The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy

Pirates! Pirates! PIRATES!!

OK, now that I’ve got your attention, the new League of Princes book by Christopher Healy, third in the series, does indeed have pirates. It also has all my favorite characters: Liam the Bold, Gustav the Great, Frederic the Fussy, and Duncan the Village Idiot (my names, and I love Duncan the best). The women in the story—Snow, Ella, Lila, and Rapunzel–escape from prison, form their own league (The Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters, or ffff!), and do a lot better than the guys at defeating Evil. There are also a a couple of new female characters who may be my favorites so far: Jerica the Pirate(!) and Val Jeanval, who assaulted a dozen royal soldiers with a stale, stolen baguette.

I must have a somewhat juvenile sense of humor because I really like these ridiculous fractured fairy tales from Christopher Healy, Chronicler of Heroic Shenanigans. These heroes correct each other’s grammar! They argue over who goes first, the guy or the girl when it comes to rescuing or taking out the villain! They are quite easily distracted by definitions of words and questions of grooming and sartorial style. They are persistent and brave, usually in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, and without a good plan. They find a genie and make stupid, useless wishes! They are wanted for murder in thirteen kingdoms! They use lots of exclamation marks!

I like the humor in these books because it’s silly, wordish, and slapstick without descending to gross-out, crude, or nasty. The characters do a lot of misunderstanding each other’s words with farcical results that are just a step or two above Amelia Bedelia. They stumble all over themselves and each other while attempting to be heroes and heroines. They stop to have useless and entertaining discussions about the plural of “mongoose” and about how people fit those tiny model ships into bottles. Read the first two books first: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. Then, make your way carefully and speedily to The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw, where you will find:

Outlaws! In-laws! Mongeese! (or mongooses?) A fake Royal Foot Massagers Society! ffff! A Djinn from the realm of Baribunda! The legendary Jade Djinn Gem! Jelly, jelly dragonfruit and ginger sandwiches! Captain Euphustus Baileywimple! Sketchy bartenders, salty-tongued sailors, and grime-coated anglers! Pin-striped soldiers! and Pirates! Pirates! PIRATES!! (since it is Talk Like a Pirate Day—Ahoy, matey!)

Minion by John David Anderson

Superheroes have sidekicks, and super-villains have minions. But what happens when a minion meets a sidekick and they both go up against a super-super villain?

Something like that anyway. If you like the style of a hard-boiled detective novel or a comic book novelization, lots of short sentences and sentence fragments, wise guys spouting off with trite aphorisms and odd metaphors spilling all over the place, you’ll enjoy Minion as well as its companion novel Sidekicked. For example:

“There are those moments in your life, you know, when the last screw is tightened and the green light flashes and you realize that your whole worldview is a loose thread dangling from the blanket you’ve wrapped so tight around you. And somebody’s gotten ahold of that one thread and is starting to pull. And most of you wants to tug back. To stay warm. To stay safe. To keep things as they are.”

“I get that same strange feeling that I got the last time we sat together. That feeling of rightness. Not rightness opposite of wrongness. Rightness like putting on a favorite pair of jeans. Maybe Dad’s right. Maybe normal’s not so bad.”

Michael Morn is a minion: he robs banks and helps his dad make black boxes full of technology for the mob. But Michael isn’t really a bad guy. He just finds it difficult to distinguish between “what’s right and what’s best and why there even has to be a difference.”

He’s not alone in his confusion. All of the characters in the book seem to be somewhat morally ambiguous. The police are inept at best and in the pay of the bad guys at the worst. The superhero who comes to town, The Comet, doesn’t want to show his face and fails to acknowledge the help of his sidekick. Michael’s dad is a criminal and a thief, but he sacrifices safety and money for his son on several occasions. Michael himself can’t decide whether he’s a “good guy” or a “bad guy”, and by the end of the book he’s still undecided.

If you can deal with the ambiguity and the comic book writing style, Minion is a good read. It’s upper middle grade, maybe even young adult, with some middle school romance and a few crude words (not many). Plus the aforesaid moral ambiguity.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

I had a bout of insomnia while reading this first book in the Windfeather Saga, and while I lay in bed in the dark, trying to chase sleep, I began fixating on anagrams. Specifically, I began thinking about the name of one of the characters in the book, Oskar N. Reteep, a bookseller and quoter of rather obvious aphorisms. Mr. Reteep is a preserver of lost cultural artifacts, a monkish character in the tradition of those who preserved the Scriptures and other remnants of cultural significance during the Dark Ages. Anyway, he had a strange name, and I kept thinking it ought to be some sort of anagram, taken from something else.

I rearranged the letters in my head and teased “Peterson” out of it. I’m not really good at anagrams, especially not in my brain in the dark where I can’t really see the letters on paper. So, I convinced myself somehow that “Oskar N. Reteep” was an anagram for Andy Peterson, which seemed significant. However, that wasn’t right, as any waking mind can see. Actually, “Oskar N. Reteep” transforms into “Rake Peterson” or “Aker Peterson” or something similar.

OK, that makes no sense, so I returned to my book and read about a new character, well, a sort of a ghost character, Brimney Stupe. This name contains the letters of the name “Peterson” too. But the leftover letters are “bimyu”. It can’t be coincidence, can it, that both names have “Peterson” in them?

So I’ve gotten carried away with the anagrams. My excuse is . . . insomnia. Not being able to sleep can do strange things to a person. Mr. Peterson, on the other hand, got carried away with the made-up words and footnoted creatures. Between thwaps and cave blats and toothy cows and hogpigs and bumpy digtoads and rat badgers and flabbits and . . . well, you get the picture. Maybe Andrew Peterson can plead insomnia, during which he made up outlandish creatures to stick in his books.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, and I must say that although it’s good, it’s not as good as The Warden and the Wolf King, the last book in the four volume series (which I read first, about a month ago). Yeah, I read the books in the wrong order. If I sound a bit screwy, bear with me. I do have something to say here: Andrew Peterson grew as a writer over the course of writing this series. That’s my theory. In this first book Peterson is a little punch-drunk on making up words and place names and footnoting all of them madly. The fourth book takes a more serious turn while retaining the charm and freshness of the first, in love with words and imagination, vision.

And along with the half-formed insomniac theory about name anagrams, I’m sticking with it. The series, that is. I recommend The Wingfeather Saga, preferably read in the correct order and with no attention to anagrams.

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I even started the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight. Wikipedia says, “The series has received critical acclaim and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.” I am not impressed. And hereafter, be warned that since I didn’t like the book very much, and I don’t recommend it, there may be spoilers in my review.

The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable first name, seems to be a failed attempt at creating a forceful, aggressive, feminist Cinderella heroine. Author Sarah Maas said in an interview, “I’d love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered.” Celaena is supposed to be a master assassin who has survived a year in the salt mines of Endevier, a horrific prison/work camp. However, she comes across to me as a frivolous girl who loves food, especially sweets, and clothes and parties and hunky guys. She is an expert with weapons of any make or model, but in the entire course of Throne of Glass, Celaena never actually assassinates anyone. (She does kill a sort of monster demon cat, but no people.) She mostly depends on the guys, a friend from another country named Nehemia, and some kind of goddess ancestor ghost named Queen Elena, to rescue her from the ultimate dangers in which she finds herself embroiled in an assassin’s competition that forms the backbone of the plot of Throne of Glass.

The book includes (of course) a love triangle. Celeana is pursued by both Prince Darian and Captain of the Guard Chaol (another annoying name). She frequently expresses her desire (in her thoughts) to kiss Darien, and eventually she does. But there’s no chemistry or interest to the budding romance between the assassin and the prince. Chaol is more the strong, silent type, and he and Celeana never get to the point of kissing. The verbal sparring and flirting that goes on between Celeana and each of the guys is neither witty nor romantic; in fact, it’s mostly boring. I didn’t really care which man Celeana chose, and at least in the first book of the series, I wasn’t disappointed because she chooses neither, keeping them both on the string.

So many contradictions marred the plot of this Hunger Games wannabe. Celeana is deathly afraid of and hates the King of Adarlan, her employer, but she is sure her skills are so developed that she could assassinate him in a heartbeat. She says she has no choice but to enter and win the competition to become the King’s Champion, but when she finds a way to escape from the castle and the competition, she decides to wait and see what happens. Some of the competitors are being murdered in a particularly gruesome way, but Celaena is worried about whether or not she is invited to the ball and pouts when she is not.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Throne of Glass is poorly plotted and the characters are unbelievably shallow and contradictory. Celaena is a twit, and I would hate to meet the young woman who is inspired by her character. The series doesn’t improve in the first few chapters of the second book, Crown of Midnight, in which our heroine goes on an extravagant shopping trip for ball gowns in between assassination assignments, so I gave up.

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.