by Sage Blackwood
ages: 9+
First sentence: “In the Urwald you grow up fast or not at all.”
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The setting: the Urwald, a forest of no uncertain danger. There are trolls, werewolves, witches, and wizards out there and no one — NO ONE — left the Path unless they were asking for trouble. Needless to say, there is magic here. The Urwald has no king, and belongs to no country, in spite of what the two neighboring kingdoms seem to think.

The main character: Jinx, a boy who lives in one of the clearings, being raised by his stepparents (mother died; dad remarried; dad died; stepmother remarried), who don’t particularly want him. So, his stepfather takes him off the path, presumably to leave him there. Except they run into Simon, a wizard of some power. He’s not as Powerful (or Evil) as the Bonemaster (whom, everyone knows, sucks your soul out with a straw), but he’s powerful enough to stop Jinx’s stepdad and take Jinx as a sort of serving boy/apprentice.

The other characters: One of the most delightful things about this enchanting novel were the characters. There is the mysterious, yet somehow comforting, Simon and his spitfire wife, Sophie. There’s the cackling witch (I swear I could hear her) Dame Glammer, who traveled by butter churn. There were the friends (of sorts) that Jinx met when he finally (not that I minded the set up; it was so cleverly imagined) got around to Questing, Reven (whose curse was that he could not say who he was) and Elfwyn (whose curse is that she always has to tell the Truth). And then there was the Urwald itself, written in such a way to be a character in itself.

It’s not an action-packed page-turner of a middle grade fantasy, and I appreciated that. It was a slow reveal, a world to revel in, characters to enjoy a journey with. And if there’s a sequel, I will happily follow Jinx through whatever adventure he has next.

Keeper of the Lost Cities

by Shannon Messenger
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Blurry, fractured memories swam through Sophie’s mind, but she couldn’t piece them together.”
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A young boy girl is raised among humans, never knowing that he’s she’s not one of them. He She manifests some special abilities, but mostly what he she does is lay low, living with his her family, knowing somehow that he’s she’s different than they are. Then on his eleventh birthday a school field trip soon after she turns twelve, he she is found by an emissary of the different world, gaining a glimpse into his her real future: that of the wizards elves. As he’s she’s introduced to this world by a soon-to-become good friend, he she learns that his place in the world is a unique one: that of the Chosen One Keeper. (Possibly; it’s not really clear.) He She is sent off to Hogwarts Foxfire, the wizard boarding school elf nobility school, where he she makes friends, endears himself herself to some teacher and offends others, shows incredible abilities in certain areas, gains a mentor, and ends up breaking a lot of rules. He She succeeds in thwarting the evil that he she faces in the end, but it’s only a temporary fix. How can he she, a mere boy girl, save this world?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my main problem with this one — that I started with high hopes: a separate world with elves! Cool! (And, no, that’s not a train on the cover. I thought it was) — was, that by about halfway through, I realized it was Too Much Harry Potter Knockoff, and not enough cool elves doing cool, unique, elvy things. I thought that Messenger had a cool idea for the world, but in the end, just wasn’t able to pull it off as well as I’d hoped.

That, and  I realized that halfway through, at 488 pages, this was Much Too Long. All of which makes me kind of sad.

(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.)

Calling on Dragons

by Patricia Wrede
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Deep in the Enchanted Forest, in a neat gray house with a wide porch and a red roof, lived the witch Morwen and her nine cats.”
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Others in the series: Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons

It’s about a year after Cimorene and Mendenbar got married, and things are afoot in the Enchanted Forest. Again. (Yes, it is the wizards. Again.) This time, Morwen was clued into the problems by a six-foot-tall rabbit named Killer. Things get a little trickier when they — Morwen, the cats, and Killer, of course — get to the castle to find out that the wizards have stolen the sword that the magic of the Enchanted Forest is tied to.

Unfortunately, that means Mendenbar (unfortunately, in A’s opinion) has to stay in the forest, while everyone else (including Killer) goes off to find the sword and get it back from those nasty wizards. They end up on a few adventures, and in some interesting pickles. Eventually, the six-foot-tall rabbit ends up a six-foot-tall blue floating donkey with wings, but that’s neither here nor there, really.

In fact, that’s kind of what we thought of this book, as well. A lost interest in it; even though I read it out loud to her, she bailed about 2/3 of the way through. And the ending — which practically requires you to read book 4 — was highly irritating.

We should have bailed at the last book, but now that I’ve come this far, I think I’m just going to have to read the next one just to see how it ends.

Searching for Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages 9+
First sentence: “The King of the Enchanted Forest was twenty years old and lived in a rambling, scrambling, mixed-up castle somewhere near the center of his domain.”
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Others in the series: Dealing with Dragons

The King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendenbar, doesn’t really appreciate messes. (Especially ones made by wizards.) So, when he finds a patch of his forest dead — completely void of magic and life — he’s not only annoyed, but also a bit curious. How on earth did that happen? Especially since there’s dragon scales lying around the area. That sends him off to see the King of the Dragons, Kazul, but only finds her princess, Cimorene, setting off to find Kazul, who has been missing for several days.

From there, Mendenbar and Cimorene set off on an adventure to find Kazul (and stop those pesky wizards), that will take them all over the Mountains of Morning, meeting giants, dwarves, and a theoretical magician before they will figure it all out (and rescue Kazul) in the end.

I remember listening to this one on audio years and years ago (I didn’t write a review), and I remember thoroughly enjoying it then. That hasn’t changed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it aloud to A. Mendenbar and Cimorene are such engaging, fun, witty characters, and Wrede does a fantastic job weaving in fairy tales throughout her original story. It was a lot of fun to read for both A and me.

On to the next book!

Reread: Dealing with Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Linderwall was a large kindgom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”
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I didn’t really give much of a review when I read this one seven (!) years ago, so I thought I’d do it up proper this time. Especially since I just finished reading it aloud to my current 8-year-old, A.

Princes Cimorene doesn’t like being a princess. She would much rather learn magic, Latin, fencing or *something* other than being proper and embroidery. So, when her parents drag her to a nearby kingdom in order to marry her off to an insipid prince, she does the only reasonable thing: she runs away and becomes a dragon’s princess. The dragon is Kazul, and she (the dragon is a she) is smart, reasonable, interesting, and makes Cimorene feel useful. So, aside from the stupid knights who keep trying to rescue her, Cimorene is perfectly happy in her new life. Then she gets wind of a plot the wizards are cooking: after the death of the king, they’re going to rig the trials in order to get Waroug, who happens to be sympathetic to the wizards, in as king. And it’s up to Cimorene (and her new friends) to stop them.

I do love these little books. Sure, they’re light and frothy fantasy, but they’re fun. And Cimorene is one of the great heroines out there: a strong, smart girl, who knows what she wants and is willing to work for it, is kind without being a pushover.  The books are funny, too: I was constantly cracking up while I read. Lest you think it goes over an 8-year-old’s head, some of it did, but I was always able to stop and catch her up. She adored Cimorene as much as I did, and is quite excited to see what adventure they go on next. And since I never did get around to reading the rest of the series, I am as well.

Tuesdays at the Castle

by Jessica Day George
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Whenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two.”
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Eleven-year-old Princess Cecilia — Celie to her family and friends — loves living in Castle Glower. She’s made it her job to know all the nooks and crannies and shortcuts, from the long-established ones, to the ones that crop up periodically. See, Castle Glower is definitely magical, and may be alive: it has opinions about the residents there (the state of your rooms is a definite indicator of its opinion of you), and chooses the person who would be best to rule the castle. Everything is grand at Castle Glower.

That is, until the King and Queen leave to pick up their oldest son from the Wizard College, leaving Celie and her two older siblings —  heir apparent Rolf, and sister Leliah — in the care of the castle. Unfortunately, the royals were attacked, and presumed dead. Suddenly, the council and neighboring countries are all over the Castle, supposedly “helping” Rolf take the throne. But the castle hasn’t changed the rooms; perhaps their parents aren’t dead after all? It’s a lot to take in, and that’s not even mentioning the creepy Vhervhish prince that is overstepping his boundaries. It’s up to Celie — and the castle — to stop what may have been a tragedy from becoming a calamity.

It’s a cute and clever little book; I think the premise is the strongest part of the book, though I really liked Celie as a character. Sure, the plot was a bit rushed, and I thought that maybe things wrapped up too tidily, especially since this is being hailed as a “start of a series.” But then, I’m not the target audience, and I’m sure that younger readers and fantasy lovers will really enjoy this one. (I’m planning on reading it to A as soon as we get done with our current reading.)

Audiobook: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

by J. K. Rowling
read by Jim Dale
ages: 7+
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This was A’s choice to listen to as we traveled south for spring break. She’s is a Harry Potter nut, having convinced Hubby to read the first four books out loud to her. So, of course, she wanted to listen to the books again. This wasn’t her first choice, but as K is only not-quite-five, it’s the one that I thought would work best for the family.

And since I don’t have a review of this book here — I first read it in 1999, for a book club at a children’s bookstore in DC — I thought I’d give my impressions of it, even if everyone knows about the books (and Jim Dale’s reading of it) already.

Our first impression was that Jim Dale is a grand narrator, great with suspense and nuance and voices, most of which we liked. Except Hermione. Maybe it’s because by now the movies are really ingrained in our brains, but his Hermione was a whiner. And it drove us all bonkers. Other than that, though, he managed to keep everyone straight for us (and the cast of characters is huge), and kept us engaged in the story.

And the story? It’s Harry Potter! It was nice to visit that world again; I haven’t picked up a book since finishing the seventh one several years ago. (And the movies don’t count. Not really.) I was reminded how wonderful Rowling is at world-building, and how much this one stands alone. Though I also noticed details that were picked up in the later books: the big plotlines, of course, but also little things (and dang if I can’t remember them now!). Not to mention all the little ways the book is different from the movie; C — who really didn’t read the books at all — noticed that the most, and even picked up the book when we got home, rereading several sections.

In short: it was a good book for a long road trip.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Wow. JK Rowling really knows how to write an ending.

I wrote that one-line review two years ago, after I read Half-Blood Prince, and I’ve been hoping that Rowling lived up to it. I’m happy to say that, in my opinion, she has. It’s not what I expected, though I have to admit that I was right on one account (but I’m not going to tell you what; not enough people have read it yet). No, it was better than I expected. It was not just a good ending for the Harry Potter books, but a good book: gripping, intense, soulful. It made me cry, several times. It kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the day. It was a mature story, dealing with mature themes, but not necessarily an adult one. It definitely isn’t a summer popcorn novel; it’s incredibly somber and sad. But with all that, I found it incredibly satisfying. Which is all I really wanted out of an ending.

What did you think? (Can we keep it spoiler free?) If you do want to join in a discussion that isn’t spoiler free… there’s a discussion being sponsored by Dewey at discussdeathlyhallows.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Original Post:
Oh, wow.

I’m not going to spill the book’s secrets. But, oh, wow.

Let me do say that Rowling has gotten much, much tighter with her writing; that the book is not as grumpy as the fifth (thank heavens) though it it pretty dark; and that this along with Prisoner of Azkaban, is my favorite.

I am dying to talk to people about it, but I don’t want to write spoilers. Not yet, anyway. I guess that’s what I get for reading the book the day it comes out.

July 28th Update (with spoilers!):
Since more people have read it by now…. My thoughts.

First off, I LOVED the book. A bit of history: Prisoner of Azkaban has long been my favorite. I thought it had the most interesting story, and the writing was just enjoyable to read. I enjoyed the fourth — thought the ending was great — even though it was long, but I thought the fifth dragged. Even when I re-read it right before the sixth came out. It’s so depressing and angst-ridden. A decent story, though way too much exposition. But because of that, Rowling was able to get right to the point on this one and propelled the plot quicker. I’ve also read in interviews (on Mugglenet and in Time) that she really enjoyed the writing experience of this book, and it shows.

I loved that Harry finally figured out that Ginny was a great girl, and that Ron and Hermione (mostly) got their acts together. Well, Ron mostly. (Though the Lavender bits were funny, too. “Won-won” cracked me up. Didn’t we all know girls like that?) My husband and brother are down on the way the Harry-Ginny relationship ended in the book, but I didn’t mind. Mabye it’s a male-female thing.

I’m agnostic about Snape. When I first finished reading, I was pretty sure he’d declared his intentions and Dumbledore was wrong to trust him. But after very long discussions with Russell and other bloggers and reading the interviews, I’m not so sure. I find Snape to be one of the more fascinating characters in the book and I can’t wait to see what Rowling does with his character. Hopefully, it’ll live up to all our expectations.

The challenge now is waiting the two years until the next one comes out. This book has one of her best endings… what a cliff-hanger!