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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 do 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.”

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.

Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson

I’m honestly not sure what I think about N.D. Wilson’s newest book, the beginning of a series called Outlaws of Time. The story is really dark and violent, and as with some of Wilson’s other books it moves too fast for me with too many layers of meaning. I feel as if I’m missing something when I read Wilson’s fantasy, in particular. Actually, I feel dumb. On the other hand, I loved Boys of Blur and Leepike Ridge, especially, and this one has some of the elements that I liked from those: a very American setting, brave kids, adventure, lots of good writing with good metaphors and similes. I just feel as if I have whiplash from trying to follow all the symbolism and hidden meanings and the time travel.

For example, Sam Miracle (his real name) begins the story as a resident (inmate?) of Saint Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch, SADDYR. And it’s a sad place, governed by your typical fictional orphanage parents, Mr. and Mrs. Spalding. There are twelve boys at SADDYR, including Sam, and the others are Pete, Drew, Jude, Barto, brothers Jimmy Z and Johnny Z, Flip the Lip, Matt Cat and Sir T(homas), Tiago Lopez, and Simon Zeal. They’re all juvenile delinquents, but they have the names of the twelve apostles in the Bible, minus Judas Iscariot. Yes, I noticed that little naming trick immediately, and it’s kind of cool. But why? Why do Sam’s friends and cohorts have the same names as Jesus’ twelve disciples? What does it mean? Sam isn’t Jesus or a Christ figure, or is he? The priest, Father Tiempo, that Sam meets in the desert is kind of a Christ figure who gives up his life/lives to save Sam and the rest of the world through Sam, but then the priest turns out to be someone else, not Jesus at all. Sam is the one sent to save the world from the evil Vulture, El Buitre, but he’s a violent and at the same time, vulnerable, savior, sent to use his deadly snake arms to kill The Vulture. Even though he’s mangled and wounded by the bad guys in the story, and handicapped by his unreliable memory and his lack of confidence in his own abilities, Sam is a survivor, redeemed and resurrected multiple times. I suppose I’m trying to make the story too simplistic, the characters too allegorical. But allegory is implied in the names and actions of the characters. (I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s professed hatred of allegory in all its forms while at least parts of his Narnia stories are clearly allegorical in nature.)

Then there’s the time travel, enough time travel to make Hurley’s head hurt a lot (LOST reference, there). This book reminded me of LOST–way too much to figure out, and maybe half of it doesn’t mean anything, just the author playing around. Sam and his friend Glory travel though time, around time, behind time, on the edges of time, and through the cracks between times. I’m a straight-forward, A-Z kind of gal, and although I can handle one time jump, or maybe two, the ramifications of all the time travel in this book make me feel as if I’ve lost my grip on reality. Sam Miracle certainly loses his mind and memory and his sense of what’s real and what’s a dream quite often throughout the course of the story. And since Sam is the main viewpoint character, so did I.

PC critics are going to hate all the guns and all the bullets flying. Even though one of Sam’s snake arms, Speck, is a little bit goofy and doesn’t want to hurt anyone, the other one, Cindy, is “a killer, a nightmare.” Speck shoots the weapons out of the bad guys’ hands, but Cindy shoots to kill. Again, I’m tempted to draw allegorical parallels or symbolical confusion from the contrast between Sam’s left arm, vicious sidewinder Cindy, and his right arm, distractible pet snake Speck, but I will refrain.

Do I think kids will like Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle? Yes, I think so, but I’m not sure what exactly they will get out of it. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that makes me a little uneasy as a parent who’s tempted to give them a neat little book in which I know the “moral of the story”. Maybe one moral of this particular story is that life isn’t neat or predictable, and neither should the stories that we share with each other and with our children be unsurprising and tidily understood. Or maybe, like the authors of LOST, Mr. Wilson is just playing around, having fun with the names and the nicknames and the numbers and the times and the snakes and the guns and all the things that make me want to read the next book in the series.

However, I would warn the author that playing with guns can be quite dangerous.

“You know,” Glory said, watching. “There’s a difference between real life and books. Don’t act like they’re the same.”

“Sure,” Sam said. “Getting life right is a lot harder.”

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Dealing with Dragons is Book One of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and I’m eagerly anticipating my reading of the remaining four books in the series. That’s a pretty high recommendation right there.

Cimorene is a princess in the kingdom of Linderwall, “a very prosperous and pleasant place.” Her six older sisters find being a princess quite a satisfactory lot in life, but Cimorene hates “princess stuff” and wants to learn fencing, Latin, magic, cooking, and economics, even though such pursuits just aren’t proper for a princess.
So Cimorene does the best she can with the hand she’s been dealt and runs away to volunteer as a dragon’s captive princess. The dragon she finds to take her on, Kazul, is a bit unorthodox herself, and the two renegades get along swimmingly until the world intrudes in the form of meddling wizards, rescuing knights, and other discontented captive princesses. But whether its finding the ingredients for a fireproofing spell or serving up some cherries jubilee for her dragon’s dessert, the strong-minded (same say stubborn as a pig) Cimorene is up to the task.

The humor in this book reminded me of The Princess Bride for some reason, sort of wry and unexpected. Cimorene herself is an unexpected kind of princess, or rather a princess who defies conventional expectations. The dragons are suitably grumpy and and a bit volatile, hence the need for a fire-proofing spell, but generally likable enough if you don’t stir them up or cross them too much. Cimorene’s fellow princesses in captivity run the gamut from weeping to preening to friendly, and there is a helpful witch named Morwen who lives in the Enchanted Forest.

“Cimorene was surprised to hear that Kazul intended to take her along on the visit to Morwen, and she was not entirely sure she liked the idea. She had heard a great deal about the Enchanted Forest, and none of it was reassuring. People who traveled there were always getting changed into flowers or trees or animals or rocks, or doing something careless and having their heads turned backward, or being carried off by ogres or giants or trolls, or enchanted by witches or wicked fairies. It did not sound like a good place for a casual, pleasant visit.”

If that short excerpt appeals to your sense of humor and whimsy, you should check out the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Since I’ve only read the first book, I’m not sure the rest of the series holds up to the high standard the first book sets, but I’m certainly hopeful. A friend recommended this series to me, and I’m certainly thankful for the tip and passing it on to my readers, young and old. After all, I’m 50+ and still finding children’s books that tickle my funny bone and enhance my imaginary reading world. I’m adding Cimorene and her Enchanted Forest world to the landscape of my own fantasy world, which includes Prydain, the Shire, Narnia, Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, Earthsea, Pern, Lilliput, Shangri-la, Slipper-on-the-Water in the Land Between the Mountains, and Aerwiar, just to name a few of the places I’ve visited time and time again. (Can you name the book or series for each fantasy world or country?)

The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifford

We’re three for one
and one for three.
The Roquefort Gang
is who we are!
Though danger’s near
we think not twice
What’s there to fear?
ARE WE NOT MICE?

What is it about mice? They make excellent book characters. Illustrators can dress them up in all sorts of costumes, and authors can give them human personalities and have them walk around on their hind legs while brandishing swords or canes or other tools and weapons with their tiny front paws. They’re just cute little animals—at least as anthropomorphized in books. Favorite mouse characters include Reepicheep (Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis), Stuart Little (E.B. White), Bernard and Bianca (The Rescuers by Margery Sharp), Ralph S. Mouse (Beverly Cleary), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo, Mouse Minor (The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck), Ben Franklin’s mouse friend Amos (Ben and Me by Robert Lawson), Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman, Mary Mouse (The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman).

Of course, there are many, many more. And now Giovanni, Sid, and Marlowe, the three mice of the Roquefort Gang, join the crowd of my favorite mouse characters. In this short book, 79 pages, the French immigrant mouse, Nicole, meets the Roquefort Gang in the dangerous Wild-berry Lot, and the four mice go on a rescue mission, similar to the one in the book/movie 101 Dalmatians or in Mrs. Frisby.

For any reader who might enjoy the books in the list above and others like them, The Roquefort Gang would be an easy read in this same category. I thought it was lots of fun, and I was sorry to see that Ms. Clifton only wrote this one book about the gang. It was interesting to me to see, however, that CBS had a Saturday morning animated series called Storybreak back in the 1985, and one of the episodes was based on The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifton.

The Tune Is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace

In the several boxes of discarded books from a local private school library that a friend rescued on their way to the dumpster, I discovered some real gems—in more ways than one. The Tune Is in the Tree is one of Maud Hart Lovelace’s other novels, not about Betsy Ray and her friends Tacy and Tib. However, in the book Betsy’s Wedding, Betsy says, “I think I’ll write a story about a little girl going to live with the birds.” It’s not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps The Tune Is in the Tree is Betsy’s story, fleshed out by Ms. Lovelace herself, especially since Ms. Lovelace wrote that The Tune Is in the Tree is “just the sort of a story Betsy used to tell to Tacy.”

In this 177-page fantasy, Annie Jo, who lives with her parents Jo and Annie, gets left alone by mistake, and Mr. and Mrs. Robin feel compelled to take her into their nest until her mother and father return home. For that plan to work, Annie Jo must become a lot smaller, and she needs a pair of wings, both of which are provided for by courtesy of Miss Ruby Hummingbird, who happens to be have a little Magic. After Annie Jo shrinks and gets her wings, she learns all about the birds of the meadow and forest, including the Thrush family, Mr. and Mrs Catbird, the Misses Oriole, and the Perfidious Mrs. Cowbird who causes trouble all over by laying her eggs in other birds’ nests.

This jewel is such a lovely and funny story, and the illustrations by Eloise Wilkin are a perfect match to the story. The book was first published in 1950, in the middle of the time period during which Ms. Lovelace was busily writing and having published the Betsy-Tacy books. I like to think of Ms. Lovelace taking a break from the adventures of Betsy and her friends to write this homage to the world of birds. The child who is interested in bird-lore could learn a lot from reading or listening to The Tune Is in the Tree. The birds in the story are fantasy birds who talk and practice their concerts and even bake cookies (the Ovenbird family). However, the birds actually do embody some of the characteristics of real birds. Thrushes do make beautiful music. Ovenbirds do have nests shape like little ovens, hence the name. And the Perfidious Cowbird really does lay its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Then, there’s the poetry, both the poetry of Ms. Lovelace’s luscious prose and the poetry she makes reference to in the course of the story. Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, and John Keats are all invoked as the birds keep their libraries in the Brook which “reads aloud all day.”

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
~As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Unfortunately, The Tune Is in the Tree is a book not to be found in either trees or brooks. I looked it up on Amazon, and used copies are priced at anywhere between $200 and $800. I don’t plan to sell my newly discovered treasure, but patrons of my library can borrow it and enjoy a wonderful tale.

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson

Author John David Anderson (Side-kicked, Minion) seems to be interested in moral ambiguity for middle grade readers. In this kinda sorta medieval/fairy tale setting, our protagonist, Colm Candorly, shows talent as a pickpocket and is invited to go to a school for “dungeoneers”, adventurers who steal treasure from goblins and orcs and other nasty creatures. The teachers and the lessons are mostly all about greed for treasure and revenge for past wrongs, but maybe Colm learns a lesson about greed and revenge by the end of the book?

It’s obvious that Mr. Anderson did some Dungeons and Dragons-style dungeoneering in his (possibly misspent) youth. There’s also a touch of HP in the story as Colm makes friends at his new school and learns that not all of the students, teachers, and mentors at the school are trustworthy or even kind. Colm’s new treasure seeking team consists of himself, an erstwhile Rogue, Lena the Barbarian, who faints at the sight of her own blood, Quinn the Mage who casts stuttering, dangerous, and unpredictable spells, and Serene the Druid, a pacifist who is scared of big animals but communicates well with spiders. Together, the four of them are out to win at in-school contests, protect one another from their bullying compatriots, and get as much treasure as possible with the management taking fifty percent or more.

Side-kicked and Minion were about superheroes and the moral choices involved in becoming a hero or a villain. The Dungeoneers goes back to a more classic fantasy setting, but the theme is still same. Is a rogue, who steals from goblins and orcs, a hero or a thief? What’s the difference? Is there any honor among thieves? Will Colm choose to become a rich rogue or a honest but penniless cobbler like his father? If you have a talent for thievery and pickpocketing, what is it good for? Is Colm one of the good guys, one of the bad guys, or something in-between?