Monthly Archives: February 2016

Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland


moon risingMoon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland
Wings of Fire Bk. 6
Scholastic, 2014.

Why am I reading the 6th book in a series without having read the previous 5? And why am I reading a book with dragons to boot? Because the Cybil round one judges deemed this worked well as a standalone and was good enough to be a finalist. I sort of agree that this can standalone, but I felt I’d have got a lot more out of it if I had the background and context. There was a lot of dragonlore that I just didn’t know about, and while it mostly did not inhibit my understanding of the novel and became clearer in the end, I did find it a little confusing.

This upper elementary/young middle grade fantasy is set at a new school for dragons designed to encourage and allow the six different tribes of dragons of Pyhrria to get to know each other better; the intention is to quell the dragons’ suspicions of each other and to stop the tribes fighting.

Moonwatcher, one of the despised and feared Nightwings, is in the first intake of students, and she has the unusual ability of being able to read minds, and also has visions. Instructed by her mother to hide these skills for her own protection, Moon timidly starts to get to know other dragons, mostly those in her ‘winglet’ – a group of 6 dragons one from each tribe. However, she overhears a plot to kill some dragons, and also hears the voice of a 2000-year old ‘animus’ dragon who is trapped. Using her skills and with her new friends, Moon tries to solve the mystery and save the school.

The plot is really well-constructed and paced, it all moves along at a good lick throughout. The intersection of the start of the new school (and the reasons for it) with the central mystery, and the side story of the ancient dragon is all very satisfying. Though the writing rarely moves above workmanlike, it serves the plot and makes the book accessible for younger readers.

The world of the dragons is richly layered, as you might expect from a 6th entry in a series. There was a very helpful key at the beginning with the different dragon tribes, and I referred back to that quite a lot. The different tribes have different personalities, though I did find all but the main characters pretty interchangeable.

However, the three core characters, Moon and her two new buddies Kinkajou and Qibli, are an attractive group who pull on their different strengths to help each other. Moon is a bit whiny to start with, but I’m sure many readers will be able to relate to her fear of a new social situation and will pull for her when she starts to establish herself there. It is, however, pretty easy to forget that they’re dragons as they have very human traits.

Assuming the other books are as engaging as this one, I’d certainly be happy to recommend the whole series to a young fantasy lover.

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson


dungeoneersThe Dungeoneers by John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press, 2015

I always feel a bit sorry for the book I read after I’ve read a really great one, and The Dungeoneers, another Cybil-shortlisted speculative novel, did not do so well in comparison to Cuckoo Song. It’s a solid three-star sort of book, I liked it, but didn’t love it, and I think kids will enjoy it. The book is inspired by the role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and uses much of the same terminology (I only know this because somebody pointed it out on Goodreads), which is either clever of the author or rather lazy – take your pick.

After admitting to pickpocketing, 12 year-old Colm Candorly is offered the opportunity to become a “rogue” with Thwodin’s Legion. Encouraged by his new mentor, Finn Argos, and along with his assigned adventuring party – swaggering barbarian Lena, nervy mageling Quinn, and drippy druid, Serene, – Colm successfully gets through the initial trial and is accepted to become a dungeoneer.

The party then undergoes intensive training at the Legion’s castle as they prepare to adventure through underground caves, tunnels, and dungeons in the hope of finding treasure, and avoiding life-threatening goblins, orcs, and traps. However, all is not well in the castle, and it is up to Colm and his friends to get to the bottom of it.

Similar to Harry Potter before him, Colm is new to this secret world and we learn all about the lore and legends through him. There is a long running joke about the many rules, which turn out to be different for each role: When faced with danger, rogue rule “Get behind the big guy”; everyone else’s rule: “Get behind the rogue”. Even though this is self-proclaimedly not a school, it is a world that will be very familiar to fans of Hogwarts – with lessons, teachers, bullies, and special skills.

The four central characters are well-developed and distinct, if a little caricatured, and make an interesting team. I like the slight twist that a girl is the barbarian (the muscle of the party), not the boy, and that there are women Masters as well as men. I appreciate that the author introduces diversity in skin color, with Serene and one of the Masters, though it goes no further than that.

The writing is light-footed and funny – Finn has a very entertaining riff on the euphemisms for rogues dying including “tripped his trigger”, “picked the wrong pocket”, and “unlocked his own door”. Everyone else? “They just die, plain and simple. But we rogues are much too clever for that.”

Towards the end, some intriguing questions are raised about the ethics of what they’re doing – why is it ok to steal from orcs and goblins? why is it ok to just hoard gold and not do anything with it? – but any exploration of these thoughts are left to a sequel.

Overall, though, I felt this was a bit of a trudge: Much of the book felt slow and not very exciting, which just doesn’t work for what’s meant to be an adventure book. The trials perked it up a bit, but they were less complex than I was hoping, and the end section does really rip along. But it felt like it should have been a 300-350 page book not a 400+ page one, so it will work better for readers with patience rather than those who want non-stop action.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge


cuckoo songCuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Abrams, 2015.

This was another of my favorites on the Cybils shortlist. I thought it was by far the most ‘literary’ of all the books on our shortlist, but this was counterbalanced by, what I felt, was its limited middle grade appeal. I LOVED Ms. Hardinge’s Mosca Mye books (Fly by Night and Fly Trap) but have never had much luck getting kids to read them; Cuckoo Song is a very different kettle of fish, but I still feel it has more appeal to adults than its intended audience.

Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily imaginative, creepily atmospheric, and beautifully written fantasy novel. Set in surburban England, five years after the end of the First World War, 13 year-old Triss wakes up feeling something isn’t quite right. She’s been sickly for a long time, but this is different: “Mommy [an irritating Americanism – really publisher?], help me, please help me, everything’s strange and nothing’s right, and my mind feels as if it’s made up of pieces and some of them are missing….”

So far, so odd but nothing out of the ordinary. And then Triss’s doll speaks to her, and she develops an unstoppably voracious hunger. Triss and her younger sister Pen team up to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and themes of alienation, difference, and identity bubble up, meshing perfectly with the characters and the setting.

The plot is so inventive and well-laid out with twists and about-faces that just feel right when they happen, though I couldn’t have conceived of them happening. As the threads merge towards a resolution that feels satisfying and grows organically, without contrivance, from the characters and plot, much is revealed and the reader’s sympathies will move with it.

Hardinge writes like an absolute dream. Her language, similes and metaphors are entirely appropriate for the period and the characters, but are all startlingly original, and add rich illumination to the text. Here are just a few of my favorites (I think they’re snippet-y enough enough not to qualify as spoilers, but apologies if they are):

  • Triss’s parents being angry on her behalf “felt like being coddled inside a horse-chestnut shell, protected by its inward downy softness, while all the spikes pointed outwards.” (p. 9)
  • Running a temperature was “the easy lie, the much-stamped passport to forgiveness.” (p. 72)
  • “Her parents had herded Triss’s woolly memories into the neat pens of their stories.” (p. 81)
  • “This was jazz that had wiped its feet and put on its best manners to meet somebody’s mother.” (p. 178)
  • (This other jazz) “had not wiped its feet; it had crunched right into the room with gravel on its shoes.” (p. 182)
  • “Mr. Grace hesitated only briefly, as if choosing a card at whist.” (p. 362)

There is much (much!) more to Cuckoo Song than I’ve written about here, so all I can do is suggest you read it for yourself and then we can talk about it some more.

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon


castle hangnailCastle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
Dial, 2015

This was actually my top-ranked book of our seven shortlisted Books in the Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, but it didn’t have quite the same traction with some of the other judges as it did for me.

In this smart, funny, and heartwarmingly charming and adorable fantasy, 12 year-old Molly claims to be a Wicked Witch and the new Master of Castle Hangnail. Though the castle’s minions are initially skeptical, they hope she will complete the Board of Magic’s Tasks and save the castle from being decommissioned.

There are some really funny twists on fantasy and horror tropes as the world is set up, which, while not necessarily wholly original (the author tips her hat to Eva Ibbotson in the acknowledgements), feel fresh, sharp, and appropriate to the intended reader. A lot of the humor is derived from the bathos of what should be and what is: A Master should “be storming around the battlements, defying the gods, screaming dark curses, raining lightning down on the village,” whereas Molly is appreciating poached eggs and interested in meeting the chickens. And her new outfit makes her look not quite like a queen of the night but more like “a princess of moderately late in the afternoon.”

Hangnail Castle is a terrific setting. It doesn’t have jagged mountains or a blasted heath, but is in a pleasant rural community, close to a friendly village with a post office and a antiques shop. This mixing of modern day quotidian problems into a fantasy olde worlde setting is exemplified by the plumbing problems they have, which recognize, as so many books do not, that a person needs to use a toilet on a regular basis.

Molly, “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair” is a peach: Wicked but not wicked, curious, open, and full of heart. She manages to defy expectations, yet still achieve her goals in her own way; and though she has many doubts, she is grittily resilient and imaginative.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The team of minions are wonderfully drawn, with each one having a unique voice and their own role to play in the story. Majordomo was “born a minion, raised a minion, had died a minion several times, and then brought back to life with lightning rods, still a minion,” and his intense devotion to duty and subsequent doubts about Molly is a standout. And there are also two minotaurs who are the cook and the handyman, a talking suit of armor, a burlap doll who does the laundry and tailoring, his neurotic goldfish, and steamy (literally) spirit Serenissima who has her “associate minion degree and was considering graduate minion studies”

The plot is well-structured and zips along, allowing the author room for plenty of fun but having enough tension to keep the reader engaged, as Molly first has to complete her Tasks, and then, having secured the castle and won the support of the minions and the villagers, take on an Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia. This last section has a slightly darker tone as Molly recognizes how she has been bullied, and gets a scary peek into the Kingdom of Shadows.

I would happily press Castle Hangnail into the hands of any 3rd – 6th grader who enjoys stories with fantasy, humor, or strong characters. Or maybe any 3rd – 6th grader. Or younger! Or older!

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross


fog diverThe Fog Diver by Joel Ross
Harper, 2015.

The winners of the Cybils were announced yesterday and the winner of the award for the category that I was judging, Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, is…The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing all the other titles on the shortlist, except Mars Evacuees, as I’ve already written about that.

This fun, action-packed middle grade steam-punky dystopia is set in a future where a Fog toxic only to humans covers the Earth. The few remaining people live above the Fog in the rigidly economically stratified Rooftop, and impoverished salvage crews take their rickety airships out, sending down ‘tether boys’ through the Fog to scavenge from now empty houses. One such crew, Hazel, Chess, Bea and Swedish, are desperate to find something valuable as their guardian has fallen ill with fogsickness.

The crew is a created family, scooped up from the slums and the streets by Mrs. E. 13 year-old Chess, the narrator, has a mysterious affinity with the Fog; dark-skinned Hazel is the captain and she has the other kids’ trust and confidence as she always has a plan; Swedish is the muscle with a heart of gold; and gearhead Bea is “Our kid sister, with short red hair, big green eyes, and smears of grease on her face.” The support characters are a little slight – Kodoc is an evil villain, Vidious wears a cape and calls everyone ‘poppet’ (though that made me smile) – but work well enough to serve the plot.

There is some terrific wordplay as the crew harks back to the old times: “May the horse be with you,” a constellation called Oprah, bees that can spell, and a running gag about the word ‘garbo’. I like that these are perfectly pitched for the intended reader – clever and gettable.

Some serious issues are threaded into the drama: The origins of the Fog are connected with human exploitation of the Earth, and there are no safety nets (physical or metaphorical) for the have-nots of Rooftop. But Ross blends these into the story and the action without any didacticism and with a light touch.

Although initially there is some fairly clumsy information dumping to get the world and the characters established, even this is woven in with action scenes. And once the well-structured and well-paced plot really takes off, with all the pieces clicking gratifyingly into each other, it is a giddy ride to the satisfying conclusion, with plenty of untied threads left ready for the sequel due out in May.

Drowned City written and illustrated by Don Brown


drowned cityDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and this powerful Sibert Honor graphic novel looks at the tragic effects and the aftermath of the hurricane on the city and its residents.

The text is short, not simplistic but more in the manner of someone who is so angry they can just get out the basic facts through clenched teeth. Actual quotations (sourced in the notes at the back) are used to bring to life the horror and chaos that ensued once the levees broke and the lack of planning brought death and devastation. There is no beating about the bush: the good guys are recognized, and the incompetent and negligent from the President on down are called out.drowned city interior

Moody and haunting spreads in minor key colors with the occasional splash of vivid orange or red, show the population that is left behind after 80% of the residents evacuated, and their fight to survive. Bodies floating in the water, people struggling to safety, and the nightmare scenes at the Superdome and Conference Center, all serve to bring a human dimension to this racially charged tragedy. With Mayor Nagin missing in action and FEMA completely out of its depth, the immediate horror lasted for nearly a week before transportation out of the city was available.

drowned city interior 2Figures are drawn with just a few evocative lines sketching in their faces: The resignation and weariness, as well as the pragmatism and resilience of the largely African American left behind population, and the vacuous incompetence of the white officials.

I realize that the words I’m using – devastation, incompetence, tragedy – are by now pretty much cliches trotted out in relation to Katrina, and part of the power of this book is that the author avoids using them, and gives us the meaning behind them in his spare prose and illustrations.

Drowned City takes no time to read, but will stay with the reader for days. An absolute must for libraries serving upper elementary and middle grade kids.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel; illustrated by Jon Klassen


the-nestThe Nest by Kenneth Oppel; illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster, 2015.

I think Kenneth Oppel is a terrific, and terrifically versatile, author. He writes across ages and in different genres, and usually with great success. In fact, my first bibliobrit post was for The Boundless, and it was one of my top books of 2014.

The Nest is an eerie, horror fantasy for upper elementary and middle grade readers. In this short and evocative story, with not a word or scene wasted, Steve, an anxious and imaginative boy, starts having dreams about angels which seem to be connected to his baby brother who has been born with congenital disorders. Steve is resentful of the baby who seems to be taking all his parents’ attention and bringing strain to the family: “But when I looked at the baby, mostly what I thought of was all the things I couldn’t see – all the things that were going wrong inside him.”

Gradually Steve realizes his dreams are about a nest of wasps and conversing with the queen, he discovers that they are going to ‘fix’ the baby, but the terrible implication of what this means isn’t clear until he enters into a pact with her. Her cold dismissal of Theo as a “crappy little broken baby”, shocks Steve out of his antipathy and into full big brother mode.nest interior

Oppel draws the fine line between dreams and reality and, as the book progresses ever deeper into fantasy, this line becomes increasingly blurred. Steve is a marvelous creation – a boy who wants to be safe and enveloped, “untouchable in my little nest”, but gradually realizes he has to face the world as there is no-one to rely on except himself.

The first person present tense narration brings a tense immediacy, and Jon Klassen’s illustrations work to great effect to evoke the disjointedness, isolation, and exclusion that Steve feels (and remind me, in some ways, of Jim McKay’s extraordinary illustrations for Patrick Ness’s great A Monster Calls).

As Steve comes to understand that perfection is not always desirable, and that normality is not as easily defined as he imagines, the books reaches a suffocating and intense climax bringing all the strands of the story together, and a resolution is reached that is fulfilling and unforced.

I think the audience for The Nest is probably pretty limited, but it will work really well for readers who like to be unsettled.

Macbeth adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds


macbeth coverMacbeth adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Candlewick, 2015.

For my money, Macbeth is the most accessible of Shakespeare’s tragedies, if not all his play – and consequently one of my favorites. So it’s a natural for Gareth Hinds to take on, after tackling some others from the Bard’s oeuvre including Romeo and Juliet (2013), as well as Homer’s The Odyssey (2010)

I saw an amazing production of Macbeth several years ago at the Open Air Theater in London’s Regent Park, which was billed as being intended for 6 year-olds and up though only, I suspect, if your 6 year-old was wildly precocious. While it’s impossible to compare a live theater production with a comic book, I was hoping for some of that drama and imagination, which I felt I didn’t quite get with this graphic adaptation, but that just may be me being a bit of a Shakespeare snob.

This is a very traditional and rather somber Macbeth set in the 12th century, where Hinds mostly lets the words do the work. The colors for the exteriors are a very Scottish blend of muted greys, blues and greens for the outside, and the interiors are orange and gold bleeding into shades of scarlet and crimson.macbeth interior

Hinds has abridged the text thoughtfully, but has left the words largely untouched, and presented as prose rather than poetry, with only the occasional (noted) clarification. The plot moves swiftly with the narrative flowing easily and comprehensibly. I didn’t care for putting anything to do with dark forces into black speech balloons, and found it a bit clunky.

It is beautifully drawn and very human – we don’t see Macbeth, or Lady Macbeth as monsters, rather as puppets to their fate. The three weird sisters – one ‘traditional’ witch, one African witch doctor and one Gaia type – bring some chill, and, even more so, the three masters they summon. While keeping to a fairly traditional layout, Hinds plays with panel sizes and shapes, most notably with a sinuous jug shape when Lady Macbeth is preparing the drugged wine.

One spread worked astonishingly well – that of Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, Damned spot’ soliloquy, which is all visceral red, and uncontrollably scraping, chafing hands; and there is a striking image of Macbeth’s shadow as a dagger pointing him to his fate. Macbeth’s soliloquy after Lady Macbeth’s death, when he’s facing a final battle, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, is beautifully illustrated with Macbeth’s world weariness and resignation perfectly captured.

As with previous books, I enjoyed the author’s backnotes on his adaptation of the text, and then some explanations about some of the individual images and panels.

I think Hinds is doing a splendid job bringing classic and rather challenging texts to a more accessible comic book context, and applaud him for his ambition and achievement.

Scar Girl by Len Vlahos


scar girlScar Girl by Len Vlahos
CarolrhodaLAB, March, 2016.

Picking up from where the William Morris YA debut finalist The Scar Boys (2014) left off, this compact and fluidly written realistic novel, set in the late 1980s, follows the Scar Boys band up to making their first record and beyond.

Told chronologically, in an interview format, by guitarist Harry, drummer Richie, and, mostly, bassist Cheyenne, the novel starts with a brief catchup on the original story and then moves forward. The focus is on the personal and social issues of these band members as they all struggle to deal with fourth member Johnny’s leg amputation. Though Johnny is the heart of the band, his words are notably absent from the narrative, giving an ominous foreshadowing. Music takes more of a background role this time, and though some song lyrics are thrown in, like most song lyrics they feel clumsy and trite without music.

The voices of the three narrators/interviewees are not particularly distinct, though the band members are all distinct characters, only bonded by their love and need of making music. Burn victim Harry, the focus of the earlier novel, takes more of a backseat with the spotlight now on Cheyenne. She suffers a traumatic loss early on, and reaches out to drugs, alcohol and casual sex to relieve her emotional pain, becoming the ‘scar girl’ of the title, though her scars are internal unlike Harry’s.

The setting seems less well-realized than in the first book. A few period details mark this out as being in the 80s – phone booths, clothing and no Internet – but other than that these teens and their issues could be contemporary (of course, that makes it more relatable).

Though this seems a tad less fresh than the original, and the melodrama of the ending is a little jarring, fans of The Scar Boys will not be disappointed with this sequel.