Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

This was one of my most anticipated titles for the year, which I realized rather belatedly I listened to over the summer and hadn’t yet reviewed.  Though I started reading Naomi Novik back with His Majesty’s Dragon, I really loved the more fairy-tale oriented Uprooted, and was so, so excited to see her come out with more in the same vein.  So excited that I made my love buy the audiobook so that I could get to it faster.

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Read by Lisa Flanagan. Random House Audio, 2018.

Spinning Silver starts off with the main character, Miryem, telling the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  She hates it – people borrowing things they have no hope of repaying, then telling themselves that the person they borrowed from is a monster, not worth repaying.  She’s the moneylender’s daughter in a small village in Lithvas.  She’s grown up in poverty because everyone in town looks down on Jews like them and refuses to pay her soft-hearted father back.  When her mother’s health starts to fail, she makes herself hard and takes over the business, earning enough to buy her mother medicine, to put money in the bank, and even hire a servant to take care of her abandoned household chores.

The servant is Wanda, the oldest child of an even poorer family outside of town.  Her father has borrowed against their failing farm and spent everything on drink, taking out his frustrations on his children.  Wanda leaps at the opportunity to get away from him, hoping also to earn enough to move out for good once his debt is paid off.

Our third main character is Irina, the daughter of the duke in the city where Miryem’s grandfather lives.  She may be the duke’s daughter, but she’s a disappointment, a girl not beautiful enough to marry well.

Until Miryem’s skill with moneylending – a reputation with turning silver into gold – brings her to the attention of the Staryk king, ruler of the winter dimension that runs alongside Lithvas.  He brings her a bag of silver coins that gleam with the light of a winter forest to turn into gold, with her life at stake. Though the task is impossible, Miryem is used to fighting for her life (and still observing Shabbat.)  Her success will not only bring her even harder tasks, but also set in motion changes to Wanda and Irina’s lives.  Irina is brought to the attention of the Tsar, the cruelest man she has ever met, and one she’s been trying to avoid since girlhood.

Many others have written about this more eloquently than I can, but here’s trying to sum up some of the magic of this book.  The story is woven together from the viewpoints of the three different women, all with unique voices, though other characters narrate the story sometimes as well.  Even though all three of the women suffer mostly because of being women, and though the women fight to control their own destinies, few of the men are beyond redemption and many of them are sympathetic.  Even the Staryk king may be heartless towards humans but is acting the best he knows to keep his own people safe. The politics of religion and prejudice – both about religion and class – are an integral part of the story as well.  It’s set in a beautifully realized world with strong elements of Slavic folklore.  I’ve tried to limit my description of the plot to avoid spoilers, but those looking for an exciting plot, politics, and races against time will not be disappointed here. My love and I listened to it on audio, where Lisa Flanagan read with distinct voices, all sounding Slavic enough to bring that aspect more in focus without making it hard to understand.  This is definitely a favorite.

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Black Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith

This book didn’t end up getting nominated for the Cybils (unless Marvel swoops in to nominate it during the last week of the publisher/author nominating period) but it’s still worth reading about.

Black Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. SmithBlack Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith. Marvel, 2018.
In this official Marvel novel, 12-year-old T’Challa and his best friend M’Baku are sent to middle school in Chicago to avoid conflict in Wakanda.  T’Challa has a Black Panther suit to be used in case of emergencies (even though he’s not yet the Black Panther) as well as a ring from his father.  They’re supposed to be incognito, though rather incongruously, they aren’t set up with aliases or registered for school to start with and have to figure all of that out on their own.  T’Challa goes by T. Charles, while M’Baku goes by Mike.  Things the boys have a hard time adjusting to: the cold, the easy availability of junk food, the new, big middle school social hierarchy, American racial attitudes, and the lower technology levels.

T’Challa makes two friends to start with, a boy he meets on the bus who’s really into comic books, and a girl who’s a coding whiz.  M’Baku, to the surprise of those unfamiliar with the original comics or the movie, makes fun of T’Challa for befriending nerds and instead takes up with bully Gemini Jones and his gang of kids who all wear skull rings.  As sinister demon-catching devises start popping up around the school, T’Challa knows he has to investigate – and decide who he can trust.

I really enjoyed Smith’s first book Hoodoo, and this had some similar elements with the dark plot.  This book?  I wished that the superhero action part had kicked in a little sooner. And I didn’t love T’Challa here as much as I loved irrepressible Hoodoo or the Black Panther movie.  But my favorite aspect of the movie was the trio of great women around T’Challa, and his new friend Sheila here was not nearly as well fleshed out.  This book is really T’Challa’s story, and I’m guessing lots of superhero fans, especially boys and African-American kids, will appreciate that.

So even though this book felt ok but not great for me personally, I’m really glad that it’s out there and that Marvel is putting effort into telling Black Panther stories for young people and finding a good, #OwnVoices author to do it. Action-oriented middle grade fantasy books starring African-American or African boys are pretty thin on the ground – the only other books that pop into my head right now are Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, where the boys are supporting characters.  Please let me know if you can think of any others, as I hope I’m missing some!

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The Door to the Lost by Jaleigh Johnson

I first picked up this book because Charlotte had read and liked it, and also because I enjoyed one of the author’s previous books, Mark of the Dragonfly.

The Door to the Lost by Jaleigh JohnsonThe Door to the Lost by Jaleigh Johnson
Long ago, a world that had magic traded it with a world that didn’t.  Then, an explosion killed nearly all the magic and all adult mages in the magical world.  At the same time, a ship full of children from that world appeared in the non-magical world.  With no homes or way to get back to their own world, they’re viewed with great suspicion and scapegoated for the problem that cut off the supply of magic.

Our heroine, Rook, is one of these exiled children.  She and her best friend Drift work around the edges of society, using their forbidden magical skills to eke out a living.  Rook’s ability to draw with chalk doors that will open to other real places is both useful and dangerous, while Drift can fly and control winds.  But when Rook accidentally opens a wrong door, a boy-fox comes through and refuses to leave.  Shortly thereafter, all three are drawn into a quest to stop a second magical explosion, as well, of course, as to find a place of safety and acceptance.  There are also realistic friendship struggles as Fox invades the once-closed relationship between Rook and Drift.  This is creative and adventurous and well worth reading.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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City of Islands by Kali Wallace

City of Islands by Kali WallaceCity of Islands by Kali Wallace. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins 2018.

12-year-old orphan Mara works hard as a diver for the Lady of the Tides, taking a small boat out with her teen partner Izzy to look for magical relics.  The Caribbean-like small islands (populated mostly by brown-skinned people like Mara) are controlled by mages like the Lady of the Tides.  Some ordinary workers have passed down magical songs that can help them with their work, though even the magic of the mages is only a fragment of that rumored to have been possessed by the Founders, underwater dwellers who are said to have built the grandest buildings in the archipelago.

Mara would love to have some song magic of her own, but so far, no one has been willing to train her – her mother, when she lived, told her that magic was not worth trying for.  So when Mara finds the skeleton of a giant creature during her dive as we first meet her, she hopes that it will earn her a proper place as apprentice to the Lady of the Tides.  Instead, she’s sent to investigate the forbidding black island tower of Winter Blade, where dwells the Lord of Muck – the very person Mara believes responsible for the disappearance of the woman who last took care of her.  She’ll have to prove that she has far more courage than anyone – including herself – thought she had.

I’m always on the look-out for books that combine my loves of fantasy and music, and this certainly fits the bill.  The culture of the archipelago seems well developed, and Mara’s character and confidence in herself develops pleasingly.  I also appreciated that while there were a couple of powerful and unsavory women, Mara also had supportive female relationships, including a scholar visiting from the continent who challenges Mara’s low opinion of herself, and her diving partner Izzy who treats her as a sister.  My only quibble is that Mara felt a little younger than she’s described, but I’m not sure I could put my finger on why I thought so. This is an enjoyable and original story.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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2 for Teens: Dread Nation and Tess of the Road

Just a few more days of Cybils nominations!  I’ve updated my list of Cybils hopefuls to note which books have since been nominated – as of this writing, four of the twelve books I wrote about.

Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina IrelandDread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland. Balzer + Bray, 2018.
In this alternate history, the Civil War proper ended when the dead rose up and started fighting both sides in what is now called the shambler uprising. Since then, the government has decided that the best way to restore the natural order of things is for Blacks and Indians to be trained to put down the shamblers.

Jane McKeene, the Black daughter of a plantation mistress, was taken away from her mother to be trained at Miss Preston’s in Baltimore.  The hope of the school is for its young ladies to be hired as personal defenders for upper-class white ladies.  But when Jane causes a ruckus at a fancy event, she finds herself, beautiful blond frenemy Katherine, as well as irritating and handsome Jackson on a train to a Survivalist town out west.  The situation there is even bleaker, and Jane will have to find real allies fast to come out alive.

There is a lot of action here, several instances of Jane admiring handsome boys, but no actual romance or similar admiration of girls, despite her saying that she learned to kiss from a girl.  Did I mention lots of fight scenes?  I read this in print, but found the audiobook on hoopla as well, and correctly (it seems) recommended it to my son, who loved the action and the ongoing fight against racism as well as the shamblers.  It’s clearly the start to a series, and we’ll be looking for more.

Tess of the Road by Rachel HartmanTess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. Random House, 2018.
After two books about Seraphina, the focus of the narrative now shifts to her younger sister Tess, now 17.  When we first meet her, Tess is trying to get her beautiful twin sister Jeanne a high-class marriage, while drinking herself into a stupor whenever possible.  Her mother is a devout follower of St. Vitt, who believes that the flesh and its desires are inherently evil.  While Tess is scornful of religion, we can tell her mother has been successful in making Tess feel very, very guilty.

After Tess very publicly embarrasses herself, she thinks she’s destined for miserable and lonely life at a convent.  But then, Seraphina sends her a pair of boots, boots that tempt her to set out on her own.  Traveling, she meets her quigutl friend from childhood, Pathka, and the two of them journey together.  Pathka, a complex and decidedly non-human character, is on a mission to discover the World Serpent – even if humans and dragons both consider it mythical.  Wandering, finding jobs to support herself, slowly coming to terms with the mistakes of her early teens, Tess slowly comes to find equilibrium and purpose.  Bonus: the only wheelchair-bound love interest I can recall reading about.  This is character-oriented fantasy at its finest.

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Creature of the Pines. Unicorn Rescue Society #1

Here’s one of the titles from my Hopeful Cybils list.

Creature of the Pines. Unicorn Rescue Society #1 by Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly.Creature of the Pines. Unicorn Rescue Society #1 by Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly. April 2018.

Newbury Honor and Cybils winning author Gidwitz and illustrator Aly team up again after The Inquisitor’s Tale for this start to a not-quite-middle-grade series.  Elliott Eisner is a quiet, self-conscious boy.  It really doesn’t help that there’s a field trip, to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, on his first day of school.  He winds up on the bus sitting next to punk-looking, poetry spouting Uchenna Deveraux, a cheerful loner who tells Elliott that she’s part African, part New Orleans.  The group is led by strange Professor Fauna from Peru. Soon, Elliott and Uchenna have wandered off the trail and found a cute, unidentifiable baby animal trapped in plastic string.  Of course they have to rescue it!

Back with the class, they meet with a woman from the local Native American Nation.  She was carefully depicted as a modern, educated woman with a doctorate, currently visiting from the city.  She tells them how the indigenous people, escaping enslaved people, and British loyalists all mingled in the hostile Pine Barrens, as well as sharing the legends of the maybe mythical, maybe just hard to spot Jersey Devil.

There are no unicorns in this book, but Professor Fauna (spoiler!) inducts the children into the Unicorn Rescue Society, which looks for and protects endangered magical creatures around the globe.  Their biggest enemies are the evil Schmoke brothers, whose motto is “remaking the world the way we want it” and whose huge factories spoil the wild places such animals need to survive.

There are plenty of exciting chase scenes woven into the story, and Hatem Aly’s expressive line pictures add to the overall charm.  My daughter, age 8 when she read it, is the perfect age for this.  She’s mostly only reading graphic novels in print these days, but even she confessed to staying up late to finish this one. Book 2, The Basque Dragon, is out now, and if someone would nominate it, I’d be able to read it yet this year!

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Bell at Sealey Head and Space Opera

Here are two very different novels for adults that I read earlier this year.

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillipBell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip. Penguin, 2008.
At Sealey Head, a bell that no one can see and most of the locals no longer hear rings at sunset every night.  Judd Cauley is the innkeeper of the failing inn at Cliffside Sealey Head.  He’s pining after local merchant’s daughter Gwyneth Blair, an aspiring writer.  Judd is too shy to press his case, especially as Gwyneth is openly courted by the rich farming lord’s son, Raven, who visit often with his sister.  In the manor, Aislinn house, we get the perspective of Emma, a maid, who sometimes opens doors to discover a grander, medieval version of Aislinn House.  Though neither goes through the doors, Emma meets and befriends Princess Ysabo on the other side.  Ysabo is trapped performing a ritual that takes all day, every day, and must never be questioned.

When strangers come to town, the locals, both present and past, must work together to solve the mystery of the bell and prevent sinister magic.  If you’ve ever read Patricia McKillip, you’ll know how she’s capable of weaving the oddest bits together into something that feels truly magical, even if you might not be entirely sure why everything happened.  This one I read in memory of DeForest and Liz.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. ValenteSpace Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. Simon and Schuster, 2018.
Hitchhiker’s Guide meets Eurovision as one band is chosen to represent Earth in a contest that will determine if humans are to be considered sentient enough for Earth to be spared destruction.  The band is the last choice, but due to the slowness of space travel, the only band still living.  It’s the formerly popular band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, which is still reeling from the death of its drummer Mira Wonderful Star.  It’s dense, thoughtful, twisty, and hilarious – I went in prepared to read every sentence twice, and was glad I was.  Here’s a fragment of the sentence that introduces lead singer Decibel Jones: “psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambitious glamrock messiah by the name of Danesh Jalo” – who besides having substance problems is also devoted to his Nani.  His fellow bandmate went by the stage name of Oort S. Ultraviolet, born Omar, now trying to live a normal life with his wife and daughters trying to be a typical “Englishblokeman.”  The book is full of descriptions of alien races and previous Metagalactic Grand Prix competitions.  Every page is filled with something complicated and hilarious – if you can parse it.  I loved it.

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Hopeful Cybils Books

We’re halfway through the public nominating phase of the Cybils awards.  It makes me very nervous, as the first rush of nominations has slowed down, but there are still so many good books that haven’t yet been nominated.  Just looking through the middle grade speculative fiction books that I’ve read this year, many haven’t yet been nominated, and I know there are several I still want to read as well.  If you see a book that looks good and isn’t nominated, you can do so even if you haven’t read it yet, just to give it a chance.  But especially if you have read and loved one of these books, please do go nominate it!

Here are the books I’ve read that are still waiting to be nominated:

  • Black Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith
  • Bluecrowne by Kate Milford (Now nominated – thank you, Jennifer!)
  • The Creature of the Pines. Unicorn Rescue Society #1 by Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly. (Now nominated – thank you, Amanda!)
  • The Door to the Lost by Jaleigh Johnson
  • Dragon Overnight. Upside-Down Magic 4 by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, Emily Jenkins
  • A Friendly Town that’s Almost Always by the Ocean by Kir Fox and M. Shelley Coates (Now nominated – thank you Kara!)
  • Little Red Rodent Hood by Ursula Vernon
  • The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr (now nominated – thank you, Abi!)
  • The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas
  • Oddity by Sarah Cannon
  • Out of the Wild Night by Blue Balliett
  • Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout

There are other lists of eligible, not-nominated books over at Charlotte’s Library and Semicolon.

Disclaimer: Note that appearing on this list does not constitute endorsement of the book by me or the Round 1 Committee, or guarantee it moving forward in the process.  I just like our longlist to be as long as possible.

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Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

I originally found out about this book on the PW Kidscast, though it’s since been nominated for a Cybils award in my category.

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca SteadBob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, with illustrations by Nicholas Gannon. Feiwel and Friends, 2018.

I generally think of Wendy Mass as writing snappy, realistic but funny modern-day fantasy, while Rebecca Stead writes still mostly modern-day but dreamier, harder to pin down books.  Not authors I would have thought to put together – yet here they are, each writing a different point of view, though it’s never identified who is writing what.  Charlotte had a nice breakdown of who might have written which part and why on her blog.

10-year-old Livy is returning to her Gran’s house in Australia for the first time in 5 years. She doesn’t remember anything of that last visit, though she feels compelled to rush up to the closet in her bedroom there as soon as she gets there.  She’s full of questions and things she doesn’t understand, including why she’s so anxious about her mother leaving her there.

In the closet, she finds a stuffy, a black pawn, a tape recorder, and a strange green creature in a quite unbelievable chicken suit who says his name is Bob and that he’s been waiting for her, in the closet all of those five years.  Why, if he says they were inseparable, does she not remember him?

Bob doesn’t understand everything himself, either.  He doesn’t know what he is or where he came from.  Woven into the knotty mystery is the ongoing drought in Australia, one that’s threatening to drive everyone off of their land.

This is a quiet, quirky and cozy story, a pleasant break from long series and books filled with never-ending Action.

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Cybils Nominations Are Open!!!

Cybils 2018 Logo

The Cybils Nominations are open!!!

I was going to write a review today, but my time is very limited… so instead I nominated books in a few categories, and am writing to encourage you to do the same!!!

Nominations are open until October 15, so you have a little time to go over your favorites and maybe even read something that hasn’t quite made it to the top of the TBR yet…

Read the full rules over on the Cybils blog – and go nominate!  We can’t pick good finalists if we don’t have a good selection of books to pick from – plus (speaking from past experience) it is really exciting if the book you nominated makes it up to the next round!

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