Archives

The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton

The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice by Andrew S. Chilton.

I was reminded of the movie and book The Princess Bride while reading this debut middle grade fantasy novel, and that is high praise indeed. For a book to remind one of The Princess Bride, it must be clever in a similar way to the the wit and wisdom of that classic. It is. I can also say that I wanted to see The Goblin’s Puzzle as a film and that I think it could be a good one. Other than The Princess Bride, which may or may not have been an inspiration, Mr. Chilton’s sources seem to be good and quite varied:

From the author’s website at Penguin Random House: “Andrew S. Chilton drew inspiration for The Goblin’s Puzzle from a wide variety of sources, ranging from The Hobbit to Monty Python to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As a kid, he gobbled up fantasy novels and logic puzzles, and as an adult, he spent over ten years as a practicing lawyer before launching his career as a writer.”

The book stars a nameless slave boy, a girl called Plain Alice (to distinguish her from all the other Alices in the kingdom), Princess Alice, heir to the throne, and a goblin named (something long and complicated), Mennofar for short. The Boy is running for his life from an unfortunate incident that ended in the violent death of his master’s son. It really wasn’t The Boy’s fault, but it will be blamed on him anyway, and he feels quite guilty about breaking a lot of the 99 rules for being a good slave, most of which he can’t even remember. Meanwhile, Plain Alice, who wants to become a sage but can’t get an opportunity because she’s a girl, has been kidnapped by a dragon. And Princess Alice, who should have been the object of the dragon’s kidnapping, is worrying King Julian, her father, with her frequent giggling and lack of a serious education. The goblin, Mennofar, is running away, too, and he owes The Boy for his help in the goblin’s escape from captivity. But Mennofar is indeed a goblin, and “it is hard for a goblin and a human to be friends. Goblin honor and human honor are so very different.” Mennofar feels obligated to to something for The Boy, but his “goblin honor” also demands that he make the whole thing into a particularly difficult and complicated puzzle.

There’s a afterword to the book that explains a bit about the basics of the study of logic, which is the main theme and framework for the story. But it’s a subtle use of logic, not an in-your-face teaching of logic. (Don’t worry. If you aren’t at all interested in the study of logic, it’s still a great story, and you won’t be tricked into learning logic—much. Although goblins are kind of tricky that way.) I enjoyed the discussions between Mennofar and The Boy and between Plain Alice and the dragon, Ludwig, that were illustrations of the different aspects of logic, which is the study of how we prove things, according to Mr. Chilton. I might have guessed, if I had thought of it, that Mr. Chilton was a lawyer before he decided to write a book for middle grade logicians and fantasy lovers.

I also just liked this story. Do I have to prove that it’s a good book for this to be a good review or for you to believe me when I say that you would probably enjoy it, too? I don’t think so. After all, we’re humans, not goblins. We don’t have to be strictly logical. Or tricky.

Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

Just like her Newbery award winning book, The Midwife’s Apprentice, Karen Cushman’s new foray into fantasy/magical realism has a touch of medieval wisdom and a cartload of feminist historical perspective to bring to middle grade readers. The image of medieval “hedge witches” and “cunning folk” and “wise women” is rehabilitated and given respectability and even honor as Grayling, the daughter of one such herbalist and witch, goes on a journey to rescue her mother from an evil magic smoky shadow that has rooted her to the ground and is changing her into a tree.

Although it reminded me of the book I reviewed yesterday, Red by Liesl Shurtliff, this book was just a little too “witchy” for my tastes. In addition to Grayling’s mother, Hannah Strong, and Grayling herself, the story features a grumpy weather witch, an evil wannabe witch, an alluring enchantress, and a professor of divination, all of whom team up with Grayling to help her on her quest. I can like stories with witches—Baba Yaga, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Narnia’s White Witch—all are perfectly good stories in their own way. But this feminist version of medieval witches that reimagines them as harmless but wise healers and herbalists, and yet at the same has them wielding powers that are far from harmless . . . It’s just not my favorite storyline or characterization.

Grayling is the typical “strong female” character that’s all the rage nowadays. She tells a young man who tries to rescue her from drowning to quit rescuing her and let her rescue herself. She learns to rely on her own strength and courage, even when she doesn’t feel strong or courageous. One of the several songs that Grayling makes up during the course of the story to work her own kind of magic goes like this:

You cannot just sit here,
Dreaming and hoping,
March forward to battle
With pennants unfurled,
I call on your courage,
No fretting or moping.
Stand tall.
Stand tall.

If we stand alone,
It still must be done.
If it must be done,
You are the one.

That’s OK, as far as it goes, but something about it feels like a pep talk and leaves me wanting.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing really wrong with this coming of age story about a girl who leaves home to save her mother’s life, succeeds with the help of others, and returns to find that she’s outgrown the home she left. Amanda at The Willow Nook has a much better, and more positive, review of the book, and she makes some excellent points about the redemptive and heroic themes to be found in this short novel, only 200 pages. I predict it will find an audience, just not me.

Red by Liesl Shurtliff

Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood by Liesl Shurtliff.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Shurtliff says that she wrote this story about Red and her Granny, the Witch of the Woods, in honor of her own grandmother who died while the writing of this fairy tale reimagined was still in progress. Somehow her grandmother’s death shook something loose in Ms. Shurtliff’s mind and enabled her to finish the book with its themes of living and dying, facing fear, and seeing things from different perspectives.

When Red goes to stay with her granny while her parents are away, she is happy to depend on Granny’s magic to ease the way and make things grow. However, when Granny falls sick, Red is determined to find the secret of eternal life, not for herself but for her beloved granny. Red is so afraid of life without Granny and of her own clumsy and sometimes dangerous attempts to make magic that she will do anything, except magic, to find a way to prolong Granny’s life.

With the unwelcome help of a blonde, curly-headed chatterbox named Goldie, Red sets off on a journey through the Woods on her own special magical path to find life for Granny. Along the way she learns about friendship (even with annoying chatterers), appearances (things are not always what they seem), and fear. What if a wolf can be Red’s closest friend? What if fear, not death, is the greatest enemy of all?

I really enjoyed this story of Red who is afraid that Granny will die and leave her alone, without Granny’s magical presence to comfort and sustain her. There were some wise themes embedded in the story, even though I’m not a fan of the whole “circle of life” philosophy that is employed by the author to explain the inevitability of death. Red does overcome her fears and come to accept that Granny, like everyone else, will die someday. And she does learn to see life and events from the perspective of others, including a grumpy dwarf and a harsh beast.

Favorite quotes:

“Some mistakes need to be made. Sometimes we have to fall down before we can stand up.”

” . . . you should never give up. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wrong, in which case you should give up entirely.”

“Fear doesn’t only twist our magic, it also makes us forget. It made me forget who I was, the strength and goodness I had inside me. But when I let go of my fear and faced what was before me, the memories came rushing back.”

“Funny, that we always told stories with wolves and beasts and demons as villains, but in real life it seemed the humans were always the worst enemies. You could be your own villain.”

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

“Twelve year old Nella Sabatini’s life is changing too soon, too fast.” Nella, who lives in an Italian American neighborhood with her very Italian American parents and her four “snot-nosed” little brothers, has one best friend, Clem, and one former best friend, Angela. When Angela’s troubled family brings trouble to the entire neighborhood, what will Nella do about Angela, Clem, Angela’s older brother, Anthony, and her own very mixed-up feelings and allegiances?

I liked this book. Really. The girls talk about important things—war, guns, God, time, change, and friendship—in a very natural and twelve year old way. And Nella’s life and relationships with her family and friends and great-grandmother and her friends’ families were also well-drawn and believable. I was drawn into the story, and I really wanted to know what would happen to these girls and their changing neighborhood.

However, there were two problems that got in the way of my enjoyment of this middle grade novel. First, one of the minor characters uses God’s name in vain (OMG). Why is this necessary in a middle grade novel, especially for a minor character who doesn’t get much character development anyway? It’s offensive to some people, and unnecessary, so leave it out.

Second, there were these little short interlude chapters in which a statue, named Jeptha A. Stone, tells what it would say if it could speak. A bird makes its nest in the statue’s lap. I have no idea how these interludes related to the main story. I’m a bit dense, I suppose, but I think the book would have been better with the statue thoughts edited out completely.

Then, there is the part that wasn’t problematic for me, but might be for others. The main crisis of the novel deals with an accidental shooting of a black man by a white (Italian) man, Angela’s older brother, Anthony. Anthony goes to jail, and everybody is appalled at his shooting of this young black man, implying or stating that the shooting was racially motivated. However, as far as Anthony and his family and Nella are concerned, the shooting was an accident. So, some people might be offended that the shooter is “innocent”, since many, at least some, shootings of young black men are racially motivated. Others might be concerned because Anthony is not totally exonerated, although he is a sympathetic character. Like all the news these days related to police and people of color and guns and shooting, it’s complicated. It makes the book itself timely, but subject to controversy and misunderstanding.

I recommend Every Single Second. Skip the sort of talking statue.

New Children’s Fiction in the Library: September, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw. In 1066 the Normans defeat the Saxons, and eleven year old Juliana, a Saxon miss, becomes a captive and a servant in a Norman castle. However, when she escapes captivity, she even comes to have a part in the creation of the famous Bayeaux Tapestry.

All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd. Sequel to Time at the Top. A young girl is granted three rides in a magic elevator that transports her to the end of the nineteenth century.

Hannah’s Fancy Notions: A Story of Industrial New England by Pat Rose. A short chapter book, historical fiction, about a young girl who helps her impoverished family by making hatboxes, or bandboxes as they were called, to sell to the mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Winnie’s War by Jennie Moss. I used to have a copy of this book, but it got lost. Now, this World War I novel, set in Coward’s Creek (really Friendswood), Texas is back in my library. Semicolon review here.

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. This book, set in the Florida Everglades, alludes to Beowulf. Semicolon review here.

The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin. For readers who enjoy puzzles, games, wordplay, and mathematical dilemmas.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. In this 1894 adventure novel, Rudolph Rassendyll’s life is interrupted by his unexpected involvement in the affairs of Ruritania whilst travelling through the town of Zenda. He is shortly on the way to Streslau, the capital, where he finds himself engaged in plans to rescue the imprisoned king.

Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen. Francis Alphonse Tucket, who is traveling on the Oregon Trail with his family, gets separated from the wagon train and kidnapped by a Pawnee raiding party. First in a five book series, will Francis ever get to Oregon and find his family?

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Whether I like to admit it or not, awards and public acclaim do influence my interest and enjoyment of a book. I read and wrote about Mr. Alexander’s first book, The Crossover in 2015, before it won the 2015 Newbery Award (and many other awards). My review, as anyone can see, was lukewarm: “if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel.”

Fast forward to 2016 and Kwame Alexander and verse novels are all the rage. Booked, his second verse novel for middle graders/young adults, at least has a title I can get behind, and I’m inclined to give it a fair shake partly because of all the acclaim for The Crossover. Booked is about books and words and family brokenness and well, soccer. I must confess that the soccer stuff I skimmed, hard to do in a novel written in tightly woven poetry, but easy for me because the few soccer-centric poems interspersed throughout the novel did not give me a picture in my mind. Because I’m soccer ignorant.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Booked. The drama in Nick Hall the protagonist’s family, Mac the rapping librarian, Nick’s dad and his book full of words, Nick’s crush on April, Nick’s mom and her easy way of relating to her teenage son—all of these aspects of the book were fun and good to read about in creative, poetic forms and types. The parts I didn’t like were the tired, old excuses and platitudes about divorce, the disrespect Nick showed for his parents, especially his dad, and the unresolved ending, which you will have to read for yourself.

I did like wading through the poems this time to capture the plot and the images and the feelings of being Nick Hall, a thirteen year old with a lot of hard stuff going on in his life. It was sort of like a game—find the plot thread. I’ve seen verse novels capture the interest of a reluctant reader in my own family this year, and I’m more sold on the genre than I was before. And I must admit that Mr. Alexander has a way with words, and poetry.

So, boys and soccer fans and just plain old readers should give it a try. Or try one of the other, mostly verse, novels that Alexander not-so-subtly recommends by way of his character Nick in this book:

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Peace Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit.

By the way, Nick is emphatically NOT a reader as the book begins, but by the end of the story he’s looking for his next read. Librarians and teachers and parents might want to read this one just to watch the transformation, which is realistic, fits and starts, with the added attractions of a persistent librarian, a pretty girl, and some parental discipline.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet

Jan Balet “was a German/US-American painter, graphic artist and illustrator. Affected by the style naive art he worked particularly as a graphic artist and as an Illustrator of children’s books. Besides this he painted pictures in the style of naive art. Referred to as a “naïve” painter, his works exhibit a dry wit and refreshingly candid, satirical view of life.” ~Wikipedia, Jan Balet.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet was first published in 1948. The AMMO Books reprint edition that I received for review is certainly a lovely re-gift to today’s children from the golden age of children’s literature. The story is reminiscent of James Thurber’s Many Moons, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1944. In Thurber’s story, the ailing Princess Lenore wants the moon, and her father, the king, directs various servants and courtiers to get it for her. In Balet’s picture book, Amos sees the moon in his mirror, believes it belongs to him, and goes out to find it himself when it disappears the next day. Various vendors and storekeepers give him gifts–a piece of ice, a horse, a watch, a moon-shaped cookie—- as he searches, but none of his friends can give Amos “his moon”. Finally, Joe Ming, the Chinese laundryman, wisely tells Amos, “No one has the moon always–just once in a while.”

It’s a gentle, old-fashioned kind of story, and the illustrations are delightful. Mr. Balet was first and foremost an artist, and the pictures of the various shops that Amos visits in search of his moon will interest and appeal to anyone, young or old, who is inspired by detailed scenes, exquisitely rendered. The illustrations sort of remind me of Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives or even the Impressionists like Manet, but Balet has his own style and subject matter. There is a European feel to the story and to the pictures, perhaps because of the many immigrants and ethnic groups that Amos encounters on his quest, even though the story is obviously set in an English-speaking, probably American, city.

AMMO Books has reprinted another of Balet’s picture books, The Five Rollatinis, which is a circus story and a counting book combined. Some of his other books, both those he illustrated that were written by other authors and those he wrote himself, are available on Amazon used. I really appreciate the publishers who find these old, treasured titles and bring them back into print for a new generation.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand

“Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.” Yes. Collide is the operative word. I wasn’t a fan of the way the story transitions from the real world of a precocious eleven year old named Finley to the fantasy world that Finley has created for herself, Everwood. All the characters in Finley’s extended family seemed like just that, characters, not real people. And Finley herself repeats her introspective and twisted thinking to the point of being annoying.

The secrets in the story that add to the tension are sort of arbitrary; why Finley’s aunts and grandparents and parents couldn’t come up with better answers to at least some of her questions was never clear to me. It’s about the three D’s: depression, divorce, and delusional thinking—and about adults with guilty secrets. I get why the adults are keeping their Big Guilty Secret, but I don’t understand why they keep all the little secrets. For instance, Finley and her cousins become friends with some neighbor boys whose father is an alcoholic and who also is a part of the Big Guilty Secret. So, the adults don’t want Finley and the cousins to associate with the Bailey boys. Why can’t they just say that dad is unstable, and they don’t want Finley to go to the Bailey house? Why can’t the kids still be friends at Finley’s grandparents’ home? Why is there so much “Just do it because I say so!” And why does Finley keep asking questions in her head but refuse to ask them out loud?

This story frustrated me because I felt the potential. Finley could still have struggled with her parents’ impending divorce if the parents had been honest and told her that they were having marital issues. And the grandparents and aunts could have been at least partially honest, and much more believable and sympathetic, had they told at least part of the truth. And would any responsible parents leave their eleven year old daughter for the entire summer with grandparents she had never met, grandparents who were just about completely estranged from their only son (Finley’s father) for the past eleven or twelve years, and for good reasons?

I wanted to like this one, but I just didn’t believe it. Your mileage, and opinion, may vary from mine.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble is a blind orphan and a thief. His other senses are, of course, exceptionally sharp and perceptive. When he steals a box with three sets of magical eyes and receives a quest to travel to the Vanished Kingdom and rescue the people there, Peter Nimble is challenged beyond anything he has ever experienced in his thieving life. Maybe the Vanished Kingdom needs a blind thief, and maybe Peter Nimble needs to become a hero and find a real home.

Beautiful, humorous, and meaningful writing characterizes this fantasy adventure. The author also inserts little asides that illuminate and explain the story and the world of Peter Nimble. Here are a few sample quotes to whet your appetite:

“Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves. As you can well imagine, blind children have incredible senses of smell, and they can tell what lies behind a locked door – be it fine cloth, gold, or peanut brittle – at fifty paces.
Moreover, their fingers are so small and nimble that they can slip right through keyholes, and their ears so keen that they can hear the faint clicks and clacks of every moving part inside even the most complicated lock. Of course, the age of great thievery has long since passed; today there are few child-thieves left, blind or otherwise.”

“There is something wonderful that happens between true friends when they find themselves no longer wasting time with meaningless chatter. Instead, they become content just to share each other’s company. It is the opinion of some that this sort of friendship is the only kind worth having. While jokes and anecdotes are nice, they do not compare with the beauty of shared solitude.”

“If ever you have had the chance to spend quality time with a villainous mastermind, you will know that these people are extraordinarily fond of discussing their evil schemes out loud.”

“You may be thinking that his blindness is no handicap at all, and that it somehow gives him an advantage over the average seeing person. Some of you may even be thinking to yourselves, ‘Boy! I wish I were blind like the great Peter Nimble!’ If you are thinking that, stop right now. Because whatever benefits you may believe that blindness carries with it, you must understand that there are just as many disadvantages.”

Caveats: The story does include some rather violent and creepy images and episodes. There’s a murder of murderous crows who peck out Peter’s eyes and who peck another (villainous) character to death. There are gangs of evil apes and a few dangerous sea serpents. The children in the Vanished Kingdom are degraded and enslaved, and the adults are brainwashed into acquiescence. However, evil is ultimately defeated, and goodness and light win.

An interview with Jonathan Auxier in which he discusses the difficulties of writing a story from the point of view of a blind character.

Mr. Auxier also wrote The Night Gardener, another creepy tale with fantastic themes and images.