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.

Reread: I Shall Wear Midnight

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Why was it, Tiffany Aching wondered, that people liked noise so much?
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Others in the series: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith
Content: There’s a bit more romance, and some illusions to sex (none actual), and the story’s a bit darker than the other Tiffany Aching books. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Last time I read this, seven years ago, I called it a perfect ending for a perfect series. It’s still a perfect series. But, going back and rereading this, I’ve realized that this isn’t an ending. More like a stopping place. (And I am glad The Shepherd’s Crown got published. It makes for a better ending.)

That said (follow the seven years ago link for the plot), I still loved this one. I loved that the conflict was the negative opinions of witches, the hate that is so often seen in the face of the unknown. It felt very timely. I liked that Pratchett used old lore to battle the hate (if we know and understand our history, we will better be able to fight against the dark), and having recently read Small Gods, I understood all the references to the priests of Om this time. I adore Tiffany’s practicality (and wish I could figure out how to better roll with the challenges in my life), and I love the humor. There can never be too much NacMacFeegle, and I loved the fierceness with which Jeannie (the kelda) watches over her clan.

Really, these books are such a delight to read.

Reread: Wintersmith

wintersmithby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “When the storm came, it hit the hills like a hammer.”
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Others in the Series: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky
Content: There’s a bit of mushy love stuff, but it’s fairly understated. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I spent the review the last time I read this talking about the characters and how they’re what really matters when reading this series. And that’s true. Tiffany Aching wouldn’t not be Tiffany without the other witches, like Nanny Ogg or Granny Weatherwax or Annagramma or Petulia, or without Roland or the Nac Mac Feegle. Or the Chalk. But, what stuck with me was not the characters (perhaps because I’m reading all these one right after another) but the plot.

Basically, Tiffany disrupts the seasons when she gets impulsive during the winter dance and joins in. The Wintersmith, the elemental who runs winter, is intrigued and decides that he needs to woo Tiffany. Which, because he’s Winter, involves a lot of ice and snow and cold weather. And because of this, spring is delayed. Tiffany has taken on the role of Summer in this dance, and has to figure out how to get out of it. Before the cold starts killing animals and people.

I loved the way Pratchett was playing with Old Stories, with mythology. I loved the way Tiffany had to take responsibility for things, even though it was impulsive and she didn’t “mean” to. This time, I enjoyed what it was about as much as the journey.

This series is just so great.

Reread: A Hat Full of Sky

hatfullofskyby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The Nac Mac Feegle are the most dangerous of the fairy races, particularly when drunk.”
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Content: It’s a bit complex, story-wise for the younger set, but would make a great read-aloud for ages 8 and up. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Others in the series: The Wee Free Men

Of course when you read The Wee Free Men, you have to follow it up with reading the rest of the series. I’ve read and reviewed this once before, nearly 8 years ago, and I don’t have much else to add. Except that much of what I remember about Tiffany Aching and this series comes from this book. The bit about being afraid of depths. The definition of what a witch is. The encounter with Death. It’s all here. This is the one (aside from the Nac Mac Feegle, which really shine in the first book) that has stayed with me all these years.

Which makes me wonder: what will I think of the others this time around?

The Wee Free Men

weefreemenby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Somethings start before other things.”
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Content: The Nac Mac Feegle’s speech is written in dialect, which might be difficult to understand. But, I’d give it to a precocious 10-year-old, and it worked as a read-aloud to K a couple years back when she was 8. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I don’t really have much to write, since I’ve already reviewed this on my blog twice: first in 2009 and then the audio version in 2011. But I wanted an excuse to put up the pretty new cover (I LOVE IT!) and to say that Tiffany Aching wears well, and that it’s still as wonderful and as fun and as Important as it was when I first read it.

On to the next one!

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

girlwhodrankby Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “Yes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Although this is masquerading as a middle grade novel, it’s really an upper-middle-grade/mild YA novel. There’s not much, content-wise, that would be inappropriate for the younger set, I’m just not sure how well they’d follow the plot. It’s either for those contemplative readers who want to immerse themselves in a slow story, or older readers who are looking for something lyrical.  It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore (though it could easily go in our YA — grades 6-8 — section).

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. There’s a girl — Luna — who was a baby left beside the road by a town that believes unless they sacrifice one baby, the witch will destroy their village. There’s a witch — Xan — who has been rescuing the babies from the village for years, depositing them in homes where they are cared for. She takes Luna, and decides to raise her. There’s a Perpetually Tiny Dragon and a swamp monster. A madwoman in a tower, and a  young man who defies the town council. There’s a lot going on in this novel, and yet, there also isn’t a lot. It’s a very small story about home and family and doing what’s right over what’s convenient. But it’s a larger story, as well: about home and family and doing what’s right over what’s convenient.

I do have to admit that while I found the language beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, I did keep wondering what sort of kid was going to pick this one up. It’s so different from the standard Middle Grade fare (probably for a good reason): much slower, much more contemplative. I do hope it finds an audience, because it really is a beautiful story.

The Witches

witchesby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.”
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Content: It’s not as scary as I thought it would be, and surprisingly simple for the size. Heads up, though: grandma smokes a cigar. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I remember reading this one at some point, and I had a violently negative reaction to it. I HATED it. So, I was a bit wary going in this time. But, since I picked this for the Roald Dahl book club, I needed a re-read going in.

And it’s…. weird. I was asked if it was “good”, and I said “It’s weird.” “Does that mean it’s bad? ” Nope. Just weird.

The basic plot? There are witches out there, and they look like us. Except they always wear gloves, and a wig (to cover their bald heads) and the have no toes. They hate children and make them disappear. They are, at all costs, to be avoided. So when our narrator (whose childhood sounds suspiciously like Dahl’s), accidentally ends up in a ballroom full of witches, he’s (understandably) terrified. Especially after he hears their master plan for the children of England: make a time-release mouse potion, put it in candy, and voila! No more children. They’ll all be mice.

Except our narrator doesn’t make it out in one piece: he’s caught and turned into a mouse. But, he can talk and he can still think like himself so he goes and convinces his grandma that he’s still her grandson. And informs her of the Grand Plan. Which they, unbelievably, thwart. But our narrator remains a mouse, which is just fine with him because then he won’t outlive his grandma.

Weird.

There are the usual Dahl themes: adults hating kids, and good kids being bullied (by the witches). But it really feels different from the other ones I’ve read. Matilda is darker, and Charlie is more didactic. I’m not quite sure what The Witches is other than… weird.  Was it supposed to scare kids? Was it supposed to just be amusing? (It wasn’t.)

This one’s going to be an interesting discussion at book group.

Castle Hangnail

castlehangnailby Urusla Vernon
First sentence: “It was a marvelously dark and dour twilight at the castle.”
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Content: There’s nothing in here that a third-grader (and up) wouldn’t enjoy. Plus lots of white space and illustrations for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Molly is a 12-year-old twin with a knack for magic. So when her friend Eudaimonia gets an invite to become the Master of Castle Hangnail, a kind of small, run down castle in need of some sort of Wicked/Evil Master in the middle of nowhere, Molly jumps at the chance. Perhaps, if she can learn to become a Master of a castle, she can get the respect she’s been wanting.

However, Molly finds it’s not as easy as saying she’d do it. The Board of Magic has several tasks that she needs to accomplish (among them: securing and defending the castle, committing acts of smiting and blighting, and winning the hearts/minds of villagers by any means necessary) before she can truly be called the Master. Plus there’s the small feat of getting the minions in Castle Hangnail on her side. Not to mention that her parents (and “good” twin sister) think she’s just away at summer camp…

Oh, this book was delightful. So, so very delightful. The tone is a lot like Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series: a smart, no-nonsense girl who figures out how to be a “wicked” witch with some hilarious side-kicks and a lot of snide asides. There’s so much to love. From the goldfish who always thinks she’s dying to the steam fairy who doesn’t deal with cold well, to the plumber who  “when he knelt to work on the boiler, you sall rather more of Harry than you wanted.” The tone, the characters, even the bullying (which it was, even if it never was called that) were all spot-on and made this book absolutely enjoyable to read.

(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.)

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.