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2012-10-22 02:45 pm
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Moving Blog

Dear friends,

After a months of reflection and work, I've decided to move this blog over to Wordpress. I just can't do the things I want to do on Livejournal or Dreamwidth. Wordpress is letting me customize a lot more, plus it has an actual search box. I still have more planned for it, but please take a look and let me know what you think:

Here's my most recent post, on my old favorite, The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

I'm still planning to post at least to LJ when I put new things up on Wordpress, so if you only use LJ, you can still keep up. I think that pretty much everyone who reads me on Dreamwidth uses LJ, too, but you can let me know if that isn't the case.

Thanks so much for reading with me!
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2012-10-17 01:56 pm

The Humming Room

There was a day, about two weeks ago, when I finished a book and had no new library books waiting for me to read. Not one. In a panic, I went to the new fiction shelves at the library and took several youth fantasy books. I paid special attention when reading my journals and blogs and put lots of titles on hold, because I had nothing at home.

I have plenty to read now. Definitely more than I can read before they’re all due. This was one of the ones I pulled off the new shelf, just based on how many times I saw the title come up in the weekly review summary at Charlotte’s Library.

The Humming RoomThe Humming Room by Ellen Potter
Here’s a book that says straight off that it’s inspired by The Secret Garden, one of my favorites. This made me nervous once I realized it, but it came off well – like a well-done fairy-tale re-telling, close enough to follow the plot, but different enough to have its own unique spin.

Roo Fanshaw is 12 when her drug-addicted, ne’er-do-well father gets himself murdered. Only when she’s being taken to him does she learn that she has an uncle. He lives on Cough Rock, a small island in a river in upstate New York just big enough for his former child tuberculosis sanatorium turned mansion. The part of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, is played by the stylish but strict Ms. Valentine, while cheerful Martha’s role is taken by the friendly, jean-clad 20-year-old Violet. Roo has been moved around often enough to be distrustful and antisocial, but she quickly learns to love the river and is curious enough to explore the large building, even though she’s told which wing to avoid. Outside, she finds a tiny cave by the river bank, just big enough for her. It’s there that she meets a boy who introduces himself as Jack, paddling around the river in his kayak and considered just a legend by most of the native population. Inside, she hears a mysterious humming noise, and traces it to her cousin Phillip, who’s been in poor mental and physical health since the unexplained death of his mother four years earlier. Both children are initially afraid that the noises that they hear from the other are the ghosts of tuberculosis victims, and some time is given to the sad fate of those children. There is, of course, an abandoned garden for Roo to bring to life as well – this one a greenhouse Amazonian jungle. Roo has never gardened before, but, unlike Mary, has always had a habit of listening with her ear to the ground and being able to hear the earth and what it’s saying to itself. The characters, especially Roo and Phillip, feel well-rounded and believable, similar but not identical to their counterparts in the original. Fans of The Secret Garden are of course the natural audience for this, but the modern setting and the slightly enhanced mystical elements give this appeal to those who wouldn’t necessarily go for historical fiction. Like the original, there’s frequent mention of death, but no in-book violence or romance, making this just right for middle grade readers.
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2012-10-15 03:18 pm

Zita the Spacegirl

This is one I’d been meaning to read for a while, and only put an actual hold on it when I flipped through the newly published sequel on our backroom new book shelf.
Zita the Space Girl
Zita the Spacegirl
by Ben Hatke.

When we meet Zita, she’s running through the woods being chased by her friend Joseph, whose notebook she’s stolen. Then something falls from the sky and crashes. She climbs into the small crater it left – it’s a large silver disc with a big red button. The timid Joseph urges her to leave it alone, but Zita is not the cautious type. She pushes the red button, which opens up a portal to a different planet. The terrified Joseph is sucked in immediately, and after some hesitation, Zita jumps in afterwards to rescue him. She finds herself in a crowded alien marketplace, with no sign of her friend. She is bright and friendly, so though this is clearly not a safe place for unattended children, she befriends a large porter, a giant mechanical mouse, and a somewhat shifty minstrel named Piper. It turns out that the planet they are on is going to be destroyed by a large asteroid in the near future. Everyone who can get out, is, while the aliens who own the planet believe that Joseph is the child of prophecy who is key to stopping the destruction. Even as Piper tells her that the castle where Joseph is being held is too far and the aliens too fierce for one girl to possibly make a difference, Zita sets out. Can she save both Joseph and the planet??? While Zita’s got courage in spades, it’s her kindness and friendliness that will win the day in the end. While you already know there are sequels (one just out, one due next fall), the story arc wraps up nicely in this book, even as it leaves room for Zita to still be the Spacegirl. Hatke both writes and illustrates this full color graphic novel. Zita and her friends are simply adorable, while the alien planet is populated by a wide array of aliens and robots that range from also adorable to adorably creepy. There are some short Zita webcomics up at for you to get a feel for it. This is the kind of wonderful all-ages story that’s perfect for both boys and girls, with action and character enough to satisfy a broad range of ages. Try Giants Beware for another scrappy girl hero and her friends in a fast-paced graphic novel adventure, or Korgi for slightly sweeter adventurous fare. I’m expecting Zita to end up on our permanent book shelf.
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2012-10-13 03:24 pm
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The Storm Makers

Storm MakersThe Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith

Ruby and Simon are twelve-year-old twins who have recently moved from Chicago to a farm house in Wisconsin. Their parents are supposed to be supporting the family by farming while waiting for their Creative Pursuits to take off, but the crops are doing poorly due to a drought and the creative ventures aren’t going so well, either. Ruby, a budding scientist who loves helping their inventor father, hasn’t made friends here in the country, while Simon fits right in with the baseball crowd. This leaves Ruby feeling isolated from her twin for the first time. Such is the scene when Simon gets a fever that coincides with an enormous thunderstorm. Even when he recovers, he starts shorting out appliances and cars just by touching them. While Simon’s in the hospital with the fever, a kind-looking man with a battered hat named Otis introduces himself. He says that he, like Simon, is a Storm Maker, and he is here to help Simon, coming into his powers unusually young, learn to control them. He gives Ruby a tiny barometer whose dial shows events on the way rather than weather. But by the time Simon is awake, Otis is gone, and another Storm Maker comes to their rendezvous instead. His name is Rupert London. He tells Simon that he has the potential to be the most powerful Storm Maker ever, and invites Simon to come back to Chicago with him for training at the official secret Storm Maker headquarters. Simon is flattered by his attention, but Ruby takes an immediate dislike to him when he burns down a farmer’s field as a demonstration of his power. Meanwhile, the twins have taken a summer job together helping out the local mechanic, Daisy, who also turns out to be a Storm Maker. Will Simon and Ruby find out who to believe – and how to control Simon’s powers – before it’s too late?!

This was a pleasant read, though it didn’t knock my socks off. It was nice to see Ruby and Simon get closer to each other again over the course of the book. It was of course obvious from the beginning who the bad guy was, and Simon makes and Ruby allows a quite dangerous decisions fairly early on. Kids of the intended age will likely enjoy it just fine, especially if they are interested in weather and mechanical science.
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2012-10-10 11:27 am
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Runemarks by Joanne Harris. Read by Sile Birmingham.

Once upon a time the Aesir ruled the Nine Worlds from their home in Asgard. After Ragnarok, though, both the Aesir and their fellow gods the Vanir disappeared from the worlds. 500 years later, a girl named Maddy is growing up in the country, far from civilization but still not free from the influence of the Order. The Order teaches that all the “Seer-folk” were wicked demons, and that people or animals born with their evil “ruin marks” on their skin should be killed. Also, everyone should avoid dreaming to keep from being taken over by demons while they sleep. Luckily for her, Maddy’s ruin-mark only makes her an outcast in her village. Her only friend is the old traveling man who calls himself One-Eye. He tells her that her “ruin mark” is actually a rune, an ancient sign of power. He tells her the old forbidden stories of the gods, and teaches her to make and throw runes of power with her hands, as well as cantrips and charms. As the village is invaded by more and more goblins, he tells her that war is coming. Someone, for very unclear reasons, wants to destroy what’s left of the gods and any magic left in the world. Maddy is the only one who can take the gateway under the large horse carved into the hillside, to travel to World Below and bring him back the ancient oracle known as the Whisperer. There, Maddy meets a charming red-haired boy who calls himself Lucky.

I listened to this book with my son, who could not be convinced that Maddy was dealing with Odin and Loki. It seems like it must be taking place in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, but Maddy has quite modern sensibilities. It seems that my Norse mythology was not quite as solid as I’d realized, because I was unaware of the difference between the Vanir and the Aesir, and trying to form a new alliance between gods I’d always thought of as part of the same pantheon takes a lot of time in the book. Prophecy plays a major role, with the Whisperer telling the same prophecy different ways to different people, and other people putting yet different spins on it. The book didn’t entirely work for me. Bits that were mentioned briefly at the beginning and never came up again turned out to have major significance at the end. The difference between runes, cantrips and charms wasn’t explained so I could understand it, though it felt like it would have been helpful to understand it. Sile Bermingham read in an array of lilting British and Irish accents, which was lovely but a bit puzzling for a book about Norse people. And while I enjoy character-driven stories, the whole thing felt like it was moving too slowly. It was 14 discs long, and things did not really start to heat up until the last two or three. However, the premise was interesting and Maddy a likably sturdy and free-thinking girl, and my son really enjoyed it. It’s rated for teens, probably for the length and a small amount of foul language (nearly all from Loki.) The violence is certainly no more than in books like the Percy Jackson series. Fans of those books who are interested in other books about forgotten gods in a more modern setting and don’t need the breakneck pace should enjoy this as well.

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2012-10-08 02:48 pm
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Shadow and Bone

The year I lived in Germany, I thought I’d try to learn a language that I couldn’t learn back home in the states. I picked Czech. (I’ve since regretted not taking Mittelhochdeutsch, or medieval German, which would have been useful for my early music performing.) I didn’t make much headway with Czech, though I made some of my best friends there in that class and enjoyed our field trip to Prague. I remember a handful of things: that the nouns have four genders; that “r” is considered a vowel; the lovely onomotopic word “sprcha,” which means “shower” and sounds like it; and how to introduce myself. I learned that the suffix “ova” is added to the end of every female’s last name, even mine as a foreigner. And while Czech isn’t Russian, I’m fairly sure that the same holds true for Russian. That’s why it bothered me every time I read the name “Alina Starkov” in this book. Clearly, Bardugo did a lot of research on Russian history and culture, and it isn’t really supposed be Russia, but a similar fantasy nation, so I feel a little bad about harping on this one thing. And yet, it threw me out of the story every time I encountered it, even as I mentally renamed our heroine “Alina Starkova”.

Shadow and BoneShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Our story takes us to the realm of Ravka, which feels like late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Russia (without Russian folk tale motives). It’s a world that’s been at war for decades. Not only is it threatened by the neighboring kingdoms, but there is the large area of permanent magical darkness known as the Fold. What used to be rich farmland is now barren desert filled with man-eating monsters that make it very dangerous to cross. Our heroine, Alina Starkov, was orphaned in the war and taken in by a wealthy landowner. Her best friend since then is Mal. Now they are in the army together – Alina working as a (not very good) cartographer, while Mal is the Best Tracker Ever, and popular with the opposite sex to boot. On their way through the Fold, they are attacked by Volcra. They are about to rip Mal away when Alina, desperately trying to cover him with her body, summons a sun-bright flare of light that drives the Volcra off. Mal and the rest of the people on board the land ship are saved, but Alina’s life is about to become much more complicated. She’d always been wary of the magic-users, or Grisha, who form their own separate division of the military, headed by the truly frightening Darkling. Now she is summoned to meet with the Darkling in person. He tells her that she is a Sun Summoner, whose powers when trained could destroy the darkness of the Fold. She’s rushed to the capital to train with other Grisha, where she’s both envied for her closeness to the Darkling and despised for her difficulty using her powers, since all the other Grisha have been training since childhood. And while the Darkling is making every effort to smooth her way and to make himself likeable, it’s also clear that he’s an experienced politician as well as a powerful magician, willing and able to do whatever it takes to keep the Tsar under his control and the Grisha the most powerful force in the nation. There is a creepy Apparat, some kind of high priest, who distrusts the Grisha and keeps following Alina around trying to give her warnings, but she never listened to enough of these for me as a reader to know whether she should have listened more or less. The story went along, went along, and then suddenly – flip, flip, flip – it was all wrapped up and done and looking completely different as a finished story than it had along the way, like Elizabeth Zimmerman’s famous Baby Surprise Jacket. I could see the plot going either of two ways – which I can’t really elaborate on without complete spoilerage – and it zipped off in a third direction, leaving me feeling a little stunned with the speed of it all. I’m not sure if something about the book didn’t quite work for me, or if it would work for me if I read it again and thought about it some more. However, I quite liked both the setting and Alina as a character. For teens and up who like somewhat historical fantasy, this is a good choice.

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2012-10-05 05:00 pm


“Did you want to read this?” I asked my love, waving this as part of a stack of library books I was done with. I of course was on the hold list as soon as it was in the library catalog system, because I am in love with Raina Telgemeier, as I’ve mentioned before.
“No,” he said. “I was a band geek, not a drama nerd. Besides, that cover looks like a love triangle.” Then he picked it up and read the first couple of pages while scrambling our breakfast eggs. “I changed my mind,” he said. Over breakfast and after dinner that day, I heard him chuckling over it. He was done before breakfast the next day.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier.
Raina Telgemeier is back after 2010’s Smile. Where that was autobiographical, Drama takes us to a fictional middle school inspired by Telgemeier’s experiences. Eighth grade Callie, a winsome lass with long purple hair, loves musicals, and is thrilled to hear that her school will be putting on “Moon over Mississippi.” She doesn’t aspire to the stage – she knows she has a terrible voice. She and her group of nicely ethnically diverse friends, including best friend Liz, work backstage. Now that she’s in eighth grade, she’s put in charge of set design. She has grand dreams, the biggest of which is building a real exploding canon for the stage. But there’s plenty of drama of the middle school romance type as well. Her longtime crush Greg was has long been dating a snotty girl, but kisses Callie after they break up. Then Callie is crushed when he immediately starts avoiding her at school. Disappointment is short-lived, though, when two cute twins join the drama group. Outgoing and talented Justin tries out for a major role in the musical, but is up-front with Callie: he’s gay, so while he likes hanging out with her, he’s never going to be interested in her that way. Callie’s never met anyone gay in person before, so this takes a little mental adjusting. Shy Jesse, however, might still be available. He joins Callie in the backstage crew and bonds with her over beautiful books about the golden age of musicals. It’s a great balance of deep thoughts and laugh-out-loud funny moments. Even when lovesick, Callie throws herself wholeheartedly into the theater project, falling asleep over her canon experiments in the garage. On top of those two major themes, she still has to deal with regular homework and an overly curious little brother. Telgemeier presents serious topics in an engaging, light-hearted but never flippant way. Her drawings are a nice mix of Western and Japanese style, expressive and easy to follow. There is nothing more explicit than a little kissing, making this perfect for older middle grade students and up.

I thought really hard about readalikes for this and came up with a blank. Novels that address homosexuality for teens, sure – but middle schoolers are I think still not supposed to have any sexual feelings at all, straight or gay. That’s too bad, because I have vivid memories of some intense crushes at that age, but the more explicit teen romances would have been too much. If any of you, dear readers, can think of a book that would be a good fit, please let me know.
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2012-10-03 03:11 pm

Mail Order Ninja

I’ve had this happen a couple of times now.... I read a book with my boy and we both enjoy it. Then I meet the author, rave to him (always a him) about how we loved it… bring my son over to Meet the Author!, and he has no memory of the book. Sigh. This one I went back and re-read with him after the incident, and he begged for the sequel.

Mail Order NinjaMail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder. Illustrated by Erich Owen.

Timmy McAllister has a tough life. He’s bullied on the way to school, rich mean girl Felicity Huntington makes the life of anyone who isn’t willing to be her toady miserable there, and at home, his bratty little sister is determined to make their parents declare her their favorite. What’s a boy to do? He orders famous ninja Yoshida Jiro from the Jacques Co. catalog. (Timmy is familiar with Jiro from reading the manga series about him.) With Jiro backing him up, bullies are no longer a problem, and Timmy is cool enough to defeat Felicity in the race for school president, making the school safe for nerds everywhere! In volume two, though, Felicity orders a whole evil ninja clan from the same catalog and takes over the town. Jiro is defeated, the adults all brainwashed, and it’s up to Timmy (and the bratty sister and his best friend) to save the day. The whole thing is filled with references to things like classic sci-fi that will make adults smile without being inappropriate. It’s illustrated with expressive and perky manga-style drawings. These hilarious, high-action books are perfect for elementary school-aged boys, but it’s safe to say they’d find fans with a much broader audience. Sadly, they are out of print, so check your local library or order your second-hand copy now.
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2012-10-02 07:47 pm
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I should perhaps have mentioned it yesterday, but the Cybils nominations are open. That means that if you are a fan of a children’s or teen book (or book app) that’s come out since last October 15, you can go nominate it now. Or at least check to see if it’s already been nominated. Go take a look!

Craig Thompson (Blankets) coming out with another epic graphic novel was big news, and I waited until the demand at the library died down a little before checking it out.
Habibi by Craig Thompson
Habibi tells the story of two lost souls in an Arab world. Dodola was sold to be married as a child by her poverty-stricken father, but is put on the slave market when her husband is murdered. She escapes, taking with her a young African slave baby. She names him Cham and hopes that together, they can make a better life. They start living in a ship abandoned in the desert, Dodola sneaking off to passing caravans to earn food, while Cham is in charge of finding water. Change is always around the corner, and even this early period is interrupted with Cham’s coming puberty and awareness of Dodola, and his horror at finding that she sells herself for their food. Then Dodola is kidnapped and taken to the sultan’s harem while Cham must make his own way. Always, in situations worse and better, Dodola and Cham are trying to find a way back to each other. Although the story at first seems to be set in a distant century, later it seems that it’s just a pocket of the modern world resistant to change. Dodola’s husband had been a scribe, and taught her reading and some of the stories he copied. Pieces of mostly Islamic mythology and folk tale are woven through the book, some told by Dodola to Cham, either in person or in his memory, and some just between sections. These stories, the central symbol of a blessing matrix, and the flowing shapes of Arabic letters play central roles in the book. There’s a lot of violence here, especially sexual violence, and the hopelessness of poverty and harsh reality. This is balanced by the beauty of the flowing lines of Thompson’s drawings, the strength of found family, and the power of love (cue the 80s music) between Cham and Dodola. Obviously for adults or very mature teens; read this when you’re ready to be put through the wringer and come out feeling like a better person.
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2012-10-01 02:52 pm
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SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartmann

Decades ago, the Queen of a human kingdom and the King of the dragons worked out a peace treaty, still not completely trusted by anyone. Since then, the dragons (who call themselves saars) have decided that humans can be interesting. They take human form, or sarantras, and come to the city to explore human ways. This is the world that Seraphina has grown up in. She’s recently moved to the city and taken a job as assistant to the court musician, even though her Secret means that she must keep to herself, trusting no one and desperately lonely. A close friend of the family and her teacher, Orma, is a sarantras who has the special scholar’s license not to wear the visible badge. From dealing with him, she has learned to understand how dragons think – a Vulcan-like mindset that prizes scientific calculation and considers emotion dangerous and unreliable. This skill brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, a bastard engaged to Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the still reigning queen who made the treaty in the first place. Her musical skill, meanwhile, was on display at the funeral for the much-loved prince whose was recently found murdered in dragon-like fashion in the wilderness. The talent lands her a position teaching Princess Glisselda harpsichord, while Kiggs decides that she’s the perfect person to assist in the investigation of the prince’s death. In her personal life, Seraphina’s mind is inhabited with people, some more and some less human in shape, who will take over her mind with visions if she doesn’t carefully visit and talk to the avatars of them in the garden she’s created for them in her mind. She’s always assumed this was her mind just being a little weird on her – until she meets one of them in person.

Seraphina is a character after my own heart. My lonely teen soul had a hard time identifying with any character for whom making friends came easily, and Seraphina’s loneliness brought me right back to that time. Happily for her, by the end of the book she’s found a happier place, one that felt honestly won. There was also a lot about music, and just reading about her playing the oud without her plectrum made me smile in geeky recognition. OK, I’ve never played an oud or used a plectrum, but I loved that Hartmann used real historical instruments, and Seraphina and I had flute, voice and keyboard in common. This is set in a beautifully realistic Renaissance world with a saint-based religion. It’s full of politics, music, personal discovery as well as the dragons, with some romance thrown in for good measure. While there is a villain in the end, for the most part, the sides are drawn in shades of gray, with neither humans nor dragons being the Enemy, and understandable motives on all sides. We have it in teen, and while Seraphina really is going through teen problems, the sex and violence are both low enough to make this fine for advanced younger readers. I would happily recommend this to anyone who identified with Menolly in Dragonsong.
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2012-09-30 02:47 pm


CinderI picked this up thinking it looked like steampunk. It’s more cyberpunk than steampunk, but still fun a fun fairy tale/sci-fi mashup.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Read by Rebecca Soler.

Obviously, we know going into this story that it’s a Cinderella story. But the setting is changed to such a degree that how things are going to play out is much more in question than in a more straightforward fairy-tale novelization. Over a hundred years since the end of WW IV, Earth has consolidated down to a handful of large countries. Cinder, a teenage cyborg, lives in New Beijing, in the Eastern Commonwealth. The man who decided to take the bold step of adopting a despised cyborg died years ago, leaving Cinder in the very un-tender care of his wife. Cinder (trying hard to conceal that she’s a cyborg under her grease-stained cargo pants) supports her step-family by working as a mechanic from a tiny booth in the market square, accompanied by a cute and friendly little droid named Aiko. The very first day that we meet her, she’s visited by Prince Kai, heir to the Emperor’s Throne, who has a faulty tutor droid he wants repaired. Though Cinder’s never been the type to drool over handsome celebrities, she can’t help falling for Kai in person. Then, almost immediately, a vendor across the square screams as the blue spots of deadly letemosis appear on her. She’s airlifted from the spot; everyone visible is tested and evacuated. Back home, stepmother Audrey is busy getting her daughters, Pearl and Peony, ready for the annual ball (still a few weeks off) and insists that Cinder drop everything to fix the family hover so they can take it. Peony is the nice sister here, and she goes off to the dump with Cinder to help her look for the needed parts. Everything goes wrong when Peony shows signs of the plague and is taken away straight from the dump. Audrey is so enraged that Cinder isn’t ill as well that she volunteers her for the ongoing letemosis research program, always done on cyborgs since cyborgs aren’t considered real humans. This is where things get really interesting.

Meanwhile, we’re also hearing about Prince Kai’s point of view. His father, the Emperor, also has letemosis, and while it will still be fatal for him, at least he isn’t quarantined where his family can’t see him. For years, the Emperor has been trying to enter in peace agreements with the Lunar Queen, Lavanna. Lunars used to be humans, but in centuries on Luna developed mind control and the ability to make themselves look beautiful to others, which then increases their powers. Queen Lavanna used ruthless means to come to power, including setting her three-year-old niece’s bedroom on fire some 13 years ago, and doesn’t treat her subjects any better than you’d expect with that kind of attitude towards power. Prince Kai knows that a marriage alliance is Earth’s best hope, but is putting secret resources into seeing if he can find the princess, rumored to have escaped to earth from the burning bedroom. All through these events, Cinder and Kai bump into each other more than one would think normally possible, and have trouble not thinking about each other in between times. Rebecca Soler’s voice does well for Cinder and Dr. Erlund, the letemosis research doctor, but I found it hard to distinguish between Kai and Cinder.

There were some little things that bothered me with Cinder. Kai and Cinder are both impetuous teenagers, getting angry easily and mouthing off inappropriately. I get this in Cinder, who’s had a lifetime of neglect and built up a lot of resentment. I don’t quite buy it in a prince, though teenage readers might not have this same issue with him. The Big Reveal came too close to the end for me, especially since it seemed pretty obvious from much earlier in the story. The lunar powers never worked out quite to my satisfaction. It seems that the deal is you use them, unethically manipulating the people around you, or you don’t use them and go crazy from the suppressed powers. While there ought to be some ethical compromise, I never really felt that this worked out well. The cyborg issue was a little confusing – why would people having an artificial limb or two no longer be considered real people? But, Meyer did well with looking thoughtfully at the issues of prejudice surrounding both cyborgs and Lunars. Fair warning: this is one of those first-in-a-series books that has a perfunctory ending with lots of loose plot ends. Even with all that, I really liked Cinder and Kai and got absorbed with their problems. I can see why this has been a big hit, and will be keeping my eye out for the sequels.
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2012-09-26 03:09 pm

Battle of Blood and Ink

Battle of Blood and InkBattle of Blood and Ink by Jared Axelrod and Steve Walker.
The author’s note for this book says that the two guys were talking together about the craziest story they could come up with, and what they came up with was a floating city. The Floating City is a steampunky place, with distinct neighborhoods for different classes of people. Ashe, however, journalist and publisher of the insanely popular newspaper The Lurker’s Guide to the Floating City, goes wherever she wants. As the story opens, she has her friend and co-conspirator Tolban fly their little glider up close enough to catch the radio waves coming from a ship in distress. Not until the captain promises that he and his crew will go into slavery to the City are they allowed asylum. Once published, this secret is the one that finally determines the Provost of the City to stop the Lurker’s Guide. But Ashe is not without friends – she is not-so-secretly admired by Cardor, son of one of the richest citizens of the city. And for Ashe, being a target is only a reason to find more dark secrets to reveal and more ways to irritate those in power. The art is spare and angular black-and-white ink, which give it a modern feel despite the setting. The dark secrets were a little too dark to make this altogether light reading, and certainly make it most appropriate for adults or older teens, but this is a fun graphic adventure in a pseudo-Victorian, high-tech world.
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2012-09-25 08:10 pm

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Why is it that the princes from all the fairy tales are simply called Prince Charming? According to this book, it’s because the bards are more interested in a good story than in getting the facts right. We start the book by meeting a different Prince Charming, one chapter at a time. Prince Frederic, a risk-averse dandy, loses bold Ella when she realizes that marrying him wouldn’t be the adventure she was hoping for. Rapunzel leaves Prince Gustav when she realizes he’s more brawn than either brain or heart. Handsome and arrogant but kind-hearted Prince Liam is driven out of two kingdoms when he tries to break off his engagement with the shallow and cruel Briar Rose and she in return has a bard make up songs lambasting him. Loopy Prince Duncan, happily married to Snow White, gets literally lost when she asks for a little space and he wanders off in the woods. All four of the Princes have ballads written about them in which they are called Prince Charming. They meet, and get involved in heroics involving stopping the evil witch Zaubera’s multiple evil plans, and dealing with the child robber king Deeb Rauber. To give a small degree of gender balance, both Ella and Liam’s little sister Lila are on their own heroic missions, which may or may not intersect with those of the Princes Charming.

The whole thing is written in a slapstick style, with cartoonish illustrations chapter titles like “Prince Charming Defends Some Vegetables” and “Prince Charming Annoys the King”. The four princes started out so very one-dimensional that it was really hard for me to feel enough sympathy for them to enjoy the story. At the halfway point, I was still considering giving up on it altogether. However, soon after that, they begin to come together as a team and experience Personal Growth that makes them both more sympathetic and interesting. There are just enough plot threads left dangling at the end to expect a sequel. I still prefer Sondheim’s Into the Woods or the adult graphic novel series Fables for massive fairy tale integration, though both of those are best for adults. However, middle grade children looking for a light (if lengthy) read will probably like this. It’s full of action scenes that will appeal to boys – I could see my son eating this up. Readers could also try the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley for a modern fairy-tale integration for middle grade readers.

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2012-09-24 03:08 pm

Dust Girl

I’ve been reading Sarah Zettel for over a decade now, and wish that more people knew her wonderful books. Hopefully this book, her first children’s/YA, will help her gain some broader recognition. Standard disclaimer: Sarah Zettel was responsible for my love joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, where I later met him. But I like her books for their own merits.

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Dust Bowl Kansas, 1935. Callie LaRoux lives with her mother in the Imperial Hotel, which they run. The town of Slow Run is nearly empty, as the dust and the lack of food and water have caused nearly everyone else to leave. But Callie’s mother refuses to leave, even when the doctor tells her that Callie is dying of dust pneumonia. Callie was fathered by a wandering musician who promised to come back. Callie must keep this secret, hiding behind a pretend Irish last name and staying out of the sun, because her father was a black minstrel. The doctor’s warning does make Callie’s mother worried enough that she makes Callie play the hotel’s piano, which had not been played since Callie’s father left. To Callie’s surprise, her untrained fingers bring out rolling chords, followed immediately by a dust storm. Callie’s mother goes out into it and vanishes, accompanied by the sounds of vicious, triumphant voices. Callie’s search for her turns up only an old dark-skinned man with eyes full of stars, who shares a vision with Callie. Now the plot ramps up, as what seems to a beautiful family comes to the hotel and eats everything – not just the food, but the draperies and even furniture – later revealing themselves as giant magical locusts. But while she’s still figuring out what they are, running back and forth to the store for more food, she meets and hires a boy her own age to help her. Jack has plenty of secrets of his own and, as a travelling homeless boy, tricks up his sleeve and a will to survive. Callie had always believed that her father was just a no-good bum, but from what both the old man and one of the Hopper girls tell her, he was a prince of Faerie, kept from his human lover against his will. With the hotel destroyed by the Hoppers, Callie and Jack set out to find her parents. On the way, Callie meets a couple who give their names as Shimmy and Shake. While Callie thinks that her parents are in California, Shimmy says that Callie needs to go to Kansas City, to the Fairyland amusement park. With some people claiming to want to help and others clearly trying to hurt, chased by the Seelie Court and an anti-bum crusader turned zombie, Callie has to figure out who she can trust and where to go.

There’s a whole lot going on in this book. It’s the first of a trilogy, so it’s got all the plot beginnings for three books. The traditional Seelie and Unseelie courts are used somewhat differently here. The Seelie Court appears to be white and the Unseelie black, but neither one of them appears to be what we’d consider good. Western European faerie traditions are mixed with the reality and mythology of the American West to create a compelling new American. Callie and Jack have to deal with a lot of prejudice – against blacks, Jews, and bums, which felt real enough to bring it home to kids who might not have considered it before without it turning into a hammer-on-the-head Issue book. The book is set solidly in the 30s, filled with both the ever-present dust and the rollicking music of the dance marathons popular at the time. At the same time, Callie and her quest for her own path and identity remain deeply sympathetic and universal. There's only the hint of possible future romance, and some violence, so appropriate for older middle grade students as well as teens. But my love and I both enjoyed it lots as well.
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2012-09-21 04:29 pm
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I was very excited to win this from Charlotte’s Library several months ago. Anyone who, like me, read Graceling and Fire, or who heard about the massive competition for the ARCs of this book knows it was a big splash in the teen fantasy realm this summer. Still, since the book came with a request that I tweet about it and I don’t tweet, so I thought I’d review it.

BitterblueBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

In Cashore’s first book, Graceling, our heroes defeated the sadistic King Leck, whose Grace allowed him to force people to hurt themselves or others and believe that nothing bad was happening. They rescued his ten-year-old daughter, Bitterblue, and set her on the throne with a team of advisors. Now Bitterblue is 18 and trying to repair the damage her father did to the kingdom. We’re talking kidnapping girls from every village in the kingdom just as a start, so this is no small matter. Her advisors are for the most part men who served her father, as well. They have decided that what the kingdom needs is forwardthinkingness, so that nothing from Leck’s reign will be discussed or brought up for trial. All crimes committed during the reign are forgiven, because Leck could have forced any crime. But Bitterblue feels that she needs to know what her father did and what’s going on with the kingdom now if she is to do her job. She starts sneaking out at night, finding the hidden pubs where people tell stories, often obliquely related to what happened during Leck’s reign. The very first night she is out, she befriends two young trouble-makers, Saf and Teddy, giving her name as Sparks to protect her anonymity. Thus her trying to find out the truth starts out with lies, which always complicate matters. Katsa and Po make brief visits from time to time, but they are busy trying to topple evil kings in other nearby kingdoms, and so cannot stay. The more Bitterblue learns, the more she realizes that the problems in the kingdom are deep. They did not die along with Leck, and she must find out who among her advisors she can trust and who is perpetuating the problems. Bitterblue journeys through darkness trying to understand her father, comparing remembering and forgetting as paths to healing. There’s a lot of dealing with ciphers, as Bitterblue’s mother taught her the theories of ciphers in secret, and both her parents used ciphers to keep their secrets. And while Bitterblue’s darkness is dark indeed, there’s still light to balance it, from the beauty of art and the joy of friendship, with a bit of early romance. It was very satisfying to see Bitterblue find her way towards a more open justice. It’s not for reading when one needs unicorns and rainbows (one does, sometimes), but it is a hopeful treatment of a dark subject, with a most courageous protagonist.

A note: my teen librarian said she’d been hearing rumors of racism about this book. I read and read looking out for it, until finally at the very end, I found the passage that I think must have bothered people: a woman with dark skin is described as a monster. She is in fact Fire, the heroine of the book of the same name, and she is a monster not because of her skin color but because she has “unimaginable beauty and the ability to control minds”, as do other people and animals of various skin colors on the other side of the mountain. As usual, reading in context is helpful and highly recommended.
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2012-09-20 06:03 pm
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Book of a Thousand Days

Book of 1000 DaysBook of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. Full Cast Audio.

This is the only fantasy I’ve ever read set in a version of Mongolia. My love is so fascinated by Mongolian culture that some of this has rubbed off on me, so that I was delighted recognizing bits of the culture.

Dashti, our heroine, is a Mucker, part of the native nomadic tribes of the steppes. As our story begins, she’s relating the story of how she was orphaned, failed to find another family to take her in, and so was forced to go to the city of Titor’s Garden to find work. Although large port-wine stains on her face and hand would otherwise keep her out of sight of nobility, she knows the Mucker healing songs. She’s taught to read and write and assigned as a lady’s maid to the fragile and illiterate Lady Saren, daughter of the Lord of the city. Unfortunately, Dashti has come just as Lady Saren is about to be locked in a tower for seven years. She is refusing to marry the powerful and land-hungry lord of a nearby city, the evil Lord Khasar, citing a prior engagement to Khan Tegus, lord of another city. All of Saren’s other maids have run away rather than be locked up, but Dashti is both determined to honor her vow to serve Saren and doesn’t much care if she’s locked up as long as she’s warm and fed. The book is written as her journal, started when she is first locked in the tower. At first, things go well. Dashti is resourceful; they are well-supplied with food and their guards give them fresh milk every morning. Khan Tegus visits, talking secretly at night through their waste hole. Saren doesn’t have the courage to talk to him herself and makes Dashti pretend to be her – a hanging offense that Dashti protests but ultimately goes along with. At this point, I thought we were going to have a classic love triangle a la Cyrano de Bergerac.
Then the evil Lord Khasar arrives, attempting to burn the tower up from inside after telling Saren that even though she’s too scared to reveal his horrible secret, one day she will run to him. That night, they hear terrible screams from outside the tower, and the giant jaw of a wolf pokes through the flap. After that, there are no milk deliveries, and the rats run rampant, eating up their supplies. When they are almost out of food and Lady Saren appears to have lost her mind completely – three or four years after they were originally locked up – Dashti realizes that her duty is now to rescue Lady Saren from the tower, and the story takes yet another sharp turn.

This is a character-driven story, with plenty of adventure and a beautiful setting. Dashti’s loyalty and Lady Saren’s stubbornness both got a little frustrating, but not enough for me to stop caring about the book. The Gods - the Nine Ancestors and the Eternal Blue Sky – play important roles. As in our world, Dashti prays to the gods and feels them telling her to do things, but it’s hard to tell whether things work out because of her faith in the gods or because of her own resourcefulness. The descriptions of the culture – religion, the gehrs (more commonly called yurts by westerners these days), the clothing and the food make this feel quite authentic, even if it is fantasy and maybe a little Navajo mythology is thrown in, too. This story felt to me like the reverse of the first Shannon Hale I ever read, Goose Girl. There a lady is betrayed by her maid pretending to be her, and must find a way to rescue herself. Here, Lady Saren’s forcing Dashti to pretend to be her causes such massive tangles that I couldn’t tell until it happened how Hale was going to pull it off. The audio is read full cast, which is mostly Dashti with little bits from other voice actors. The voice actor for Dashti did a wonderful job, even singing the many healing songs in a rich alto. This was a book where I rushed to find time to listen to it, and felt a wrench at saying good-bye to the characters at the end.
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2012-09-01 04:33 pm
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Around the World in 80 Days

As I’ve been enjoying the recent steampunk literature, I realized that I’d never read many of what are now considered the Originals. I downloaded this audio version from the library website, and happily listened to it while washing dishes.

Around the World in 80 DaysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Narrated by Frederick Davidson.
For those who are unacquainted with the book, here’s a brief summary: The year is 1872. Phileas Fogg is a reasonably wealthy Englishman, with no known family or real friends. As many Englishmen of the era were wont to do, he spends most of his time at his club, playing whist. His most distinguishing characteristic seems to be his unfailing regularity. He has just fired a manservant for not keeping proper time. His new manservant, Passepartout, who took the job in search of a predictable life, is therefore shocked when Fogg announces that they are going on a trip around the world, as he has bet his club members 20,000 pounds that it is possible to make it around the world in 80 days. Things are pretty quiet for the first weeks, with the only interest being a detective who has followed them from London, convinced that Fogg must be the bank thief currently sought in London. Things pick up once they hit India, however, as Fogg detours to save the life of a beautiful young Indian widow, Aouda, and they must travel by elephant between stretches of railway. Even past India, travel remains challenging. Fogg’s detached attitude towards the whole affair contrasts with Passepartout’s French emotions as the scrapes get closer and closer. Even if Fogg loses his entire fortune – will he despair? And can the beautiful Aouda convince the confirmed bachelor to care about something? Neither outcome is ever seriously in question, but the book is an entertaining romp (while staying very proper, of course.) It’s fully conscious of its own humor and the ridiculousness of trying to live life as a machine, even as it celebrates the modern technology that allows the voyage. Davidson was, I thought, the perfect narrator for this. His accents were spot-on, but turned to eleven, as it were – Phineas Fogg’s English accent extra-crisp, Passepartout extra, um, however it is that you describe French accents. This is an excellent choice for kids and adults wanting to explore a classic.
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2012-08-29 02:29 pm
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When Parents Hurt

This is meant for parents of older children than I’ve yet recommended, but the information in it is both a valuable (if potentially painful) glimpse of possible futures and helpful for looking at any damaged family relationship.

When Parents HurtWhen Parents Hurt by Joshua Coleman.

This book is aimed at parents of adult and to some extent older teen children who have a painful relationship with those children. The key message in the book that is particularly relevant for all parents is this, “It is possible to be a devoted and conscientious parent and still have it go badly.” That’s a sobering message for parents in my position, still hopeful that good efforts and a therapy fund will be enough for our kids to end up OK. For parents where the relationship is already bad, that same message is, I think a little more comforting. I’m always interested in reading about the evolution of parenting advice, and Coleman talks here about how society now places a historically unprecedented degree of responsibility with parents rather than kids for how those kids turn out. It started in the 1920s with the behaviorists, who believed that with the right training, any child could be trained to have an ability or temperament. Though psychology has long since disproved that idea, its hold on popular parenting theory seems only to have increased, with the result that everyone involved seems to take it for granted that if something is wrong with the grown child, it is the fault of the parent. Coleman addresses issues like how to heal feelings of guilt, deserved or now; balancing the reality of the child’s feelings with the realities that caused your behaviors or imagined behaviors; how to try to heal relationships; and knowing how far across the gap to build the bridge yourself before giving up. He talks about the very real problems of difficult children and temperament mismatches between parents and adults; divorce wounds and parental alienation (when your ex convinces your children that you are evil.) There is specific advice on problem marriages, adult children who “fail to launch” their own lives successfully, when children cut of contact with their parents. There is more general advice on parenting teens: Teens learn about expectations and being their own person by failing to meet expectations and seeing what happens (really the same kind of boundary testing that kids from toddler up engage in, I think, but magnified.) And, though it doesn’t seem that way, they lash out with hurtful accusations because they feel powerless themselves. He has a sample behavior contract with teens, and advises parents to start thinking of themselves as consultants rather than managers. Towards the end, there’s a chapter on addressing your own past in your parenting, which I found very helpful and which would probably be even better read by newish parents than those with adult children. I found it very difficult reading the stories of parents with angry children, and the thought of my own children ever refusing to have contact with me breaks my heart. But forewarned is forearmed, and the explicit warning that parents are far from the only forces shaping our children is good to keep in mind. The advice on conflict resolution, while aimed specifically at parents, seems more generally applicable.

For family conflicts from other points of view than just the parents, books like Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel, or several of Deborah Tannen’s books could also be helpful.
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2012-08-28 08:33 pm
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The Book of Story Beginnings

Once again, I'm dreadfully behind... and this week I've been dealing with planning my Talk Like a Pirate Day program, a daughter recovering from surgery, and a deep obsession with harps. Also contemplating the upcoming Cybils.

Here’s another one that Dr. M. recommended to me.

Book of Story BeginningsThe Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup.
In 1914 a boy named Oscar (14) finds a book called the Book of Story Beginnings. Bored with Iowa farm life, he ignores the warning poem on the first page of the book. He writes the beginning of a story, of a dark sea coming up all around a farm house on a hill and a boat pulling up to the front door. When he looks out the window, the dark sea and the boat are truly there. He climbs into the boat – witnessed only by his little sister - and is never seen again.

Now in the present, Lucy’s great-aunt Lavonne has just died and left them the Brick, the large brick farmhouse on a hill in Iowa. Her father, a chemistry professor who just failed to get tenure, and her mother, an editor, decide that moving to the free house in Iowa beats being broke in the big city. Lucy, of course, is not consulted. With nothing to do but explore, Lucy finds first Oscar’s old journals and then the Book. There are other story beginnings in the book, including one about a ship crewed by orphans with a girl on board who dreams of another life, and one that Lucy remembers her own father telling her of the king of cats and the queen of birds, who are married but can’t stop arguing. This situation reflects both Lucy’s parents and, from his journals, Oscar’s. But Lucy feels compelled to write her own story beginning, and so she writes a story where her father is a magician. Before she’s quite grasped what’s happening, Oscar is back, still 14, and her father has turned into a bird and flown off. Now Lucy must convince a very disoriented Oscar to work with her to get her father back. To do so, they must journey into the stories held in the Book of Story Beginnings – working with the very tight constraints that they can only write the beginning of stories, not the middles or endings. If they can get into the story, will they be able to think like story characters themselves well enough to find Lucy’s father safely? And then, how will they get back to Lucy’s time? And if they can get back to Lucy’s time – should Oscar stay there or try to return to his own time? This is a meaty adventure story, with engaging characters and plenty to think about in between the close shaves and narrow escapes. It’s fat enough that it might go over best with older middle grade readers, but there’s nothing in the content that would make it inappropriate for the advanced younger reader.

The struggle to get back to the right world reminds me of my childhood favorite Parsley Sage, Rosemary and Time by Jane Louise Curry, as well as the much more recent Edge Chronicles by Jacqueline West. The contemplation of the story that one is involved in reminds me of Marissa Burt’s Storybound (though I liked this one better) and, happily, but for adults, Jasper Fforde’s zany classic The Eyre Affair.
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2012-08-20 02:49 pm

Toads and Diamonds

This book recently hopped in front of me and reminded me that I’d wanted to read it when it first came out a couple years ago.

Toads and DiamondsToads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson.
The original Toads and Diamonds tale by Perrault was in the big pale yellow book of fairy tales that I had growing up, and I remember it being one of my favorites. Thinking back, I wonder why – who would really want either flowers and jewels or toads and snakes falling out of her mouth? This novelization sets the story in a place very like India during the Mughal Empire, when the newcomers were not the English but monotheists. Diribani lives with her stepmother and stepsister Tana, in a house that is empty of servants and furniture since the death of Diribani’s merchant father. They’re a tight-knit family, despite not being blood relatives. One day at the well, the beautiful but clumsy Diribani prays to the Serpent Goddess and is granted a wish. She wishes for beauty, and finds herself with jewels and flowers dropping out of her mouth when she speaks. Tana, plain but kind, goes next and wishes for security for her family. She is given the gift of sacred snakes and lucky toads falling out when she talks. The gifts throw their lives into chaos. The governor of their town follows the new religion, which considers all magic evil witchcraft, has placed a bounty on snakes, formerly kept as rat catchers in every house, and wants to take Diribani hostage for the jewels. Perhaps luckily for Diribani, the prince is passing through and decides to take her instead. Meanwhile, Tana must flee for her life, taking temporary oaths at a monastery despite an unexpected offer of marriage from the boy she’s always secretly admired. Now separated from everyone they know and trust, both sisters must work out on their own what the goddess meant for them to do with their gifts. Neither of them doubts that they are gifts, not curses, meant for the good of all those around them – but how best to use them, and stay alive in the meantime? Woven through is the struggle to forge some sort of understanding between the rival religions, as well as the culture of the ancient stepwells of India. These I had never heard of before, and am now quite curious about. The ending might be a little easily romantic, but overall, I found this a beautiful retelling, faithful to the original while adding new depth to plot, characters and setting.