Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For, by Sara Pascoe, for Timeslip Tuesday

Yay me!  I have a time travel book for this week's Timeslip Tuesday-- Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For, by Sara Pascoe Trindles and Green, Feb. 2017,YA). This book has been in the active pile for far to long, so I'm glad to finally be writing about it and moving it on to a shelf.

Raya is 14, fed up with foster care, and afraid she's going mad.  Her mom suffers from schizophrenia, and now Raya is hearing a cat's voice inside her head...Angry and tired of having to be answerable to other people, Raya takes off for London, and after a few false starts, find a good place to live and work, with good people.  But when her little foster brother Jake comes to London too, and gets badly hurt in an accident, and her social worker finds her, something inside Raya snaps...and she travels through time.  Raya, it turns out, is a witch.

Fortunately, the talking cat, Oscar (her social worker, Bryony, is also a witch, and Oscar's her familiar) travels back in time with her, and helps the witches back in London find her.  Unfortunately, they end up in the middle of the Essex Witch Trials of 1645, just about the worst possible time to be a strange girl.  It is very touch and go--will Raya be hung as a witch before she can be pulled back into her own time?   Bryony does arrive in time, but then Raya's uncontrolled gift kicks in again, and instead of taking them back home, she takes them to Istanbul that same year.

Istanbul is kind to Raya and Bryony, and Oscar the cat.  It is pretty idyllic--the time travelers are taken in by a kind family and Raya enjoys shopping for silks and slippers, and enjoys as well her growing fame as a fortune teller.  Bryony depends on Raya to take them home to London again...but Raya isn't at all sure she wants to go.  Then the dark side of Ottoman politics ensnares Raya...and she has to risk messing up the past for everyone, or else watch her friends be executed!

It was a perfectly fine book, but it didn't entirely work for me.  The three big plot elements above feel in my mind like they are from three different books; they are very different in story and pacing, and they could be about three different people.  I didn't feel like I was getting to know Raya any better as a coherent, maturing character as the stories unfolded, though clearly we are supposed to be seeing her change, and the time travel problems are related to her inner conflicts. It wasn't until the Ottoman Empire that I really started enjoying it, mostly because I was interested in reading about Istanbul ...yet it turned out not to be a very convincing Istanbul--it was very much a fairy tale city, all clean and shiny with good shopping, and no day to day seamy side that even the cleanest 17th century city would have.  And finally, I wish the whole world building of an England with witches, that it turns out lots of people know about, had been more integral to the story, and not just a convenience when necessary.

That being said, these are all things that other readers might react differently too; they aren't fatal flaws.  And on the plus side, Pascoe is very good at describing the past vividly, and I liked Oscar the cat.  It just wasn't a book for me.


The Rose Legacy, by Jessica Day George

I feel I might overuse the review framing device of "I wish I could give this book to my 10 year old self."  But it is a fact that my 10 year old self would very much enjoy living here with me now; so many good books around the place.  So many cookies.  (Although of course she would miss her real family, her mother's cooking, and her tidier home....).  And sometimes a book comes around that I really really really want to send back in time, and I have to say so.  Such a book is The Rose Legacy, by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury Children's Books, May 1 2018), which would have delighted the horse-loving girl I was to pieces, and which the adult me also enjoyed lots.

Anthea Cross-Thornley is an orphan who's been passed around her extended family for as long as she can remember.  Now it's time for her to move again, and the only family left are the most dismaying yet.  Though she's not happy with her current situation with dutiful Uncle Daniel and his spoiled brat of a daughter, it's better than where she's being sent--to an uncle she's never met, who lives outside the wall that demarcates civilization.  The wall was built to keep the sickness spread by horses, and though Anthea knows the horses all died, she's been brought up to believe that outside the wall is dangerous, and the taint of living there is certainly going to bring down her hope of being chosen to be an attendant to the royal family.

But she has no choice.  And so she arrives at Uncle Andrew's house far outside...and her mind is blown.  It is a ranch, with real horses.  A girl cousin she's never met.  Freedom to cast aside uncomfortable clothes and social niceties.  Of course this all makes her tremendously uncomfortable; she doesn't want to learn to ride, and she likes the social niceties.  Then memories begin to surface; she's been there, and known the horses, before.  And then secrets begin to reveal themselves as well.

Anthea has a family gift--she can communicate mind to mind with the horses (which is a distressing shock for her at first).  There's one horse in particular who formed a strong mind connection with her when she was just a baby, and now they are together again. So gradually she adapts to her new, horse-filled life, and never wants to leave it.

But back on the other side of the wall, the horses are still feared, and the king chaffs at the lack of control he has over the outside lands.  Unwittingly Anthea, in her first days outside the wall, betrayed all she's coming to hold dear...and to save the horses, and the life she now wants for herself, she must go back inside, to somehow subvert the king's conviction that the horses must all be killed.  Cue danger!  Adventure!  Loyalties tested, and loyal, beautiful horses ridden hard, and some injured! Cue tiny smidge of age appropriate romance!

Me being me, I actually liked all the part before the action and adventure gets going best--orphans exploring new homes and learning to ride is right up my alley!  But I can generously appreciate that many readers do, in fact, enjoy Plot, and so I don't begrudge the wild ride and the political intrigue.  The magic of horse/human communication is something that works better for a child reader; the larger political framework, with hints of imperialism, is more interesting to the adult reader than the love story between girl and horse, but less emphasized in the story.

short answer--if you have 10 year old me (intelligent, loving, voracious reader, learning to ride, bad at spelling but good at imaginative play*) on hand (or some similar sort of child), give her (or him) this book!

just for the record--Kirkus and I are on the same page on this one, although I'm taking it more personally....

*nothing to do with the book, but just as an autobiographical aside- that was the year I was chosen to be in a Birdseye Fish Finger commercial.  We were living in the Bahamas, and I was one of several kids from my school who had to sail with Captain Birdseye around uninhabited Caribbean Islands and get excited about fish fingers.  I dropped out before filming started, because I would rather have stayed home to read, didn't like the other kids much, and was revolted by fish fingers...Also we weren't getting paid, so there was no incentive.  Possibly if there had been books on board the boat I'd have stuck it out....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


this week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (4/22/18)

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week!  There's nothing from me this week, becuase life.  Sigh. Please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews

The 11:11 Wish by Kim Tomsic, at Redeemed Reader

Artemis Fowl series retrospective at Millibot Reads

Aleks Mickelsen and the Call of the White Raven, by Keira Gillett, at Log Cabin Library

Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner, at Pages Unbound

The Door to the Lost, by Jaleigh Johnson, at Rajiv's Reviews

Elise and the Second-hand Dog, by Bjarne Reuter, at Minerva Reads

Elizabeth and Zenobia, by Jessica Miller, at The Book Wars

The Forgotten Shrine, by Monica Tessler, at Say What?

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, at Book Nut

Grump, by Liesl Shurtliff, at Hidden in Pages

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough, at Say What?

My Rotten Stepbrother Ruined Cinderella, by Jerry Mahoney, at Geo Librarian

Ninja Librarians #1: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey, at Say What?

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd, at Pages Unbound

Rewind, by Carolyn O'Doherty, at Ms. Yingling Reads
The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Miss Print

Time Jumpers, by Brandon Mull, at Say What?

The Unicorn Quest, by Kamilla Benko, at Pamelakramer.com

The Wishmakers, by Tyler Whitesides, at Redeemed Reader

Wizardmatch, by Lauren Magaziner, at Books4yourkids

Authors and Interviews

Sarah Beth Durst (The Stone Girl's Story) at Miss Print

Jewell Parker Rhodes (Ghost Boys) at Publishers Weekly

Ammi-Joan Paquette (The Train of Lost Things) meet the characters at The Chronicles of Middle Grade

Dustin Brady (Trapped in a Video Game) at From the Mixed Up Files

Sarah Jean Horwitz (The Crooked Castle) at Adventures in YA Publishing

Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent's Secret) at Young Adult Books-What We're Reading Now

Joshua Kahn (Burning Magic) at Venture1105

Stephanie Burgis (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart) at Reading With Your Kids

Christopher Edge (The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day), at Minerva Reads

Jerry Mahoney (Buttheads From Outer Space) at Literary Rambles

Other Good Stuff

9 diverse books to read after A Wrinkle in Time, at I'm Not the Nanny


this week's roundup of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (4/15/18)

Here's what I found this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, at For Those About to Mock

Burning Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Daddy Mojo

Clemmie's War, by Rosie Boyes, at Log Cabin Library

Dragonfly Song, by Wendy Orr, at The Book Wars

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Read Till Dawn

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, at Books 4 Learning and  Tales from the Raven

Granted, by John David Anderson, at Bibilobrit

The Last, by Katherine Applegate, at Marzie's Reads

The Magic Mirror, by Susan Hill Long, at Completely Full Bookshelf

A Pirate's Time Served, by Chris Malburg, at Red Headed Book Lover Blog

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta, at My Comfy Chair

The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Some Very Messy Medieval Magic, by C. Lee McKenzie, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Time Jumpers (Five Kingdoms, Book 5) by Brandon Mull, at Hidden in Pages

The Train of Lost Things, by Ammi-Joan Paquette, at Night Owl Book Café

Trapped in a Video Game, by Dustin Brady at Ms. Yingling Reads

Worlds Apart (Story Thieves 5)T, by James Riley, at Carstairs Considers

Two at alibrarymama--The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero and The Ice Sea Pirates, by Frida Nilsson

Authors and Interviews

Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent's Secret) at Chasing Faery Tales

Sarah Jean Horwitz (The Crooked Castle), at Adventures in YA Publishing

Other Good Stuff

I take a look at Neil Gaiman's kids books at the B and N Kids Blog

The value of older books, at Minerva Reads

I don't have much to share this week because all my non-work time was spent volunteering at my school's giant, giant clothing and more sale.  I was of course in the books and toys department, and there were so many things I would have liked to take home with me but let other people buy instead.  For instance, this vintage puzzle:

But the woman who bought it collects platypus things, and was willing to pay more for it than I was, and was probably happier with it too....


Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren, for Timeslip Tuesday

I highly, but cautiously, recommend this week's Timeslip Tuesday book--Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren (which was supposed to be last week's book, but time went wrong..).  In case you don't have time to read a complicated plot synopsis, here's what you need to know.
Weave a Circle Round hits all of the best time travel notes--
--relatable main character caught in a fantastic, complicated, twisty nest of time slipped realities
--her lived experiences in the past is vivid and compelling; it boarders on tourism time travel but advance the plot and character development enough to have Point. 
--the plot and characterization are complicated enough to engage the mind without making said mind want to crawl into a corner and hid from it all
I highly recommend it to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, not because it is a DWJ read-alike, but because it has a similar chaos resolving into a mythically rooted central order/origin point.  You have to be able to tolerate chaos and not understanding things for much of the book to appreciate this one (Hexwood I am looking at you in particular).
Kirkus and I agree-- "A charming, extraordinarily relatable book with the potential to become a timeless classic."

The Kirkus review also says--"This debut novel could easily be pigeonholed as YA, and certainly those in that age group will gravitate to it, but adults shouldn't hesitate to dive in, too."  And indeed the book is marketed as YA.  Much to my surprise I found it felt much more upper middle grade in feel; the central character, a 14 year old girl,  is kicking against domestic life, and trying to fit in, and is still very much a child and not a Young Adult for much of the book.  There is nothing to cause a parent of an eleven or twelve year old concern unless that child has lived in a bubble (there is no romance, and no sex, but there is some violence).

Here is a somewhat negative review at Bibliosanctum. I don't often link to negative reviews in order to help people decide if a book is right for them, but in this case, I think that if in general you like all the things this reader doesn't, you will like this one!  

So now that you know if you will like the book or not, here's the plot (more or less).
Freddy, the main character, is 14, and trying hard to fly under the radar at high school.  Now that her little sister, brilliant and unabashed, and her stepbrother, nerdy, also unabashed, and deaf, have joined her, it's hard.  But then the new neighbor, Josiah, shows up as well, and he seems determined to latch on to her, pushing her social weirdness rating up many many notches; he freely shares his contempt for much of what he's experiencing at school, provoking conflict and disrupting the normal pattern of each day.  The woman Josiah lives with (Cuerva Lachance) is a loose cannon too; her mental state is on of constant non-sequitorish chaos. 
At this point, the reader and Freddy don't know what's happening, but it is clear that the new neighbors are odd and hiding something.  Freddy's brother is acting oddly too, trying to keep her and Josiah apart for reasons unknown.  
At the point right after this, things get weirder still, when Josiah and Freddy slip into the past.  The reader and Freddy are both taken aback to find themselves amongst Vikings, with Cuerva Lachance in the role of Loki.  It gradually is explained (over the course of much more timesliping from thousands of years in the past to hundreds of years in the future; the timeslipping isn't controllable) that Josiah and C.L. are two opposing forces, balanced by a third, constantly reincarnated person who is called upon to determine which of them will be dominant for that age. And it is further explained that in Freddy's time, this third person is supposed to be either her or one of her siblings.
Josiah, even though he's supposed to be the embodiment of order, isn't exactly trustworthy, and Freddy comes to realize that there is more to this business of the third party decider than he's letting on.  And by the time they finally get back to the present (three weeks before they leave, which is tricky for them, but after over a year spent in various other times) she's become pretty hostile to the whole business of a third party being compelled to make a choice. 
Which results in everything blowing up, thanks to Chuerva Lachance, into full blown insanity, and it requires all of Freddy's brother's experience as a role-playing gamer to bring the story into submission.  Which then makes the reader rethink the whole story, and plan to read it again.
Freddy isn't particularly likable, but her wild experiences bouncing through time give her plenty of life experience and moments for introspection, leading to welcome character growth and insight.  Because she's habitually honest with herself inside her head, even when she's not "likeable" she's very relatable.  
final though:  the plot is nuts, and the ending is played to a draw so if you want Answers, Resolution, and surety about whether what happened was Good or Bad, you'll be dismayed.
More final thought--I myself enjoyed it very much.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs

Here's what I found this week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The 11:11 Wish, by Kim Tomsic, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at Feed Your Fiction Addiction, A Backwards Story and Word Spelunking

Bad Mermaids Make Waves, by Sibeal Pounder, at PidginPea's Book Nook

The Book of Boy, by at Randomly Reading, Book Nut, and Charlotte's Library

The Gauntlet, by Karuna Riazi, at The Pirate Tree

Granted, by John David Anderson, at Book Nut (audiobook review)

The Left-Handed Fate, by Kate Milford, at Puss Reboots

Love Sugar Magic: a Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, at Hopeful Reads

The Mapmaker Chronicles, by A.L. Tait, at This Kid Reviews Books (series review)

The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Ms. Martin Teaches Media and
Fantasy Literature

The Unicorn Rescue Society, by Adam Gidwitz, at Books4YourKids.com

The Wild Robot Escapes, by Peter Brown, at Book Nut

Wizard for Hire, by Obert Skye, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Wizardmatch, by Lauren Magaziner, at Say What?

Authors and Interviews

Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent's Secret) at CBC Diversity

Paul North (How to Sell Your Family to Aliens) at Nerdy Book Club

Keira Gillett (Zaria Fierce series) talks self-publishing at Log Cabin Library

Other Good Stuff

Stop the Hogwarts House Hate, at Tor (very interesting)

At Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books, what's new in the UK


The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I did not know, going into it, that The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Greenwillow, middle grade, Feb. 2018) is in fact not straight medieval historical fiction, but fantasy.  And it was rather lovely to watch the fantasy element unfold (those who have read the book--please appreciate what I did just there!), so this is a tricky review to write, because if you haven't read it, you will likewise enjoy it more not knowing anything about this.  I will do my best to entice you (because I liked the book) without spoiling it.

A child, called Boy, has been tormented and bullied most of his grimy and impoverished medieval life, mostly because he has a hunched back.  His only true friends are the animals that love and trust him, and though in the past there were two adults who cared about him, he doesn't really have any hope or expectation that the future holds much.

But then a strange man comes to town, and he needs a boy to travel with him on a quest through Europe to recover the scattered relics of Saint Peter (a toe here, a rib there).  He is not a kind man, this strange pilgrim, but he is not unkind either; he is not a good man, and is in fact stealing the relics, but he is not maliciously evil (in short, he's a lovely complicated character with an interesting back story that explains why he's stealing the relics and the reader (me) is in doubt for a long time about him, which makes for very good reading!).  Boy is in doubt about him too, but Boy also learns things during their journey together that expand his own world rather awesomely.  Saints are real, and so are miracles, and so is damnation to hell.....and so is chance kindness, and past sorrow.

So basically what you get is a medieval heist book with a lot of historical detail, interesting characters, vivid descriptions, and considerable emotional involvement. If you love animals, you will appreciate the many animal friends Boy finds along the way.  It's a beautifully immersive experience, and there was nothing in the historical fiction part of it that annoyed me.

Kirkus gave it a star, saying "Along with a story that unravels to reveal that not everything in the world is as it appears, Murdock delivers a wickedly fun-filled quest that twists and turns with lyrical fire. Boy ponders: “Pilgrim he might be but this man has sin stitched into his soul.” The story is, among other things, an exploration of religion, Secundus’ thieving quest for relics a counterpoint to Boy’s stalwart faith." I would like to quibble gently with this, pointing out that fear of eternal damnation, such as Secundus suffers from, is in fact a sign of pretty strong faith....and Secundus is more a counterpart to Boy in terms of dark past vs innocence.....But the fact that one can have this sort of discussion about the book shows that there is a lot to it.

The Book of Boy is already getting Newbery buzz, and it's deserved.


Once Upon a Princess, by Christine Marciniak, review and interview

Today it's my pleasure to be a stop on the blog tour of Once Upon a Princess, by Christine Marciniak (CBAY Books, Middle Grade, April 1, 2018).

Her Royal Highness, Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Morh (Fritzi for short) is the 12-year-old younger daughter of the King and Queen of Colsteinburg, a tiny European principality, and life is good--in honor of her country's 800th anniversary, she's just attended her first ball.  But that night, there is a coup.  Anti-monarchists have taken over the government, and are storming the castle, and so Fritzi, her older sister the heir, and their mother, flee to the United States.  Her father stays behind, because to leave would be tantamount to abdication.  

The suburban American house loaned to them by a former US ambassador to Colsteinburg is a far cry from Fritzi's castle home, and the local middle school is likewise rather a change from her posh French boarding school.  No one can know she is a princess, but Fritzi is determined  never to forget, and so she finds herself taking on the queen bee girl and her followers.  The friendship dramas are of little importance, though, compared to her worry about her father and her country.  She decides to do her part to win back the hearts of her people through social media, recording short videos full of emotion and pride. Unfortunately, they are easily tracked, and the safe house is safe no longer.

And the anti-monarchists find them, and in the violent confrontation and kidnapping that ensues, Fritzi's pride and strength of character will be tested, and she will get the chance to show the world she is a true princess....

The princess having to become an ordinary girl is a fun anti-princess diary conceit, and Fritzi plays her part admirably.  Especially refreshing was her take on the school pecking order; she's oblivious to the nuances of navigating the existing hierarchy because she's so used to being, as a princess, at the top of it.  Though she's not the most introspective or sensitive 12 year old, she has an appealing toughness to her that give her enough umph to carry her story along well.   Princess-loving readers should enjoy this one lots!

and now, an interview with the author.

What was your favorite book as a child and what is the book you most frequently find yourself recommending to others?

I’d have to say one of my favorite books as a child was MANDY by Julie Andrews Edwards. It’s a charming book about an orphaned girl who finds a place for herself. When I first read it I did not realize that the author was the same woman who starred in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, As an adult I found the book again to re-read it, hoping it would stand the test of time, and it did. I found it as charming as I had when I was nine. Other books I read voraciously as a child were the Bobbsey Twin books. Those do not stand up quite as well to adult scrutiny.

What book do I frequently recommend to others? I have very eclectic reading tastes, so what I recommend is going to partly have to do with the interests of the person I’m talking to, and what I’ve recently read. For younger readers I would probably recommend The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. I discovered that book when my daughter was young, and it quickly became one of her favorites. I think it is often overlooked when people discuss great books for children. For older readers I’ve found myself recommending Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford and The Secret Ministry of Ag and Fish by Noreen Roils. Like I said, I have eclectic tastes.

(me:  I love both those Julie Andrews Edwards books too!)

What were the main challenges you faced with setting a present day princess story that included technology?

I think the main challenge for any present day story – princess or not – is that the ubiquitous use of cell phones ruins a lot of plot points. Lost? Look it up on your GPS. Running late? Call the person to let them know. Need someone to come to your rescue, you’ve got help right at your fingertips. Sometimes author’s solve that by letting the character lose their phone, or being out of cell service, or the battery dying. I decided to let Fritzi use the internet in a way that would complicate things for her, not solve all her problems. The biggest problem there is keeping up with what is the latest social media forum that tweens are using these days.

Where did the idea for Once Upon a Princess originally come from?

It seemed to me that it is a fairly common to see stories about someone who is leading a rather ordinary life and suddenly they either find out they are royalty or they marry into royalty and it turns their life upside down. I thought, what if someone was royalty, and then wasn’t – kind of turning the convention on its head.

Going off that question, what's the strangest thing you've ever had to research for a book?

Horse Diving. I was setting a book in Atlantic City during the twenties and discovered that one of the main attractions at the time was a horse diving show where a woman would ride a horse as it dove from a platform into a tank of water. I actually bought and read a book by the premier horse diver of the time. A Girl and Five Brave Horses by Sonora Carver. The title is a bit hokey, but the story was fascinating. Other things I’ve found myself researching have been undergarments of the 19th century, the lay out of a scallop boat, the occupation of Bruges during World War I and when toilet paper was invented.

Can you tell us what you're working on next?

This summer I have an adult romance coming out, Emily’s Song, which is a time travel romance set at the beginning of the Civil War. Works in progress include a middle grade book set in Atlantic City during the twenties and another adult romance, also set in the twenties in New Jersey.

Did you have a playlist of music you listened to when you wrote OUAP?

I really don’t. If I listened to music when I was writing it was most likely going to be Jazz or Classical, because lyrics tend to get in the way of my thought process (harder to write when singing along).

Thank you, Christine!  I'll look forward to reading your future middle grade books.


The Clay Lion, by Amalie Jahn, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Clay Lion, by Amalie Jahn (BermLord, YA, 2013) is set in a present day world that is ours but with a twist--time travel is possible, though carefully regulated.  Each person gets one trip back in time, but because of the way time travel works, they can only revisit a point in their own past life, and they are not supposed to change anything in their timeline.

Brooke was a senior in high school when her brother died of lung disease.  A bit over a year later, stuck in a fog of depression, she decides that she will use her time travel ticket to go back and save him by keeping him from whatever it was that triggered his immune system to go haywire.   It doesn't work, so she tries a second time, with her mother's trip.  That doesn't work either, so she gets a black-market trip for a third try....which also fails to save her brother.

But in the process of visiting her past and her brother's life, and death, Brooke comes to terms with the fact that some things just have to happen, and the only thing to do is make her own life something her brother would approve of.   She has in fact made changes to her life and the relationships she retouched that will help her, and her family, move forward instead of being trapped in their sadness.

One such relationship was with a cute boy, Charlie, who she loved and who loved her back in life number 2.  But this love was bent out of kilter by the time travelling, and she thought she could never get it back.  Though this was a loss, she gained immensely from having travelled back in time, and was able to shape a present for herself that wasn't overshadowed by depression...in a world, of course, where Charlie still existed, even if they hadn't in fact met yet....

It wasn't until about two thirds of the way through the book that I started actively enjoying it.  If I hadn't needed a book for Timeslip Tuesday, I would have put it down after Past Visit 1 for two reasons.  The first is that the author's prose is often stilted; she has a habit of filling Brooke's narration with latinate vocabulary that seemed unnatural and contrived to me, like using "departed" instead of "left."  The other thing that made feel uninvested in the story was that I never shared Brooke's obsession with saving her brother. Of course I sympathized and felt bad, but it ruled her life (except for her love affair in Visit 2) and made her pretty one dimensional.  However, once she started accepting that she couldn't be her brother's savior, I warmed to her and was interested to watch her began to heal from a death that hadn't even happened yet in the timeline of Visit 3.

And now I'm a bit surprised to find that that I want to read the next three books in the series, to see other folks from this story using their own time travel experiences.  Will Brooke's experiences of having almost made things even worse have taught them anything?  Probably not....

Nb: most other readers found this a beautiful tear-jerker, and loved it.  It didn't make me teary at all, even though I usually sob with the best of them...


The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst

The Stone Girl's Story is Sarah Beth Durst's most recent middle grade fantasy (Clarion Books, April 3, 2018), and it's the one that I like best.  In order to say why I like it, I have to tell the whole plot, so if you like books I like, you could just read the next two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs and not have everything spoiled by the middle ones.  Or not.

It's the story of Mayka, a girl who has lived with her family of stone animals in the home up on a mountain her father made for them.  Her father was a master stone worker, carving into each creature glyphs that magically imbued the stone with the power to live, to fly (or swim, or run), and to love.  Mayka was his last work, and now her father is dead, she and her family have no one to refresh the carved marks that make them who they are.  Turtle has stopped moving, the stone fish no longer speak, and Mayka wonders who will be lost next....

Clearly a stonemason is needed.  So Mayka, who has never left home, sets off down the mountain to find one.  Accompanying her are two stone birds, one level headed, the other an imp of impulsive action.  And going with her as well are all the stories her father told her.

Down among flesh and blood people, Mayka learns that there were stories she'd never been told. The stories told by a small beautiful stone dragon who joins her and the two birds, about her life as a decoration with no purpose other than to be a possession. And darker stories of unscrupulous stonemasons who used their art for power and control, forcing stone creatures to obey their will.  And though since those days stonemasons have been themselves corralled and controlled, there is one man who wants to bring back that old power, in the name of progress and universal good.

But just because someone thinks they are doing what is right doesn't make it so.  Mayka is appalled to see marks of blind obedience carved onto stone creatures, cutting though the marks that tell their real stories.  And Mayka's own personal story, given to her by the glyphs her father her father carved on her, is that she is a person who can see stories and tell them....and so she begins to rewrite what they was done and carve stories of freedom.

I do so love stories about stories being reshaped and told and interpreted and lived!  In my mind this book is a parable about a girl who realizes that she herself is the master of her own life story, that she has the power to accept what her parents had to give her, and then shape her own story.  The fact that this point is made within the context of wonderful magic, beautifully described marvels of stone art, and flashes of humor from Mayka's companions makes it all the better.  The fact that her choices are made from a place of love and goodness of heart, and that one result is that she feels more secure in the knowledge her own father loved her, makes it more better still.

An excellent one for the elementary school reader who wants to read bigger books, as well as middle grade readers who aren't ready for full on gore or splashes of romantic love. Mayka is innocent and trusting (though much less naïve by the end of things), so the perfect reader is the kid who isn't a cynical smart aleck, but the one who is still a child themselves though they are in sixth grade. Some might find it a little slow to get going, but as the secrets of what is happening start unfolding, the tension builds nicely, and there's a climax of Adventure and Action, with destruction and violence, that only lasted long enough to be satisfactory with out being so long that I had to nervously read the end of the book to make sure things will be ok.  And with equal thought to my reading pleasure, the ending ties everything up very comfortably with lots of love.

So basically, I really really liked it.   And now I check Kirkus because it's fun to see if we are in agreement.....

and yes!  We have a winner!

Kirkus:  (starred review) "Thoughtful, colorful, strengthening, and understatedly tender."

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (3/25/18)

Welcome to this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs! Let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews:

The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, at Charlotte's Library

Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at This Kid Reviews Books, Book Nut, Fantasy LiteratureMom Read It

Buttheads from Outer Space, by Jerry Mahoney, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Cat Between Two Worlds, by Lesley Renton, at Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers 

The Crowns of Croswald, by D.E. Night, at Log Cabin Library

Curse of the Ancients (Infinity Ring Book Four), by Matt de la Peña, at Time Travel Times Two

The Downward Spiral by Ridley Pearson, at This Kid Reviews Books

Fever Crumb, by Philip Reeve, at Proseandkahn

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing (Mo and Dale Mysteries #2), by Sheila Turnage, at The Story Sanctuary.

The House With Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens, by Paul North, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Marabel and the Book of Fate, by Tracy Barrett, at Cover2Cover

A Problematic Paradox, by Eliot Sappingfield, at Ms. Yingling Reads and  Say What?

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd, at Mom Read It

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta, at Charlotte's Library

Simon Thorne and the Shark's Cave, by Aimee Carter, at Say What?

The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Say What?

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond, at Waking Brain Cells

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, at Strange and Random Happenstance

The Unicorn Quest, by Kamilla Benko, at Jean Little Library

A Witch Alone, by James Nichol, at Library Girl and Book Boy

Authors and Interviews

Roshani Chokshi (Aru Sha and the End of Time), at The Book Smugglers

Jonathan Rosen (From Sunset Till Sunrise), at Middle Grade Book Village

Other Good Stuff

Five classic scarry mg stories at the Barnes and Noble Kids Blog

A post at the Nerdy Book Club that's about mysteries, not fantasy, but still interesting and applicable--Writing Mysteries for Girls by Sheela Chari; likewise, The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character, at Erin Dionne

Check out the on-going Tolkien Extravaganza at Pages Unbound

Toys R Us, my father, The Black Cauldron, and re-reading--a story from my reading childhood, at Charlotte's Library


Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House, YA, Feb. 2018), is the third book about an almost Europe with dragons (Seraphina, 2012, and Shadow Scale, 2015 being the first two). It is my favorite of the series.

Tess has always known she was flawed and bad; her mother made sure of this.  But she didn't mean to be.  Her twin, Jeanne, is the good girl, and her older sister, Seraphina, is the one who was seemingly immune to societal pressures, who managed to escape the limitations of expectations.  Tess is bad, and almost brought scandal to the family when she got pregnant as a young teen (averted by sending her away to distant family).  When the book begins, Tessa and Jeanne, now 17, are handmaidens to a noble lady at the court (thanks to Seraphina's string pulling) and Jeanne has found the perfect rich and lordly husband.  With that out of the way, Tess begins to think of escape from a life she cannot stand, no matter how much she drinks.

And then Seraphina gives her a pair of boots, beautiful, glossy, perfect boots for the adventures little Tess had imagined as a child.  And with nothing to loose, almost despite herself Tess walks out the door.

The voices in head, both the criticisms of others, the harsh scriptures her mother hammered her with, and her own memories of guilt and grief, go with her.  But she keeps going, barely.

"Walking on now," Tess told Mama-in-her-head, kicking dirt on last night's ashes.  "I think I'll live one more day."

(aside--typing that quote I am struck by the lovely metaphor, because kicking dirt, in this case the physical work of walking, and later hard labor, on memory ashes is exactly what Tess is doing.)

Then she meets Pathka, the reptilian Quigutl whose life she saved as a child, and Pathka's quest to find a the giant serpents integral to Quigutl cosmology becomes her own, and Pathka's company and support give her further impetus to keep going, and other stories to play through her head.  (It's fun for the reader, too, to spend time with a Quigutl as a main character...they are fascinating!)

It's not a grand adventure, but the encounters along the road give Tess a chance to rethink and recast both her past decisions and the things that were no fault of her own.   It's not always easy to keep her thoughts company, but if you like being challenged to introspection about culpability, the shaming of girls, horrible parenting, and religious brainwashing (not a slamming of religion qua religion, but repressively sexist scripture is one tool Tess's mother has beaten her horribly with),  it is totally worth it, and in the end, Tess does not have to question if she will keep going.  And as Tess and Pathka get closer to the great serpent of Pathka's dreaming, the canvas expands to let the numinous in, and compassion in, and the possibility that Tess's own dreams of discovery and adventure will come true.

Tess's backstory is told in flashbacks, continuing right to the end, as she faces her worst memories.  One of those memories is rape, a part of her story she is finally able to revisit when she finds a beautifully sex-positive relationship with one of Seraphina's old friends, who does not shame her, manipulate her, or hold her back from following her own path.

If you are looking for Dragons!  Excitement! Magic!  and the stereotypical kick-ass heroine, look elsewhere.   But if you want a thought-provoking, empowering, bittersweet story that will stick with you and leave you wanting the next book very badly that's filled with enough of the strange and fantastical to add considerable wonder,  I recommend this one lots.  Also if you are a fan of Seraphina, who's not a central character but who shows up quite a bit, you'll be interested in what she looks like to her little sister

Kirkus and I are in agreement:  "Like Tess’ journey, surprising, rewarding, and enlightening, both a fantasy adventure and a meta discourse on consent, shame, and female empowerment."


Toys R Us, my father, The Black Cauldron, and re-reading--a story from my reading childhood

When we were living overseas (my father was in the Foreign Service), every summer my sisters and I were taken to stay with our grandparents in Arlington, Va.  My mother came for a bit too, but most summers my father stayed at work.  A treat every year was a visit to Toys R Us, but I don't really remember the particulars, except for one special visit.*  My father was there for a bit the summer I was ten, and on a whim he took me (I think just me) there, and said he would buy me a book.  It is the only time I remember him ever buying me a book (he wasn't especially interested in taking us shopping, nor was he especially interested in doing things that didn't interest him), so it was a Special Thing.  I stood in front of all the richness on display in the back right corner of the Bailey's Crossroads Toys R Us, and couldn't choose.  Growing impatient, he plucked one from the shelf, and I acquiesced, not wanting him to be annoyed.  The book was The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander, and I found the cover unappealing (I still do).  I bet the oddness of it was what attracted my father.

That afternoon, during the time slot when my sisters and I were all told to stay quietly in our rooms to rest (I had an old fashioned childhood), I began to read.  I'm the one in the top bunk.  The Black Cauldron starts with a huge number of characters all gathering together to start an adventure, and I had no clue who any of them were, and I was confused and dubious.  But I kept going, journeying with Taran and co. through the marshes and on to the horror and tragedy of the ending....and my mind was set on fire.  It was unlike anything I'd ever read.

Of course I then hungered for the other books in the series, and they came my way eventually.  But because I wanted them and knew they existed, they weren't as special.  Though The Black Cauldron ended up being only my third favorite (after Taran Wanderer and The High King), the power of that reading experience was unrivaled.  I can still watch the book unfold in my mind's eye, and feel again the emotions each part of it called out of me.  And because the book made such an impact, the memory of my father taking the time to buy it for me (probably he just wanted a reason to get out of the house, but one takes what one gets) is still crystal clear as well.

And that's one of the joys of re-reading- not only do you get the story again, but you get to revisit the self you were when you first read the book.  Because the grown-ups never bought me nearly as many books as I would have liked, I can remember almost all the book gifts of my childhood, and each takes me back to a particular part of my life, with a palimpsest of memories overlaying the actual story.  I'm awfully glad to have all the many books I have now, but when they aren't miracles, coming unexpected and unasked for, with unappealing covers by authors you've never heard of, and which then turn out to be brilliant, it's not quite the same.

So I'm very grateful to Toys R Us for stocking books, and to my father for taking me to buy one, and to my grandmother who insisted on the rest period after lunch, and of course to Lloyd Alexander and all the other authors who all combined to make that a lovely summer.  My grandparents house was sold and demolished, and now the store is gone too, and I feel a little sad about that. 

My first copy of The Black Cauldron must have been read to death, because I now have a modern paperback, but I still have my old copies of the other four. I don't remember the particulars of getting them, because I think I had read library copies, so getting my own copies wasn't as memorable.  It's interesting to see that I got them all at different times, and that there was a period of tremendous book inflation in the late 1970s that clearly shows the order in which I got them.  They are all Dell Yearlings.  The Book of Three was 1.25, The High King was 1.50, Taran Wanderer was 1.75, and then there's a big jump to 3.25 for The Castle of Llyr.

This June, the last summer of being able to plan my older son's life (he goes to college this fall) we are going to Wales, which I have always wanted to visit since reading the books, and so I should probably re-read them all again.....

*This is not actually true.  Thinking it over, I also remember the specific little Beyer horses I got on multiple occasions, in particular Native Dancer, a beautiful grey one (the little horse section was about three rows in from the left hand wall of the store).  We would scrunch up a particular area rug in the living room to make an island with caves for all our little horses, and it was a lovely game....inspired by other books I was reading at the time, all of the Black Stallion series and all of Marguerite Henry....all of which I still have even though goodness knows if I will ever want to re-read all the Black Stallion books ever again.


Two fun new upper elementary fantasies by Vivian French

Two fun new upper elementary fantasies by Vivian French are now available here in the US! UK author Vivian French has written many enjoyable books for kids 8-10, and she really deserves to be better known here in the states.  The Adventures of Alfie Onion and The Cherry Pie Princess (both from Kane Miller) are top notch fantasies that are satisfyingly rich in plot and detail, but not so long as to intimidate elementary school readers who aren't ready for Harry Potter.

The Adventures of Alfie Onion

Alfie Onion's mum wanted a fairy tale ever after, but since there was no handy prince to marry, she settled for a seventh son, thinking her own seventh son was sure to be a hero and win wealth enough to keep her in style!  So she pinned all her hopes on her seventh son, Magnifico, and son number eight, little Alfie, got short shrift.  And when Magnifico, spoiled and lumpish, turns 14, his mother sends him off to find his fortune.  Alfie gets sent along too, to carry the luggage.

Magnifico is ill-equipped, both by temperament and physique, to be a hero.  It's a good thing that Alife is along to save the day and defeat the ogres outside the castle holding the enchanted princess!  And it's a good thing for Alfie that he has the help of a bevy of talking animals--a horse, two mice and two magpies, and the help as well from the trolls the ogres have been oppressing, and even from the ogre daughter, who is sick of the abuse her dad and brother have been inflicting on her.

The reader knows right away that Alfie's the hero, and it's a treat to follow along on his adventures, cheering for him and wondering just how pathetic Magnifico is going to be next.

The Cherry Pie Princess

Peony is the youngest of seven princesses, and unlike her sisters, she doesn't find being a princess particularly satisfying.  She wants to do things, like bake (cherry pies are her specialty) and check out books from the town's library, that are forbidden.  When she borrows a cookbook from the library, the king has the librarian arrested for "speaking out of turn."  And when she speaks up to her father about this, she herself lands in the castle prison, a place she never knew existed.

In the meantime, her baby brother's christening is approaching; three good fairies have been invited, and one bad one has not.  With the help of her fellow prisoners, Peony escapes, just in time to foil the bad fairy's enchantments with the help of a talking cat, and her father has a change of heart about her activities...only partly  because she bakes such delicious cherry pies!

It's a pleasant book, good for kids who enjoy baking in particular.  The king is perhaps a bit too much of a jerk for his change of heart to be believable, but Peony is a great heroine with enough integrity and strength of will to make up for her father!

It's a testament to Vivian French's way with words that I enjoyed reading these myself, in a quick, lighthearted way, and the target audience should be even more pleased.  There's nothing too scary for an even younger reader than 8....I would happily give them to my 7 year old ex-self!

disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher


The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone (Aladdin, Feb 2018), is equal parts time travel story, art heist and concomitant mystery to be solved, a visit to Gilded Age Newport, with a touch of a feminist message. It was a fun read.

Hannah's the daughter of the caretaker of one of Newport's many mansions (the Elms, which is a nice one!).  Having grown up amongst the antiques and opulence, she has a somewhat proprietary interest in the bygone inhabitants of the mansion, particularly Maggie Dunlap.  Maggie was another 12 year old who lived briefly at the Elms, and her portrait has made her real to Hannah.  But the painting is just a reproduction of the original painted by Mary Cassatt, which was stolen the day it was to be unveiled in 1905.

And then one day the portrait becomes a portal through which the two girls swap places in time.  Hannah, back in the past just a few days before the heist will occur, is determined to stop it, and Maggie is willing to give her a bit of time to do so.  But Maggie is tremendously ill-equipped to cope with the sweaty life of a modern girl (will Hannah ever be allowed to play on her soccer team again?) and Hannah is tremendously ill-suited to the role of proper young lady.

Using the portrait portal to communicate, the girls work together to save the painting...but first Hannah must figure out who did it, set up a plan to keep it safe for the future, and keep the young servant boy accused of the crime out of danger.  The clock is ticking--in our time, Hannah's father has planned a trip that will keep the girls from swapping back for weeks...and neither is doing a good job leading the other's life!

And this is the part that made it a bit hard for me to truly enjoy the book.  Neither puts particular effort into adopting the idioms and manners of their new time, though Maggie gets more points for this than Hannah.  This surprised me, because Hannah is supposed to be gung ho about the past of her home; she should have been a better impersonator! But she never gets any better.

But I did very much enjoy the experience each girl had of seeing their familiar home changed- this was really magical.  Plus the relationship between the two girls is solid though fleeting, and the lessons that they learn in each other's times (social history for Hannah and feminism for Maggie) are both valuable and believable, and the opulence of the Elms, both past and present, is very nicely made real.  And I think young readers are more likely than me to find the problems each experienced in the other's time funny!

So give this to a young reader who likes to daydream about fancy balls of the past while getting ready for soccer practice!

And if you come to Kidlitcon 2019 (next March in Providence RI) I can help you get down to Newport if you want to see the Elms for yourself!

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