Sea Witch

by Sarah Henning
First sentence: “Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones — one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide.”
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Content: There’s some intense action, and a few violent moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

In this small Danish sea town, Evie is a bit of an outcast. The daughter of a fisherman, she grew up best friends with Prince Nik and their mutual friend, Anna. It was tolerated when they were little, but after Anna’s death by drowning, Evie and Nik’s friendship was really frowned upon, and Evie felt the disapproval even more. Especially since she felt she was to blame for Anna’s death. So when a girl — Annemette — shows up out of the blue on the eve of the towns festival, Evie grasps it as her chance at redemption. Especially since Annemette looks and sounds exactly like Anna.

But Evie finds out that things aren’t exactly as they seem, and by that time, it’s too late to stop what has already been put in motion.

I’ve been telling people that what Wicked is to Wizard of Oz, this is to The Little Mermaid. It’s essentially the origin story of the Sea Witch character in the Andersen fairy tale. But, it’s also a re-telling of that fable (with a bit of Disney thrown in as well), and Henning does it extremely well. I haven’t read the original tale in years, but I adored the way Henning wove in the familiar parts of the tale while giving us something completely new. I liked Evie’s internal conflict with her magic and her commitment to her friend, and I loved the nice twist at the end (which I kind of saw coming but was much, much more than I ever expected). The romance is nice, though it’s not really the focus of the story. The friendship between Evie and Anna (shown mostly through a series of flashbacks throughout the book) is, which I also appreciated. It was just a compelling story, all around.

If you like fairy tale retellings, definitely pick this one up.

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Bob

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “I feel bad that I can’t remember anything about Gran Nicholas’s house.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s written perfectly for the younger age group. It is in the middle grade  section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Livy hasn’t been to her grandmother’s house in Australia in five years, when she was five years old. She doesn’t remember much from the last time she was there: not the room or the toys or the landscape, and especially not the green creature in the closet. Bob (the green creature in the closet) remembers Livy though. She told him to stay put, which he did. For five years. In the closet. But now that Livy’s here, he’s sure she can help him find his way home again.

Bob (the book not the character) is a charming little story about friendship and growing up, but also home and family. And it’s a delightful twist on fairy tales. In Mass’ and Stead’s hands, it’s not saccharine, but simple and sweet and tender.  Livy was more complex than I expected, pulled between her childhood self and a desire to be “older” and the responsibility of being a big sister. And Bob was charming and delightfully innocent. I liked that the fairy tale had rules: even though they were never spelled out in the book, Mass and Stead were consistent with who could and could not see Bob. It was incredibly well done, and a delightful read. .

 

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.

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.)