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.

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

by Ben Hatke
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Release date: September 5, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher
Others in the series: Mighty Jack
Content: There’s some intense moments, but otherwise it’s good for the Middle Grade set. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novels at the bookstore.

Picking up where Mighty Jack left off… Jack and Lilly have followed the monster who took Maddy up the beanstalk and through the portal to another world. One where there are giants who eat little children, and goblins who are hiding from the giants. Jack and Lilly get split up: Jack heads up to the giant’s lair to try and save Maddy, and Lilly ends up with the goblins. Both have adventures, both do amazing things, and the story is fantastic. There’s even a few Easter eggs for Zita fans, which is fun.

I don’t really have much more to say about this. I still love Hatke’s work, it’s still a LOT of fun, and I still find it funny, and sweet, and thoroughly entertaining. Here’s hoping for more of Jack and Lilly!

Geekerella

geekerellaby Ashley Poston
First sentence: “The stepmonster is at it again.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it now!
Release date: April 4, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some emotional abuse, and some mild swearing (a couple of s-words). It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Elle Wittimer’s mother died when she was little, and her father remarried to a woman with two daughters. He died a few years after that, leaving Elle alone with her step-mother and -sisters. She lives for the show that she and her father loved, Starfield (a sci-fi TV show that got canceled). It’s being rebooted into a movie, starring a teen heartthrob (do people even say that anymore?) Darien Freeman, whom Elle doesn’t think is a worthy replacement for the ship commander, Carmindor.

Darien has his own issues: he’s a geek himself, adoring Starfield. But, his acting career (managed by his father), has gone the way of teen soaps, and he’s garnered a legion of screaming, swooning fans. Which, of course, means that that Real Fans of Starfield are suspicious.

It’s not coming through yet, but this is an incredibly clever retelling of Cinderella. There’s no magic, just pure and simple fun. But it’s also incredibly clever the way Poston wove the familiar elements of the tale in. From the vegan taco truck, The Magic Pumpkin, to the glass slippers, it’s all there. Some of the characters are stereotypes, but others are surprising, and I loved the world and the show that Poston created.

It’s such a fun, fun book.

 

Jack

jackby Liesl Shurtliff
First sentence: “When I was born, Papa named me after my great-great-great-great-great-great-GREAT-grandfather, who, legend had it, conquered nine giants and married the daughter of a duke.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty basic and a slim book, though it’s definitely  above a beginning chapter level. Give it to those who aren’t ready for longer, more involved books. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jack has spent his whole life on his parents’ rinky dink farm, hearing tales of his great-grandpa’s exploits. He’s sick and tired of growing wheat; he wants to see the world! He wants to do something grand!

So, when crops, animals, and buildings (not to mention people, including Jack’s father) in his village go missing, stolen by the giants in the sky (which his mother scoffs at), Jack figures this is his chance to make a difference. Three magic beans later, he climbs the beanstalk to find (and rescue) his dad.

What he finds is a giant nation in peril.H There’s a tyrant for a king who covets gold and taxes his people until they can’t pay any more. And there’s a famine on, which is why the king’s henchmen are stealing the food from the “elves” (non-giant people) and making them their slaves. Jack knows he needs to put a stop to all this, but what can one boy do?

It gets more complicated when Jack’s younger sister joins him up in giant land. They almost get trampled, they get taken by pixies, and Jack must learn to listen to and trust his younger sister and his friends if he’s ever going to get back home.

It’s not a bad book, and I did enjoy the nice twist on the Jack and the Beanstalk Tale. But it was just okay in the end. There were Lessons Learned and Adventures Had and Reunions and it just kind of all fell flat. But, that doesn’t mean a fairy-tale loving kid wouldn’t just love this to death.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Baba Yaga’s Assistant

by Marika McCoola, illustrated Emily Carroll
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some scary images, but really nothing else. It’s currently in our Teen Graphic Novels, but I’m going to move it to Middle Reader Graphic Novels.

I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel about Baba Yaga, but I really did. And this is the graphic novel I needed.

Masha’s mom died when she was little and her father was often gone with work, so she was raised on her grandmother’s love and stories of Baba Yaga. So, when her father decides to get remarried to a woman with an absolutely horrible child, Masha decides to take her chances in the woods with Baba Yaga. Who is everything that you would like Baba Yaga to be. Horrible, terrifying, magical… it’s wonderful.

Masha has to go through a series of tests before she can become Baba Yaga’s assistant. And it’s the power of the stories that her grandmother told that gets her through those tests.

On the basic level as a magical story, it’s a lot of fun. The young children are sufficiently horrible, and Masha is competent and cool-headed and smart. Her dad’s a jerk, but that’s almost to be expected. It’s a very female-centric story; there’s only a couple of male characters, and they are only playing minor parts. But what I liked best was that it was STORIES (not histories or biographies or facts) that got Masha through the trials. The stories helped her problem-solve. The stories gave her the courage to go on.

And that’s something we all need more of.

Uprooted

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy given to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s one graphic, but not explicit, sex scene. It’ll be in the science-fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because our Random House rep said it was based on Beauty and the Beast, and we all know how much I love a fairy tale retelling. But, I didn’t count on how engrossing this book would be.

The rep was right: it is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, but it’s so much more than that. In this valley in Polyna, their resident wizard, who goes by the Dragon, takes one girl every ten years to his tower. When he’s done with them, they don’t come back to the villages, so everyone (of course) assumes the worst. This year, a picking year, everyone guesses that he will take Kasia, our narrator’s, Neishka, best friend. But the Dragon comes, and he picks Neishka instead.

At first, this is terrifying: Neishka isn’t refined, she isn’t skilled for much of anything (except getting dirty), and she doesn’t want to be in the castle with this scary magician. But, as the book goes on, she discovers hidden talents inside herself: she’s a witch, one that is just as powerful as the Dragon, albeit wielding a different sort of magic from him. And its the combination of their magic that is able to confront the real evil in their country: the Wood.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because this one is best discovered page by page. Novik has a way of pulling one into the story; this started out as a treadmill book (read twice a week for a half hour), but soon became the one I was spending all my time with. I wanted to experience Neishka’s story as it unfolded, with all the twists and turns and slow reveals and intricate pay offs.

M texted, recently, looking for a “Laini Taylor-esque” book, and honestly, this is what I thought of when she asked for that. Novik’s world-building is solid and always in the service of the story, rather than something separate. And, while her words aren’t gorgeous or lyrical, they’re more than pedestrian. They serve the characters and the plot, and make the whole work together just marvelously.

Just about perfect.