Deep Secret

Cybils nominations open today!!!  Go read the rules and nominate a favorite book!  I’d be particularly happy if you nominate a middle grade speculative fiction book for me to read!

But moving on to what I’ve already read… I have read and loved quite a few books by Diana Wynne Jones, but happily for me she was prolific enough that there are still many I haven’t read.  This one I won in a giveaway run by Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, the difficult choice of which of many wonderful-sounding books I hadn’t yet read decided by going for the one that wasn’t readily available from the public library.  Bonus: this is the version with the beautiful, newly redesigned cover.

Deep SecretDeep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. HarperCollins UK, 2013. Originally published by Victor Gollancz, 1997.
Rupert Venables is the youngest Magid from Earth, working to resolve magical problems around the universe from a non-magic-friendly planet.  As the story opens, he’s called to witness a trial in the very unfriendly Koryfos Empire, one which ends in a way that leaves him shaken and wanting nothing more to do with Koryfos.  His life gets more complicated when his mentor Stan dies, leaving Stan’s ghost to help Rupert  track down the next Magid.  He has a list of potential candidates, each of them seeming more odious than the last.  And as the hunt heats up, the Koryforian Empire falls apart, leaving them begging Rupert for help putting things back together again.

The most unlikely of the candidates is Maree Mallory – a mutual loathing develops between Rupert and Maree the first time they meet.  Maree knows she’s adopted, but is still a loving caretaker to her somewhat younger cousin Nick, in the face of his neglectful parents, hateful mother Janine in her ugly fancy sweaters and a preoccupied author father.  Maree has come off a bad break-up and temporarily dropped out of university to avoid seeing the ex, deliberately neglecting herself to make herself more odious to Nick’s mother Janine.

Rupert, much more concerned about appearance, is horrified by Maree and desperate to find a better candidate.  (To be fair, he has a lot more reasonable grounds for frustration with Maree than her looks.)  His solution is to bring everyone together at a favorable place – which winds up being the Hotel Babylon, at the same time as a large sci-fi/fantasy con.  Somehow, though Rupert doesn’t understand how, his somewhat absent-minded next-door neighbor ends up coming along as well.

In classic Jones style, all the plots come crashing together, sparks crashing and dust flying, and when everything has settles, all the disparate plots have come together and fit just perfectly.  Deep secrets are hidden in nursery rhymes; and Maree turns out, to the delight of both Rupert and the reader, to be a really fantastic character, making a place for herself despite odds that turn out to be even more formidable than they first appear.  There is also the complex world-building that I expect from DWJ, which I’m not going to get into here, but which I was happy to find easier to comprehend that the set-up in some of her other books.  In short, this was highly enjoyable.  I passed it right on to my mother, and would likely be looking for the next book in the duology were it not for the pile of potential Cybils reading now crowding my shelf. Thank you so much for giving this to me, Brandy!

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Long Black Curl

This is the third Tufa book after The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing. Thanks to Tor for sending this to me! (It is lucky for me I work at a library as well, or I could never afford my book addiction.) This series is on my list of musical fantasies (which I also need to update.)

Long Black CurlLong Black Curl by Alex Bledsoe. Tor, 2015.
As usual with these books, we start with a new set focus characters from the last books.  The story opens in a small plane, full of rockabilly music stars, which crashes in the mountains near where the Tufa live in the 1950s.  Byron Harley, the “Hillbilly Hercules” is the only survivor, and his efforts to find help lead him to a small campfire where a couple of men sit drinking moonshine and trading songs.

In the present day, exiled Bo-Kate Wisby returns to Needsville determined to get rid of Rockhouse (the leader of the dark Tufa) and unite the Tufa under her leadership.  But as her story is told from her Black British assistant Nigel’s perspective, we don’t know from the beginning exactly what she and her former lover Jefferson Powell were exiled for, nor what she did to break the magic that should have kept her from ever finding Needsville and its music ever again.  Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Mandalay Harris, head of the light Tufa, has to figure out how to stop her without losing track of her own values.  We’ve seen Mandalay from other character’s points of view before, but this is the first time we’ve seen her from inside, the child with the memories of an entire people.  It’s tricky to balance childhood with all of that, and Mandalay is dealing with her first crush on top stopping a civil war.

These is dark fantasy, with plenty of blood and vengeance – the darkness both tempered and enhanced by the music that plays throughout.  This book in particular looks at what separates and connects the two branches of the Tufa, as three separate couples with partners (or potential partners) on opposite sides struggle with finding ways to bridge that gap.  The optimist in me would have preferred happier endings for several of the characters, but overall, this is a compelling story with believable characters and a solid look at how far love can go.

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State of the Book Basket – September

The month is almost over – next week, the Cybils nominations will open.  I’m already checking out books that might be nominated, but next week, the reading starts in earnest!  Here’s a look at what’s on our bookshelves and in the library book basket:

The Mouse MansionThe daughter has just started first grade and turned six (in that order).  She still doesn’t see herself as a reader, though loud phrases from Happy Pig Day by Mo Willems can be heard coming from behind closed doors.  Okay, Andy by Maxwell Eaton (a Cybils easy reader finalist last year) is also popular, along with picture books Happy in our Skin by Fran Manushkin and The Sky is Falling by Mark Teague.  We’re listening to the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the car, with frequent pauses to discuss things, and are currently on Farmer Boy. We’ve been reading The Mouse Mansion by Karina Schaapman, enjoying the detailed photographs of the mouse-sized dollhouse with characters, though last night we read The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke, which she’d gotten for her birthday from a friend. She also got an early chapter book picked because the heroine has her name, and a collection of National Geographic readers about bugs. We got her Completely Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, though she hasn’t wanted to start it yet.

Lightning ThiefThe son is now in fifth grade.  We’re still reading The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley aloud together.  In the car, we recently finished The Wells Bequest by Polly Shulman, and are re-listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone while waiting for the library to have a copy of The Grimm Legacy for us to listen to – luckily for us starting with book two, it didn’t feel like we started in the middle of the series.  He just finished listening to Inkspell by Cornelia Funke on his iPod.  And – such a huge milestone – he’s finally gotten to a reading level where he can enjoy reading Percy Jackson to himself in print!!!  He’s starting with The Lightning Thief, of course – from the paperback we got him a couple of years ago, as we knew he loved it on audio and wouldn’t be able to read through a library copy in time.  He also wants to read the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson before it’s due back at the library.

Going PostalI have no idea what my love is reading right now, other than scouring through our cookbook collection in search of tiramisu recipes. He has Going Postal by Terry Pratchett out from the library, though.

Mars EvacueesI myself have the usual pile of things waiting in a number of different formats.  In print, I’m reading Rump by Liesl Schurtliff (somewhat guiltily, as it’s been on my want to read list since it came out a couple of years ago and is thus can’t count for Cybils reading this year.  Maybe her new book will be, and this could be background reading?) But Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall is up next at home, and that definitely is eligible for the Cybils, as well as being one I’ve been wanting to read for a while now.  I also have the new teen fantasy by Kate Elliott, Court of Fives.  At work, I’m reading The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein, the first in her early Arthurian series, as I wanted more after reading Black Dove, White Raven but have, as of yet, been too chicken to read Code Name Verity, as excellent as everyone says it is. I just finished The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry in the car, and have moved on to The Poe Estate by Polly Shulman, as my boy has no interest in spooky books but I wanted to continue the series.  I’ve got Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley up next – I’m very curious about it as my blogging peeps have either loved or hated it, with not a lot of in-between opinions.  On my e-reader, I’m working on both Heroes of the Earth by Martin Berman-Gorvine and The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet  (due out for reals in November.)

What are you reading these days?

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Nimona and Lumberjanes

Is there a universe where I could read everything I want to that sounds good? Can I live there, please? It took me longer than I wished to get to these (and many other titles) because there’s so much else out there that’s so much fun! Both of these graphics have been getting a lot of much-deserved attention, and I finally read them!

NimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson. HarperTeen, 2015.
Nimona is a young shapeshifter. As the story opens, she knocks on villain Ballister Blackheart’s door saying, “Hi, Boss! The Agency sent me! I’m your new sidekick.” The Agency, of course, had nothing to do with it, but Nimona is insistent on staying, even when Blackheart turns out not to be as evil as she likes. He’s really not interested in killing his nemesis/best friend Sir Goldenloin. Nimona, though, pushes him to ever bigger deeds of evil, all bent on taking down the Agency – which, as it turns out, has evil plans even bigger than those of the official villains.

Continue reading

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Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures

This book was Maggie Stiefvater – a favorite author – writing middle grade fantasy.  How could I resist?

Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical CreaturesPip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015.
Pip Barlett’s world is a lot like ours, except that magical creatures are real.  People raise unicorns for show, and have smaller, cuddlier magical creatures for pets, not always advisably.  No one but Pip, though, can talk to them, and everyone else believes that she’s playing pretend when she says she has.  After a nasty incident involving a herd of unicorns at a school event, Pip is sent away to live with her aunt who runs a veterinary clinic for magical creatures in a different town.  Pip is thrilled to help out in the clinic, even as she’s sad about leaving home and uncomfortable with her snotty older cousin Callie, who wants nothing to do with the magical creatures. She is forced to be more extraverted than she would like and make friends with shy Tomas from down the street, who becomes a worthy friend despite being allergic to nearly everything. Pip works on annotating her guidebook to magical creatures, writing in where the official word falls short of what one would actually need to deal with the creature.  These pages are included in the book: drawings of the creatures with extra-large, cute eyes and Pip’s notes in handwriting next to the typed captions – it is all both funny and adorable.

The action heats up literally as the town is suddenly crowded with Fuzzles, cute and fuzzy creatures that breed very rapidly and catch on fire when scared or excited.  Where did they come from, and why are there suddenly so many of them?  And an enemy arrives, in the form of Mrs. Dreadbatch, an inspector determined to shut down the much-needed clinic.  Pip and Tomas both have to use the abilities that no one else believes in to solve the problems before it’s too late.

This is fun and light, perfect for kids just starting into full-length chapter books.  It wasn’t quite so interesting to me as an adult as I’d wanted, even if I couldn’t really put my finger on anything wrong or missing.  I’d still happily give it to younger kids, though, especially as more books in the projected series come out.  This would be a natural fit for fans of Suzanne Selfors’ Imaginary Veterinary series.

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Why’d They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History

I don’t review much nonfiction here, but this book was so fun that I had to share it.  I used to spend large amounts of time poring over books on the history of clothing. (This has somehow led to me being much more knowledgeable about the fashions of the past than of the present – I will often cringe at historical books and movies done badly, even as I feel adrift trying to buy clothes for myself.)

Why'd They Wear That?Why’d They Wear That? Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee. National Geographic, 2015.
This is a bright and fun social history of fashion perfect for kids and teens.  Rather than taking a strictly timeline approach to the subject, Albee links trends across time and space – togas and saris, the Visigoths, the medieval era called Gothic, and the modern Goth fashion trend.  Each trend is covered in an article a page or two long (though the pages are very large.) She doesn’t shy away from the tough parts of fashion and its cost to both the makers and the wearers, such as the use of toxic chemicals and clothes that don’t let the wearer eat, breathe or walk (that would be Elizabethan, Victorian, and modern-day.)  Albee is clear – we like to think we’re superior to our ancestors who wore such impractical fashion, while being blind to the ways our current fashion choices can also hurt us and the people who make them.

This is much more international than most books on the topic, with some coverage of clothing in Africa, Asia and South America, as well as familiar Europe and America.  There are also plenty of articles on armor and clothes for fighting, which together with the more technical touches, help make this appealing for young readers who wouldn’t be interested in fashion for beauty or fashion’s sake.  It’s filled with colorful pictures of fashion from the past to the present, although in the quest for color (I assume), I saw somewhat of an over-reliance on Victorian drawings of ancient and medieval fashions.  That means this isn’t your source if you’re looking for primary evidence of clothes of the past for serious research or reconstruction.  It’s great, though, for being absolutely engaging and thoughtful, for looking at why people wore what they did and helping us to question our own fashion choices.  My mother and I both read it straight through, without really intending to, in my case at least because I just kept reading one more little article until I was done.

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The Dungeoneers

Sorry for the silence, folks!  It was Talk like a Pirate Day, and I throw a huge event at the library and through downtown that is very fun while it’s happening but does not allow me to think about anything else during the couple of weeks before. (Let me know in the comments if you want details on this – I’m happy to share.)

In case you missed it, there is Cybils excitement!  This year’s judges have been announced, and I’m once again honored to be on the Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction team.  Our fearless leader Charlotte and myself are the only ones returning to Round 1 from last year, though everyone else has different Cybils experience, and I spent rather too long yesterday checking on my team members from last round – still doing Cybils, as it happens, but on different panels.  I’ll miss you, friends! And very much looking forward to getting to know my new team members!

But there are still books to be talked about… I first read John David Anderson when Sidekicked was on the Cybils shortlist in 2013, and I loved it.  I was very excited to see this book!

The DungeoneersThe Dungeoneers by John David Anderson. Harper Collins Children’s, 2015.
This is a story that feels – at least at the beginning – like being plunked down in the middle of a role-playing game come to life.  Colm Candorly, our hero, is a cobbler’s son with eight sisters – which is to say, growing up in poverty.  His family is horrified when he delivers a pile of much-needed coins to pay for his sick sister’s medicine – they know it must be stolen.  But on the way to the magistrate, professional rogue Finn Argos agrees to take Colm on as an apprentice and take him to be trained at Tye Twodin’s famous Guild of Dungeoneers (cue the theme music.)  Finn assures Colm that he, Colm, is no common pickpocket but has the potential to be a Rogue, a key member of Dungeoneering team.

Also on Colm’s new team are the shy young mageling Quinn Frostfoot, tough-as-nails (unless she’s bleeding herself) barbarian-to-be Lena Proudfoot, and druid-in-training Serene (who is a person of color and also has a pet spider named Mr. Tickletoes.) All four kids try to make their way at dungeoneering school, navigating classes in swordplay, spells, and lock-picking, while trying to navigate the social pitfalls of a boarding school and learning about why it is that there is booby-trapped treasure to be found buried in mountain tunnels all over.

So I was going happily on, enjoying the adventures, with my only complaint being that I didn’t see much happening in the way of character development for the rest of Colm’s team, but not minding terribly because of liking Colm fine. Then Anderson pulled his sucker punch, like he does, and suddenly the light adventure was no longer just a light adventure, but contained deep thoughts about morality and loyalty.  I can think of quite a number of young boys and girls of my acquaintance who enjoy making up similar fantasy adventures on their own, and would very much enjoy this book, with its teamwork and adventure and humor.  And I am very happy I read it myself!

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Dragons Beware!

I was very excited to find this on the shelf at my home library on a summer visit with the kids – we all loved the first book, Giants Beware!

Dragons Beware!Dragons Beware! By Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. First Second, 2015.
Claudette is seriously tired of life at home and ready for some more action when a new opportunity arises: the possibility of taking revenge on the dragon that ate her father’s legs and his sword. Also, an evil wizard that everyone thought was gone for good has shown up again, handily freezing anyone who tries to attack him. Of course the adults won’t give her permission to go, but that never stopped anyone as determined as Claudette. Her little brother Gaston and her best friend Marie naturally come along as well. Gaston has decided to give up cooking, his true passion, in favor of trying to learn the manly art of sword-smithing – much to the regret of everyone in his household. Marie, meanwhile, is followed by an entire entourage of princes and nobles seeking to win her favor and willing to do whatever it takes to earn it.

This is another fabulous story – a wonderful combination of danger, comedy, and messages that would have been unexpected if I hadn’t read the first books already. Claudette goes off wanting to smite and mostly expecting Marie and Gaston to be there for moral support. But smiting alone will not win the day, and Marie and Gaston both have to use all their skills to help win the day. I love the big-headed, small-bodied characters as they are drawn, full of energy and expression. I don’t expect a lot of diversity in a traditional European fantasy like this, but besides Claudette and Gaston’s father leading a very active life from his wheelchair, his best friend is Black. Claudette is one of the rare heroines these days who doesn’t have long eyelashes, bows or pink – that’s all left to Marie. The drawings don’t even make it clear if she’s wearing a shortish dress or a tunic and leggings. Gaston, meanwhile, clearly feels pressure to be more traditionally masculine, but the story makes it clear that both he and everyone around him are better off letting be and do what he does best.

I don’t know that my kids consciously picked up on any of these messages, because it’s just so much fun. Everyone in the house, though, from the five-year-old up through my husband, read it with great enjoyment. These rank with our favorite adventure graphic novels for kids, also including Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke, Mouseguard by David Peterson and Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson.

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Jinx’s Fire

Dear readers, my brains are all jumbled with the craziness of back-to-school and planning my library’s giant Talk Like a Pirate Day event. But in my ongoing quest to tell you about books I love, I will do my best to wrap my brain about this.

Jinx's FireJinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood. Harper Collins Children’s, 2015.
This, my friends, was one of my most eagerly anticipated sequels for the year, and I went extra slowly with it by reading it aloud to my son over the course of several months instead of devouring it in a day or two all by myself.  So worth it!  I’d read the first two to him, but only after reading them first myself.  So be warned: this is the third book in the series and you’ll want to start at the beginning if you haven’t already.

Things are in bad shape, both for Jinx personally and the Urwald in general, as the story opens.  The only bright spot is that Sophie, his master Simon’s wife, is in the Urwald.  Simon, though, is still trapped by the Bonemaster.  There are three separate armies trying to divide the Urwald between them, burning trees and raiding clearings.  Jinx is still trying to convince everyone in the Urwald that they should work together against the armies.  This requires diplomacy, and diplomacy is not something that comes easily to Jinx.  He and Sophie and the werewolf Malthus are also trying to work out how to rescue Simon, studying texts written in deliberately obfuscating language.  Only one thing is clear: if anyone can save Simon, it will be Jinx, and he will have to travel the Paths of Fire and Ice.  If he can figure out what they are and how to do this.  And then there is war, and while Jinx wants to win, he also doesn’t want to kill anyone – this was something that needed a lot of talking about with my son, used as he is to books where no one things twice about getting rid of bad guys however they can.

There is so much to love!  Jinx has to work to figure out his powers, even if he is the Special One, that it doesn’t come easily and that having the powers doesn’t necessarily give him the charisma to win everyone to his cause or get him out of thinking about the consequences of his actions.  There are the maturing relationships with Sophie,going from young child and adult to mostly adult and adult, and Elfwyn, working around the realm of pink fluffy thoughts.  Elfwyn has grown, too, from just being mad at her curse of having to tell the truth to skillfully using it to accomplish things.  And even though I focus on characters, there were plenty of battles and quests, skillfully handled to satisfy my action-loving son as well.  This is another series that I give out to kids in search of new fantasy series, if I can find it in when they come looking.

Note: A while back, I had the unique experience of having someone come into the library looking for recent American fantasy books that had been translated into German for her to give to her grandson in Germany.  I didn’t discover it until just after that patron left, but in case any of you are looking for such a thing, these books are available in German.

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Interstellar Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Robots

Here are two recent STEM-friendly sci-fi fairy tale retellings for young readers – one from the library and one my love found at our friendly local comic book store.

Interstellar CinderellaInterstellar Cinderella. By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle Kids, 2015.
This picture book retelling features a red-haired, pre-teen Cinderella (at least, she looked pre-teen to me, though a Publisher’s Weekly article said she looked old enough to be proposed to?) who delights in repairing robots and dreams of someday “fixing fancy rocket” instead of zoombrooms. Rhyming text and swirly, retro acrylic art tell the story of how her mean stepfamily doesn’t want to let her come to the Royal Space Parade. She’s crushed, but her fairy godrobot saves the day by delivering a special space suit. When the brown-skinned prince is trapped in a burning space ship, Cinderella saves the day with her sonic socket wrench. The prince is smitten – but Cinderella says “I’m far too young for marriage” and asks for a job as his chief mechanic instead. Everything here is just right, including making Cinderella a more relatable age for kids and taking the focus off the dress and the marriage. In a fun, extra touch, the endpapers are filled with two different scenes of Cinderella’s tools, nicely labeled for reference: “megamag mallet”, “antimatter hammer”, “cosmicaliper” and so on. This is a great choice for preschoolers and early elementary-aged kids.

Snow White and the Seven RobotsSnow White and the Seven Robots. Far Out Fairy Tales. By Louise Simonson. Illustrated by Jimena Sanchez. Stone Arch Books, 2015.
This is a very short graphic novel – just 40 pages long– with the old-fashioned kind of diversity: Snow White is a pale-skinned girl who looks ordinary to Caucasians but who stands out on her blue-skinned planet of Techworld. She’s a princess, but her stepmother/regent genetically engineered her to fail in order to avoid turning over the throne. Here, the “huntsman” is boy only a little older than Snow who helps her when she’s forced to do garbage collection duty. When Snow is exiled to a small mining planet, the robot-fixing skills she learned from repairing garbage robots comes in very handy, and she soon has a loyal following. (Naturally, they are all intelligent robots with personalities.) Meanwhile, her friend back on the main planet infiltrates the palace to find out what the regent has done with Snow.

This is a longer retelling, and therefore good for slightly older kids. It took just two consecutive bedtimes to read it my daughter, who loved it. I have just two reservations about this book, which is part of a series of sci-fi retellings of familiar stories: first, that despite the diversity of the creators, there is no diversity of lead characters, and second, that the pages started falling out of the book on our first reading. Libraries wanting to purchase this should definitely pay for library binding, though this makes a super-affordable graphic novel more expensive than average. (We were lucky that my mother was able to rebind our copy for us.) And, OK, Snow White is a difficult tale in which to put a diverse heroine. Despite these reservations, this is a fun retelling of the story which my daughter was very excited about, reading it over several times to herself before and after I read it to her.

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