Happy Snow Day! That’s our status, anyway. Everything whited over and cancelled yesterday and Saturday, and the roads just beginning to become navigable today. I hope you’re all staying warm, wherever you are!
Stepping into the spotlight today we have Magic Below Stairs, by Caroline Stevermer. More on the author below, because you may not have heard of her, but I’d like to change that!
It was wonderful to see Caroline’s book in the library. She and Patricia Wrede have jointly written some of my most beloved YA books: The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, The Grande Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. Just lovely, delightful reads, all of them. From there I was happy to branch out (both as a youth and adult) to read Patricia Wrede’s books such as Dealing with Dragons and Mairelon the Magician. But books by Caroline Stevermer have been harder to come by, and this was actually the first I read which was hers alone. However, for those who’ve read the stories above about Kate and Cecilia, Magic Below Stairs takes place in the same world, and is primarily set in Kate and Tomas Schofield’s household sometime between The Grande Tour and prior to The Mislaid Magician.
Okay, so what’s this book about, anyway? Frederick Lincoln is an orphan in Victorian England, and forced to make the best of a less than perfect life. As the book begins he’s unfortunately attracted a bit of unwanted attention from the orphan master because he was caught helping in the kitchen (for hope of some scraps) and is told to clean up by hand hundreds of peas and beans which the master scatters across the kitchen floor. If they’re not all clean by morning, it’s the still room for Frederick. For hours he works, because he’s not one to give up easily. But the task wasn’t meant to be possible, and some time in the wee hours of the morning he drifts off, his fingers raw and the task undone.
In the morning the peas and beans are all clean, however, and the floor spick and span. The master looks at Frederick sideways and trusts him even less, and Frederick is left with a hazy dream memory of a small green fellow named Billy Bly, humming as he worked to sort the peas and beans.
So begins their adventures as Frederick learns all he can from life and doubly so after being chosen–under somewhat mysterious circumstances–to work ‘below stairs’ as a footboy in the wizard Schofield’s household. the first snag is of course the fact that Billy Bly is a brownie and has followed Frederick, and Lord Schofield has forbidden all such magic creatures from his home. A second snag, if you could call it that, comes in the form of a terrible curse on the Schofield home. Frederick and his friend navigate the first with aplomb and go after the second with tenacity and grit.
Mysterious magic in the night, a baby in peril, secrets to be kept and guarded, and all of it set against a background that’s so detailed as to feel lush, bringing to life a Victorian England where magic and mystery are rampant. The book ends with hints of a sequel to come and I went looking eagerly for news of it, but see nothing as yet. However, the book works well as a standalone should a sequel never occur.
But enough meandering from me. Let’s get Apricot-kitty’s two cents:
“You expect me to share my wisdom, when you still haven’t cleaned up this nasty white stuff spilled all over the ground? Oh, very well. The boy showed wonderful ingenuity for a human child, and was clever in his never-ending hunt to learn. The Brownie was precisely what one would expect from such a creature–like a cat, but requiring magic to accomplish the same role. The character I liked best was actually the girl who became Frederick’s friend in the big house. That Bess was savvy and fun. We should read a book focused on her!”
I’m all for it–just give me more books set in this world, and I’m happy! And a note on the world: the addition of magic changes things, of course, but otherwise the research and work spent getting details about Victorian England correct is impressive. Readers (and reviewers!) will pick up a bit more about life in another time, and never notice the history lesson. Far from being a bitter medicine, the book is such an easy, delightful read that one never knows there was any medicine at all.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, spotlights, giveaways and discussion, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!
Happy MMGM, my friends! As I type this, we here in North Carolina have had minor freezes and threats of freezing rain, but no snow. That’s still quite cold enough for me, and it’s easy to see how a lovely (warm!) summer book like this one could be a hit for some young reader to unwrap. 🙂
Magical animals and a hidden super cool place for the protagonist to explore? You’ve got all of that and more in Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clovers Luck, which is in the spotlight today.
This was a super short story that will appeal to boys and girls who want the kinds of stories the stronger/older readers are enjoying, but at an easier level to plow through them the fatter fantasy books that are generally available.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed the book, initially I almost put it away and stop reading. So to coax you through these negatives (which I do want to discuss) I’m first going to give you a pic of a fairy house. To remind you of where we’re going with this post. 😉
My first hesitation came when we quickly shifted from modern life to fairy tale/olden days type setting without any actual shift or transition–more of a lurch. The initial setup is that Clover has just gotten out of school and is disappointed when she finds that her friend has gotten into the Pony camp they both wanted to go to and were wait-listed for, while Clover did not get in. She thinks this is just her luck as she is a very unlucky girl and is happy for her friend but sad that there will be no ice cream runs or sleepovers adventures, and she can forget the excitement that she would have had with her friend all summer. She knows she will be bored since her parents work all the time. Typical modern-day kid, yes?
But, wait! Shortly after this we find that Clover lives in a village with a deep dark woods nearby, where no one lives and in which no one goes because they’re afraid of it, and that even the adults don’t know what is on the other side of this mysterious woods. My difficulty was that none of that sounds remotely modern, does it? And the story carried on with this kind of juxtaposition of fairy tale and modern, going back and forth the entire time. Another example: the adoption agency for magical creatures where Clover eventually volunteers feels like something straight out of a fantasy or fairy tail if you don’t mind the modern refrigerator. Initially this really pushed me out of the story. And another–Clover’s parents appeared to be reasonably on the ball professionals, caring and aware of their daughter, yet they never find out even the address of the new place she’s volunteering or who she’s working with on a daily basis.
So, there are some definite world building quirks that require suspension of disbelief and a willingness to ignore possible discrepancies. If those weren’t enough, it also bothered me that right up front Clover is asked to keep secret from her parents where she is going during the day by a man who is supposedly a good guy and cares about all creatures, Clover included. A chapter or two later we learn that she is only keeping secrets about the fact that she is working with magical creatures, and not that she is working with animals at an animal adoption agency, so that helped. But I would have preferred different handling of the situation.
All of that said, I do think the book is worth pushing into! And I also suspect these issues will not be as problematic for young readers as they were for me. The creatures found in the adoption agency were delightful and unique while remaining true to the tropes readers expect from fantasy beasts. In addition, Clover’s need to be ingenious and reach within herself to solve problems that she encounters, once she is left to manage the adoption agency on her own, is delightful to read as an adult and I’m sure would fill a younger reader with triumph. I also enjoyed reading about her encounters and interactions in the woods with both those who are adopting animals and the animals themselves.
Best of all, in the end, Clover finds the resources inside herself to create her own happy ending for the magical creatures of the adoption agency, and for herself. The message is that you create your own luck if you’re lucky enough, and that message came through very clearly without beating the reader over the head with the message stick. And finally, I have to give a shout out to the illustrator Alexandra Boiger, whose delightful drawings throughout really added a touch of whimsy and fun to the story. Sometimes I barely notice the drawings in a book, and sometimes, like here, they add a whole ‘nother layer of character. 🙂
Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:
“A bit simple for my taste, but I liked this book. As for luck, so far as I can see humans have little of it. Cats, on the other hand, are some of the luckiest creatures out there. We generate good luck when we purr. A lesson for you humans in there, eh?”
I think we’d all agree that’s true. For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, interviews, reviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog. Happy reading, and happy holidays!
Happy December, folks! With Christmas and Hanukkah right around the corner, I think a lot of us are wondering what books kids will get really excited about unwrapping. I’m definitely seeing more requests for book recommendations on Facebook, and answering that question is one of my all time loves! The only down side is that I often feel bad for any books I forget to suggest, or can’t recommend for that reader. So even as I offer these December picks, I’m sending a little love pat to all the books I couldn’t choose!
For this week, The Sun Trail, from Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, is stepping into the spotlight.
I think every reviewer, teacher, and librarian out there is familiar with the Warriors books. My oldest (who’s nearly 20 now) got into them and got me reading them when he was around ten. A decade later they take up an entire shelf in most book stores and libraries, and have been reinvented and added on to in a dozen ways. So, why the spotlight on this one? Well, I think most kids start the Warriors books with Into the Wild, the first book, which features Firestar as he transitions to the wild and becomes a clan cat. And from that series it’s an easy transition for kids to read on, following the story into the next generation of clan cats. But what about this prequel series? Are they a good fit for young Warrior’s fans? Will they have the same vibe, and make young readers stay up all night reading? Should they actually be read first, since that’s the chronological order?
The answer to that is 96% yes, and maybe not. I read this the first of the Dawn of the Clan books with an eye for age-appropriate material, that matched the intensity and handling of tricky subject matter of the original series. And in that regard, I felt the books were a solid match. I can also say that Gray Wing (the main character) and the other cats experience a good balance of adventures and what MLP fans call ‘Slice of Life’ moments, in which relationships are developed and we see the characters explore their daily life. Additionally, the introduction of the various cats is quite good, so the reader can readily sort out and identify with the most integral cats at each point along the way. As usual, the Erin Hunter team of writers did a superb job.
So, what about that other 4% and maybe? Well, I felt that the overall subject matter was a bit heavier than is generally seen in the original series. In both series, we see situations of betrayal, and moments where the main character cat must face the reality that he can’t save all his friends, and is deeply disappointed in those cats he looks up to or relies on. But in The Sun Trail, those incidents far outweigh moments of lightness and fun. In fact, after finishing the books, I was hard pressed to remember any happy times for the cats that weren’t also tinged with sorrow or sacrifice. As I said, the individual examples were handled well…but the sum total could overwhelm young readers. In this story, Gray Wing is not exiting a cozy kittypet home looking for adventure (as was the case with Firestar), but in the beginning has made a wrenching decision to face a dangerous unknown, for the survival of himself and his fellow cats. Moreoever, that danger is punctuated along the way but painful losses. So, Gray Wing’s world reflects more desperate times and the viewpoint of a cat who has exited the kitten years and faces responsibilities at every turn. For that reason, I recommend that young readers begin with Into the Wold and progress forward through the books closer to how they were written. Following that route, they’ll be ready for The Sun Trail’s more stark world when they’ve read their way to it. And I suspect at that point will thoroughly enjoy it!
Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say about the cat heroes:
“Go away. I’m reading.”
Hmm, I suppose I should speak to her about her manners…but then again, I was the one who interrupted her in the middle of a book, wasn’t I? So I shouldn’t be surprised at her response. At any rate, I give you all permission to recommend these books to your friends as ‘cat approved’ since they’re definitely a favorite of Apricot-kitty’s!
What books are on your holiday wish list? Which are you recommending? I’m always eager to find and read more books! Speaking of which–after you’ve stopped by Shannon Messenger’s blog and indulged in the full awesomeness that is Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, I recommend you stop by the Kidlit Drink Night Podcast Facebook page and see which books they’re giving away today. First off because the podcast is highly amusing and run by friends of mine (best reason to recommend something, yes?), and secondly because it’s super easy to enter to win, and there’s a new author-signed FREE book given away each day through I think the 13th or 14th of December! So, check that out. 🙂 And happy reading!
What does Palace of Stone have to do with Thanksgiving week? Well…I’m tempted to say absolutely nothing, but here are a couple things that come to mind, right off the top of my head:
- Gratitude that our presidents have limited terms, and that no matter how awful the choice in whomever gets voted in (notice how careful I’m being to try and stay neutral?) we do not have to put up with said person for a lifetime, and do not have to resort to violence to bring about change.
- Gratitude that most of us enjoy incredible degrees of personal freedom, safety, and comfort, even when things are lean and difficult, when compared to much of human history.
- Gratitude that we have books, books, and more books than we can ever read at our finger tips and available for us to read. They give us transport to other times and places, and provide an excellent release for our day to day stresses. Besides, they’re fun!
So, there you go. Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is stepping into the spotlight this week, and not the least concerned about its lack of turkeys or an autumn theme!
*WARNING: there be spoilers below*
Putting what I feel is a fair spotlight on this book is a little trickier. But, let me first talk about what it’s about and what I loved. In this second book, or sequel, to Shannon Hale’s first Princess Academy, we see Miri navigating the ins and outs of bustling life in the city, far from the comfort and familiarity of her life on Mount Eskel. And the city isn’t exactly a peaceful place. Early in the book, when she arrives, she witnesses a man make an assassination attempt on the king, resulting in the would-be assassin being shot. That establishes the pulse of the city, wherein the people are poor and angry with their king for the tax burden he’s placed on them. They are desperate, and some among them are ready for revolution. They see in Miri a girl of the people, who is accustomed to poverty and able to bring about change, as she did in helping the village of Mount Eskel get a fair price for their linder.
Unfortunately, this puts Miri in a bad position. She just wants to help Britta and Prince Stefan prepare for their wedding (and work through whatever has gone wrong in their relationship) while learning all she can as a student in the prestigious Queen’s Castle school. But she feels deep sympathy for the poor of the city and for the people’s revolutionary desires for change. Soon, without her really intending it, she’s deeply embroiled in schemes on both sides, and headed toward serious danger. In and around and in the middle of all this, Miri stretches and grows into broader and more complex views of the world. She comes to understand that the problems of the kingdom are much bigger than she ever could have imagined on Mount Eskel. She navigates some tricky relationship ins and outs, and learns to look her enemies in the face and (most of them) find there a person she can respect and have empathy for. She also has to closely examine her own heart, and the person she’s becoming, and figure out what it is she really wants and who she wants to be.
In other words, she grows up. Some people complain that she’s less active in this book than in the first–and that’s true. She does appear less the solution and struggles more to find the answer. But that’s often the case when a person grows from the early teen years–with energy and often all the answers–through the challenging time as an older teen when you discover that despite your hard work, good intentions, and proactive resourcefulness, the problems of the world have not gone away. Moreover, sometimes you can’t save a friendship, and you can’t win over every enemy. These are painful truths that older teens face and adults know well, but often preteens and younger teens are spared. So, I felt the book accurately reflected Miri’s older mindset and maturity, down to and including her challenges in finding ready-made solutions. She’s still a strong character with a big heart and a determination to overcome no matter what, and she’s still a daughter of Mount Eskel, with a connection to the stone of the mountain’s mysterious magic. She’s still Miri, in other words, and this is still a Princess Academy story.
That said…to fans of the first book, it may be a disappointment. Especially the younger fans, who’ve just finished the first book. A beloved (one could say classic), Newbery Honor book is a tough act to follow, and in many ways, this sequel falls flat. In growing Miri up in the ways she does, we lose much of her innocence and freshness. In broadening the scope of the story’s stage, many new characters are brought in and we see very little of the original band from the Princess Academy. Katar, Esa, Frid, Gerti, they all get sidelined. We see so little of Peder that he seems more a representation of the mountain and Miri’s love for it than an actual character. Even Britta gets very little page time, despite the book supposedly being about Miri helping her, and most of the conflict centering on her role as the new princess. From a writer and editorial stand point, I can see what Shannon Hale did and why, and appreciate the wisdom of her choices. From a readers perspective, I could only sigh. At the end of the day, the story simply does not feel like a sequel to the first, and would get better reviews and leave behind a happier readership if it were completely divorced from the first and meant to be a read as a stand alone. It simply doesn’t feel connected to Princess Academy in any way that speaks to the soul.
But, there. Enough from me. I feel for authors who receive pressure from fans (for years!) to write a sequel to a beloved book. The odds of anyone being truly happy with the result if the author caves and writes it are slim to none. So, let’s get the wisdom of a cat and see what Apricot-kitty has to say:
“Haven’t I told you all to stop this before? That’s right, you remember when I said you shouldn’t let yesterday’s mouse spoil today’s mole. And what is it I hear you doing? Complaining about a perfectly delicious book because it’s not the same as the first. Just stop.”
And there you have the crux of the problem, of course! We love the first too much to love the second as it stands…and can’t quite help ourselves. That said, the political world building in this sequel was truly amazing! Just as the first book taught unsuspecting readers superb negotiating skills, this book teaches them more about political science and the art of government than they ever thought they’d retain. It may not satisfy the same craving as the first, but it’s a good book, and one I’ll still recommend.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog! If you live in the US or celebrate our holidays, have a scrumptious and joy-filled Thanksgiving, and to all of you–happy reading!
I was fortunate enough to win my copy of Full of Beans from Joanne Fritz–many thanks, again!–and found this story to be delightful and satisfying in unexpected ways. Full of Beans is the tale of Beans Curry, who has big plans for himself and his friends that will see them comfortably through the lean times of the Great Depression. The one catch? His plans don’t seem to be working out so well.
(just a note in case you’re thinking of purchasing–the book is actually a lovely true green in person, not this pukey color)
However misfires, sabotage-by-gluttony, and the meddling of his arch enemy won’t keep Beans down for long. And that’s the first thing I loved about this book–the spunk and ingenuity Beans demonstrates. It may seem an obvious connection, but it occurred to me while reading this story that the ‘Greatest Generation,’ as the folk who saw the US through WWII are often called, were children of and came of age during the Great Depression. Is it too much of a stretch to think the challenges they faced as part of their daily life were how they learned the ingenuity, fortitude, and courage they became known for later? I don’t think so, and one of the first things I loved about this book was Beans determination and grit.
The second thing was definitely his attitude. Now, I should warn you that he’s…not what you’d call angelic. He has no quibbles over lying (even to his beloved mother) when he feels the need, because he feels that adults are the biggest liars around…and he’s got a point, since the adults in his life do have a habit of lying to him. Many times it’s because they want to spare him worry, but even then Beans sees through them. And then there are the adults who are happy to make some shady arrangements with Beans and lie about the legality of what they’re doing. Of course, Beans is no fool and sees through that, too, but even with his streets savvy and ingenuity, it’s impossible that he’ll land on his feet every time.
Even scarier is the question of what happens if he lands on his feet…and then feels really, really bad about it? This is the question that we spend a good portion of the novel considering, and prompts Beans to take a second look at several particulars and pieces in his life, and his priorities.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I can definitely recommend this one, and promise that you’ll soak up this bit of history without ever noticing the ‘pill’ going down, as it’s more a street-kid-caper that happens to be set in a colorful part of the Florida Keys, when they’re in the midst of the Great Depression. You’ll love it. 😀
Now, let’s hear what Apricot-kitty has to say:
“What was with those names? Beans? Peas? Curry? Pudding? Pork chop? Yes, okay, the story was delightful and I loved the way Beans got his gang all set up in the end, but please tell me, because I’ve heard whispers about gingerbread houses and that sort of funny business…when the parents named their children were they planning to eat them?
Ha! Okay, so yes, the names in the book are a little odd. In addition to those listed above, we have Too bad, Kermit, a dog named Termite, and you should also know that ‘Peas’ is actually Beans. However, I’m quite positive that no children were ever in any danger, and if food was on people’s minds when the passed out nicknames, can you really blame them?
And on that note–I also really loved a subtle impact of Full of Beans, which was that it makes being thankful for small and simple things extremely easy! I recommend it to any readers who want to take a fresh look at their lives and this month’s focus on gratitude.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, interviews, giveaways and spotlights, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and wish her happy book touring and congrats on her launch of Lodestar while you’re there!
I know Halloween isn’t til next week, but on my new schedule I won’t be posting. So I hope you’ll all forgive me a slightly early Halloweenish post–starting with this very important PSA:
Beware of jack-o-lanterns which develop an appetite for candy! You never know when they’ll sneak into your stash and eat all the treats you planned to give cute little trick or treating kids.
There’s no good outcome when a pumpkin goes bad…so consider yourself forewarned, take the necessary precautions, and have a Happy Halloween from me and mine!
Today’s spotlighted book–Invisible Inkling–isn’t technically a Halloween story, but it felt like a good match to me. I’ll blame it on all the talk about pumpkins, since the ice cream shop which Hank’s parents own is called Big Round Pumpkin, and his new invisible friend has a serious squash craving that won’t be denied. And a Bandapat needs to keep up his strength, you know!
You can (sort of) see Inkling in Hank’s backpack, on the cover, though we don’t learn what Inkling looks like–exactly–til well into the book. Probably in the last third. This is because Inkling is a highly endangered Peruvian Bandapat, and as such is invisible. He’s too cute, you see, so he’d be irresistible if folks could see him. He comes to New York and shows up in Hank’s family’s ice cream shop in search of pumpkins, but his arrival is a lucky thing for Hank because he is about to start fourth grade without the benefit of his life-long buddy and best friend. This catastrophe is somewhat mitigated by Hank having Inkling to distract him at home, since the two quickly become fast friends.
Of course, that leaves Hank to navigate the realm of fourth on his own, and the navigating isn’t going too well. An unfortunate incident in soccer brings Hank to the attention of a school bully, Gillicut, and in the escalating battle between the boys, Hank discovers unpleasant depths within himself as well as unexpected allies and resources in himself.
The story does a wonderful job of balancing the realistic with the fantastic, blending it all together so that it comes to feel that perhaps there really do exist such creatures as Bandapats, and it seems quite reasonable that they would be invisible and consider themselves experts on the lunchroom scene, even if said expert advice backfires more than it doesn’t. I also felt the book did a great job of showing how a persons perception of bullying can shift depending on the lens brought to bear. Not that this book gives good advice to adults or kids on how to handle bullying–because frankly, it really doesn’t–but I did like the way it showed Hank realizing how quickly the ‘bully’ seesaw could shift. That’s not something I see often in middle grades.
Now, let’s get Apricot-kitty’s two cents:
“Do you really mean to tell me you have nothing to say about Hank’s father? He was quick enough to scold when Hank crossed the line, at school, but not so quick to help Hank out so the kid stayed comfortably back from the line, was he? I mean…really. Any cat with an attitude like that wouldn’t be worthy of her claws.”
I did mention being unimpressed with how the adults in the story handled the bullying, yes? Well, that’s all I want to say, cause I’m running the risk of dropping spoilers as is. ‘Sides, it’s my view that kids aren’t picking up Invisible Inkling for practical advice, and it does a decent job of illustrating the various things that won’t work, anyway. Oh, yes. And it also brought home to me that I–like my cat–am not a pacifist. And I’m entirely okay with that. 😉
Do you have any fun and not too scary Halloween books to recommend? Do you plan to dress up? I’m on the fence, myself, but will probably throw on a wig or pull something together. Because, Halloween!
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, giveaways and interviews, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!
One week ago I attended the SCBWI Carolinas conference, and had such a great time! It’s been a couple years since I’ve been able to drive down and participate in all three days, and it was great to have the time this year to see (almost) everyone I wanted to see and spend more time both attending panels and catching up. I also made or cemented some great connections within the industry, which is always a win-win! Here’s a pic of me and a couple chums grabbing a late late dinner after closing up the book store.
However, what I wanted to share with ya’ll is a fascinating list that was put together by one of the agents in attendance, Stephen Fraser. He taught a panel which explored what elements the perfect MG novel includes, and I’m sharing both for writers and readers, because I think these books are worth looking at! Here’s a link to the full bibliography (which does include a couple adult novels) that he shared with us, and which I’m sharing with his permission, because my truncated list can’t do justice to them all.
And here’s the shortened list, matched up with a writing strength each book illustrates, as I’ve been able to reconstruct from my notes:
- Charlotte’s Web: Masterfully crafted prose. Think about word choices on subsequent rounds and make sure each word belongs precisely where it is.
- Stone Fox: Drama! Make it real, give it a satisfying twist. Remember you can write about anything (death, etc.) at any reader’s level if you adjust the emotional weight.
- The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles: Imagination. Go all out, let the imagination ride high!
- The Clockwork Three: Don’t be afraid to mix genres.
- Heart of a Samurai: Bring history to life. Nonfiction can read like fiction when you breath life into the subject.
- Holes: Use humor. Take extra time in the writing if necessary because humor can take a challenging subject and make it work on additional levels.
- James and the Giant Peach: Be unapologetic. Don’t try to make your story something it’s not!
- Junonia: Write to the age level. Write not only to the category but to the interest and ability of the reader.
- Missing May: Make place a character. Transport the reader so they feel they’ve actually been there.
- Sarah Plain and Tall: Make each word resonate. Make writing image rich and weighty, like poetry.
- The Secret Garden: Infuse with joy. At it’s best a book is not overburdened, and joy springs from the pages.
- Harry Potter Books: Don’t obsess about length.
You’ll get your own mileage from these, and I must confess that I personally don’t plan to set word count guides aside until my books are selling like Harry Potter novels (hey, I can dream, right? :)), but I do think there’s something to be gained by taking a long look at each of these books to see what each can illustrate for us. As a reader, I know I benefit from varying my usual choices, and reading books outside my comfort zone. I know that’s equally true for me as a writer. The more widely I read, the better I’m able to steal and borrow the amazing techniques that are tucked away in these other books!
I asked Apricot-kitty what she thought of the list, but she’s become enamored with storm-watching since Hurricane Matthew went over our heads*, and couldn’t be dragged away to comment. Hopefully she’ll be ready to offer her two bits next week!
In the mean time, head over to Shannon Messenger’s blog for the full round up of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, giveaways and helpful blogs, and as always, happy reading!
*Honestly, the hurricane didn’t so much pass over our heads as brushed by us. We got lots of rain but were some of the lucky few who retained power, and the kitty’s disdain for rain aside, are doing great!
Several years ago I had the privilege of reading an ARC of Odin’s Promise, and am not ashamed to say that I gave the book one of my more gushing spotlights–which you can read here. At the time, Sandy had no concrete plans to write a sequel, but thankfully she’s done just that and has a third book in the works, as well! Each of the books continues the story of Mari, as she navigates her early teen years during Norway’s time of German occupation, during WWII.
As I waited for the second book–Bjorn’s Gift–to come out I was hopeful and a little nervous. I’d already told Sandy I’d love to have an ARC, but when authors become friends, waiting to spotlight their book can be nerve-racking. No one wants to believe it can happen…but the Sophomore slump is a real challenge. However, Sandy Brehl is a pro so I had faith in her ability to deliver.
And that she has! In Bjorn’s Gift we have a slightly older Mari, who is more confident in herself, but struggling with the challenges that arise when her deep-seated loyalty to the resistance movement is pitted against her friendship with a classmate, who has joined the Norwegian Nazi party. She’s also got bigger secrets to keep, many of them of a highly dangerous nature. The war has taken a toll, hunger has spread, and their German oppressors are turning up the heat on loyal Norwegians.
But despite all that, Mari’s family and closest friends manage to celebrate together during joyful times, and laugh together even when things are rough. I was continually amazed by the close comfort and deep love that permeates the story and brings a warmth and lightness to a very dark time in Norwegian history. There’s even an adorable Spitz pup, which we met at the end of the first book. He needs help from Mari in this one if he’s to safely grow up. And who wouldn’t love an adorable Spitz?
I know there’s a tendency on my part to gush over these books, but believe it or not, I’m holding back! On finishing them, I feel the urge to go out and shove them into the hands of random strangers and scream ‘Read this! You have to read this!’ in their faces. The only thing holding me back? I’m not willing to give up my copy.
Oh, fine, okay…that and I suspect I’d be hauled off to jail! However, the books really are that good. They maintain an amazing balance between the historic details needed to accurately portray the times and culture, including the darkness and fear of the day, against the inherent hope of a young, happy, and strong-willed girl growing up surrounded by her loving parents and sweet Bestemor (Grandma). I believe these books would make an excellent addition to any home, school, or library, and that they are uniquely able to appeal to both the shy, quiet readers who may struggle with more painful accounts of this time period, as well as the rowdier readers who want to sink their teeth into danger and adrenaline.
Now…let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:
“I liked the clever way Mari and her sister used the medicines they had available. Very cat-like, that. I also liked the secret place Mari finds, and the one her father creates, as well. Bolt holes are always good, and doubly so in a time of war. A very savvy family!”
I could explain those cryptic remarks, but I’m not big on spoilers, so we’ll let her comments stand as they are. Trust Apricot to see the shadow and light of each situation, and bring that out in true cat form! The book is on pre-release right now, but I’ve seen some goodreads giveaways so if you add it to your shelf, you could be notified and have a chance to win. I hope you do, as it’s a lovely read!
Stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for further Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, spotlights, interviews and giveaways, and happy reading!
I have to give a huge hug of thanks to my fellow MMGMers for nudging me to give Rick Riordan another try. I was underwhelmed by the first Percy Jackson book. Didn’t hate it, definitely saw its value on the MG shelf, but didn’t care for Percy’s voice and found the plot (or lack thereof) exasperating.
And never got around to reading another Rick Riordan book–until now. Thankfully I picked up a copy of The Red Pyramid as one of my summer reads, and was suitably impressed!
This is the story of a brother and sister who’ve grown up mostly apart from each other, in two totally different worlds. Sadie’s grown up with her grandparents in London, and thoroughly absorbed the British culture of her chums at school. Carter has traveled the world shadowing their dead, and his education has been much less conventional. But when their dad tries to put right the terrible tragedy that killed their mom, the two are thrust together and quickly come to rely on each other as they try to stay one step ahead of the looming disaster that is their parents’ inheritance. All while hosting Egyptian gods, and attempting to save the world, of course!
So, what did I love about this book? For one, the honest and frank way that race is addressed. Carter takes after their dad, and has known for years that he needs to handle himself extra carefully because his dark skin, curly black hair, and African looks will attract the wrong kind of attention if given half a chance. Moreover, since Sadie is blonde (under the streaks she likes to dye) and light skinned–taking after their mum–the two are often frustrated by people doubting that they can be siblings, or ‘real’ family. The book isn’t about race, per se, but packs a powerful punch perhaps because of that. The Kane kids are just trying to get on with their already complicated lives, but the issue of race isn’t going to politely step aside just because they have more pressing things to attend to.
For seconders (that’s a word, right?) I love the depth of world building in the story. Sure, Riordan was tapping into Egyptian history and mythology for all his stuff, but I’ve taken university level classes that addressed/were focused on Egyptian history, and there was still a fair amount of world building needed for him to gather all this random stuff and pull it into one cohesive whole. And that’s before you even get to the way he modernized the gods, and gave depth to the magicians both past and present. Truly amazing work, with lots of fun nuances for those of us with a little understanding of Egyptian mythology.
For thirdishes (okay, I just made that one up!) the book does an excellent job balancing pacing and the switches in pov. Is this something most readers are going to geek out over? No, not likely. But it’s brilliantly done! It’s hard–hard–to write a book in two povs without sacrificing anything by way of voice and while also never giving the reader mental whiplash. By framing the book as he did, Riordan allowed for much more streamlined shifts in pov, and gave himself a leg up on pacing, as well. All in all, I felt the balance of information and action was excellent, and the book brilliantly crafted.
There’s more to love, but we’ll go with those. 🙂 And now…for Apricot-kitty’s take:
“Well of course I liked Bast, because who wouldn’t? However, I felt she got rather the short-end of the story. And I’m also not buying that she’d run from any dog-like creature, no matter how supernatural. I’ll bet that was put in there just so the Kane kids could shine without her. After all, they were the ones telling the story, weren’t they?”
Thank you, Apricot-kitty for reminding me of the excellent supporting cast of characters in The Red Pyramid. Bast is amazing–definitely someone you should take along, if ever you go adventuring–but even the bad guys were wonderfully fleshed out and the conflict nuanced. Each voice rings out clear and individual, adding layers of interest. For any Riordan-hesitant readers, I say go forth and read! 😀
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, spotlights, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messengers blog. Next week I’ll be blog-silent, but I’ll be back on the 19th with a spotlight on Bjorn’s Gift, and I hope to see you all here. In the mean time, many thanks for stopping by, and happy reading!
Hello, dear friends! How was your summer? Mine was lovely–all that I hoped it could be, and soo restorative! I am energized and enthused and ready for the writing and editing projects of the fall. Plus the fun of faires and festivals, pumpkin days and crisp leaves raining from a clear blue sky. I love all the seasons, but fall is my favorite.
And you guys–I’m so excited for this fall! I have some really lovely books I’m editing–I’m always proud of the Red Adept books I’ve helped to shape–and in a giant SQUEE I have a tidy pile of fulls out with agents, for Once Upon a Witness! That’s my fairyland’s witness protection MG, which I think I’ve mentioned before. And then there are a couple editors reading a different MG and a PB, plus all the work and planning that’s already begun for the launch party of my romantic suspense, which will debut spring of 2017–link for all my Lily Black news here. The writing life? Right now it’s da’ bomb. 😀
But all that positive activity does bring one shift. I will be moving my Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts to an every other week schedule, just to ease things up a bit. I’ve resisted making this shift for at least a year, but the time has come and so I sympathise with the likes of Marvin K. Mooney but must relent. There will be possible posts on the off days, of course, plus the occasional switcheroo to make room for holidays (December, I’m looking at you) but pretty much we’ll stick to that every other Monday schedule.
And now I have a couple books to recommend! A shout out for two YA books I read over the summer:
I really haven’t read Young Adult much, over the last few years, and when I did it was usually the stuff that could pass as MG. So…I’d kind of mentally consigned YA to the category of ‘great, if you like that angsty stuff and want to read something depressing.’ I cringe, admitting it, but given the reputation it has and the dark, fatalistic bend of some of the books, that was my perspective. But these two books took my preconceptions and scrambled them up like a rubix cube in the hands of a three-year-old, then straightened them all out in a new and beautiful pattern. Yes, they were (both) sometimes angsty, and moody. But there was so much of light, and hope, in each of them! Moreover, the writing was so gorgeous and the characters so sympathetic, reading never felt like it brought on the blues.
The Lost Sun is a tale of sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. It’s set in ‘the United States of Asgard’ where the Norse Gods and the old Norse way of life has been brought to the Americas, and coincides comfortably with our modern world of cars and television. This juxtaposition provides a mythological framework within which the main character–a young berzerker–must deal with the fact that his father is infamous for having berzerked…in a shopping mall, completely losing it and killing something like a dozen people before he was taken out by a police squad. So the main character attempts to prevent himself from ever becoming a berzerker, holding it back and clamping down on who he is. And then there’s a girl, whose mother is as famous as his father was infamous, and a beautiful, fragile lost god, and a road-trip style quest…and I recommend you read it!
The Fault in Our Stars is much better known, given its bestseller status, but it’s interesting because I could also say of it that it’s a tale of sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. Cancer, of course, and terminal. I won’t say much more of this one–it’s so famous, and others have said it better–but I will say that it was soo much more hopeful than I thought it would be! The first few chapters were more what I expected, and I might have stopped reading if I hadn’t been curious how John Green was going to pull off a plot when we know up front that the main character is living on borrowed time and has no future. But as the story progresses it lightens, and you come to realize that all we need is a now. After all, which of us, through any act of will or sacrifice, can get anything immediate and useful now, out of our future? Can pin any part of it down? The future doesn’t have a debit card, so you can pull up to a metaphysical ATM and borrow a bit of whatever it is you want. All any of us possess in a concrete way is a past, which we can’t change, and a now. That wasn’t the point of this book, but it was a side bit of insight which I appreciated. Truth, the book had layers within layers of insights, and was brilliantly done.
So, there’s a couple books for you, as my little gift from summer’s alligator days! Please do tell me what you’ve been up to, and what your in-book or out-of-book summer adventures were! I’m dying to hear them. 😉
Me, and a friendly baby alligator I met at the beach. He was super soft and cuddly…so long as he sported that bit of tape around his jaws!