Magic in the Mix by Annie Barrows

Magic in the Mix is a sequel to the author’s first book about time-traveling twins, The Magic Half (which I’ve not read, unfortunately). Miri and Molly are twins, sort of, who have two older brothers (identical twins) and two younger sisters (also identical twins). Miri and Molly aren’t identical, and they’re not really twins, since Molly “moved” to now from a different time period, the Great Depression. But everybody, including their family, thinks they are fraternal twins, and Miri and Molly are glad to act as twin sisters, part of a very unusual family with three sets of twins and living in a magical house—that no one else besides them knows is magical.

Confusing? Yes, but the book is fun. Moll and Miri get to travel in time again, and their brothers, Ray and Robbie, get to experience the magic, too. But this time the place and time where they travel isn’t much fun: the middle of the Civil War is a dirty, dangerous time. Can Miri and Molly rescue Ray and Robbie who have been captured by the Confederates and are due to be hanged as spies at daybreak? Can Molly save her mother from the tragic future that Molly knows is in store for her?

The time travel rules and rationale had some holes, but they weren’t big, gaping holes. Molly and Miri understand that time travel is only permitted when there is something in the past that they need to “fix.” However, it sometimes seems as if there would never have been anything to fix if Miri and Molly had stayed in their own place and time to begin with. And the explanation of time as a layer cake was less than helpful to my time travel-tortured brain.

Still, this series, by the author of the adult best-seller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and of the children’s beginning readers about Ivy and Bean, is a creditable entry in the time travel/historical fiction genre for middle graders. I was a little uncomfortable when Miri and Molly began talking, almost praying, to the magic, asking “It” to come and take them on an adventure or to show them what to do when they were in trouble. But other than that, the book was a good, solid read.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

I think Kathy Appelt is a polarizing author; you either love her style of storytelling or you really find it annoying. I love it.

I thought her tale of hound dog and kittens in the Big Thicket of East Texas, The Underneath, was excellent storytelling, and it should have won the Newbery in 2009 instead of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I didn’t like at all. As for last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—it should have won something because it’s just as delicious (cane sugar fried pies) and delightful (raccoon scouts who live inside an old rusted De Soto) as The Underneath was.

Again, as in The Underneath, Ms. Appelt’s style takes some getting used to. The chapters, or scenes, are very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching form one set of characters and one plot strand to another. But at the end everything converges in the East Texas swampland that made the setting of The Underneath so memorable.

If the setting is the same, True Blue Scouts has all new characters: Bingo and J’miah, Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts; twelve year old Chapparal Brayburn who has just become the man of the house after the death of his beloved grandfather; Jaeger Stitch, World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere; Sonny Boy Beaucoup, current owner of the Sugar Man Swamp, Buzzie and Clydine, leaders of the Farrow Gang of feral hogs; and of course, the Sugar Man himself, “taller than his cousin Sasquatch, taller than Barmanou, way taller than the Yeti. His arms were like the cedar trees that were taking root all around, tough and sinuous. His hands were as wide and big as palmetto ferns. His hair looked just like the Spanish moss that hung on the north side of the cypress trees, and the rest of his body was covered in rough black fur . . . You could say that he was made up of bits and pieces of every living creature in the swamp, every duck, fx lizard, and catfish, every pitcher plant, muskrat, and termite.”

And the plot is complicated by a white “Lord God bird” that may or may not be mythical, a 1949 De Soto lost in the swamp, the delicious-ness of Brayburn fried pies, sugar cane guarded by a whole nest of canebrake rattlers, and the rapacious greed of Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy Beaucoup. If you liked The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a must read. If you disliked the animal abuse that was part of the story in The Underneath, then be assured that no animals (except maybe alligators and even the alligators survive) are harmed in the reading of this book. Some readers might be offended by the way that Appelt uses “Lord God” as a sort of exclamation in a couple of places as well as being the name of the bird, but I thought it was a sort of prayer or invocation of the blessing of God himself. Plus, if you were to read this book aloud, as it begs to be shared, you could leave those references out.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award finalist, but why Kathy Appelt keeps being honored and runner-upped instead of taking the prize, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that polarizing thing I mentioned. At any rate, award or no, you will enjoy True Blue Scouts. No question about it. Unless you’re at the opposite pole.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstand the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of that grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage and hatred.”

What a lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation. And it’s all built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. When Sand wakes up in the cold fireplace of the Sundered Castle, he has no idea how he got there. Nor can he understand why everything, every single thing, in the castle is torn apart: floors, doors, furniture, linens, tools, everything. It couldn’t be the result of an earthquake, the story that Sand has heard all of his life. Earthquakes don’t tear both hammers and heavy iron anvils in half.

Now Sand finds himself trapped inside the Sundered Castle with a hedge of vicious thorns all around, and he does the only thing he knows how to do. He begins to use the forge and his skills as the son of a blacksmith to mend what has been broken.

This reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty is aimed at middle grade readers, but it works for older children and adults, too. Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is more for adults, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a YA adaptation. It’s good to have such a solid Sleeping Beauty story for the younger set.

The book does use the idea of medieval Catholic “saints” as semi-magical figures who offer guidance and answer prayers. This depiction of mythical saints may be uncomfortable for both Catholics who believe in praying to real saints and Protestants who are uneasy with the entire concept. However, if you don’t mind a couple of fictitious saints inhabiting the pages of the fairy tale, then The Castle Behind Thorns is uplifting and authentic at the same time.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge

Each tick of the clock brings chaos closer.

Christopher Edge . . . lives in Gloucester (England) where he spends most of his time in the local library dreaming up stories.” ~from the author blurb in the back of the book

Mr. Edge must have some imagination–or else he’s experienced the bite of a dreamweaver spider and thereby descended into madness. I was just about tested beyond the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief as I read Five Minutes to Midnight, the story of thirteen year old orphan heiress and author, Penelope Tredwell and her adventures in and around London, especially Bedlam, in the last month of the last year of the nineteenth century.

Penelope is an intrepid young heroine, and she needs all the courage and intelligence she can muster since the villain of the story is a murderous arachnologist, Lady Cambridge, with a cluster of dreamweaver spiders forming the arsenal she plans to use to bring her the power to rule the world. (Insert evil cackle.)

Wilbur’s friend Charlotte notwithstanding, spiders are often symbols of evil in literature: I think Tolkien in particular had an aversion to arachnids. The mythological Arachne herself was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena as a punishment for her arrogance. (Check out this Literary Spiders quiz on Goodreads.)The power and influence of the dreamweaver spiders in Twelve Minutes to Midnight is borderline unbelievable. But if you are intrigued by the thought of a gothic, penny dreadful*-type middle grade story with a young female heroine, Twelve Minutes to Midnight might just fit the bill.

There are two more books in the series of the adventures of Penelope Tredwell, Shadows of the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy. Shadows of the Silver Screen is due to be published in the U.S. by Albert Whitman in September, 2014. The Black Crow Conspiracy is, for some strange reason, available now in a Kindle ebook edition, but has no scheduled U.S. publication date at Amazon for the “real” book edition.

*Penny dreadful: A penny dreadful was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one (old) penny. The term, however, soon came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet “libraries”. The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed at young working class males.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

This verse kept running through my mind as I read The Night Gardener, an Edgar Allan Poe-like story about two Irish orphan children who become entangled in an English family, the Windsors, and the curse that binds them to a crumbling house built around a spooky, twisted snare of a tree that captures the Windsors and their new Irish servants and threatens to carry them to their doom.

Mr. Auxier begins his story with two quotations, one from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the other from Aesop:

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe.” ~John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1.

“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.” ~Aesop.

And there you have a summary of what the book is about. Molly and her little brother Kip find that having their wishes come true is a trap rather than a gift, and they and the members of the Windsor family are embroiled in a ever escalating game to try to make their wishes, for food and money and beauty and heroism and family and even healing, bring them true and lasting joy. However, they find that “the sin that so easily entangles”, another description for idolatry and the attempt to find happiness in things of this earth, is not a fair substitute for a real home or real family. In fact, Satan, depicted here as a night gardener in a top hat, cheats. When he “gives gifts” there are always evil strings attached.

If I’ve given you the impression that this novel is a sermon in disguise, it’s not. In fact, I’m not sure how much of the Christian truth embedded in the story is meant to be and how much is just the mark of a good true story. For instance, the story never identifies the Night Gardener as Satan; that’s my interpretation. Nevertheless, Molly and Kip will steal your heart and just as Poe’s best horror stories tend to reveal a bit of truth about the deceitfulness of the human heart and the sinfulness of the human condition, this children’s horror story is full of truth, too. Be careful what you wish for—and from whom you take a gift.

Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler

Hopper is an ordinary pet-shop mouse—or is he? Is he really The Chosen One? The mouse who will bring glory to Atlantia, the rat kingdom below the streets of New York City?

This rat/mouse world is almost as violent and rich in folklore as the rabbit world of Watership Down. The book is certainly not for cat lovers; the cats in this fantasy world are downright evil. Hopper is a bit slow on the uptake and naive, and his sister, Pinkie, is so full of herself that one is tempted to shake her out of her pride and foolhardiness.

The characters and the plot twists carry this 313 page introduction to the utopian/dystopian world of Atlantia. Hopper is endearing if dim. His friend Zucker the Rat Prince is hilariously brave and faithful. The Emperor Titus, Zucker’s father, is enigmatic in a Star Wars Darth Vader way. It took a while for this reader to figure out whether Titus was a good guy, misunderstood, or a really bad guy. (My only excuse is that it takes Hopper a lot longer to figure things out.) Zucker’s friend, Firren, is undeveloped as yet, but promising. And Pinkie is annoying.

I should also mention the illustrations by Vivienne To. They’re brilliant. I’m no art critic, but I can say that I paid attention to the illustrations far more than I usually do, and they added a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of the story.

Mouseheart is obviously the beginning of a series. The ending reveals that: “A war had begun. Somehow Zucker and his new friends were going to have to win it. Deep in his heart, he knew that they would.” If you want to learn more about the world or about the follow-up books in the series, you can try the Mouseheart website. The second book, Hopper’s Destiny, is promised for March 2015, and the third book is as yet unnamed and without a projected publication date.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one talented guy. I’ve been a big fan of his songs for quite a while now, but I haven’t read any of his Wingfeather Saga books because, well, I just didn’t want to commit myself to a big, huge, sprawling, saga series of books. And the idea that the man could sing and play and write songs and lyrics and write fantasy books for children was a little too much to be believed. So, sometimes God gives a wealth of talent to one person.

I should have taken the plunge and made the commitment with the first book in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Then I could have read the second and third books, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows, and all of the characters that I came to love in The Warden and the Wolf King–Janner and Kalmar and Leeli and Arthram and Podo and Sara and Maraly— would have been old friends already. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the fourth and final book in the saga even more if I were equipped with the background and history behind it, but I really enjoyed The Warden and the Wolf King anyway.

Even the one book is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the sage with Book 1, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. There are lots of battles and adventures and hair’s breadth escapes for those who like that sort of things. But the themes and characters are what drew me in. I loved reading the description of Janner’s battle with the jealousy and mixed motives and sin that tears his heart apart as he tries desperately to be the strong, courageous and protective older brother that he is called to be. I liked reading about the “cloven”, creatures part human and part animal or insect who struggle to deal with their dual natures and their disturbed memories of the past. Oood the troll provided some comic relief and a few moments of heroism and rescue. And the ending to the entire book, and the entire series, was pure genius. Enough said.

The Silence of God is one of my favorite Andrew Peterson songs, and I would say that it pairs well with the themes of The Warden and the Wolf King. Several times in the book the “good guys” just have to grit their teeth and keep going, without answers, without a clear word from the Maker, just persevering and hoping and working toward the best goal they know.

I find that the Christian life is a lot like that song and a lot like Janner’s and Kalmar’s journey in this book. “What about the times when even followers get lost? We all get lost sometimes.” “The aching may remain but the breaking does not.”

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper has never seen the mark of the dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the meteor fields.
The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home.
The one sure way to the Dragonfly Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible.
Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey. ~from Jaleigh Johnson’s website

Techno-steampunk fantasy science fiction. With the exception of a couple of “blips” in the plot (Where did Anna get the money to run away on the express train? How did King Aren know about the traitors?), The Mark of the Dragonfly was an absorbing, worthy entry in the middle grade steampunk genre.

Most of the story takes place on a train, the 401, which makes the story automatically attractive to those of us who have an interest in trains. The fact that this novel doesn’t read as if it is the first in a trilogy makes it inviting for those of us who are tired of trilogies. And the characters and the world of the novel are appealing. Piper and the girl she finds, Anna, are a fine pair of friends, and the green-eyed guard, Gee, makes a good foil to Piper’s feisty, combative nature.

I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel pray to “the goddess”—who is never described or fleshed out, only mentioned, so if that mention offends, you want to skip or skim over those brief references.

Ms. Johnson does say on her FAQ page: “In 2014 I’ll be working on the companion novel to The Mark of the Dragonfly. It’s set in the world of Solace but follows different characters.” So no sequel or trilogy, but a companion. Not too much commitment required.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Placing an autistic or Asperger’s boy in the middle of a fantasy novel is a great idea. Although Oscar is never labeled, it’s clear that his love for, almost obsession with, plants and herbal remedies and his lack of understanding of people place him somewhere on the autism spectrum. He sometimes wonders whether he’s really human. Maybe he’s made of wood (something like Pinocchio). But, of course, by the end of the book Oscar finds out that he is a real boy.

I wanted to like this story of a magician’s apprentice (or “hand”) as much as I liked the author’s earlier middle grade fantasy, Breadcrumbs. But something about this one felt forced. The plot sort of meandered along and never really held together tightly. I liked Oscar as a character, and his friend Callie was a good foil and helper to Oscar. All of the other characters in the village and in the city on the mountain sort blurred together and never really became vivid in my mind. The point or theme of the story was never really clear to me either.

Maybe you should just try another review of The Real Boy, from someone who actually liked it. This story just didn’t grab me.

Sonderbooks: “I’m not sure I was satisfied with the ending — not sure I understood clearly enough what had actually happened. But the book itself, the world, and especially Oscar, were delightful to spend time with.”

Rhapsody in Books: “By the time I got to page 15, I had a problem. I knew I was so hopelessly in love with this book that I couldn’t bear to read any more, because then it would be over, but I also couldn’t bear to stop reading, because I wanted to be immersed in this magical world created by Ursu!”

The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia: “. . . the prose was quiet without being boring, and encompassed Oscar’s narrow world and its truths while also describing the confusing complexity of humanity. And let’s not forget Erin McGuire’s illustrations! She made Oscar’s experiences come to life.”

So, the moral of my review is : when in doubt, let other book bloggers do the heavy lifting for you.

Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood

Jinx, apprentice to Simon Magus, is forced to explore and tame his own magic in an attempt to rescue his mentor, rescue Simon’s wife, Sophie, defeat the evil Bonemaster, stop the destruction of the trees in the Urwald, and learn KnIP (Knowledge Is Power) magic to strengthen his own. The themes are good vs. evil and using people (and trees) vs. helping and listening, but it’s hard to say whether the worldview is going to come out loosely Christian in the end or more dualistic, like a universe in which good must be balanced with evil. Jinx himself is “the balance” and “The Listener,” whatever those terms mean.

I thought this was a better second book in a trilogy than most. The first in the series, is called simply Jinx, and I wrote about it a few months ago. You should read the first book first, and if you like it as much as I did, then go on to read Jinx’s Magic. I did get some answers to my questions from the first book about the Urwald, Samara, Simon Magus, the Bonemaster, and generally the way Jinx’s world works. I also added a few more questions:

What does it mean that Jinx is “the balance” and “The Listener” and “a wick that burns”?

Are Jinx and the Bonemaster opposite sides of the same coin, so to speak, good and evil in eternal conflict and balance? (I hope not because I don’t really believe in that dualistic philosophy.)

Who are the elves and what is their role in the story of the Urwald?

Can Jinx defeat The Bonemaster and save the Urwald?

Definitely a cliff-hanger ending, and I’m definitely up for the third book in the series. Oh, it might be of interest to some people, in light of all the diversity talk around the kidlitosphere, that Jinx is a “person of color.” His skin color doesn’t really matter to the story, but it is there, for what that’s worth.

QOTD: Speaking of color, Jinx has the magical ability to see a shapes and colors around other people that indicate to him what they are feeling. For instance, when the girl he cares about is feeling admiring and romantic about someone else, Jinx sees pink fluffy thoughts and feelings surrounding her. Another character’s feelings are grey and sharp like knife blades. If we could see what you are feeling right now, what color and shape would your feelings be and what would that color/shape indicate?