Tag Archives: children’s lit

The Other Side of the Island

Goodman, Allegra. The Other Side of the Island (2008). Razorbill. 272 Pages

From Goodreads

Honor and her parents have been reassigned to live on Island 365 in the Tranquil Sea. Life is peaceful there, the color of the sky is regulated by Earth Mother, a corporation that controls New Weather, and it almost never rains. Everyone fits into their rightful and predictable place. . . .

Except Honor. She doesn’t fit in, but then she meets Helix, a boy with a big heart and a keen sense for the world around them. Slowly, Honor and Helix begin to uncover a terrible truth about life on the Island: Sooner or later, those who are unpredictable disappear . . . and they don’t ever come back.

First Lines

All this happened many years ago, before the streets were air-conditioned. Children played outside then, and in many places the sky was naturally blue. A girl moved to a town house in the Colonies on Island 365 in the Tranquil Sea.

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A Tale of Two Castles

Levine, Gail Carson. A Tale of Two Castles (2011).336 Pages. Harper Collins. $16.99*

This review is pre-release: It comes out May 10, 2011

Ella Enchanted was one of my favorite childhood books. My mom gave it to me for Christmas in 1998– she’s big on writing dates in books which are gifts– and I’ve read it so many times that a few pages are loose, the spine is falling to pieces, and it’s stained all over. I’ve got an abiding love for Gail Carson Levine, in part because of Ella Enchanted, and in part because she’s got a knack for writing magical stories which children are guaranteed to love.

Synopsis

Twelve year-old Elodie has just set out on her first adventure, and her first step toward adulthood. It is time for her to head to Two Castles and become an apprentice, though she cannot afford a short apprenticeship, so she must commit to the 10-year “free” term. Despite her parent’s wishes– that she apprentice to a weaver, Elodie seeks out an apprenticeship with the Two Castles mansioners.

Things don’t go according to plan, and Elodie soon finds herself working for the dragon Meenore and brushing up on her skills of “deduction, induction, and common sense.” But something is wrong in Two Castles, and Elodie’s job will not be as easy as it first seemed.

First Lines

Mother wiped her eyes on her sleeve and held me tight. I wept onto her shoulder. She released me while I went on weeping. A tear slipped into the strait through a crack in the wooden dock. Salt water to salt water, a drop of me in the brine that would separate me from home.

Father’s eyes were red. He pulled me into a hug, too. Albin stood to the side a few feet and blew his nose with a honk. He could blow his nose a dozen ways. A hong was the saddest.

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The Extra-Ordinary Princess

Ebbit, Carolyn Q. The Extra-Ordinary Princess (2009). 324 Pages. Bloomsbury. $7.99

From the Back Cover:

In the peaceful land of Gossling, there are four princesses. The three older girls are beautiful and talented and very good at everything they do– but not the fourth. Amelia’s unruly red hair, imperfect schoolwork, and disdain for anything prim and proper make her a most unlikely princess.

Then a plague sweeps through the land of Gossling, taking the lives of the girls’ parents. With Amelia’s eldest sister too young to rule, the kingdom is left in the hands of their terrifying uncle, Count Raven. But before Count Raven can cast a spell over them to protect his reign forever, Amelia escapes. Now it seems the fate of her sisters– and the kingdom of Gossling– is in the hands of a girl who will prove she is much more than ordinary.

First Lines:

On the sixth day, the queen lay dying. The afternoon was bright, and the sun peeking through the tightly drawn curtain was strong, though outside the heat of the past ten weeks has broken and it was finally fall.

For four months a terrible illness had spread through the small country of Gossling; it spread quickly through the tiny towns and villages, traveling down the long rivers and over high hills, through the country’s dense forests and into its cities. No scientist, doctor, or scholar knew how the sickness spread or how it might be cured. ….

Thoughts:

If the book had been what was suggested by the back cover, then it might have been brilliant. Indeed, the concept was a solid one; Amelia, youngest of four, struggles with a sense of self, and feelings of inadequacy. Where her sisters are talented, and everything seems effortless to them, Amelia has to work hard. She is not particularly smart, not particularly graceful, and not particularly anything. She is ordinary, and cannot handle her ordinariness.

When the plague comes to the country, Amelia’s parents send her and her sisters away to their summer home in the mountains. Finally, her parents succumb to the disease, leaving Merrill only 7 weeks shy of the 18 years-old that she needs to be in order to rule. Why they could not have disregarded this rule, I do not know. Seven weeks is not so very much difference, frankly.

So anyway, the Evil Uncle comes– you know he’s evil from the beginning, and it only gets more obvious from there. He turns Merrill into a tree, and Lily and Rose into swans. He misses Amelia, because she is still in the summer palace with chicken pox. From here, things take a steep downturn.

Amelia runs off with her friend Henry and her enemy Meg and begins her adventure in a place called the Sunflower Forest. From there, they travel quite a bit, seemingly unperturbed by the forty-day limit they have in which to save her sisters. Eventually, they end up in the Night Forest, a magical place, where Henry is given a prophesy saying that he will save the kingdom (which he never does), and Amelia gets three magical rocks which she can wish on. I put emphasis on the three because she uses it four times. (Once for Henry, once for Meg, twice for different transportation.)

When Amelia and Henry are in the Mountains, they are distressed that there are only three days left, but when they meet their allies after traveling two days, they state that there are 48 hours remaining until the curse becomes permanent.  Time remains an issue through the end of the book, as numbers are simply thrown around “two hours later” “four hours later”, “at two-fifteen in the morning” etc.

On top of all of this, there are many, many fruitless side-plots. Meg is not evil, but spoiled, and she becomes “good”, sort of. Amelia is dyslexic, but it only shows up in one chapter. The plague ends after her parents die, but nobody ever speculates as to its source or purpose, and later in the book, someone mentions checking the progress of the plague. The title “White Queen” is thrown around quite a bit, but at times it seems it is meant to be secret, and at times it seems to be public knowledge. Amelia and her sisters have their own magic, but it rarely manifests itself, except when convenient. Henry is a gardener’s son, but the queen took an interest in him and nursed him herself, making him Amelia’s “milk twin” but this is never really explained.

There is so much going on in this book that at times it seems to lose track of itself, which is unfortunate, because it has a lot of potential. The concept is good, and with a few less distracting side-plots, and some more focus on fixing inconsistencies, it could have actually been a good book. In part, it was the writing, and in part it was the editing which doomed this book to score a 2/5.

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Book of a Thousand Days

Hale, Shannon. Book of a Thousand Days (2007). 304 Pages. Bloomsbury. $17.95

The Synopsis:

Unlucky Dashti was hopeful when she learned that she would be lady’s maid to the beautiful Lady Saren. Unfortunately for Dashti, her first day of work resulted in her imprisonment in a tower with Lady Saren– they will be there for seven years, or until Saren agrees to marry Lord Khasar. As a contrast to the dark, cruel Lord Khasar, there is Khan Tegus– a man Saren has pledged herself to.

Dashti is resourceful and practical, and has every intention of getting them out of the tower alive, which would be easier if Lady Saren would help. Neither girl has any idea of what awaits them at the end of their time in the tower, and as their food dwindles, they begin to wonder if they will even last that long.

First Lines:

Day 1

My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.

Lady Saren is sitting on the floor, staring at the wall, and hasn’t moved even to scratch for an hour or more. Poor thing. It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.

Thoughts:

Based off of Grimm’s “Maid Maleen,” and set in a Mongolia-esque country, Book of a Thousand Days is Dashti’s story, told in journal form. Dashti is a survivor, and against all odds, she has the determination and character to persevere, which is what makes her interesting. Coupled with that determination, however, is a sense of worthlessness; Dashti honestly feels that she has no value beyond her role as Saren’s servant, and it makes her frustrating, at times.

The world is interesting, Dashti’s voice unique, the entire concept brilliantly executed. Saren can be more than a little frustrating at times, as can Dashti’s self-deprecation, when it is clear that she is worth much more than she knows.

Book of a Thousand Days scores a 4.5/5, because it’s brilliant, but the girls could be frustrating.

I really loved this book, however, and it made me want to pick up Tanith Lee’s Claidi books again.

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Real Reads: Pride and Prejudice

Austen, Jane. Real Reads: Pride & Prejudice (2009). 64 Pages. Windmill Books. price unknown*

We can’t help re-making the greats, sometimes we do silly things, like dumbing them down so they’re more “child-friendly” which sometimes works. Occasionally, books are too dense, and contain vocabulary which children would not recognize. I am of the opinion that this struggle is positive, and dictionary skills are a good thing to acquire.

The book at hand is a simplified retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Gill Tavner did the re-write, and Ann Kronheimer did the illustrations. The style of writing and the style of drawing do work well together, and the overall effect is mild and pleasant. There are characters whose roles have been cut (Kitty, Mary, & Mr Collins most notably) and there are story-lines which have been altered or removed (the estate’s entailment, Charlotte’s spinster status, and more) but the book acknowledges this in the back, and explains that it is well worth reading an unabridged version. The story is very short (it ends after 54 pages) but it is easily comprehended. They did a fairly good job of simplifying a classic to make it a quick, easy read for children.

There is a whole set of Real Reads Classics, including their Indian Classics line (which has the Ramayana, a fun story). I imagine it’s a fairly popular way to get younger audiences reading books which are mostly tackled by adults these days.

In Conclusion:

For now, this version gets a 3/5. By adult standards, it’s nothing special. It’s a solid abridgment, aimed at children, and it has nice illustrations. It’s got the major plot points in it, and it references the plot points it has removed. It offers some discussion/consideration questions at the back, and is therefore a fairly good volume. I have not run it by my sisters (the age group at whom it is aimed) and pending their approval, it may get a score upgrade.

I’ll be running this by my sisters to see how much kids actually like stories like this, but I think that it’s a good start, and an easy way to introduce kids to classics. I’ve been conditioned to feel that classics are good, and that it’s important to read, even if what you’re reading is not “good” by adult standards. It gets a 3/5 until I get a sisterly stamp of approval for a score upgrade.

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* I found it on a clearance shelf in the back corner of a second-hand store. I’m not sure how much it originally cost, but I paid $.99 for it.

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Wolf-Speaker

Pierce, Tamora. Wolf Speaker (2008 ed). 344 Pages. Simon Pulse. $6.99

The Immortals: Book Two

From the back cover:

When Daine is summoned by the wolf pack that saved her life a year earlier, she and Numair travel to Dunlath Valley to answer the call. But when they arrive, Daine realizes with a shoc kthat it’s not just the animals whose lives are threatened; people are in danger too. Dunlath’s rulers have discovered black opals in their valley and are dead set on mining the magic these stones embody. Daine learns that Dunlath’s lord and lady plan to use this power to overthrow King Jonathan– even if it means irreversibly damaging te land and killing their workers.

Daine has to master her wild magic in order to save both her animal friends and her human ones.

I do like Daine, a lot. I love the idea of being able to speak to animals, or transform. Her adventures in Dunlath, however, are not my favorites. I do really like Maura of Dunlath*, and some really cool magic is used. This plot really throws you into the middle of things, which is fine if you’re familiar with Tortall, less fine if you’re picking it up for the first time. I’d strongly suggest starting with Alanna’s series, because the realm and culture are much better explained.

As much as I love Daine, I feel like her story might be one of the weakest in the series. She’s fascinating, and the plot is clever, but it’s clear that Pierce becomes a stronger writer in her later series.

In Conclusion:

This particular review has been brief, because it’s really a bridging-book. Daine learns more about herself and her powers, and we’re taught a lesson about how humans can be more horrible than real monsters. Characters and situations are set up for the plot in books 3 and 4. This book gets a 3.5/5– I really liked it, but it’s the weakest book in the series. (Books 1 and 4 are my favorites.)

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*Per Tammy’s website, Maura is likely getting her own series down the line. (Slated for 2015.)

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Witch Week

Jones, Diana Wynne. Witch Week (2001 ed). 269 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about Witch Week. I will say that it’s why I knew about Guy Fawkes before V for Vendetta came out, but to be honest, Guy Fawkes Day isn’t even a blip on the U.S. calendar. Nor had I heard of Witch Week, which is (apparently) the week between Halloween and November 5th. Though, even if I do have a very mild grasp of the premise, I do really enjoy the narrative. I enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ prose as a rule, and this is no exception.

In a world related to Chrestomanci’s, magic is illegal, so of course the world is full of it. Witches are burned at the stake, and their orphans are sent to places like Larwood House. It’s a boarding school and orphanage, all in one. There are several points of view in this book, though Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan are the central characters. Charles has had several encounters with witches in the past, and Nan is descended from a famous witch. Both of them come into their powers during the story, which is what starts the plot along. They alternately explore their powers, and try to hide them, because discovery means death, even for children.

Unfortunately for Nan and Charles, they are not the only ones discovering their magic, and things are not entirely as they seem. When Brian Wentworth disappears and “the Witch” is blamed, they must run for their lives before the inquisitors get them.

In Conclusion:

This book does require at least a basic understanding of Guy Fawkes, which I think many Americans lack. There’s an editor’s note at the beginning which explains in brief, and that is enough to grasp the basics. Additionally, I know some people have trouble with books that have multiple P.O.V. transitions– this is one of them. Nan and Charles are central, and while the book is mostly told from their viewpoints, they are not the only narrators. I did enjoy it, but I’m not sufficiently satisfied by the ending, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. It scores a 4.5/5.

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The Magicians of Caprona

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Magicians of Caprona (2001 ed.) 273 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

As I’ve said (repeatedly, I think) I owned quite a few incarnations of the Chrestomanci series. I’ve misplaced them all, and replaced them all at least once. I did, however, get this one from the library, because it is at the “lost, not yet replaced” point in the cycle of Diana Wynne Jones books. So, when Diana Wynne Jones Week rolled around, I grabbed this from the library, hoping I could squeeze it in, but obviously that did not happen. Regardless, I’ve kept going.

War is looming over the Italian city-state of Caprona, and an unknown enchanter threatens everything that Paolo and Tonino Montana have ever known. Casa Montana may be one of the most powerful spell-houses in Caprona*, but without the help of their rivals (the Petrocchis) they may not be able to do a thing.

With invasion imminent, and both spell houses afraid to use magic, it may be up to some of the smallest family members to save the city.

Some books do not stand up to re-reading, because they rely upon the surprise factor, or because the plot holes become more evident with familiarity. This is not one of those books. Despite the fact that I knew the twists, and the surprises, and the villain, I still enjoyed the mystery, and watching the characters discover things I already knew.

In Conclusion:

If you’ve read any Chrestomanci books, you’ll likely at least enjoy this one. There is more of a cameo than a real involvement, as Italy is very far outside of England (and thus Chrestomanci’s official office). It is not crucial to the understanding of the series (though it does relate to a short story in Mixed Magics, where Tonino and Cat bond. Reading the book before the short-story will keep spoilers at bay.) This particular story gets a 5/5, because it was a very, very fun read.

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* It took serious effort not to type “Verona,” “Montague” and “Capulet.”

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I got the omnibus edition from the library, because while I own it, I cannot find my copy anywhere. This copy is pretty well “loved,” and since I’m participating in the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll share a few photos of just how well “loved” it is. This one is worth 6 points.

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The Midwife’s Apprentice

Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995). 117 Pages. Clarion Books. $10.95

It may have only taken me an hour to read, but a lot gets packed into this slim book. There’s a lot about 14th-century life, a lot about classes, and a lot of old midwife “magic” crammed into a shade over 100 pages. Somehow, it works, without being too overwhelming.

The book opens with a young girl climbing into a dung-heap to sleep, because it will at the very least be warm. It is because of this decision that the local Midwife decides to give her a few odd jobs, in the hopes that she will be useful. The Midwife calls her Dung-Beetle (Beetle for short) and the name sticks. Too cowed from years of being homeless, Beetle does not protest.

The Midwife is mean. She’s harsh, demanding, and distrustful. She brings Beetle along to births as a packmule, rather than a true apprentice. She doesn’t hesitate to make a woman give birth alone if she can’t come up with money, or enough goods. But Beetle is not stupid, and manages to learn some things on her own.

Things truly begin to change when Beetle has to go to a local fair for the Midwife. It is here that she dubs herself “Alyce,” and begins to find a new identity. The journey from nameless girl at the beginning of the book to Alyce at the end is what makes this book significant.

It’s meant to be meaningful to children at the end of elementary though junior high, when they’re also struggling to find themselves. It’s a sort of “you are who you make yourself” thing, because Beetle/Alyce rises against all odds, with nobody expecting her to be anything, and manages to find an identity, and a life that suits. There are a couple scenes where characters are truly cruel, but I think that despite this, it is a good book for the intended age. Children can be amazing, but they can also be horrible to each other, so cruelty is not exactly a bad thing to deal with in this book.

In Conclusion:

I remember loving this book when I was in the target age group. Now, I just liked it. Averaging the scores, it gets a 4/5, because it isn’t bad by any means. There are some scenes I didn’t like, but that’s because I’m a softie. Alyce/Beetle deals with them, and preteens often deal with awful things they do to each other. Don’t read this book with your “adult” mindset, try instead to read it as a “kid,” and you’ll see why it was Newberry worthy.

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Cushman, Karen. Alchemy and Meggy Swann (2010). 159 Pages. Clarion Books. $16.00

Margaret Swann has never been a normal girl. Deformed since birth, she has been treated as an outcast, as a tainted soul, cursed by a demon while still in the womb. She’s called “witch” or other more awful names. When Meggy leaves her small town for London, there is no love lost between herself and those she is leaving behind. Despite that, she almost immediately wants to go home, back to her mother’s alehouse, back to what is familiar, if not welcoming.

In London, she is told she has been “summoned” by a man Meggy only knows as “Master Peevish.” It is revealed to her that Master Peevish is an Alchemist, that he expected an able-bodied boy, not a crippled girl, and that he is her father. Her relationship to her father is distant– he never knew anything about her, having been too absorbed in his “science” to stay at a small alehouse in a small town. When he realizes that Meggy’s legs will stop her from being the ideal servant, he ignores her. There is little to say about Meggy and her father, and what there is to say should be read about, rather than spoiled here.

Because people from Meggy’s old village were superstitious, and fell into the category of “cripples were cursed by the devil,” she has never really had friends. The one exception to this is Louise, her pet goose, who was also crippled in a way. Unfortunately, one of the first things Louise does in London is annoy Master Peevish, so Meggy must re-home her only friend. With some help from Roger (her father’s ex-servant/apprentice) Meggy manages to find a place for Louise where nobody will eat her.*

Then, Meggy must learn to make her own way in London. Roger has always been friendly to her, but he is busy now, working with an troupe of players. The cooper next-door is kind, but has his own problems to worry about. There are many other people that Meggy meets while running errands for her father, or trying to fill her stomach. Through her adventuring, she figures out that people can be kind, and that she, herself is kind sometimes.

There are more life-lessons for Meggy before the book is through. Things happen which make her realize that she is strong, despite her disability, and that she can make her own fate instead of having it made for her. Like Cushman’s other heroines, Meggy is a strong girl, and she does alright, in the end.

In Conclusion:

Meggy is the sort of heroine you’re rooting for, despite her being a bit of a jerk in the beginning. She softens, over time, as she realizes that not everyone hates her. The language is a bit dense at times, but if you just keep going, you adjust, (much like Scones and Sensibility) and by the end the language feels natural. There’s a bit of a blurb at the back about the history included in the story, which crams a bit of extra education in there.

Overall, I feel like this was a good book, though I definitely prefer some of Cushman’s other titles a bit more. It scores a 3.5/5– I liked it, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy my own copy any time soon.

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* When I was a kid, my parents got me one bunny. But, they thought, the bunny might be lonely. We’ll get him a friend! Which might have been fine, if the bunnies hadn’t then err… bred like rabbits. We went from one, to two, to five, to thirteen or fourteen at the peak. I gave away bunnies to anyone who would take them if they would promise to never eat it. Of all the animals I’ve kept as pets, chickens are the only ones I’ll eat, because they were dumb and smelly and annoying. Bunnies are soft and snuggly and friendly, and the idea of eating one freaks me out.

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