Unicorn Quest by Kamila Benko

Unicorn Quest by Kamila BenkoUnicorn Quest by Kamila Benko. Bloomsbury, 2018.
11-year-old Claire and her older sister Sophie have just moved to their recently deceased great-aunt’s enormous country house.  Claire has spent most of her life following very cautiously behind Sophie’s search for Experiences – until recently, when Sophie has only recently recovered from a long and serious illness.

In this house, the girls find a ladder in a fireplace.  When they climb the ladder, they find themselves not on the roof, but climbing out of a well in what’s clearly a different country.  Chased by wraiths, they decide not to return – but when Sophie vanishes, Claire knows that she must have gone back without her.

When Claire climbs the ladder, she finds that Sophie is still missing in the new land, Arden – and is on trial for the theft of the village’s magical Unicorn Harp.  It turns out that this country divides its people into Guilds, each with its own magical skill set and territory.  She sets out on a dangerous mission to find Sophie with two kids her own age she meets – Nett (short for Nettle), a Tiller boy, and Sena, a Forger girl.  But what starts as simple rescue turns into something larger as Claire has to reflect on her family’s connection to Arden and its long-ago, disputed history.

It’s exciting without so much gore as to make it unsuitable for readers on the younger or more sensitive end of the middle grade spectrum.   Plus, it involves a hunt to bring back unicorns, believed to be extinct, and for a bit more advanced readers than those of The Unicorn Rescue Society.

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

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson

We’re having our first snow of the season today – a perfect time to review a wintery book.

Winterhouse by Ben GutersonWinterhouse by Ben Guterson. Illustrated by Chloe Bristol. Henry Holt, 2018.
Orphaned book-lover Elizabeth Somers lives with her horrible Aunt Purdy and Uncle Burlap, who make it clear that she’s a burden, even though they don’t really take care of her.  (Sound familiar?) When she comes home from school the last day before vacation, she finds she’s been locked out of the house, left with a plastic sack containing a change of clothes, $3, and a bus ticket.  She knew they were going on vacation, but had begged to be left home to read in peace. Continue reading

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Snared: Escape to the Above by Adam Jay Epstein

So all those fantasy dungeons filled with treasure, traps, and treacherous creatures… who put them together?

Snare: Escape to the Above by Adam Jay EpsteinSnared: Escape to the Above by Adam Jay Epstein. Read by Nick Mondelli. Dreamscape Media, 2018. 

12-year-old Wily Snare is a trap smith in a dungeon run by a very unsympathetic wizard.  Though Wily hates that he’s forced to call the guy, “Father”, and really wishes he knew anything about his real parents, he’s been well trained and is an expert at keeping all the traps in the dungeon going, working with the skeletons and spiders, and even designing new traps.  He wishes his spine had the graceful curve of the other hobgoblins, and constantly dreams of ways to escape the dungeon, so it’s clear that the evil wizard has been deliberately keeping him in the dark in more ways than one.  Still, he finds satisfaction in his work and affection with the found family of his adopted hob sister.

Then an adventuring team comes through that actually manages to make it through his traps.  There’s a knight with a detached magic arm, an acrobatic elf woman, and a large moss golem.  They’ve come not just for the wizard’s significant treasure, but also for Wily, who they believe is clever enough to help them navigate through other dungeons.  They’re only partly motivated by greed – the Infernal King is using his giant clockwork devices to terrorize the kingdom and kidnap people, so the team wants enough loot to escape the country….

What starts as a clever premise continues as a well-thought-out adventure.  Though some of the elements are well-worn, this was still an enjoyable journey.  I especially appreciated the relative diversity of the team, and that Wily refuses to give up on his hobgoblin sister even as he’s searching for his birth family.  I listened on audio through hoopla.  Initially, I found the narrator’s pace annoyingly slow and had to increase the playback speed, not something I usually do.  He’s perfectly expressive, though, and his pace picked up over the course of the book so that I was able to dial the speed back to normal. The story wraps up nicely, but leaves plenty of room for sequels.

This would go well with The Adventurer’s Guild, The Dungeoneers, and the Thrones and Bones series.

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The Frame-Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnight

The Frame-Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnightThe Frame-Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnight. Greenwillow Books, 2018.
Here’s a book based around a real art museum, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick.  It’s built around an intriguing, Hogwarts-like concept – the people in paintings can come to life, at least if the works are valued enough.  Mona Dunn, the thirteen-year-old subject of the most famous painting the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is one of those paintings, and enjoys running around between the other paintings in the gallery, making friends with the other painting people and hanging out by the Italian lake in one of them. (Color plates of all the paintings described are happily included.) She’s sprightly and rebellious, so that when the son of the gallery director, twelve-year-old Sargent Singer, comes to the gallery for the first time, he catches her sticking her tongue out at some snotty visitors.

Sargent is living with his father just for the summer, but it’s the first time they’ve tried living together since his parents divorced years ago.  He managed to arrive at the same time as a very cranky art restorer, and a funding crisis in the gallery, so that his father struggles to make time in his schedule for his son.  The first part of the book details Sargent’s struggles with his father, a realistically bad parent who has a hard time figuring out things like kids are people with whom one can have two-way conversations, as well as the more interesting development of a friendship between Mona and Sargent. Sargent, an aspiring painter, is forced to attend art camp at the museum, where he happily makes his first living friends as well.

Just as this kind of plot felt like it was bogging down around the middle of the book, an art thief – one who knows the paintings’ secrets – makes an appearance, and the plot builds to an exciting conclusion, one that even has a solution for the problem of a living boy who wants to stay friends with a girl in a painting who will stay 13 forever.

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

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Truth-Tellers: Endling #1 and Heartseeker

Two Cybils nominees star main characters who know when the truth is being told – and the danger this puts them in from those in power.

Last. Endling #1 by Katherine ApplegateLast. Endling #1 by Katherine Applegate. HarperCollins, 2018.
Byx is one of the last of the dairnes, a dog-like people with a number of differences from actual dogs – they walk upright and have pouches, fingers, speech, glissaires that let them glide like flying squirrels, and most importantly, the ability to do magic.  This makes them one of the seven governing species, including humans and several other types.  But each of the other species has their own territory – only the dairnes are without their own home, supposed to be allowed free range of all the areas.  Continue reading

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The Wild Book by Juan Villoro

Here’s a rare middle grade book in translation, from an award-winning author of Mexican literary fiction.

The Wild Book by Juan VilloroThe Wild Book by Juan Villoro. Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Yonder Books, 2017.
Juan’s mother has been falling apart since his father moved in with a girlfriend in Paris. Although he worries that he should be taking care of his mother, he and his little sister Carmen are sent to different houses for the summer to give her a break and improve her mental health.  Juan is sent to his eccentric Uncle Tito, who never leaves his enormous house full of books and is both erudite regarding books and crude regarding food and bodily functions.

Juan is set to exploring the different rooms of the house, each with different categories of books like “Cheeses that Stink but Taste Delicious”, “Motors that Make No Noise”, and “Marmalade is Not Money.” Uncle Tito hopes that Juan will be able to find the Wild Book, which has eluded generations of searchers.  But the books all have personalities of their own, some shy, some dangerous.

A highlight of Juan’s summer is meeting the beautiful Catalina, the daughter of the pharmacist across the street, who’s helping behind the counter over break.  He brings books for her to read and finds that the stories she reads are different from what he’s read, giving them even more to talk about.

This is a book that really brought out to me the importance of the translator.  The language is an odd-to-me mix of formal and colloquial language – how much is the result of being translated and how much would be there if I could read the Spanish?  The whole story, with the protagonist falling in love (but denying it) but being quest-oriented without a real villain felt very different from the middle grade fiction I’m used to, juxtaposing plot lines for older and younger readers.  In general, gender expectations in this book felt very old-fashioned – the mother who had no sense of identity outside of her marriage, and Catalina, who though described as clever, still seemed much more of a work of art to be admired than a real person. Though this grated, the magical books were really well done.  Overall, this was an enjoyable exploration into new-to-me literary sensibility, with a magical library.

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

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The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings

I was so excited to learn that Sarah Prineas – author of the Magic Thief series and the Winterling series, both middle grade, as well as Ash & Bramble and Rose & Thorn – has started a new series. Happily for me, someone nominated the first book for a Cybils award to make sure I got around to reading it.

The Lost Books: the Scroll of Kings by Sarah PrineasThe Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas. Harper, 2018.
Alex knows he needs to be a librarian, but the librarian he tries to apprentice to won’t teach him any of the secrets Alex knows are lurking in the libraries.  Instead, he gets lots of lessons on how to repair books and identify the frass of different insects.  Then – quite near the beginning – the aged librarian dies.  Though it looks to Alex like the book he was reading tried to kill him, of course no one will believe him.  But when that librarian receives a summons to the capital, Alex decides it’s the perfect opportunity for him.  What could be cooler or more important than the Royal Library?

Queen Kenneret has just outgrown her regency and is just a couple of years older than Alex.  She’s working hard to prove to the kingdom that she has the maturity to rule the kingdom on her own.  She still finds Alex suspicious, especially his claims that libraries are important places and that the royal library needs lots of special attention.

It’s going to take a lot of work for Alex to do his job: put frightened books that consistently put themselves in disarray back in order, track down the source of the evil magic that’s corrupting books and making them attack librarians, as well as convincing anyone at all that books – at least when they’re not murderous – have important, relevant information.  There’s also someone else in the library – a room to which no one else should have the key.

There’s some cool world building here – I love magical libraries in general, and these ones, where librarians have Pages that are actual magical sheets of paper that can do small tasks and errands for the librarians, are delightful.  Besides the obvious library themes, there are several mysteries, including the Alex’s past and the decline of the kingdom.  There is swordplay, good character development, and a major character with a learning disability, something found much more often in real life than in literature.  I enjoyed this book lots and am looking forward both to it coming out on audio so I can better share it with my children, who loved her previous middle grade works, and for the next book.

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

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Out of the Wild Night and Denis Ever After

Some spooky reading for late October! Here are two ghost stories from my pre-Cybils and Cybils reading.

Out of the Wild Night by Blue BalliettOut of the Wild Night by Blue Balliett. Scholastic, 2018.
The ghost of Nantucket resident Mary W. Chase finds that she is now the town ghost crier, responsible for telling the news.  And the news is grim. A year after the event, Nantucket is reeling from the death of a boatload of people, including seven children, on a Halloween boat ride.  Their lanterns, though, came back to land still lit… Continue reading

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Reading Pair: the Calculating Stars and Hidden Figures

Here’s a nice pair of books, one fiction and one nonfiction, about the early history of the NACA and the beginnings of NASA.  I found out about the first from a post on John Scalzi’s blog, and was delighted when my hold on it came in the same day the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast had an interview with her about it – it’s well worth listening to!

Hidden Figures had been in my hoopla favorites list since it came out, but reading The Calculating Stars with its alternate history finally pushed me over the edge to wanting to know more about what really happened.  (Also, I had a blank square on my #SummerSoLit bingo sheet for nonfiction about people of color, even though I read this past the deadline.) Continue reading

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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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