things differently, even though she was told — by the king, the patriarchs, the older women — that she Couldn’t. Still, she persisted, and Change — not just small change, but Large Sweeping Change. It was not only entertaining, but it was hopeful and empowering.

And I loved it.

Winterhouse

by Ben Gutterson
First sentence: “When Elizabeth Somers tugged open the gate to her aunt and uncle’s yard and saw and envelope taped to the front door of the shabby house she shared with them, she knew it was bad news.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 2, 2018
Content: There’s some mild scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Elizabeth is an orphan (of course) living with her neglectful (of course) relatives when she (of course) gets a mysterious invitation to visit the Winterhouse hotel, a posh, somewhat charming (of course) hotel out in the middle of the country. Her aunt and uncle (of course) send her (they got a mysterious Christmas vacation out of it), glad (of course) to be rid of the Burden that she is. Once at Winterhouse, Elizabeth (of course) discovers the gigantic (of course) library, makes a friend in the genius inventor (of course) Freddy and the mysterious, eccentric (of course) owner Norbridge seems nice enough. There’s some other guests who are (of course) creepy, and a mystery looming which (of course) Elizabeth is drawn to solve.

All those of courses kind of make it seem as if I didn’t like this one, except event though the plot/concept seemed really familiar, and Been There Done That, I still enjoyed the book. I liked the puzzles that Freddy and Elizabeth solve. I liked the mysterious codes and word games that they played. I thought the ghost story was a bit much, but it didn’t bother me overly much. Maybe the story was a bit trite but Guterson knows how to engage a reader, and keep the pages turning. Which is possibly all a story really needs.

Just like Jackie

by Lindsey Stoddard
First sentence: “Before I know it I have Alex Carter’s nose blood on me.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a few “damn” and “dammit” and they say “effing”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

For Robinson Hart’s entire eleven years, it’s just been her and her grandpa together. They’ve gotten along fine: her grandpa taught her how to tap the sugar maples and make syrup and how to fix cars. And even though they don’t match exactly — grandpa is black, and Robbie is lighter skinned — and even though grandpa doesn’t talk about Robbie’s mom, things are fine.

Until they aren’t.  Robbie has noticed that grandpa has started messing up words, forgetting things, putting things away wrong… and she’s sure that if she could just be a good kid, he would stop and things would go back to normal. Except Alex is a bully and Robbie can’t handle it, and she keeps fighting back (literally), which gets her into trouble.

This isn’t really a plot-heavy book. Robbie does learn some lessons about controlling anger, and that everyone has their own issues they’re dealing with. But what kept me coming back was the relationship between Robbie and her grandpa, and how worried and powerless she felt with her grandpa’s increasing Alzheimer’s. I also loved the friends that Robbie eventually realized were on her side. It was a slow process for her, and as a parent I was sometimes irritated at that. But, I realized that an 11-year-old might not see everything I could see, and I thought Stoddard captured that extremely well.

A very good book, overall.

Penelope March is Melting

by Jeff Michael Ruby
First sentence: “Years ago, scientists spotted a strange iceberg floating a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.”
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Review copy sent by the author.
Content: There’s some bullying and a couple of intense situations. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Penelope March lives a quiet, ordinary life in Glacier Cove. Her brother leaves her riddles, her father goes and works as a turnip farmer (they’re the only food that grows on an iceberg). She goes to school, but doesn’t have many friends. She reads a lot though, and wishes for an adventure. Until, one day, she goes into the ramshackle house of  the town eccentric, and learns that an evil force is trying to take over the ocean, and is planning on melting Glacier Cove. And it’s up to Penelope (and a team of ice penguins) to stop it.

On the one hand, this was a unique premise. Not many middle grade fantasies being set on a town build on an iceberg. And, the penguins were truly amusing. There was the same old dead parent (mom this time) and the grieving remaining one (out of touch father). There was the Skeptical Boy (the brother, who didn’t really get on board until the last part of the book) and the Misunderstood Friend. And the buildup to the whole evil magic thing at the end just didn’t work for me. That said, it wasn’t a terribly written book, and I think there are kids — specifically ones who don’t mind a bit of magic with their adventure — who will enjoy this one. I just found it to be a bit… too basic and banal for my tastes.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 1

I’ve been reading LOTS (well, not as much as some years) for the Cybils, and I haven’t had the time to write down reviews of all of them. Here are a bunch I enjoyed, but didn’t have the time to write a whole review of.

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
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Content: It’s a ghost story, but it’s not scary, and it’s short enough not to scare off reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Basic plot: there’s this town, Ingot, that doesn’t have ghosts. Which is unusual in this alternate world where ghosts are incredibly prevalent. Jasper, who grew up in Ingot, doesn’t mind, but Rosa, who just moved there, does. And so when ghosts start appearing at the Renaissance Faire, Rosa is ecstatic: appeasing the ghosts (not banishing!) is her family’s business, after all. And she enlists Jasper’s help to figure out the ghost problem in Ingot.

It’s a fun enough book; short and sweet and simple, and I could tell that Alexander wanted to make it diverse (props for that, but it felt forced) but it just wasn’t, well, interesting.

Dominion
by Shane Arbuthnott
First sentence: “They had been chasing the font for days, and Molly knew the engine was getting tired.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, and some intense moments. It’s not at the store, but if it was, it’d be in the YA (grades 6-8) section.

This book takes place in a world — perhaps our own? — that has been taken over by spirits. Except, these aren’t ghosts (I thought they were, at first). They’re more like djinn, except they don’t have magic powers. What the people of this world do is capture the spirits, and then force them into iron containers (so they can’t escape) and then use them to power airships and robots. Molly is the engineer on her family’s airship, when she realizes (over a course of a few events) that what they’re doing is essentially slavery. So, she sets out to stop it.

The thing I liked best about this was the world. Arburthnott has created a unique world where he mixes magic (of sorts) with steampunk technology, and then thrown in a capable and interesting heroine (whose main antagonists end up being her family, which was also interesting) and it turns out that this is a pretty fantastic speculative fiction adventure.

The Unicorn in the Barn
by Jacqueline K. Ogburn
First sentence: “My dad always told me, ‘Never surprise anybody swinging a hammer; something is liable to get smashed.'”
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Content: There’s one adult smoking and a hunting accident. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a charming little story about a boy and a girl, some woods, a unicorn, and a vet clinic that helps (among other animals) magical animals. It was very sweet and tender, and lovely, and would be perfect for the sweet, tender, animal-loving reader. I enjoyed the push-and-pull relationship between the main character and the daughter of the veterinarian, and I liked that the conflict happened in spite of the parents, not because of them. (They were actually really good parents.) I’m not much of a horse/unicorn lover (anymore; my 4th grade self would have loved this book), so I wasn’t completely enthralled, but I do like that there’s a charming, sweet horse story starring a boy out there.

The Great Hibernation
by Tara Dairman
First sentence: “The bear was dead.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s some bullying and sleeping parents. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This was a delightfully odd story about a northern town (maybe in the Yukon? Or northern Alaska?) which, every year, all the adults, 12 years and 4 months and 6 days old  and up eats bear liver to honor a long-ago event by their forefathers. It’s considered a punishable offense to not do so, and so when Jean throws it up, she’s worried. Until everyone who ate the liver falls asleep and the kids — especially the mayor’s kid, Magnus — take over. Then, it’s up to Jean to figure out why the adults are all asleep and stop the vote on the new thistleberry plant before it’s too late.

A highly improbably premise with a scientific solution, this one was silly fun. I enjoyed reading how Jean and her new Thai friend, Isara, figure out the truth behind the sudden “hibernation” and how to wake up the adults. It’s a clever mystery and a silly story, even if it is full of improbabilities.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands
by Sarah Beth Durst
First sentence: “Don’t fall.”
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Content: There’s some intense moments with scary monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

As a general rule, I enjoy Sarah Beth Durst’s writing, and this one is no exception. She’s excellent with her world building — this one being a world of islands protected by a magical barrier which is sustained by a dragon — and her writing propels the reader forward. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twin sisters, daughters of the Emperor, and their journey to the dragon. I liked that Durst explored the nature of the stories we tell each other and ourselves, how a shared history can differ depending on where a person is from,  how perceptions can often be wrong , and how change is sometimes for the best. It was a delightful story, the only negative side being (and this may be a big negative) the vaguely Asian feel to it, which I think could have been done better by an Asian author. That said, overall, it was very good.