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.

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Spelled

by Betsy Schow
First sentence: “
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Review copy picked up at CI3 and signed by the author, who was a delightful person to talk to.
Content: Language-wise, it’s probably more advanced than the younger middle grade set can handle (unless they’re precocious), but content-wise there’s nothing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8), but it’d be good for a 4th or 5th grader as well.

You know, living in Kansas there’s one thing we get a lot around here: Oz stories. Seriously. It has its own section in the bookstore. And every time a spinoff comes (or a new reissue of the classic story, or a book about the film), we all kind of roll our eyes, knowing that we’ll have customers who just eat this stuff up.

This book is no exception.

It’s basically a twist on the Oz tale: Dorothy (Dorothea in this version) is a princess in the Emerald tower, and she’s kept captive because of a curse that was placed on her when she was born. As she’s gotten older, she’s grown to hate the restrictions on her life, and so she breaks the protection spell…. and all havoc breaks loose. Magic is turned upside down, the wicked witches are let loose, and suddenly Dorothea, her maid Riz, and her fiance (it happened very suddenly) are on an adventure to set things right.

If you know the plot of the book (or the movie for that matter). you’ll recognize the arc of Dorothea’s quest. And that’s okay. Schow was riffing on the well-known story, adding her own elements (having Ozma be the Hydra and turn into Baba Yaga was a nice tough). But, it was really just okay. The humor was okay. The romance was okay. The twist at the end was… okay. It never really became more than just “this is a decent book.” Which isn’t bad. And I’m sure fans of Oz will really like this one.

I suppose I was just hoping for more than okay.

The Kiss of Deception

by Mary E Pearson
First sentence: “Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.”
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Content: There’s some illusions to sex, but nothing explicit. And there’s some violence, but nothing graphic. This one has been languishing in our Teen (grades 9+) section, but I think I’ll move it to YA (grades 6-8) with all the other pretty-dress-covered fantasy.

Lia is a princess of the land of Morrigan, a First Daughter. Which means that her life, as much as she hates it, is not her own. Per custom and religious tradition, First Daughters have arranged marriages, for political gain. And so, Lia is being married off to the prince of a neighboring kingdom, Dalbreck. Whom she has never met. And whom, because he’s just doing what his father wants, she will never have any respect for.

So she runs away, the morning of her wedding. Escapes to a small, coastal town with her maid, and disguises herself as a barmaid. She figures she’ll happily live out her life there. But, there are people on her trail: an assassin from another neighboring “barbarian” country, and the prince himself, who (of course) is nothing like Lia thinks he’ll be.

There are a lot of “of courses” here: yes, there’s a love triangle (but it’s handled well). Yes, she gets caught out. Yes, there’s a smattering of magic and religiousy folklore;  Pearson has developed a whole religion and a prophecy, though I have to admit that I skipped a bunch of that. But, in Pearson’s hands, none of that seemed trite. I really liked Lia as a character, from the get-go: she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to take it. She was independent — there was none of that stuck-up royal stuff you often get in these sorts of stories — and thoroughly confident in her decisions.

And so when the story takes a left turn — the assassin ends up kidnapping Lia and dragging her back to his country — I was giddy with delight. The book is good, but the last third, after Lia is kidnapped, is great.  No, the story didn’t wrap up; the sequel is coming out in July. But, this is a series definitely worth reading.

Monstrous

by MarcyKate Connolly
First sentence: “I will never forget my first breath.”
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Content: It’s long and slow and while the romance is fairly age-appropriate, it’s not just alluded to. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d gear it to the older end of the age range/young YA.

Kymera is a newly formed creation of her Father’s.She’s part girl, yes, but also part bird and part.. something else with a scaled, stinging tail. Her purpose, her father tells her, is to rescue the girls that have been imprisoned by the wizard. She heads into Bryre every night, stinging the guards and bringing out one girl which her father then tells her is being taken to the safety of Belladoma, a nearby country.

If you’re not getting huge creeper undertone vibes from this, I’m really not doing it justice. See: everything is not what it seems. One of the best things about the first half of this book is the unease that Connolly writes into it. I just KNEW something wasn’t right, that Kymera was being too trusting (then again, being new-born she didn’t know any better), that something would go horribly wrong.

And, once she meets a boy, Ren, against her father’s wishes, it does.

I  won’t tell you how it all unravels; the twists and turns are best left to surprise. So, even though this is a slow book, with a lot of internal dialogue and musings, I was still interested enough to keep reading. I loved the dark Frankenstein-like aura it has, though it has a very Grimm-like overlay. Like Connolly couldn’t decide whether to tell a fairy tale or a monster story. But, the mashup works.

Until the end.

See, it turns fairy tale in the end, and I think we were supposed to be Moved by the ending, but I felt cheated. I suppose I wanted some sort of middle-grade happily ever after, and I should be happy Connolly refused to give it to us, but it felt… forced. And that made me dissatisfied.

But, overall, it was a well-done, dark middle grade fantasy.

The Forgotten Sisters

by Shannon Hale
First sentence: “Miri woke to the rustle of a feather-stuffed quilt.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Princess Academy, Palace of Stone
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves of my place of employment.
Content: There’s some violence, but nothing graphic. And some kissing, which may be ew-inducing in the younger set. Still, I think it belongs in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it might do better with the 5-7th graders.

Miri finished her year at the Palace and was looking forward to going back home to Mount Eskel, seeing her family, enjoying getting back to the life she once had before the Princess Academy changed her path. But, her winding road isn’t finished yet: the neighboring country, Stora, is threatening invasion, and in order to pacify them King Bjorn has offered up some distant cousins as a bride to the aging Storan king. And Miri is sent, unwilling and unprepared, to the swamp of Lesser Alvan to find these cousins and whip them into shape for a royal wedding.

What Miri finds when she gets to the swamp are three motherless girls — Astrid, Felissa, and Sus — who have been resourceful enough to find a way to survive without the help of the castle. They were supposed to be getting an allowance, which has been stolen by the local village overlord. They were supposed to have servants and a family, and they’ve been robbed of that, too. However, they made to, and once Miri figured out how to connect with them, things went well.

In fact, Astrid and Sus were my favorite characters. Felissa was nice enough — her main characteristic, as Hale often reminded us, was smiling — but Astrid was tough, no-nonsense, responsible, and just plain amazing. Sus soaked up the knowledge, and there’s a scene at the end (I won’t spoil it) where she talks coolly and rationally and logically and in the end makes everyone listen to her. Miri,too, was a bastion of resourcefulness: she adapted to the swamp life and fought back against the bandits and robber barons. She fought for justice and did so in a way that wasn’t violent.

The thing that kept running through my mind while reading this was that it was a girl power book, but not in the way we usually think of it. Usually, we want our girls to be like guys: kicking butt, fighting. But, Hale has given us girls and women who Do Things and stand up to people without violence, without force. In fact, you can look at this book as the myriad of ways women survive what men in power do to them. From making decisions to making war to actual physical violence, men can be (are often?) cruel and unthinking. But, women can survive and flourish.

It never got didactic or heavy-handed, though I did think some of the twists and turns of plot were a bit much. It came together in the end, though, in a very satisfying way. Because above all, Hale is a consummate storyteller. And this is definitely a good story.

Egg & Spoon

by Gregory Maguire
First sentence: “The heels of military boots, striking marble floors, made a sound like thrown stones.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, but it’s a bit long and slow for all but the most advanced middle grade readers. It’s not a Teen book, either, so it’s ended up in the no-man’s land of YA books (grades 6-8) at the bookstore. I’m wondering how it would go as a read-aloud, though.

Elena Rudina is a peasant in pre-Revolution Russia. Her father died in a freak accident, and her mother never quite recovered from that. Her oldest brother is a servant in the baryn’s household and is away in Russia. So when her other brother gets conscripted into the Tsar’s army, Elena decides she needs to do something about that.

Ekaterina is the daughter of semi-noble parents who have dropped her in a London boarding school and gone off gallivanting around the world. The only person who cares about her is her Great-Aunt Sophie, and she’s determined that Ekaterina is going to show up at the Tsar’s party for his godson and be presented as a possible match, which is something Ekaterina does not want.

So, it was quite fortuitous when Elena and Ekaterina meet by accident — the train stops in Elena’s village when the bridge is out — and then (again by accident) switch places. Each get exposure to a different world and are led on the adventure of a lifetime.

I really wanted to like this one. And I did, sometimes. I loved Baba Yaga in all her snarkiness. (In fact, I bookmarked a bunch of her lines. Like: “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and “Dumb Doma remodels itself. A nasty habit, like binge shopping.” and “No wonder they call these fairy tales. Tolstoi woudl know better, and a fast train comign into a station would be involved. Blood, tears, regrets. All the fun stuff.”) I sometimes liked the adventure that Elena and Ekaterina were having. (Madame Sophia ended up being a favorite of mine as well.) But, something seemed… off… about this one. Usually I don’t mind intrusive narrators, but this time, he (though I wonder why Maguire chose that particular narrator) was annoying enough that I just wanted him to go away. And that (along with Baba Yaga) got me wondering if this is really a kids’ book, or rather a book for adults who like kids’ books. I found myself hard-pressed to come up with a kid who would enjoy this.

It reminded me most of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in tone and style (though it’s much, much longer), And K really liked having that one read aloud to her. So, maybe there is some hope for this one. I just wish I liked it better.

The Princess in Black

by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
First sentence: “Princess Magnolia was having hot chocolate and scones with Duchess Wigtower.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 21, 2014
Content: Yeah, there’s nothing but good fun here. And it’s simple enough for the younger set. It’ll be in the Beginning Chapter Book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

Princess Magnolia has a secret. She’s a superhero, rescuing innocent and unprotected goats from the Big Bad Monsters. The thing is: princesses aren’t supposed to be superheroes. They’re supposed to be princesses. Right?

Well, aside from the stuffy Duchess Wigtower, no one tells Princess Magnolia she can’t. So, even though the Duchess is trying to snoop into Princess Magnolia’s business, she finds a way to sneak out of the castle to go whip those pesky monsters into shape.

As an aside, yes, Princess Magnolia is white. (Shannon Hale has said that’s partially for marketing reasons — if I heard her correctly — and partially because she’s modeled on Hale’s daughter, who is blonde and blue-eyed.) But the goat boy is not, and Hale promises further diversity (of race, at least) in the next book. (In fact, she showed us at KidlitCon a mock-up of the drawings, and they’re quite gorgeous.)

Liberally and cheerfully illustrated, this short chapter book was a delight to read, Hilarious and silly and just perfect for those who can’t get enough of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series. (Same sort of humor and silliness as those as well.)

If Princess Magnolia has any other adventures, I’d love to read them.