Book Review: Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 9 and up

(Be it known that I read an ARC of Monstrous and a few details may have changed since publication.)

It’s been a while since I reviewed any children’s books, and that’s just not natural. Speaking of unnatural things… Kymera, the patchwork girl-creature in Monstrous, thinks she is a monster: not human but not any one beast, feared by the people of Byre for her predatory instincts and frightening abilities. Only Kymera’s father understands her. After all, he’s the one who made her – reanimated from different body parts – and gave her a mission to rescue girls in the nearby city from the clutches of a dangerous wizard. A sickness rages through the city, infecting only young girls, who the wizard then kidnaps for his own nefarious purposes. But Kymera and her father want to stop him – after all, the wizard killed the human Kymera once was. Now she’s unrecognizable and has lost nearly all memories of her previous life. With her father’s knowledge of science and her special skills, they intend to bring the sick girls to the safety of Belladoma. Kymera’s stinging tail, her wings, and her animal senses keep her safe, but they also prevent her from befriending any human other than her father. They have a happy life in the forest, but a girl needs friends as well as family.

Feeling like one of the locked-up princesses in her beloved fairy tales, Kymera starts to dawdle on her night-time rescue missions to Byre. She meets Ren, a boy who is also out after curfew. With her abnormalities hidden away under a cloak, Kym and Ren slowly become friends. She learns about Bryre and the evil that troubles it. But as she discovers more about the people who live in the city she wants to protect, doubts and hidden memories start to trouble her mind. It might take more to defeat the wizard than the rescue of his victims. Kymera might have to battle the threat herself, even if it means exposing her true nature to the boy who trusted her.

Monstrous draws on a variety of fairy-tale themes, and is obviously influenced by classics like Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the characters and story are very much their own creature. There’s no shortage of fantasy stories set in vaguely-Germanic worlds, but I’ll admit to being a sucker for palaces and dark forests and dragons. Especially dragons, and Monstrous has a great one.

While there’s nothing groundbreaking about the world Connolly has created here, it was easy to settle amongst the surroundings – like flopping into a comfortable bed of pine needles on a sunny afternoon. (I’m really sick of Winter. Can you tell? Lots of this book takes place out-of-doors, and it made me ache for the sight of anything green and growing.) Each chapter is marked by how many days have passed since Kymera first comes into being, whether you want to call it “waking up,” or “being born.” We learn about her world at the rate she does, and her voice adds a degree of wonder to even the most recognizable landmarks of children’s fantasy fiction. The beginning of the book could have been animated by Disney, with the rose garden and the half-dog-half-bird who flies around causing mischief.

“A yapping brown dog with sparrow wings skids to a landing by Father’s plush armchair. Pippa. He calls her a sperrier. I call her delicious.” (Quoted from the ARC.)

As the days pass and Kymera learns more about her purpose, the comforting ambiance disappears. Different concerns work themselves into Kym’s conscious thought and, therefore, into the narrative. The use of first-person present-tense means that her realizations are instant and emotionally charged. When she tries to reason her way out of a paradox and the logic just doesn’t add up to what she’d expect, the thought process is right there. On one hand, this means that a reader will feel strong sympathy for this girl who thinks she’s something horrifying, who wants to help people but doesn’t know if she’s doing it right.

On the other hand, the style made for a very slow first half of the novel. The build-up to Kymera’s Big Realization included so many nuanced hints that jump out as clues on the page but are clouded in the narrator’s mind by her innocence. The day-by-day chapter structure provided almost repetitive details about Kymera’s developing awareness, and indeed certain sentiments were echoed almost verbatim from one chapter to another. Her explorations of the city and her concept of right and wrong are important to the story, yes, but the cycle of fly-fraternize-rescue-lie got predictable after a while. One of the big twists – the catalyzing event of Monstrous‘s action – was also predictable, but I find that the story didn’t suffer so much because of that. Betrayal of some sort is inherent in both fairy tales and the classic novels I saw reflected in Connolly’s writing.

Once the slow-burn beginning finally lights a fire under Kymera’s tail, things get exciting fast. The second half of Monstrous was a great deal of fun, and made the slight slog worthwhile. Kym gets to meet new characters, puzzle over fantasy-world diplomacy, and finally put her sharp claws to good use! The adventure gathers speed all the way to an emotional ending that was different than what I expected. So, in the end, Monstrous turned out to be a hybrid of one slow emotional journey of understanding and a lively adventure. The balance was a little off, but the story was sound and the characters really grew on me.

I recommend Monstrous for strong readers aged ten and up. It’s a rather long book (432 pages) and requires some dedication before the pace picks up. The darkness and moral ambiguity reminded me of The Thickety, which I also recommended with some reservations. Kids who have devoured their fairy-tales, or who require awesome dragons in their reading experiences, will enjoy Monstrous. (Readers of that description should also read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons!) By the end, I felt like I had known Kym for my whole life. From her beginning as a cobbled-together creation made from dangerous creatures, she becomes as brave and kind a heroine as any from her library of fairy-tales.

Advertisements

Book Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-14

I’m so excited that Alice Hoffman is putting out another novel for young people!  I loved her books when I was a teenager.  She captures moments of “everyday magic” like fireflies in jars, and puts them on bookshelves to shed light on the little magical corners of mundane life.  Cursed girls, powerful sisters, dangerous misconceptions: these are common, timeless themes in Hoffman’s books.  Nightbird is like a little jam jar, stuffed to the brim with twinkling lights, that can be put on the shelf next to her more weighty books or placed on a child’s windowsill to shine alone.  (Forgive the fireflies in jars metaphor.  Night Bird made me miss the summertime.)

Nightbird is a middle grade book, appropriate for ages 8 and up.  It will come out in March, 2015.  I read an ARC of the book, so some details may change before publication.

Twig lives on an apple orchard with her beautiful mother, who bakes pink pies to be sold at the general store and diner in town.  Sidwell is a small Massachusetts town where everyone knows each other and tries to look out for their neighbors.  But Twig’s mother doesn’t want to socialize with the people in town, no matter how friendly they try to be.  Ever since she moved back home from New York City, without Twig’s father, they’ve kept mostly to themselves.  It’s not because the town will judge them for being a single-parent family; this is a supportive and fairly open-minded place.  The problem is that Twig’s family is cursed.  A witch used to live in Mourning Dove Cottage, next door to Twig’s house, and she took magical revenge upon one of their ancestors way back during the Revolutionary War.  They can’t let anybody find out what they’re hiding.  Mourning Dove Cottage has been abandoned for a long time, but now a family of new neighbors has moved in.  Fun neighbors, with a girl Twig’s age.  Despite her mother’s rule not to hang out with Julia Hall and her glamorous older sister Agate, Twig finds herself pulled into a true friendship for the first time in all her years living in Sidwell.

But there might be a reason for all the secrecy. Their town is supposedly home to a monster.  The Sidwell Monster appears on goofy tourist tee shirts and features in local legends, but there’s definitely something truly strange making appearances and stealing from peoples’ yards.  Strange graffiti has been showing up on rocks in the forest.  Twig knows the woods better than anybody, or so she thinks, but change is stirring among the trees as well as within town.  In between her efforts to keep her family’s secret safe and discover who might be creating the mysterious disturbances, Twig and Julia start learning about Agnes Early’s curse, and how it ties their families together.  The girls are helped by a mysteriously knowledgeable librarian, a secretive journalist who’s new to town, a perceptive old man, and someone (or something) else, as they do their best to keep Sidwell from caving in to old fears and new threats.

Loving Hoffman’s typical themes and patterns as I do, I kind of knew what to expect when I read Nightbird. Good characters, small miracles, and complex family relationships.  It’s a quick book, with a story and setting you can fall into as easily as hopping down from your favorite tree branch.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly long, as I had only one night to read it before attending a dinner to celebrate Hoffman’s new work.  Thank goodness, too, that the book was completely worth celebrating.)   Sidwell was brought to life beautifully; both nature and the town hide sorrow and wonder beneath their surfaces. Parts of it reminded me of my home, even though I’m not very near the Berkshires, just by virtue of that small-town love for a place.  Any town with a wise librarian is a town worth reading about, and Miss Larch does not disappoint.

It’s not a perfect place, of course.  Twig’s mother is right to worry that people would not know how to react to the family’s difficult situation.  But people are generally kind – if overly curious – and little glimpses of extra kindness from a waitress at the Starline Diner, or the kind encouragements from strange old Dr. Shelton, made me wish alongside Twig that her mother would let more people into their secluded life.  Unlike some of Hoffman’s books for adults, there’s no overwhelming sense of persecution in Night Bird: more of a nervous tension brought about by bad communication.  It’s a nice way to create friction in a Middle Grade novel, and a lot more emotionally resonant than the slightly cheap evil villain just likes being wicked tradition that perseveres in some series.

Twig is a steadfast young narrator.  She’ll be an instant kindred spirit to any young readers who have worried that they’ve done something to deserve loneliness.  Her family is loving and supportive, but a lack of friends takes its toll on a girl.  Who can blame her for breaking the rules and basking in the warmth of the family next door?  At the same time, how can we be surprised when she tries to push her new friends away once school starts, worrying that they’ll find out she’s boring and dump her before she has the chance.  Luckily, the Halls are good people who can recognize an extraordinary young person when she falls out of a tree.  The connections Twig makes with the people she’s barely known for years, getting involved in the community for the first time, are a gratifying benefit to the reading experience.

Nightbird reminded me an awful lot of The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a novel for older teenagers by Leslye Walton that came out last spring.  Well, in fairness, Walton’s book had a theme and style that called Alice Hoffman’s early writing to my mind almost instantly.  The similarities are all good though: magical-realist events taking place in towns that seem so real, you’re packing your bags to visit twenty pages in; brave women trying to extract themselves from the weight of their fore-mothers’ pasts; and delectable descriptions of baked goods.  I highly recommend that anyone who enjoyed Ava Lavender pick up Nightbird, if ever you’re in a similar mood on a starlit night with only a few hours to spare.  Teenaged readers who liked Hoffman’s book should check out Walton, too, even though her debut novel has much more adult issues in it.

Kids in late elementary school, and definitely middle school, will find Nightbird to be transporting and enchanting, with just enough mystery and suspense to keep the plot moving.  It’s neither fast paced nor scary, but has lovely emotional depth.  Fans of A Snicker Of Magic and Rooftoppers will have a great time in Twig’s town, and history fans will be delighted with the curse’s origin story.  I, myself, loved the rumors of witchcraft and the children’s inventive attempts to break the curse.  I always like Hoffman’s magic; it flows through the characters and settings so easily, you might get convinced that every town and strange woman has magic at the ready.

And maybe they do.

Book Review – Lockwood & Co #2: The Whispering Skull

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up

It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series.  Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read.  That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending.  But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time!  Break the rules!  Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!”  I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series. 

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed.  There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants!  And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.

I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares.  Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.

I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again.  You can read my review here.  The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense.  Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot.  More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.

And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords.  It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow.  Reeeeaad meeee.”  So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice.  Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book.  Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…

The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book.  Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London.  (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)

Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal.  They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps.  When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before.  Bruised pride and broken faces abound.  The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.

As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon.  An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene.  The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out.  With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk.  Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else.  Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them.  (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!)  And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her.  Only to her.  No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago.  So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention?  Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another?  And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?

The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel.  The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished.  (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.)  Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment.  For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one.  The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces.  That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run!  There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”

Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling.  These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages.  What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills.  There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well.  Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet.  (Did I mention the rats?)

I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers.  All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself.  Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets.  I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole.  But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better.  This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.

Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read?  None at all.  Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night.  I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.

Book Review: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)

Summer Camp Rec: A Snicker Of Magic (if you liked Rooftoppers)

I may be cheating a little with this recommendation, because I don’t know if Rooftoppers is such a smash hit at other bookshops. I’ve been recommending it non-stop ever since we got it last year. It was one of my favorite gift ideas for the holidays, what with the read-aloud appeal and enchanting atmosphere. Now, a lot of the parents who enjoyed reading Rooftoppers with their kids are looking for something for summer travels. Another book that’s not too scary, with totally unique characters and language that just transports you. And, for younger kids who are just starting to spend time on their own this summer – (I think it’s around age nine that sleep-away camp starts to get serious?) – something captivating enough to distract from possible homesickness. A Snicker Of Magic is a sweet book about making the best of things and feeling at home in the world. It has a colorful setting, a delicious cast of characters, and some of the tastiest language I’ve had the pleasure to read all year.

snicker of magic collage

These two middle grade novels are very different reading experiences, but they have some great qualities in common. They’re both fairly safe bets as far as content goes: no many-teethed monsters or twisted villains to keep kids awake with noises from the woods all night. They have bittersweetly hopeful endings. Sophie, the heroine in Rooftoppers is a scrappy bookworm on a quest to find her mother. Felicity Pickle is a budding poet – a collector of words – with dreadful stage fright, trying to help her mother settle down someplace that makes their family happy.

But while Rooftoppers is told in the third person, keeping with the timeless style of narration, we read A Snicker Of Magic in Felicity’s utternly charming voice. This is a southern story, as home-grown and twangy-sweet as Rooftoppers was classicly British. Natalie Lloyd obviously loves writing; she relishes words and writes beautifully about how everything we say has meaning. Her characters speak in unexpected ways, turning phrases and coining terms to express whatever feelings bubble up behind their tongues.

 “Sometimes I see words hovering around people… The more interesting the person, the more fantastic the words. Words come in all sorts of shapes: stars, spaceships, pretzel words. Some words glow, and some words dance. Sometimes I think I see words people are thinking about, or the words they want. the words that circle around my aunt Cleo’s head are usually words I’m not allowed to say.”

But some people can’t express themselves, and they leave things unsaid. Some people carry around heavy burdens in their duffel bags. Some people eat magical blackberry ice cream to remember happier times, and some people avoid that ice cream because they wish to forget. And some people, like Felicity’s Mama, can’t bear to stay in one place too long, though they can’t find the words to explain why. She left Midnight Gulch when she was young, and has brought her two young daughters back to stay with their no-nonsense, sassy aunt for awhile. But while everyone else in the family can see that Midnight Gulch is a special place, Holly Pickle can’t bear to stick around and put down roots. It’s really too bad, because Felicity feels an instant connection with the vibrant town. Readers will sympathise: it’s a pretty spindiddly place to read about.

Hang on, did I said magical ice cream up there? Yes sir. With flavors like

“Orangie’s Caramel Apple Pie,”

“Virgil’s Get-Outta-My-Face Fudge Ripple,” and

“Andy’s Snickerdoodle Sucker Punch.”

A Snicker Of Magic is full of whimsical little notions like that. The town of Midnight Gulch used to be full of magic: one woman could call up storms. The Ponders could bake bravery into pies. And the legendary Brothers Threadbare could once play music so good that everyone in town would get up to dance even if the musicians were far away. But ever since the Brothers Threadbare parted ways after a disasterous musical duel, Midnight Gulch has lost its magic. As Felicity’s new friend Jonah explains, all that’s left is a “snicker” of magic here and there: little bits of wonder left over. But Felicity’s teacher has decided to stage a “duel” of her own. This time, it will be like a talent show, showcasing the spectacular talents of Midnight Gulch. Jonah thinks that maybe if Felicity performs some of her poetry, her Mama will see that Midnight Gulch is a town worth staying in. But in order to perform, she’ll need some help to get over the fear of sharing the words she collects as they soar around her.

(img source)

I can’t decide if I liked the setting or the characters better in A Snicker Of Magic. Natalie Lloyd is from Tennessee, and her depiction of a quirky Southern town charmed me in spite of my Very Northerner Attitude. But all my local coldness, my foggy unfriendliness, was sent away in a magical gust of wind when I first heard Natalie reading aloud from her book. Midnight Gulch is like a really happy daydream, whereas Rooftoppers was like a starlight night. It’s sweet but not sugar coated, which is why I’m not more critical of the book’s cute-ness. People still struggle in Midnight Gulch. There are failures to deal with and judgements to overcome. In the absence of magic, some of the harsher realities of life have snuck in. But it’s a reslient place, predisposed to beauty, and I love how Felicty takes joy in everything around her.

And the characters. Oh, the characters. First of all, a challenge for anyone who reads A Snicker Of Magic while at summer camp: become The Beedle! Do secret nice things for people, not for credit, just because it’s fun. My favorite story Natalie Lloyd told us earlier this summer was about a class that had read her book aloud, only to have one student take the role of The Beedle upon herself. No one knew who it was, but she whispered it to the author in secret. Consider me impressed. And, as a pirate, I don’t usually like do-goodery! Felicity’s friendship with Jonah is so genuine, because even when they don’t agree they’re able to appreicate how nice it is to have someone who likes you and wants to understand you better. The family tensions between Holly Pickle and her siblings will be recognizable to anyone who has opinionated family members, but no matter how they argue there’s real love holding everyone together. And the minor characters are so much fun. Some of them are silly, some of them are mysterious, and some of them have a bit of tragedy about them. They all make Midnight Gulch what it is, though, and I love that Felicty takes time to get to know so many people. By the end of the book, I would have happily moved to town, myself.

So maybe it’s the setting that makes the characters, and the characters that make the setting. Combined, they make for one uplifting, vibrant, satisfying story. And it’s not the beginning to a series! Glory be! ‘Cause what could be more frustrating than to finish a book at camp, only to find the ending unresolved without access to a library? I’m alarmed just imagining the situation.

For strong readers as young as seven, or for anyone who liked Rooftoppers and wants something good-hearted and smart to cool down with this summer, A Snicker Of Magic is my best suggestion. And for parents who send their kids off with this as a good luck charm, be sure to borrow it when they return. It’s perfect to read aloud, and I can garuntee that this is one book you’ll want to savor more than once. If you read it again, you can you can marvel at how well Natalie Lloyd brings together the pieces of her story. The first time around, drink up the words themselves like melted ice cream.

Book Review: Deadweather And Sunrise (The Chronicles of Egg #1)

 

Alas and alack! My pile of Pirate Books To Tackle has grown so monstrous that I should have avoided starting a new series on top of everything. Usually I gravitate towards stand-alone books in my reading ventures, because life is too damn short. But several stalwart and fervent young readers of the 9-12 persuasion have recommended Geoff Rodkey’s series to me – especially on Pirate Fridays when I make a point to wear stripes and my little spyglass – so I figured it was high time I set off at full sail into The Chronicles Of Egg. There are three books currently available in the series, but I started at the beginning with Deadweather And Sunrise. Because even though I don’t like to read by no landlubberly rules, it’s sometimes best to start at the beginning. That’s just how stories work.

Here’s what awaited me in the New Lands, where lies the smelly island Deadweather – and other islands with varying stink-levels – sit surrounded by the Blue Sea:

Egbert is the youngest of three siblings, the only children on Deadweather island. His father runs the uglyfruit plantation with a keen eye for business and a thumping for anyone not pulling their weight. Most of the other employees are pirates who have come back from the sea missing large chunks of their anatomy. Egbert’s brother and sister (Adonis and Venus… I do not jest) also enjoy a spot o’ violence now and then. Meaning that they cause their little brother as much pain as possible whenever they get the chance. But, with a newfound enthusiasm for booklearnin’ and a begrudging acceptance of constant bruises, our earnest narrator isn’t ready to confine himself to growing old on Deadweather just yet. The island is a beloved rendez-vous for pirates, ruffians, and criminals who celebrate the unwashed life. It’s dirty and violent and overshadowed by a tall, sooty volcano. When Egbert’s father comes back from the volcano with something secret on his mind, the family hitches a pirate ship to Sunrise Island to have a chat with their lawyer.

The streets of Sunrise Island are clean and shining; the people are clean; and there’s this new thing called “tourism” gaining a lot of popularity. Egbert is shocked when his family is invited to stay with the wealthy Pembroke family at their beautiful estate. Mr. Pembroke is head of the mining business on the island, and we all know that money controls everything, so he’s pretty much The Man. Of course, Egbert quickly falls in love with Mr. Pembroke’s daughter, Millicent, who is spoiled but friendly and beats him soundly at croquet. It’s too bad that some dire aerodynamic circumstances remove Egg’s family from the surface of the map and spoil their fun.

After the Pembrokes’ hospitality runs suspiciously dry, Egg finds himself tossed about on the seas of adventure. Our much put-upon hero rapidly changes from a battered farmer’s son to a stowaway; a pirate captive; a castaway; and a treasure hunter. He has unpleasant encounters with mean little rich kids and dreadful pirates all in the space of one day. However, there are also moments of surprising kindness from other seemingly-scary pirate captains (and even scarier, but prettier, wealthy lasses). Egg makes friends with a kid who first tries to bite him to death, and finds out that he, himself, can be quite courageous when the need arises.

Egg’s pride and survival are at stake, so in this first volume of his adventures he has to roll with whatever punches life can throw at him. There’s treachery all over the place, and beautiful Sunrise might not be so different from the odious Deadweather island after all.

I had a rollicking good time reading Deadweather and Sunrise, mostly because it offered exactly what I expected. I don’t want to suggest that the plot was overly predictable, because it wasn’t. I had no idea what path the story would follow, and would have been surprised by the twists and turns even if I had some preconceived notions. I just mean to say that I wanted to read something funny and swashbuckling, with one adventure after another. I expected pirate jargon and a general dislike of bathtime. Cannon fire. Sand in uncomfortable places. Scurvy knaves robbing the rich and keeping it for themselves, because they’re scurvy knaves, damnit. I was satisfied on all accounts, with several instances of uproarious guffawing thrown in for good measure.

Geoff Rodkey can write an adventure story with a pace so fast you’ll get whiplash, while still laying on the gross-out details and snappy banter. The interactions between characters were lively and Egg’s internal narration was smart and sincere. It’s not a realistic story in the slightest, but that’s just fine. I appreciated the snide little nods to how thoroughly ridiculous industries like tourism and environmental exploitation can be, and I hope that the issue of mistreating indigenous people is developed further in the following volumes. That particular problem came off a little old-fashioned in Deadweather and Sunrise, but I have high hopes for the two other books which I haven’t yet had a chance to read. In this volume, the filthy rich and the grubby poor can be equally villainous and heroic, so that’s one edifying literary spyglass into the world’s weirdness, at least. That, and don’t believe everything a grown up tells you. Trust neither pirates nor parents.

With the imaginary setting and the jumble of 18th and 19th century details, the piles of misfortune which heaped themselves upon our fearless young fella took some Snicket-esque turns for the melodramatic now and then. Mix the Baudelaire siblings’ magnetism for misfortune with Jim Hawkins’ seafaring misadventures, and you’ve got The Chronicles Of Egg. You know what? I say huzzah to that! Sometimes you just want to get lost in the tumultuous seas of perilous adventures.

Deadweather and Sunrise was a thrilling, cutthroat adventure with enough sword-crossing to keep me itching for a fight. It was easy to root for Egg and his friends, so I’m pleased to know that the rest of the series was well underway before I started reading. The eleven year old lassie who first recommended The Chronicles of Egg to me was right to say that I would like it even though there were some gross bits, because the salty; smoky; sooty; smelly atmosphere was just the right setting for my favorite kind of pirate action. Humor of the light-hearted and gallows varieties combined for an entertaining yarn which would be perfect summer vacation reading material. Now go storm the shores of your local bookshop and set sail!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

Book Review: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

img source

A great ensemble cast and a middle-school heist. I really wish Varian Johnson had written The Great Greene Heist while I was in middle-school, because it turns that joyless institution into the setting for some thrilling escapades.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

This was a fun, fast-paced book about navigating through the equally fraught realms of friendships and cons. Jackson Greene is a lovable swindler. His heists and schemes follow an ethical code and never stray too far from the realm of academic life. He’s the sort of wise-cracking scamp and rambunctious genius everyone wishes they could be – neither afraid to show his smarts nor ashamed to accept help when it’s needed. It was tons of fun to hang out with him and his crew as I read about their complicated quest to bend the rules and and serve some justice.

The nature of crime and corruption in The Great Greene Heist are low-key enough to save plenty of room for humor and misadventures. Jackson and Gaby de la Cruz used to be close friends – in fact, there was a chance they might become something more – but now they’re not talking, even though her brother Charlie is Jackson’s best friend. Things are awkward between them, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson can just stand by while a spoiled, smug scum-bag like Keith Sinclair rigs the student elections out of Gaby’s favor. Sure, Jackson’s sworn off cons ever since he got caught bending one too many of the school’s laws. But for a friend, even the risk to his own future security is worth the effort. Plus, it’s obvious after only a few pages that Jackson is at his best and brightest when planning something spectacular, splashy, and of questionable legality. It runs in the Greene family: from his grifter grandfather’s Code of Conduct to his ultra-cool older brother’s history of impressive plays. So he pulls together a team of the very best from each social sphere of Maplewood school, and prepares to pull one over the students and administration who think money can buy results away from the most dedicated candidate around.

A great ensemble cast can sell me on even the most questionable plot or writing, and this wasn’t even a very questionable book. Sure, some elements of the story could possibly be out of touch: I’m not sure if school elections and basketball games can really make or break someone’s social life anymore. An awful lot rides on new video games and rumors, while I don’t think middle-schoolers are quite so easy to impress nowadays. But I could suspend my disbelief and follow the hi-jinks with mirthful curiosity, because I liked how all the different characters played their parts. There’s that certain appeal in stories like Ocean’s Eleven, in which success rides on the combined efforts of a dynamic team. Drama from within, as strong personalities clash, amps up the stakes while keeping our emotional investment going strong. Since Jackson Greene’s various cons really only have an affect on peoples’ social, academic, and extra-curricular lives – there are no loaded guns or ticking bombs here – a lot was riding on the characters.

Luckily, it’s a really cool gang. These kids defy all sorts of stereotypes, while letting their weird interests and skills speak for themselves. There’s a trekkie techie with a secret crush on the school’s hottest cheerleader. And that cheerleader happens to be a “science goddess,” too. Charlie de la Cruz has reporting skills which keep him observant, while his sister’s devotion to what’s fair and right makes her the unequivocal best candidate in the school’s political race. New recruits include the small and fearless Bradley Boardman, and their necessary “bankroll,” Victor Cho. And everyone is necessary, because while Jackson Greene has more than enough charisma and smarts to go around, the heist he plans to pull will require teamwork, under-cover excursions, and some nifty gadgets.

Too bad not everyone’s as loyal as our hero. When Keith Sinclair and the school’s utterly despicable principal get wind that their own nefarious plans are at risk from this colorful crew, they set out to shut down operations. It was easy to root for Jackson’s team as events lead to a complicated and satisfying denouement at the school dance. The omniscient point of view lets the reader see the injustices going down in shady offices and in abandoned hallways, so when things threaten to go south for our heroes I couldn’t help cringing in anticipation. But these kids are smart, they’re funny, and they’ll not give up easily.

The Great Greene Heist is a great example of how a story can be thoughtfully diverse and also full of mainstream appeal. I particularly enjoyed how they took advantage of the fact that adults rarely take kids as seriously as they should, turning some teachers’ innate racism and condescension against them. There’s a great scene in which the secretary can’t tell the difference between Asian boys, so it’s her own fault when they trick her with some absurdly easy disguises. Kids tricking grown-ups never gets old, especially when that sort of casual profiling happens all the time to young people who deserve much better. Cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but no one acts as a “token” attempt at diversity. Even though it’s not a long book, each character had their own clear motives, worries, and full personalities. They just are how they are, and they look how they look, and they’re too busy taking over the school to worry about it.

All in all, this was a fun book which manages to make middle-school life exciting. I think anyone going through those years of special misery would love Jackson Greene’s swagger. He’s exactly the sort of person I wish I could have been back then. All the characters felt like my own group of friends by the end, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. I also want to read more about Jackson’s family and their history of adventures! His brother and grandfather had small roles, but totally piqued my interest. The easy writing style, fast pace, and memorable characters in The Great Greene Heist stole my attention completely. I highly recommend it to middle-schoolers looking for a fun and easy diversion, or even for strong readers in elementary school who need to psyche themselves up for the years ahead. If middle-school could only be half so exciting in real life.

Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Dianna Wynne Jones

Star Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

Just to say: I read an advanced readers’ copy of this book, so some details may have changed by publication.

The Islands of Chaldea is a middle grade fantasy adventure which was nearly completed by Dianna Wynne Jones before her death.  (I’m still not over that tragedy.  Waaahh.)  Her sister, Ursula Jones, put the finishing touches on the book. That being said, the story-telling and sense of magic absolutely feel like something out of a Dianna Wynne Jones book, full stop.  This is a stand-alone novel, so anyone can start reading it without having prior knowledge of Jones’s impressive bibliography, and there’s no unresolved ending to trample our souls.  The plot and world-building in The Islands of Chaldea aren’t quite as impressive as in some of my favorite D.W.J. books, but it was an enjoyable read and brought me back to happy days reading this sort of book in the library when I was a 5th grader.  Any book which would have made 5th grade Sarah happy makes 23 year old Sarah happy, too.

It’s a fairly traditional story, described with Dianna Wynne Jones’s beautiful language. Aileen’s aunt Beck is a wise-woman of Skarr, and young Aileen will be one too.  That is, she’s supposed to become a wise-woman someday. When she doesn’t witness any magical visions at her initiation it looks like she might not have any special powers after all.  There’s not much time to worry about that, though, because Aunt Beck and Aileen are soon sent on a quest by the high king: a voyage across the great magical barrier to the island of Logra, where the prince has been held captive.  In order to get across the barrier, which has separated Logra from the other islands for political reasons largely unknown, Beck and Aileen will have to bring one individual from each island with them on their quest.  Joined by Aileen’s favorite whiny prince; a castle servant who got left on the wrong side of the barrier; an invisible cat; a sprightly man with an omniscient bird; and some artistic distant cousins, Aileen and Aunt Beck will do their best to find the prince and finish their mission.  Along the way they meet mythical figures reminiscent to the Tuatha De Danann; suspicious sailors; and magical monks, all the while weird weather and strange luck greets them at every turn.  Too bad there are people who don’t want them to succeed at all.  People like evil enchanters and a queen who likes turning people into donkeys, but also someone from Skarr who may be hoping they don’t ever make it safely home.

The not-so-merry band of heroes cover an awful lot of ground on their quest, so it’s no surprise that the world-building in The Islands of Chaldea was a bit rushed.  However, the setting here is quite similar to what we encounter in so many fantasy stories – a magical land heavily influenced by European geography and mythology – so the brief encounters with faraway lands aren’t necessarily hard to imagine.  I like how Jones pushed the similarity between typical old-timey fantasy worlds and our own world to the point of obvious parallels; with Skarr being so very much like Scotland (plaids and all), Bernica’s green hills and Leprechauns as Ireland, and the other British Isles represented as well.  Each island has an animal spirit associated with it, and those guardians had wonderful personalities of their own.  Even though Aileen and her companions don’t get a chance to thoroughly explore each island on their way to Logra, their quick but memorable encounters do make a strong impression.  It could be the authors’ ability to boil down the essence of a place into a few anecdotes which keep the pace moving so swiftly, or it could just be the sense of familiarity which would strike any reader of similar fantastical children’s books.  The former option seems quite likely, though, especially given Jones’s legacy of creating wonderful fantasy worlds which always have a twist or two to keep them unique.  (The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for example, bends the magical land with traditional fantasy creatures rules so very amusingly with its Earthly tourists.)  Chaldea isn’t nearly so inventive as some of her other settings, but the story staged on these islands is a traditional, comfortable tale.  The recognizable landscapes, one after another, still seem magical because of the adventures they host and the wonderful characters who dwell there.

The plot was pretty detailed but not so complex as other DWJ books.  I think that The Islands of Chaldea is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than my favorites of hers.  Books like Fire and Hemlock are packed full of legendary references and fairy-tale traditions, but featuring twisty plots which are staggeringly unique.  Her earlier works are so rich in detail, they invite multiple re-readings and have almost always surprised me with something new even years later.  This book is more up front, and the twists are more predictable. Compared to the Chrestomanci books, which are good for a similar age range of readers, the plot of the first 300 pages in The Islands of Chaldea is a little tame. The last few chapters of the book threw a whole bunch of action and twists into relatively few pages.  Things get nicely resolved – perhaps they even fall into place a little too nicely – but I felt that the conclusion was rushed, with so much complexity appearing all of a sudden. It’s the writing and the characters which make it such a likeable fantasy book, then.  Because it really is likable.  The descriptions are lovely, feeding our imaginations with the sights, sounds, scents, and atmosphere of Aileen’s surroundings without straying from the young narrator’s believable point of view.

The characters are just so much fun.  I want to be Aunt Beck when I grow up.  She’s snappy and impressive and looks really great in plaid.  Her relationship with Aileen is brusque but caring, and when their authoritative roles get reversed due to a curse gone wrong halfway through the adventure I found the ensuing character development to be quite satisfying.  Prince Ivar and his teenaged servant Ogo are banterous and amusing; they act as nice foils to the girls’ attempts to keep things in relative order.  The animals have wonderful personalities, too, and the various travelers who join up on the quest ensure that things stay interesting along the way.  Alas, the villains were a little underdeveloped, mostly appearing in the already-rushed end of the novel.  But Aileen’s personal journey as she tunes in to her own powers and the magic of her lands is the real pulse of The Islands Of Chaldea, and not so much the results of the quest itself, and she becomes a very interesting young lady by the story’s end.

I would say that it was an enjoyable escape into a good old-fashioned fantasy world, and will appeal to fans of Dianna Wynne Jones who still aren’t ready to say goodbye.  New readers will probably like The Islands of Chaldea as well, especially anyone who likes wise women who don’t stand for any nonsense (fans of Morwen in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for example), or likes the traveling bits of high fantasy more than the political entanglements.  For older readers who want something a little more challenging and inventive, I would recommend Fire and HemlockHowl’s Moving Castle, or The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Really, pick up anything by the late and very great Dianna Wynne Jones, and you’ll have a magical experience ahead of you.  She was one of the best.

Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.