Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Review of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Okay, I'll try to write a real review instead of just jumping up and down screeching, "I got an ARC of the new Terry Pratchett book!" Or rather, now that I've done that and breathed into a paper bag and all, I think I can be mature enough to share some actual thoughts with you. (Warning: Largely thematic spoilers ahead!)

I do hope you've already read the first three books about young witch Tiffany Aching: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith. You'll enjoy this one a lot more if you have. For one thing, you'll already be familiar with Tiffany's sidekicks, the Nac Mac Feegle, those miniscule blue guys in kilts who are endlessly spoiling for a fight, preferably combined with a drink. Of course, they're determined to look after Tiffany while they're at it.

Tiffany is now officially the witch of the chalk country, and she thinks she understands what that means. She takes her work very seriously, so much so that she sometimes misses certain cues. Because people don't always react the way you think they should, and it doesn't help that there's an evil semi-supernatural entity going around playing on people's fear of witches.

So yeah, trouble is brewing, and things only get worse when the baron dies. Tiffany travels to the great, dirty city of Ankh Morpork to find the baron's heir, Roland, with whom Tiffany once had something resembling a romance. The Nac Mac Feegle come along and create havoc, which is just what they're supposed to do. Tiffany and crew also run into some of Pratchett's best Ankh Morpork characters from his other Discworld books. One of them even finds himself bonding with those little blue men!

While in the city, Tiffany compares notes with the proprietor of a famous shop that sells witch supplies as well as with an even more mysterious mentor before she sets off for home, having delivered her message to the baron's son. But everyone is acting funny, and Tiffany winds up in Roland's dungeon with the goats. Of course, she doesn't stay there for long—she meddles with the best of them, and soon she is hunting the creature that's spreading the hatred of witches. The older witches offer to help her, but Tiffany turns them down. She knows she needs to prove herself.

Compared to Pratchett's other books, this one has a bit of a slow start, but then, Pratchett's worst is still head and shoulders above most writers' best. Although the man is known for his humor, I'm in awe of his ability to create characters that matter, and to talk about the human condition by telling amazing stories.

One way of looking at all four books is as an account of Tiffany's coming-of-age. But we sometimes see simple stories along those lines, and Tiffany's is complicated. For instance, I Shall Wear Midnight has thought-provoking things to say about romance, even though at first glance, this may seem like a minor theme.

Tiffany clearly had a relationship with Roland for a while, and everyone knows it. What's more, they comment on it. A lot. Which gets on Tiffany's nerves, although at first we're not sure why. Even Roland's fiancé knows it, and in fact, her jealousy leads her to cause major difficulties for Tiffany without realizing the full impact of what she's done. (Note the irony of the things Roland thinks he's avoiding with Tiffany compared to what he doesn't understand about his own fiancé. Brilliant!)

Tiffany has no illusions that it would have worked out with Roland, and yet—she feels left out. She wonders if she'll be alone forever. Though she never actually says so, I get the feeling she's wondering if she'll wind up like her formidable mentor, Granny Weatherwax. Does being a great witch mean you have to be alone your entire life?

From a young reader's standpoint, Tiffany brings up a valuable question, which is, "I'm not like the others. Will anyone ever understand and care about me in a normal way, when I'm not normal?" We can easily see why Tiffany feels different, but then, don't most of us feel that way at least some of the time? Certainly the kind of bright, creative kids who are probably reading these books might share Tiffany's worries.

It may seem facile that Pratchett provides an answer to this question in the form of a quirky young guardsman named Preston (who would really rather be a doctor), but then, for a girl like Tiffany, meeting the right kind of person necessarily feels like a surprising whim and a kindness on the part of the universe.

Even so, Tiffany is alone, and always will be. All of us are, even when we're with the people we love and who love us. So Pratchett's answer to Tiffany's question is both yes, and no.

Mind you, Tiffany Aching is never a damsel in distress. She helps herself (ever-so-literally), and her efforts pay off. She also catches on to the fact that there's more to being a good witch than hard work, admirable though that may be. You have to pay attention to people, to what each of them wants and needs and feels. When you do, you might be knocked sideways at times, but you will be far more capable of helping those you want to help. People like Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax make a difference, although it isn't easy. But as Pratchett points out, it doesn't have to be. It simply has to matter.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens and has some mature themes, e.g., domestic violence, attempted suicide, and references to a couple's upcoming honeymoon night (the bride wants information!).

FYI: I requested an ARC of this book from HarperCollins.
I Shall Wear Midnight will be available on September 28, 2010.

A Review of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

What's interesting about this book is the juxtaposition of a heavy-duty paranormal scenario with a relatively upbeat teen protagonist. Having escaped the foster care system at the age of ten, Evie thinks being raised by the International Paranormal Containment Agency is pretty cool. After all, director Raquel is kind of like a mom, and mermaid computer expert Lish makes a nice best friend, even if she is older. Evie does watch a TV series about high school kids on her computer and wish she could go to a normal school, but then, she's too busy going on missions for the agency to have time for that.

Evie has a unique ability. She can recognize any supernatural entity, no matter how well their nature might be disguised. The agency sends her out with fairy guides to locate rogue paranormals, who can then be "contained." It never occurs to Evie that this might be a harsh approach, or that she herself might be considered something other than human. About her only problem is a male fairy named Reth, her high-handed sort of ex-boyfriend. He believes he has a right to her, and he also has ominous plans for Evie that he's too arrogant to share. Although Evie has the equivalent of a restraining order against him, she's beginning to get the feeling the IPCA doesn't have nearly as much control over the fairies as they seem to think.

Then a teenage shapeshifter is captured sneaking around inside the IPCA compound, and Evie is fascinated by him. Someone her own age, finally! Okay, so maybe he puts on a different face every time she does her own sneaking so she can visit him in his cell, but Evie can see past all of that to his true form. Little by little, she comes to trust Lend, despite Raquel's harried and unsuccessful efforts to keep her away from him.

Only something terrible is happening, and it seems to be connected to Evie somehow. Paranormals are being killed, consumed by a fiery entity that has taken an interest in Evie. But why? When the center comes under attack, Evie escapes with Lend, trying to find answers from a whole different segment of the paranormal world.

Now, I have to admit, it's getting hard to tell some of these paranormal suspense love triangle books apart. Then again, if you adore this subgenre, you have a wealth of choices right now!

So how does Paranormalcy distinguish itself? The book's strength is definitely Evie and her narrative voice. She's a pretty hopeful kid for someone in her situation. Sure, we get her doubts and pouts, but she's also kind of funny, and she makes the best of everything that comes her way. You might find yourself cheering for her relationship with Lend, but more than that, you'll be cheering for Evie herself as her odd life gets even odder.

Of course, for those of you who prefer the fairy bad boy to the shapeshifting boy next door, there's always Reth.

I will mention that some plot points are a bit uneven; e.g., the opportunity for Evie to attend prom like a normal girl really feels shoehorned in. But I like White's style, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does with the next book in this series.

(Visit Kiersten White's blog to read a very fun post that will give you a taste of her voice. In "You Can't Kill the Undead: Or, Paranormal Romance Isn't Going Anywhere," the author "perform[s] literary analysis on an entire genre.")

Note for Worried Parents: This book for teens has some violence, including murders. It shows a little kissing with a nice boy and pressure from an ex-boyfriend who seems emotionally abusive.

FYI: I requested an ARC of this book from HarperCollins. Paranormalcy will be published on September 21, 2010.

A Review of The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Let me just start by saying I get such a kick out of Potter's style. Here's how her new book begins:

There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small town in England called Little Tunks. There is no Big Tunks. One Tunks was more than enough for everyone. It was the most uninteresting town imaginable, except for the fact that the Such Fun Chewing Gum factory was on its west end, so that the air almost always smelled of peppermint. When the wind blew just right you could think you had been sucked down a tube of toothpaste.

I was the one voted to tell this story because I read the most novels, so I know how a story should be told. Plus I'm very observant and have a nice way of putting things; that's what my teacher Mr. Dupuis told me. I can't tell you which Hardscrabble I am—Otto, Lucia, or Max—because I've sworn on pain of torture not to. They said it's because the story belongs to all three of us, and I suppose they're right, but it seems unfair since I'm doing all the work. No one can stop you from guessing though.

My instinct is to tell you that this book feels like Coraline meets The Penderwicks, a fair assessment in a lot of ways. Maybe with a little Lemony Snicket thrown in for good measure. The Kneebone Boy is dark and wry and clever and convoluted—which is pretty much what these three kids are like.

Otto hasn't spoken in years; he communicates with an invented sign language that only his siblings understand. Otto always wears a black scarf that his missing mother left him and collects oddities such as a two-headed cornsnake. Lucia (pronounced the Italian way!) uses her imagination to get them in trouble, though the boys seem capable of finding trouble without her help. And Max knows so many things that he gets on people's nerves just a tiny bit even though he isn't actually a show-off. The author cheerily makes all three kids good-looking, but then, they are still social pariahs because they are just plain weird, plus there are some creepy rumors floating around about what happened to their mother.

As for their father, every so often he goes on trips to paint portraits of eccentric deposed royals, leaving his children with an awful woman who makes Max squeeze the oily cyst on her neck. But this time, they are going to stay with their aunt in London. Only—she isn't there. Instead of going back to Little Tunks, the three kids stay in the city. They soon have a scary run-in with a Londoner and decide to make their way to a seaside village in search of their great-aunt, who turns out to be a colorful young woman renting a folly that's a replica of Kneebone Castle for the summer. The folly is only accessible by aerial bicycle. (How else would you cross the moat?)

Which only begins to hint at the over-the-top details in this book, not to mention the shivery gothic mysteries. The biggest one is what happened to the kids' mother. Why did she leave, and where is she now?

The Kneebone Boy simply oozes atmosphere. I mean, look at the cover! Isn't it gorgeous? I was shocked to discover that the book is not a paranormal or a fantasy, after all, although some of the elements are pretty outrageous. Frankly, The Kneebone Boy seems to be crying out for some magical murk. Well, I suppose there is one little bit, but the author tosses it in and basically announces, "Here, I'll bet you want a ghost." Not quite what I had in mind!

As you can tell from the excerpt above, the Lemony Snicket part of the book is the way the "writer" often addresses the reader. You may find this fun, or you may find it derails the story in spots.

Then, after a good many twists and turns, a veritable funhouse experience, the ending feels a little anti-climactic because, well, All Is Explained. And this is the kind of book where you kind of wish it weren't.

And yet, and yet—Potter has created three marvelous characters, and her style alone is worth the ride. (This American author does British quirk better than most Brits, up to and including mocking Americans and their bizarre love of peanut butter and jelly.) Besides, you've gotta love the surreal little version of the real world she has concocted. Hmm. Maybe The Kneebone Boy is magical realism. Or something close to it. In any case, I hope the author writes another book about the unusual Hardscrabble siblings!

Note for Worried Parents: This book is middle grade fiction. There is a threat of violence in London that's kind of intense, a mention of boobies, and a serious plot thread involving the absent mother. The Kneebone Boy should be fine for most 9- to 12-year-olds.

FYI: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. The Kneebone Boy will be available on September 14, 2010.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Once Upon a Time: Classic Fairy Tale Retellings

Between Shrek and Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, fairy tale retellings might seem to be an invention of the turn of the millenium. But we can go clear back to the 1920s and 1940s for a quartet of early gems in the retelling corner of the children's fantasy treasury.

You've heard of Arthur Rackham, right? You may not have heard of Charles Seddon Evans, though. C.S. Evans wrote novel or rather novella-length versions of Cinderella in 1919 and Sleeping Beauty in 1920 to accompany Rackham's illustrations. Evans was actually an editor (and later Chairman and Managing Director) of the Heinemann publishing firm.

Evans's retellings might easily have fallen short of Rackham's masterful work, but they are surprisingly strong in their own right. The style is a little old-fashioned, but it's still a lot of fun. Here is an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty:

The first thing [the king] did was to summon all the magicians of his own and neighboring countries, promising a rich reward to the one who could show him a way to defeat the old fairy's malice. The magicians came in scores, some with long beards reaching to their feet, some without any beards at all, some with bald heads, and some with matted hair that looked as though it had not been combed for centuries. For days there were so many magicians about the palace that they were as common as cats, and it was impossible to enter any room without surprising one or the other of them, sitting in deep reflection and looking as wise as only a magician can look. But nothing came of their thinking, and one after the other they gave up the task and departed, having first asked for their traveling expenses.
The story of Sleeping Beauty needs a bit more padding than Cinderella does, so Evans is at his leisure to fill us in about things like the food on the menu at the christening feast. Alternatively droll and painterly, Evans gives us menu items such as "sardines from Sardinia" and "eagles carved of ice hovering over silver dishes filled with apricots." Evans has a knack for fleshing out this well-known story with just the right details, such as presenting the words of the proclamation banning spinning wheels from the kingdom.

All of this makes for a pleasant, leisurely retelling, more of a drawn-out version of the original rather than a true novelization. As for Rackham's illustrations, they are all done in silhouettes, which feels like a lost art form these days. Spreads showing the entire palace and various people in it are especially striking, as are a couple of rather terrifying illustrations of hapless princes trapped in the brambles and turning to skeletons.

We get a lot more description in Evans' Sleeping Beauty than is common in today's fast-paced work, but all of it is very pretty, and certain young readers will enjoy the detailed depiction of the palace—for example, when the hundred years have passed and the prince is making his way through the somnolent rooms. In such scenes, Evans captures Perrault's tone, then extends it.

Evans' Cinderella is arguably the better of the two books, perhaps because he has more plot to play with. Here is Cinderella's father describing the new stepsisters to his daughter, already sounding worried:
"One is called Charlotte," answered her father, and the other Euphronia."
"I like the name of Charlotte," said Ella miserably. "Are they big girls or little ones?"
"Well, you see," said her father, "correctly speaking, they are not girls at all. That is to say, child, they have—ahem—arrived at years of discretion. You must not expect them to play ball or anything like that, or run about the garden with you. They are—what shall we say?—a little sober in temperament; but excellent creatures, nonetheless—excellent creatures. You will get on very well together, I'm sure, with a little give and take on both sides."
"Just a minute, father," pleaded Ella. "Do tell me some more about my new sisters. I cannot understand all the big words you use. Do you mean that they are grown up?"
Her father nodded. "In point of fact, adult," he said, and his tone was so gloomy that Ella had to smile.

Together with Cinderella, we get to know the stepsisters all too well, adding weight to the injustice of her situation. Arthur Rackham's illustrations are again presented in black silhouettes, although he uses a little gray to add dimension to the grander scenes. Cinderella attends the ball for two nights running, allowing the story to build more suspensefully. It also makes the romance a bit more credible. Evans gives us an all-too-real concern from Cinderella herself after the second ball: "It is the Princess he loves... If he could see me now in these ragged clothes, or find me at my drudgery in the kitchen, would he recognize me? And even if he did know me again, would he be horrified to think that he had danced with a kitchen-maid?"

Fortunately, the prince is not so shallow as all that. "He felt sure that she must be in some trouble, otherwise she would not have run away from the ball so suddenly." He resolves to find her and help her. And he suspects she might have been the poorly dressed girl the guards saw running away.

One of my favorite parts of this book is that Rackham and Evans promenade the shoe-aspiring girls in batches. On one page, we are told, "First of all came the princesses," and we are shown two princesses in silhouette. The next page says, "and then the duchesses," with three duchesses shown below. "And then the countesses," six of them. "And so on to the plain gentlewomen," (ten women), "until it was the turn of the servants in the kitchen, but the slipper would not go on the foot of any of them" (twelve servant girls and a cat). That's in the palace, but of course we know the search will broaden its reach and lead us to "happily ever after."

The Rackham and Evans books are very nice, and I do recommend them; however, they have to step aside modestly when they see the next two books coming... Eleanor Farjeon's clever, whimsical, often-funny voice makes her Cinderella retelling, The Glass Slipper, and her Rumpelstiltskin retelling, The Silver Curlew, true classics.

Even if you think you've never heard of Eleanor Farjeon, you might know who she is—she wrote the poem "Morning Has Broken," which was set to music and performed by Cat Stevens. (She is also the author of a long and luxuriously fantastical story about jump ropes, elves, and sugar candy currently available in picture book format. Charlotte Voake is the illustrator of Farjeon's Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep.)

It's worth noting that in their early editions, Farjeon's two retellings are illustrated by another famous artist, Ernest H. Shepard of Winnie-the-Pooh fame.

Now, cynical modern readers might find The Glass Slipper—which was originally a play in 1944—too adorable to bear, but anyone who likes slightly old-fashioned, kinda girly books like Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and The Secret Garden or Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes will be happy to discover this tale.

Ella is so very sweet, the Princess of Nowhere... She talks to the objects in the kitchen, and they answer. Her stepmother finds out that Ella has a little picture of her mother and uses it to keep her under control. Ella's bed in the kitchen is a sort of cupboard, so the stepmother locks her into it when the girl defies her. Here's an early encounter with Cinderella, who is wishing she could sleep in:
"Cockadoodledoo!" crowed the Rooster.
"Cockadoodledoo!" mocked Ella. "Well, I won't! Everybody orders me about, but you shan't!" And down she lay with her fingers in her ears. That seemed to finish the Rooster, and he didn't crow again. But now all round the kitchen went the funny little stir that meant the day had begun and the Things weren't being attended to. The tall clock in the corner seemed to be ticking a little more impressively than before, and Ella couldn't shut it out:

The Grandfather Clock
Agrees with the Cock!

And as it began to strike seven:

It's exceedingly wrong
To stay in bed long!

Ella sat up again with a little sigh. "All right Grandpa. I know. You never let me off, do you?"
"I never let anybody off," ticked the Clock.

As the Things stop fussing and Ella begins her day, her father sneaks in the kitchen door from outside, hoping for a quiet moment with his daughter before his wife catches him there. But of course, she does.

Some of this may sound a bit twee, but I have to tell you, the story unfolds so delightfully that it works. One touch I like is that Farjeon incorporates a fairy tale trope by having Cinderella help an old woman in the snowy woods. In return, the hungry girl finds a magical meal. Later the woman turns out to be her fairy grandmother.

We also get some giddily colorful characters at court, such as the king's fool (AKA the Zany) and a tenderhearted herald. Of course, Farjeon creates her own version of the dreadful and silly stepsisters:
"I'm not going to be a wallflower." The Sisters pranced about, practicing curtsies. "Nobody's not going to ask me to dance, so there!"
"Nobody's going to neglect me," said Arethusa.
"Nobody's going to reject me," said Araminta.
"I'm going to be the most beautiful bloom in the whole of the room, so there!"
"Excepting for me! People will pass the remark, 'She's just like a hothouse rose'—so there!"
Minta tossed her head. "If I don't get lots of introductions, look out for ructions!"
"If I don't get first prize for airs and graces," said Thusa, "I'll smack their great big ugly faces. I'm not going to be a wallflower.""
"No more am I not going to be a wallflower!"
"So there!" The Sisters flopped on the floor in a heap, with not a curtsy left between them.
Ella came timidly to the door. "The bath is ready, madam."
"Dip, dip, dip!" said the Stepmother.
The Sisters gathered themselves up, piled Ella's arms with towels and soap and sponges and perfume and rubber ducks, and pushed past her to the bathroom, where she had to scrub their backs for them. They were much too lazy to do it for themselves.

If The Glass Slipper is delightful, The Silver Curlew is strange and marvelous. It has a more modern sensibility than the retelling of Cinderella, almost an edge. And yet, that's a subtlety not everyone will notice. The most obvious and appealing thing about this book is its humor.

Here Farjeon combines the story of Rumpelstiltskin with a nursery rhyme about the man in the moon. Only in her version, Rumpelstiltskin (or rather Tom Tit Tot) has become a little black imp, clearly kin to devils and demons, while the miller's daughter is pretty Doll Codling, the laziest girl in all the land—but also a girl with a real knack for motherhood, when she gets the chance.

More important is Doll's younger sister Poll, who is wiry and adventurous and clever. She's the real hero of our story.

The tale's comic centerpiece is Nollekens, King of Norfolk, an overgrown child and towering sulker who clashes less-than-majestically with his new sister-in-law and nearly spoils the whole thing when it comes to naming names. His temper is a running joke that eventually offers up a tidy tidbit of a message, though not in a pompous way.

And who is Charlee, the daydreamy fisherman who wanders up and down the beach, followed by a parade of puffins? When Poll saves a beautiful silver bird from the imps of the Witching-Wood, it is Charlee who helps her figure out how to care for the injured bird. The curlew is even the subject of one of the quarrels between Poll and the king:
"I'm not featherbrained!" cried Poll, stamping her foot at him.
"You are featherbrained!" cried Noll, stamping his foot at her. "And no wonder, sitting over that silly bird of yours, morning, noon, and night. I've a good mind to have it banished."
"Don't you touch my bird! Don't you touch my bird!" squealed Poll.
"I wouldn't touch your bird with a pair of filigree sugar-tongs," said Noll.
"You haven't got a pair of filigree sugar-tongs."
"I shall have some made," said Nollekens, "especially not to touch your bird with. Nursing a sick curlew all the year round!"
"It's getting better," Poll declared.

Other passages are quietly poetic:

[Poll] unclosed her eyes, which felt a little sticky from being so fast-shut. At first the moonlight made everything swimmy and she could only see a sliding silver movement over the grass that seemed to be the wind made visible. Then as her eyes cleared Poll caught and held her breath. What did she see? She saw the Silver Curlew floating above the flower-beds like a large moth. It rose a little, dipped, rose a little higher, and slid to earth again. Poll watched its movements anxiously. It stepped through the dewy grass as though it were stepping through seaweed, and stopped beside the fountain to wet its bill. Refreshed, it began to try its wings again.

Soon the deadline for Doll's guessing the spinning creature's name comes calling, the adventure escalates, and Poll must slip into the Witching-Wood, disguised as an imp, in order to save her baby nephew.

Besides the characters, the humor, and the poet's masterful use of language, Eleanor Farjeon's greatest accomplishment is to make something new out of an old story. She even manages to twine another tale through it using a nursery rhyme. There's an artistry and a grace to The Silver Curlew that transforms it into a gift of a story for any young fantasy reader, even 50+ years after its initial publication.

While you can enjoy all kinds of fairy tale retellings in the 2000's, don't forget the earliest of these books. Sometimes they're the best of the bunch.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Review of Legacies by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Yes, it's a bunch of magical kids at a boarding school—again! But this is no Harry Potter. It's a YA series start by a couple of powerhouse adult fantasy writers, so the tone is more Forks than Hogwarts.

Our story begins when Spirit White's entire family is killed in a car accident that might have had an evil magical component. Spirit is told that her parents left her in the guardianship of a mysterious school. And though the White family never had much, the school appears to be made of money. Unseen school administrators buy Spirit clothes and transport her by limo and private plane, till she finally arrives at Oakhurst, a school out in the middle of nowhere, AKA rural Montana.

The headmaster is no kindly Dumbledore; he introduces Spirit and her travel companion, a boy named Lachlan (Loch), to the reality of magic by turning them into mice and himself into an owl, then terrifying them, even slashing Spirit's arm with his talons. Later encounters will lead Spirit—and readers—to wonder if Doctor Ambrosius has some kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing going.

The eeriness continues as Spirit meets other students and instructors. In addition to Loch, she makes friends with a boy who has warrior magic named Burke, an illusionist named Muirin, and a water witch named Addie. But she gradually realizes that the administrators and teachers make a point of pitting students against each other, with an "only the strong survive" mentality. So, um, are the people running Oakhurst evil? (Note that this is a thoroughly YA take on the world—the grown-ups are out to get us!)

Of course, Spirit's paranoia seems justified when she and her friends find out that students are disappearing, and only at certain times of the year—say, at summer solstice or Halloween. Together, they try to solve the magical mystery, while keeping their investigation and even their friendships under the radar of the likes of Doctor Ambrosius.

Another mystery is Spirit's magic. When she and Loch are tested, he turns out to have the magical gifts of Kenning, Shadow Walking, and Pathfinding. Spirit seems to have no gifts, which anyone who's read a YA paranormal will correctly interpret to mean that at some point, she will end up having powerful magic.

The book drags in spots, e.g., when the authors go on and on describing the school and later when the kids seem slow to figure out exactly which mythological force is menacing students. Still, it's a pretty good read. There's a little romance, a lot of suspense, and a likable heroine. Legacies is the first book in the new Shadow Grail series, and fans of Kelly Armstrong and Stephenie Meyer will enjoy following the adventures of Spirit White and her friends.

Note for Worried Parents: Teens are snatched and killed by scary supernatural creatures. The deaths are left to the readers' imagination; however, the big climactic battle scene is pretty intense. A minor character smokes, and there's a mention of drugs.

A Review of The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

I was surprised to find this book shelved with middle grade series in the bookstore, as The Grimm Legacy gives no particular indication that it's the first in a series. Then again, by the time I was done reading, I wanted it to be a series!

Polly Shulman takes a great premise and develops it to a fare-thee-well in this delightful new book aimed at tweens. We first meet eighth grader Elizabeth Rew and discover that she hasn't made any friends at her snobby new private school, while at home she has to deal with a mildly evil stepmother-and-two-stepsisters scenario. Then Elizabeth writes a paper on the Brothers Grimm for her history class and her history teacher, Mr. Mauskopf, recommends her for a job as a page at the New-York Circulating Material Repository.

After an odd test at the repository involving different ways of sorting buttons, Elizabeth winds up working in a "library" that lends objects, things like costumes and vases and antique weapons. The place even has one of Marie Antoinette's wigs! First-person narrator Elizabeth finds herself crushing on a co-worker, Marc, who's a basketball star at her school; tentatively making friends with a girl called Anjali; and getting irritated by the sarcastic Aaron.

Elizabeth also learns about Special Collections, most notably the Grimm Collection, which contains things like the two dozen shoes worn out by the twelve dancing princesses, the magic mirror from Snow White (which has a mean streak!), and seven-league boots. She eventually finds out that she and the other pages were hired partly because of their ability to sense magic.

Unfortunately, someone has been stealing items from the Grimm Collection and replacing them with non-magical duplicates. Are Marc and Anjali the culprits? They've been doing something sneaky with the seven-league boots. In a lot of ways, this book is simply a mystery with magic thrown in.

But oh, the fun things Shulman does with the magic! For example, Elizabeth has to memorize and sing a spell to get into the Grimm Collection, as well as use a magical key in the shape of a binder clip. Then there's that Snow White mirror, which will tell the truth, but will try to mess things up. It will only answer if addressed in rhyme, and it keeps calling Elizabeth different variations of her name simply to get on her nerves.

Shulman also considers what an eighth grader might do with a magical object; say, use a mermaid comb to gussy up before going to a basketball game with her friends. Luckily, Elizabeth has earned check-out privileges. Unluckily, she has to leave something major as a deposit and chooses her sense of direction.

There are some lovely little details in this book, like what Shulman does with a homeless woman (an important fairy tale trope) and her use of a set of amazing stained glass windows depicting the four seasons.

I really like Shulman's cast of characters, too, and only partly because they're multicultural: Marc is black, and Anjali is Indian American. Anjali's little sister, Jaya, is such a great character that she threatens to steal the show, one of those perfectly annoying yet too-smart and talented younger siblings. When things get really bad, it is only Jaya's seemingly small protection spell that keeps Elizabeth safe.

The Grimm Legacy is a relatively light-hearted book, despite the villain and his threats. It is also one of the more promising series starts I've seen in years. Keep in mind, Shulman has barely touched a couple of the other Special Collections: a cyberpunk collection named after William Gibson, not to mention a terrible "Keep out!" collection named after H.G. Wells. I suspect later books will do more with those, and will take a closer look at Elizabeth's stepmother and stepsisters while they're at it.

As you can see, this is an incredibly rich premise. Even so, in the wrong hands, it might have flopped. Fortunately, Shulman deftly balances the creative possibilities with strong middle school characters and their everyday concerns. (E.g., the reason Marc has been borrowing the seven-league boots!) I thoroughly look forward to watching this series develop.

Note for Worried Parents: There's a little romance here, with some kissing.

A Review of The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson

I've mentioned before that screenwriters are infiltrating—no, let's make that merrily joining—the world of children's book publishing. The Familiars is a shining example, as screenwriting buddies Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson team up on a children's book which, coincidentally enough, is already in the process of being made into an animated movie by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation. (You'll be able to buy the book itself the first week of September.)

High concept? You got it. The premise is really quite marvelous: this book's main character is a young wizard-in-training's animal familiar, and his two sidekicks are also animal familiars. Our star is an alley cat named Aldwyn (think Harry Potter), accompanied by a magically talented blue jay named Skylar (Hermione), and a goofy tree frog named Gilbert (Ron). As the authors themselves put it in a guest post at Karin's Book Nook, every children's fantasy writer today (and even some authors writing for adults) longs to hear those four magic words, "the next Harry Potter."

The book opens in a quasi-Medieval town with Aldwyn stealing a fish and being chased by an animal catcher who is rather more dire than your usual city pound employee. Grimslade, we are told, is "what was commonly known as extremely bad news," an animal bounty hunter dressed in black leather, wielding a mean crossbow, and accompanied by spectral hounds.

Aldwyn hides from his pursuer in a pet shop specializing in familiars and is bought by a young wizard named Jack, a kid who instantly bonds with the cat and is even given a spell so that he can talk to his new familiar. Jack is one of three apprentices to the great and kindly wizard Kalstaff; the other two are Marianne—Jack's sister and Skylar's "loyal"—and Dalton, who is Gilbert's loyal.

Unfortunately, something is wrong with Queen Loranella, who used to be perfectly nice: she comes after Kalstaff with her minions and kills him, then kidnaps the three apprentices. When the three familiars escape, she puts up WANTED posters and sends people like Grimslade out to find them. The apprentices are protected within the thin skin of Kalstaff's dying spell, but they are still in Loranella's clutches and the spell won't last. Aldwyn and his buddies have to hustle if they're going to save their loyals!

The rest of the book is a quest story, as Aldwyn, Skylar, and Gilbert set out to find the spells they need to free the three kids. They have all kinds of adventures along the way, with Aldwyn finding it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he's only pretending to be able to use magic.

The authors world build rather blithely, inventing a new monster or spell at every turn. Some of these rely on existing fantasy tropes, but others are surprising, such as a witch's cooking pot that is also an octopus (an octopot, naturally!). I especially liked Gilbert's swampy tribe of divining frogs.

We get some predictable plot twists in this fast-paced book, and then some unpredictable ones. Also a lot of clever lines, like Skylar's remark about Gilbert's divination ability using water: "'Don't look at me,' said Skylar to Gilbert. 'I don't speak puddle.'"

There's even a civil rights message in The Familiars, as the familiars uncover new information about the history of human wizards and their familiars.

The writing itself is fairly ordinary, and I think you'll feel, as you're reading, that the book is a depiction of an extra-long Saturday morning cartoon, or yep, an animated movie. And yet, The Familiars is a very fun story. Middle grade readers are going to eat it up—and then go see the movie.

Note: This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher. The book will be available on 9-7-10. You might want to check out the authors' website and their blog.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Wonderful, Weird Picture Books of Brock Cole

Brock Cole may be best known for his young adult novels, most notably the scapegoat survival classic The Goats and, more recently, Celine and a gritty psychological drama, The Facts Speak for Themselves, but I am a fan of his picture books, which tend to combine folklore traditions with a bizarre and appealing sense of whimsy—yet also end up being surprisingly touching. Language-wise, each story is clean and well crafted. Though the style isn't showy, if you take a look you'll find that each word and phrase is just right. What's more, Cole does his own illustrations, sure-handed watercolors that seem like the love-child of Quentin Blake and Charlotte Voake.

Here are four selections from this very talented author-illustrator.

The Giant's Toe (1986—see publisher's website for a 2001 paperback reprint)

A thoroughly odd take on "Jack in the Beanstalk," this is the story of a giant who accidentally cuts off his toe with a hoe, and the hoe turns into a very small boy. The giant and the toe don't exactly get along:
After a while [the giant] began to get hungry, so he sat down and opened his lunch pail.
"Where's my pie?" he said.
"I ate it," said the toe.
"Toes don't eat pies," said the giant.
"I was hungry," said the toe.
"Hmph," said the giant. "You don't know how a toe ought to behave, and I'm going to do away with you."
"Oh, you think so," said the toe. "How are you going to do that?"
"I'm going to make you into a pie, that's how," said the giant.
But when the pie comes out of the oven, the giant is aghast to discover that the toe is still alive, and he has just baked his hen that laid the golden eggs. So the giant tries again, only to lose his singing harp to the intrepid toe.

And just when you think you know where this story is going, a mean-looking boy named Jack shows up at the door...

I suspect 5- and 6-year-old boys will particularly like this one. As for you adult readers, the ending is subtly tender, its emotional content punctuated by the last two illustrations. For "[the giant] and his toe lived happily ever after, just as they should."

Note for Worried Parents: There is the cut-off toe and the threat of fairy tale cannibalism here, also, the toe is a naked boy (about age 8?), and you can see his vaguely drawn little penis in a few of the pictures (much like in Sendak's The Night Kitchen).

Buttons (2000)

This giddy original folktale is about an old man whose pants pop, so he loses all of his buttons. Which turns out to be a dire emergency:
Once there was an old man who ate so much his britches burst and his buttons popped one, two, three, into the fire. "Wife! Wife!" he cried. "We are undone! My britches have burst and my buttons are burnt, every one!"
His wife tucks him in bed and enlists the help of their three daughters, who are determined to solve the problem. Of course, like the problem, their proposed solutions are completely farcical, a fact young readers should enjoy. The first girl plans to go out and find a rich man to marry, then demand that he buy her buttons. The second girl plans to dress as a boy and join the army because everyone knows that soldiers' uniforms have lots of buttons. The third girl says she's going to go outside and hold out her apron, waiting for buttons to fall from the sky like rain.

The older girls' plans don't work out, though they do end up finding nice husbands along the way. Could it be that the youngest daughter will actually save the day, and her father's britches?

Good Enough to Eat (2007)

Brock Cole has a bone-deep affection for the outcast, as you might have guessed if you've read his YA novel, The Goats. Here he tells us about a girl so poor she doesn't even have a name. The story begins:
Once there was a poor girl who had no mama and no papa and nothing at all, not even a name. So some called her Scraps-and-Smells, and some called her Skin-and-Bones, and some called her Sweets-and-Treats, for that was how she earned her living—selling stale buns and paper birds in the market.
And when she could not get enough to eat, sometimes she would beg, and sometimes she would starve.

But things change when a giant Ogre comes to the gate demanding one of the town girls for a bride, or he will knock down the town. "Oh, he was a foul creature! His breath smelled of graves, and he had rats in his hair instead of lice. What could be done?"

The townspeople quickly figure out that the best candidate for the job is the nameless beggar girl. (Cole presents the "vote" on the matter in an especially funny way.) However, when the giant hears she is called "Scraps-and-Smells," he is angry and punishes the town. They try again, sweetening the deal with a bag of gold. Eventually the girl takes advantage of them all and wins, not only the town's safety, but her own freedom, riches, and even a friend. Cole creates inventive wordplay using the giant's complaint of "Not good enough!" and the girl's new "name," Good-Enough-to-Eat—but he is really talking about the worth of the individual, even one considered worthless by everyone around her.

Larky Mavis (2001)

This is my favorite of Cole's picture books. Another outcast, Larky Mavis, is considered mad by the people of her town. Here is how the story starts:
Down the road came Larky Mavis, mooning about, mooning about.
"Whoops!" said Mavis, and up she went and down she came.
"Who tripped me?" she called in a brave voice.
Right in the middle of the road were three peanuts.
"A fine thing, tripping a poor girl," she said. "I'll eat you up."
The first tasted like liver and onions.
"That's good," said Mavis.
The second tasted like bread pudding.
"That's good," said Mavis, and cracked the third peanut wide open.
"Well!" she said, laughing. "I won't eat you!"

For the third peanut contains a tiny baby. But when Mavis shows her peanut child to the schoolmaster, he says it is a little worm. When she asks the parson to christen the baby, which she now keeps in a basket, he says it is a mouse. When she asks the doctor to teach her child to call her Ma, he says it is a deformed bird or maybe a bat. Mavis knows better. She calls her child Heart's Delight, carrying him in a sling on her back when he gets too big for the basket.

The only people who take Mavis seriously don't appear in the text. They are three children who follow Mavis around town, helping her pick berries in the hedgerows and watching her antics with loyalty as well as interest.

The baby becomes larger still, and "People began to talk." The townspeople, particularly the schoolmaster, the parson, and the doctor, try to take the creature away from Mavis. And then the child itself intervenes, protecting its Ma. Because Mavis's foundling really does have wings...

It amazes me how much Cole packs into a single book, beginning—and perhaps ending—with the rich character he creates in a homeless woman named Mavis. Consider, too, the power of the book's final phrase. Larky Mavis is a strange and lovely story, one for your family to talk and think about for days. It can be read as a meditation on reason and faith, though it doesn't have to be. Like all of Cole's picture books, it manages to be both funny and serious, fantastical and heart-rending and utterly unique.

Brock Cole's stories may not be middle-of-the-road enough for every reader, but for poignancy and originality, they can't be matched.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Overheard in a Bookstore

A few months ago, I was browsing in the children's section of my local bookstore when I heard a conversation between a mother and daughter. I'm pretty sure the mother was trying to interest her child in a book called The Mother-Daughter Book Club (which I have not read).

The daughter responded, "No, that's too mushy-mushy!"

Then this past weekend, I was in the YA section of another bookstore when I saw a trio of girls who looked like they were 14 or so saunter up and pause to scan the book display. The alpha girl announced, "I always judge a book by its cover."

The second girl said, "Me, too!"

And the third girl said, "Me, too!"

Ah, the interests and tastes of young readers...

Have you eavesdropped on any young readers lately? If so, what were they saying?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Review of The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye by Nancy Springer

While I'm not the world's biggest fan of historical fiction, I'm definitely a Jane Austen fan, and I know I'm not alone in this. So I'm happy to see that various authors have found ways of reinventing girl-power fiction from the Victorian/Edwardian era, and I'm not even talking about Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (See my neo-Austen riff which includes his book.)

The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye is a book from Springer's reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes stories, part of a series that's the best new take on Holmes since Laurie R. King introduced Mary Russell to the great detective for adult readers. Nancy Springer has envisioned a much younger sister for Holmes, a fourteen-year-old girl he and Mycroft try to pop into a boarding school when their mother disappears. But Enola, who's just as bright as you'd expect Sherlock's sister to be, takes to the streets of London instead. There she crafts a new identity for herself, becoming what she calls a "perditorian," a private detective specializing in finding lost people. Of course, more than anything, she'd like to find her own mother—a theme that runs through the series.

In this seventh and final book, Enola searches for the missing Lady Blanchefleur del Campo, even as her older brother searches for her yet again. In the past, Sherlock and Mycroft tried to find Enola in order to put her in school, but as Sherlock's path has crossed with hers over the course of six books, he has acquired a great respect for his sister's wits as well as her goals. Now he wants to find her because he's received a special package from their missing mother, one whose message only Enola can decipher.

Enola is a remarkable narrator and heroine, calculating, organized, and daring, a female Sherlock with youthful exuberance to lend her a fresh feel. Here is a sample of how she thinks and acts:

I had found out what I needed to know, namely that people survived the tunnels without being crushed by trains, as evidenced by the presence of the tosher. I needed shabby clothing, a lantern, a large stick, and a Cockney attitude before I again attempted to explore these underground passages in hopes of hypothesizing where the Duquessa might have been taken. With my heart still thumping from the encounter with the hostile troll of the tracks, I reclaimed my valise from the station-master, then fled upstairs, glad to reach the light and air (comparatively speaking) of Dorsett Square, through the middle of which ran Baker Street.

Keeping a cool head as always, Enola manages to handle her older brothers while tracking down the missing woman. She also finally gets some answers about why her mother abandoned her. I highly recommend this entire series for bright young readers who will be drawn by the intelligence of both the language and of the main character. I should note for history buffs that Springer paints a marvelous picture of turn-of-the-century London, as well.

Aside from the now-classic Nancy Drew books, there are relatively few strong mystery series for middle grade readers these days. Peter Abrahams' Echo Falls books come to mind (Down the Rabbit Hole, etc.), and I like Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's mysteries set in 18th century Japan (The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, etc.), not to mention Carl Hiaasen's ecological suspense titles for kids (Hoot, etc.). In addition, Karen Karbo's underappreciated Minerva Clark mysteries are YA, but would be great for many in grades 4-6 as well as middle schoolers (though a few bad words might put you off, e.g., "bitch").

And, as Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper puts it, "The series that features Enola Holmes, the (much) younger sister of Sherlock, continues to be flat-out among the best mysteries being written for young people today."

A Review of Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene Low

I have to thank Amy (RockinLibrarian) for recommending this one! The title completely grabbed me, and I felt compelled to get my hands on this Victorian-era farce, apparently the first in a series titled The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival.

Petronella's come-out party is nearly ruined when her guardian, Uncle Augustus, swallows a strange beetle that gives him a compulsion to eat bugs. The party is further marred when two important guests go missing.

Now Petronella must solve both mysteries with the help of her dear friend Jane and Jane's handsome brother James, while trying to keep her uncle's new proclivities satisfied and a secret from Petronella's rude, greedy relatives, who would love to take over the guardianship and her late parents' fortune.

Dene Low's story is thoroughly giddy, or as Caroline Stevermer, author of Sorcery and Cecilia, puts it in a back cover quote, "Definitely frothy and categorically a romp."

I suppose I could have done without Petronella noticing James's muscles quite so often, but I decided that it was a running joke, a mockery of regency romance conventions. And really, Low doesn't let Petronella's interest in James slow her down one bit as our girl takes on any number of villains and difficult situations, including another kidnapping, this time of Jane. The word "intrepid" comes to mind, not to mention "plucky," when speaking of Petronella.

Along the way, Uncle Augustus cavorts delightfully, consuming numerous insects in a clever counterpoint to the rest of the plot. His new diet agrees with him so well that Petronella begins to wonder if she really should give her uncle the antidote, after all.

The kidnappings turn out to be related to political machinations in Panama relative to the building of the canal, and a lot of the strangeness can be attributed to insects from a remote island in that part of the world. In particular, we are repeatedly given an odd butterfly named the Tou-eh-mah-mah that becomes the villains' calling card.

There's such a farcically melodramatic tone here that at times I half-expected to hear an old-fashioned movie theater piano playing chase music and otherwise illuminating the plot. I was even reminded of Shakespeare's comedies as various characters ran here and there in multiple types of confusion.

Low takes liberal advantage of clichés in the pursuit of satire, giving us bumbling police inspectors and mustache-twirling villains along with some well-placed lines of dialogue. When she has James say solemnly, "There, I fear, is your motive. We are dealing with a tangled web of international intrigue," you can practically see the author grinning. Petronella's despicable aunts and cousins are another colorful addition to this tongue-in-cheek offering. And, considering the gentlemanly pursuit of scientific knowledge among well-to-do Victorians, Low's twist on Uncle August and his entomological studies is both bizarre and satisfying. I had a very good time following Petronella on her madcap journey, and I look forward to her further adventures in the next installment of The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival.

A Review of The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Earlier this week, I read the new book in Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, Only the Good Spy Young, about a girls' boarding school that trains young spies. (Carter's series is a lot of fun!) Turn back the clock to Victorian-era London and you'll find Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls, which has a similar mission. There bright lower-class girls are taught to be proper maids and ladies' companions, little knowing that the best of them will be recruited to act as spies while they're at it.

Orphan Mary Quinn is headed to the gallows for stealing bread at the age of 12 when she is abruptly rescued by a woman posing as a prison matron. Four years of study later, she finds out the secret of Scrimshaw Academy when she is invited to become a spy. An adventurous soul at heart, Mary accepts the invitation—and her first mission.

Mary is sent to be a lady's companion to an unpleasant merchant's daughter named Angelica, but her true purpose is to spy on the household, since Mr. Therold is suspected of buying and selling stolen artifacts in the Far East, crimes that technically occur outside of Scotland Yard's jurisdiction.

Mary soon chaffs at the feeling that she isn't getting much spying done, although she has been assigned merely to assist the primary agent on the case, whose identity she does not know. She wonders why the invalid Mrs. Therold goes to the doctor every afternoon, deals with the difficult Angelica as best she can, and tries to decide why a family acquaintance, James Easton, appears to be spying on the family, as well. (Um, could he be the agent? Or is he up to something else?) Although Mrs. Therold is encouraging Angelica to win the heart of James's besotted older brother, George, Angelica seems to be more interested in James herself. For his part, James seems attracted to Mary. Of course, at first he merely acts suspicious and cranky towards Mary, as well he might, considering she dresses up as a boy and sneaks out in the middle of the night to search Mr. Therold's warehouse.

While the touch of romance is fun, A Spy in the House is really focused on the mystery of the stolen artifacts and Mary's efforts to solve it, efforts that quickly outpace the scope of her original assignment. Along the way, Mary also manages to help the prickly Angelica, who has troubles of her own. Lee does an interesting job of making readers hate Angelica early in the book, then come to feel sorry for her later on.

A visit to a Lascars' refuge (an old folks home for Asian sailors) not only has a bearing on the case, but turns up surprising information about Mary's own past. Then the bodies start to pile up, and James begins to worry about Mary's safety, which irritates her no end. The boy really should worry about his own safety, and hope that Mary will be around to rescue him!

Fun (and impressive!) fact: The author has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture.

This fresh take on the spy genre promises us more adventures with its supertitle, "A Mary Quinn Mystery." The narrative moves along briskly, and the power of Mary's longing to make more of herself—her longing for a challenge, really—makes her a heroine worth caring about. I'll be watching for Book 2.

A Retro Review of Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This book has been around since 1988, but it has since been reprinted. In case you're thinking that's a long title, there's even more: the subtitle is actually "being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the Country."

Sorcery and Cecilia is an epistolary novel, a fantasy, a romance, and a suspense novel. It fairly percolates of Jane Austen. Hmm, perhaps "seeps" would be a better verb, since there's an awful lot of tea drinking here, relieved only by a little of the titular hot chocolate.

Cecilia Rushton is stuck at Rushton Manor in Essex, while her cousin Kate is in London experiencing a high ton season with her sister, the lovely and self-centered Georgina. There is gossip of clothes and parties in their letters, but also of the mysterious marquis of Schofield and a neighbor honored by the Royal College of Wizards. This isn't Jane Austen's England, after all, although it's a close match except for the wizards!

Pretty soon Kate is stumbling into a hidden garden and nearly suffering death by hot chocolate, escaping with nothing more than a hole through her skirt where the chocolate touched it. And Cecilia is rolling her eyes at the sight of every boy in the district falling in love with a girl named Dorothea. When they figure out that the woman with the chocolate pot is the same Miranda who is the terrifying mother of Dorothea, Kate and Cecilia rightly suspect a plot.

Meanwhile, Cecilia comes across a boy named James Tarleton spying rather ineptly in the bushes, and Kate meets Thomas Schofield, the mysterious marquis himself, who proposes an engagement-of-convenience while he does his own spying on Miranda and her ally Sir Hilary Bedrick. Neither of the boys takes the girls very seriously, unaware that Cecilia and Kate are beginning to tackle the villains themselves, armed with magical charm bags and elegant society manners.

Then Kate is nearly turned into a tree and her cousin Oliver, Cecilia's brother, disappears. The chocolate is getting very hot, indeed!

This comedy of manners in letters is an intelligent book, one that will be appreciated by reader who like Jane Austen and perhaps Diana Wynne Jones. TV-brained readers might feel impatient at its relatively slow pace, but others will enjoy its slow build and the clever little twists, not to mention the way the book turns the traditional regency romance on its head by the introduction of magic and two strong-minded girls.

And, as you might guess, James is falling for Cecilia and Thomas is falling for Kate, though it takes the four of them quite a while to figure that out! The romance doesn't overpower the storytelling; it just adds spice.

About the only dull bit in this book is the explanation of the spells wrought by the villains. Otherwise, I think you'll find it a delightful read for a summer afternoon—preferably in conjunction with a delicate rose-patterned teacup filled with Earl Grey tea.

Note that the authors have written two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After. These are likable, if not quite as good as the first book. I recently reviewed a new spin-off by Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs.