Magic in the Village

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.

The “wrinkled” or magical mountain village of Lourka where “stories have a way of coming true.”

A twelve year old girl named Linny who breaks the law and makes her own musical instrument, also called a lourka.

Linny’s best friend and almost twin, Sayra, who pays the price for Linny’s rule-breaking.

Add in the apprentice, Elias, a wrinkled half-cat, and the city of Bend at the foot of the mountains where the people are divided between wrinkled and plain, magical and logical, tradition and progress. Linny must find the medicine in Bend that will cure Sayra, but she also runs into numerous other obstacles and diversions that take her into danger, conflict, and finally, a very hard decision. Will she be able to take the medicine back to Lourka to cure Sayra, or is she the prophesied Girl With the Lourka who must stay in Bend and save everyone?

I found this story slow going, and by the time the action picked up in the middle, I still didn’t really care about the characters. And the ending was . . . weird, probably a set-up for a sequel. Which I probably won’t read. However, if the synopsis of the first part of the novel sounds like something you would enjoy, you might get more out of it than I did.

Time Stoppers features another magical village in the mountains where magical creatures like elves and dwarfs and hags and witches go to be safe. They are protected by a garden gnome. Yes, a magical garden gnome statue protects the village of Aurora until it is stolen by trolls. And little Annie Nobody is the child who is destined to be a Time Stopper, find the gnome, bring it back to Aurora, and defeat the evil Each Uisge and the Raiff. With her friend Jamie, the dwarf fighter Eva, and the elf Bloom, Annie does manage to complete some, but not all, of those tasks, leaving plenty of room for Time Stoppers, Book Two.

The action in this one was non-stop, but the whole thing was an outlandish caricature from the beginning. The bad guys, trolls, are horribly, outrageously bad. They eat children, but also before they chow down, they abuse them, refuse to feed them, send them out to sleep with the dogs/wolves, make them smell underwear(?), cackle at them, insult them, etc. The trolls are ridiculously bad, almost laughable, but then they’re not really funny because they are abusive in ugly, bad-parent ways. And the good magical beings of Aurora also behave in outsized, but stereotypical ways. Eva is a loudmouthed, battle-hungry, boastful, warrior maiden. Bloom is quietly strong and spends most of his time annoyed with Eva, which is understandable. Annie and Jamie are bewildered and timid, just happy to find themselves in Aurora where the trolls can’t get them, until the trolls, and other creatures even worse, invade. Then, Annie and Jamie are told that they must be brave.

The Wrinkled Crown felt dream-like (Alice in Wonderland) and over-wrought, with too many directions for Linny to follow and too many tasks to complete. Time Stoppers felt grotesque and buffoonish, slapstick but not very funny. Kirkus says about The Wrinkled Crown: “With hints of a sequel to come, this agreeable adventure introduces an appealing, spunky heroine and sets the stage for more conflict and compromise to come.” And SLJ called Time Stoppers: “”An imaginative blend of fantasy, whimsy, and suspense, with a charming cast of underdog characters.”

I just don’t think either of these is the best middle grade fantasy has to offer.

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society brings to middle grade readers (at least to those who like LONG books) a standalone story of secrets, lies and hiding places.

Reuben is a loner, a poor boy and an only child who lives with his single mother in a small apartment on the wrong side of the city. He spends his days in solitary exploring, finding hidden nooks and crannies in the crumbling city of New Umbra. He spends his evenings watching TV or designing dream mansions with his mom. Then, one day he finds a hidden object, an object that bestows great power on its owner, but also an object that is sought for by a lot of very, very bad people, including the arch-villain of New Umbra who is known only as The Smoke. Can Reuben unlock the secrets of his newfound magical powers before The Smoke finds him and takes his discovery away?

Reuben comes to realize that he must destroy the Ring of Power, but in order to do he must enter into The Smoke’s lair. And he must give up the only thing that has ever made him feel special and protected and powerful. Whoops, not a ring, but you get the idea; there are definitely echoes of Lord of the Rings here, at least plot-wise, although the setting is completely different. No hobbits, no elves, no dwarfs, no wizards. Instead, the setting is darker and grittier than Middle Earth, in a fear-ridden city ruled by a crime lord whose influence stretches into the most hidden and secret sectors of New Umbra.

Borrowed plot notwithstanding, The Secret Keepers was a fun ride. It will appeal to the kind of kid who likes finding secret hiding places, concealing buried treasures, and designing dream mansions with trap doors and secret passageways. The book is 500 pages long, so if you can’t take 500 pages of secrets and pursuits and getaways and traps and puzzles, this book isn’t for you. But if that sort of thing appeals to you, as it does to me, The Secret Keepers is just as much fun as The Mysterious Benedict Society was.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson

The first question you must ask yourself before you decide to read this book: can you accept the premise of the cremated ashes of his deceased father speaking aloud from the funeral urn to a twelve year old boy? Second question: do you like golf? If you answer both of these questions in the affirmative, this book is for you. If you can deal with the talking ashes, but you’re not much of a golf fan, you might still want to go along fro the ride. (I did.)

Ben Hogan Putter (get the pun, “putter”, as in golf?) just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world. That’s where Ben’s daddy, Bo Putter, wants his ashes to rest: Augusta National Golf Club.

On the journey from his home in Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, Georgia, Ben Putter acquires a traveling companion, a girl named Noni. The two of them beg, borrow, and steal their way across country to get to Augusta in time for the Masters Tournament. Both children have secrets, and both have daddy issues. The suspense in the story is tied up in whether or not they will be able to get to Augusta in time for the Masters, but also in how the two will resolve their respective relationships with their fathers. It’s a tearjerker, very emotional.

Almost too emotional. Ben Putter works out years of grief, anger, estrangement and misunderstanding over the course of a few days. And Noni has a deep-seated trauma of her own to work though. There are several very sentimental and pathos-filled scenes in which Ben Putter talks to his dad, in which the two children take a stand against the segregationists of the early 1970’s, in which Noni forgives and reconciles with her father, in which Ben says good-bye to the father who never really understood him. Much Sturm-und-Drang. Father issues. Tears and trials.

But it’s not a bad little Mississippi, golfing, and dealing with death story.

My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, epigraph to My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson,

“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” ~Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers, quoted in My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Twelve year old Gracie didn’t know that when her mother gave her a diary for her birthday, the coming year would be the most exciting and momentous of her life. Garcie lives in the prosaic town of Cliffden, Maine where “nothing terrible or exciting ever happens.” Baseball games, science lectures, school, watching Extreme Witches on TV, playing in puddles after a rain, collecting fallen dragon scales—these are the rather mundane things that make up Gracie’s life with her mother, a professional violinist turned homemaker, her father, an abstracted and absent-minded meteorologist, her older sister Millie, the beautiful, graceful one, and her little brother Sam, nicknamed the Mouse.

Gracie lives in an alternate universe version of Planet Earth. Gracie’s Earth is flat, and it is home to lots of creatures that are only mythological on our Planet Earth. Witches, dragons, (destructive) mermaids, pegasi, sasquatches, ghosts, and other myths are all real in Gracie’s world. And Dark Clouds come for people when they die.

When it looks as if a Dark Cloud has come for Sam the Mouse, Gracie’s family decides to outrun fate (or death) and try to escape to the Extraordinary World where dragons and ghosts and Dark Clouds don’t exist. Gracie’s dad is the only one she knows of who actually believes that the Extraordinary World really exists and that it might be possible to to get there from the edge of their world, but anything is worth trying to save Sam.

Okay. So “quirky” and “weird” are appropriate descriptors for this middle grade fantasy that is more of a family in crisis story than an adventure story. Gracie’s family crosses the continent in an old Winnebago, and they encounter monsters and wonders beyond imagination. They also learn to trust one another and to forgive each other. I thought the book was poignant and emotional at times, and the story was intriguing. However, the use of (fallen) angels as just another mythological-but-real-in-this-world set of characters marred the book to some extent. I wish the author had chosen some creatures other than angels to be her guardian protectors in this otherworld, since “one of these things is not like the others.” Angels may be mysterious, but they’re not mythological in the same way that witches and ghosts are.

Gracie’s world is also beholden to or ruled over by “the gods”, like Zeus(?), but they are barely mentioned in the story. At one point in the diary when Gracie and her family have been saved from certain doom by the quick thinking and action of a good friend and by fortuitous circumstance, Gracie writes, “‘Thank you,’ I whispered to no one in particular. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”

It reminds me of this song by Andrew Peterson:

Anyway, Gracie and her family are looking for a savior, a place of refuge, and maybe even for Someone to thank. You’ll be intrigued, if you read the book, to see whether or not they find what they’re looking for.

The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson

I read Ms. Johnson’s The Mark of the Dragonfly, the first book set in the World of Solace, and I enjoyed it. I called it “techno-steampunk fantasy science fiction.” This book fits into the same genre and is set in the same world, but it’s a companion novel, not really a sequel. Either book could be read on its own terms and appreciated with or without the other.

The Mark of the Dragonfly features a super-cool train, and this new Solace book has a sentient airship. Both books feature feisty, adventurous female protagonists with kind and supportive male friends. In The Secrets of Solace, Lina Winterbock is an archivist apprentice in the Archivist stronghold of Ortana. The war between the Merrow Kingdom and the Dragonfly Territories is bringing many refugees and difficult decisions to the mountain strongholds of the Archivists, who are trying to remain neutral in the war.

Lina herself must make some hard decisions about whom to trust when she discovers a valuable artifact in the depths of a secret cavern in the mountain. Can she trust Ozben, a refugee boy with his own secrets? What about her teacher and mentor, Zara, who has been too busy to pay much attention to Lina for a long time now? Can anyone other than Lina herself be trusted with a secret that might change the course of the war?

Although the pacing and the balance between action and explication felt “off” to me as I read, children who are really interested in this sort of thing might not mind or even notice. It takes a long time to get to the climax of the plot, and then all the political stuff is hurriedly explained and within two chapters, resolved. Lina and Ozben develop a good strong friendship, but Lina’s mentor has a rather lame excuse for her neglect of her ward. If this sort of book interests you, I would suggest The Mark of the Dragonfly first because I think it’s the better book. Then, if you like that one, you might like this one, too.

A Clatter of Jars by Lisa Graff

Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots was a National Book Award nominee in 2014, and it was highly recommended by many people I trust. However, I never did manage to read it. If 2016’s sequel, A Clatter of Jars, is any measure, then I missed out and need to go back and pick up a copy of A Tangle of Knots.

A Clatter of Jars is an intricate, multi-layered story of giftedness and ordinariness and sibling jealousy, the suffering it can cause, apology, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The story, told from six different viewpoints of the campers in Cabin Eight at Camp Atropos for Talented Children, weaves in and out of the lives and magical talents of these campers to produce a sometimes confusing, always fascinating, tale of how family and community can grow strong if only we give up our place in the spotlight for the sake of others and ask forgiveness for our selfish and impulsive misdeeds.

I did like the characters and the complexity of this fantastical story. Lily can levitate objects by concentrating her mind on them. Chuck and Ellie, the Frog Twins, can identify the species of any frog within croaking distance. Renny is famous for reading minds, and his brother Miles may have his own secret Talent. All of the other children at the camp have Talents, too, and the way the talented children learn to work with, and sometimes against, one another makes for a wild ride of a story.

BUT. I was repeatedly thrown out of the story by two plot issues, one major and another minor. Am I behind the times? I know things are changing fast, but does any summer camp for middle schoolers—ages eleven, twelve and thirteen—house boys and girls together in the same cabin? Really? Lily, Renny, Miles, Chuck, and Ellie are assigned to Cabin Eight at Camp Atropos–two boys, brothers, and three girls. Really? This cabin assignment was just weird. There’s no boy-girl attraction, no crushes, in the story; it’s all about sibling rivalry and brothers and sisters trying to work out their sibling relationships. BUT. I kept wondering whether the author had any specific camp in mind when she wrote the book. I even looked it up. Coed camps for this age group are a thing, fine, but all of the ones I found on the internet separated boys and girls into different cabins. I can only begin to imagine the possible problems a camp would run into if boys and girls this age were assigned to share cabins. (The minor problem was the swimming policy. I don’t think camp administrators would allow children, even talented children, to just jump into the lake, anytime, and go for a swim by themselves, either.)

If you can ignore those two mistakes(?) or plot decisions(?), then you might just enjoy A Clatter of Jars quite a lot. You don’t have to read A Tangle of Knots to understand the sequel, but it might work better if you read the first book first. Or you can read them as I will be doing, backwards.

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is a dull, colorless girl in a land full of color, and she is quite un-magical in a place where magic is the sustenance of life. When her father goes missing and her mother neglects and spurns her, Alice is determined to make something of her colorless, ugly life in spite of her lack of talent.

There’s a lot of falling involved in the course of the journey that Alice makes to find her father, and of course, the girl is named Alice. And Alice and her friend Oliver meet lots of strange creature in land of Furthermore, as they also encounter loads of nonsensical situations and obstacles. It all sounds like that other Alice, in Wonderland, but I would recommend that you read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books before or instead of this one. Mr. Carroll’s nonsense made some sense.

The writing is witty and imaginative at the sentence level, but the actual story starts out slowly. Over a hundred pages of introduction and set-up before the real adventure begins is a little too much of a muchness. Nevertheless, some delightful sentences and scenes kept me reading and enjoying the journey, even though the incessant squabbling between Alice and Oliver and the sheer ridiculousness of it all was a bit overwhelming.

Examples of lovely sentences:

“Humility had gotten lost on its journey to his ego, but the two had finally been reunited, and the meeting appeared to be painful. Oliver swallowed hard and looked away.”

“People are so preoccupied with making sense despite it being the most uninteresting thing to manufacture. . . Making magic . . . is far more interesting than making sense.”

“Laughter was a silk that would soften even the roughest moments.”

“Birds were pirouetting through the air and lambs were bleating their woes and flowers dipped and swayed in the wind like this was just another perfect day. But Alice wouldn’t believe it.”

Examples of sheer nonsense:

“Few come to Furthermore in search of decent pastures.” (decent what?)

“So she pet him between the ears and he nuzzled right into her hand.” (Isn’t the past tense of pet, “petted”?)

” . . . her feet kept moving even when she didn’t want them to. Not only did she not want them to keep moving, she wanted them to do the very opposite of keep-moving, but there was no one to tell her feet anything at all, as her mind was always missing when she needed it most.” (What does that mean?)

Alice and Oliver argue and lie to one another and and generally make their own lives miserable as well as the lives of those around them. On the other hand, they have excuses for their behavior. Alice feels rejected by her mother and abandoned by her father; Oliver has his own childhood sob story. And both of them are quite unkind to each other in the beginning of the story. If you can get past all that and enjoy the imaginative language and the nonsensical world of the story, maybe Furthermore will be just right for you. I liked Alice in Wonderland much better, thank you.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Edith Nesbit’s classic story of siblings and magic, The Five Children and It, was first published in 1905. In Five Children on the Western Front, British children’s author Kate Suanders gives us the Bastable children about nine years older and wiser and the Psammead (pronounced Sammy-ad) as irascible as ever, but not quite so magical. Maybe that’s because the world itself was more magical in 1905 than it became in 1914.

World War I has intruded upon the lives of the grown-up or nearly grown-up children, Cyril, Anthea, Jane and Robert, and even The Lamb (Hilary) and the new little Bastable sister, Edie, are living in a wartime Britain rather than the idyllic turn-of-the century British countryside in which the older children first encountered magic. The story covers the wartime years, 1914-1918. The Psammead has returned to see the children through the war—or maybe he’s come back because he can’t really control his magic or grant wishes anymore, and he just needs a place to live. He thinks he’s been “de-magicked and dumped” in the Bastables’ garden by an angry universe. At any rate, Edie, nine years old at the story’s inception, takes a liking to the grumpy and rather sleepy sand fairy, and occasionally even manages to be involved in some magical adventures on his behalf.

I thought this was a fascinating look at “what ever happened to the five children and It”, but I would have to try it out on a real child to know whether this is just a book for nostalgic adults and teens who were Nesbit fans or whether actual children would enjoy it, too. There’s a lot of kissing and war romance and war scenes, shown from a child’s (sometimes eavesdropping) perspective and totally appropriate for children, but the story is really about adults as much as it is children.

It’s also about repentance. The Psammead has a cruel and tyrannical past life, and part of his task during the years of the book’s tale is to repent. Repentance in this particular case means understanding that he’s done something bad and feeling a bit sorry. No reform or payment is required, but the Psammead has trouble with even a minimal amount of humility or apology. So, the children take turns laughing at his unrepentant cruelty and carelessness and trying to convince him that he is not the center of the universe. Again, I was interested in whether or not the old Psammead would ever be able to “go home”, reconciled to the universe, but I don’t know how many children would stay interested.

For fans of Edith Nesbit or Downton Abbey (for the history) or maybe World War I settings.

Cybils Nominations Are Open

The 2016 Cybils nominations are now live!

What are Cybils?
The Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles. Nominations open to the public on October 1st.

What are the categories?
An award will be given in each of the following categories:
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction
Fiction Picture Books/Board Books
Graphic Novels
Middle-Grade Fiction
Middle-Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction
Juvenile/Elementary Nonfiction
Young Adult Fiction
Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Why do I (and why should you) care?
Well, every year thousands of new books for young adults and children are published in English in the United States and Canada. Some of those books are really good, but many are not. Sorting out the good from the bad and the ugly takes time and energy that most of us don’t have. The Cybils help, along with other awards like the Newbery, Caldecott and the National Book Awards, to highlight some of the best children’s books of the year, including some that might otherwise be missed in the rush. And I get to be on the judging panel this year for Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction to choose a shortlist which will be the basis for the award given in that category. (So be sure to nominate your favorite “Middle Grade Speculative Fiction” books so that I and the committee I’m working with have all the best books to read and choose from.)

More important information about Cybils:
Be sure to check out the category descriptions. If you don’t know where the book should go, please read through the descriptions to help you decide. If you’re still not quite sure, make your best guess, and the Cybils organizers can straighten things out behind the scenes.

Take a minute to check out the rules for nominating. The big one: the book needs to be published in the U.S. or Canada between October 16, 2015 and October 15, 2016. Also you can nominate only ONE book per CATEGORY per PERSON. No exceptions. The form will kick you back if you try to nominate more than one book (or if someone else has already nominated the book).

If you have any other questions, check out the FAQ page.

Follow this link to nominate your favorite books in all categories. You have until October 15th.

Assassin’s Heart by Sarah Ahiers

A society is built on the foundation of legalized murder, purchased assassination, killing as an offering to the goddess. Nine families serve the goddess Safraella. They are her acolytes, killing people in her name with the promise of resurrection to a new life for those who die in the goddess’s good graces. Lea Saldana is one of Safraella’s clippers, those who clip people’s lives short in the name of law and order and the goddess.

In this book, murder is good, family loyalty is the paramount value, and revenge is an obligation to one’s own honor and to the gods. This world turned upside down could have been worth exploring. What happens to a society in which murder is legalized within strict boundaries and rules? Is it possible to become a cool, dispassionate murderer for hire and at the same time retain a passionate love for family and for friends? Or does that kind of conscience-bending to the breaking point carry over into all relationships? Why does one of the nine Families decide to follow the God of Light instead of remaining true to Safraella, the Goddess of Death and Resurrection? Is it possible to worship death and resurrection (life) at the same time? Does legalized murder really make a more well-behaved populace because people are afraid to offend anyone lest they be marked for assassination?

Lots of questions to explore in this story, but the emphasis is on Lea Saldana’s love life, her revenge for the murder of her family, and her assassin skills. The deeper questions are sometimes raised, but not pursued. Instead, Lea rather blithely falls in love while plotting her revenge, and why she is able to trust one stranger when another lover has just betrayed her and her entire family is barely questioned and unresolved.

Because I misread a review, I started this book thinking it was a middle grade fiction novel. It isn’t. It’s definitely Young Adult, but I wouldn’t recommend it for that age group either. There’s a Romeo and Juliet-type love affair in the beginning pages of the novel, but for that plot and characterization, teens would be better off with Shakespeare’s play or with watching West Side Story to get a much more realistic view of the consequences of star-crossed lovers in a lawless and honor-based society. Assassin’s Heart gives readers a cold-blooded assassin with a tender, loyal, and trusting heart, not a likely combination. And it turns traditional morality upside down without really asking the important questions about what such a revolution in moral standards would do to individuals and to a culture as a whole. Cheap thrills and unexamined rebellion are not an adequate foundation for a good novel, just as assassination and revenge are not adequate values to sustain a society. In fact, these things undermine good novels and good communities.