Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Nine on an island, orphans all,
Any more, the sky might fall.

Nine orphan children live on an island. When the green boat brings another young child to the island, the oldest one must leave. Then, the next oldest one cares for the new little one, until it’s his or her turn to leave. That’s how it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Life is good on the island, almost magical. And it will continue to be good and nourishing and life-giving as long as the children follow the rules and care for one another.

I think this book is supposed to be about our world and how we live in it. We live in a world that is beautiful and full of wonder, but we’re sort of trapped on this island Earth. We don’t really know how we got here, and we don’t know where we are going when we leave. We have a set of rules, handed down by tradition or codified in books (the Bible) and stories, and we have books that give us intimations of what the world beyond this one might be like. But we don’t really know. At least from a Jewish point of view, we have the Law, and we’re not sure why we have many of the rules that are in the Law. But it’s important and life-giving to follow them anyway.

This story is also about growing up. We all have moments when we want to be like Peter Pan and never grow up, but we really have no choice. We must leave childhood and the innocence of the island and enter into adulthood. We learn the important lessons of childhood, and we take those lessons into adulthood. That grown-up life is an unknown territory, and some of us go into it with alacrity, anxious to know what’s out there in the great big world. But others enter into adulthood kicking and screaming, metaphorically speaking, longing to just stay in the simple, joyful, idealized world of childhood.

Opinions are going to be divided on this book, mostly because of the way it ends. It’s probably not a spoiler to warn you that not all of the questions you may have as you read Orphan Island will be answered by the ending of the book. In fact, you will probably be filled with multitude of questions by the end of the novel. Will there be a sequel? I almost hope not. I still remember when the writers from the TV show LOST tried to tie up the loose ends and answer all of our questions; it wasn’t pretty. I really believe that this is a book that should stand on its own with all the questions left for the reader to resolve and answer. Maybe that way some child somewhere will imagine his or her own ending, his or her own answers. That’s not such a bad thing at all. In fact, it may be the purpose of the book.

I liked it. Please come back and let me know what you think after you’ve read it.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine the adventurous dragon meets a food mage and gets turned into a puny, thin-skinned human girl, but she still has the heart of a dragon. She still believes that she is the fiercest creature on the mountain or in the city of Drachenburg. At least, most of the time she believes it, until she looks down at her pitiful human body. But never mind, the food mage also introduced Aventurine to the wonderful, delicious, scrumptious flavor of chocolate, and Aventurine is willing to go anywhere and do almost anything for another taste of chocolate delightfulness.

What a romp! Chocolate and dragons and an independent girl/dragon and a testy chocolate maker and lots of political intrigue and, did I mention, chocolate? Aventurine is impetuous and somewhat foolhardy, but she does grow and mature as the story progresses. And the characters around her—Marina the chocolatier, Horst the chocolate house proprietor, Silke the marketer, and all of Aventurine’s dragon family—are well-rounded and interesting in and of themselves. Even the minor characters are fun. Aventurine’s brother, Jasper, studies philosophy. Her older and practically perfect sister, Citrine, writes epic poetry. Greta, the selfish and manipulative townswoman who tries to turn Aventurine into her own personal, unpaid maid, is hilarious.

The entire book is only 244 pages, well-edited, and well paced. Kudos to Ms. Burgis for a fun and rollicking adventure with heart, a chocolate heart, of course.

What others say

The Book Smugglers: “In the tradition of the best middle grade storytellers—such as Diana Wynne Jones, Catherynne M Valente—The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a story with multiple layers. Hot-tempered and fierce, Aventurine experiences loss, anxiety, and fear just as she has to deal with questions of power and identity and to find a new family and friendships.”

The Reader Dragon: “First off, if you ever plan on reading this book, make sure you have chocolate nearby, because you’re going to get the munchies! There is oh-so-much talk of chocolately goodness throughout the entirety of this book, that I guarantee you’ll be craving sweets in absolutely no time at all.”

Pages Unbound: “However, Aventurine’s journey is not just about embracing her spirit and the things that make her unique. It’s also about finding the strength to be vulnerable and to allow others to carry her at times.”

An interview with Stephanie Burgis about dragons and chocolate at Cracking the Cover.

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 may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase’s memory just went out the window. Chase doesn’t remember falling off the roof. He doesn’t remember hitting his head. He doesn’t, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

Even though I enjoyed the ride, I experienced enough disconnect that I just wasn’t buying. This story of a completely evil bully, thief, and tough guy turned into a completely harmless and benevolent thirteen year old kid by a fall off the roof was fun to read, but I didn’t really believe in the premise. Chase and his two sidekicks are so mean, so completely without redeeming qualities before Chase’s accident. They terrorize the entire school; practically the whole town walks in fear of Chase and his buddies. Then, magically (but it’s not magic), Chase loses his memory and becomes a different person. He doesn’t remember the old Chase and all of his nefarious and violent bullying ways, so he is free to become New-Chase, a guy who doesn’t understand why anyone would use his power and popularity as a star football player to torment and intimidate others. Not only does he not understand the impulse to violence and bullying, all of his new inclinations are peace, light, and goodwill. New-Chase defends the oppressed, listens to the elderly, and plays with little children.

The characterization is pretty one-dimensional for most of the minor characters and some of the major ones, too: the grumpy war hero, the blindly affirming mom, the pushy dad, the accommodating principal, the two jerks, old-Chase (pre-accident) himself, Kimberly the clueless girl with a crush, even Brendan the nerd. I never forgot for long that they were characters in a book. And yet, I did enjoy the story during the times that I was able to suspend disbelief.

Readers who buy into Chase’s reincarnation as a good guy will enjoy the humor and the thought experiment in reimagining a bully turned into sweetness and light by a slight concussion and subsequent amnesia. It is fun to watch Chase rediscover himself—until what he discovers is that self is not-so-great. Recommended reading for middle school bullies: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us.” (Robert Burns) Chase rediscovers himself through the eyes of others who do remember Old-Chase, and then he must decide who he is going to be in the future.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

This 2017 middle grade novel has definite Newbery award potential. It reads like a Newbery; the style, subject matter, and pacing reminded me of Katherine Paterson (Jacob Have I Loved) or Clare Vanderpool (Moon Over Manifest), both Newbery award winning authors. If Beyond the Bright Sea wins the Newbery or even a Newbery honor, it will become a best-seller. However, if it gets passed over for the major children’s book awards, I doubt if children will take it up and make it a popular classic. It’s that kind of book: if you’re required to read it as a child, you might fall in love, but most children won’t pick it up on their own.

The narrator in this story is twelve year old Crow, a foundling who floated in a skiff onto a tiny island, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, and into an adoptive family. Osh, the man wo rescued her as a baby and raised her, is something of a hermit with a mysterious past. And Miss Maggie is Crow’s teacher and Osh’s neighbor, a protective maiden aunt-type. At age twelve, Crow has questions about her own past and her birth parents, questions that can only be answered with investigation and stepping out into the wider world to find her heritage.

Beyond the Bright Sea is a book about identity and belonging and the meaning and relative significance of family ties of blood and of adoption. I have a friend, adopted, and just now in her early twenties and investigating her own birth family. She would love this book, I think. In fact, many adopted children, especially those of a different racial heritage from their adoptive parents, would probably enjoy this story since Crow is a brown-skinned girl of uncertain parentage whose foster father, Osh, and teacher, Miss Maggie, are both different from her and from each other in terms of racial heritage. Crow is also different and isolated from the community on the island where she lives in other ways. The islanders, many of them, avoid her because they believe she might have inherited a contagious disease. And Osh is not the most sociable of characters, and of course, they live on a small island, isolated from the outside world of the mainland. So, one question or theme in the book is whether or not humans need community and how they can create a network of family and friendships if some tragedy or turn of events has cut them off from human contact.

Adults might “sell” this book to kids with lures of a search for buried treasure, wild storm adventures, and an orphan child’s quest to find her parents and her other family members. Then, stand back and let the thoughtful and the adventurous readers become captured by the toils of a great narrative and winsome characters. I rather hope Beyond the Bright Sea does win some awards so that more kids, and adults, will discover it.

York by Laura Ruby

York, Book One, The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby.

This middle grade alternate history and steampunk-ish fantasy had a few awkward phrases and descriptions, and I’m not at all sure that all the loose ends were gathered together by the end of the book. (Understandable, since it’s the first book in a series.) However, Ms. Ruby tells such an absorbing and delightful story that I can forgive a few minor bobbles.

“The city had many nicknames: Gotham. Metropolis. The Shining Starr. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. These nicknames were not always accurate.”

The main character, the protagonist, of this novel is the City, New York City. But it’s a New York City changed and perhaps improved by the benevolence and inventiveness of the Morningstarr twins, Teresa and Theodore, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Morningstarrs “performed architectural and mechanical wizardry to make New York City the most dazzling city in the world . . . the gleaming metropolis of the future.” Then, they disappeared, leaving “their land and property to a trust in the city’s name” and “a parting gift: a sort of puzzle, or treasure hunt.” The Morningstarr twins were definitely imaginative and eccentric, and for the next hundred and fifty years and more after their disappearance in 1854, people searched diligently for the clues that would lead them to the fabled Marningstarr treasure. But no one found it.

Enter Tess and Theo Biedermann, also twins, but in the present day, twenty-first century. They live with their family in a Morningstarr building, one of the six buildings left in the city of those that were planned and built by the Morningstarrs. Unfortunately, for the sake of history and for the Biedermanns, there’s an evil real estate developer and millionaire, Darnell Slant, who wants to buy up all of the Morningstarr buildings and make them into over-priced cracker box apartment buildings. Can Tess, Theo, and their new friend, Jaime, solve the Morningstarr cipher/puzzle and find the treasure and stop Darnell Slant?

It sounds fairly standard: evil real estate developer, a puzzle to solve, a race against time. However, the alternate history and steampunk elements of the plot and setting keep it fresh and interesting. The pacing is good, for the most part, and I didn’t really know what to expect most of the time. There are echoes of and allusions to Newbery award winner The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and New York City history and the movie National Treasure, probably other cultural artifacts, too. Those are the ones I noticed and appreciated.

And the book includes some interesting philosophical speculation, especially in regards to life and technology and puzzle-solving. Is the process of solving a puzzle or playing a game its own reward? Or is it the winning or the treasure at the end that counts? Is any treasure worth any cost? How do you go about counting the cost when you don’t know what the treasure is? What does it mean to “be yourself” and to “believe in yourself”? Does faith in some object or journey create its own fulfillment? What is the difference between living beings and non-living artifacts of technology? Can a machine come to have life and agency? Can it respond to its environment and make decisions? How?

York was a book well worth the time spent reading its 476 pages. Fans of steampunk or New York City or puzzling and ciphers or alternate history adventure would do well to check it out.

Educator’s Guide to York from Walden Press.

Review of York at Charlotte’s Library.

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 may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Song of Glory and Ghost by N.D. Wilson

I could just say that everything I wrote about the first book in the Outlaws of Time series is true of this one, in spades. If you read and liked The Legend of Sam Miracle, you’ll probably like this second book, too. If you had some issues with the first book —pacing, confusing time shifts, complexity, violence and clutter— then, you’ll find those same issues in The Song of Glory and Ghost.

In this volume, Sam and his friend/sidekick, Glory, and the boys of SADDYR, are at their home base on an island near what’s left of Seattle in the year 2034. (Warning to N.D. Wilson from George Orwell: those exact years in the future catch up to you, finally, if your book lasts that long, and before you know it, it’s 1984, or 2034, and the future is no longer the future.) Well, they are mostly on the island, when Peter and Glory aren’t practicing time travel or hunting for The Vulture (El Buitre) or riding a motorcycle back in time to look for supplies. 2034 is a bleak year. Since Sam didn’t kill The Vulture, history has made a turn for the worse, and Seattle and most of the west coast has been destroyed in a series of apocalyptic events. Millions have died, and it’s all Sam’s fault. If he can only find The Vulture in one of the time gardens that is left and destroy him once and for all, maybe the timelines will right itself and Sam will have fulfilled his purpose.

But it’s Glory who takes center stage in this book. When she meets up with Ghost, a sort of Grim Reaper character, he tells her that she is the one can save Peter Atsa Eagle, guide Sam to the time and place where he can confront The Vulture, and defeat the desert demons called the Tzitzimime (somebody pronounce that one for me!). The Vulture has teamed up with the Tzitzimime and their zombie-like army of evil creatures, and their mission is to destroy, decimate, and rule the world. Only Sam and Glory can defeat them and save the world. Yes, the plot sounds a lot like a comic book, and the repeated references to comic books and drawing comics and Sam Miracle as a superhero reinforce the graphic novel feel. But it’s not a graphic novel, or a comic book, and there’s an undercurrent of theme and foundation that makes this story more than just another superhero story.

The problem is that the book tries to be many things: superhero myth, apocalyptic novel, spiritually significant story, and just a not-so-plain time travel adventure, just to name a few. Mr. Wilson draws on Spanish legend and language, Aztec religion and mythology, Christianity, and tales of the Pacific coast and the southwestern United States, again to name just a few sources. And in the middle of serious world-changing scenes, he can’t resist throwing in wry or corny joke or two:

“The two of you are permitted to see me only twice,” Ghost said. “The third time we meet eye to eye, I will be carrying your soul away. Then you may see me as often as you like.”
“Perfect,” Sam muttered. “Let’s hang out tons after we’re dead.”

It’s either comic relief or a distraction, depending on your sense of humor. This book introduces a new character, Samra, and I’m not sure what her purpose is. Maybe she’s Everyman (woman), the one who observes the action and the crazy time travel and snake weaponry from the vantage point of an ordinary human being. Glory, Sam and Peter (Father Tiempo) have become a sort of trinity of gods or super-beings by now so maybe we need an ordinary person to round out the cast.

The Song of Glory and Ghost won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is indeed full of interesting and arresting scenes and themes and characters. If you haven’t read The Legend of Sam Miracle, do read that book first. I don’t think this book would be a good introduction to the series. But again if you liked Legend, you’ll probably like this one, too.

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 may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Roll by Darcy Miller

A boy named Lauren, commonly called Ren for obvious reasons, and Sutton, the girl with red, yellow, and orange striped hair who is Ren’s new neighbor, bond and grow a friendship over a common interest in Birmingham Roller pigeons.

I’m always interested in looking into new worlds and communities that I never knew about or heard of before. Training pigeons and pigeon competitions are certainly a thing that never came to my notice in the many years I’ve been around. How did such a wild and entertaining group of birds escape my attention for so long?

Watch this.

Yes, there are pigeons that turn flips in the air. To some extent, they are trained to fly together and to return to the coop, but they turn flips in the air because they just do. They were bred to do pigeon acrobatics?

“Some fanciers fly their rollers in competition, both locally and nationally. There is even a World Cup competition that includes several other countries. Kits (group of pigeons) are scored for quality and depth, as well as the number of birds that roll at the same time, referred to as a turn or break. The Birmingham Roller is a very popular breed of performing pigeon, with around 10,000 breeders worldwide.”

The book was a decent middle grade read with some good insights about friendship and growing up and making new friends but keeping the old, but I really appreciated the introduction to the Birmingham rollers and to a community of “pigeon fanciers” that I knew nothing about. It’s a crazy and wonderful world that we live in, and as RL Stevenson said, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

The House of Months and Years by Emma Trevayne

This middle grade fantasy about a spooky house that allows certain “special” people to travel through time and space didn’t quite work for me. I’m trying to figure out why.

1) I think it’s it’s a little too creepy, spooky for my tastes. An older man/ghost, Horatio, takes on ten year old Amelia as a protege, telling her how special and intelligent and wonderful she is. He takes her to places that only Horatio and Amelia can go and shows her wonders that only she is special enough to appreciate. And he takes her to a special feast and gives her special “memory-food” that only Amelia can enjoy. There’s nothing sexual or pharmaceutical involved, but it all feels borderline icky and drug dealer and exploitative.

2) The rules of the “calendar house” and the creatures (not ghosts, not really human either) who own the calendar houses are nebulous and unclear to me. Horatio tries to explain to Amelia, hoping that she will become his apprentice and build her own calendar house, but since it turns out that Horatio is a liar sometimes, I couldn’t get a good fix on what was and wasn’t true about the world he and his fellow memory eaters live in.

So, I read the whole thing. And the premise is intriguing, at the very least. Certain houses are built to be calendar houses, with various features corresponding to the seasons, the days of the week, the number of weeks in a year, etc. And these houses are full of magic, enabling the builder to travel through time and space to other eras and climes. But there is a price to be paid for privilege of time travel. Is Amelia willing to “steal time” from others, including her own family, to give herself the ability to go anywhere and experience all sorts of times and places?

Anyway, that’s my take. I didn’t like Amelia very much; she was, for most of the book, a very spoiled and selfish child. And I liked Horatio even less, not that the reader is supposed to like him, I suppose. Amelia’s cousins, who also come into the story, are rather flat characters, tow boys and a baby who never really came alive for me. (However, the baby is named Lavender, which I thought was a lovely name.) There’s nothing overtly objectionable about this book, but as I said, I found it to be kind of disturbing and icky.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

The Goldfish Boy is a problem novel from a British perspective. I liked reading it because I have a family member with OCD. However, I’m not sure that the protagonist, Matthew, rises above the level of the stereotypical “child with an illness who learns to overcome”, and his parents are extremely annoying when they take over his first therapy session with their own bickering. Matthew spends a lot of time washing his hands and worrying about germs, but there is a plot/mystery as a neighborhood toddler goes missing. Matthew is the last person to have seen the young missing boy, since Matthew also spends a lot of time observing the neighborhood from his bedroom window. (He’s become house-bound because of his germ-phobia.)

The book paints a sympathetic and generally believable picture of a child who is dealing obsessive-compulsive disorder, I suppose. However, the implication is that Matthew’s OCD is caused by one initiating incident in his past, and I’m not sure that’s a good message to give. OCD isn’t usually connected to some traumatic or difficult experience, and we don’t really know what causes it. From the International OCD Foundation:

“While, we still do not know the exact cause or causes of OCD, research suggests that differences in the brain and genes of those affected may play a role. Research suggests that OCD involves problems in communication between the front part of the brain and deeper structures of the brain. These brain structures use a neurotransmitter (basically, a chemical messenger) called serotonin. Pictures of the brain at work also show that, in some people, the brain circuits involved in OCD become more normal with either medications that affect serotonin levels (serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SRIs) or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).”

So, in the book Matthew starts having obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors because of a very specific bad thing that happened to his family. And he seems to get some relief when he finally tells his therapist and his parents about that specific incident and its accompanying anxiety spiral. The therapist does indicate that Matthew will need cognitive behavior therapy to completely recover, but it all seems a little too simplistic as far as cause and effect are concerned. (Also, there’s another child in the story, minor character, who just seems to be a “bad seed”, murderous and uncaring, and that was a bit disturbing.)

All in all, I was fascinated because of my personal relationship to the subject matter, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst

“‘Once, there were two princesses, Sisters. One trained to be a warrior, at the top of a mountain. She was never allowed to go home. The other trained to be the perfect princess. She was never allowed out of the palace. Until one day, when their father said they were ready . . .’
‘They weren’t ready,’ Ji-Lin admitted.
‘They weren’t,’ Seika agreed. ‘But they had to go, because they were needed. And their journey was more dangerous than anyone thought it would be.'”

In this middle grade fantasy with a hint of Japanese influence (no actual mention of Japan), the twin princesses Seika and Ji-Lin, heir and guardian respectively of the island kingdom of Himitsu, travel together on the ritual Emperor’s Journey to the volcanic mountain where Seika will meet with the dragon who keeps the hidden kingdom hidden with a protective magical barrier. Ji-Lin’s task, along with her winged lion Alejan, is to protect her sister, Seika, and help her to complete the journey. They must reach the the Shrine of the Dragon by Himit’s Day. The safety of the islands and their people depends on two twelve year old princesses and a strong, but immature, winged lion.

What a fantastic book—humorous, thrilling, and at times, even thoughtful. It’s a celebration of sisterhood as the twins test themselves and learn to depend on each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. There are koji, monsters of various sorts, to fight or avoid, and there are choices to be made, both moral and strategic. Seika, who depends on her mastery of the traditions and rituals of her people’s history to keep the world stable and safe, must learn that perfection in word and deed isn’t always possible and isn’t always what’s needed. Ji-Lin, who has been trained to fight and to protect, must learn that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Both girls, and indeed their father, the Emperor, and all of the people of the Hidden Islands of Himitsu, must grow to accept change and to make new traditions.

It’s not as complicated or indeed as literary as Grace Lin’s award winning novels Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turned to Silver, books to which Journey Across the Hidden Islands is sure to be compared. The books do share a common theme: that stories are important and powerful, especially the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves. But as it turns out I’m more a fan of straightforward with a little bit of funny thrown in, so if you want a fantasy for ages nine to twelve with a hint of an Asian flavor, a solid plot, and good themes, I’d recommend this one.