The Witch’s Boy

I was hearing a lot of buzz about this book, so I was very excited to be approved for a digital ARC for it through Edelweiss.

Witch's BoyThe Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Press, 2014.
Once upon a time, in a tiny kingdom by the sea, past the impassable mountains and forest, there were twin boys. One of them was good at everything and loved by all, while the other was awkward and struggled to keep up. When they were seven, they built a raft to go down the river. But they were only seven – the raft broke, and both boys were tumbled down the river. The talented, best-loved twin died, while the other one lived – just barely, as his mother, the town witch, had to use her magic to keep him alive. Now Ned goes around not even able to talk, crippled by the magic that kept him alive and the knowledge that he is the wrong boy.

And then his mother leaves to help the Queen and the Bandit King comes to steal the witch’s magic, which lives in a jar in their house. Ned may be the wrong boy, but he is the only one. He must carry the magic inside himself to save it, and the magic is opinionated and made up of many conflicting voices. Meanwhile, Aine, the Bandit King’s daughter, recognizes that her father is about to do something unforgiveable and sets out, in her practical way, to do something about it. She’s not the sentimental type, and she doesn’t really want to help Ned or to be friends with him – but she will do what she must.

All of this is told with a lyrical, timeless style and a narrator that talks to the reader once in a while. For me, this adds delightfully to the slightly old-fashioned feeling, though I know many people who don’t appreciate this at all. I really enjoyed both dreamy Ned and practical Aine, who both start and end in believable places as character while running counter to gender expectations. The magic, sentient in its own right, is really cool, while still illustration beautifully the dangers inherent in power. I also really enjoyed the adult characters, involved in the plot in their own right while leaving plenty of room for the kids to be instrumental in the story. At 384 pages, it’s longer than my son would be willing to read to himself. I read this over a more extended period than usual, just once or twice a week when I was taking my kids to activities, which leaves me a little unsure of the pacing. It felt just perfect to me every time I read it, but in retrospect it seems like what feels perfect to me might be a little slow for readers who like lots of action in their stories. It was, however, just about perfect for me, and I recommend it highly to fans of fantasy with a fairy tale feel.

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The Rest of the Series is Awesome

My audiobook listening seems to have been a lot of teen books of late. Here are a couple of them.

bostonjackyBoston Jacky. Bloody Jack Book 11 by L.A. Meyer. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013.
Jacky finally returns to Boston, hoping to make it a permanent home and that her beloved Jaimy will soon return to her. Unfortunately, there are enemies old and new in Boston, and a lot of people who don’t like the large numbers of Irish immigrants she’s been shipping over. She finds herself involved in the politics of rival subscription firefighting crews, some of them not above setting fires to prove the point to people who don’t subscribe to fire protection. Jaimy arrives, but decides he’s unsure of Jacky’s loyalty and hides his presence from her.

This was probably my least favorite entry in a series I’ve really enjoyed. There was too much politics, too much of Jacky’s supposed friends treating her cruelly, too much heartbreak, no real romance. Jaimy seems less and less like a person I’d want her to end up with, being so upset at her flirtations with other people when he’s gone farther himself more often, except that finding her a new romantic partner this far into the series also seems unpleasant. I listened to it all the way anyway, trying to let go of these things and enjoy the Jacky adventures that remained and Katherine Kellgren’s wonderful narration. I’m invested enough in this series that I’m sure I’ll go on to the last book in the series, Wild Rover No More, which is coming out in November. Hopefully there will be a happy ending to the series!

froiFinnikin of the Rock. Lumatere Chronicles Book 1. by Melina Marchetta. Read Jeffrey Cummings. Brilliance Audio, 2010.
This is a series that I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time. I’ve read several of Melina Marchetta’s realistic fiction books, and heard such good things about this that I couldn’t imagine not liking this fantasy series as much or more.

Ten years ago, during the Five Days of the Unspeakable, the kingdom of Lumatere was overthrown. Its royal family was slaughtered and most of the population driven out and kept out by a magical barrier while an imposter king took over inside.

Finnikin is the son of the former chief of the king’s guard, raised together with Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin Lucian, while the annoying younger princess tagged along. Shortly before the takeover, Finnikin and Lucian had vowed on their own blood to protect the royal family at all costs. Now, his stepmother dead and his father imprisoned, Finnikin has been trained by his father’s friend Sir Topher to act as a leader among the now oppressed exiles of Lumatere. When he receives a message from a young novice that hints that Balthazar might still be alive after all, he and Sir Topher travel to meet the novice immediately. But the novice Evanjalin is not what he’d been expecting. The two are constantly at loggerheads, and she is insistent that he stop working to improve the treatment of the exiles and instead work to retake Lumatere.

It took me a while to warm up to this book. Finnikin is one of those arrogant teen boys that teen boys seem to love and who just irritate me. Evanjalin is slightly better, but they still have that kind of relationship where they will only hurt each other, both physically and verbally, without being able to tell the other person they care about the other. I was feeling this way even though the world building and the basic plot were good. The reader, while perfectly competent, gave a lot of the characters annoying nasal voices which were hard to listen to. Halfway through the characters started to treat each other somewhat better and I got more invested in the story. I finished the story liking it quite well – and everyone seems to think that the second book, Froi of the Exiles is much better. I need to read that one next for sure, but this is still a series I’ll keep in mind for our teen epic fantasy fans, who likely will not be bothered by the same things I was.

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Cybils 2014!

It’s official! I’m a Round 1 Judge on the Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Panel! Follow the link through to see everyone else who’s involved- I am so very excited to be working with so many wonderful bloggers, from those who are already blogging friends to those who will be soon! Cybils-Logo-2014-Rnd1

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The Seat of Magic

I am still recovering from our large Talk Like a Pirate Day celebration at the library on Saturday – but since official Talk Like a Pirate Day isn’t until the 19th, you still have time to celebrate if you haven’t already!

The Golden CityThe Seat of Magic: A Novel of the Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney. Penguin, 2014.
This is the sequel to The Golden City, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed. As the story opens, our hero Duilio is distressed over the failure of Oriana Paredes to return to the Golden City after going back to her home islands. His magical senses are telling him that something is wrong, but he doesn’t want to push their fragile relationship by looking for her too soon. In fact, she is in great danger, but happily soon returns to her usual state of refusing to be ordered around.

Things are bad in a general sense as well, as numbers of young women are going missing. Many of them are women of supernatural origin – otter girls, selkies, and sereia – found brutally murdered with parts missing. Oriana and Duilio discover the existence of an ancient text, The Seat of Magic, banned for its talk of dissecting magical creatures to discover just which pieces are magical. Duilio and Oriana together investigate the murders, which fall outside of regular police responsibilities because magical creatures are still banned from the Golden City.

There’s also the ongoing, very slow burn romance between Duilio and Oriana. While they know they’re attracted to each other, it’s very difficult to navigate the extreme differences in their class and culture – Duilio was raised in a patriarchal society, while the sereia society is strongly matriarchal. I felt that Cheney did a good job of addressing these real issues while still making the romance one I could believe in.

The Seat of Magic is a nice genre-blending book, good for fans of fantasy, mystery or historical fiction with a nice bit of romance as well. The mystery aspect was little more gruesome than I like personally – but I know that I have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, and regular mystery readers would probably not have these issues. I’d say this one is for adults and older teens, and highly recommended for those to whom this particular blend sounds appealing.

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The City in the Lake

Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile had a giveaway for this book awhile back, which reminded me that I really like Rachel Neumeier and hadn’t read this book. I elected to make sure the library copy kept going out, though, so it will stay on the shelf in the library longer.

The City in the LakeThe City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
One of the things that I like so much about Rachel Neumeier’s work is that every book feels so different even while they all have sucked me right in. This one has a very classic, formal medieval feeling to it. Neill the Bastard is the king’s oldest son, not heir to the throne since his father officially married and fathered a legitimate son, Prince Cassiel. Neill has done his best to help his father and support his brother, while keeping himself emotionally removed from the court. When Prince Cassiel goes missing, suspicion naturally falls on the Bastard – but he knows that he is not at fault. He knows the truth of the old saying, “The Kingdom’s heart is the City. The City’s heart is the King. The King’s heart is the Prince.” He knows that without the prince, the whole kingdom is in grave danger.

Meanwhile, in a remote village, Timou, the mage’s daughter, grows up. She’s never met her mother, and though she has friends in the village, she feels that her mage studies set her apart from ordinary people (they kind of do). In her teens, most of her friends marry off, but she refuses the advances of the quiet former soldier Jonas who tries to court her even though she likes him because she’s going to be a mage. When her father doesn’t return after a trip to the City to find out what’s wrong with the kingdom, Timou disregards his orders and goes out alone to find him.

This is a beautiful story full of tricky thinking, layered realities, and the importance of taking the time to get to know yourself and the world around you. It has lovely turns of phrase, like the villagers saying that “every dewdrop reflected the beloved’s face” when they realize they are in love. It’s probably not the best for those who look for a fast-moving, exciting plot first and foremost, but for those who like me enjoy character-based stories beautifully set and told, it’s just perfect.

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Waiting for Blue Lily, Lily Blue

bluelilyI have queues of books to review and instead have been writing pirate poems for the Talk Like a Pirate Day program I’m running at the library this weekend… but Maggie Stiefvater today is doing a thing where if I tell you why I enjoy the Raven Cycle, I can enter for a chance to win an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

My friends, I find it easier to explain why I like books than why I love books. The Raven Cycle are books that I have started and been sucked into, had trouble sleeping wondering what would happen to the characters next and dreamed about them when I finally fell asleep. I listen to them as soon as I can get hold of them, and instead of moving smartly on to the next book in my queue when I finish the way I usually do, I go right back to the beginning and start again.

In library terms, we talk about “appeal factors” – the different aspects of writing that hook people. The general idea is that people have different tastes, and books with different things done well will appeal to different people. The appeal factors I usually think about are plot, character, setting, and language. A decent author will have at least one of these aspects of a book really well done – your average thriller, for example, will focus on plot, while a literary novel will focus on character or language. If I try to analyze it, I think what I love so much about the Raven Cycle is that all of these aspects are strong – the characters I care about stuck in edge-of-the-seat situations in a vivid place, all told in beautiful language. Plus magic – in this case, Welsh magic, which I love. And seeing as it’s coming from Maggie, there’s always a chance that there will be a HARP in it somewhere.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue comes out October 21, and I can’t wait.

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Six (mostly) Silly Picture Books

It’s time for the first Kid Lit Blog Hop of September! Take a look at all the great books!

Kid Lit Blog Hop

In honor of my daughter starting kindergarten, here’s the latest large batch of new picture books that got the most reread requests from her.

FroodleFroodle by Antoinette Portis. Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
Four birds – Crow, Dove, Cardinal, and Little Brown Bird – go various places around the neighborhood, but each always sings the same song. “Caw. Coo. Chip. Peep.” This is the story of what happens when Little Brown Bird decides to try singing “froodle” instead of “peep”. Strong outlines and smooth fill round out this silly lesson in individuality, perfect for younger preschoolers and up.

eastercatHere Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood. Pictures by Claudia Rueda. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014.
Cat is really jealous of the Easter Bunny – why is he so popular, and why can’t there be an Easter Cat instead? Each spread in this book has one page devoted to a picture of the would-be Easter Cat, one devoted to words from the cat’s invisible friend – maybe the reader? Cat’s communications in picket signs and facial expressions combine with the words on the facing page to form a dialogue. Colored pencil illustrations on white background make it feel like this clever, hilarious story could be happening anywhere.

meanieheadMeaniehead by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
This time the humor is definitely on the dark side. Siblings Henry and Eve get in a fight over an action figure that, over the course of the book, ends the world. It’s told very matter-of-factly, as if children bulldozing their houses were perfectly normal. Scribbly pictures with heavy black outlines and watercolor fill surrounded by lots of white space add to the surreal feel. The text is short, but the concept might be advanced for toddlers – probably preschoolers and up are the best audience. I was torn between amusement and horror; the kids were just fascinated.

ninjaredNinja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz. Illustrated by Dan Santat. Penguin, 2014.
In this sequel to The Three Ninja Pigs, the wolf has tried ninja school himself in hopes of finally getting a good meal. He lures Red into her grandmother’s empty house, only to find that she’s been to ninja school too! The illustrations are boldly painted and full of movement, carried further by the bouncy rhyming text. I read this one aloud to the summer camp kids as well, who were very excited about it. I’d say it’s ideal for ages 3-6, though it was a hit with the kids up to age 10 as well.

nonapNo Nap! Yes Nap! by Margie Palatini. Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Little, Brown and Co. 2014.
Fun, repetitive text combined with bright, swirling ink and digital illustrations make for a delightful tale of the chase to a toddler’s nap time. Toddler may be full of diversionary tactics, but mother has even more tricks in her bag. The short text and the child’s age make this a good choice for toddlers, but the limited, repeated vocabulary also made it fun for my daughter, almost five, to try reading the part of the child.

Three Bears in a BoatThree Bears in a Boat by David Soman. Dial Books, 2014
From the author team of Ladybug Girl comes this new book. Three bear cubs conspire to sneak the honey jar off the mantelpiece while their mother is out, but accidentally break her special blue shell in the process. Panicked about facing their bear mother, they set out in their sailboat to find a replacement before she notices. They journey past other crafts to a small and spooky island and through rough waters – will they ever find the shell? With beautiful watercolor illustrations, pleasingly symmetrical language, and literary references on other boats, this is a new book that feels like it has what it takes to become a classic.

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I really loved Malinda Lo’s Cinderella retelling Ash, which is why I’d originally put this book, set in the same world, on my 48HBC pile. It took me a couple of months to get to it, but here it is!

HuntressHuntress by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown and Co., 2011.
This book says it’s set in the same world as Ash, but as I didn’t recognize any characters in common and it’s a very different time period, it’s just as easy to read this as a standalone. The big thing that is the same is the very cool fusion of Chinese and Celtic mythology. In this world, Kaede is a sage in training there because it’s expected of someone of her rank, not because of any personal vocation or aptitude. She’s just as happy sneaking off for weapons practice and working in the garden. In the same monastery, Taisin is a poor but talented sage in training, one whose visions have earned her a place she can’t really believe in. As the story opens, she is troubled by vivid dreams that show heartbreak resulting from her falling in love with Kaede – whom she knows only by sight.

But the world has been troubled by darkness, cold and dying things, so when an invitation from the Queen of the Xi comes to the king, it can’t be ignored. Taisin’s visions mean that Taisin and Kaede are sent as part of the small entourage accompanying the Prince when he journeys to the Xi’s Midsummer festival. The closer they get to the border, the worse things get, with gruesome monsters attacking the party and babies in the village born part monster.

The story is dark and beautiful. People we care about die and no action, no matter how necessary or well meant, comes without a price. The romance, which could have been another case of wretched instalove, developed gradually and deliciously sweetly despite the heavy foreshadowing. While there is a bedroom scene, it fades to black early enough to keep it appropriate for younger teens – really, the overall darkness and violence pushes it to feeling like a book for high schoolers rather than middle schoolers in my mind. I enjoyed it greatly, and recommend it highly to readers who enjoy darker stories of the Fey.

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The Snow Spider

I remember seeing this book around, but it was Stephanie at Views from the Tesseract writing about it that prompted me to check it out.

Snow SpiderThe Snow Spider, The Magician Trilogy Book 1. by Jenny Nimmo. First published by Methuen Books, 1986. Orchard/Scholastic edition 2006.

In a rural Wales with school buses and electricity but coal stoves, young Gwyn lives in a family shattered since the disappearance of his older sister Bethan. His father wants nothing to do with him anymore, his quiet mother mostly just tries to keep Gwyn out of the way, and he’s not too popular at school, either. But on his birthday, his grandmother Nain gives him five gifts and tells him that they are related to his magical heritage. The first thing he tries is a brooch, which turns into the beautiful snow spider whom he names Arianwen. Arianwen makes beautiful spider web tapestries – and one of them shows a girl who looks just like his sister, the age she would be. But the problem with inheriting magic that skips two or three generations before reappearing is that there’s no one to tell you how to do things right or to help you fix things if your magic starts causing problems.

This is a short, lovely fantasy with a classic feeling – I do have a weakness for Welsh fantasy! The chapters frequently end with exclamation marks to lead the reader on to the next chapter, which I found entertaining but a bit distracting. I’d originally thought that this might be good for my son to read to himself, as it’s much shorter than most of the books he’s interested in. The small type turned him off from the start, though, and I’m honestly glad he did – magic aside, this is a book about a family recovering from the death of a child. While that’s fine for lots of kids, my own son still finds plots that deal with the real emotions of this kind of loss as this one does too painful to deal with since we came so very close to losing his sister. (We were unable to read the very popular Amulet series for that reason.) The issues are handled well, though, and most children hopefully aren’t going to have that kind of reaction to the book. Otherwise, this is a wonderful transitional story for children interested in meatier but still relatively short books.

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I’ve mentioned before that Pratchett is a reliable author whose prolific works I don’t try to keep up with. I just know that if there’s a gap in my listening (or, much less often, reading) schedule, there will be a Terry Pratchett book to fill it enjoyably. Such was the situation when I checked out Dodger. Set in our own London in the time of Dickens, it loosely plays off of Dickens himself and some of his characters in a dangerous mystery that crosses between the upper classes and the very lowest of the low.

DodgerDodger by Terry Pratchett. Read by Stephen Briggs. Dreamscape Media, 2012.
Our hero is Dodger, a talented young tosher, whose explores the sewers for lost treasures for a living. He’s been trained by the best, and lives with and helps provide for one Solomon Cohen, who in turn does his best to keep Dodger as honest as possible. As the story opens, Dodger bursts out of the sewers in the middle of a rain storm just in time to save a beautiful blond girl from being beaten to death by two thugs. Dickens and a doctor friend also come on the scene and take the girl to the doctor’s house to recover. But even when she returns to consciousness (not having been saved from a bad beating), she refuses to say who she is. Only to Dodger does she confess that it’s because her husband allowed the beating in the first place. Captivated by her beauty, Dodger agrees to find out who her attackers were and how to get her away from her enemies for good.

This is an exciting exploration of London’s Dark Underbelly. We learn secrets of the tosher’s trade and legends of the Lady of the Sewers, protectress of those who work there. We are introduced to Historical Figures including a certain notorious barber on Fleet Street and Mr. Benjamin Disraeli. All of this immersion in the time and place was heightened by listening to the audiobook, as Stephen Briggs does an admirable job with representing the diverse cast of characters. The book fell a little flat for me in the romance department – Simplicity (as they decide to call the mysterious girl) is never really developed much as a character. We know enough to know that she has Depth and Fortitude, but Dodger’s commitment to her is based on a combination of instant attraction and horror that anyone would treat a woman so. There’s nothing wrong with that as a starting point, and also nothing wrong with (maybe) with the character admitting they will have to get to know each other when things have settled down, but I would have liked to see the relationship build more in the book. Still, Dodger is a likeable character, and there is plenty both in action and atmosphere to keep things going. Recommended for fans of gritty Victorian fiction teen and up.

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