Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol, for MMGM

Would you guys think me lacking in perception if I told you that I had no idea this was a graphic novel, til I opened it?  I picked it up at the library on a whim, because I liked the cover.  I may have flipped it over to glance at the back.  But, I suspect I fell prey to the perception which clouds any discussion of graphic novels–the one that says they’re less of a book, or not ‘real’ in the way others are.  Which is especially funny, given I’ve tried to push that perception back!

At any rate, here’s the cover that snagged my attention:


I’m glad I picked it up, as I found it to be funny, insightful, and a wonderful fusion of art and story.  It reminded me of the point in time when I first came across a picture book that wasn’t just a well-told story with art to accompany it, or an artistically designed book of pictures with text alongside, but a joining of the two mediums to tell a story that could not be told without the other.  I think in that case it was my first reading of Where the Wild Things Are, many, many years ago.

This story kind of felt like that–it wasn’t a comic or graphic novel ‘type’ of story, and yet was better off for having been told through this medium.

It’s the story of one Anya, who is Russian but doing her best to forget that.  She’s ditched the accent, learned the way of the people, and successfully blending in her high school, if not exactly thriving.  Unfortunately, she’s not happy with her blended status, and has picked up some bad habits such as smoking*, incessant negativity, and a healthy dose of truancy.

Then she falls down a hole in the middle of a lonely walk, in the park, and is stuck down there for two days…with no one for company but a ghost, who also fell down the hole some hundred or so years ago.  And is still there, obviously.  When she gets rescued, the ghost comes with her, and shennanigans ensue.

I’m hoping you’ll get the chance to read it, so that’s all I want to say.  There’s little else I can disclose without sharing spoilers.  Okay, except this: yes, she gets everything she wants (momentarily), yes, she grows and changes (fulfillingly), and yes, there’s a lovely plot twist that I did NOT see coming!

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

Apricot wise head tilt“An excellent example of wishing for that which you don’t really want, something we cats try to avoid.  Except in the matter of cat-nip.  And climbing too tall trees.  But, really, this is mostly a human concern, as the areas where you two-legs do this are too many to list!  Humans would be wise to read and write more books like this one.”

 

 

 

 

 

I’m glad Herself was feeling generous today, and ready to admit that cats DO occassionally make this mistake, as well.  It’s easy enough to think that our lives can be readily patched up and put in perfect working order if only we had [fill in the blank here], but of course, reality often proves otherwise.  Anya’s Ghost did a delightful job of exploring the kind of struggle that usually precedes true change, and why a ‘just fix this’ attitude rarely works!

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

*And, in the mean time, I’m curious how you guys feel about the portrayal of a teen (albeit high school student) smoking, in a middle grade book.  In this case I didn’t have a problem with it, but I’m very interested to hear what you all think!

 

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Runaway Twin, by Peg Kehret, for MMGM

How would you feel if you had a secret friend, a twin, you hadn’t seen since you were both tiny?  What would you do if you had the chance to find that long lost twin?  After Sunny Skyland comes across a backpack full of cash–which she makes a reasonable effort of finding an owner for–she makes the decision to embark on a cross country trip and track down her twin.  No matter what it takes.  Runaway Twin is her story.


The setup of finding a pack back of cash in the woods–cash that no one steps forward to claim, and that isn’t counterfeit or marked by a bank as stolen–is a bit far fetched, and gives a pretty good indicator of how realistic the story that follows will be.  But, hey, we’re talking about a story where twins are separated at a super young age and never reunited and where no one makes any effort to figure out where the missing twin is, so how realistic do we really expect this story to be?  It’s a teen fantasy, a flight of what if, and as such has several major strengths to recommend it:

  • It can get kids talking about the assumptions they make about those who are less fortunate–kids they may know who’ve been in ‘the system’ or don’t have a traditional family.  If they’re not wearing the latest clothes, and maybe their grades aren’t as good, what are the strengths they do have?  What are the ways their life experiences have (perhaps) helped them grow?  Valuing each person for their own unique strengths is one of the first signs of true maturity.
  • It can help kids think about priorities, and the way that wanting to impress someone else–even your parents–can lead to poor choices.
  • It provides great insights into a perspective of entitlement, and the way that such an outlook can sour a person on their life and rob them of the very blessings/riches they’re accustomed to.

The story does this so well because the author did such a superb job of creating in Sunny a likable, sympathetic character.  She’s highly flawed, and makes more than one judgement call that almost gets her killed.  But, she’s a brave soul, kind-hearted, and wise beyond her years.  She’s also clever, which a character should be whenever they can possibly manage it.  This genuine likability on Sunny’s part carries the story past many obvious flaws (including small ones, like the absence of cell phones and presence of pay phones), and left the story thoroughly enjoyable despite its flaws.  Rather like Sunny.

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

Apricot attitude in your face“Must you torture me so?  Oh, yeah, it’s easy to like Sunny, but what about that dog of hers?  He’s so disgusting, and dog-like, and…thoroughly dog-defining.  And yet, I would have been sad if she hadn’t found him and they hadn’t cared for each other.  Do you see what you’ve done?  I’m feeling sympathy for a dog!”

 

 

 

 

So…I think that’s a loved it, from the kitty?  Truly, the author’s great strength was writing a story with characters she made you love, and she did it repeatedly with multiple background characters, in addition to Sunny.  Bravo, for that!  She also did an excellent job of giving us a twist at the end, which is unusual in these stories but was highly satisfactory.

I do have to add one more caveat…at the very tail end of the book, it’s stated that Sunny will be writing her story for a school essay and titling it The Runaway Twin.  If you, like me, hate that kind of ending–since it smashes the veil of believability just when I want to enjoy the close of my book–let your eyes glaze over that bit, and make up whatever final sentence you want.  I think you’ll feel the story is worth it. 🙂

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

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Mark of the Thief, by Jennifer Nielsen, for MMGM

Hello MMGMers and blog readers!  Happy last-Monday-in-April, from me and my newest lily, to all of you. 🙂  What are you planting, lately?  Got any gorgeous garden projects coming along?

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Today I’m spotlighting a new (to me) series by Jennifer Nielsen, who you may remember as the author of The False Prince series.  Picking this one up was an obvious choice, since I loved Sage, who may or may not also be known as Prince Jaron, and adored all three of the Ascendance books–my spotlight’s here.

Mark of the Thief was very different.  It’s alternate history, for one thing, since it’s set in a magic-influenced Roman Empire.  It’s also not nearly as playful.  And the tone and structure are different, too.


That said, different isn’t always bad.  In this book, we meet Nic, a boy who has spent the majority of his life a slave in a mine outside of Rome, along with his sister.  Their father is dead and long gone.  Their mother is possibly alive, but sold away from them years ago.  And while Sage had a tough life but felt only marginally affected by it–his natural buoyancy and sense of self seeing him through–Nic’s troubles have been of a much more personal nature, and have deeply impacted his character.  He wasn’t dodging a swift kick because he’d cleverly swiped something, as Sage was.  He was systematically beaten because he was a slave, and because he refused to obey orders that probably would have killed him.  He feared for his life and his sister’s life every day.  And he did so with nearly no hope.  So, the tone of the story is very different, despite the boys sharing many similarities.

The historic aspects of the book are another plus.  While this Rome is very different from the real Rome (as appropriate, given it’s got gryphons and magic) and perhaps not 100% accurate in other respects, the setting can nevertheless provide an excellent way for kids and classrooms to bring this civilization to life.  I also thought the book did a great job of accurately reflecting the terrible institution of slavery, the discrepancy between the classes, and the cruelty of the entertainment and blood bath that went on in the Colosseum, while keeping this book a solid middle grade that kids in the older middle school grades can realistically read.  That is no easy feat, and I was really impressed with Ms. Nielsen’s handling of some tricky subjects.

However, I’m sure you all can hear the ‘but…’ that’s coming.  The problem was, for all this book had its strengths, when compared to the Ascendance triology, it was a disappointment.  The voices felt muted, the characters a little more blurred, and the plot and structure a slightly flawed but passable net instead of the expertly knotted and woven masterpiece that we enjoyed in The False Prince and its sequels.  That said, I still think most readers would enjoy this book.  I certainly did.  The key is to head into it with reasonable expectations, and let it stand alone, as its own story.  If you do that, then you’ll see Nic’s determination and admire his courage in the face of fear, enjoy the resiliency Aurelia shows, and her kindness to other exposed children, you’ll love the magic of Caesar’s bulla, and revel in the political intricacies of Rome in all its glory.  I really think you will!

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

Apricot Headshot opinion looking down“Hmph.  It was better plotted than The Lighting Thief.  If this had been the author’s first book, you’d all be raving about it.  You people need to learn to live in the moment a little more, and let each book feed you in its own way.  Only humans would let yesterday’s mouse spoil today’s mole.”

 

 

 

It just goes to show that you can’t please everyone because as for me…I’ll pass on eating both mice and moles!  Not my thing, even as treasures, but thanks all the same to our ‘generous’ kitty. 😉

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday Spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog.  And, happy reading!

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The Inquisitor’s Mark, by Dianne Salerni for MMGM

I went digging through my archives for this one, so I could provide you guys with a link to my spotlight on the first book, and was shocked to realize it’s been a full two years since I posted my review of the (then) arc!  Time flies when you’re reading books, eh? 😉

You’ll find that spotlight on The Eighth Day here, and I do recommend you begin this series at the beginning, with the first book.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers in my spotlight of the sequel, The Inquisitor’s Mark!


I was rather smitten with the first book so my expectations for the second were rather high.  In a contrary sense, that may be part of why it took me awhile to get to the second–I just wasn’t sure it would measure up.  Of course now I’m kicking myself for waiting…except that this means the third one is out, too!  Yay for The Morrigan’s Curse, which has swooped down and settled on the top of my TBR pile!

Okay, so let’s see what I can say about The Inquisitor’s Mark without giving too much away.  Dianne Salerni has brought back all our favorite characters–Jax,who is a young transitioner that just learned about the eighth day and was left (when his father died) in the care of a fellow teen…who is himself a descendant of King Arthur, plus Evangeline, who is a descendant of Merlin and key to keeping the spell intact that prevents an ancient prison from busting open and destroying the world–and the world is the same in that a select group of people can ‘transition’ into an eighth day which serves as a prison for some seriously messed up ancient dudes and their descendants.  Modern technology doesn’t work in the eighth day unless it’s pre-computer chip, but that doesn’t prevent people from blowing stuff up and pulling out big guns.  The science fiction aspects and the fantasy spells are all mixed up in a way that doesn’t seem like it would work, but actually does, and just as in the first one, the pacing is impeccable and the plotting phenomenal.

But, in this book I felt we got to know the characters better, and they live inside my head at the close of this book in a way they didn’t at the end of the first.  I loved the first one–loved it, and haven’t quite forgiven the young MG student who borrowed my arc and never gave it back–but I was more enthralled with the adventure, the concept, the epic scale, and just how much fun it was.  In this one I felt like all that was there, but I also got to know the characters as they moved and functioned on a human level, inside families and as they navigated relatable human relationships that all of us struggle with.

I also loved–really loved–a certain character who I won’t even name, and how this character’s arc intertwines with Jax’s so that both boys can grow and their changing relationship inform the story theme.  Aargh!  It’s hard to talk about it and not talk about it, you know?  Let’s just say that this quote:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

–Edmund Burke

Plays a significant part and shapes the destiny of all the kids, and through them, the book and the story world.  And as grand as that sounds, it does so through a regular-style kid doing something any kids in his shoes could do.  Even now, I get warm fuzzies thinking about it. 🙂

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

IMG_0993 (1)“I made my views pretty clear last time: if I were ever given an Eighth Day, I’d use it to take a very long nap.  Preferably in the sunshine.  These kids run here and run there til it’s not clear why they’re running any more.  Also, that Arthurian kid hasn’t got much sense, getting himself handcuffed like that.  He should have known that as soon as he did, all the crazy would come loose and fire off every which way!”

 

 

 

We’ll forget Apricot-kitty’s almost plot slip there, and move on to her sensible suggestion of a nap.  That’s something I could go for.  And it does make you wonder–if the transitioners are living an extra day every week, wouldn’t they age faster than everyone else?  Because aging has to do with wear and tear on the body, right?  Perhaps their magic helps them in some way, or maybe the spell does, but I’m a little surprised there isn’t more focus on visits to a super high quality (and restful) spa!

What would you do with an extra day?  And if you’d spend it reading, which books would you take with you, assuming you had to carry them?

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, interviews, reviews and giveaways stop by Shannon’s blog, and happy MMGM!

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Half Upon a Time, by James Riley and the Out of Abaton winner!

Last week wrapped up my spotlight on Out of Abaton, and that means this week I get to announce the winner of the giveaway!  There must be something in my blood that’s half fortune hunter because I get a little giddy when I get to announce a winner, like I’m about to open a treasure chest and getting butterflies on your behalf.  So, let’s get our drum roll–

*clashing cacophony of sound*

Er, yeah.  Thanks…we’ll work on that.  And the winner is:

Cindy, from Cindy Reads a Lot!  Congratulations, Cindy!  I truly believe that you’ll love it, and will get it in the mail asap.  Thank you again to both John and his publisher for letting me have the fun of a giveaway, and share this beautiful book with all of you!

Now, on to another fun book, which has been waiting in the wings since Christmas and is excited to step on stage and take its turn in the spotlight.  Today we’re taking a look at Half Upon a Time, by James Riley.


Just as the cover suggests, this book has no problem poking fun at itself.  A very tongue in cheek fairy tale mashup, it is told from the perspective of Jack, the Thirteenth by that name, who is not–unequivocally not–interested in being an adventurer.  For one thing, he’s terrible at adventure training, and not just cause he accidentally gets the fake princess ‘killed’ and flunks every test.  For another, he has no interest in pursuing it given how infamous his dad is, after climbing a bean stock and stealing from a giant.  However, his grandfather won’t listen to Jack’s protests, and the fates seem to be conspiring against him as well.  So, he soon finds himself careening around the country trying to reunite May, aka the Princess of Punk, to her grandmother and save them both in the process.

The story was a huge hit with my daughter, who went on to gobble down the next two in the series, as well.  And, I think it will grow on me, just as The Hero’s Guide series did.  It took me ’til book two or three to really get into that one, too.  In the case of Half Upon a Time, I did really enjoy the first book.  It’s very clever, with a fabulous kind of twisty logic applied to the character’s problems and a way of tying odd plot threads back in just when you least expect it.  It also did a great job of referencing the fairy tale world and tropes without ever hitting them too on the nose.  And of course, it was super funny!  I just…didn’t find myself connecting with it as deeply as I might have liked.  When I set it down and had walked away, the scenes didn’t stay with me.  I enjoyed the characters, but they never truly came to life for me.

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

Apricot kitty scary dark stairs“Are you sure the scenes didn’t stay with you?  One hundred percent positive that the next time you see a miniature gingerbread house, you won’t think twice before licking it?  I know that’s a scene I won’t forget, and I also really loved the twist at the end.  A cat likes to look into the darkness, and watch for what could be hiding there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does that make any of you shiver, a little, or is it just me?  Cats can be a bit…uncanny, even a cat as sunny as Apricot-kitty!  Anyway, yes, she’s right, I will never look on a Gingerbread house in quite the same way again.  And in fact, that’s something else this book did really well–it kept a perfect balance between light and dark, so that readers who don’t want to have nightmares from their books could still enjoy it, but readers who aren’t wild about fluffy pink stories could dig it, too.  Truly, I think it’s the kind of book most readers would love!  I hope you guys will pick it up, and report back what you thought of it. 🙂

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

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Interview with John Claude Bemis, for MMGM, plus GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have John on the blog today, answering a few of my questions, and talking about his latest book.  I did a spotlight on Out of Abaton last week and today presents another chance to enter to win–or, if you entered last week, double your chances to win–a hard back copy of Out of Abaton!

In addition to my spotlight, here are a few of the pretty things being said about Out of Abaton:

“Dangerous magic, strange machines, talking beasts. . .Bemis hasn’t just rewritten Pinocchio, he’s rewritten Pinocchio’s world!” –Tom Angleberger, New York Times best-selling author of the Origami Yoda series

“Pinocchio gets a new look in this curious, complex novel of betrayal, rebellion, and loyalty.” –The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“An exhilarating and insightful journey.” –Kirkus Reviews

John Claude Bemis author photo 2016Hopefully all of that has piqued your curiosity!  Now, let’s throw some questions at John, and see what we can learn about his writing and his shiny new book.

SW: I was amazed at how completely new and fresh this story was, while doing a lovely job of paying homage to the traditional Pinocchio story. At what point in your writing journey did you know this would be a retelling of Pinocchio’s story?

JB: I didn’t realize at first this was going to be a story about Pinocchio. My wife has family outside Venice, so we’d traveled to Italy several times. On those trips I grew fascinated by Venetian history, alchemy, and with this figure from European legend called Prester John. Back in Medieval times, Europeans were obsessed with Prester John, who they believed to be a magical king who ruled somewhere beyond the known world. Fake letters circulated about the wonders of his land (the original viral sensation). I began developing a story world where the Venetian Empire went down a different historical path after discovering Prester John and introducing the magic of his kingdom into Venice. Alchemists were now able to take the designs of visionaries like Leonardo Da Vinci to create floating palaces, give their soldiers mechanical wings, and build wooden robots.

It was only after I began to envision this fantastical Venetian Empire that I started to see connections to Pinocchio. He could be one of these wooden robots—automa, as they’re called. And his surrogate father Geppetto wouldn’t be a simple carpenter, but an alchemist who had betrayed the emperor of Venice and was now a wanted criminal. Each aspect of the original story (the talking cricket, the scoundrel fox and cat, the monstrous whale, the blue fairy) found rebooted roles in the world of my story—all tied to Prester John’s magical kingdom—which is called Abaton in my book.

 

SW: Talk to us about the secondary characters, which make up a wonderful background cast. Which was your favorite to write? And I know Sop is referred to as a cat…but is there any chance he’s a skunk?

JB: Ha! Sop might not be the most hygienic, but he’s not a skunk. He was a lot of fun to write, as was his partner the fox Mezmer who is little more than an outlaw but has these dreams of being a glorious knight of Abaton.
Even though he’s a nasty piece of work, I loved developing the djinni (genie) fire elemental Al Mi’raj who runs the marionette theater pitting captured automa against one another in gladiator-style battle.

 

SW:A girl can’t be blamed for asking, right? My apologies to Sop. 😉
I found the World building and the fantastic world you created to be so amazing! Did you set out to write a steampunk story? Or did you see it more as a fantasy story with a steampunk slant?

JB: I wanted it to be Da Vinci-punk. I love the way steampunk mashes up semi-futuristic elements with an old-fashioned world. But for The Wooden Prince, I went back a bit further. This is set just after the Renaissance. The technology is pre-steam engine. So the world is full of strange machines based more on those designs Leonardo Da Vinci dreamt up but was never able to build, and also a fair smattering of weird fantasy. I don’t think Da Vinci would have gone quite as far afield as the mechanipillar.

 

SW: I can definitely see Da Vinci’s influence.  I think you did him proud!  Another thing I loved–and was so impressed with–was the blending of the plot arc and the character arc. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How much do you outline before you begin to write?

JB: A story can be full of exciting action and twisty-turny plots, but to captivate readers, stories also need heart. Readers need to be drawn into wanting to see the hero make a powerful transformation. Pinocchio makes a physical transformation, of course, but I wanted to see what sort of emotional transformation he’d make as well, as he discovered what it meant to be alive in the world.

Whenever I’m developing a story, I try to weave together the outer story of the plot with the inner story of the characters. They need to complement one another. I don’t overly rely on particular story maps to outline my stories. I spend more time wondering, “Where will this story end up?” Not just in terms of an exciting action-filled climax (although that’s important too), but where will my characters end up in their personal transformations? How will they be shaped by the events of the story, by the choices they have to make, by the challenges of their circumstances?

Once I have a sense for how I want that emotional journey to evolve, then I go back and look for ways to develop it across the story through action/plot and character development. That’s when I begin to put together a rough outline to guide me in my writing process.

 

SW: Very nice!  That gives me food for thought.
The book does well as a standalone, but it’s also clear from the ending that there’ll be more books in this series. Yay! Without giving too much away… do you think we’ll get to see some characters from this book that we might be missing at the end, in the next one?

JB: No spoilers, but Pinocchio has had to leave someone important behind. This takes an emotional toll on him, and he wants nothing more than to rescue this friend. All I’ll say is that this urge drives Pinocchio in the next book, Lord of Monsters (which comes out March 2017). Although before he can save this friend, he and Lazuli have all sorts of new dangers to face in Abaton.

 

SW: That sounds delightful!  I’m even more excited for the sequel.
Last question from me.  I often ask debut authors what their publication journey was like, but you have many other published books behind you.  Was there anything unique about this book’s publication story?  Anything about its origins you’d like to share?

JB: After doing four books with Random House, I lost my editor who decided to be a stay-at-home dad (which I applaud!). I was working on the early draft of The Wooden Prince knowing we’d have to shop it to a new publisher. My amazing agent Josh Adams sent out a partial of the story, and there was lots of interest. I was thrilled when the book ultimately landed with Disney-Hyperion, since Pinocchio has a special connection to Disney. And I couldn’t be happier with my insightful editor Rotem Moscovich and the whole team there.

 

Wow–I can only imagine what a rollercoaster that must have been!  I’m so glad Out of Abaton found such an excellent home.  And now, a question from Apricot-Kitty:
Apricot kitty looking down her nose from the fence“This was an excellent book, liked it. However, I noticed most of the animals are either automa or chimera. Why aren’t there more regular animals, like dogs and cats, in Pinocchio’s world?”

 

 

 

JB: That’s a great question. I suppose with so many half-beasts lurking about the Venetian Empire, many of the dogs and cats are hiding. I’ll see if there’s a way to work you into one of Pinocchio and Lazuli’s future adventures, Apricot-Kitty!

 

That’s it, folks!  Many thanks to John for being my guest today.  Here are some links, so you can follow his journey and keep in touch with him:

Website — johnclaudebemis.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/John-Claude-Bemis-34934544469/

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/johnclaudebemis/

 

I wish you all the best of luck in the giveaway!  Entries will close on Friday, the 8th, and the winner will be announced next week, on the 11th.  Additionally, just for fun, I’d love to know if any of you have a favorite folk or fairy tale, and if there’s an adaptation or re-imagined version of it out there that you’d like to recommend.  I’m always looking for new stories to add to my list. 😀

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

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Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince

Hello my beloved MMGMers and blog followers!  This week’s spotlight is on Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince.  GIVEAWAY details at the botom, after my rambling update, and Apricot-kitty’s two bits.

My swamp trip this past weekend was just as glorious and restorative as I’d hoped!  We had a lovely time, filled with wonder and including a very tiny turtle.

Tiny Turtle Grande View Hampton Va

As my FB friends and followers will know, the week preceding this trip was a bit taxing.  My teen daughter, who has had complicated health throughout her life, was diagnosed with a rare genetic connective tissue disease, called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  She’ll be fine–the type she has is relatively benign, and after all, she’s had it all her life–but the diagnosis meant extra doctor’s appointments, lots of back and forth as we got up to speed on her medical needs, negotiations with her school, and of course, a few deep breaths for my family, myself, and our daughter as we took this in and wrapped our heads around the changes it will bring.

I learned many years ago that a book can provide a priceless refuge at times like this–a place for the mind to wander, and the soul to find solace.  For me this past week, that book was Out of Abaton.  I tell you all of that because I feel as if I’m trying to throw an introductory spotlight on my dearest, beloved, long-lost best friend, and suspect I’ll be a bit biased.  I also know John in a peripheral kind of way, and feel he’s a great guy, and an excellent writer.  But, if the truth must be confessed…I wasn’t so terribly taken with his first series.  They were fine books, and had some interesting world building, but I wasn’t smitten.  This book, on the other hand, has instantly taken up residence inside my heart and become one of those wonderful books which will stay with me forever.

How much of that was my reading the right book at the right time?  Well, I can’t say for sure…but I invite you to read it and find out for yourself. 😉

So, what’s it all about?  The story’s main character is Pinocchio, and it’s a very revolutionized retelling of the fairy tale story of Pinocchio.  As you read, you’ll recognize critical turning points which match up with the original story.  But in this tale, Pinocchio begins as an automa–a kind of alchemical/steampunk/magical robot, for lack of a better term.  His ‘father’ is Gippetto, true enough, but as a ‘puppet maker’ in this world, he’s the Doge’s supreme alchemist–or, ex alchemist, given recent political developments.  And the talking cricket you may know as Jiminy?  He’s now Maestro, a truly enjoyable music connoisseur and musician in his own right, straight from the magical Court of Abaton.  The three share the story with a great cast of secondary characters, including Lazuli, a re-imagined blue fairy who is so much more than that, and a few rascals that will stay with you long after you close the book.  Given that the story’s basic elements are known, I think you’ll be surprised and impressed by its twists and turns, and I know you’ll love its inventiveness.  Moreover, the depth of the world building will amaze, as you enjoy a truly creative world of early mechanically-inclined Italy woven with magic and creatures from myth, then brought to life in a story that is deeply grounded in reality.

However, all that aside, the reason this book saw me through my extra challenging week was the lovely internal awakening of Pinocchio as he comes to life.  Because of a quirk of that process we get to see it happen slowly over time, while also being inside Pinocchio’s heads several times when this ‘awakened’ sense is temporarily taken from him.  It was absolutely amazing to be there with him as he matured and grew, and also as his sense of self took form, or was taken away.  Just–stunning.  And also a great lift, since Pinocchio’s approach to life is one of hope, and enduring belief.  Truly, I found both Pinocchio and the book a delight, with a buoyancy in outlook that inspired me and helped to boost my day in a better direction each time I picked it up.

But now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it.  She tends to be a harsher critique.

 

Apricot Headshot one“The story was all very well–lovely, just as you say.  But, did you happen to notice the head hopping going on?  There were times when I felt I was watching the cricket as he leapt from one pov to the next–and worse, I couldn’t reach in and catch him!  Highly distracting.”

 

 

 

Well, there you go.  Even great stories won’t please everyone, and that’s especially true when a story chooses a pov mode or style that isn’t currently the rage.  The Wooden Prince is told in omniscient POV, as Apricot-kitty points out, with the story told from primarily two characters, with insights from others.  However, I think most kids won’t even notice it, and most adults will be able to slide by it.

Now, for the best part!  The giveaway will be open for two weeks, and will be for a FREE hardback (and signed, if I can connect with John) copy of Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince.  The winner will be chosen from those commenters with a US address, and will be announced in two weeks–on Monday, April 11th.  However, if you want a SECOND chance to win you can comment this week and then come back to comment again next week, when I’ll be posting an interview with author John Claude Bemis, on this coming Monday, April 4th!  Got all that?  Comment below to enter to win, and come back for the fun next week to comment again for a second–or doubled–chance to win. 😀

And thank you all for your love and support!  You’re the best.

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

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A Swampy Update and GIVEAWAY sneak peek

I still plan to hop around and see everyone’s MMGM blogs today–I owe you guys, from last week–but will be spending half my week at the Dismal Swamp, so I’m feeling a bit below water and will have to get my own post up next week.

However–a heads up!  Over the next couple Mondays I’ll be posting my spotlight on Out of Abaton: the Wooden Prince, by John Claude Bemis AND hosting an interview with John in which we’ll also give away a FREE hardback copy of his book!

Here’s the sneak peek–the story is even more gorgeous than the cover!  Look for that, and if you don’t see me here next week…send in Crocodile Dundee, I suppose. 😉

Monkey Island, by Paula Fox, for MMGM

Yesterday I took a pic of the blossoms in downtown Raleigh, near the science museum.

Pink blossoms in Raleigh, March 2016

You can feel how fresh and gorgeous and pink they are, right?  On a day like this, in spring, it can feel almost wrong to spotlight a book that’s sad and cold as Paula Fox’s Monkey Island.

This poor little kid has to deal with so much junk–and so do most his fellow travelers through this story.  And yet, I found Monkey Island to be much gentler than I was expecting, given the content, and within the darker shrouds of the story’s pain there’s a core of hope.  A promise of blossoms in the spring.

So, what’s it about?  Eleven-year old Clay Garrity is forced to find his own way, without the help of his mother or father or any other guardian.  His father lost his job, and eventually disappeared.  Now his mother–pregnant and struggling–has disappeared from the hotel where they were staying.  Clay knows that help might come through a social worker, but he’s seen how problematic ‘the system’ can be, and wants to stay close to the hotel, where he can watch for his mother’s return.  She’s going to come back.  She has to.

Meanwhile, he finds a place to sleep and a home of sorts in a wooden crate in the park, watched over by the two homeless men who try to help him.  Buddy and Calvin have little to offer, but they do their best to look after him, and keep him safe and alive as the New York winter sets in and the temperature drops.  If Clay listens to them and lets someone know where he is, he’ll be taken off the streets and may never see his parents again.  If he doesn’t, he may not survive the harsh conditions of his new life.

***spoilers below***

So, where in that implosion of the American Dream and disintegration of a child’s safety net is there hope, and the memory of pink blossoms?  Buddy and Calvin, for starters.  This unlikely team look out for each other, and because Buddy is soft-hearted and determined to do the right, they share everything they have with Clay, too, even though they’re going hungry themselves.  There’s also the coffee and donut guy, who does all he can to help the homeless people of the park.  And then there’s the workers and foster parents who are eventually given the chance to help Clay.  Finally, there’s the little sister his mom gives birth too, who is waiting with her when Clay and his mother are finally reunited.  When the book begins, it’s easy to read between the lines and recognize that this unexpected pregnancy, coming just when it did, spells disaster for the family.  Growing a baby takes energy that his mother doesn’t have.  It’s beautiful, then, that this baby sister becomes the most hopeful part of the book and the glue that begins to pull Clay and his family back together again.

I also really loved how little race mattered to Buddy, Calvin, or Clay.  What did it matter what the mix of their heritage was?  They were together in their circumstances.  In this, as in so many ways, I can see this book providing amazing discussions for the classroom or home, and I do think it would make a great read aloud.  However, I think that most middle grade kids who could be persuaded to read it, or might think to tackle it, could handle it on their own.  There are a couple scary scenes, or points in which Clay’s fear is felt.  But, for the most part the danger is muted, and each time he’s in jeopardy, Clay comes through okay because there are good people in the world who step in to help him.  Is this representative of reality on the streets?  I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt it.  The hunger, cold, and insecurity are there, but none of the violence.  Still, to my mind that’s just as well.  No kid, on reading Monkey Island, is going to think life on the streets would be just the thing for them, and the story is made accessible through its looking at what I suspect is a slightly softened view.

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

“Falling through the gaps in the slats is hard on anyone, cat or human.  I was glad to see Clay landed on his feet, and I enjoyed the philosophical insights of Buddy and Calvin.  Buddy has the better heart, but Calvin’s mind was rather like a cats, and therefore fascinating.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As usual, Apricot-kitty brings up a good point–that while the focus is on Clay and the story is told strictly through his perspective, a whole treatise on humanity could be written from a study of Calvin and Buddy.  Beautiful, fascinating stuff.  I highly recommend it!

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

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Happy Leap Day! Plus, a shout-out for Nanny X Returns, for MMGM

It’s that magical day that we all get to time travel forward an extra day!  None of this mundane aging stuff for us today.  Thanks to a bit of creative calendaring,  on February 29th we leap through the day, glide through time, and zing through space on a giant floating ball that suddenly feels younger.

Or, so my imagination paints it. 😀  Our family celebrates each Leap Day with a time capsule that we’ve kept tucked out of sight for the last four years.  This year, we’ll be adding to it again–but we won’t be looking at the treasures which have been hidden since 2012.  Since our son–in S. Korea–isn’t here to look with us, we’ll wait to peek until the next leap day.  Four. More. Years. Away.

I support that decision.  It’s what I want, in fact!  But, I was never a great kid for staying out of my Christmas presents, so I think I’ll have to ask my hubby to hide this one from me.  It’s killing me not to peek!  I can’t remember what we added last time! lol

This year, we’ve added treasures that feel more representative of this moment in our lives, and are perhaps less concrete.  My daughter is still deciding on her selections, but here in this pic are the things we know are getting buried deep within the confines of our dark, dusty under-the-bed or back-of-the-closet chamber, until they’re drawn from the deep in four years hence.

Time Capsule 2016

The ninja you see there is for a ‘book ninja’ text analyzer web site that my husband is working on–very cool–but do you see what’s just behind that?  Yes, indeedy, that is my very first book contract!  I signed it this week, and it’s for a romantic suspense novel written under my adult fiction name, Lily Black (note the one L in the middle, not two!).  Not a middle grade, but something I’m immensely proud of, all the same.  And, why yes, you are welcome to click through on that name and Like my facebook page!  I won’t be mentioning Lily’s work over here, since the thought of romantic suspense–however clean–showing up on a MG site makes me squeamish, so this is your probably-one-and-only chance to know the secret handshake and get to know my alternate self and secret identity. 😉

Speaking of middle grades, I’d like to give a quick shout out to Nanny X Returns!  I recieved my copy from the lovely Rosi, over on The Write Stuff, and thoroughly enjoyed it!  As you can see from the cover, it’s aimed at the younger crowd, and a fun romp.

Nanny X Returns

I really enjoyed both the main jist of the story and the amusing asides–like a squirrel that likes lentils a la art–and also really enjoyed the small twist at the ending, and the way they…sped to the finish to address that twist.  You’ll know it when you get there!  I also had to laugh each time Nanny X, who you should know is a secret agent hidden in plain sight, as a nanny, used things like teething rings as hand cuffs.  Very cute.

However, I had trouble with the switching povs–despite the fact that multiple povs don’t usually bother me.  The two kids, Jake and Alison, take turns telling the story from their pov in each chapter, but it was easy to mix up which kid you were with.  It might have helped if the names at the beginning of each chapter had been printed closer to the text and therefore easier to catch.  It’s also possible I only had trouble because I read it in spurts, picking it up and setting it down frequently.  But, I do think that the two character’s voices were mostly interchangeable, once you got past Alison being the one who didn’t like worms, and distinguishers like that.

Still, it was a super cute, fun little story that I’ll bet would pull in both boys and girls!  I won’t hesitate to recommend it to the younger readers in my life.  This sequel would make an absolutely perfect read for any kid heading off for a class trip or family vacation in DC, since it’s set there and did a marvelous job of showing off the various museums and monuments.  In fact, it made me homesick…until I remembered the traffic, and got over it. 😉

I realized too late that I should have read something featuring Leap Day!  Know any good books that focus on this special day?  My TBR pile is pretty high, so why not start planning for the blog I’ll do four years from now?

Thank you for joining me for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!  For more MMGM spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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