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Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

Not for the usual picture book crowd of preschoolers and early readers, Aviary Wonders is beautiful, funny, and carries a good message without beating it into the ground. The lavishly illustrated book is the work of a fine artist. But to whom would I recommend it?

Artists.
Bird-lovers.
Environmentalists.
Fan of steampunk sci-fi and robotics?
Teens.
Maybe middle schoolers.
Definitely adults who fall into the first three categories.

I just don’t know if that’s going to be a wide enough audience to make the book a success, which is a shame. It ought to be seriously considered for the Caldecott Award because the illustrations are gorgeous. The book also shows, in a quirky way, what the world might be like if all or most of the bird species become endangered or extinct. What if people had to build their own birds out of metal and rubber and silk and other materials in order to have the experience of seeing a bird in flight or hearing a bird song?

Aviary Wonders shows, doesn’t tell, the lesson that God’s creations are unique and valuable and can never be completely replicated by man. The book doesn’t mention God or creation, but that’s the message I got as a Christian who cares about our responsibility to steward and care for the world and its amazing diversity of plant and animal life. I didn’t know this fact about passenger pigeons, until reading this book led me to look it up:

“The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct North American bird. Named after the French word passager for “passing by”, it was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world. It accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in North America. The species lived in enormous migratory flocks until the early 20th century, when hunting and habitat destruction led to its demise.” Wikipedia, Passenger pigeon.

Anyway, I recommend the book, but it may be a hard sell. At least, take a look at it in the bookstore. It’s lovely. It’s also odd and different in a world that values tried and true and formula.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Trains. Well, really, one l–o–n–g train that’s so long that it might as well be a traveling city on wheels. This train, The Boundless, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!

The Boundless is a world to itself, inside a literary world that includes sasquatch, a mesmerist, a steam-powered automaton bartender, treasure, and a weeping hag who induces people to commit suicide (no one dies except expendable redshirt bad guys). The last element, the hag, may be a little much for some younger readers, but it somehow wasn’t terribly scary to me. And I’m not a fan of scary.

Anyway, The Boundless takes place in an alternate steampunk North American continent, and most of the action happens on the train. the train. I loved the train. I want someone to draw me a picture of the train, car by car. Or, even better, I want to ride on the train all the way across the country and experience each part of this marvelous magical train myself. (I wonder if in heaven the good things we imagine can become real and be experienced through eternity? Jesus and I could have a lot of fun exploring The Boundless, without all of the bad guys and hags and thieves.)

Will Everett is our humble hero who grows into a self-assured young man by the end of the story. The only thing I didn’t like about the story was the tired old theme of “follow your dream.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Will wants to be an artist while his father insists that he do something more practical with his life. If you want to know why I think that “follow your dream” is a stupid theme to be drilling into kids in every other book they read, not to mention the idea that parents are a bunch of spoilsports with no wisdom to be imparted, then watch this TED talk by Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs (which I’ve never seen, but I like his perspective on the value and dignity of work in this video).

So I just pretended that the simplistic Disney-esque follow-your-dream parts weren’t there, and I enjoyed the train and the adventure and the Picture of Dorian Gray subplot.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni

If you can handle spell-casting, human sacrifice,and lots of violence in your children’s middle grade fantasy, then this book might be just up your alley. I actually found it riveting, while I skimmed some of the witch-y, creepy parts.

You may not know it, but there are actually eight days in a week, with one secret magic day between Wednesday and Thursday called Grunsday. (Well, some people call it that.) The only people who experience Grunsday are the Transitioners and the Kin, descendants of the original creators of Grunsday who had a very good reason for sticking it in there in the middle of the week. Transitioners live in our timeline and the alternate magical one, Sunday through Wednesday, then Grunsday, then Thursday through Saturday, every week with eight days. The Kin only experience conscious life on Grunsday. On the other days they are there, but not? Sort of like ghosts?

The fun part of the story was trying to figure out how all this alternate timeline, eight days a week, not to mention magical abilities and lords and vassals, work out in the world of The Eighth Day. We get to figure it out along with the main character, a boy named Jax Aubrey, who hasn’t been told anything about the eighth day until he experiences it for the first time just after his thirteenth birthday. (He thinks it’s the zombie apocalypse at first.) Jax slowly deciphers the clues that his friends and his foes manage to drop as he also becomes comfortable with the idea that his identity as a Transitioner has given him some special abilities of his own.

I liked it, but again it may be way too sinister, violent, and occult for some readers. It certainly doesn’t glorify the occult, but Jax is, at best, spiritually confused. At one point in the story when Jax and the other “good guys” are trying to reverse an evil magical spell that’s been cast by the “bad guys”, Jax prays to whoever or whatever— “God or Nature or the Whole Universe”— is in charge and listening, to help them. It’s a perfect example of foxhole religion, certainly realistic, but also rather muddled.

Proceed at your own risk.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Did you know that ravens greet one another with a riddle? Or that ravens love riddles? Did you know that evil flesh-eating valravens don’t appreciate riddles, and that’s how you can tell them apart from the good ravens? Neither did I, and neither did young Gabriel Finley until he met and bonded with his own raven, a young bird, who hadn’t even learned to fly yet, named Paladin.

There are a lot of things to like about this story: The riddles. The flying (Gabriel can fly while bonding with Paladin). The essential goodness and humility of Gabriel, our protagonist. Aviopolis, the hidden bird city. However, there were also some problems, which may or may bother younger (third and fourth grade) readers. The problems will most likely rule out older middle grade readers.

I felt the author, who has only published adult fiction previous to this book, condescended to middle grade readers. The riddles that are sprinkled throughout the story often have similar solutions, instead of showcasing different kinds of riddles. Gabriel takes an entourage of friends and possible enemies along with him when he goes on a quest to find his father, but I could see no reason for the company. Gabriel is the only one who really has the ability to bond with a raven, and he’s the only one who can “save the world” with his riddling abilities. The only companions he actually needs are a duplicitous old man who has been to Aviopolis before and might know how to find Gabriel’s dad and of course, the bird Paladin.

Also, Gabriel seems to be really slow to catch on to rather obvious plot and character developments. I think this slowness on Gabriel’s part may reflect a lack of respect by the author for the intelligence of young readers. A boy like Gabriel really should be able to figure out what is happening and whom he can trust more quickly than he does.

So, I do recommend Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle with some reservations. Some kids are going to love it, but others are going to be just as annoyed as I was with the rather dense protagonist and his erstwhile friends. Oh, and the flesh-eating valravens are going to be a deal breaker for some kids. I never watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds for that very reason.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Lockwood & Co series of ghost fantasies aren’t for everyone. They’re probably too occult-related for some readers, even though the the protagonists—Lockwood, Lucy, and George—are the good guys as they fight against The Problem of evil ghostly manifestations that have become a common peril in this alternate history future. Also, I caught an instance or two of profanity. And, finally, the humor is biting and sarcastic, not everyone’s cuppa.

But if you can get past or even appreciate those aspects of the novel, The Whispering Skull might be even better than the first book in the series, The Screaming Staircase, winner of last year’s middle grade speculative fiction Cybils award. In episode two of our story, Lucy, George, and Lockwood are in a competition with the Fittes crew to find a very dangerous mirror relic and lay its ghosts to rest.

The eponymous skull is a rather dangerous relic itself in this version of a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living. Lucy, the narrator of the story, has a special connection with the skull, a face in a ghost-jar that sometimes materializes with “expressions of horror and disgust” and even talks to Lucy in a sort of telepathic and sarcastic manner that only she can hear. The skull is just as malevolent and self-centered as all of the other ghosts and spirits that are infesting the country, but it does seem to have a soft spot for Lucy. Will that connection and that special sensitivity be the downfall of Lockwood and Co?

This second book in particular would make a lovely Princess Bride-type movie with lots of witty, sardonic dialog and characters who see each other’s faults but support each other to the death. I’ve never been much on horror films or ghost stories, but if it were done right, I might make an exception for a movie version of this book. There were several scenes in which I wanted to shake (or slap) the characters and tell them that, of course, they shouldn’t let curiosity betray them into doing x or y really dangerous, stupid thing. But that’s par for a ghost horror story, isn’t it? Cue scary music. This decision will not end well. Don’t open that door!

So I recommend this book and the first one in the series for those of us who are not at all interested in the occult as such, but who enjoy a scary, clever story with lots of action, lots of quick-witted humor, and a fair amount of heart. Suave Anthony Lockwood, faithful Lucy Carlyle, and bumbling George Cubbins make a fine team of intrepid ghostbusters, and the ending promises more Lockwood and Co adventures to come.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

He Laughed With his Other Mouths by M.T. Anderson

I considered NOT reviewing this little volume since it’s just not the kind of humor that tickles my funny bone. Humor is strange and hard to write, I think. Not all of us laugh at the same things, and we’re not always in the mood for the same kind of humor. It must be very difficult to try to be funny for a living, as a comedian or a writer. And I’m not sure exactly why the books in this series don’t make me laugh.

Now, I can do absurd as well as the next guy. I have laughed out loud at the absurdity and wit of Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guide series. And the third book in that series, which I just read a couple of weeks ago, was as funny to me as the first one. When I read the first book in M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, I described it as “a pastiche of all those series you read when you were a kid back in the fifties and the sixties, if you were a kid back in the fifties and the sixties: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Danny Dunn, the Bobbsey Twins, cowboy series that I never read.” I also opined then that the joke was getting old by the end of the book.

Well, it’s still the same joke, and it’s still old. Plus, Mr. Anderson decided to add in a sad little story in the footnotes about a boy named Busby who lived during WW II and read the Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut books that form the basis for the main story. Busby has a sad life with his dad being injured in the war, and it’s not funny at all. The contrast is jarring.

I just didn’t find Pals in Peril very humorous. If you liked The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, He Laughed With his Other Mouths is more of the same. If not, skip.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Thrones and Bones: Frostborn by Lou Anders

This middle grade fantasy adventure takes place in the frozen North, very Norse, but on a different planet than Earth, one with two moons? The mythology that the story incorporates is definitely Norse/Scandinavian, but the different planet aspect allows the author to deviate from Norse folklore and culture whenever he wants without getting accused of being inauthentic. At least, I suppose that’s why he set the story on another planet. I can’t see that the foreign planet setting serves any other purpose . . . yet. (This book is, of course, the beginning of a series.)

Anyway, Karn lives in Norrongard where his father is jarl and owner of the family farm. Karn is due to inherit the farm someday, but he’s not much interested. He’d rather be playing Thrones and Bones. Typical unmotivated young teenage boy.

Thianna lives even farther north than Karn because she’s a frost giant, sort of, half. Her mother was human, and her father is a giant, which makes Thianna a misfit. She wants to be seen as a full-fledged giantess, but she’s too short for a giantess and too tall to be a human. She’s definitely tough and stubborn, not unmotivated.

When both Karn and Thianna are forced to leave home under dangerous and unjust circumstances, they meet up and help each other to evade their pursuers and to survive long enough to figure out their own strengths and goals. Thianna carries the Macguffin, a horn that neither Thianna nor Karn understands the significance of, but that everyone wants. Somehow the horn is dangerous enough to practically destroy the world. That part is never completely explained, but rather left open, perhaps for the next book in the series?

Anyway, lots of near-death experiences, a huge, hungry dragon, undead draug, murderous relations, an avalanche or two, and flying wyvern, among other things, make the book exciting and full of vicarious reading adventure. Read it if you like northernness or Norse mythology or chasing-around-in-the-snow adventures. Stay for the friendship that develops between two very different young people, Thianna the Bold but sometimes Foolhardy and Karn the Lazy but Master of Strategy.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Cybils: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. The category description for YA Speculative Fiction says:

Magic, aliens, ghosts, alternate universes, time travel, space travel, high fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, horror, and sentient animals are just some of the many topics that belong here. If a book could happen today or could have happened in the past, nominate it in YA Fiction. But any story that’s impossible, improbable, or merely possible – but not quite yet – belongs in Speculative Fiction. Magic Realism is tricky, but more often than not ends up here. The age range for this category is approximately 12-18.

Here are a few YA Speculative Fiction books that may deserve a look, but haven’t been nominated yet. If one of these is your favorite, please nominate it for a Cybils award.

Parched by Georgia Clark.
Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski.
Destined for Doon by Carey Corp and Lorey Langdon. Reviewed at The Book Nut: A Booklover’s Guide.
Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan.
Mindwar by Andrew Klavan.
One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.
Merlin’s Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. NOMINATED
Rebels (The Safe Lands) by Jill Williamson.

Do carry on with nominations for all your favorites in all of the categories, but only those books published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014 are eligible.

Cybils: Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. I’m on the panel for the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category, described as “books written for eight- to twelve-year-olds . . . with talking animals, time-travel, ghosts, and paranormal abilities, and all the other books that might not have obvious magic or travel to distant planets, but which push past the boundaries of daily life into the realm of the almost certainly impossible.”

Here are few books that haven’t been nominated yet, but deserve a look.If you’ve read one of these and want to give it a nod, go to the Cybils website and put in your nomination.

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.NOMINATED
The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy. NOMINATED
Minion by John David Anderson. NOMINATED
Magic in the Mix Annie Barrows.
Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge.
Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler. NOMINATED
The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. NOMINATED
Jack Staples and the Ring of Time by Mark Batterson and Joel Clark.
Revealed by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
Shouldn’t You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket.

Frankly, I’m surprised that some of these haven’t yet been nominated. Go forth and nominate your favorites in all of the categories, but only those published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014.

Empire of Bones by N.D. Wilson

About the first book in this fantasy series by N.D. Wilson, I wrote: The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson. Too much action and it moved way too fast for me. I think there was a sub-text that I just didn’t get, and I think Mr. Wilson is too smart for my Very Little Brain.

About the second book, The Drowned Vault, I wrote: I really should just wait until all of the (three?) books in the Ashtown Burials series are out and then I could read them all together. I’m pretty sure my little brain would thank me.

I should have taken my own advice. There are just too many characters and too much history and too much stuff for me to follow the story and really get it. And this book doesn’t provide a satisfying ending to the entire story, so I’m fairly sure there are more books in this series to come. I really, really need to quit now and come back when the series is complete. (Or maybe it is complete? If so, I really don’t get it.)

If you would like to read more about Empire of Bones, from the point of view of someone who read it, understood it, and loved it, here’s one glowing review at Pages Unbound.

I want to love these books, but I still like N.D. Wilson’s first book for children, Leepike Ridge, the best. It was just right for my Baby Bear/Goldilocks brain.