The Ruins of Gorlan (Ranger’s Apprentice Bk 1), by John Flanagan, for MMGM

How is your May coming along? Is it treating you well? Mine has been excellent, with a solid dose of editing for my publisher supplemented by the new MG/YA I’ve just started writing, and some fun family outings. This past weekend included watching a sand sculpture come together, saying hi to a friendly robot, and enjoying homestyle ice cream at the Gotta Be NC festival. Always fun!

Today’s spotlight is on The Ruins of Gorlan, which is the first book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, by John Flanagan. It’s a long running series, but not new. In fact, I had the first few pointed out to me more than five years ago, as I perused books in the kids section of a Barnes and Noble. Maybe there was something about the cover that put me off, or maybe it was the odd way my fellow customer recommended them as if embarrassed to be doing so, but I didn’t pick them up then. Now I’m grateful for that, because just at this time this series has really tapped into my sweet spot, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m several books in and on hold for three more at my local library.

In this, the first book, young Will is anxious about his future. What he desperately wants is to get in to Battleschool, but that looks unlikely. He’s a ward of the castle, and rather small for his age, so without parentage or prowess to smooth his way and recommend him to the Battle Master (or other trade masters), it looks very much like he may be sent to the fields and live out his life a farmer.

Enter the mysterious and shadowy Ranger. Given that the series is titled ‘Ranger’s Apprentice’ I hope you’ll forgive me the small spoiler and say yes, Will finds his way into training with the Ranger Corp. But of course his troubles don’t end there. The new confidence he gains as his skills grow do not endear him to a former ward-mate and sometimes enemy who made the cut and got into Battleschool. There are also unexpected deaths happening in high places, with what looks like a sinister plot afoot. When the dangers in the land coalesce and someone dear to Will is endangered, he finds himself in a position to prove other’s faith in him, and demonstrate for all what a Ranger’s Apprentice is made of.

Along the way, we see Will grow, as well as his one-time enemy, and are given insights into the lives of all the central players in the book. The story has a strong narrative voice and is told in omniscient, but it’s very smoothly done and never once obtrusive. Rather, I felt like I was getting to know an entire cast of characters and the world itself, as details were lovingly shared in order to bring the fantasy setting to life. It’s actually interesting, because these books play to many of the fantasy tropes which we’ve seen over and over through the years. However, the knowledge and research the reader can sense beneath the writing lends such a measure of authenticity to the world that it feels every bit as real as ours, despite mythical creatures making a rare appearance, and other faint touches of fantasy.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot half angry direct put down“A delightful book, as you well know. In fact, given how much you’ve raved about it, I’m not sure any other answer would have earned me a treat tonight, or even my usual simple dinner. However, I warn you–come near me with a cat-sized Ranger cloak, and the claws will come out!”




Er, yes, I may have gotten a liiittle carried away with these books. However, I HAVE continued reading other books in between these, so you need not worry that I’ll be spotlighting each one in a row over future weeks. In fact, I have so many lovely books lined up, I have decided to skip my usual summer break and will continue with the every-other-week schedule I’ve been on in the coming months! And despite Apricot-kitty’s grumpiness, I gave up dressing my cat in cute clothes ages ago…so please don’t tell me if you know of anything too tempting. 😉

What are your reading plans for this summer? Got any books you’re dying to crack open? Tell me in the comments, and be sure to stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for the full Marvelous Middle Grade Monday roundup of reviews, spotlights, interviews and giveaways!


Masterminds, by Gordon Korman, for MMGM

Hello my friends! Last week I waved sadly as Marvelous Middle Grade Monday passed me by, and promised myself I’d participate this week instead. It was a pretty momentous weekend for us, since my son–who has been serving a mission for our church in Korea these past two years–touched down that Thursday evening. And as fate would have it, I was plowing forward on my latest wip right up until about noon on the same day! It’s sooo great to have him home, and also great to type The End on yet another book. Huzzah for goals reached and for catching back up to MMGM! 🙂

Today’s spotlight is on Masterminds, by Gordon Korman. This was a book that was totally new to me, pointed out by a friend, and one I really enjoyed!

Cover Masterminds

From page one it’s pretty clear there’s more to the town of Serenity then meets the eye. What’s fascinating for the reader is how the main character, Eli Frieden, and his friends discover the towns secrets and in doing so uncover their origins. This book is a big one for spoilers–honestly, it feels like I’m giving things away just by putting my fingers to the keyboard–so I’ll mostly just share a few things I really liked:

  • Randy’s role, and the lasting impact he had. A fun kid, it just goes to show you don’t have to be labeled someone else’s ‘special’ to make a difference.
  • The Purple-People-Eater trading cards. Sooo spot on with exactly the way kids act and think, and how they’d respond to this situation! Also, I kinda want some of my own.
  • The fate of the potted geranium. There’s an example of a ‘get well’ gift that does more than cheer the patient!
  • Tori’s journey. I enjoyed all the kids (well, pretty much all) but most of their stories seemed pretty straight forward and their reactions were about as expected. Tori’s home situation had a bit more depth, for me, and I appreciated the nuances of her particular challenge. I have high hopes for her arc in future books!

One strength of the book was the way we get to know the world through the different kids, and I feel this allows the story to be better flushed out. A drawback was the flip side of that coin, since I found the pov shifts just a little jarring pretty much every single time. However, if I had glanced at the chapter titles before beginning them, the pov switches would have been less of a problem. And as is I settled in quickly–usually by the middle of the first paragraph.

One of the other things I loved was the world building, for lack of a better word, and the way some things inside/outside Serenity were the same while many were different. I also loved that the parents were individual, and had varying degrees of success in their role. The adults were more than background characters and held their own fascination, all the way from Mrs. Delaney to Dr. Bruder’s jokes and neckties.

And on that cryptic note, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot half asleep“I found most of it boring. Really, really boring. Those kids had the dullest lives around, and while their escape was interesting their basic lives was so boring I could hardly stay awake.”





Ooookay, not the response I was expecting. Personally I found it fast-paced and really enjoyed the challenges the kids faced, so going to have to disagree with her there. However, I will say that if the adults in Tori, Eli, and the rest the kids’ lives had wanted them to stay out of trouble, they should have given the kids a few solid challenges. No one wants to live without any excitement or moments of triumph and discovery. But then, I suppose that was the least of their mistakes!

For those who celebrate, I hope you had a great Star Wars Day this past week–I know we did! And on Saturday I attended a library sale for the whole county that was simply amazing. I’ll be sharing the books I picked up at some future point. I hope you’ll stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, spotlights, and giveaways, and happy reading!


The Turn of the Tide, by Rosanne Parry, for MMGM

Easter is behind us, flowers are blooming, and our neighborhood pool is getting prepped to open–it’s time to think about summer fun, and dream of all the places we’d like to go! The Turn of the Tide is perfect for that, since I think this book could convince a rock it wanted to sail. Kudos to author Rosanne Parry for that!

Cover The Turn of the Tide

This is the story of two cousins who’ve met but hardly remember it, and normally live across the pacific from one another. Kai’s story begins in his home village in Japan, with an earthquake and tsunami. As the story begins he breaks the school safety rules and runs off to try and save his grandparents, but is unable to get them to high enough ground and has to leave Japan without knowing if they’re okay.

Jet is the daughter of a bar pilot from a long line of the same, living in Astoria, Oregon, and desperately wants to grow up and be a bar pilot like her father and grandfather. However, she’s small for her age, a girl, and just broke one of her dad’s sailing rules and ripped a hole in the cherished sailboat he passed down to her.

Both kids have a lot of growing up to do, as they work to prove themselves and push forward with the changes in their lives. At first glance, the intensity of Kai’s challenges–his missing grandparents, the destruction of his hometown, and his parents’ desperate work on the reactor–would seem to overwhelm Jet’s more day-to-day challenges, but that’s not the case. For one thing, since Kai is living in her home and acting as her crew on their sailboat, his challenges become hers, especially since he’s afraid of water and as his captain she has to figure out how to help him deal with that fear and still sail. Additionally, the book does an excellent job of showing the strength of Jet’s desire to become a bar pilot, and the challenges she’s up against since it’s an extremely dangerous profession and women are scarce. In fact, the balancing of the two povs and stories was possibly the best example of a duo pov book I’ve ever read. Instead of being a detraction, as is often the case, I felt the two perspectives wove together in such a way that they enhanced the story, and made for a seamless whole. Excellent story-telling, in this and in the use of secondary characters, as well!

I also really loved the use of setting, and that the story both made me wish for a second life in which I could grow up on the water in Astoria, Oregon, and also managed to bring Kai’s life in Japan home to the reader so it lives for me, despite his not being there most of the book. Both cultures and homes are shared beautifully, and the reader wins as a result.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

apricot-one-ear-back-mystified“Brrr! Water, everywhere, that’s what this book had! The kids were great, and I really liked Jet’s family and that she had involved parents who still let them have adventures. But couldn’t those adventures have happened on dry land?”





Ah, yes, I must repeat that I think this book could make a swimmer or sailor out of almost anyone. However, if readers really don’t like water or have no patience for nautical terms, they’re going to quickly run out of patience. The book does include a nod to geocaching and I recall a couple summer bonfires complete with s’mores…but this is one for the water-lovers. A perfect summer read, or class room read when everyone is wishing it was summer!

Have you ever been sailing? I’ve been out on boats a few times, but never have, and now it’s on my bucket list. A lovely example of how books can open up new worlds! For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!


Grayling’s Song, by Karen Cushman, for MMGM

This was a serendipitous find, which I stumbled across in my local library. And very appropriate, too, since it’s the kind of tale which is all mystery and shadow wrapped in good practical knowledge like every librarian possesses. You may recognize the author’s name–Karen Cushman–as I did. My favorite book by her is Catherine, Called Birdy, and her books have won the Newbery Honor as well as the Medal. Gorgeous books! But today’s spotlight is on Grayling’s Song.

Cover Grayling's Song

When Grayling hears her mother calling, she’s a bit slow to respond. Her mother’s name is Hannah Strong…and that last name fits well. In a manor typical of many a firmly fixed or strong-willed mother and her daughter, Grayling feels overshadowed by her mother and terribly un-capable. Unfortunately, what she finds when she comes to her mother is that their home has been destroyed by fire, taking with it all but a handful of the supplies her mother uses to carry out her work as a hedge witch, or wise woman. Even worse, the incredible has happened. A malignant magical force has rooted Grayling’s mother to the ground, and she is slowly and mercilessly being turned into a tree.

It falls to Grayling to save the day, despite her fears and reluctance. She’s never gone out in the world, and has no magic or cleverness to smooth her way. At first the reader worries for her, because it does seem she’s missing those tools a hero needs. But as she grows in determination and resourcefulness, we see her flower. Her own humility makes it easy for her to see value in others whose magic or skills would normally be considered unworthy of notice. Her tender care helps her keep her small group together and moving forward. She faces everything from deep hunger, to an evil overlord, and even a dragon. What’s amazing is that she does not develop some spectacular, unknown talent. There is no wild magic for her, or stunning skill. What she accomplishes she does through cultivating those things inside her which she had when she left her little valley–by growing into her best self. How lovely is that?

But enough from me. Let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot kitty sitting tilted head“Such an odd thing, that this girl would be able to save everyone when people with much greater power couldn’t. And…yes. It was amazing what her small companion accomplished so much, as well, even though he was something I’d cheerfully eat for dinner!”





I couldn’t say it better myself. This one is a great blend of adventure and character growth, that I think would make an excellent classroom read, as well as one that many young readers would embrace and read independently. For other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messengers blog, and happy reading!


William and the Witch’s Riddle, for MMGM

Last night as I picked up a pizza I drove past the movie theater near us, and noticed that the parking lot was full and overflowing. Perhaps due to the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast movie? Fairy tales never fade, it seems, they simply reinvent themselves, and this Snow White re-imagining is proof of that!

Cover William and the Witch's Riddle

I confess that I debated whether to put William and the Witch’s Riddle in the spotlight–but not for long. When I find myself reading a book I’m not head over heels in love with it, I usually use the marker of how much the book makes me finish it as the deciding factor of whether to spotlight or not. In this case, the book definitely made me finish it. And as an added bonus, the characters from the book stayed with me, and became part of my internal landscape even weeks later. So, into the spotlight it goes!

The story begins with William and his kid brother, Pinch, stranded on top of a mountain in their tiny house, running out of turnips and the last of the weathered apples. Their Pa disappeared and hasn’t come back, and his reason for leaving was to look for their Ma, who disappeared even longer ago. Worse, there’s a witch at the door.

*spoilers below–though not too spoilery since they’re introduced early in the story and/or easy to guess*

As the story unfolds we learn that–despite their very humble circumstances–William and Pinch are part of a bigger story that began with Sleeping Beauty, except in this world the curse was put off, and has been hanging over their family’s head for generations. Unfortunately, the first person to fully fall prey to the curse is Pinch and William’s mother. Because William’s father has failed to finish the business and do as the witch asks, she’s here for William. And if he won’t do, she’ll take Pinch, instead.

The plot is a bit thin, with very few twists and those twists that exist more an inverted loop that goes nowhere than an actual twist. The Rules of Magic, or World Building, also seemed a bit iffy at times, without the solid sense of structure behind it which I personally prefer. And (if all that weren’t enough) the story-telling was itself more dour than I like, without the sense of magic or wonder to it I like. All that said, the book simply would not let me put it down, and it’s rather impressive that the characters stood out crisp and compelling in my mind for so long after. William was highly relatable, and felt like any kid would if he had the seeds of heroism planted in the soil of his love for his family, and fertilized by desperation. The companions he meets and befriends were equally memorable, and highly unique! And while Morga herself was more interesting than compelling as a bad guy, and her riddles were a bit transparent, she did the job and was satisfying in the end.

Now let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot back over shoulder laying down“Do you really need to ask? Of course those kittens, Lirian and Heldor, were my favorite. You’ll notice that they were about or involved at pretty much every crucial turning point in the book, yes? Dragons are all very well, and do nicely if cats can’t be found, but it’s felines who really provide the magic in these tales.”





Ah yes, the dragon. I really enjoyed the tiny yellow dragon, Squarmy, and wasn’t overly thrilled with the way his story is resolved. However, if it turns out that Ms. Crum has a second book in store for us that will be Squarmy and Tuli’s story, all will be forgiven.

What are you reading lately? Have you discovered any great fairy tale retellings or mashups lately? Since that’s one of my favorite genres to write, I read them compulsively whenever I’m not working on my own book, and would love to discover some I haven’t uncovered! Tell me your favorites in the comments, and while you’re looking for books, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for the full Marvelous Middle Grade Monday roundup!



Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, for MMGM

Many thanks to Joanne for my copy of Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine. I won it in a giveaway she hosted on her blog, and was thrilled to do so! As my long time readers will remember, I’ve become a big fan of Caroline Starr Rose, and have spotlighted both of her previous books, Blue Birds and May B. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll also admit that somewhere along the way, Caroline became a good friend, as well!

Jasper is a different kind of hero, and this book is uniquely his–as I’ll go into in a minute–but Caroline’s established readers will love this one, too. I certainly did! As you can see, it inspired me to do a bit of book photography, which is something I’ve dabbled with on my instagram account. Do you like it?

Cover bookphotography for Jasper

Were I to do it again, I’d sets the lights a little farther from the cover, but live and learn. 🙂 So, what’s the scoop on this book? Well, aside from it having a boy protagonist, the other major difference is it’s not written in verse, but first person pov prose in the traditional novel style. Which made me a little nervous! I have to laugh at myself a bit for that, because I was initially wary of picking up May B because I didn’t know if I’d like a novel in verse. Now I’ve flipped it around, because I loved Caroline’s verse novels so much! However, from the moment I opened the first page and slid into Jasper’s head, none of that was an issue. Caroline brought with her the gorgeous imagery and amazing voice of her first books, and simply channeled Jasper’s story in the most effective way for him. Here’s a favorite sentence from page 190 describing Caribou, in case you doubt me:

 They move as one, like an invisible rope binds them together. They run filled up with life, their powerful brown bodies and fine white beards as big and untamed as this wilderness that stretches from the river to the shore and straight up to the sun.

Isn’t that lovely? And still poetic? Yet it’s all solidly in Jasper’s voice and there’s never anything girlish about it. I don’t mind saying it–I was seriously impressed. However, I may be once again running away with myself! This is the story of how Jasper and his older brother, Mel, run away from home and the tough times there, to join the gold rush on the Klondike and hopefully get rich beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, things go further south the farther north they get, which is another way to say that everything which can go wrong, does. The brothers press on, however, trusting to the clues which will hopefully lead them to old one-eyed Riley’s abandoned mine and the wealth of gold he’s left behind for anyone who can sort out his riddles. The story rips along at a good pace, from attempting to beat the coming ice on a raft in the fast moving rivers of Canada, to the nuns who help them do it, to the fascinating look inside mining life, the book is full of adventure and never slows down until the twist ending. And when you get there, just keep an eye on–no. I want spoil it. 😉

Let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot snide sitting“Clearly the only people with any brains were those who kept store and sold to the green horns and greedy gold diggers. Why muck about searching for gold yourself, when folks would hand it to you, in exchange for the supplies they forgot to bring? Any cat would have known that.”




As usual, Apricot-kitty makes a good point, and the book did a good job of touching on every angle of the gold rush, without slowing the story down. In fact, it’s my opinion that discussing with a class the way that news became distorted the further from the gold fields it went would make an excellent way to talk about how ‘news’ can become distorted and sensationalized on the internet, as well. I’ll bet it would make for a great discussion!

What are you reading? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for more reviews, spotlights, interviews and giveaways. Happy MMGM, and happy reading!


El Deafo, by Cece Bell, for MMGM

I have to give a shout-out of thanks to a little girl I’m close to, for giving me the nudge to read El Deafo. I think I’d come across it, but it wasn’t till I heard how much she loved it that I pulled it to the top of my TBR pile.
Cover El Deafo
You see, this little girl–whom I’ll call Kay–is deaf. She was born without any ability to hear, thanks to a virus she and her mother contracted when her mother was pregnant with her. Kay is an energetic, warm, generous and bright-eyes girl, and she’s done really well in the hearing world thanks to hearing aids and a cochlear implant. But it hasn’t been easy. She’s sometimes felt isolated, and there are so many things that are so much harder for her than they are for hearing kids. So much Kay misses, even when everyone is trying. Since she has three hearing siblings and her parents and friends can also hear, she often felt like the only one who had to deal with these things. The. Only. One.

Then she read El Deafo, and it blew her world wide open. Even better, she got to meet the author, which thrilled her all the way down to her pinkie toes and back up to the tips of her curly hair. And I sat there listening to this and thinking–this is why we need #ownvoices. This is why we need children to have both windows–so they can see into each others’ challenges–and also mirrors, so they can clearly see themselves and be seen. Of course I knew that we needed this movement, have known it since I was a rather stranger-among-us child, myself. But I’ve never before seen with my own eyes the beauty of an #ownvoices book in action captured so well!

So, what’s this book about? Well, it’s a graphic novel told with animals–bunnies, etc.–walking around as the people, and tells the author’s own story of how she lost her hearing at a young age and coped with that through her growing up years. The isolation of being the only deaf kid in a school, the frustration of having people sign at her just because she’s deaf (even though she never learned sign language) and the typical coming-of-age challenges as she learned how to make friends, lose her heart to the new boy, and speak up for herself. What’s really neat to read is the progression as she went from being embarrassed by her difference to seeing it as her own private super power!

I highly recommend the book, not only to any kids who feel different but also for use in classrooms and family circles, because it shares so beautifully the inside scoop on this experience.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

apricot-one-ear-back-mystified“Compared to cats, every single one of you is nearly deaf. And that’s without bothering to go into all your other inadequate senses. I don’t know why some of those kids gave that girl such a hard time when she was only slightly harder of hearing than they were.”




That does…illustrate a different perspective, I suppose! And would perhaps make a good discussion topic, to go alongside the book. I think every one of us feels insufficient in some way. Too awkward, too tall, too short, too heavy, too geeky, etc. So what are the super powers that each of us can find in our own lives, the way that Cece found hers? Something to think about. 🙂

For more MMGM spotlights, reviews, posts and giveaways stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!


Among the Imposters, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, for MMGM

Happy MMGM, my friends! I’ve been so focused on all things romantic suspense–we’re exactly one week out from my Lily Black launch–that I feel I’ve been neglecting my middle grade side. And since I truly believe that in the center of my soul is a girl of some age between 11 and 14, curled up with a book, that was something I needed to change. In other words, hugs all around and it’s great to be back! 😀

When I sat down to write about Among the Imposters, I first went looking for my blog post on The Hidden, so I could link this sequel back to that post. However, I didn’t find it! Was it possible I never spotlighted it? Astonishing as it is to me, that appears to be so. Suffice it to say that I absolutely adored The Hidden, and it’s on the stack of books that the child in my center keeps close, just because she can. If you haven’t read it, quickly go and read it now, and come back to this post after you’ve finished it because there will be one or two unavoidable spoilers in discussing this sequel.

Okay, on to our actual spotlighted book today!

I prefer to get the bad news over with upfront so I’ll just admit that in many ways I didn’t enjoy Among the Imposters as much as The Hidden. However, I suspect that this was due in large part to the character, Luke/Lee, going through a rough point in which he’s grieving losses, adjusting to a new kind of life, and trying to navigate an unpleasant environment. I’ll also readily admit that a school without windows left me feeling claustrophobic and caged in. I’ve had a similar reaction to books which take place mostly underground, like Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles. In that case, I knew I was reading an enjoyable story rather than felt I was, because I could never find the underground environs of the story pleasant. My response to the Imposters wasn’t so marked as that, but I still suspect the closed in aspects of the school negatively impacted my ability to enjoy the tale, and when added to the abuse Luke/Lee endures at the hands of the other children, compounded the feeling that this story was a much more challenging endurance test for the reader as well as the character.

That said, the hard-won triumphs of the end were all the more delightful because they were hard won! I also will never forget Luke/Lee’s feelings as he works on his secret garden. If ever there was a story that would help city kids understand a farm-child’s connection with the earth, this was it. So while this was perhaps not a book that left me jumping up and down and telling everyone how great it was, it’s still one I highly recommend. At the least, it was the kind of book that leaves you with a glow of deep-seated satisfaction, and a determination to be better than you were when you began the book.

Now let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot kitty straight on superior“That Mr. Hendricks was too clever for his own explanations. And so were those kids, who kept testing the Exnays. The boy Luke was interesting and I’m glad he won in the end, but much of the book was too much muddle without enough explanation.”





Okay, so that may be true to a point. Many of the questions Luke/Lee has in the middle of the book may not feel adequately answered at the end. However, part of the point was that the school was intentionally set up to seem confusing, and appear poorly managed and idiosyncratic. So it worked for me! Have you read this series? What were your thoughts?

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, interviews, reviews and spotlights, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!



Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer, for MMGM

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:

snow-and-apricot-jan-2017“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!



Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clovers Luck, by Kallie George, for MMGM

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. 😉

Fairy House 2


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:

Cat on bench“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!