Tag Archives: folklore

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina


The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

Grenade by Alan Gratz


Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018

Set in the final days of World War II, this intense middle grade/YA historical fiction takes place during the long and bloody battle of Okinawa. 14-year-old native Okinawan Hideki Kaneshiro is forcibly drafted into Japan’s Blood and Iron Student Corps. He is told that the American soldiers are monsters and given two grenades – one to kill the enemy with and one to kill himself. But when his destiny collides with that of young white Ray Majors, part of the invading American force, he chooses to abandon the fight and find his older sister, the only remaining member of his family.

Gratz (Refugee, 2017) graphically shows the terrors of war through the fears and reactions of his two protagonists. However, the implicit message that soldiers on both sides are ordinary men – husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers – put under such unbearable pressure that they become monsters seems a little disingenuous given Japan’s record of war atrocities.

There is a preliminary note explaining the use of the era’s now offensive terminology and, at the back, an author’s note helpfully elucidates why this island was so important to the US and Japan, what the outcome of this battle meant to both sides, and also provides context about Okinawa’s subjugation to Japan. There will also be a glossary, though this reader didn’t feel the need for one as the Okinawan words and beliefs are fully explained in the text.

Gratz clearly has a feel for this era and showing it through the eyes of teens on both sides makes it accessible history for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen


Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen
Candlewick, July 2018.

A YA romance set in medieval France that is a twist on Beauty and the Beast. As in the fairytale, a cruel and heartless French aristocrat is transformed into a hideous beast, and can only be changed back when he loves and is loved in return.

Jensen adds a new character, Lucie, a maid at the Chateau Beaumont who is initially attracted to the gorgeous chevalier, Jean-Loup, but he is quickly shown to be rotten to the core when he rapes her. Thinking she is pregnant, Lucie runs off to the woods where she is rescued by Mere Sophie, a wise woman. Sophie transforms Jean-Loup into a hideous beast and allows Lucie to watch his suffering by transforming her into a candlestick (though not one that sings and dances!)

But here the story swerves from the original – Beast has no recollection of his time as the chevalier and proves to be a gentle and charming companion and Lucie finds herself falling in love with him.

Enter Rose (the Belle of this story), who is held at the chateau after her father steals a rose and is initially terrified of the Beast, falling in love with the idea of handsome Jean Loup instead. Rose is also something of a Cinderella character as she has two mean and grasping sisters.

As Lucie and Beast, and even Rose, begin to understand that love is about more than skin deep appearances, they work through their love-quadrangle (Jean-Loup being the fourth side) towards a satisfying ending beyond the traditional happy ever after wedding, aided by some magic.

The prose, characterization and plot development serve this interpretation well and will provide enjoyably lush escapism for a teen reader.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick


blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).






Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke


Wink-Poppy-Midnight-by-April-Genevieve-TucholkeWink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke
Dial, 2016.

This is a very weird and unsettling maybe romance YA novel, in which the titular 3 white main characters trade narration. Midnight (boy) is hurting as his mother has gone to live in France for an unspecified amount of time, taking his older brother with her. Poppy who is rich, smart, and utterly self-confident, thinks she has Midnight where she wants him – adoring but not adored. But then he meets Wink, one of the plethora of Bell children. Wink is quiet, self-possessed, and obsessed with dark fairy tales. But neither of the girls are quite who they seem, and a prank that goes horribly wrong clicks the lens to a new place.

I have to say that this is not really my cup of tea, and I was rather irritated and frustrated by the turns the characters take. But I don’t think that’s a reflection of the novel or the writing, more just my preferences. Wink, in particular, is a rather fey character wanting everyone to fit into the archetypes of folklore – Hero, Thief, Villain, Wolf – and it feels like she’s from a different era to the very 21st century Midnight and Poppy.

However, the world and atmosphere is stunning and intriguing, and will appeal to readers who like Gothic, spooky tales in which the characters and happenings don’t altogether feel like they’re from this world.

The End of Fun by Sean McGinty


end of funThe End of FUN by Sean McGinty
Disney Hyperion, April 2016.

Though heavily disguised with all sorts of gimmickry, this is a poignant tale of growing up, and accepting the world for what it is.

After the death of his grandfather, the will leads 17 year-old Irish-American Aaron O’Faolin on a treasure hunt, but, of course, what he is really searching for is connection with his family and friends, and to fall in love.

Told with a mixture of fairytale whimsy and gonzo humor, Aaron narrates his history, from his failed suicide attempt at 10 when his mother left, through abandoning his prescribed medication and running away to San Francisco, and finally his return home to Antello, Nevada.

Overlaid on top of this is the augmented reality implant FUN®, in which Aaron’s virtual buddy Homie™ keeps popping up with unsolicited advice, and Aaron scores points by giving “yays” to such entertainingly and pointedly over the top brands as the Hearthealth™ lifestyle of Kashi® Heart to Heart ™ Honey Toasted Oat cereal. To add to all the other ideas crammed into this novel, there is also an outbreak of Avis Mortem, in which a large proportion of the bird population is dying.

The different threads just about coalesce into a whole as Aaron follows the path of an Irish fairytale given to him by Katie, a 23 year old Irish-Basque teacher with whom he falls in love. And, of course, his quest leads him to the realization that reality is more fun than FUN®.

The sympathetically drawn, fully realized extensive cast of characters includes Aaron’s family, his best friend Angelo ‘Oso’ Sandoval, the Mormon Latham family, and his love interest, Irish-Basque Katie.

McGinty’s debut novel has an appealing voice and attractive characters, and readers who have enjoyed Andrew Smith’s off kilter fiction will find a home here.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Wooden Prince by John Claude Bemis


wooden princeThe Wooden Prince by John Claude Bemis
Out of Abaton, Bk. 1
Disney Hyperion, 2016.

The fairytale of Pinocchio, the puppet who becomes a boy, is thrilling twisted in Jean Claude Bemis’s charming middle grade fantasy.

Plot elements familiar from the original Carlo Collodi story (and the Disney movie) are transformed – the puppet show, being swallowed by a whale, Pinocchio’s nose growing – and familiar characters are fleshed out with emotionally resonant personalities, and have story arcs of their own.

The intriguingly inventive, steampunky Venetian Empire is developed over the course of the story and, more fully, in a glossary at the back. A new element introduced to the tale is Abaton, a mystical land that’s the source of all magic brought to the human world, and which seems likely to figure more prominently in a sequel,

As Pinocchio undertakes a quest to find his father, the alchemist Geppetto, he is aided by Mezmer, a vixen, and Sop, a cat, as well as Maestro, a persnickety cricket. Blue-haired Princess Lazuli, daughter of Prester John, the immortal ruler of Abaton, brings some girl power to the team.

Pursued by the forces of the wicked Doge, Pinocchio finds that love, friendship and loyalty are what transforms him from wood to flesh. Though a satisfyingly worked through complete story in itself, this is the first part of a series, and readers will be excited by what’s to come once Bemis leaves the source story behind.

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes


bayou magicBayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2015.

This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids

Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.

There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.

And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.

The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.

The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste


JumbiesThe Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Algonquin, 2015.

11 year-old Corrine lives on a Caribbean island that was inhabited by jumbies long before any people arrived. The malicious jumbies, who take all shapes, now live in the forest and the people keep away from it, but when Corrine goes in there, it triggers a whole chain of disastrous events.

Corrine lives with Pierre, her father; her mother died a long time ago and all she has left to remember of her is a stone pendant. Unbeknownst to her and Pierre, her mother was a jumbie who was won over by love. But now her evil sister, Severine, is out to get revenge on Corrine, Pierre, and the whole island population.

Tension is ratcheted up when Severine magically ensnares Pierre, and incites the jumbies to pour out of the forest to re-claim their original home. It is left, as the reader will already have guessed, to Corrine and her new friends, Asian Dru and orphan brothers Bouki and Malik, all well-rounded characters with virtues and flaws that make them authentic and likeable, to restore balance back to the island.

Inspired by Haitian folklore and written by Trinidadian Baptiste, there is a lusciously evocative sense of place, both the cerulean radiance of the coast and village, and the malevolent gloom of the forest. And though many of the folklore aspects of the tale will be familiar – sinister stepmother, changelings, heroine tested to her limits – the unfamiliar traditions of it make for an enticing and creepy read.