A Thousand Nights, Court of Fives, Keeper of the Mist

Here are three recent teen fantasies I’ve read with two things in common: I loved all of them, and they all feature brown-skinned heroines.

A Thousand Nights by E. K. JohnstonA Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston. Hyperion, 2015.
Lo-Melkhiin has married 300 girls, each from a different village, and each of them has been found dead the next morning.  When news comes that Lo-Melkhiin is coming to the village of our unnamed narrator, she knows that her sister is the prettiest and most likely to be chosen.  “She that he chose of us would never be forgotten. She would still be dead.” She puts on her sister’s purple bridal dishdashah, embroidered in black and secrets, to make sure that she is chosen. She will turn shifting sand into a plan as hard as glass to find a way to do what the men will not, and stop Lo-Melkhiin.  Her sister, too, plans to pray to make her a smallgod and give her the power she needs.  All the characters besides Lo-Melkhiin are identified only by their relationships to each other, which together with the language, gives the story a powerful mythic feel.  Our narrator is particular, but also universal, famous and yet unknown in a story about the secret power of women, found in women’s work, songs and talk. Captivating, beautiful, and powerful.  Spindle, set in the same world, is coming out in December.  And if you haven’t yet, you should also read her Story of Owen. Continue reading

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Forest of Wonders, Pax, Fridays with the Wizards

I am doing shorter reviews of these three recent middle grade fantasy and dystopian books because I am once again reading much, much faster than I’m able to write reviews. The first I found earlier this year when I was looking hard for new middle grade fantasy by authors of color.

wingandclawforestForest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park. Harper Collins, 2016. 
Newbery-award winning author Linda Sue Park returns with a classic medieval fantasy that has a more modern sensibility as regarding the movement of peoples around the world.  Our hero, young Raffa Santana, dark of hair and eye, is the child of immigrants who have nevertheless stayed in their village long enough to feel established. They are apothecaries working with powerful botanicals to create medicines both typical and a little bit magical.  When Raffa’s best friend and cousin Garith leaves with his parents to work in the Commons, the most important part of Gilden, the capital of Obsidia, Raffa is very upset and decides to follow along.  Naturally, he takes with him the bat that has turned purple-eyed and started talking since Raffa treated it with his homemade botanicals.  As he reaches the city, he finds that things are more complicated than he was expecting.  He befriends both blond, pale-skinned Trixin, a poor city girl supporting her entire family, and dark-skinned Kuma, a solitary country girl suspicious of all except her companion bear Roo.  There are plenty hijinks, narrow escapes, and secrets to uncover as well as underlying meditations on ethics.  This is a solid and highly enjoyable book, especially for kids who enjoy stories of talented kids and adorable animals. You can tell by the cover that it’s the first of a series, and I am looking forward to reading more entries.

paxPax by Sara Pennypacker. Performed by Michale Curran-Dorsano. Harper, 2016.
In the not-too-distant future, the fox Pax has been Peter’s constant companion ever since Peter found the orphaned kit soon after his own mother’s death.  Seven years later, Peter’s father joins the military in its ongoing battle over water.  He tells Peter that Pax must be returned to the wild while Peter is sent to his grandfather’s house, 500 miles away.  This tear-jerker of a story is told in alternating perspectives as Pax tries to live on his own for the first time while Peter, on crutches and trying to stand up for himself for the first time, attempts to walk the 500 miles to find Pax.  Pennypacker’s inventive language use is fully on display, but here used to be stunningly, lyrically beautiful rather than the quirky humor of her Clementine books.  There are very clear statements on the evils of war, as well as tougher lessons on the appropriate times for, and uses of anger.  I think I read this too close to the 1000 Black Girl Books campaign as despite its beauty, there was a largeish part of me that felt that this was another Newbery-bait, tear-jerking book about a white boy and his dog, even if the dog was a fox this time.  If you or a kid in your life are in the mood for really sad (I had a young patron come in asking for it because he wanted sad), this is a great choice.  I myself prefer Clementine, with her serious life lessons told through humor.

fridayswiththewizardsFridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Princess Celie returns in this fourth book in the series that began with Tuesdays at the Castle.  The evil wizard Arkwright has escaped from the castle dungeons, and the hunt for him is on.  The castle is clearly upset, and Celie is trying her best to figure out what the castle wants.  Arkwright seems to be wandering in secret passages and coming out for stealthy attacks on people in the castle.  Meanwhile, the castle gives Celie the pieces of an old boat, which it’s decided – without her input – will be rebuilt and given to Prince Lulath and his kingdom as a gift to celebrate the engagement of Lulath and Lilah.  None of this sits well with Celie – but just as she’s feeling fed up with everyone underestimating her and doing things that affect her without her input, it’s up to her to save the day again.  This is another lovely entry in this series, perfect for younger fantasy readers.

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Diversity on the Shelf- July Update

What? It’s not early August anymore?  I know – I was offline for a couple weeks and am only very slowly getting caught up again. Here’s my update for the Diversity on the Shelf challenge hosted by Akilah at the Englishist.

I read 24 books in July.

5 of these were by authors of color, and all middle grade except as noted:

  • The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich 
  • Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus and Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke (somewhere between early chapter and middle grade)
  • Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung


Three more featured main characters of color:

  • Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (YA)
  • Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier (YA)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (adult)

 Bonus: An adorable green-skinned goblin deals with violent prejudice in this picture book from the author of Zita the Space Girl:


  • Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

This puts me at 35 books by authors of color in 2016, and an additional 21 books by white authors with main characters of color. Now to write some reviews!

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The Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick Samphire

Not too far in the future, four authors whose books I have read and very much enjoyed will be doing an author event that would be close enough to consider if it worked with my schedule.  Alas, it does not.  But if you will be in the Lansing, Michigan area on the evening of August 9, you could go see Stephanie Burgis, Jim C. Hines, Merrie Haskell, and Patrick Samphire at Schuler Books.  Here’s the Facebook event page.

Meantime, I recently read this novella by Patrick Samphire set in the same world as Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, which he was kind enough to send me as a review copy.  I’m keeping thoughts brief only because I’m short on time, not for lack of book love.

The Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick SamphireThe Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick Samphire. Five Fathoms Press, 2016.
Sixteen-year-old Harriet lives on Regency-era Mars in the care of her married older sister, who has just gotten it into her head that Harriet needs to be safely married off.  Harriett is appalled, but jumps at the chance to help her bumbling police inspector brother-in-law Bertrand save his job by helping him track down the notorious thief the Glass Phantom.  That villain is reported to be in the area with designs to steal a fabulously expensive necklace from the Countess von Krakendorff.  (In this world, dinosaurs are still alive on Mars, though rare.) Since the Countess is heading on a dinosaur hunting expedition beyond the wall that separates the dinosaurs from civilization, Harriett disguises herself as Harry and heads out with Bertrand.  There will be airship travel, lots of characters with secrets, ancient artifacts, curious Martian wildlife, and of course, encounters with dinosaurs.

I enjoyed Secrets of the Dragon Tomb quite a lot, but this story, featuring a girl dissatisfied with her social lot and determined to find more in her life, was a little bit more to my taste.  The details of the curious Martian wildlife and artifacts are just as delightful, and the attention to the social mores of the by-gone era as precise.  There’s also more of a look at the former natives of Mars – I would really like a fuller exploration of this topic!  The story is also aimed a little bit older, involving an actual murder (though of a disagreeable character.)  I wasn’t quite sure that all the ends were tied up – but as the story is left open for sequels, I shall happily wait for more.  All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dinosaur Hunters.

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before & P.S. I Still Love You

Way back in April, the Top 10 Tuesday theme was “__ Books That Make Me Laugh Out Loud.” – I did Middle Grade Fantasies That Make Me Laugh Out Loud, of course.  But some other book blogger I stumbled upon (mea culpa! I didn’t write down her name!) in exploring the other people who’d signed up had put the first of these books on her list. It had been on my radar since it first came out, but being contemporary and realistic, had never quite made it to the top of the list. This pushed me into actually checking it out and starting it on my break that day.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
This book starts out awfully sad for a book billed here as funny.  High school junior Lara Jean Covey is the middle of the three Song girls – Song being their deceased mother’s middle name.  That sad event happened several years ago, but they are still feeling the pain.  Now oldest sister Margot, who’s kept the family running while their doctor father is at work, is leaving for college in Scotland.  She’s breaking Lara Jean’s heart by breaking things off with long-time Josh next door – Lara Jean is afraid that Josh will no longer be the close family friend he’s been for so many years.

The humor comes a bit later.  Ever since eighth grade, Lara Jean has written letters to boys she had crushes on when she’s decided it’s time for her to get over them, detailing all the things she loved about them.  They’ve lived in a hat box in her room – but now the hat box is gone, and boys are coming to her at school, ancient letters in hand.  Josh gets one.  Super-handsome athlete Peter Kavinsky gets one.  Choices are made to stop the flood of embarrassment that only make sense to a hormone-fueled teenage brain.

This is definitely a teen romance, and despite the decidedly made-up situation, it has the solid ring of truth underneath it.  Lara Jean’s life is filled with many things beyond boys, including her love of baking and her discomfort with driving, having just learned to do so. Her circle includes fleshed-out family members and several friends, including strong-willed and temperamental younger sister Kitty, friendly Josh, and “bad girl” best friend Chris.  While the drama feels relatable to any modern teen, Lara Jean’s part-Korean heritage is an important part of her family culture. Though the Korean may be more particular, the integration of old and new traditions felt familiar to me, as well.  I fell in love with Lara Jean and went right on to the next book.

psistillloveyouP.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Trying to stay as free from spoilers as possible – Lara Jean’s romantic life, which seemed beautiful at the end of the last book, is now developing wrinkles.  The most romantic moment in her life was caught on video and published on the locally popular website Anonybitch.  Lara Jean is quickly recognized and suffers the full force of modern opinions on teen girl’s sexuality, put through the wringer both for the modest nightgown she was wearing and being called a slut by fellow students and encouraged to do better by herself by teachers.

At the same time, Lara Jean is working at the nursing home, setting up dances and scrapbooking, while getting advice from seniors Stormy and Alicia on dating and life.  Kitty has an expanding self-awareness, and she has decided to rope Lara Jean into trying to get their dad to date again.

This has the same heady mix of relationships romantic and not, ethical dilemmas, trouble and hilarity.  I was very excited to read just last week that Han is writing a new one.

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State of the Book Basket – July 2016

Summertime! We have hit a momentous milestone in our reading lives: the kids are now good enough readers to put the books in a bookstand and read during breakfast. I’ve always done this, but the interruptions are slightly less when I’m not the only one reading. Here’s what we’re reading:

My daughter, now six and three quarters, as she likes to say, is moving back and forth between picture books (Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley and Cecil the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey from the library, as well as ones we own) and chapter books (Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, and Sofia Martinez: Singing Superstar by Jacqueline Jules.) She’ll read some Magic Tree House, a picture book, and then back to a chapter book.

She just decided that she needed to read a graphic memoir I just finished herself – Something New by Lucy Knisley, her story of planning her wedding. It’s quite dense for a rising second-grader, but she seems to be motivated! I’m reading her Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus, as well as Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan, depending on what she feels like. That last is the perfect level for read-aloud: interesting to her but just advanced enough that she isn’t tempted to read ahead on her own. We’re listening to both Charlotte’s Web and Pie by Sarah Weeks in the car.

My son, age eleven, has finally found a print series he wants to read all the way through! It’s Hikaru No Go by Yumi Hotta, about the ancient strategy game of Go, which my love learned as a child from his older brother. My boy was (last I checked) on volume 10 of 23. He’s also looking at some Greek mythology books and asked if he could read Something New, too. I’m reading him my childhood summer favorite The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. It’s not really surprising that there are some uncomfortable moments in this book, first published in 1903. I’m just surprised that I didn’t notice the awfulness of the (mercifully brief) blackface scene until reading it aloud, at which point we had to halt for a conversation to discuss why it’s so inappropriate. Also not free of sexism, though that’s a good deal less obvious here than in, say, Peter Pan. He’s listening to Mister Monday by Garth Nix on his iPod, and we’re listening to The BFG by Roald Dahl in the car. (Somehow I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory repeatedly as a child, The Great Glass Elevator once or twice, and no other Roald Dahl until now.) There’s also some sexism here, but at least readily apparent and easy to discuss.

My love recently purchased Velveteen vs. the Seasons by Seanan McGuire and read it in record time. I think he’s now gone back to re-read Velveteen vs. the Junior Super Patriots. We are both (separately) listening to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This has won so many awards and is loved by many of my favorite book bloggers as well. We are still trying to figure out what’s going on enough to know if we’ll love it or not.

I have my usual long queue of mostly library books. I’m reading Vitamin N by Richard Louv in hard copy (looking especially for ideas to get the Brownie troop more nature experiences) and Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier (purchased) on my ereader. I’ve got The Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick Samphire (a review copy!) up next on my ereader, and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai, Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman, Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung, The Game of Silence by Lousie Erdrich, the Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski, and Poison is Not Polite by Robin Stevens in line in print. My love would also like me to read the complete Justice League: New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, which I am absolutely planning to do as soon as there aren’t so many library books checked out. As soon as I finish Ancillary Justice, I also have a Great Course on CD, Medieval Heroines in History and Legend Part 1 by Bonnie Wheeler.

What are you reading?

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The War That Saved My Life

This is one that won a Newbery honor, the Odyssey award for best audiobook for children.  And even more importantly for me, Maureen at By Singing Light  really, really, really liked it.

warthatsavedmylifeThe War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwhistle. Random House/ Listening Library, 2015.
Ada has lived her whole life in a tiny London flat with her little brother Jamie and Mam.  Mam has always told her that her clubfoot makes her too hideous for anyone to see, so Ada has never left the room or learned to walk.  When Jamie tells Ada that children are being sent away from London because of risk of German bombs, Mam is clear that she intends to send only Jamie away.  Ada secretly teaches herself to walk so that she can go with Jamie, the only person she loves.

In the country, no one wants a pair of ragged, dirty children, one of whom is a cripple.  They’re pushed onto Susan Smith, a single woman so locked in grief over the loss of her best friend some years earlier that she wants nothing to do with them.  Slowly, the children draw Susan out of her shell.  (Standard children’s literature theme: children are good for adults, whether or not they think they want them.)  Susan has a pony, Butter, whom Ada learns to ride.  Slowly, slowly, Ada deals with the weight of her ignorance about the world and the depth of her self-hatred.  She is often angry and out-of-control in a way that felt very realistic for an abuse survivor, as she struggles to learn to read and write, to accept gifts, to make friends.  Always, there is the fear that Mam will take them back.  Towards the end of the book, there are bombs and a German spy – the last of which I agree with Maureen did not feel necessary to the story.

It’s read by Jayne Entwhistle, who also narrated The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.  She says in a conversation with her at the end of the book that she toned down her accents for American audiences, but the different in lower-class London and upper-middle-class Kent is still clear. I wasn’t sure after the multiple narrators and integrated music of Echo how this one might be better – but this is just amazing.

This is character-driven historical fiction done to perfection.  I found myself worrying for Ada and Jamie frequently as I was listening to the book.  The bombs and spies were such an abrupt addition towards the end that I’m not sure how kids would react to it – it felt like possibly too much for the sensitive reader (though the child abuse with Mam is pretty severe, too), while I could see a plot-first reader like my son waiting impatiently for actual war stuff to start happening.  Still, it was just about a perfect book for me, and a great choice for a family audiobook listening with kids of middle grade age and up.

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3 Positive Parenting Books

There are times when I go years between reading parenting books, and times when I feel like I need an infusion of new, helpful ideas.  Here are brief summaries of my recent reading, with thanks to my dear friend Dr. M. who found and recommended to me all my favorites here.  All my favorites are centered on classic positive parenting principles. Continue reading

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Diversity on the Shelf – June Update

I’m participating in the Diversity on the Shelf challenge hosted by Akilah at the Englishist.

I read 19 books in June, not including two I didn’t finish – one because it wasn’t working for me and one because I was reading Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon aloud to my daughter, who liked it so much that she finished it on her own.  By the levels, one early chapter-ish book, 9 middle grade, 3 teen, and 6 adult.

Four books by authors of color:

  • Booked by Kwame Alexander (middle grade)
  • Sewing Happiness by Sanae Ishida (craft, adult nonfiction)
  • Spirit Week Showdown. The Magnificent Mya Tibbs 1 by Crystal Allen (middle grade)
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (adult)

Three by white authors with main characters of color:

  • Little Robot by Ben Hatke (children’s graphic novel, low word count)
  • Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (teen)
  • The Beatriceid by Kate Elliott (adult short fiction/ epic poem)

Bonus nonfiction interviewing lots of girls, including many of color:

Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein

  • Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein (adult)

 My total count for authors of color this year is now at 30, with an additional 18 books by white authors with main characters of color.  That puts me exactly halfway to my goal of reading 60 books by authors of color this year – right on target, but I can’t slack off now!

I’m still working on finding and reading more chapter books starring girls of color suitable for classroom read-alouds from K-3. The ones I’m reading now will show up next month, but I’m still open to suggestions!  I’m especially in need of books with Asian and Latina protagonists.

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Top 10 Under-Rated Books

It’s Tuesday again!  I still need to write my monthly reading summary, and we won’t even talk about how far behind I am on reviews.  But this week’s Top 10 Tuesday topic (hosted as always by the good folks at the Broke and the Bookish) was both such a fun challenge and an opportunity to promote some of my favorite underappreciated books that I found myself participating again.  The cut-off was officially books that have under 2000 Goodreads ratings, but when I saw how low some of my favorites were, I took it down to under 600, with honorable mentions that have a few more.  Without further ado, here are my top ten under-rated middle grade and teen books, mostly fantasy as usual.  Links to my reveiws; numbers of Goodreads ratings in parentheses.

Top Ten Tuesday

Middle Grade

Honorable Mention: Rose by Holly Webb (1,360)


Honorable Mention: The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston (1,769)

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