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.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson

Really good science fiction for middle grade and young adult readers is really hard to find these days. I mean the old-school, space travel, fighting space aliens, survival in a hostile environment kind of science fiction. Not evil corporations are taking over the world, dystopian pseudo-sci-fi. Hunger Games wannabes are easy to find. Old-fashioned Heinlein/StarTrek-type stories are not as popular.

So, Last Day On Mars is one of those old-fashioned space travel stories with an apocalyptic twist. Liam Saunders-Chang is one of the last humans left on Mars. The earth has already been deserted by human beings and destroyed by our sun which is slowly going supernova. What’s left of the human race is on a quest to colonize a new planet in a new galaxy, and Liam and his family along with a few other scientists and technicians are scheduled to leave Mars on the last starliner out of the solar system just before Mars, too, is destroyed by the exploding sun. It’s Liam’s last day on Mars, but “before this day is over, Liam and his friend Phoebe will make a series of profound discoveries about the nature of time and space and find out that the human race is just one of many in our universe locked in a dangerous struggle for survival.” (author Kevin Emerson’s website).

This book is the first in a projected trilogy, Chronicle of the Dark Star trilogy. Science fiction fans will eat it up. I liked all the plot twists and turns, especially the final ambiguity about who the good guys and the bad guys really are. Liam and the rest of humanity seemingly have more than one enemy, and all of them are determined to thwart the plan for human survival in the universe. Maybe. It’s hard to figure it all out when you’re in the middle of a fight for your own personal survival, running from people who want to kill you, and doing all you can to catch up with some adults who can take responsibility for all the craziness that’s coming at you. All Liam can do, really, is follow his Mom’s advice and “take it one unknown at a time.”

” . . . the reality is, when you make your own decisions, you never really know where they’ll lead, or what will come next. All you can do is make choices and move forward. And actually, what ends up happening is, the more you learn, the more you realize you still have to learn. . . . We’ll take it one unknown at a time.”

I don’t know when the next book in the trilogy is coming out, probably next year. So, you may want to wait for all three books. I hate waiting for books in series. But this one was a good start.

The Silver Gate by Kristin Bailey

This middle grade novel has a medieval, feudal setting, and the author kept me guessing all the way through as to whether it would turn out to be fantasy/fairy tale or realistic fiction. In the story, Elric must take care of his sister Wynnfrith after their mother’s death and protect her from the villagers who think that because Wynn is mentally handicapped, she is a changeling child, switched at birth by the fairies and therefore cursed. The narrative follows the journey of the two children through the countryside as they look for a safe home where they can live free of prejudice and persecution and where they can take care of one another.

The writing isn’t sparkly or impressive, but the plot and characterization, especially the characters of Elric and Wynn, carry the story. While I was reading I thought a lot about how we treat mentally handicapped or mentally challenged children and adults now in the supposedly enlightened twenty-first century. Throughout the book, while the majority of villagers and strangers treat Wynnfrith with contempt or else they fear her curse, Elric learns that she is a person with her own ideas and her own strengths and weaknesses, even if her ability to express those ideas is limited. And although the children meet with much cruelty and bullying, there are a few kind people who help them along the way.

For all the talk we give to “diversity” and “acceptance” and “tolerance” in our society, our actions speak louder than our words. How many children’s books and movies feature children of average or below average mental capacity? If the child in the book is autistic or differently abled in some other way, he or she must be a hidden or misunderstood genius, not just a kid of average abilities who again, has some strengths and some weaknesses.

Even worse though than the dearth of mentally handicapped kid characters in books is the disappearance of the actual kids themselves from our society. Although the majority of women who carry a baby with Down’s Syndrome continue to carry that baby to term and give birth, a significant minority (30-40%?) choose abortion. What are we as a society missing when we selectively choose death for the mentally challenged? What does it say about the human beings that we value and those that we don’t when a decision to abort a baby with Down’s Syndrome becomes acceptable and even laudable in the eyes of many people?

I don’t know that one children’s book can change the perception that devalues and degrades those among us who are learning disabled or mentally handicapped, but it’s a start. I would that there were more books like The Silver Gate, books that, without preaching, give mentally handicapped characters a place in literature and treat them with respect and dignity.

Henry and the Chalk Dragon by Jennifer Trafton

“Henry Penwhistle’s bedroom door was the sort of door where adventures began.”

And that’s the sort of first sentence that makes me think that this book is going to be a great adventure. Immediately, I am reminded of a wardrobe door into Narnia, or Bilbo Baggins’ front door that led him out onto the road to all sorts of interesting and dangerous places.

“And one day, on top of all the ghostly shapes and squiggles and smears, Henry drew a dragon. . . . [I]t made him think of exotic creatures and perilous places. This dragon was everything a dragon should be: fierce and fearsome and full of fire.”

A door and a dragon. Yes, this story is definitely headed in the right direction.

“[H]e whirled past the overflowing book chest with its stirred-up soup of favorite stories–stories about wild things and unlikely heroes, chocolate factories and tiny motorcycles, buried giants and mock turtles.”

Did you get all of those kidlit allusions? If not, you need to read some more very good children’s books.

I could go on for a long time, quoting sentences and passages from this awesome, adventurous, artistic story and then commenting about how awesome, adventurous, and artistic each quotation was, but now I’m only on page three. And the book has 223 powerful pages. So if I quoted from every page this blog post would become a book—a partially plagiarized, partially fangirling, bloggy book. And you don’t really want to read that when you could be reading Henry and the Chalk Dragon.

Suffice it to say, Henry draws a chalk dragon on the back of his door, but he’s not prepared for the chaos that ensues when the chalk dragon comes alive and goes to school with him. The plot is rather dream-like, for lack of a better word; the things that happen are kind of random, don’t always fit together or follow strict rules, but I didn’t care. The writing is just so good, lots of memorable descriptions and quotes, but not overwritten in the way I felt last year’s Girl Who Drank the Moon sometimes was. And Henry and the Chalk Dragon feels like a children’s book, not trying to push the envelope into YA territory. But it also doesn’t talk down to its intended audience; the story talks about important things like the difference between “real” and “true”, and the importance of friendship and chivalry and art, and what to do when you’re afraid (BE BRAVE) or laughed at (FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT), and the many different kinds of smiles. Oh, and the allusions to classic children’s books are a delight.

I read the book, and then I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again. But I waited about a week to let the new wear off (or come back again), and now I’m reading Henry and the Chalk Dragon for the second time. I’ll just leave you with few more excerpts to whet your appetite, and then you can be done with this very long, but real blog post, and you too can go and read the truly admirable, original, and applauded Henry and the Chalk Dragon.

“Dragons aren’t scary—well, they are, but they’re a good kind of scary. They’re the kind of scary you want to be scared of. People are the bad kind of scary, he thought. Dragons can only eat you, but people can laugh at you, and that is like being chewed to death by a smile.”

“There is a kind of fear that squeezes your heart with an icy hand and freezes you into a popsicle. But there is another kind of fear that is thrilling and hot, that makes your fingers tingle and your toes tickle each other inside your shoes until you want to leap over the Empire State Building. Henry was afraid with this kind of fear, and it felt good.”

“Miss Pimpernel had at least a hundred different kinds of smiles. Henry thought she must keep them in her gigantic purple purse and pull them out at night to count them, like a pirate grinning as she counted her pieces of silver. She could be his teacher for ten years, and he would never finish learning all the names of all of her smiles. Right now she was wearing her Be-Nice-to-Me-I-Haven’t-Had-My-Coffee smile, which wasn’t her happiest. Still, there were worse.”

“There are many things in this world that do not belong. A volcano does not belong in a bathroom. The Indian Ocean does not belong in Iowa. Ketchup does not belong on chocolate cake. But most, most of all, a teacher’s smile does not belong on the face of a fearsome dragon. When the You-Are-the-Apple-of-My-Eye smile is stretched between two glittering dragon eyes, believe me, you do not want to be the apple.”

Trust me. There’s much more fearsome, smiley, arty goodness where that came from.

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.

Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire by Cindy Neuschwander

Is it didactic, a story built specifically to teach a lesson about fractions? Absolutely.

Do some of us prefer our mathematics lessons encased in a story? Yes, indeed.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And for some people, math equals medicine.

The Sir Cumference books are designed to engage young readers who like knights and ladies fairs and castles and to teach them a bit of math on the sly, so to speak. This latest Sir Cumference book is all about fractions. Sir Cumference and Lady Di of Ameter go to visit their friend the Earl of Fracton at the annual Fracton Faire. At the fair, they purchase cloth and cheese and other stuff in fractional parts, and a group of thieves target the market. However, the Earl and Lady Di and Sir Cumference use fractions to catch the bandits.

The ending is a bit lame. (The thieves get away, but the loot they took from the merchants at the fair is recovered.) Everyone lives happily ever after, and fractons later become known as fractions. Nevertheless, this story would be a memorable and gentle introduction to or review of the subject of simple fractions.

Other Sir Cumference books are:
Sir Cumference and All the King’s Tens (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the First Round Table (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the Roundabout Battle
Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map
Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi
Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter
Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland
Sir Cumference and the Sword in the Cone
Sir Cumference and the Off-the-Charts Dessert

Another “living math” picture book that I picked up at the used bookstore is The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns. (Ms. Burns wrote two of the books in the Brown Paper School series, Math for Smarty Pants and The I Hate Mathematics Book!, and her name is on a series of math education books from Scholastic for preschool and primary readers, Marilyn Burns brainy day books.) The Greedy Triangle is about a triangle with a busy life who nevertheless becomes bored with doing the same old triangular things. With the help of a shapeshifter, our triangle tries out life as a quadrilateral, a pentagon, and a hexagon, then several other shapes all the way up to a decagon. But, of course, then the old life of a triangle starts to look good, and our shape-shifting shape asks for one last change.

I think this kind of “didacticism” is a just fine. Stories make math so much more interesting. Then again, I was usually the only one in my math classes who actually liked story problems best. Unadorned numbers make me cringe.

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.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Young Sami and his family escape from the bombing of his Syrian neighborhood and go to live in a refugee camp, but Sami had to leave his pigeons behind. As others in his family and in the camp begin to make a new life for themselves, Sami cannot think of anything other than his beautiful birds.

The artwork in this lovely picture book uses “plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media” to create a sense of beauty in the midst of war and desolation. Even young children can sympathize with Sami and his loneliness and depression as he tries to adjust to a new home without any of the things or people he had to leave behind in Syria, and especially without his pet birds. And I can picture young readers being inspired to use clay and painting and other mixed media to create their own pictures and art that perhaps speak to the losses that they have experienced themselves.

The book would even be a good art therapy book for older children and young adults. The use of literature, art and nature in helping people to cope with loss and with trauma is well-established by now, and this book would be a window for those who don’t understand much about the sadness and grief that refugees experience and a mirror for those who have experienced war or disaster firsthand.

“In 2015, looking for resources to explain the Syrian Civil War to her own children, Suzanne (Del Rizzo) came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with the wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp.” She wrote My Beautiful Birds in response to that article.