Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Review of Knights vs. Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Knights vs. Dinosaurs

by Matt Phelan

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 150 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 27, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy

This one is silly fun with speculation: What would happen if knights had to fight dinosaurs?

Erec is a knight in King Arthur’s court, and he’s been bragging. The truth is, he’s never seen even one dragon. But all the knights start bragging when they get together, and he got carried away and claimed he’d defeated 40 dragons.

That gave Merlin an idea. He suggested that Erec go defeat a “Terrible Lizard” in a cave the next morning – Merlin would give him a map.

It’s probably just as well that some other knights didn’t want Erec to get all the glory. Because it turned out that Merlin put a time-traveling spell on the cave – and sent them all back to the time of the dinosaurs.

(Okay, the truth is that not all the dinosaurs that appear in this book lived at the same time. But that’s admitted at the back of the book and kind of beside the point. We’ve got knights fighting dinosaurs and living to tell the tale.)

There’s a nice twist that it turns out the strongest knight of them all is female. It’s a lot of good-hearted fun, including battles with dinosaurs.

This is an early chapter book and includes plenty of Matt Phelan’s illustrations. Some of the battles are told with panels, in fact.

Knights fighting dinosaurs and realizing they’re going to have to work together. What could be more fun?

mattphelan.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Candlewick Press, 2018. 530 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 14, 2018, from an advance reader copy
2019 National Book Award Finalist
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy

Wow. This book is amazing!

It’s a story about a clash of cultures – elfin and goblin cultures, specifically.

Historian Brangwain Spurge has been sent to the land of the goblins – flying through the air in a barrel – to present to them an ancient artifact found that they believe was made by goblin ancestors.

Werfel the Archivist, goblin historian at the Court of the Mighty Ghohg, has been eagerly preparing for weeks to host the elfin scholar. He worries – are elves allergic to chocolate? Will the hospitality chocolates placed on his pillow be appropriate?

It was Werfel’s job to host the elfin emissary in the city, to take the scholar in as a guest in his own home. It was a huge responsibility. Elves were used to a certain luxury. Goose-down mattresses and stained glass windows. My poor guest will be joggled to bits after slamming into the ground like that, Werfel fretted.

And, goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.

Werfel sat up. He had to get to work plumping pillows and stocking the fruit bowl. It was no use trying to sleep, anyway. He was too excited.

Unfortunately, it becomes all too clear that Werfel’s efforts aren’t being appreciated as intended. In fact, periodically we see a series of images. These are what Brangwain Spurge has been magically transporting back to those who sent him. His view doesn’t quite match Werfel’s eager ministrations.

And some things go sadly wrong. Spurge learns of the goblin habit of insulting their close friends and misunderstands when insults are actually intended as a mortal combat challenge. Werfel knows he will have to protect his guest with his life – but that devotion is completely unappreciated.

As one misadventure leads to another, the two come to understand one another better. I love the way the images change as Spurge’s perspective on the goblins changes. But can they survive their new level of understanding?

This book is a lovely look at cross-cultural misunderstanding – but in the goblin-elfin setting no human reading it will be offended. And the story (and the goblin and elfin cultures described) is a whole lot of fun, too.

M. T. Anderson writes clever books, and this one is no exception. It’s told with humor and compassion. I like it that the goblin host ends up being noble and self-sacrificing and kind, whereas the elves who sent Spurge on his mission are not folks you’d want to live among.

candlewick.com

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Review of Scary Stories for Young Foxes, by Christian McKay Heidicker

Friday, February 21st, 2020

Scary Stories for Young Foxes

by Christian McKay Heidicker

Henry Holt and Company, 2019. 314 pages.
Review written November 26, 2019, from a library book
2020 John Newbery Honor

This is a book of an old fox telling scary stories to a family of young foxes. One by one, the kits are too scared and leave the storytelling, until only one is left. The storyteller is correct – it’s worth staying to hear the end of the stories.

But these are truly scary stories – too scary for me! There’s an abusive fox-father in a really disturbing situation, and there’s the “yellow smell” that infects foxes so they go crazy and attack other foxes, spreading the “yellow smell.” We follow the stories of two young fox kits in particular who lose the protection of their mothers.

One story made me laugh, though – because the truly horrific villain of that story is – Beatrix Potter!

That’s right, it turns out that Beatrix liked to paint woodland creatures from life. We all knew that, right? Well, according to this author, after she’d finished her paintings for a story, she didn’t set the animal free. No, she’d kill it with ether, then skin it and eat the meat. She’d stuff the skin and keep the stuffed creature in her home. All that is truly horrific for a young fox trapped in a cage in her house who witnesses what happens to a rabbit she’s been painting. So when Beatrix begins painting the fox, she has reason to be afraid!

But I will never look at Beatrix Potter books the same way again!

This is a well-written book. And lots of kids love scary stories. I never happened to be one of them, but next time a kid asks me for a scary book, I have another option. And I was very glad I read all the way to the end.

Added note after learning this is a Newbery Honor book: I approve! The book really is well-crafted, and it’s distinctive and unusual. I still say it’s a better choice for kids who like scary stories than it would have been for me as a child. But I agree that it’s distinguished.

cmheidicker.com
mackids.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, by Anna Meriano

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Love Sugar Magic

A Sprinkle of Spirits

by Anna Meriano

Walden Pond Press, 2019. 309 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 11, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

This is the second book in the Love Sugar Magic series, and I liked it even better than the first one. Leo discovered in the first book that she’s from a family of brujas and their family magic is concentrated in the things they bake in their bakery. She’s been studying the principles of magic to try to keep any more disasters from happening.

But despite Leo’s efforts to do everything right, something huge happens – Her abuela comes back to life and shows up in Leo’s bedroom. And so do several other once-dead people from the whole town. What’s going on? And more important, how can Leo help these spirits in the flesh get back to the other side of the veil before it’s too late?

You’ve got to admit – that’s a big problem. I liked the way this book kept the action going and didn’t pause with too much soul-searching. We learned more about the family business, and I loved the way Leo was able to turn to her friends for help.

There was a big coincidence with Leo’s best friend Caroline, but that coincidence caused a lot of trouble. In books, coincidences that cause trouble are infinitely more palatable than coincidences that solve problems. All the characters gain some depth in this installment, and I am now more convinced that I want to keep reading the series.

Some on our Cybils panel hadn’t read the first book, but still enjoyed this one. It’s not absolutely necessary to read them in order, though you might as well.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia

Rick Riordan Presents (Disney Hyperion), 2019. 482 pages.
Review written November 13, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2020 Coretta Scott King Author Honor

Big Kudos to Rick Riordan for recruiting authors from many different ethnicities to write books similar to his own – mythology comes to life, only now the mythology featured is from a different cultural background, which the author is writing from.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky tells about an African American kid who punches an ancient bottle tree in the South and then falls into a world where the characters from the stories his Nana tells are real – and that world is in danger.

It turns out that Tristan has a gift from Anansi of storytelling, and that will be key to saving the mythical characters.

I do love that this book builds off of African American tales. The non-stop danger and adventure will appeal to Rick Riordan’s fans.

I personally wasn’t completely convinced by the world-building and was a little bewildered about how the whole life-or-death crisis got started and how it was to be resolved. I also wasn’t fully present with Tristan’s emotions – I felt like I was told about them more than shown what they would be. But a lot of kids won’t care about details like that, and I will still gladly recommend it to kids who want a rip-roaring adventure in a world where fantasy turns out to be real and kids are needed to save the day.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Love Sugar Magic

A Dash of Trouble

by Anna Meriano

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2018. 310 pages.
Review written January 30, 2018.
2018 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

A Dash of Trouble begins a new series about Leonora Logroños, a sixth-grader who learns that she’s from a family of brujas. The women in her family can do magic, and they can put magic into the things they bake.

But Leo only finds this out by being sneaky. She’s the youngest, and the whole family seems to be keeping secrets from her, working at their Mamá’s bakery during the big festival on the Day of the Dead. She’s tired of everyone leaving her out. She’s not a baby, after all!

And when Leo’s best friend gets her feelings hurt by a boy who lives next door, Leo thinks this is a perfect time to use magic to help the situation.

And that’s where she gets into a dash of trouble.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book – mostly, all of Leo’s sneaking. But when I think about it more, I remember how I subverted the early bedtime my mother tried to impose when I was in sixth grade. (It was No Fair in comparison with how late my two older siblings got to stay up.) So I have to give her some sympathy. Even if I was wanting to shake her at times during the story.

There’s a lot of Spanish language used in the book – the old family recipe book is written in Spanish – but Leo doesn’t speak Spanish, either, so what’s mystifying to me is also mystifying to her. So I think it enhances the book. (Readers who do understand Spanish will enjoy having that edge.)

This is a fun and light-hearted story about Leo finding out she’s got a heritage of magic – but finding out a little earlier than her family intended. The book is labelled “Book One,” so I think Leo’s going to learn more about magic.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

The Lost Girl

by Anne Ursu

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2019. 356 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 22, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Children’s Fiction

The Lost Girl is about identical twins, Lark and Iris, and the story is told from Iris’s perspective. She’s always taken care of her sister, and they can tap messages to each other in a secret code. But now as they’re starting fifth grade, their parents are letting them be assigned to different classes.

The girls are identical but not the same.

Lark always knew when their parents had been arguing. Lark could tell you what the consequences for stealing were in different fairy tales, and that the best bad guys had interesting backstories. Lark always knew which books she wanted to check out from the library next.

No, they were not the same. But Iris always knew when Lark was feeling too anxious to speak in class, and Lark always knew when Iris’s anger was getting the better of her. Iris always knew when Lark was too busy daydreaming to pay attention, and Lark always knew when Iris was too reliant on finding order when things were in chaos. Iris talked for Lark. Lark talked down Iris.

This is the way it was.

No, they were not the same. But yes, they were twin sisters, and for Iris and Lark that meant something, something far deeper than what lay at the surface. They each knew the monsters that haunted the shadowy parts of the other’s mind, and they knew how to fight those monsters.

The school year does not get off to a good start with the girls having to be in different classes. Lark gets laughed at, and she’s in the class with the bully. Iris doesn’t even know who she is without Lark to defend. After school, Lark goes to art class, and Iris gets tricked into going to an all-girl group at the library called Camp Awesome.

After Camp Awesome is done, Lark is supposed to bike home, but sometimes she talks to the strange man at the new antiques store with an unusual sign in front. He puts simple science experiments out on the shop counter, and he says that they are magic. He’s looking for someone named Alice. He lets Iris look at books in his shop, and she finds one with Alice’s writing in it, saying things like “Magic has a cost.”

As the book goes on, Iris feels like she’s losing herself. Who is she without Lark? She starts keeping secrets from Lark. She doesn’t mean to. But maybe Lark is better off without her. What is going on?

This is a story of a sign and a store. Of a key. Of crows and shiny things. Of magic. Of bad decisions made from good intentions. Of bad guys with bad intentions. Of collective nouns, fairy tales, and backstories.

But most of all this is a story of the two sisters, and what they did when the monsters really came.

This is a story about the power of having a flock.

anneursu.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Homerooms & Hall Passes, by Tom O’Donnell

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Homerooms & Hall Passes

by Tom O’Donnell

Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 337 pages.
Starred Review
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

This book is a whole lot of fun, standing the idea of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games on its head.

As the book opens, we meet a band of young adventurers – Thromdurr, a barbarian; Sorrowshade, a gloom elf; Vela the Valiant, a paladin; and Devis, a thief. They are scouring a dark and dismal dungeon for treasure and uncover an ancient evil, which they must defeat. Then the scene flashes back to Albiorix, an apprentice wizard, who is eagerly looking forward to his friends’ return, when they will play their weekly role-playing game, Homerooms & Hall Passes.

Welcome to Homerooms & Hall Passes, the role-playing game of nonadventure! With this book (and a set of dice), you and your friends will unlock a strange new world of routine and boredom set in the fictional realm of Suburbia. Imagine, if you will, a place without monsters, magic, treasure, elves, quests, or even, to be perfectly honest, much excitement at all. This place is called middle school.

Albiorix is an avid Hall Master, with a pile of manuals explaining all aspects of the game.

The module he was currently running was called The Semester of Stultification. In tonight’s game, the players would face a daunting series of challenges: a grueling five-paragraph essay dumped on their characters right at the beginning of JADMS Spirit Week. Not to mention an upcoming earth sciences quiz, a concert band recital, a class election, and a big algebra test. To rise to these challenges would take skill, cunning, impeccable time management, and of course a few lucky rolls of the dice. Albiorix chuckled maniacally to himself.

Well, after defeating an evil sorcerer in the dungeon, Devis came back with some cursed treasure. When Albiorix translates the inscription aloud, a curse takes hold – and they are all transported into the game. Can our adventurers actually handle middle school?

They appear in Suburbia with their characters’ names and families – but unfortunately they didn’t magically get the skills of their characters. If they fail or get expelled, they’re out of the game. And that’s a challenge more daunting than any dungeon.

It’s all full of humor as our characters reflect on how different middle school is from “the real world.” I like the way they need help in all their classes – but dazzle everyone in gym class. And I laughed out loud when the gloom elf falls under the sway of the popular girls’ clique.

Our heroes do have some resources ordinary middle school students don’t. But things become much more complicated when an evil part of the “real world” shows up at school.

tomisokay.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of The Potter’s Boy, by Tony Mitton

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

The Potter’s Boy

by Tony Mitton

David Fickling Books, 2019. First published in the United Kingdom in 2017. 246 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 16, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Fiction

The Potter’s Boy surprised me by its loveliness and its wisdom. I read it quickly, trying to decide before the deadline which book to nominate for a Cybils Award, and ended up wishing I’d had time to slowly absorb its contents and pull out wise quotations from it.

There’s a dragon on the cover, but I’m not quite sure it’s a fantasy book. There is an episode with a dragon, but that part may well be a dream or vision. Most of the book is a roughly historical tale set in a country similar to ancient Japan.

Ryo, our hero, is the son of a potter who loves his work, and Ryo is apprenticed to him. But one day, brigands attack their village, and a traveler defeats and confounds the brigands. Ryo asks the traveler to teach him to fight like that. The traveler tells him to wait a year, until he is thirteen, and then to seek the Hermit on Cold Mountain.

The book tells the story of Ryo’s journey when he does, in fact, go to the Hermit on Cold Mountain to be trained. So it’s an educating-a-young-person story, but this one takes some surprising turns.

All along the way, Ryo is trained in mindfulness and even nonviolence (which seems surprising for a fighter). It isn’t identified as Buddhism until the author’s note in the back, though some Japanese terms are used in the teaching.

But it’s all so lovely. A compelling story of a young person’s journey and coming of age – but also full of wisdom.

Just a warning — there is a terrible tragedy in the second half of the book. How Ryo deals with that tragedy is where this becomes not a typical fantasy tale. But please don’t expect all sweetness and light.

There were plenty of wise quotations in this book, and here’s an example:

The important thing is to live and to love, and, if possible, where possible, to make something good from time to time. It may be something you can see and touch and hold on to, like a pot or a fine garment or a painting. Or it may be something more ephemeral, such as good food, which is made and gone in a short space of time. Or it may simply be the art the skill, the knack, of making people happy, or cheerful or at their ease.

It does not matter so much what it turns out to be, but I urge you, if you are reading this, whoever you are, to ask yourself, “What do I make or do that is good, that brings beauty, pleasure, or happiness into the world?” And if you can find no answer to that, seek inside yourself to find the seed, the grain, of something that might fulfill that purpose. We cannot all be great artists or musicians, scientists or storytellers. We cannot reckon to be the best at what we do. But we can, each one of us, look inside ourselves to find a leaning, a direction, that suggests to us how we might make something of worth, while we are here. Is this not true?

An uplifting story of finding one’s calling.

scholastic.com

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Review of The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

The Dark Lord Clementine

by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Algonquin Young Readers, 2019. 332 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 7, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 in Children’s Fiction

Clementine’s father is under a curse. Slowly, he is turning into a wooden puppet, and parts of him are being whittled away as he gets smaller and smaller. But he won’t tell Clementine what happened. Instead, he shuts himself in his study with books about witches, and Clementine is left to run the castle, and even to come up with a Dastardly Deed for the Council of Evil Overlords.

Clementine’s father is the Dark Lord Morcerous, and their family has been the evil lords of these mountains for generations. But as her father’s wards begin weakening, Clementine has to start dealing with the local hedgewitches and people of the village.

Clementine doesn’t know how to fix a fence to keep the fire-breathing chickens from harming the ordinary chickens. She needs help feeding the nightmares and harvesting the poison apples, but the animated scarecrows are slowing down as her father gets whittled away. So Clementine needs some help.

She finds a huntress to help with farm work, and then some village boys who want to learn to be knights. It’s all working toward an encounter with the Whittle Witch, but Clementine learns many things about herself along the way.

Here’s a scene when Clementine notices something is wrong:

Clementine stared at the scarecrow. Not once, in all the years she’d spent watching the animated scarecrows at work, had one ever stopped in the middle of a task. In fact, sometimes they were a little too enthusiastic in their work. They had to be given specific instructions, like exactly when to start and stop, or they were liable to turn the same pile of hay over and over again for days on end, or trim the grass in the castle courtyard until there was nothing left but dirt.

Like many things on the farm, the scarecrows were animated by her father’s magic – a complex combination of spells and wards and willpower that kept their estate secure, productive, and most importantly, operating according to the Dark Lord’s express rules and wishes. Nonhuman farmhands would never show up late, or demand vacation time or dental insurance, or even tire. The Dark Lord’s estate hadn’t employed any actual people – with the exception of their castle cook and Clementine’s ever-rotating cast of ill-fated governesses – for decades, at least since her father had inherited the title. Why bother with human workers when the alternative was so much simpler and efficient?

But Clementine had never seen Ethel the cook or any of her governesses simply stop like this, every limb frozen in place. this scarecrow wouldn’t have looked out of place in an actual cornfield – and what use would the Morcerouses have for it then?

Despite being about a Dark Lord, I loved the good-heartedness of this book. There’s a problem – Clementine has to keep things going as her father succumbs to a curse, and there are plot twists and revelations along the way. We thoroughly enjoy getting to know Clementine as we go through these things with her.

sarahjeanhorwitz.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?